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The Book of Job and the Immanent Genesis of Transcendence

The Book of Job and the Immanent Genesis of Transcendence

by Davis Hankins

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Recent philosophical reexaminations of sacred texts have focused almost exclusively on the Christian New Testament, and Paul in particular. The Book of Job and the Immanent Genesis of Transcendence revives the enduring philosophical relevance and political urgency of the book of Job and thus contributes to the recent “turn toward religion” among


Recent philosophical reexaminations of sacred texts have focused almost exclusively on the Christian New Testament, and Paul in particular. The Book of Job and the Immanent Genesis of Transcendence revives the enduring philosophical relevance and political urgency of the book of Job and thus contributes to the recent “turn toward religion” among philosophers such as Slavoj Žižek and Alain Badiou. Job is often understood to be a trite folktale about human limitation in the face of confounding and absolute transcendence; on the contrary, Hankins demonstrates that Job is a drama about the struggle to create a just and viable life in a material world that is ontologically incomplete and consequently open to radical, unpredictable transformation. Job’s abiding legacy for any future materialist theology becomes clear as Hankins analyzes Job’s dramatizations of a transcendence that is not externally opposed to but that emerges from an ontologically incomplete material world.

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Northwestern University Press
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Diaeresis Series
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6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.00(d)

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The Book of Job and the Immanent Genesis of Transcendence

By Davis Hankins

Northwestern University Press

Copyright © 2015 Northwestern University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8101-3018-0


Job's Critique of Transcendent Theology

The eye with which I see God is the same with which God sees me.

—Meister Eckhart

The human being is this night.... This night, this inner of nature, that exists here—pure self—in phantasmagorical presentations, is night all around it, here shoots a bloody head—there another white shape, suddenly here before it, and just so disappears. One catches sight of this night when one looks human beings in the eye—into a night, that becomes awful.

—Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel

§4 wisdom, Wisdom, and WISDOM

Ancient Israel's wisdom tradition endows "wisdom" with numerous meanings, many of which can be helpfully and usefully distinguished (for example, trade skills versus artistic learnings), and even categorized (for example, practical knowledge versus ethical prudence). Yet one distinction cuts across all others: there are the wisdoms that are available to and through the imperfect, lacking, and temporal reality of human experience and understanding, and there is the Wisdom that is associated with the divine and with transcendence, existing outside but not independently of human wisdoms. Michael Fox discusses Lady/Woman Wisdom as the epitome of the transcendent, divine entity that he calls the "wisdom-universal":

Lady Wisdom symbolizes the perfect and transcendent universal of which the particulars of human wisdom are imperfect images or realizations. Like a Platonic [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], the wisdom-universal exists objectively and not only as an abstraction or mental construct. It dwells in special proximity to God—"before him," present to his mind—while maintaining a distinct existence. As a universal, it exists in both the supernal realm (universal, atemporal, extramundane) and the human (time-bound, wordly, belonging to particular peoples, realized in specific words). This transcendent wisdom now and ever presents itself to humanity, meaning that the wisdom that people can learn, such as the wise teachings of Proverbs, are manifestations or precipitates of a universal, unitary wisdom ... It is the transcendent wisdom that is the universal of the infinity of wise things that humans can know and use.

A tension divides the first two from the last three sentences in this quotation. Fox first speaks about the human's mediated access to transcendent Wisdom; then he says that transcendent Wisdom is immediately available within human wisdoms. The first two sentences distinguish a perfect, transcendent Wisdom-universal from its imperfect images in humanity's particular-wisdoms. The last three sentences claim that the transcendent Wisdom-universal "exists in" and "presents itself to" humanity's immanent particular-wisdoms. Fox's second claim reflects his rejection of any qualitative distinction between the Wisdom-universal and particular wisdoms. Ancient Israel's sages seem less interested—than, for example, some who are more influenced by Greek thought—in wholly separating the mundane realm of particular-wisdoms from the divine realm of transcendent truths.

