Review of J. P. Fokkelman, The Book of Job in Form

Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 13 (2013) - Review

Fokkelman, Jan P., The Book of Job in Form: A Literary Translation with Commentary (SSN, 58; Leiden: Brill, 2012). Pp. x + 336. Hardcover. €17.99. ISBN 978-90-04-23158-0.

Following up a series of his earlier studies on Hebrew poetry, including forays into Joban poetry, the prolific Jan Fokkelman focuses on the book of Job in this volume, setting several goals. The first is to provide a printed translation that will make the text “much more accessible” (ix) to the “common reader” and enable “an intensive and highly personal encounter with a unique and major work of art” (x). Fokkelman also wants to prove that the Joban poet, like the other poets represented in the Hebrew Bible, worked with a strict set of formal rules and conventions.

The book begins with a brief introduction to Fokkelman's method. A fuller description of his approach appears in his other publications on poetry (see especially, volume two of his Major Poems of the Hebrew Bible: At the Interface of Hermeneutics and Structural Analysis [4 vols.; SSN 37, 41, 43, 47; Leiden: Brill, 1998–2004]). At the heart of this method is syllable counting, based on his reconstruction of the original pre-Masoretic pronunciation. The second section of the book consists of his translation (“a literary translation in strophic form”), with the Hebrew text on the facing pages. The translation represents visually his divisions of strophes, set off by blank lines and cola, with the second half verse indented. In the final section, titled “Reading Aids, Notes, Measures,” Fokkelman applies to each chapter of Job his method of counting syllables and weighing and weighting the proportions of poetic units. Insights about the balance and structure of individual chapters combine with observations about larger patterns and links between speeches based on their complementary distribution of syllables, cola, verses, and strophes. For the most part, the analysis of each chapter concludes with a paragraph devoted to detailing figures and measures without interpretive comment. Both the translation and the commentary draw extensively on Fokkelman's previous work on the poems in Job, published in his multi-volume work, Major Poems vol. 1 (Job 3), vol. 2 (Job 4–14), and vol. 4 (Job 15–42).

Consistent with his stated goal of making the text of Job accessible to the common reader, Fokkelman limits his interaction with other scholarship and avoids extensive discussion of common critical questions. As a result he rarely deals with textual problems; and while he notes that his translation relies on thirty “small” emendations (23), these emendations are not discussed or even identified. Instead Fokkelman refers Hebrew readers to Major Poems, vol. IV for a “complete list of emendations” (29).

Fokkelman divides poetry into concentric units. Each colon contains between seven and nine syllables, each verse contains two or three cola (referred to elsewhere as “half verses”), and two or three verses form a strophe. Strophes are classified as short (S-strophe), consisting of two verses, or long (L-strophe), which consist of three verses. Two or three strophes make up a stanza. One of the goals of the method is to find a given poem's center in order to ascertain the “heart of the message.” While Fokkelman sees other poems in the Hebrew Bible showing numerical consistency, he argues that the book of Job exhibits a surprising, nearly extravagant commitment to “numerical perfection” (8).

Such numerical perfection in the book of Job, however, is evident only with the application of Fokkelman's own schema. Scholars might readily dispute his lineation—that is, where lines begin and end—as it is often idiosyncratic and not determined on syntactical or grammatical grounds. Further, Fokkelman assumes that the achievement of perfect symmetry and balance is the goal of Hebrew poetry and constitutes the main criteria for determining a poem's beauty. He does not consider instances in which asymmetry contributes to the aesthetics of a poem.

Although reminiscent of the work of David Noel Freedman, Fokkelman's understanding of syllabic regularity differs from that of Freedman, in that Freedman does not argue that Hebrew had a syllabic meter or that the poets themselves counted syllables in a careful or even conscious way. For Freedman, counting syllables is a means to help the reader track phonological regularity in the text. Fokkelman, by contrast, argues that the poets of the Hebrew Bible “continually watched the proportions of verses, strophes and stanzas and managed to make them subservient to expression and content” (ix). Since Freedman, many scholars of Hebrew poetry, including Kugel, Alter, Hrushovski, and Petersen and Richards, have argued persuasively that Hebrew poetry is not metrical but rather freely rhythmic, that is, free of regular and predictable patterns of rhythm. Fokkelman, however, does not engage in this conversation.

One example highlights the strengths and weaknesses of applying Fokkelman's method to the book of Job. In Job 19, Fokkelman identifies 28 verses in five stanzas at the center of which lies verse 16, “the middle of the middle” (242): “I summon my servant but he does not answer, with my mouth I must implore him.” Fokkelman concludes that this verse points to failed dialogue. On the one hand, his identification of v. 16 as a central verse has the potential to shed new light on the interpretation of this chapter, which tends to rush to v. 25 and the question of the redeemer's identity. On the other hand, Fokkelman's brief assertion that the chapter is concerned with “personal dialogue” based on v. 16 (246) does not do justice to the complexity of the imagery deployed by Job in this chapter and elsewhere. Fokkelman's assumption that Job is attempting to initiate “dialogue” with his servant is a mischaracterization, not only of the verse in question, but also of the relationship between servant and master in the ancient world. It is far more likely that Job summons his servant, not to dialogue with him, but to give him an order; that the servant does not answer indicates the degree to which Job's situation, as a wealthy influential landowner, has been radically reversed. Although Fokkelman proceeds with a detailed and compelling reading of vv. 23–27 without mention of dialogue, the idea of Job's failure and pursuit of dialogue in v. 16 leads him to conclude that “the great importance of the strophe about the Defender and meeting him is that here we get to know the summit of Job's relationship to God and of his faith: a firm confidence in a personal dialogue” (246). Given the lack of explicit terminology related to communication in vv. 24–25 and Fokkelman's own work on the details of the passage, it is somewhat surprising that he arrives at such a conclusion. It appears that his identification of “the middle of the middle” in v. 16 has influenced a reading of vv. 24–25 that is not supported by his own close reading of the passage under scrutiny.

Thus while Fokkelman's method is illuminating here and there, it can also lead to arbitrary conclusions about which ideas or themes are most important. Focusing on the chiastic center of each poem also has a tendency to relativize the importance of the other lines of poetry that lie, according to Fokkelman's counts, on the periphery. Further, at odds with much current theoretical work on poetry and metaphor, Fokkelman appears at times to view imagery as “window dressing” or ornamentation to be stripped away in order to identify the core theme or idea of a poem. The numerical and structural center of a poetic unit yields the poet's “point.” For example, Fokkelman claims that Zophar's speech in chapter 20 is “like Bildad's in ch. 18, a case of someone harping on the same string … the reader in turn can only enjoy the variation with which the poet wards off the threat of monotony” (247). Fokkelman dismisses the rich range of meaning and nuance generated by the diverse poetic images and forms in the friends' speeches because when paraphrased, each of their speeches is judged to be essentially the same.

In this reviewer's opinion, some of the most compelling recent scholarship on Job perceives and appreciates the ambiguity and multivalence of the book's poetry. At times Fokkelman's close reading of the text points to the ways that Joban poetry generates a surplus of meaning, but much more often his perception of the clarity of the poetic structures leads to assertions of clear and singular meaning where there may in fact be none. For the non-scholar, however, Fokkelman offers a means to access a difficult and potentially overwhelming book that is both sensitive to poetic form and structure and committed to leading the reader through a process of close reading.

Amy Erickson, Iliff School of Theology