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<< Return to SBL Forum Archive Job in Conversation with Edward Said: The “Outsider” as Ethical and Pedagogical Dilemma in Biblical Interpretation

Alissa Jones Nelson


In the title of this paper we are faced with two characters who inhabit, in different historical, textual, and existential contexts, as well as in different degrees, the space of the outsider. Both characters move repeatedly across the permeable boundary that separates insider from outsider, and both inhabit these seemingly separate spaces simultaneously. What resources can a textually mediated encounter between these two characters offer in addressing the intersection of ethics, biblical interpretation, and the “outsider”? This article argues that such an encounter has much to contribute to the current debate surrounding this intersection. Furthermore, it argues that this interaction raises specific pedagogical challenges in the field of biblical interpretation.

Contrapuntal Hermeneutics and Said’s Ethical Universalism

At the outset, it may be necessary to define the adjective “contrapuntal.” This term is derived from the musical term “counterpoint.”[1] Edward Said’s concept of the contrapuntal embodies the effort to bring various interpretive voices into conjunction without harmonization, to emphasize the uniqueness of each voice in contrast with other voices, and to compensate for gaps in one interpretation or interpretive perspective by placing it in conjunction with another.

In Said’s thought, insider and outsider perspectives are primarily defined in (neo)imperial terms. Said insists on the importance of reading texts from the social worlds of both the former colonizer and the formerly colonized together, contrapuntally, not to impose a false harmony but to achieve a counterpoint of various voices that maintains rather than smoothes tension. Said abjures arguments for ethnic or disciplinary centrism, narrow nationalism, and uncritical solidarity.[2] For this reason, he attempts to create a contrapuntal approach that avoids the pitfalls of various centrisms without denying the importance of context and particularity, providing a space in which a variety of particular voices can contribute to a dialogic intellectual process. Contrapuntal reading, Said argues, is a politically and ethically responsible way to interpret texts in the trans-modern, postcolonial world, which necessarily involves questions of power and the relationship of knowledge to power.

Nevertheless, Said does not reject universality or the concept of truth. Universality in Said’s thought has an ethical and humanitarian, rather than an intellectual, role to play. Universality is not properly a function of scholarship but rather of scholarly involvement in concrete social realities. Said’s interest lies in examining the relationship between truth and universality and the application of concepts in particular, subjective spaces. Said argues that universality means upholding a single standard of human behavior and human justice “for everyone, not just selectively for the people that your side, your culture, your nation designates as okay. The fundamental problem is therefore how to reconcile one’s identity and the actualities of one’s own culture, society, and history to the reality of other identities, cultures, [and] peoples.”[3] Universality in Said’s terms has its basis in humanistic principles, but universal ethical truths are subject to contrapuntal discussion and amendment.

The work of the intellectual can provide a model for reconciliation by situating “insider” and “outsider” perspectives in a contrapuntal space that is mutual rather than contested.[4] The space Said seeks to create provides a means of integrating dissenting voices without sacrificing mutual analysis and criticism. It avoids both assimilation and segregation. The point is not simply to incorporate outsider texts into current curricula. It is, rather, an issue of “canonical habit[s] of mind” that inscribe certain interpretive texts as central and others as marginal.[5] Said’s contrapuntal approach emphasizes the need not for the interpretive canon’s “dissolution” but for its “relocation.”[6] In contrast to simple comparative approaches, contrapuntal hermeneutics emphasizes the process of boundary crossing, the process of dialogue itself, as another participant in this dialogue. Contrapuntal hermeneutics allows the process of dialogue to be an explicit participant in the dialogue; this is its unique potential.[7]

The importance of such an approach to the field of biblical interpretation lies primarily in its conscious attempts to cross the various boundaries set up between insider and outsider perspectives on biblical texts. Contrapuntal hermeneutics offers a praxiological interpretive basis from which to approach some of the concerns of postcolonial and liberative perspectives. It also offers an ethical goal namely, integration.

Two Outsiders? Or, What Do Job and Said Have to Say to Each Other?

