Saturday, February 07, 2015

Swifter than a Weaver's Shuttle

So, I'm reading at Mass tomorrow, and this is the passage I have to read:

Job spoke, saying:
Is not man’s life on earth a drudgery?
Are not his days those of hirelings?
He is a slave who longs for the shade,
a hireling who waits for his wages.
So I have been assigned months of misery,
and troubled nights have been allotted to me.
If in bed I say, “When shall I arise?”
then the night drags on;
I am filled with restlessness until the dawn.
My days are swifter than a weaver’s shuttle;
they come to an end without hope.
Remember that my life is like the wind;
I shall not see happiness again.
(Job 7:1-4, 6-7 NAB)

I like this passage (I like most of Job), but it's a passage that makes no sense without its context. It tickles me a bit that everyone will be saying "Thanks be to God" to Job complaining that life is short, terrible, and without hope, but that aside, this is not an easy passage to read. I suppose the idea here, as usual, is that it serves as a kind of prologue to the other readings, on God healing the brokenhearted (Psalm), Paul becoming weak to win the weak (second reading), and Jesus healing Peter's mother-in-law (Gospel); but it's not obviously going to come across like that to anyone, I think, and I suspect the portion of the congregation that pays any attention to the readings will be baffled by it. Much of reading in church is getting the mood right. Exhortations can be read pleasantly, narratives in a measured way, and prophetic proclamations forcefully (in the history of the world, no one has come up with a better or more fun way to open than, "Thus says the Lord!"--those readings always take care of themselves), but how does one read a complaint that is at the same time simply an allusion to a larger story? I'm not sure. I always do some practice, but this is likely one that will just end up read however it happens to be read; I don't know that practice will get anywhere with it.

I find it odd, too, that the reading just skips over Job 7:5, "My flesh is clothed with worms and scabs; my skin cracks and festers." It can't be squeamishness, since the readings next Sunday are about leprosy. Was there any particular rationale for leaving it out? It is another of those mysteries.

In context, of course, Job's complaint is in response to Eliphaz, who has scolded Job with almost stereotypical pious advice, telling him that if Eliphaz were Job, he'd appeal to God: "Happy is the man whom God reproves! The Almighty's chastening do not reject. For he wounds, but he binds up; he smites, but his hands give healing." So Job responds that he would appeal to God if he could, and demands to know why Eliphaz is attacking him when his miserable life is going to be coming to an end soon anyway. That's what's going on here. I don't see why we couldn't have had a little of this exchange, which would take all of one more minute and make the whole passage make sense on its own. It would still cohere with the other readings, and it wouldn't sound like it was from a scrap of paper floating around after the fire in the library in Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose.

At least this is one in which the NAB is reasonably readable. The epistle, which also makes little sense out of context, is clunky enough in translation that it borders on incomprehensible.

All very curious. One wonders what the thought process was underlying these kinds of things.


  1. MrsDarwin12:09 AM

    I think the clue to interpreting the passage is the first line: "Job spoke, saying..." This is how man experiences life sometimes, all drudgery and toil and no gleam of light. I was struck during the reading because I myself had one of these nights recently, all tossing and turning and dismay, and not even over any sorrows of my own, but over the general depredations of humanity. So I think you're right: it's a matter of capturing the mood. Everyone has these moments; everyone ought to be able to relate. What remedy is there? Job, of course, has God shake him out of himself by demanding, "Where were you?" In the context of today's readings, the sequence is as you outlined. God heals the broken-hearted; the great evangelists understand human weakness and become weak so as to reach every heart; Christ heals and preaches, driving out demons, curing Peter's mother-in-law, and declaring that for this very purpose he has come. The readings start with a cry of despair from the pit of sloth, and end with Jesus making all things new as part of a brisk day's work.

    As to the mechanics of reading a piece filled with angst, especially if you're not finding any other "in": many years ago I had this great book on directing which had an appendix on the directing of Shakespearean monologues, in which the author, an acclaimed director, advised that when you're trying to work with an actor on delivering lines in which the character is angry or contemptuous, a common pitfall is that the actor will slip into sounding maudlin or self-conscious. The corrective is to add a mental intensifier. You take your intensifier and you mentally insert it into denuciatory parts of the speech, and it helps strengthen the spoken emotion of the text. The director claimed that the only effective intensifier in the English language was "fucking": "O, what a (fucking) rouge and (fucking) peasant slave I am." I won't call down fire on myself by actually writing out it with Holy Writ, but the monologue above achieves a particularly fine tone with this technique.

  2. branemrys2:53 PM

    I don't think I'd be able to use that trick with a straight face.

  3. "It can't be squeamishness, since the readings next Sunday are about leprosy."

    Sure it can. The designers of the lectionary probably heard the word "leprosy" so many times in a tranquil, religious context that it barely brings rotting skin to mind for them. But this passage is graphic enough that I dare say they felt they had to protect people from it.

    Protecting the Church from Scripture, ha! But one can easily see this in the Psalm selections as well, where they remove the dark or vengeful bits. I'm surprised they left it the rest of the verses in this Job passage!

    The correct unit of reading a Psalm is the whole psalm...but Job doesn't make sense unless you read the whole book, which is definitely a challenge for the liturgists.

  4. branemrys10:20 AM

    You might be right! Leprosy has come dangerously near to becoming a 'holy' word.

    I think with Job, outside God himself speaking, it would make the most sense to excerpt it in a way that would maintain the fact that most of the book is structured by oppositions -- e.g., if you are going to have Job, begin with some of the speech from the friend to whom he is responding.

  5. MrsDarwin6:23 PM

    But you'll never forget it now, I guarantee.

  6. branemrys7:04 PM

    True. Very true.


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