Review of K. Schifferdecker,Out of the Whirlwind: Creation Theology in the Book of Job

Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 9 (2009) - Review

Kathryn Schifferdecker, Out of the Whirlwind: Creation Theology in the Book of Job (Harvard Theological Studies, 61; Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2008) Pp. xii+217, Paperback, US$25.00, ISBN 978-0-674-02597-4.

Out of the Whirlwind: Creation Theology in the Book of Job is a revision of Schifferdecker's dissertation in which she attempts to make sense of the meaning and function of the divine speeches at the end of the book of Job (chapters 38—41). The divine speeches are pivotal in the book of Job as they fulfill Job's demand for a divine hearing, but at first glance they fail to adequately answer the fundamental questions which dominate the preceding chapters (undeserved suffering, divine justice, etc.). By close examination of the divine speeches and especially by probing the portrayal of creation throughout the book, Schifferdecker attempts to account for this apparent disparity. She admits that the speeches do not specifically answer the question of undeserved suffering. However, by offering Job a broader, non-anthropocentric, view of creation which includes God's sustained order over even the most chaotic forces within creation (e.g., the Sea, Leviathan, human wickedness), Job is enabled to properly place himself and his predicament within the context of creation, and “move out of despair into renewed participation in God's often-dangerous but beautiful world” (3).

After the introduction, the first chapter examines the views of creation in the various sections of the book. The second chapter presents a detailed description of the creation theology of the divine speeches, and the third relates the divine speeches to the rest of the book. Following the conclusion in chapter 3, the postscript sounds out some of the ecological implications of the creation theology of Job. Appended to the book is Schifferdecker's own translation (with notes) and commentary on Job 38—42.

In the introduction, Schifferdecker clearly presents the problem of the interpretation of the divine speeches and outlines some previous interpretations of Job 38—42. She limits her survey to pre-modern, modern literary and modern academic interpretations. Pre-modern interpreters (Gregory the Great, Saadiah ben-Joseph, Thomas Aquinas and John Calvin) tended to regard the divine speeches as a vital part of the book and consider them an adequate answer to Job's predicament. Modern interpreters, however, are mixed in their evaluation of the divine speeches. In the creative interpretations of Job in Ellie Wiesel's The Trial of God and Archibald MacLeish's J.B. the divine speeches feature only superficially and are ignored in the former and satirized in the latter. From modern biblical scholarship three dominant understandings of the divine speeches emerge. The first relativizes the importance of the divine speeches and looks for the answer to Job's situation elsewhere in the book. The second holds that the appearance of God rather than the content of the speeches represents the answer to Job's suffering. The third looks to the content of the divine speeches as the interpretative key to Job's situation. Schifferdecker notes that the tendency in scholarship today is to treat the speeches as an integral part of the book as a whole. She gives special attention to Newsom's The Book of Job: A Contest of Moral Imaginations, a work which she admires for its “final-form” approach, its sympathetic reading of each section of the book, and its nuanced attention to genre, but rightly criticizes on the grounds that Newsom has imposed the modern notion of a polyphonic text which is foreign to the ancient text of Job.

In an excursus, Schifferdecker deals with the thorny issue of the date of the book of Job. Admitting that the evidence is inconclusive, she is convinced that the book was written by an Israelite to an Israelite audience and personally favours a date during or after the Babylonian exile. Conspicuous is the author's apparent resistance to make clear connections with Israel's sacred history in general and God's covenant with Israel in particular. Interestingly, Schifferdecker draws from this that the “answer” to the problem of undeserved suffering is based not on the covenant between God and Israel, but on God's wise establishment and continued maintenance of the whole creation. So for Schifferdecker, “the vision of creation contained in the divine speeches offers an answer to undeserved suffering that the author of Job did not or could not otherwise find in the sacred history of Israel. The circumstances in which the Joban poet wrote must, therefore, have been grave enough to call into question the covenant relationship between God and Israel” (20). Perhaps Schifferdecker draws too strong a dichotomy between covenant and creation here, but the suggestion that the book of Job is in some sense a working out of the covenant relationship is interesting. At least one recent author argues that the book needs to be understood within the context of the Deuteronomic Covenant and that the book probes into the very nature of this covenant and the way in which God relates to his chosen people (Susan Ticciati, Job and the Disruption of Identity: Reading Beyond Barth [London: T&T Clark, 2005]). Schifferdecker does not deal with the allusions in Job to Deuteronomy (e.g., the connections between Job's afflictions and the curses of Deuteronomy 28—Deut 28: 18, 31—32, 35), and what implications they might have for the reading of Job. Of course, Schifferdecker rightly observes that without the overt references to the covenant and Israel's sacred history the issues worked out on the pages of the book of Job have universal and timeless appeal.

