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The Book of Job

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One of my reading challenges at present is to get through the entire Bible in a year. (This is not actually all that tough as an assignment - yer average Bible has around 1400 pages, so we're talking 4 pages a day.) I have to say that some of it has been a bit of a slog, even at that pace, particularly the one-sided propaganda of the history books and then the not terribly profound fables of Tobit, Esther and Judith. (I am reading the Catholic version, so I get these extras that Protestants miss out on.)

And then you hit Job. And gosh, it's a breath of fresh air in some ways. For the first time in the Bible, we have a structured dialogue between several different philosophical viewpoints, without the person who is wrong being smitten by fire from heaven. I think you have to ignore the framing narrative (the first two chapters, and most of the last), and just jump in at Chapter 3, on the basis that Job is a person to whom awful things have happened, and he doesn't really understand why. Job's three friends, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar, attempt to get him to accept that the bad things that have happened to him are his fault, divine punishment for something he did wrong, and Job steadfastly refuses to accept that he deserves it, while describing his own mental state of suffering in eloquent detail. Chapters 32 to 37, an obvious later insertion, introduce a new character, Elihu, who argues that Job should accept that sometimes suffering happens to the innocent as part of a bigger divine plan. Elihu then shuts up and is not heard from again.

And then God speaks directly to Job from the whirlwind, or from the storm (מִן הַסְּעָרָה in the original, min ha-sə‘ārāh), and says: there is a bigger picture. Consider the wonders of nature and of the universe (it's a very astronomical book), and measure the problems of your own life against those. Try to get some perspective. This isn't a cuddly personal incarnated God speaking soothing words of love and compassion; this is the somewhat impersonal guiding force of creation, briefly given voice to speak to someone who foolishly thought they knew what was going on in the world. The answers aren't comfortable. There is no magic solution. Bad things happen in life, but there is a bigger picture. (God's argument here is a bit like Elihu's earlier, but doesn't insult Job or the reader by claiming that there is a Loving God Behind It All, and is also better written.)

It's not a comfortable answer, and it's not a comfortable book. (Apart from the obviously grafted on ending.) But it is at least an intelligent and well-crafted discussion of the philosophical problem of why bad things happen to good people, and perhaps the earliest such discussion, dating from about 2,500 years ago.

Comments

( 17 comments — Leave a comment )
steepholm
May. 31st, 2012 09:16 pm (UTC)
Interesting post: I must reread Job. For some reason your reading put me in mind of these lines from Stevie Smith ("Thoughts about the Person from Porlock"):

These thoughts are depressing I know. They are depressing,
I wish I was more cheerful, it is more pleasant,
Also it is a duty, we should smile as well as submitting
To the purpose of One Above who is experimenting
With various mixtures of human character which goes best,
All is interesting for him it is exciting, but not for us.
There I go again. Smile, smile, and get some work to do
Then you will be practically unconscious without positively having to go.
rosefox
Jun. 1st, 2012 05:27 am (UTC)
It's fascinating to read this back-to-back with eyeteeth's latest Book of Jonah illustration.
nwhyte
Jun. 2nd, 2012 08:05 am (UTC)
Thanks, that's a nice link!
rosefox
Jun. 2nd, 2012 08:25 am (UTC)
You're welcome! I recommend reading them all, including her commentary.
inner_storm
Jun. 1st, 2012 07:04 am (UTC)
I remember this story of Job made quite an impact on me when we read it in primary school.
tree_and_leaf
Jun. 1st, 2012 08:26 am (UTC)
The current critical consensus is that the beginning/ ending are the oldest parts of the book, and that Job was originally an edifying tale about how Job is tempted to despair and is rewarded (there is a reference in, I think, Ezekiel which would support this), and the poems are deconstructing it. I'm not sure if the God in Job is exactly unloving - look at the enthusiasm about Behemoth and Leviathan - but it's certainly not a human kind of love. More like an author's attitude to her characters...