As the title of Said’s autobiography indicates, Said conceived himself as a person continually Out of Place.[8] Although Palestinian by birth, he was raised primarily in Egypt and traveled to the United States at the age of sixteen to complete his education. As a supporter of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), he was a political outsider in the United States, and in his criticism of and eventual break with the PLO he became, in many ways, an outsider in official Palestinian politics as well. He also saw himself as an academic outsider. His educational experiences in the United States contributed to both his social status as an outsider and to the academic reverberations of this designation on both his written work and his institutional career.

Said’s outsider status was, however, far from static. At certain points, he became both an academic and a political insider. Upon completing his doctorate in 1963, he took up a position at Columbia University and, in his own words, “was completely caught up in the life of a young professor” until the outbreak of the Arab-Israeli War in 1967 raised his political consciousness, which began to spill over into his academic life and work.[9] In the 1980s, Said became an important and active insider in the Palestine National Council (PNC). After the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993, however, his politics diverged with the politics of the PLO, making him once again an outsider in many respects.[10] His critical academic work also eventually placed him firmly outside accepted guild traditions, beginning with the publication of Orientalism in 1978 and tacking back and forth across insider/outsider boundaries in his later work. Said is ultimately a self-designated outsider, embraced by both sympathetic insiders and outsiders alike. Like many postcolonial theorists, his work has increasingly been brought within the purview of the English-speaking academic guild, and other outsiders have criticized the limitations of his perspective, which was partially determined by the perspectives of the insiders in his own educational history.

Said began as an outsider, moved to insider status, and eventually ended up back outside. In contrast, the character of Job begins as an insider, moves briefly to outsider status, and eventually ends up back inside. Job’s origin and group identity are admittedly ambiguous in the text itself.[11] However, I would argue that this very ambiguity, combined with Job’s wealth and social position, indicates his insider status in his own society. Job’s own description of his prior social standing in Job chapters 29-31 confirms this status.[12] In the opening chapters of the book, however, Job’s loss of material wealth renders him a theological outsider according to the theology of retribution, while his skin disease renders him a social outsider according to the conventions of his context.[13] His outsider status is further emphasized by the cycle of dialogues between Job and his friends, who try to convince him to give up his suit against God, to confess his sin, and thus theologically to come back inside. This is a concession Job refuses to make. He insists on his own righteousness and instead rails against God and against the theology of his friends, both of which he identifies as causes of his outsider status.

Job is eventually compelled to acknowledge that God cannot be held accountable for Job’s outsider status, and so withdraws his complaint against God in 42:2-6. Nevertheless, he maintains his status as theological outsider in opposition to the doctrine of retribution as expounded by his friends and is eventually vindicated. In 42:7, God confirms Job’s position as the “right” position, both theologically and, in the purview of this context, ethically. Problematically, however, Job’s insider status is ultimately restored. His outsider theological position is brought inside, and his restored health and wealth elevate him to his previous position as a social insider. Thus, Elsa Tamez argues that Job’s outsider status was only temporary and that his understanding of other outsiders only went so deep.[14]

What do Said and Job have to say to each other on the subject of being an outsider? Job repeatedly laments this status; significantly, his primary request is not for the restoration of his wealth or even his health, but for God’s confirmation of Job’s integrity and a commensurate restoration of his status as an insider. His suit against God is a demand for vindication; Job wants to be cleared of an assumed guilt that relegates him to both a social and a theological margin.[15] Job’s outsider status was problematized by his own desire to get back inside. In contrast, Said cultivates an outsider identity; to be an outsider is as important for his creative output as it is for his ethics. Speaking truth to power requires, in Said’s thought, an independent and therefore outsider position as a basis for criticism. Nevertheless, Said’s own academic outsider status was problematized by his association with an academic guild that paid his salary and published his books, as well as his dependence upon an insider group against which to polemicize.

