The Book of Job and the Immanent Genesis of Transcendence

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Davis Hankins
Diaeresis
  • Evanston, IL: 
    Northwestern University Press
    , November
     2014.
     328 pages.
     $29.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780810130180.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In this book Davis Hankins develops a sophisticated interpretation of the Book of Job, informed by biblical scholarship and psychoanalytic theory. The intersection of high theory with biblical scholarship has become an important locus of academic discussion and debate. The most significant critical work so far has focused on Paul, including the work of Ward Blanton and L.L. Welborn. Job has lagged behind Paul as a topic of theoretical reflection, but Job has been engaged by theorists like Slavoj Žižek and Antonio Negri. Most scholars lack adequate expertise in both of these areas, but there are some who do possess the tools to productively engage both at a high level. Hankins is one of the few scholars who has the skills to do this, and he provides a very complex argument here.

Hankins relies on Carol Newsom’s work on Job, and he also draws on the psychoanalytic theory of Jacques Lacan and Žižek to offer his interpretation of the text, which involves a more profound understanding of the Wisdom literature of the Hebrew Bible. When we read and think about Wisdom literature, we usually contrast a limited human wisdom with a transcendent divine Wisdom. Hankins deconstructs this opposition, and shows us that Wisdom literature, and Job in particular, involves an immanent WISDOM. This immanent WISDOM appears as a gap, an emptiness or negativity, but it also represents and instantiates an “appearance of transcendence within immanence” (15). Immanent WISDOM underlies and grounds the notions of both limited wisdom and transcendent Wisdom.

Job’s friends are usually seen as buffoons, offering idiotic arguments that support stereotypical views of retributive justice. But Hankins shows how these arguments are actually much more subtle, and involve the kinds of claims that readers and theologians often draw from the text. Most readers assume that Job expresses the limits of human wisdom in the face of transcendent divine Wisdom, which is unknowable, but Hankins argues that these are actually the arguments of Job’s friends, and not the intended message of the book.

Immanent WISDOM undermines the notion of transcendent divine Wisdom, but it also manifests something profound about what Lacan calls the Real. Hankins applies Lacan’s typology of Imaginary, Symbolic, and Real to the Book of Job. He argues that Job’s destitution and devastation strips him of his symbolic meaning, and reduces him to a state of bare life, that approaches that of the Real (55). Because Job is able to shift his perspective from the Symbolic to the Real, his “stance concretely materializes the timeless truth of WISDOM” (71). Job no longer experiences God as Other or as an object of fear or devotion. He is entirely thrust upon himself, and his own subjectivity is radically alien to himself; he experiences himself as an obscene piece of dirt or excrement.

 In considering God’s response to Job, Hankins explains that each one describes one side of a double-sided whole. At the end of the book “both YHWH and Job finally assume the truth of the other’s speech as the truth of their own” (224). Here the opposition between Job and the world is seen to be internal to both Job and the world. Job is not only limited by God’s transcendence; he is able to experience “the divine and wondrous” within his conditions of limitation (219). And this immanent experience of the divine and wondrous in addition to the horrific and obscene is the essence of WISDOM.

This is a very comprehensive analysis and an impressive book. The reading is highly technical and densely layered, and it can challenge readers who lack the background in either biblical studies, psychoanalytic theory, or both. I cannot adequately evaluate the work in terms of biblical studies due to my own limitations as a scholar, but I am persuaded by much of its argument. I can confidently say that Hankins understands and applies the ideas of Žižek and Lacan in valid and valuable ways. Both the Wisdom literature of the Hebrew Bible and the theories of Lacan and Žižek involve struggling to make sense of what does not make sense. Hankins is an emerging younger scholar who is developing his own unique perspective and voice. This book is both an impressive accomplishment and a promissory note for his future work.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Clayton Crockett is Professor of Religious Studies at University of Central Arkansas. 

Date of Review: 
July 16, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Davis Hankins is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies in the Department of Philosophy and Religion, as well as a faculty affiliate in the Center for Judaic, Holocaust & Peace Studies, and in the Gender, Women's, & Sexuality Studies program at Appalachian State University.

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