Job: A New Translation by Edward L. Greenstein

I will admit I bit off more than I could chew with Job: A New Translation by Edward L. Greenstein.

The book of Job has often been called the greatest poem ever written. The book, in Edward Greenstein’s characterization, is “a Wunderkind, a genius emerging out of the confluence of two literary streams” which “dazzles like Shakespeare with unrivaled vocabulary and a penchant for linguistic innovation.” Despite the text’s literary prestige and cultural prominence, no English translation has come close to conveying the proper sense of the original. The book has consequently been misunderstood in innumerable details and in its main themes.
Edward Greenstein’s new translation of Job is the culmination of decades of intensive research and painstaking philological and literary analysis, offering a major reinterpretation of this canonical text. Through his beautifully rendered translation and insightful introduction and commentary, Greenstein presents a new perspective: Job, he shows, was defiant of God until the end. The book is more about speaking truth to power than the problem of unjust suffering.

Hard Cover Front Piece

I lack the knowledge to truly judge the translation and while the issues raised were in some ways fascinating, I really only finished it because I had invested time and energy in reading half of it. It is a provocative book by an eminent scholar but I think the line between scholar and educated lay person is a tricky one.

However, the meanings of many words and expressions in Job are based on guesswork. One if often hard pressed to reconcile the language and translations with the traditional Hebrew text. There is no delicate way to put it: much of what has passed as translation of Job is facile and fudged. Translators have for the most part recycled interpretations that had been adopted earlier, dispensing with the painstaking work of original philological investigation that might lead to new and proper understandings. Modern commentators have made use of the ancient translations, but these were themselves all too often in a quandary. Accordingly, traditional interpretations have often held sway, and translators have usually followed suit, imposing their notions of what the book is presumed to be saying on their largely unsuspecting audiences.

Introduction, xviii

I found the translation readable and the introduction thought provoking but I was constantly distracted by the footnotes and a sense that Greenstein was flipping the understanding of Job on its head and I was in no position to judge the result in any definitive way absent significant study and reading.

Consequently, Job is parodying God, not showing him respect. If God is all about power and not morality and justice, Job will not condone it through acceptance. This response may not accord with the image of pious, Bontshe the Silent-type Job that most interpreters have wanted to find in this biblical book. However, Job’s defiance, a product of absolute integrity, is not the only radical or surprising feature of the book in the read presented and defended here.

Introduction, xxxi

If you are a person of faith or have an interest in the theological ramifications of the book of Job, to read it is to wrestle not with the challenges of translation but with the nature of faith and of scripture.

Gloria Dei est vivens homo, wrote Saint Irenaeus: The glory of God is a living man. Might not the Author of Life look with favor upon this brilliantly resistant creature, this unappeasable critical thinker, this supremely lonely and dissenting figure, this Bartleby with boils—unswayed by the sublime, scratching his scabs in the land of Uz? That might be the rankest heresy: Let me know, bishops. But consider what Greenstein’s nonpenitent, polarity-reversed Job has done to the ending of the book. As before, with the experiment over, Job is blandly restored to a state of health and wealth; as before, God upbraids the sententious friends, the Bildads and the Eliphazes and the Zophars, and sends them off to make some burnt offerings, “for you did not speak about me in honesty as did my servant Job.” The quality or valence of this honesty, however, has turned upside down. It has become a kind of white-knuckle existential tenacity, a refusal to disown oneself even in the teeth of the windstorm. Maybe that’s what this God, faced with this Job, is telling us: Bring it all before him, the full grievance of your humanity. Bring him your condition, loudly. Let him have it.

James Parker’s review in The Atlantic

This review by Patrick T. Reardon is a good place to start to get a sense of the challenge and the consequences.

Greenstein’s Job is a bold, highly original challenge to centuries, if not millenniums, of scholarship and theology.  It is a no-holds-barred assertion of a new way of looking at Job, the honest, upright gentile who, in the biblical book, is afflicted with waves of misery from God and asks the Deity: Why me?

As with so much when it comes to reading, your mileage may vary but if you like challenging approaches to scripture this is that. the very least you understand the immense challenges involved in translating a work such as Job.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).


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