Book Notice: C.L. Seow on Job 1-21

C.L. Seow
Job 1-21
Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2013.
Available at Amazon.com

In the inaugural volume of Eerdmans’ Illuminations series, C. L. Seow offers an impressive introduction to Job and a commentary on its first half (chapters 1–21). Reading through sections of Job 1–21: Interpretation and Commentary reminded me of why Seow’s commentary on Ecclesiastes (Anchor Bible) is at the top of my list for that book. He has the unique ability to concisely discuss and evaluate complex topics and textual problems, while providing helpful paths forward for literary and theological readings of biblical books in their final form.

The commentary opens with a 248 page introduction. This is not a typo—248 pages! The first 108 pages deal with typical topics: texts and versions, language, integrity, provenance, setting, genres, structure, artistry, and theology. The remainder of the introduction traces responses to Job in Jewish, Christian, and Muslim traditions. While a 248 page introduction may lead some weary readers to ask Job-like questions, we must remember the remarkable amount of toil Seow has exerted to produce such a clear and thorough introduction. Besides, a commentary is a reference volume; this means you can pick what you want to read. While specialists in wisdom literature will surely devour it in its entirety, those primarily interested in reading Job as a literary whole and in the book’s theology will find Seow’s discussions of Job’s integrity, structure, and theology sufficient and stimulating.

Approaching Job as a strategic and coherent composition, Seow’s understanding of the book begins with the prose prologue (Job 1–2). These chapters depict two rounds of divine council gatherings (1:6; 2:1) followed by tests against Job to expose whether Job will curse God to his face (1:11; 2:9). Though Job blesses God (1:21) and does not sin (2:10), the gathering of Job’s friends at the conclusion of the prologue creates a context for a “third test” in the poetic portion of the book: will Job continue to bless God amongst his friends? The poetic section of the book begins with Job cursing his birth. This leads to dialogue that starts out with two symmetrical cycles that show Job’s daring statements toward God about his plight and his friends’ insistence that Job’s suffering has to be related to sin and its consequences (4–14; 15–21). By the third cycle, Eliphaz is not measured in his speech (22), Job offers a mocking response (23–24), Bildad can only stammer a few words (25), and Zophar is so stunned that he does not speak. This disintegration in the dialogue leads Job into a monologue where he claims that wisdom is inaccessible and wishes for a hearing with God (26–31). In response to Job and his friends, Elihu is a Daniel or Joseph-like figure who embodies his message that God’s wisdom can come through an intermediary (32–37). Elihu’s speech prepares the way for YHWH’s unmediated revelation which conveys that God’s counsel and judgments are beyond human comprehension, causing Job to confess his lack of knowledge (38:1–42:6). The prose epilogue (42:7–17) closes the book by affirming that Job has spoken rightly (even if his speech at times borders on blasphemy), though a shroud of mystery lingers. The theology of Job then affirms extreme lament, God’s freedom, and the need to acknowledge that individual cases of suffering can be inexplicable in light of God’s inscrutable counsel and justice.

As for the commentary, each chapter of Job is treated in five sections: translation, interpretation, retrospect, technical comments on words, phrases, and clauses (“commentary”), and a bibliography. There are images of Job in art history and excurses on the history of interpretation scattered throughout. I’ll offer two responses to this portion of Job 1–21. First, since many commentaries force readers to wade through mounds of technical details to decipher the flow of thought in the passage being suggested by the commentator, the “interpretation” and “retrospect” sections helpfully trace and explain the unfolding message for each chapter in light of the context of the book. Those in ministry will appreciate this part of the commentary. Second, for biblical scholars, Seow’s technical comments prove illuminating, though the way they are set out is frustrating. Let me illustrate with the following example from Job 1:1.

whose name was Job. The standard formula for the introduction of an individual is with the circumstantial clause ûšĕmô PN, lit., “and his name (was). . . .” …. When the order is reversed, as it is here (i.e., PN šĕmô), an emphasis on the name is sometimes intended, perhaps an emphasis on its significance …

While the point Seow goes on to make about the significance of the meaning of Job is insightful, it would be helpful to know the Hebrew order from the start: ’iyyōb šĕmô. Since the comments at times assume knowledge of Hebrew and that a reader has a Hebrew Bible open, I wonder why Hebrew characters are not used; why transliterate? I personally wonder whether a person who would put in the effort required to read the technical comments has also put in the minimal effort needed to learn the Hebrew alphabet. This may be my own bias, however, for enjoying commentaries that use Hebrew characters rather than transliteration.

Overall, Seow’s commentary is a masterful resource that a wide range of people can benefit from—ministers and scholars alike. It is highly recommended. I look forward to the rest of the series. One problem with writing a commentary that has parts accessible to specialists and non-specialists is its size, which impacts the cost of the commentary ($95). I suggest that the publisher considers offering a condensed version for those in ministry with select sections of the introduction (integrity, structure, and theology) and of the commentary (translation, interpretation, and retrospect). This would allow those for whom $95 is prohibitive to benefit from the riches of this commentary.

Andrew T. Abernethy
Lecturer in Old Testament
Ridley Melbourne Mission and Ministry College

  • Choon-Leong Seow

    Choon-Leong Seow

  • Choon-Leong Seow

    I think my last comment was not posted.

    I thank Andrew Abernathy for his generous response.

    Re the use of transliteration. The reasons are:
    1. The Aramaic “square script” (of MT) is itself a transliteration; the original would have been in paleo-Hebrew. (as in 4QPaeleo-Job[c], which I cite from time to time; it would have been awkward to cite this in the Aranaic square script)

    2. Accessibility
    Even though the COMMENTARY section is intended to be detailed and wissenschaftlich, I am hoping that it will still be as accessible to as many as possible, including those who are interested in following up on details. This section is meant to be a reference work.
    3. Historical Hebrew
    I often have explain forms by tracing their development to *Proto-Hebrew or *Proto-Semitic. Surely one ought not to cite these in the later script.
    4. Comparative philology
    Transliterations facilitates comparison with other languages–Ugaritic, Akkadian, Ammonite, Moabite, Syriac, Arabic, Ethiopic, Egyptian, etc., all of which are transliterated.

    In sum, while I delve into all kinds of scholarly matters, mu goal throughout is to make the commentary as readable and accessible to as many readers and users as possible.

    I hope this begins to explain my choice. Thanks, again, for your review.


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