Yet the entire sapiential enterprise that generates an "infinity of wise things" out of the Wisdom-universal depends upon taking such a qualitative distinction as axiomatic. To explain, let us ask a question that Fox himself poses: "how does the transcendent wisdom manifest itself in the mundane sphere?" If Proverbs presents the extramundane, a temporal Wisdom-universal within the mundane and temporal reality of particular-wisdoms, then how and on what basis would Wisdom's difference from wisdom appear? Fox simply asserts that the Wisdom-universal is both present in particular-wisdoms and "transcends any human wisdom." While Fox indicates his sense that something qualitative separates particular-wisdoms from the Wisdom-universal, he neither pursues why, when, or where the Wisdom-universal appears, nor how its appearances might be analyzed.

Fox also fails to consider the statements from the sages about the limits of their wisdoms. While the sages do not always acknowledge the exclusion of the Wisdom-universal from their particular-wisdoms, they certainly reiterate the folly of ever considering particular-wisdoms as if they were "precipitates of the primeval, universal wisdom." Proverbs' principal admonition may be the teacher's to the son: "do not rely on your own understanding," to which one might add Proverbs' motto imperative: "Do not be wise in your own eyes; fear YHWH and turn from evil" (3:7; cf. 3:5; 12:15; 16:2; 21:2; 26:5, 12, 16; 28:11). Such admonitions and imperatives are the core of Proverbs' wisdom. They insist in no uncertain terms that human wisdom does not realize or present but is unequal and lacking with respect to divine Wisdom. The ethical axiom against being "wise in one's own eyes" ensures that the qualitative lack and imperfection that distance particular-wisdoms from the Wisdom-universal can never be considered overcome.

Fox's attention to the similarities and mutually enhancing relationship between particular-wisdoms and the Wisdom-universal leads him to reject any qualitative distinction between them. By treating particular-wisdoms as presentations of the Wisdom-universal, the limits of particular-wisdoms can only be seen negatively, either as indications of folly or of the absence of Wisdom. Yet the fear of YHWH and the recognition that one is not-wise preserve the limits of one's wisdom in ways that positively indicate the presence of wisdom. In fact, it is recognizing the limits to one's particular-wisdoms that provides the constitutive condition for what Fox rightly calls the "infinity of wise things that humans can know and use." Consider the common example of Prov 26:4a ("Do not answer a fool according to his folly ...") and 26:5a ("Answer a fool according to his folly ..."). Both are presented as if they were universal and unlimited, and yet their immediate juxtaposition indicates that they (and implies that all proverbs) are framed within a tradition that takes as axiomatic their distance from the Wisdom-universal.

Furthermore, the presence of the transcendent Wisdom-universal is much more strongly indicated by these proverbs' juxtaposition than it would be by a straightforward claim that they somehow directly presented Wisdom. Indeed, the most effective way to manifest the Wisdom-universal is to present, as palpably as possible, the limit barring particular-wisdoms from identification with the Wisdom-universal. O'Connor puts it well in a section aptly entitled "Ambiguity as Revelatory": the wisdom literature "sees in ambiguity and confusion the opportunity for breakthrough into mystery ... The point of highlighting ambiguity or paradox is not to bring the individual to an intellectual impasse but to lead her beyond the obvious into deeper, transcendent truth." In the terms of Prov 21:31, the sage can be sure of God's presence in the event that all the preparations for battle have been made and yet the war is lost. The limits of particular-wisdoms open up spaces that allow one to imagine a beyond in which an unlimited, transcendent Wisdom is located.

My argument, then, is that the Wisdom-universal is not presented by any of the sages' particular-wisdoms—from the most sublime theo-logical speculation to the most mundane technical calculation. The location of all such wisdoms within the sapiential framework compels the sage to treat them as penultimate, limited, competing, and conflicting claims that must be continually (re)negotiated and (re)discovered. Yet it remains useful to compare and distinguish the sages' limited, particular-wisdoms from their theological speculations about unlimited, universal Wisdom. In fact, one must identify the limits that beset both, limits that not only keep them from directly presenting Wisdom but also open up the spaces within which Wisdom's presence is indirectly indicated. We therefore need a third category of wisdom, which I indicate with small capitals: WISDOM. In short, (i) all sapiential articulations are particular-wisdoms, including those that speculate about the content of a (ii) Wisdom that may transcend and be indicated by the sages' particular-wisdoms. (iii) WISDOM thus refers to the internal limits of the sages' particular-wisdoms whose appearance may be taken as an indication of the (excluded) "presence" of a Wisdom that transcends wisdom. WISDOM thus answers Fox's question about how transcendent Wisdom can appear within the limited, particular-wisdoms of human thoughts, speech, and desire. WISDOM is what renders the discourse of wisdom ambiguous and paradoxical since it is the negative space that divides, limits, and opposes claims to particular-wisdoms. In its capacity as a gap, however, WISDOM also constitutes the sapiential discourse's seemingly infinite flexibility. Since wisdom's limits can be taken as WISDOM, and thus indicative of a transcendent Wisdom that it strives perpetually to approach, wisdom seems unlimited.