Having examined how creation figures in each section in chapters 1—37, Schifferdecker exposes the distinctiveness of the creation theology by asking the question posed by both Job (7:17) and Eliphaz (15:4), namely, “What is humanity?” Schifferdecker notes that although creation functions and is portrayed in various ways the common thread in chapters 1—37 is that in creation humanity is preeminent and the main object of God's attention. According to Schifferdecker the divine speeches undermine this view of creation and humanity's place in it.

Chapter two describes the creation theology of the divine speeches. The speeches of God function to reestablish an orderly creation in response to Job's attempt to unleash chaos and darkness in ch. 3, and they do so by telling the story of God's establishment and ordering of creation and by manifesting a vast universe which exists outside of Job's situation. Though the creation is majestic and sublime it also accommodates frightening and menacing elements; yet even these are subject to God's control. So although the divine speeches do not answer Job's questions about the injustice of his predicament, they do address his accusations concerning the divine rule of creation. Moreover, Schifferdecker notes that as opposed to the prologue and dialogues, the divine speeches are “radically non-anthropocentric” and emphasize the relative insignificance of humanity in the context of creation. Schifferdecker compares the view of humanity in the divine speeches with other creation accounts (Gen 1—3; Pss 8 and 104; Isa 35) and concludes that although they all share a theocentric view of creation, the divine speeches of Job “emphatically reject” the view that humanity has a special place in creation. It may have been helpful if Schifferdecker could have accounted for this difference. Even so, Schifferdecker argues that unlike the denigrating view of humanity offered at times by Job's friends, God's vision has a place for humanity and because the divine vision of creation is accorded to a human, humanity is in the end vouchsafed a position of some significance.

In chapter three, Schifferdecker examines how the divine speeches function in the context of the epilogue. Her translation of the notoriously difficult phrase in 42:6 (על־כּן אמאס ונחמתי על־עפר ואפר) is “Therefore I recant and change my mind about dust and ashes.” This phrase represents Job's changed attitude about humanity and his own identity in the context of the cosmos, and this new view has implications for how Job acts in the epilogue. Incidentally, Schifferdecker is among only a few commentators that argue that אלי in 42:7, 8 ought to be rendered “to me” (thus, “you have not spoken to me rightly, as has my servant Job”) rather than “of/about me” as is typical for these verses (107). The point is that Job is the only one to actually talk to God, and although the friends have much to say about God and even advocate prayer, they never once turn their dialogue to God and intercede on behalf of their friend. This rendering of אלי has much to commend it.

In the postscript, Schifferdecker briefly considers how the creation theology of the book of Job might speak to contemporary ecological concerns. She argues that the deliberate de-centering of humanity in the context of the creation is a direct challenge to the current age of consumption, in which all of creation exists as a commodity to be exploited. God views all of creation, including the sea, the wasteland, the wild beasts, etc., as a source of delight and an object of care. Job and readers are afforded a glimpse of what it is like to see the world from the divine perspective. Readers (especially those of faith), according to Schifferdecker, need to reorient their relationship to the natural world from one of dominion to one of participation and appreciation. In this section Schifferdecker again plays the view of creation in the divine speeches against other views in the OT/HB. Many readers will not be troubled by “contrasting” voices in the OT/HB, but this section is especially aimed at people of faith who consider the OT/HB as sacred and having implications for contemporary life. Perhaps it could have been possible for Schifferdecker to integrate the creation theology of Job with that of other places in the OT/HB, exposing the abusive ways the domination model has been applied. Nevertheless, that a volume like this includes a postscript on ecological implications of Job's creation theology (though brief) is evidence of the changing climate(!) in biblical studies in which theological interpretation has found a place.

Out of the Whirlwind: Creation Theology in the Book of Job is a lucid and well-researched study on the book of Job. It is not encumbered with endless critical debates, though Schifferdecker is clearly aware of the issues and engages with them when they are important to her argument. The book is refreshingly constructive and joins a growing corpus of literature on creation theology and OT/HB interpretation. Especially illuminating is how the motifs of boundaries and of procreation weave through the various sections of the book. The volume is a welcome contribution to Joban scholarship.

David J.H. Beldman, University of Bristol