Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 14 (2014) - Review

Nelson, Alissa Jones, Power and Responsibility in Biblical Interpretation: Reading the Book of Job with Edward Said (BibleWorld; Sheffield: Equinox, 2012). Pp. 257. Hardcover. US$99.95. ISBN 978-1-84553-889-7.

In this monograph Alissa Jones Nelson seeks to adapt Edward Said's concept of contrapuntal reading to the interpretation of the book of Job. As Nelson specifies in the introduction, her ultimate endeavour is to close “the gap between academic and vernacular hermeneutics” (p. 11). She defines the former as idea-primary approaches that strive for scientific objectivity as a goal while the latter she defines as experience-primary approaches that acknowledge the subjectivity of the interpreter and the centrality of contextual concerns. In addition to the brief introduction, interlude and conclusion, the book consists of two parts, with three chapters each. Part I is concerned with methodological matters while Part II deals with issues related to the interpretation of Job.

Chapter 1 is an introduction to some general vital ideas of Said. According to Nelson, the existence of an inherent relationship between knowledge, interpretation, and power is the foundation underlying Said's theories. All knowledge is interested and thus subjective. No representation is purely neutral. Another topic that Nelson argues as crucial to Said is the role of the intellectual, whose mandate is to criticize authority and to alleviate human suffering. Said's unique understanding of the notions of “secular” and “religious” is the third area that Nelson highlights. Said uses the former to refer to a self-conscious attitude that critically examines authority while the latter is used to refer to “a tendency to uncritically accept authority and uphold orthodoxy” (p. 40). According to Nelson, all these concepts constitute the backbone of Said's approaches to textuality and interpretation. Her brief introduction to Said in this chapter provides sufficient and helpful background for an audience which is unfamiliar with his works.

In chapter 2 Nelson discusses Said's notion of contrapuntal reading and contemplates the possibility of adapting his approach for biblical hermeneutics. Nelson argues that Said's view of textual interpretation is influenced by his interaction with literary critics Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault. In commenting on Said's critique of postcolonial studies, Nelson suggests that Said considers each of those readings as a form of centrism, which intends to promote ethnic particularity. As a response, Said has introduced his concept of contrapuntal reading that seeks to provide an arena in which an intellectual dialogue between a variety of particular voices is able to take place. The goal is integration, that is, the inclusion of “dissenting voices in the dominant discourses with the aim of decentring the dominant” (p. 62). The resulting voices are often polyphonic rather than harmonized. This inevitably leads Nelson to compare Said's interpretive approach with that of Mikhail Bakhtin. To Nelson, Said's approach is superior because it has the potential to overcome the implicit categorization of the dominant and the peripheral, a dualism inherent in Bakhtin's approach. Nelson admits that it is not a straightforward task to adapt Said's theory to the interpretation of biblical texts: “Contrapuntal reading involves a dialogue between primary texts, while contrapuntal biblical hermeneutics will necessarily mean dealing with secondary texts that offer particular and often contradictory interpretations of a single primary text” (p. 78). Contrapuntal hermeneutics, according to her, has the great potential to promote a mutual enriching dialogue that allows the process of boundary crossing. Nelson's proposal of adaptation implicitly identifies academic approaches as the dominant voice in biblical interpretation. Nevertheless, she appears to have lost sight of the fact that even among those academic approaches, some of them are still considered as marginal by mainstream biblical scholarship.

The third chapter is a review of various interpretive approaches that address the gap between academic and vernacular hermeneutics. Scholars under scrutiny include Pui-lan Kwok, Elsa Tamez, Gerald West, Justin Ukpong, Fernando Segovia and R. S. Sugirtharajah.[1] Nelson contends that none of these scholars has successfully proffered a solution for bridging that gap. Each of these approaches either fails to provide praxiological interpretive grounds or results in further ghettoization. She goes on to suggest that the contrapuntal approach as proposed has the potential to even eliminate that “gap through the creation of a mutual space for hermeneutical interaction” (p. 118).

Nelson, in the interlude at the beginning of Part II, elucidates that the dialogic nature of the book of Job, the numerous interpretive approaches to it, and the many issues raised in it all make the work a suitable candidate for her project. Her choice of Job as test case is both reasonable and problematic. It is reasonable because, as she explains, the book of Job has been interpreted by various communities using divergent approaches. Juxtaposition of these interpretations in a symphonic manner is expected to yield fruitful results. However, the uniqueness of this biblical book also makes Nelson's pick problematic. It is open to question whether this contrapuntal reading strategy can be applied to other biblical books that are less polyphonic in nature. If Nelson can demonstrate her theory using a biblical book other than Job, it would make her primary argument that contrapuntal hermeneutics has the potential to close the gap between academic and vernacular interpretations more convincing.