One can initially grasp the relationship among these three wisdoms as sequential: first the sage accumulates wisdom; at some moment he inevitably encounters WISDOM when he realizes his wisdom is limited; finally he imagines what unlimited Wisdom might exist beyond the limits of his cognizing abilities. This sequencing is partially misleading because, prior to the encounter with WISDOM that brings the sage some awareness of the limits of his wisdom, his "wisdom" is not coordinated enough to be called wisdom. The notion of WISDOM stands much critical and biblical doxa on its feet, according to which human, limited wisdom either arises from or generates divine, unlimited Wisdom. On this account, both wisdom and Wisdom emerge from WISDOM.

Some will detect the Hegelian contours of this conception of WISDOM. Just as the ancient sages reckoned the one who is wise in his own eyes a fool, so too did Kant deny that anyone has direct access to divine Wisdom. Kant referred to unlimited/divine Things-in-themselves as noumena. He insisted that limited/human knowledge and experience are cut off from noumenal Things-in-themselves, and are only capable of accessing phenomenal objects-as-appearances. Among the German idealists, Hegel's critique of Kant's noumena/phenomena distinction is best known. Hegel writes:

No one knows, or even feels, that anything is a limit or defect, until he is at the same time above and beyond it ... [T]o call a thing finite or limited proves by implication the very presence of the infinite and the unlimited ... [O]ur knowledge of a limit can only be when the unlimited is on this side in consciousness.

Kant adheres to a two-tiered model for speaking about the world that is similar to the critical conversation about wisdom up to now. Hegel makes the small but crucial step to say that, in order for the one (human/limited) to even speculate about the other (divine/unlimited), there must be something that indicates the latter within the former. In short, limitation precedes and is productive of transcendence, as the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek tirelessly reiterates in his narrations of the relationship between Kant and Hegel:

For Hegel, the gap between phenomena and their transcendent Ground is a secondary effect of the absolutely immanent gap of/in the phenomena themselves.... immanence generates the specter of transcendence because it is already inconsistent in itself.... the tension between immanence and transcendence is ... secondary with regard to the gap within immanence itself.

The present project follows this fundamental Hegelian move to shift our critical focus from the tension between immanence (limited, human wisdom) and transcendence (unlimited, divine Wisdom), to the appearance of transcendence within immanence (WISDOM). This study asks, to use Hegel's words, where does "the very presence of the infinite and the unlimited" appear in JOB?

Why has one not heard much about this third category of WISDOM prior to this study? In part because WISDOM often functions as a "vanishing mediator," a gap momentarily opened and then (usually) filled in, either by the interpreter's presumption of some figure of Wisdom as its referent, or by the text's offering of some figure of Wisdom as its referent. JOB, however, is often directly concerned with this third category of WISDOM and with its active role in generating the appearance of a external split between (immanent) wisdom and (transcendent) Wisdom. Thus, while it is true that WISDOM has not yet been adequately conceptualized, I attend throughout to its inchoate appearances in scholarly and biblical literature.

