Why start with Job? Because this magnificent and
harrowing story encapsulates the questions of all the ages, those for which man
has never to this day found an answer, nor will he ever find one, but he will
always search for it because he needs it in order to live, to understand
himself and the world. Job is the just man oppressed by injustice…
The Wife of Anguish
The story of the just man oppressed by injustice has been written for
as long as we have known writing.
“What I know does not come out right with me… The truth which I speak
has been turned into a lie… When I go into the house I despair. When I go into
the street… Food is all about, yet my food is hunger. When the shares were
allotted… my share was suffering...”
This is from the Sumerian text “A Man and his God”, dating from around
2000BC. The man of the tale is a proto-Job, proclaiming his innocence and
lamenting the treatment he receives at the hands of God and man. At the
conclusion, God answers the man and removes from him “the anguish that had
embraced him, though he was not its wife.”
The Book of Job, known in its present form since at least the 3rd century BC is of course a religious text but is also one of the greatest works
of world literature, deserving to be read by the irreligious as much as the
believer. Even in translation, the eloquence and power of the language has
influenced language itself. Much ink has been spilled over Job, which has
become one of the fundamental texts of the Western intellectual tradition. I
make no apologies if this essay seems at times a patchwork of quotation.
Critical commentary on the poem constitutes a vast literature in its own right,
the ‘problem of evil’ straddling religion and philosophy.
The provenance of the book remains a topic of debate. Rabbinical
scholarship sometimes considers Job a historical character. According to
Maimonides however, the book is a fiction to illustrate our perception and
experience of providence. Job is “the man in the land of Uz” and as well as
being a proper noun, the Hebrew word ‘Uz’ is the imperative of the verb meaning
‘to take advice’. This, says Maimonides, is an exhortation to study the tale
The tale is well known. Job the upright, the subject of a wager between
God and Satan, is set upon and assailed. His servants are killed, then his
livestock, then his children. Sardonically and ever an acute judge of human
character, the Devil lets Job’s wife live, appreciating perhaps that she will
only add to his torment. Job’s response to catastrophe is predictably pious –
“the LORD gave and the LORD hath taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD.”
Unsatisfied, Satan asks to go further.
And the LORD said unto
Satan, Behold, he is in thine hand; but save his life.
So Job is left without even the dignity of his own skin, smitten with
running sores and boils from toe to crown. As Slavoj Zizek puts it in his
inimitable style, “Job get screw up.” Finally broken, sitting in ashes scraping
himself with a potsherd, Job laments bitterly. He does not quite, as his wife
kindly suggests, “curse God and die” though he curses his own birth and all
Job’s indictment is one of the most powerful in all literature, filling
page after page and giving rise to some of the best-known passages of the book (“Man
that is born of a woman is of few days and full of trouble…”). Death is better
than life says Job and best of all were to never have been born.
Friends like these
Enter Job’s friends : Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar. They upbraid Job for
his temerity in complaining of God and offer consolations that neatly cover the
classical theodicies :
Eliphaz, sticking the boot in, holds that God is just and that Job’s
misfortunes must be the result of some hidden sin : “Is not thy wickedness
great, and thine iniquities infinite?”
Bildad also contends that there is justice and promises God will reward
Job for his patience through any troubles and misfortunes that he suffers.
Zophar adopts the position that God’s ways are mysterious and His will
unquestionable, though indubitably stemming from deep and secret wisdom.
A fourth friend, Elihu seemingly offers his personal blend of the
previous positions with little new. Maimonides extracts a tortuous point about
references to nature but scholars largely believe Elihu to be a later
interpolation – as evidenced by the fact that he is not mentioned in the
epilogue where God speaks only of Job and the three friends.
All theodicy is furiously rebutted by Job who calls his interlocutors
“miserable comforters”, “forgers of lies”, “physicians of no value” and insists
that he is not wicked, that future reward or punishment does not justify
present evil, that there is no afterlife and that mysterious or not :
speak to the Almighty, and I desire to reason with God.
Sound and fury
Then the LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind,
Who is this that
darkeneth counsel by words without knowledge?
Here He is, in Job 38. God Himself. Come down perhaps to
defend Himself, to answer Job’s questions, to comfort him, to explain the
nature of divine justice? Nothing of the sort. He turns the tables :
Gird up now thy loins like a man; for
I will demand of thee, and answer thou me.
