“Essential Questions” and the Book of Job

Please help me shape a list of “essential questions”[*] raised for you by the book of Job. Offer suggestions or questions in the comments.

What are “essential questions”? Briefly, they are big, open-ended questions that force one to evaluate one’s own evaluations. “What is worth fighting for?” is an essential question. “Should the U.S. continue fighting in Iraq?” is not. “What makes good art ‘good’?” is an essential question. “Is the Piss Christ (warning: explicit content) good art?” is not. These examples show that a question can be thought-provoking but not yet itself be in the form of an essential question.

Essential questions:

  • lend themselves less to argument than to reflection;
  • invite participants to reconsider their own norms and valuations;
  • prove themselves to be interdisciplinary;
  • generate an unpredictable set of other questions;
  • are “non-judgmental,” and often have “ethical or moral foundations”;
  • are “life-long” questions to which one may return again and again, in different life contexts.

This is how I would begin a list of essential questions raised by the book of Job:

  • What does a Creator God owe to God’s creatures?
  • What is “blasphemy”?

If you would, take a moment to continue this list in the Comments. I also invite further discussion on what makes an “essential question.”

Thank you!

[*] I was first exposed to the notion of “essential questions” by Brigid Schultz of Loyola University Chicago, in her keynote address to the Focus on Teaching workshop of January 7, 2009. Her title was, “Strategies for Sustaining Teaching Effectiveness.”

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7 Responses

  1. While there is some value in asking “essential questions,” care must be exercised in how one applies the questions to a given text. We might find that a text is not really interested in answering the questions that we are asking. In such cases, pressing on for answers will likely lead to misunderstanding and misapplication. That being said, I suggest that two essential question might be:

    1. Does Job confront the idea of retribution theology?
    2. If so, what does Job have to say about retribution theology?

    • Hi Charles, thanks for being here.
      I would agree 100% that there are questions a text “invites,” and other questions that a given text is “not interested in answering.” In doing exegesis (what does the text mean to its author and to that author’s community), that is a distinction I’ll take pains to make.

      What I’d call essential questions, though, won’t require that justification, because they are less exegetical than reader-oriented. Also, they would be questions that potentially have larger focus than the book itself. So, I might re-cast your excellent exegetical questions into essential questions like, “Should good deeds be consistently rewarded and bad deeds punished?” “What do I find myself saying about God where good deeds go unrewarded and bad deeds go unpunished?” Others could be added.

      I think that one exciting thing about such essential questions is that, after reflecting on them and discussing them and being changed by them, one might *return* to the book of Job in the more exegetical mode you describe but with a new set of eyes.

  2. What do we think about God’s sovereignty?

  3. The questions Job raises for me are:

    1. why is it so rarely alluded to in the NT when other Hebrew poetry is most popular with the NT writers?

    2. What covenant is the writer assuming between Eloah Shaddai and Job or his friends?

    3. How can I push my bias into or out of the way when I am reading this work?

    I am half way through chapter 14 at the moment. I am reading the Hebrew and writing my feel for it in English. I am also looking for structural clues that will frame the important bits. I have some conclusions and will share them over the next 4 months as I continue this process. Please feel free to pose questions on my blog. All the posts are under the label Job. Only 34 posts so far 🙂

    • So, some “essential questions” to be shaped from these questions about Job might be:
      * What makes an OT text authoritative for me? Can/must NT allusion accomplish that? (You don’t mention authority as the root of your interest in question one, but I know for many Christian readers that may be a pressing question.)
      * What are the mutual obligations between a person and their creator? Between a blameless person and their creator?
      * What does it mean to hear a text? What can one do to hear better? That is, “How can I be aware of my bias when reading any work?”

      You can see the distinction I am trying to make between questions that are, in principle, Job-centric and limited to Job, and “essential questions” that, in principle, might be sparked by Job and brought to Job but that also have wider application.

  4. Authority is not the reason behind my question. At least not in terms of words. What I search for that is ‘essential’ is the communication with the experience of the people of that time. So the NT gives us a second period of reading the psalms. So does the LXX. So does the middle ages or the KJV or modern translations. The psalmist gives a reading of his or her experience.

    Job is reading what? The experience of exile? An even more ancient tale? But the NT authors did not play off it – why? Distaste? inability to use it metaphorically? Failure of the anointing in Job? Of course the NT authors did not know they were NT authors in the 1st C CE – so authority (attributed to their own writing) is not even the issue for them.

    What is an upright and righteous man who fears God and turns from evil? If Job answers this question in so many words – it is only to appeal to direct encounter.

    Hope this helps you think of more questions.

    • Hi Bob,
      I get you now, on OT in the NT. When the NT alludes to the OT (or when the LXX or KJV translates it), we get a window into the “essential questions” that other readers have brought to the OT text. We get to hear the concerns of a reading community other than our own. This is what keeps me excited about studying allusion (my diss was on allusions to Isaiah in Daniel). Thanks for commenting again to help me hear you more clearly than I was able to before.

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