In spite of these differences, both characters see the maintenance of a forced outsider status as an ethical duty. In Job’s final statement of integrity in chapter 31, he maintains his outsider status by refusing to capitulate to the arguments of his friends or to drop his suit against God. Job cannot in good conscience acquiesce to the theology of retribution; he consciously maintains his outsider position because he sees no ethically viable alternative.[16] Similarly, Said argues that the role of the intellectual “has an edge to it, and cannot be played without a sense of being someone whose place it is publicly to raise embarrassing questions, to confront orthodoxy and dogma (rather than to produce them), to be someone … whose raison d’être is to represent all those people and issues that are routinely forgotten or swept under the rug.”[17] Outsider status is a necessary prerequisite for ethical criticism as motivated by Said’s secular humanism. Ultimately, it is a question of goals: if both Job and Said view outsider identity as a tool with which and a place from which to challenge the status quo, is the goal then to bring the outsider perspective inside, as in Job’s case, or to inhabit an outsider identity as a positive space from which to interact with insider perspectives, as in Said’s case?

Both Job and Said are problematic characters in their own narratives. Both are insider/outsiders. Both were made outsiders by circumstantial realities beyond their control, such as heavenly wagers or accidents of birth and political machinations, but both consciously maintained their outsider status rather than sacrifice their personal integrity. Both have earned the ire of their compatriots for pushing the boundaries between insider and outsider, and both have earned the ire of later commentators for not pushing far enough.[18] Yet both are paradoxically attractive characters in their very outsiderism. Thus, both characters can be labeled “outsiders,” but neither can finally be fixed exclusively in this category.

Both Said and Job indicate that the interaction of insider and outsider perspectives is an ethical necessity. Both raise questions about the nature of outsider identity, whether it is a self-designation or a categorization applied by insiders. A contrapuntal exploration of their own descriptions of their respective situations, however, indicates that outsider status is neither static nor unambiguous in either case. This in turn raises questions about the nature of the boundary between insider and outsider, the ethical importance of the voice of the outsider, and the value of moving across the boundaries.

Ethics and Biblical Interpretation in the Classroom

Both Job and Said have challenged the dichotomy between insider and outsider. What are the implications of applying Said’s contrapuntal approach, which challenges the premises on which both insider and outsider identities are constructed, to the interpretation of the book of Job, in which the main character is both insider and outsider, uneasy within either designation, and singularly attractive to interpreters from both sides of this divide?

I would argue that the book of Job provides, both in its themes and in its history of interpretation, a unique arena in which to play out a contrapuntal encounter. Those interpretive perspectives that see in the book a foundation on which to build solidarity with and among outsiders can engage those perspectives that see a justification of human trust in divine freedom or a deconstruction of the very theological principles the book seems to advocate;[19] those voices that claim the book as a resource for people struggling with HIV/AIDS have much to learn from, and much to teach, those voices that see Job’s suffering primarily in psychological terms;[20] those perspectives that see the suffering of the innocent as the key problematic in the book need to dialogue constructively with those who argue the opposite.[21] If the book of Job itself resists closure, if it resists being co-opted by either the insider or the outsider, then it should be approached in interpretation by both insider and outsider perspectives, not in competition, but in contrapuntality. This approach is appropriate not only to the complex themes and literary construction of the book itself, but also to contemporary contexts of globalization and ghettoization.

The rise of poststructuralism, postcolonialism, and liberation theologies has resulted in an increasing emphasis on subjectivity and self-determination in the field of biblical interpretation. While I would argue that this is on the whole a positive development, subjectivity and self-determination by their very nature passively encourage the development of interpretive ghettos. Each of these ghettos legitimizes itself with reference to its particular context as well as to the subjectivity of all other perspectives and the potential equality of all interpretations. Each is primarily concerned with its own context and with the interpretive interests delimited by various aspects of that context. This is not to suggest that boundary-crossing efforts have not been or are not being made. Nevertheless, the overall trend is toward segregation: divergent interpretive communities are increasingly viewed as separate but equal.