The following passages are astonishing in their thunder. God
does not answer, but in response to Job He launches a series of unanswerable
questions of His own :
Where wast thou when I laid the
foundations of the earth?
and on, listing wonder after wonder, spectacle after spectacle,
creature after creature. “Hath the rain a father?” “Out of whose womb came the
ice?” “Hath thou given the horse strength?” “Doth the eagle mount up at thy
command?” What can Job respond under this sarcastic onslaught? All he can get
out is :
Behold, I am vile; what
shall I answer thee? I will lay mine hand upon my mouth.
God’s answer is like the silence of no answer but louder, silence
roared at cosmic volume. He speaks again and this time of the most terrifying
of His creation. The brute violence of fate admits no questioning; it is as
insensible, inscrutable and irresistible as God’s monsters - Leviathan in the
sea and Behemoth on the land.
So Job repents… and lives happily ever after I guess.
What are we to make of God’s extraordinary tirade? A number
of positions have been taken. Inevitably any attempt to rationalise God’s
behaviour slips into the groove of the theodicies offered by Job’s comforters.
Some have taken the position of
Eliphaz the Temanite : that
Job had some hidden sin which God punished and that Job is described as
and upright retrospectively - after his repentance. Others walk with
Shuhite, emphasising the transient vanity of this world and the eternal
of the hereafter (for the last few centuries at least, few people have
claimed that God giving Job new, prettier children makes up for
allowing the first ones to be killed). Yet others join the party of
Zophar the Namaathite : His ways
are mysterious but surely follow some secret wisdom. Immanuel Kant
ends up plonking for this opinion in his essay on Job, which is said to
the end of theodicy.
There is of course a brilliant twist to the Job tale. God
rebukes His defenders, Job’s friends :
…the LORD said to Eliphaz the
Temanite, My wrath is kindled against thee, and against thy two friends: for ye
have not spoken of me the thing that is right, as my servant Job hath.
God crushes Job but He never calls him wrong and here He
seems to vindicate him. Again, baffling and making a nonsense of many orthodox
positions. God does not say that He is right or just, He simply shows He is mightier than Job.
In her excellent study of the problem of evil, Susan Neiman
divides the last 250 yeas into two paths : “The one, from Rousseau to
Arendt, insists that morality demands that we make evil intelligible. The
other, from Voltaire to Jean Améry, insists that morality demands that we
don’t.” Rousseau and Voltaire wrote on the Lisbon earthquake of 1755; Arendt
and Améry wrote on the Holocaust. God’s morality in the book of Job does not
trouble itself to make evil intelligible to us; one conclusion we could draw is
that it will remain forever unintelligible.
“Sometime during the Enlightenment,” Neiman says,
“commentators stopped looking for ways in which Job’s torments could be
justified… Earlier writers identified with Job’s friends, the theodicy-makers
who found justification. Later ones identified with Job, who found none.”
Writers in a less reverential age indeed openly proclaim
Job’s moral and intellectual superiority over God in the tale. Among the most
indignant is the psychoanalyst Carl Jung. To Jung, the Job story is “an unvarnished
spectacle of divine savagery and ruthlessness.” In his view, God is amoral - a
psychopath and a thug whose terrorising answer amounts to the gangster’s ‘and what are you
going to do about it?’ In Jungian mysticism, God’s identity is revealed in
Job as something between unconscious force and Abraxas. Though not as strident as
Jung, G. K. Chesterton bends his mind into koan-like assertions in his essay on
Job, on God’s apparent amorality. “For a moment,” he says, “God is almost an
Answers on a postcard
There’s a great scene in Woody Allen’s film, Manhattan in which he
gazes at his implausibly beautiful girlfriend and says half-jokingly, “You’re
God’s answer to Job… God would say ‘I may do a lot of terrible things but I can
also make one of these’ and Job would have to say ‘you’re right.’”
It’s a corny gag and doesn’t stand to reason but there’s
some sort of point behind it. As Primo Levi, atheist and survivor of Auschwitz notes :
there is no answer to the questions the Book of Job raises and there never will
be. But knowing this doesn’t stop us, as human beings, from going out and
trying to find our own anyway.
The Book of Job (
King James Version)
Primo Levi, The
Search for Roots
- Jeremy Black et al., The Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian
Susan Neiman, Evil in
Carl Gustav Jung, Answer
GK Chesterton, An
Introduction to the Book of Job (online)
Moses Maimonides The
Guide for the Perplexed (Book III
Immanuel Kant, On the
miscarriage of all philosophical trials in theodicy
Slavoj Zizek, Theology
and Materialism, (online)