In chapter 4 Nelson moves on to examine the contribution of Gerhard von Rad and Gustavo Gutiérrez to Joban scholarship.[2] In order to demonstrate a contrapuntal interaction between these two scholars, Nelson singles out Job 38:1–42:6 as the focus of examination. She argues that although both scholars recognize the centrality of the content of the divine speeches to the overall message, Gutiérrez also considers Job's final responses as crucial to the meaning of the book. This leads Gutiérrez to conclude that Job serves as a role model for the contemporary audience who is undergoing suffering. Moreover, according to Nelson, “Gutiérrez sees in this text a basis for a call to action on behalf of the marginalized, those who suffer unjustly but are nevertheless loved by the God of justice” (p. 143). At this point, Nelson also introduces the voices of David Clines, Elsa Tamez,and Enrique Dussel into the contrapuntal conversation.[3] While Clines aligns with von Rad in arguing that the problem of suffering is not the central issue in Job, Tamez and Dussel are in agreement with Gutiérrez that the oppressed could benefit from their interaction between their own experience and the biblical book. Nelson observes that traditional biblical criticism has sometimes suggested a misleading dichotomy between interpretation and application. She further contends that it would be a mistake to dismiss the validity of vernacular interpretations by simply relegating them to the realm of application of the text. Having justified the legitimacy of vernacular hermeneutics, she sets up a symphonic conversation between those academic and vernacular voices. Nelson's argument that divergent interpretive opinions on Job mirror the gap between academic and vernacular hermeneutics is not as compelling as it stands. Noteworthy is the existence of other academic interpreters who see the problem of suffering as one of the central problems in Job. Even Nelson herself is aware that this is the previous position espoused by Clines. Perhaps there is more than one reason why two individual interpreters may come up with conflicting readings.

Chapter 5 juxtaposes academic, psychological perspectives on Job in the Western contexts with vernacular, HIV-positive perspectives on Job in African contexts. On the one hand, Nelson scrutinizes various voices that “utilize extant psychoanalytic models and theories to explicate and illuminate the biblical text with the goal of establishing an objective interpretation of the ‘meaning’ of the text” (p. 167). On the other hand, she analyzes other voices that begin the hermeneutical process with the experience of HIV/AIDS victims who are being rejected by their community of faith. The themes explored include the transformation of the sufferer, the integration of good and evil in human experience, the relational restoration of the sufferer, the sufferer's encounter with the deity, and the sufferer's questioning of the purpose of one's own catastrophic experience. Again, Nelson adroitly sets up an illuminating dialogue between the numerous voices with regard to how a person can cope with innocent suffering. She argues that academic approaches may provide helpful insights into psychological, spiritual, and communal healing in real-life contexts while vernacular approaches may call into question the practicality and the claim to universality of certain psychoanalytic theories. Whereas Nelson takes pain in establishing the credibility of vernacular interpreters in the previous chapter, she appears to be less concerned with exerting the same energy in this chapter. For those psychoanalytic approaches that Nelson classifies as academic, not all appear to be informed by the biblical text to the same degree. This exposes one of the weaknesses of Nelson's contrapuntal hermeneutics, which apparently considers each interpretation as an equally satisfactory reading of the biblical text.

In the final chapter Nelson juxtaposes academic and vernacular interpretations of Job from various Asian contexts. Before performing a contrapuntal dialogue, she first gives an overview of the distinctive features of Asian hermeneutics. She has selected Duck-Woo Nam and Yohan Pyeon, both of whom were educated in the West, as representatives for the academic approaches.[4] The themes considered include the divine mystery, the purpose of pain, the nature of the created order, and the reinscription of tradition. After careful analysis of the numerous voices from academic and vernacular approaches, Nelson concludes that all of them are quite harmonious and complementary to one another. She suggests that academic interpretations can be enhanced by vernacular insights, and vice versa. Although Nelson's analysis is well-researched, I find her suspect of stereotyping the Asians. As an Asian scholar who is educated in the West, I hardly credit my own interpretation of Job to my Asian heritage. Although Nam and Pyeon are both Asians in ethnicity, I wonder to what extent their interpretations are characteristic of typical Asian biblical hermeneutics.

In a brief conclusion, Nelson gives a summary of her project and suggests a few implications of contrapuntal hermeneutics to biblical hermeneutical pedagogy. Overall, Nelson's succinct overview of Said's theories and her attempt to adapt Said's contrapuntal reading for the purpose of biblical hermeneutics is to be applauded. Moreover, she has performed a masterful job in juxtaposing various interpretations of Job that result from different approaches and perspectives. Although Nelson's analysis of the role of subjectivity in biblical interpretation is not something novel, this is certainly a topic worthy of further exploration. Nevertheless, I remain unconvinced that contrapuntal hermeneutics, as proposed and demonstrated in this monograph, has successfully closed the gap between academic and vernacular hermeneutics.

