May 31st, 2012


The Book of Job

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.