This autumn I am continuing research on Job that will eventually be part of a book-length project. I’m investigating the role of dialogue in Job, specifically the question of how – or whether – authentic dialogue is present in the book. Scholars have long argued that the dialogue genre breaks down in chapter 25, where rebuttals by his friends cease and Job’s series of speeches go unanswered until the abrupt introduction of Elihu in chapter 32. This phenomenon is most often explained in terms of the source and editorial history of the book.
While I’ve contributed to this discussion, I’m now more concerned with how dialogue unfolds in Job as a process (rather than its sources, their editing, and the book’s genre). In this, I am indebted to the groundbreaking work of Carol Newsom, who reads the prose and poetic portions of Job together as a polyphonic text which offers alternative and equally compelling visions of divine justice. Newsom’s insightful reading of the dialogue’s back-and-forth arguments through the lenses of narrative ethics has been particularly important for me because it reveals the substantive engagement between Job and the friends that is often overlooked by readers. Nevertheless, I characterize the book as more protean. It resists reductive readings, always offering a counter-text to any interpretation (including the one in this essay.)
Job and the Victim’s Journey
Readers have long seen Job as a victim in terms of individual suffering and the psychological or, more often, theological questions his victim status raises. This is true of how I’ve read the text too. Readers can’t help but make Job embody a position, as the brilliant reception history by Mark Larrimore shows. Inscribing these identities onto Job, however, runs the risk of overlooking his singularity in the text. From the outset of the book, Job is Other. He is singled out for suffering by God’s prior acknowledgement of Job’s unique status: “There is no like him on earth” (1:7). But Job’s difference preexists even God’s acknowledgement. “There once was a man in the land of Uz” (1:1). The very first detail of Job mentioned in the narrative – even before his name – is where he is from: Edom. In other words, in this ancient Israelite text, Job is a foreigner, a fact given no little attention by the rabbis and later Jewish exegesis. Rashi glosses the land of Uz as a place where the people scheme against God. The othering of Job in chapters 3-37 by his friends builds on Job’s outsider status. In the same way, therefore, that the futility of the friends’ defense of divine justice indicts readers who make those same arguments, the othering of Job by his friends reflects on the book’s first readers, for whom Job was an outsider.
Job’s speeches follow a thematic arc which begins with lament and ends in righteous indignation. He does not initially direct this indignation at God, but at his three friends, and he wastes no time at making this clear to them. Beginning in his second speech, in response to the first speech of Eliphaz, Job compares the friends (whom he calls “brothers” in 6:15) to unreliable wadi streams that run dry in the heat when you need them most. He also asserts his right to voice his suffering: “I will not restrain my mouth. I will speak in the grief of my spirit. I will lament in the bitterness of my being.” (7:11).
In Job’s second speech, he elevates this desire to speak of his pain to the point that he is willing to die rather than remain silent: “Let me have silence! Iwill speak, and let whatever comes upon me may” (13:13)! By the time Job comes to his fourth speech, he begins to call for a heavenly witness (16:19). This call to the heavens is the counterpart to the fact that Job receives no comfort from other people.
In his next speech, he laments that his cries for help are met with silence: “Look – I shout ‘Violence!’ and am not answered. I cry for help and there is no justice” (19:7). A poignant plea to the friends to yield and show him kindness follows: “Pity me! Pity me! You are my friends!” (19:21). This is arguably the nadir of Job’s anguish. He hopes for a supernatural advocate at first, then turns back to his three companions, begging them for pity.
When no comfort is available from divine beings or humans, Job takes refuge in his own integrity. His remaining speeches are characterized by resonant defiance of his fate. In 23:4 he vows that he would “lay his case” (NRSV) before God and in the next chapter challenges anyone to prove him wrong: “If this is not so, then who will show me a liar? Who will refute my word? (24:25)? This culminates in powerful oaths Job swears that he will never abandon his belief in his own integrity:
As God lives, who has diverted my justice, by Shaddai who has embittered my soul,
As long as my breath is in me, the breath of God in my nostrils,
My lips will not speak dishonesty, nor will my tongue utter deceit.
Far be it from me to declare you justified! Until I die I will not divert from my integrity!
I will hold tight to my righteousness, and not let it go.