Edward Ho, Chinese Online School of Theology

[1] Pui-lan Kwok, Discovering the Bible in the Non-Biblical World (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1995); idem, “The Future of Feminist Theology: An Asian Perspective,” Voices from the Third World 15 (1992), 141–61; Elsa Tamez, The Amnesty of Grace: Justification by Faith from a Latin American Perspective (trans. Sharon H. Ringe; Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1993); idem, The Scandalous Message of James: Faith without Works Is Dead (New York: Crossroad, 1992); idem, When the Horizons Close: Rereading Ecclesiastes (trans. Margaret Wilde; Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2000); Gerald O. West, The Academy of the Poor: Towards a Dialogical Reading of the Bible (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic, 1999); idem, Contextual Bible Study (Pietermaritzburg: Cluster, 1993); idem, “Reading the Bible Differently: Giving Shape to the Discourses of the Dominated,” Semeia 73 (1996), 21–41; Justin Ukpong, “Developments in Biblical Interpretation in Africa: Historical and Hermeneutical Directions,” in R. S. Sugirtharajah (ed.), Voices from the Margin: Interpeting the Bible in the Third World (3rd ed.; Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2006), 49–63; idem, “Inculturation Hermeneutics: An African Approach to Biblical Interpretation,” in Walter Dietrich and Ulrich Luz (eds.), The Bible in a World Context: An Experiment in Contextual Hermeneutics (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002), 17–32; idem, “Developments in Biblical interpretation in Africa: Historical and Hermeneutical Direction,” in Gerald O. West and Musa W. Dube (eds.), The Bible in Africa: Transactions, Trajectories, and Trends (Leiden: Brill, 2000), 11–28; Fernando F. Segovia, “Interpreting beyond Borders: Postcolonial Studies and Diasporic Studies in Biblical Criticism,” in Fernando F. Segovia (ed.), Interpreting Beyond Borders (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic, 2000), 11–34; idem, Decolonizing Biblical Studies: A View from the Margins (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2004); idem, The Bible and the Third World: Precolonial, Colonial and Postcolonial Encounters (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001); idem, Postcolonial Criticism and Biblical Interpretation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002); idem, “A Postcolonial Exploration of Collusion and Construction in Biblical Interpretation,” in R. S. Sugirtharajah (ed.), The Postcolonial Bible (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic, 1998), 91–116. reference

[2] Gerhard von Rad, Wisdom in Israel (London: SCM Press, 1972); idem, “Job XXXVIII and Ancient Egyptian Wisdom,” in E. W. Trueman Dicken (ed.), The Problem of the Hexateuch and Other Essays (Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd, 1966), 281–91; idem, Old Testament Theology (trans. D. M. G. Stalker; 2 vols.; London: SCM Press, 1975); Gustavo Gutiérrez, On Job: God-Talk and the Suffering of the Innocent (trans. M. J. O'Connell; Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1987); idem, A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics and Salvation (ed. and trans. Caridad Inda and John Eagleson; Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1973). reference

[3] David J. A. Clines, “Does the Book of Job Suggest that Suffering Is Not a Problem?” (paper presented at the Symposium for the 100th Birthday of Gerhard von Rad: Das Alte Testament und die Kultur der Moderne, Heidelberg, 18–21 October 2001); idem, “Deconstructing the Book of Job,” in M. Warner (ed.), The Bible as Rhetoric: Studies in Biblical Persuasion and Creditability (London: Routledge, 1990), 65–80; idem, “Job's God,” Concilium 4 (2004), 39–51; idem, “Job's Fifth Friend: An Ethical Critique of the Book of Job,” BibInt 12 (2004), 232–50; Elsa Tamez, “From Father to the Needy to Brother of Jackals and Companion of Ostriches: A Meditation on Job,” Concilium 4 (2004), 103–11; idem, “A Letter to Job,” in J. S. Pobee and B. von Wartenburg-Potter (eds.), New Eyes for Reading: Biblical and Theological Reflections by Women from the Third World (Geneva: World Council of Churches, 1986), 50–52; Enrique Dussel, “The People of El Salvador: The Communal Sufferings of Job,” Concilium 169 (1983), 61–68. reference

[4] Duck-Woo Nam, Talking about God: Job 42:7–9 and the Nature of God in the Book of Job (Studies in Biblical Literature, 49; New York: Peter Lang, 2003); Yohan Pyeon, You Have Not Spoken What Is Right about Me: Intertextuality and the Book of Job (Studies in Biblical Literature, 45; New York: Peter Lang, 2003). reference