By Mark Larrimore
Princeton University Press: 2013
“Keeping company with Job, as friend or interpreter, is a worthy activity,” says Mark Larrimore. In his Book of Job: a Biography, Larrimore traces the history of thought surrounding Job from ancient to modern times. Larrimore’s intention is to show why and how we should learn “to listen to every part of the text, and perhaps also to every serious past attempt to enter the argument” of this “unfinalizable” book.
Why does Larrimore call Job “unfinalizable?” Because, as even scholars admit, it is difficult, having “more puzzles than any other book of the Bible.”
Larrimore shows that the dialogue and narrative recorded in Job, if taken out of context, can be used to support any theology or idea: “Job legitimated critics of religion as well as its defenders.” But, when taken as a whole, interpreters have more difficulty. “The book of Job would never allow itself to be fit into a larger interpretive claim for long; eventually some part of it always pushed against the proffered reading.”
That we should approach the text with humility is what I take from this book. “We would do well to assume that all interpreters of Job come to the story as Job’s friends do. We are not Job, and we do not know the mind of God or what goes on in his court.” And we should approach the application of the text with equal humility. John Calvin believed that the friends of Job were right in what they said about God, but their “mechanical application of general biblical truth to the case of Job is misguided.” Even though their doctrine was true, their use of it was evil in that they drove their friend closer to despair. We should learn from them how not to help our friends.
Larrimore is thorough in his research and, at least to the lay reader, in his arguments and examples. But he does not exhaust the reader; every example or quote serves a purpose. And while the book has plenty to interest scholars and philosophers, it can be read and enjoyed by anyone with an interest in the subjects of interpretation, God, providence, and the “problem of evil.”
Though the book of Job is understood in countless ways depending upon one’s theology, context, and culture, it reaches through ages and cultures and “speaks to and for the broken…it speaks of hope even in the depths of despair…it offers a shared project for sufferers and witnesses, and an outline of a community of care….It is a call to self-vigilance and attention to the experiences of others, even when they call our fondest beliefs into question.”