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Source and Redaction Criticism: Ehrman on Job

In chapter six of his book God’s Problem, Ehrman tackles the book of Job.  (My notes on the book as a whole are here.)  He describes the book as coming from two sources, one containing the narrative portions, and one containing the poetic dialogues.

This view is not that exceptional, though one should also consider a very common alternative, that the dialogues were written separately, but that one and same person wrote the narratives and redacted the entire book.

Ehrman says:

Most people who read Job do not realize that the book as it has come down to us today is the product of at least two different authors, and that these different authors had different, and contradictory understandings of why it is that people suffer. . . . (p. 162)

The prose author, he says, sees suffering as a test of faith, while the author of the dialogues believes that there ultimately is no answer.

Ehrman correctly notes differences of genre, and differences of style.  The seams in the book suggest the possibility of multiple sources.  Ehrman adds to this a difference in the portrayal of Job.  While I have been aware of the possible sources since college, and have read the book many times, I have never seen a problem with the characterization of Job.  I chalk this one up to the common scholarly exercise of trying to make people more coherent and logical than they normally are.

Ehrman also feels that the parts were not combined very well.  On page 167 he notes the reaction of God in chapter 42:

. . . It is obvious that a bit of the folktale was lost in the process of combining it with the poetic dialogues, for when it resumes, God indicates that he is angry with the three friends for what they have said, in contrast to what Job has said.  This cannot very well be a reference to what the friends and Job said in the poetic dialogues, because there it is the friends who defend God and Job who accuses him.  And so a portion of the folktale must have been cut off whent he poetic dialogues were added.  What the friends said that offended God cannot be known. (p. 167)

All of which treats the final redactor as an idiot.  This is one of the key problems when source and redaction criticism are viewed as providing “the” answer to the meaning of a passage or book.  Source critics tend to think they’re done when they have finished identifying the sources and mourning the missing parts.

But is the redactor (or final author) actually so silly that he fails to miss the fact that the friends are defending God and Job is challenging him?  I think there is good evidence to suggest not.  In the dialogues, the friends hold that Job is guilty of something and that God is punishing him.  The narrative portions clearly state that this is not the case.  In other words, the friends have been making false claims about God and accusing Job of wrongdoing, when no such wrongdoing has taken place, according to the narrative portions.

If one takes the resultant whole as a polemic against the Deuteronomistic approach (or at least a supplement to it, as the two are not completely incompatible), which holds that blessing comes to those who do right and curses to those who don’t, then I think the combined text makes quite good sense.  It is not a theodicy.  I want to scream when people insist it is; there is no intention of justifying God in the book of Job.  If there is, it is a miserable failure.  It is not a coherent picture of why people suffer.  In fact, it makes clear that one cannot know.  From the point of view of the text as a whole, Job never gets to know what the problem was.  He may have been enduring a test of faith, but all he knows is that he is a) innocent and b) suffers.  He is satisfied that God appeared, and he is affirmed as a righteous man by God’s actions.

I think a better redaction theory would be that the narrative author had the dialogues before him, which fail to present an answer.  Suffering there is mysterious, and the issue is never resolved.  He wraps this in a story that makes the mysterious suffering have a cause, in this case, the test.  While Job still remains in mystery, he is satisfied that at least God showed up.

Ehrman comments on Job’s response to God’s presence:

. . . God is not to be questioned and reasons are not to be sought.  Anyone who dares to challenge God will be withered on the spot, squashed into the dirt by his overpowering presence.  The answer to suffering is that there is no answer and we should not look for one.  The problem with Job is that he expects God to deal rationally with him, to give him a reasonable explanation of the state of affairs; but God refuses to do so.  He is, after all, God.  Why should he have to answer to anybody?  Who are <em>we</em>, mere mortals, to question GOD? (p. 188, emphasis in original)

The problem, in my view, is that this does not give adequate credit to even the literary concept of an encounter with God, much less the reported personal experience.  People speak of being terrified, spent, and shattered, yet they come out encouraged and feeling positive.  Those who have had mystical encounters, amongst whom I count myself, may well not record such encounters as entirely joyful, and may not come out with all answers, but at the same time, generally don’t feel that they can no longer seek answers.

In this concept, the friends have to repent of trying to represent God, and doing so incorrectly.  They have to repent of accusing an innocent man.  Job, on the other hand, at the same time repents of thinking he’s going to be able to handle it and understand it, yet he is not condemned for seeking an answer, and for upholding his own innocence even in the face of seemingly irrefutable theological positions.

The redactor is thus not an idiot.  I personally don’t find his approach to suffering all that helpful, but I do find it challenging.  It provides a way to think further.  This redactor, or final author, if he is trying to present Job as squished into the dust and intimated into no longer seeking answers, has a rather odd way of doing so.  He presents a book that seeks after answers, challenging old ones and suggesting new ones.

I think that Ehrman has misunderstood the narrative portion, and done so in such a way as to present some unknown final redactor in the worst possible light.  Careful reading of the final whole finds a viewpoint that is worth considering in itself.

This doesn’t detract fromt he sources, though personally I think that there is only one source, the poetic dialogues.  The author of our canonical book took those dialogues and wrapped them in prose, forcing them to serve him.  Far from being an idiot who couldn’t tell that his ending didn’t match his beginning, he was a creative author who molded older material into a new and useful form.

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