The paradoxes of Job

The Rhetoric of Suffering
May 10, 1996

The title is misleading. Jonathan Lamb does not aim to reconstruct the way the Book of Job was read in the 18th century. His intention is to pursue a "cultural antinomy" inscribed in the scriptural poem through a variety of manifestations in 18th-century British culture.

The antinomy in question emerges from a comparison between the rhetoric of the sufferer and of his comforters. Supported by samples of literary theory, biblical scholarship, and social thought, Lamb construes the Book of Job as an antinomian tract. Job's comforters, he claims, offer the beleaguered patriarch only legalistic orthodoxy - he suffers, so he must be guilty. Job, however, speaks with the sublime voice of suffering; he knows only the reality of his own pain. In celebrating the uniqueness of every act of creation, the sublime speeches of God vindicate Job's authenticity as an individual voice.

This simplifies the argument, but then I think Lamb trivialises the Book of Job. The comforters can hardly be said to uphold legal rationality, even "in the broadest sense"; their language is predominantly moralistic. It is Job who understands his predicament in strictly legal terms. Citing the biblical scholar Bruce Zuckerman, Lamb meets this point by characterising the relevant passages as subversively parodic. Yet his case is not supported by Zuckerman's argument. The latter implies that, far from simply subverting the law, the Job-poet uses parody to open up an antinomy within it, between legal language as an idiom of complaint, and the power of enforcement upon which, in the ancient Near East, legal authority rested.

Following the social theorist Niklas Luhmann, Lamb associates juridical rationality with tautology as a rhetorical form, and subjective authenticity with paradox. This facilitates his move from a close reading of Job to a series of analyses of 18th-century texts. The range of his reading is wide, and the detail sometimes stimulating. His discussion of Clarissa is especially notable.

Yet even when considering the 18th century, where he is more at home, Lamb's arguments rarely carry conviction. There are further simplifications. Edward Young's Night Thoughts and Alexander Pope's An Essay on Man are treated as if they enjoyed unanimity; a dubious contemporary description of Robert Lowth as an "Oxford Tory" is allowed to pass uncontested. Contemporary biblical scholars and commentators are ignored or only sparingly discussed. There are also unaccountable editorial lapses. For example, Alexander Cruden's 18th-century Concordance is cited in a 19th-century edition.

Lamb shows that the Book of Job was a vital point of reference for many people in the 18th century. Yet despite his ideological commitment to the individual, in his reading of both ancient and modern texts he appears more diligent to subsume the corpus under nonce-categories of debatable value than to notice historical or textual detail.

Alun David is a fellow of Corpus Christi College, Oxford.

The Rhetoric of Suffering: Reading the Book of Job in the Eighteenth Century

Author - Jonathan Lamb
ISBN - 0 19 818264 3
Publisher - Clarendon Press, Oxford
Price - £40.00
Pages - 329

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