Tuesday, September 1, 2009

The Book of Job

Job is my favorite Old Testament book, but it’s a downer. Not that it doesn’t have its touches of Jewish humor, understated and vicious, though neither Job nor any of the other characters are Jews, and the book is supposedly of Sumerian (not Hebrew) origin.

It’s rather amazing that it ended up in the Jewish scriptures (Tanakh) at all, back when rabbis collected and canonized them, sometime between 200 BCE and 200 CE. For one, it depicts God and Satan as old pals—with what amounts to a sadistic running bet about how much pain and misery righteous Job can bear before he starts cursing God.

Of course, some Bible commentators argue that “Satan” in the Book of Job is not the devil at all—some other Satan perhaps (the name refers to a position—“adversary” or “prosecutor”). Even so, the book pictures God involved in—or at the very least giving his consent to—some awfully mean behavior, all to make a point or two to this guy Satan, whoever he is.

No doubt many of these same commentators believe that the serpent that tempts Adam and Eve in Genesis is the devil, though the story (as actually written) never identifies the snake with the devil at all—and, in fact, the serpent isn’t even deceptive: he asks a straightforward question of Eve regarding God’s commandment and then states a fact about the forbidden fruit that even the Lord God himself confirms as true by the chapter’s end. It’s not even clear in the story what exactly the serpent does wrong to deserve having his legs taken away.

But my point to the bible commentators is that you can’t just go picking and choosing your fundamentalisms—claiming to believe the literal truth of the bible and then saying that somebody called Satan in the bible is not actually Satan but that a talking snake that the bible never identifies as Satan is.

What is more, we see in the Book of Job that God tends to backpedal in his position on Job's fate with this Satan fellow. At first, he’s cool with Satan’s destroying all Job’s children, servants, and property but forbids him from bodily touching Job himself. Then after Job takes all this abuse, hardly flinching and not once blaming God (who is, after all, to blame—read the fucking story—it’s all right there in Chapter One!), the Lord God agrees to let Job be smitten with painful boils from the crown of his head to the soles of his feet. Nice God!

The next amazing aspect of the story is the part when Job’s three friends Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar come to visit Job, ostensibly to commiserate and offer some comfort.

Some comfort!

All three blame Job for his troubles—arguing that God does not mistreat the righteous, that Job’s hard times are at least partial evidence that Job must have done something wrong (whether he remembers it or not), and that if Job will only repent and turn to God, God will save him. In other words, they say pretty much exactly what everybody who knocks on my door with a bible in his hands tells me … and Job just laughs them off, making fun of their pious self-righteousness (“Surely ye are the people and wisdom will die with you!”—sarcasm) … moreover, when God finally does show up to speak for himself, he agrees with Job, not his judgmental friends.

Job’s message is basically this:

… that if you are living a life of misery, it is better had you never been born. In fact, miscarriages are luckier than people who have to live with constant grief and pain.

… that nobody can argue with God because an argument can occur only between two equals, and nobody is equal to God.

… that trees have it better than human beings, because if you chop down a tree, at least there’s hope that it can sprout up again and grow back, but human beings, once they’re dead, are just dead, finito, no after life to speak of. (Job 14:12)

… that a human being cannot even fully understand nature, so it’s a little bit presumptuous to pretend that you understand the mind of nature’s creator. (When he shows up, God gets in a zinger by asking Job’s pious friends exactly what part of the universe they had a hand in slapping together.)

… that you are born naked and property-less, so it’s kind of hard to justify that losing everything you’ve gained over a lifetime constitutes a real injustice.

… that animals don’t fret about the future or miss the good old days—when bad things happen to animals, they whine for a while and then just buck up and deal with the present realities—which, the Book of Job suggests, is God’s plan for human beings too. (God even tells Job to get up on his feet—that “thine own right hand can save thee” (Job 40:14, KJV).

… that man is in no position to state whether God and his actions are good or evil—God is just that much bigger than humanity! Things are what they are. God controls everything. It’s not man’s place to make judgments or estimations about what God’s up to.

… that apparently even God is an agnostic—or at least likes agnostics more than know-it-alls!

In the end, God heals Job, and manages to restore Job’s previous wealth two times over, largely by having Job’s extended family and friends freely share their wealth with him (Welfare! Socialism!)—he even gives Job new children, possibly even better children than the ones he smites for no good reason 40 chapters earlier.

Interestingly, Job’s (new) daughters are named (Jemima, Kezia, Kerenhappuch—whom, hopefully, everybody just called Keren), but his sons are not (Feminazis! Man-haters!) And all three were quite the babes, the scripture tells us. Could this suggest that Job was written by a woman? I wouldn’t be surprised.

Also, when Job dies (at a ripe old age, we’re told) he leaves inheritances to both his sons and his daughters—a gender-blind egalitarian inclusiveness that was almost unheard of in ancient Jewish society … or, for that matter, in the whole ancient world.

In short, the Book of Job is the perfect book to read aloud to your friends who think they are speaking for God and perceiving his true intentions. And individually bound copies of this book should be sent to every preacher and evangelist with his or her own TV or radio show, too … in hopes that the whole bunch of them will learn just to shut the fuck up already.


  1. This is a brilliant post on a brilliant little book.

    I am actually reading the Bible and books on the Bible lately, and it's for some of the reasons you articulate here...it's more about purging and impossibility...the internal contradictions are what it's all about, I think...and most of the hubris of faith (the televangelists you refer to) comes directly from that inability to accept the internal contradictions and to not judge or pretend understanding...

    But I like your stance here of reading some elements as schtick.

    Everybody else does schtick. Why can't God?

    When the she-bears come out and eat the children for chanting "Go up, go up, thou Baldhead!" why can't God do a Monty Python skit and have bears eat them?

    Maybe God isn't as trapped in the text as humans get. Maybe God has a lot more wiggle room.

    The Bible (for me) is like Beckett's ouevre.

    It's about the impossibility of survival.

    And the survival of impossibility.

    Those twin brothers.

    The Bible is all about the aporia for me.

    I think poets like Jabes and Celan engage these texts with the sort of complexity they require (and the blackest of humor). I actually do find humor in both those writers (generally perceived to be humorless, unlike Beckett) but it took me years to see that humor.

  2. Thanks, William. The bible is full of a lot of cool (and uncool) stuff that nobody talks about ... the kind of stuff even fundamentalists prefer to think is not "literally true."



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