Pedagogically, courses on biblical hermeneutics in the university context largely reflect a hierarchical, linear progression from insider, theoretically oriented, “academic” perspectives to outsider, experientially oriented, “vernacular” perspectives and textual approaches; insider approaches are usually taught first and receive the majority of the allotted time in the classroom, while outsider approaches receive far less class time and are generally allotted a space at the end of the course, or in a special-focus module, as an interesting or optional extra for students.[22] The bottom line is that an understanding of traditionally validated academic approaches to biblical hermeneutics is required for the successful completion of a degree in biblical studies, while an equally adequate understanding of outsider approaches is not. To become an insider, one must have a thorough knowledge of other insiders, but only a passing familiarity with outsider perspectives. Even as outsider approaches have secured a place in academically focused university classrooms (whether as a result of their own efforts or under duress), their marginality has been firmly maintained by people in both circles. It is this intentional marginalization/marginality of outsider approaches that raises important ethical, praxiological, and theoretical questions in contemporary contexts of neo-imperialism and globalization.


As I conclude this exploration, I would like to clarify my argument by specifying what I am not saying. I am not arguing that contrapuntal hermeneutics is the only appropriate approach to the book of Job; neither am I arguing that it is the only or even the most appropriate approach in the classroom. I do not wish to be construed as a cheerleader for Edward Said, whose ideas I find stimulating and whose goals I embrace, but whose praxis I often find problematic. Neither do I wish to malign important work in the interests of integration in the field of biblical interpretation already undertaken by Kwok Pui-lan, Fernando Segovia, R. S. Sugirtharajah, and Gerald West, among others. Nevertheless, I do think that contrapuntal hermeneutics provides an important key to the interpretation of the book of Job, as well as pointing the ethics of biblical interpretation in new and positive directions.

Contrapuntal hermeneutics seeks to embrace outsider voices without falling prey to either assimilation or segregation. It points towards integration, which attempts to avoid both the elision and the overstatement of differences. It creates an interpretive framework that challenges an unethical disciplinary hierarchy in harmony with other poststructuralist and postcolonial approaches and also goes a step further in suggesting a possible pedagogical solution to the perpetuation of that hierarchy in the classroom. Furthermore, contrapuntal hermeneutics addresses the insider/outsider dichotomy by challenging the binary opposition on which it rests and arguing for an integration that involves the de-centering of both discourses as well as the realization that the designations themselves are dynamic rather than static. As we have seen in the contrapuntal interaction between Job and Edward Said, the same person may inhabit both spaces simultaneously or in a series of successions; contrapuntal hermeneutics takes account of hybridity and of the tensions inherent in hyphenated identities. The same character may be insider, then outsider, then insider; may be insider-outsider or outsider-insider; may choose to inhabit one sphere or the other even as fellow inhabitants of that sphere challenge her or his inclusion. Contrapuntal hermeneutics offers one approach to the ethics of biblical interpretation that allows for the complexity of this boundary-crossing movement, in texts, in the interpretation of texts, and in the classroom.

Alissa Jones Nelson, University of St. Andrews

[1] The Oxford English Dictionary defines this term as “the technique of setting, writing, or playing a melody or melodies in conjunction with another, according to fixed rules;” to “emphasize by contrast;” or to “compensate for.” See Concise Oxford English Dictionary, 11th ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 327.

[2] Said, “The Politics of Knowledge,” in Reflections on Exile and Other Literary and Cultural Essays (London: Granta Books, 2001), 381.

[3] Said, Representations of the Intellectual: The 1993 Reith Lectures (London: Vintage, 1994), xii, 69-70.

[4] Said, “Culture and Imperialism,” in Power, Politics, and Culture: Interviews with Edward Said (ed. G. Viswanathan; New York: Pantheon Books, 2001), 202-3.

[5] Jan Gorak, The Making of the Modern Canon: Genesis and Crisis of a Literary Idea (London: Athlone Press, 1991), 187.

[6] Gorak, The Making of the Modern Canon, 220.

[7] I am indebted for this insight to Gerald O. West, who very kindly shared his own ideas about the “ideotheological” and its relevance to contrapuntal hermeneutics in a conversation that took place at the SBL Annual Meeting in San Diego, 17 November 2007.

[8] See Said, Out of Place: A Memoir (London: Granta Books, 1999).

[9] See Said, The Politics of Dispossession: The Struggle for Palestinian Self-Determination, 1969-1994 (New York: Pantheon Books, 1994), xiii-xlviii.

