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The Whale’s Three Jobs

Postsecularist Literary Studies and the Old Testament Hermeneutics of Herman Melville’s ‚Moby-Dick‘

Damien B. Schlarb

Pages 87 - 107


This essay is concerned with Herman Melville’s mediation of the wisdom tradition in the Old Testament of the Christian Bible. I situate Melville’s novel ‚Moby-Dick‘ at the intersection of literary studies, the philosophy of religion, and the transatlantic cultural history of the Bible to challenge older scholarly depictions of Melville as a religiously subversive and irreverently skeptical author. In doing so, I build on recent work by scholars such as Ilana Pardes, Jonathan Cook, and Zachary Hutchins, all of whom have read ‚Moby-Dick‘ as being not only religiously iconoclastic but also productive and even reverent towards the Bible. However, many of these discussions have not addressed to what extent Melville harnesses the skepticism towards religious belief that resides within the Bible itself. Using the example of the Book of Job, a text that has received prolific literary responses in romanticism, as a point of comparison, I show how Melville mediates the language and themes of biblical wisdom to discuss the philosophical problem of theodicy, the question of God’s benign character. In response to this issue, Melville, I argue, constructs a tripart typology, in which he contemplates the three distinct vectors of Job’s personality (repenter, sufferer, and rebel). In doing so, he produces what theologian D. Z. Phillips has called a “hermeneutics of contemplation” (30): Melville compares critically the biblical book with competing contemporary epistemological schemes, such as secular science, religious orthodoxy, and moral philosophy, to determine its explanatory potential. Advocating an ethos of reverential yet critical inquiry that can be traced to eighteenth-century deist societies, the novel ultimately asserts a nostalgic reverence for the Bible’s wisdom epistemology.


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