Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 11 (2011) - Review

Jones, Scott C., Rumors of Wisdom: Job 28 as Poetry (BZAW, 398; Berlin, New York: Walter de Gruyter, 2009). Pp XX + 293. Hardcover. US$126. ISBN 978-3-11-021477-2.

Job 28 has been described as a brilliant but embarrassing poem for commentators. Scholars have been both impressed and perplexed by its contents. There is appreciation for the poem's vivid description of the mining process (vv. 3–4, 9–11), the only such account in the Hebrew Bible. Poetic images compare the earth's precious gems and metals to the surpassing value of wisdom (vv. 15–19). But the text is notoriously obscure as a description of a mining operation, with sometimes tortured explanations or conjectured emendations, particularly with verse 4.

A second issue is the function of the poem in the book of Job. It is often identified as an independent “Hymn to Wisdom,” a lyrical poem that may have been composed by the author of Job but does not function well at this point in the text because it anticipates the theme of the God speeches. This is complicated by the common assumption that the third section of the dialogue has suffered dislocations. It has been common to assume that 27:13–23 is a fragment of the last speech of Zophar, presenting the conventional doctrine of wisdom in simplistic form.

Jones' Rumors of Wisdom: Job 28 as Poetry challenges both of these common interpretations of Job. He provides an alternate interpretation of the quest for precious metals in the first section of the poem. He further suggests that the poem functions within the soliloquy of Job to challenge the assumption of the friends that wisdom is accessible to them. Wisdom is transcendent, beyond the reach of mortals.

Jones begins with a selected survey of Job 28 in current research. The selected bibliography is extensive (pp. 245–272), but the review is judiciously representative of present trends. Jones points out that commentaries have moved from textual and philological studies to examining the message and aesthetic achievement of the poem, with more attention to the literary and theological structure of the canonical Job rather than a reconstructed Job. Jones examines several essays and monographs on Job 28 and monographs on the book of Job. Jones attempts “deep exegesis” of the poem in Job 28 that weds the philological and literary modes (p. 18). This includes elements in the poem (linguistic, structural), cognitive background to the poem, and aesthetic and rhetorical effects.

Jones begins his study with his translation of the poem (chapter 2), followed by a reading of the poem with special focus on poetic phenomena (chapter 3). The translation and reading are based on philological and textual work which is presented in a fourth chapter; a fifth chapter discusses verses 15–19, which Jones believes is a later exegetical comment that has become part of the poem. Jones has structured his study so these chapters are read as cross-referencing information rather than presenting information sequentially. The reader is directed to relevant philological and textual discussion, but those following the Hebrew text with his analysis will find themselves regularly going to the later chapters for an explanation of the reading.

The first eleven verses of the poem are the most difficult in philological choices and development of the imagery. Jones proposes a complete paradigm shift in the conceptual framework of these verses. Traditionally they have been regarded as a description of a mining operation; Jones believes the imagery of these lines is rooted in accounts of foreign expeditions in Akkadian royal inscriptions. The more universal Mesopotamian epic (defined as works around the centrality of a hero), and the Gilgamesh epic in particular, illustrate the resonance and symbolism of the language. Royal inscriptions feature campaigns to distant regions outside the civilized world; Shalmaneser III claims to have discovered the sources of the Tigris and Euphrates. These kings discovered remote lands with exotic treasures. These heroes of foreign conquests claimed to travel through dark peripheral zones, beyond the mountains to the extreme reaches of the world.

Read this way, the imagery of the first eleven verses is not vertical language of a miner descending into the earth in search of precious metal, but a horizontal journey as a first discoverer to the very edges of the earth. The vertical dimension becomes prominent only when the extremes of the horizontal have been traversed (vv. 9–11).

Jones provides the following translation of the problematic fourth verse: “He breaches course<s> far from dwellers, ones forgotten by passers-by. They are bereft of humans {they wander}.” His interpretation of the imagery as an expedition provides for a more natural philological analysis of two key words: נחל is typically used of a ravine or wadi, the breaking open of a tunnel, but not a mine shaft; דלו is not translated as dangle or swing in any of the ancient versions, and more naturally refers to something of low state, i.e., few humans. Jones thinks that נעו (wander) is a partial dittography of the preceding word (מאנוש), which may find support in Old Greek and Targums. Jones observes various poetic associations, such as the repetition of the root (יצא in verses 1a and 11b, suggesting completion of the expedition to the “source” highlighted in the poem's incipit.

Jones regards verses 15–19 as secondary, as they are lacking in both Old Greek and the Qumran Targum (11Q10), a common lacuna that must be regarded as more than coincidental. But the argument of Jones for this being secondary is that it adds a value of social dimension to the poem which is otherwise predominantly a spatial metaphor, the place where treasure or wisdom may be found. These verses are enclosed by rhetorical questions asking about the source, place and abode of wisdom. Jones thinks these verses draw on ancient Near Eastern merchant accounts; “these lines engage in a sort of Listenwissenschaft, an encyclopedic, if tedious, organization of knowledge” (p. 213). The high concentration of foreign words contributes to the metaphorical projection of commerce with distant exotic lands. Jones regards these verses as an exegetical interpolation added in the context of a new edition of the poem.

Jones regards Job 28 as participating in the broader genre of poems concerned with the quest for wisdom. The poem highlights the inadequacy of traditional and philosophical reflection on wisdom. Understanding Job 28 as a parabolic subversion of the trope of the search for wisdom raises new possibilities for reading the poem in its canonical context. The poem serves to turn the “wisdom expedition” theme back on the friends, who have repeatedly claimed their connection with wisdom through tradition. In his monologue, Job underscores the futility of their search. The first section of the poem is a parody of the friend's exploration of the tradition; like ancient Mesopotamian kings, they would make themselves a “first discoverer.” The inaccessibility of wisdom points out the futility of their hubris. Wisdom can only be connected with the world order of the divine, emphasizing the accessibility of wisdom to those who “fear God and turn from evil.”

The study by Jones is an exhaustive resource for virtually every aspect of study in Job 28, including textual, philological, and literary analysis. It will be influential not only for an understanding of this poem on wisdom, but for an understanding of the structure and argument of the book of Job. Its innovation is articulately defended with great detail. One anticipates that it will have no small influence on future studies of the book of Job.

August H. Konkel, Providence Theological Seminary, Canada