I must admit that I like Esther, Tobit, and Judith, though. Especially Judith.
nwhyte
Jun. 2nd, 2012 08:04 am (UTC)
Hmm, interesting. But is there linguistic or other evidence to support it? I must say I find it more believable that the core poetry was subjected to later additions (Elihu and the framing narrative) than that a short prose fable was later bulked out by the insertion of a literary masterpiece. But I'm aware of my own lack of expertise; I can only report my instinctive reaction.
tree_and_leaf
Jun. 2nd, 2012 12:19 pm (UTC)
I'm not sure about the linguistic side of it, but the account of Job's religious practice seems to be pre- (or at least non-Deuteronomistic) - he makes sacrifices, but is clearly not a priest. Also, what the

that a short prose fable was later bulked out by the insertion of a literary masterpiece.

But if the fable was already seen as being important/ significant, I can see that happening.

(The bottom line, though, is that dating any bit of the OT is a really difficult game, and most of the dates are remarkably flaky).
(Anonymous)
Jun. 2nd, 2012 02:06 am (UTC)
You have misread Job.

Job condemns God as amoral. His friends are horrified, and insist that God rewards the good and punishes the evil. God responds by threatening Job for condemning God. Then he offers to reward Job for speaking truth, and to punish Job's friends for speaking falsely. The clear implication is that Job was right to describe God as amoral, but wrong to condemn God for his amorality. No other interpretation makes sense of the entirety of the text.

"briefly given voice to speak to someone who foolishly thought they knew what was going on in the world."

It is the explicit narrative position of the Book of Job that Job did, in fact, know EXACTLY what was going on in the world. The literal voice of God validates it. There was no bigger picture that Job was missing. There was a bigger person, who could enforce his amoral power with violence.
nwhyte
Jun. 2nd, 2012 07:48 am (UTC)
Thank you for starting this anonymous comment so rudely. It meant I did not have to read the rest of it.
pecunium
Jun. 11th, 2012 03:11 am (UTC)
You're daft. That's a common interpretation of Job, but irreconcilable with the rest of the canonic books of either tradition. The various sense of the loving aspects of God are too important to both traditions for a dialogue about the amorality of God to be a central text.
nwhyte
Jun. 11th, 2012 11:47 am (UTC)
Cheers. Though I fear you are wasting your time; the drive-by anonymous commenters rarely stick around for feedback.
pecunium
Jun. 12th, 2012 01:12 am (UTC)
I know, but someone who doesn't have the context might read, and be convinced to a moderate level of doubts. Like the mustard seed it can grow.
(Anonymous)
Jun. 2nd, 2012 03:45 am (UTC)
It's really hard to ignore the frame, though. And except for the cartoonish ending, the frame has a purpose - the reader goes into it knowing that not only is Job afflicted without knowing why, there really isn't a why. It's not that something bad happened to him because he was nasty or did the wrong stuff or.... this dropped on him for no good reason at all. It happens, and it can keep the reader involved.
nwhyte
Jun. 2nd, 2012 07:54 am (UTC)
I think you're right that the frame is difficult to ignore, and also that it's fundamentally important that there is no good reason for what has happened to job. But I feel that the opening chapters undermine that crucial foundation of the narrative, by personalising the cause of Job's suffering to a wager between God and Satan. That actually does deliver a reason for the suffering, and not a very good one; I imagine that today's non-Christian readers will tend to get stuck at that point and not move on.
etv13
Jun. 4th, 2012 10:39 am (UTC)
"Get stuck" is a little patronizing in itself. the Old Testament god behaves badly in Job, just as he does in many parts of the Old Testament (do you treat your disobedient children the way he treats Adam and Eve? I hope not.). The Book of Job suggests that the only reason to worship god is the naked fear of his power. To me and many other nonbelievers, that is not a good reason. It is not about getting stuck on the (atrocious) wager. It is far, far more fundamental than that.
nwhyte
Jun. 4th, 2012 12:01 pm (UTC)
I'm sorry that the phrase "get stuck" caused offence; my criticism was intended to be of the text, not the reader, and while I don't agree with your reading I can certainly see how you got there.
( 17 comments — Leave a comment )

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