My conscience does not reproach me any of my deeds. (27:1-6)
This trajectory in Job’s attitude and emotions: from sorrow, to cries for help and – when those cries are ignored or refuted – to isolation, is one traveled by victims of trauma. The work of Bryan Doerries and the The Theater of War project, one of many examples, has shown that victims need a space to tell their stories, to know that those stories are heard and that the suffering those stories convey is validated. Theater of War does this by recounting fictional stories of suffering that allows victims to see themselves in these created worlds; for one of their projects, Theater of War staged a reading of Job in Joplin, MO one year after a devastating storm. When that space for storytelling is not provided, and validation withheld, victims are re-victimized, cut off from the human community and left to struggle with the cognitive dissonance of knowing what happened to them while living in a world that would rather explain their trauma as deserved punishment, isolate them, or simply gaslight them by denying any suffering at all. Some voices in Jewish tradition are kinder to Job in this regard than his friends. Babylonian Talmud Bava Batra 16b, for example, notes that Job is not, nor should he be, held responsible for anything he said in his suffering.
An Unexpected Insight: On Job and White Privilege
My reading of Job through the lenses of the main character’s journey as a victim isn’t unique, nor can it really be interesting or compelling until it is placed in a specific context of real-life victimization. Throughout the Book of Job’s history, readers have been unable to resist seeing Job as standing for an idea, individual, or group. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that, provided that we are reflective about which ideas, individuals, or groups we choose to situate alongside the Job who sits alone on his pile of ashes. Academics have, for a long time, chosen to make Job a role model for intellectual inconoclasts, a convenient way for privileged males to rally around a flag of victimhood. Both Kant and Voltaire saw in Job an ideal type for their respective theologies, moralities, and philosophies. The current political and religious moment (or perhaps better, crisis) in the US challenges us to read Job with care and responsibility. To that end, I want to offer a reading of Job from my own context as a Religious Studies faculty member at a small American Catholic liberal arts college. For some readers of AJR, this will be unfamiliar terrain, but as I’ve discussed elsewhere, reception history asks us to sit with the multiplicity and ambiguity of readings, whereas our interpretive predilections are often shaped by the desire for clear, single meanings.
I try to let my teaching and scholarship inform and influence each other. I read Job with students every fourth semester in a General Education Wisdom Literature course, and they consistently provide insights into the biblical book that have changed how I understand it. The connection between teaching Job as ancient Israelite wisdom literature and academic research into Job is pretty obvious. What I didn’t expect was a new perspective on Job to be opened by the study of white privilege with undergraduates in another one of my classes, an introductory course called Theological Foundations. I have found this approach fruitful in prompting students toward greater self-scrutiny in how they perpetuate, benefit, or are implicated in the structures of white privilege. I did not foresee that cultivating reading strategies in that course which identify and destabilize forms of privilege would fundamentally alter how I approach the text of Job and specifically the counsel of his friends (Job 4-31). Just as white Americans do not always confront how their assumptions and biases shape their responses to the experiences of others, so do Job’s friends speak about suffering unaware of their own assumptions and blindspots. This enriched understanding of Job allows me – and hopefully others – to defamiliarize this biblical text to readers for whom the book is a treasury of platitudes for individual suffering.
Almost every one of my students is white and Christian. I consider it a moral imperative to start a conversation with them about the reality of white privilege, its enshrinement in American Christianity, and the basics of being an ally. In preparation for talking about White Privilege in class, I read Jennifer Harvey’s Dear White Christians. Harvey details and critiques the approaches of white Christian churches in America to the Black Power movement and the Black Manifesto, released in 1969. She shows how white churches were prepared to work for only certain kinds of equality for Black Americans, specifically with the goal of reconciliation. But when the Black Manifesto issued a call to the churches for reparations, white Christians balked. Even in instances where denominations were prepared to give significant funds to help Black Americans, they engaged in tactics ranging from bureaucratic legerdemain to outright repudiation of the Manifesto’s call for reparations. A similar range of reactions persists today, despite renewed calls for reparations.
Instead of reparations, white Americans have consistently argued from a paradigm of reconciliation. This is because, as Harvey makes clear, reconciliation is a one-way street that benefits whites, assuaging guilt without requiring them to forfeit any privilege and economic power. Reconciliation also reasserts Black vulnerability because, in addition to white-mandated segregation, Black Americans have lived separate from whites as a strategy of self-protection. Reparations acknowledges the transgenerational nature of American white supremacy perpetuated in every social institution, and the reality that the harm done has been concrete, material. Harvey incisively critiques the universalist ethic of the reconciliation paradigm, which seeks to deny the real effects of white marginalization of Black Americans. In its place, the reparations paradigm works from a particularist ethic, beginning with acknowledgement of the separation of the oppressed group which served for ongoing, systemic abuse for centuries.