§5 "Short-Circuiting" Conventional Wisdom

Within these first pages I have already begun what will be an ongoing practice throughout this study: "short-circuiting" the usual categories of biblical interpretation with concepts drawn from other fields in order to organize and encapsulate the textual material and ancient ideas. While some of the concepts and categories I develop will be familiar (for example, Kant's notion of the sublime) or well-established in critical biblical interpretation (for example, tragedy, comedy), I try to explicate them as clearly as possible to the extent required by my use of them. Given my presumably mixed audience of biblical scholars and those more trained in critical theoretical discourses, I try neither to belabor nor truncate my discussions of issues arising from either field. In the end the theoretical elaborations produce concepts and categories that are unavailable in current biblical studies, and yet allow the text to be heard and seen to say and do things of which biblical studies has remained unaware. Conversely, as stated in the preface, the close analysis of texts from the Hebrew Bible contributes an important voice to recent conversations among critical theorists and theologians.

This project reassesses the conventional idea that the wisdom of the book of Job explicitly and implicitly challenges the tradition in which it stands. Wisdom can be initially approached as a discourse understood as a social link that structures and constitutes relations among subjects, of subjects to objects, and of subjects and objects to wisdom and the divine. JOB's wisdom is made possible by but is not present in the book of Proverbs—commonly considered the normative expression of Israel's traditional wisdom. JOB's new wisdom remains missing from or suffers unfortunate misreadings in contemporary interpretations.

Admittedly, to claim that JOB challenges traditional wisdom is close to hackneyed. But perhaps it is for this very reason that we stand to learn so much by reexamining it. One way to understand this project is as a rigorously critical and systematic reassessment of everything taken for granted by the often-made off-hand observation that JOB challenges or poses a crisis for traditional wisdom. Throughout, (i) I investigate the character and limits of the wisdom that JOB rejects; (ii) I consider how it could be thrown into crisis and what could challenge it; (iii) I investigate the wisdom that JOB presents; (iv) I consider whether, how, and in what way JOB's wisdom opposes traditional wisdom; and (v) I explore various consequences of JOB's wisdom, of its opposition to the tradition, and of its misapprehension by interpreters.

To specify the kinds of problems that plague conventional accounts of JOB's wisdom and its meaning, consider this common notion about the relationship between Job and his friends: Job's emphasis on experience challenges the tradition's emphasis on doctrine insofar as his experience falls outside their theology. Many think that the friends impose their theology on Job and try to force his experience to accord with their thoughts about "how the world works." From this angle, the reader is bound to face numerous difficulties:

1. How should the complexities of the friends' theology be treated, especially their regular insistences on the lack of understanding that human beings can never escape?

2. What should be done about the rootedness of their theology in experience? Should this rootedness be dismissed since they treat their experiences as normative? How then can Job be treated differently for his insistence on the normativity of his experience?

3. Job's speech does much more than recount a list of symptoms, so will this angle attend adequately to the relationship between experience and theology in his discourse? And how could this angle not distance interpreters from Job's constructions of his experiences that present them as revelatory of truths about God, the world, and wisdom? How could this angle avoid overlooking the way that Job clings to these truths with dogged certitude?

4. And finally, will the theological sophistication of Job's discourse be noticed? Will it be reduced to mere reflexes of experience?

These four sets of questions suggest that the commonly held idea that the friends impose their theology on Job's experience places the interpreter at a considerable distance from the text at the outset. This example illustrates four related problems with conventional interpretations of JOB:

1. The position usually disparaged as the traditional wisdom that JOB rejects and throws into crisis—that is, the imposition of a rigid conceptual apparatus onto a particular situation whose complexity far exceeds the apparatus—does not characterize traditional wisdom as much as it does the interpreter's Procrustean bed for this wisdom;

2. Consequently, the actual position that the book of Job presents and rejects as the tradition's remains to be formulated;

3. The position usually celebrated as Job's (the character and the book)—that is, the insistence on the limits of understanding with respect to the complexities of experience—actually characterizes the tradition that JOB rejects more than the wisdom that JOB advances in opposition to it;

4. Consequently, the actual position articulated by JOB against that which it rejects remains to be formulated.


Excerpted from The Book of Job and the Immanent Genesis of Transcendence by Davis Hankins. Copyright © 2015 Northwestern University Press. Excerpted by permission of Northwestern University Press.
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Meet the Author

Davis Hankins is a lecturer in the Department of Philosophy and Religion and a faculty member of the Women's Studies program at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina.

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