Book Notes: Re-reading Job: Understanding the Ancient World’s Greatest Poem, by Michael Austin

09.03.2014 | The Maxwell Institute

Michael Austin wants to introduce Latter-day Saints to a Job they’ve probably never met, regardless of how many times they’ve read the Old Testament book.

Most readers of the Bible think of Job as the ultimate example of faith overcoming suffering. Job loses everything; his possessions, his family, his good health—everything but his patience and faith, which carry him through to the end where God rewards him with new possessions, a new family, and his good health. The patience of Job is legendary. The trouble with that legend, Austin argues in his new book Re-reading Job, is that it doesn’t actually match up to what the book of Job itself relates. Austin dissects the various elements that were apparently combined to create the Book of Job in order to draw out its radical and moving implications.

While many Latter-day Saints may view the Book of Job as a historical report, Austin makes a strong case that it is a work of literature. However, rather than weakening the authority of this particular scripture, Austin argues that such literature can portray truths that can’t come across as clearly in strictly historical scriptures and narratives. Job is “built on the premise that literature can produce great insights and serve as a vehicle for revelation” (147, see also 20–28). Not only will church members come away with a better grasp of the Book of Job, they will learn that the questions we bring to the text are the most important element of scripture study, even for the more historically grounded scriptures.

When we shift our assumptions just a little bit and allow the Book of Job to be what it claims to be, we find ourselves able to ask much better questions of the text—the questions that can give us the kinds of answers that can change our lives (12).

As he carefully guides readers through each element of the Job narrative, Austin combines the sophistication of a literary scholar with the conversational tone of a close and funny friend. His familiar prose provides a welcome balance to the dark and difficult issues being discussed—not just the suffering of Job himself, but death, suffering, loss, genocide, and any manner of things that plague the human condition in general. Austin is perhaps occasionally a bit too cynical, I think, in talking about why religious communities interpret Job in a certain way: “It has long been in the interest of institutional religions to try to contain the more radical implications of the Job poem by focusing, whenever possible, on the jaunty, pious tale that introduces it,” he suggests (11). It’s more likely that the alternate readings suggested by Austin simply weren’t noticed for so long because most readers didn’t come to the text prepared to change their views as opposed to having their views reaffirmed by the text. After all, helping readers become prepared to be surprised by scripture is perhaps this book’s most useful task.

Above all, Re-reading Job is calculated to convince Latter-day Saints yet again that our scriptures, these ancient stories and experiences, are still incredibly relevant:

When we read Job, or any great work of literature, we must combine our own perspective with that of another powerful mind. This is why great literature stays great—it gives every new generation of readers the opportunity to apply its insights to a whole new set of issues and problems (146).

Austin doesn’t stop at convincing readers that the scriptural book is relevant; he shows the actual reasons—reasons which will impact the way you mourn with those that mourn and comfort those that stand in need of comfort.

Re-Reading Job: Understanding the Ancient World’s Greatest Poem is another fantastic title in the growing series “Contemporary Studies in Scripture” from Kofford Books. The series continues to demonstrate that scholarly approaches need not obstruct a faithful reading of scripture; scholarly approaches can actually facilitate more devotional and inspired reading.