Job As An Argument for Reparations
Only after reading Harvey and thinking about White Privilege did I see the ways that material violence, victim-blaming, segregation, and separation also helped illuminate the speeches of Job and the reactions of his interlocutors from a different angle. The friends’ inability to see outside of their own “sacred canopy” – whether we call it Deuteronomic or not – leads them to push something like a reconciliation paradigm on Job. Eliphaz puts this in stark terms to Job: “Agree with him [God] and be made whole. By these will good come to you” (22:21). Job refuses to yield. In the book’s final ten chapters, faced with an overwhelming display of divine power which refuses to acknowledge Job’s integrity or suffering, Job ceases to speak. He separates himself from a situation of structural violence (note God’s detailed description of the natural world in Job 38-39 as a way to justify the “natural” quality of his treatment of Job). In a way that resembles Black communities segregated and victimized by whites, Job responds both to his marginalization by God and the friends and to their invitation to reconciliation, by separating himself through silence—a tactic through which one leaves a dialogue.
Seen in this light, the “restoration” of Job in the end takes on added meaning. Too often readers dismiss God’s two-fold repayment of Job’s possessions and set of ten new children as a less theologically or spiritually satisfying resolution than God’s acceptance of Job’s words in 42:7. Such a reading overlooks that Job’s suffering was physical and material. He was struck in “all that he has” and in “his bone and his flesh” (1:11, 2:5). How else can one make up for such wrongs apart from material restoration? After all, the two-fold restoration of Job corresponds with the law in Exod 22:4. That is a law of reparations, only one of many in the Pentateuch. And, as the epilogue makes clear, these reparations have multigenerational effect, given the presence of four generations around Job’s deathbed. Job the outsider, physically struck down for his difference, othered in his suffering, can only have his wrongs righted and his story resolved by restitution.
 See now Lance R. Hawley, Metaphor Competition in the Book of Job (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2018).
 Lisa Cataldo, “I Know That My Redeemer Lives: Relational Perspectives on Trauma, Dissociation, and Faith,” Pastoral Psychology, 62/6 (Dec 2013): 791-804; Samuel Balentine, “Traumatizing Job,” Review and Expositor, 105/2 (Spr 2008): 213-228. René Girard wrote an entire book asserting that Job demonstrated his theory of scapegoating, a theory so fraught with historical, literary, and ethical problems too numerous to critique here. For a community-focused approach to trauma in biblical texts, see the recent volume by David Carr.
 The use of the pleonastic pronoun in Hebrew for emphasis is signified by the italicized pronoun in translation.
 Thomas M. Bolin, Ecclesiastes and the Riddle of Authorship (Routledge, 2017). See the review by Brennan Breed in AJR. For reception history studies of Job, see the three-volume work of S. J. Vicchio, (The Image of the Biblical Job: A History [Wipf and Stock, 2016]) and Choon Leong Seow, Job 1-21[Eerdmans, 2013]).
 Rare exceptions to this are the Liberation Theology approach of Gustavo Gutiérrez, who sees Job as a figure who enters into solidarity with the poor once he himself experiences their distress. Kirsten Dawson, in a bold and innovative reading, deconstructs Job’s use of the language of slavery to describe his condition and reveals how Job’s vast wealth implicates him as a perpetrator of violence.
 Here following the NRSV in translating the Hiphil of śkn.
 Thanks go to Maria Howe (Boston College) and Daniel Reginald S. Kim (La Salle University) for their comments on earlier drafts of this essay. Erin Galgay Walsh, Krista Dalton, and Matthew Chalmers, at AJR made numerous editorial suggestions that greatly improved this piece. I am grateful to AJR for running it. All flaws, oversights, and failings are mine alone.
Thomas M. Bolin is Professor of Theology and Religious Studies at St. Norbert College in De Pere, WI. His most recent book is Ecclesiastes and the Riddle of Authorship (Routledge, 2017). Follow Thomas on Twitter @Scaevola67 and through his website.