[10] See Said, The Politics of Dispossession, xxxi-xxxii, 20-24.

[11] See David J. A. Clines, Job 1-20, (Word Biblical Commentary vol. 17; Dallas: Word Books, 1989), 10-13.

[12] See Clines, “Those Golden Days: Job and the Perils of Nostalgia,” in On the Way to the Postmodern: Old Testament Essays, 1967-1998 (JSOT Supplement Series 293 ; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1998): 792-800.

[13] See Gustavo Gutiérrez, On Job: God Talk and the Suffering of the Innocent (trans. Matthew J. O’Connell; Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1987), 6.

[14] Tamez, “From Father of the Needy to Brother of Jackals and Companion of Ostriches: A Meditation on Job,” Concilium “Job’s God” (2004): 103-111, esp. 108-109. For an alternative perspective on this point, see Gutiérrez, On Job, 31-34, 48.

[15] See Job chapters 29-31.

[16] See also Job chapters 21 and 24, in which Job appears to recognize that the failure of the theology of retribution as an explanation for human experience extends beyond his personal experience and places him in company with other outsiders who are the victims of injustice, both at the hands of the wicked and at the hands of a God who sustains and supports the wicked. On this point, see Gutiérrez, On Job, 32.

[17] Said, Representations of the Intellectual, 9.

[18] Thus Paul Tiyambe Zeleza argues that Said’s contrapuntal reading concerned itself primarily with insider texts from the Western canon at the expense of including outsider texts from the Two-Thirds World. See Zeleza, “The Politics and Poetics of Exile: Edward Said in Africa,” Research in African Literatures 36 no. 3 (2005): 1-22. Similarly, Tamez notes that Job struggled for a time on the ash heap and so offered hope to other outsiders, but laments the fact that Job left this struggle behind to enjoy his renewed wealth and social standing. She argues that true understanding of and solidarity with the outsider perspective would require Job to return to the ash heap and struggle with other outsiders. Tamez, “Meditation on Job,” 108.

[19] See Tamez, “Meditation on Job,” 103-111; see also Enrique Dussel, “The People of El Salvador: The Communal Sufferings of Job,” Concilium 169 (1983): 61-68; Gerhard von Rad, Wisdom in Israel (London: SCM Press Ltd., 1972); David J. A. Clines., “Deconstructing the Book of Job,” in The Bible as Rhetoric: Studies in Biblical Persuasion and Credibility (ed. M. Warner; London: Routledge, 1990), 65-80.

[20] See Gerald West with Bongi Zengele, “Reading Job ‘Positively’ in the Context of HIV/AIDS in South Africa,” Concilium 4 (2004): 112-24; see also Gerald West, “The Poetry of Job as a Resource for the Articulation of Embodied Lament in the Context of HIV and AIDS in South Africa,” in Lamentations in Ancient and Contemporary Contexts (eds. N. C. Lee and C. Mandolfo; Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2008), 195-214; Dan Merkur, “Psychotherapeutic Change in the Book of Job,” in Psychology and the Bible: A New Way to Read the Scriptures (ed. J. H. Ellens and W. G. Rollins; Westport/London: Praeger, 2004) 119-39.

[21] See Gutiérrez, On Job; see also Clines, “Does the Book of Job Suggest that Suffering is Not a Problem?” (paper given at the Symposium for the 100th Birthday of Gerhard von Rad: Das Alte Testament und die Kultur der Moderne, Heidelberg, 18-21 October 2001). Cited 18 September 2008. Online: /bibs/DJACcurres/ProblemSuffering.pdf.

[22] R. S. Sugirtharajah, “Margins and Mainstream: An Interview with R. S. Sugirtharajah,” in Border Crossings: Cross-Cultural Hermeneutics, Essays in Honor of R. S. Sugirtharajah (ed. D. N. Premnath; Maryknoll: Orbis, 2007), 153-65.

Citation: Alissa Jones Nelson, " Job In Conversation With Edward Said," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited Jan 2009]. Online:


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