Review: Allan Callahan on the Book of Job

Edward Greenstein’s stated goal in his brilliant, iconoclastic new translation of the biblical book of Job is to “share with the reader a fresh reading of the text, drawing on decades of research and close study.” He also wants to “set the record straight”: the book of Job is not a pious tale of its namesake’s proverbial patience. For Greenstein, Job’s virtue is not his faithfulness, but his feistiness: to the end, Job insists on his integrity, refusing to recant, refusing to “repent.” Greenstein restores to the book of Job a subversiveness that all other interpreters have ignored and suppressed.

In his introduction, Greenstein faults previous translators for recycling past interpretations; deferring to tradition and convention, they have foregone fresh research into Biblical language and textual criticism. He has done that work in grand style, his innovations informed by a masterful command of Biblical philology and a refined poetical sensibility that together make for some superb readings. His translation of Job 10:18-19, “Would I had been as though I had not been; / Would I had been carried from womb to tomb,” is inspired. (Compare the labored Revised Standard Version: “Would that I had died before any eye had seen me, / and were as though I had not been, / carried from the womb to the grave.”) Greenstein’s translation of Job 29:25, “I’d be poised like a king in an army— / Wherever I’d lead them, they’d camp,” is surely correct; the traditional translation, “I dwelt like a king among his troops; / like one who comforts mourners,” as Greenstein notes, misses the point. He discovers that the common translation of Job 24:24, “they are brought low and gathered up like all the others; / they are cut off like the heads of grain,” ignores the parallelism of the two lines. Reading kol, which usually means “all,” as the less common homonym, “grass,” restores the lost balance of strophes: “They lower, and they shrivel like grass; / And they wither like the head of a stalk.” And then there is the famous cri de cœur of devotional masochism: “Though he slay me, yet will I trust him” (Job 13:15). Greenstein gives us, finally, the true sense of the verse, its despair raw and uncut: “Let him slay me / I have no hope.”

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In some cases Greenstein argues convincingly for reordering the traditional text. By comparing one scene (Job 4:12-21) to an analogous Babylonian composition about a pious sufferer, and arguing from internal evidence in the text, he theorizes that the ancient manuscript pages containing the equal halves of the chapter could have been swapped and the “word” that comes in the night comes to Job, not to his friend Eliphaz; the passage belongs between 3:26 and 4:1. He points out that the paean of wisdom in chapter 28 “does not comport with Job’s perspectives” and assigns it not to Job but to Job’s fourth interlocutor, Elihu, placing it between 37:24 and 38:1. This novel rearrangement conforms to an ancient literary pattern in which Wisdom is manifest first in the heavens above and then in the netherworld beneath. Both these canon-rattling revisions make much better sense of the text.

A few of Greenstein’s renderings are less satisfying. The word “sterile” in Job 3:7 and 15:34 is more suggestive of a modern operating room than a childless woman or a deserted crag: “barren” better suits both verses. Where Greenstein translates that Job died “old and sated of days” (Job 42:17), the Authorized Version’s “old and full of days” is to be preferred: clearly, the meaning of the verse is that Job had a full life and not, as the word “sated” suggests, that he had his fill of it. Greenstein translates Job 42:6 as a parting shot of defiance: “That is why I am fed up / I take pity on ‘dust and ashes.’” But everywhere else in the book of Job, the verb in the latter clause, which Greenstein translates as “to pity,” means “to comfort, console” (see Job 2:11, 7:13, 16:2, 21:34, 29:25, and 42:11), and elsewhere it appears intransitively as “to console, comfort oneself” (see 2 Samuel 13:39, Jeremiah 31:15). Why not, then, “I console myself with dust and ashes,” meaning that Job remains without consolation?

But it is precisely Greenstein’s reading of such a feisty, unrepentant Job — who calls his friends slanderers, who wants to subpoena God, who declares, “I am fed up” — that prompts such a question. Here, as throughout this tour de force, Greenstein succeeds in opening the text to significations that the received translations have long and wrongly foreclosed. Greenstein’s Job plumbs the challenge that hardship poses to faith, disclosing the text’s peculiar poignancy in our present hour of inscrutable disease, acute dread, and death’s jagged shadow. Job: A New Translation takes us deeper into the rich depths of the book of Job than English-language readers have ever gone before.

Allen Callahan is the author of The Talking Book: African Americans and the Bible, among other books.

Book notes
Solitude and reading are natural friends, and in some ways the unprecedented situation we find ourselves in has strengthened our connections to books. The Guardian reported that the British chain Waterstones is seeing increased sales of big classics like Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, and Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. Dystopian fiction like Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World is also in demand. Among new work, Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall follow-up, The Mirror and the Light, is a bestseller.

Meanwhile, parts of modern reading life that have drawn sustenance from in-person connection—like reading groups and independent bookstores—have hoisted themselves with energy into our new remote relationships. Novelist Yiyun Li, inviting readers to join her in tackling War and Peace, found herself with three thousand followers (see #TolstoyTogether), and naturalist Robert Macfarlane (reviewed for Book Post by John Banville) created a spontaneous international book group under the banner #CoReadingVirus (see The Guardian and Time for more). Theater, ballet, and opera companies, and museums, have also gotten in on the act, opening up their treasures for the home-bound. Bookstores, facing an unprecedented crisis (to which we’ll return), received an outpouring of support from their neighbors, who contributed to GoFundMe campaigns, ramped up book orders, and nourished cash flow by ordering future books ahead of schedule and buying gift cards. Readers were ready to play springtime Santa and buy curated selections for others (in Lawrence, Kansas, Los Angeles, and Florence, Massachusetts, for example). During the first rumblings of social distancing many stores began offering curb-side delivery, and these programs persist in some states that have granted bookstores the status of “essential services,” allowing them to operate, within constraints, amidst state-wide lockdowns. (Some European countries have granted booksellers nationwide “essential service” status; for the moment book distributors are considered essential, allowing online ordering to continue while stores are closed.)

Authors have been encouraging their readers to order from independent booksellers (see this particularly creative approach by devoted Chicagoan Rebecca Makkai), and publishers are showing some fealty to independents by putting their weight behind, the new alternative to Amazon that supports independent bookselling (see our Notebook on the subject), and donating to Binc, a fund that gives relief to booksellers in need. founder Andy Hunter noted that the site’s sales had risen 1,000 percent in the last month.

Parents ordered piles of books to assist with teaching and amusing the kids at home, delivering steady print book sales even amidst lockdown during the week ending March 20. (The uptick in online ordering has helped staunch the bleeding at physical bookstores but comes nowhere near replacing their lost in-person sales.) Publishers have also loosened copyright restrictions to allow authors and teachers to read books aloud on virtual channels, and libraries and bookstores have begun broadcasting their story hours. Actors and authors have taken to the airwaves to read books to kids. As librarians noted, transforming their mission from a physical to a virtual space is a fundamental change for them. “What we’re being asked to do is really sort of contrary to what libraries have excelled at over the past 25 years,” Richard Reyes-Gavilan, executive director of the Washington, D.C., public libraries told Ron Charles of The Washington Post. “‘The programming, the civic engagement, the book clubs, the job search help—all of these things that encourage critical masses of people’ must suddenly be done differently.” Perhaps this transformative experience will have as one good side affect bringing people in remote areas and those who are homebound into closer connection with writers and their fellow readers. (There’s so much news about how the world of books is responding to the pandemic lockdown! We’ll bring you more with our next review!)

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Image: William Blake, “Job's Despair,” from Illustrations of the Book of Job (1825–26). Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Edward Bement, 1917