The Book of Job

The Story of Job is probably from around the 5th Century BC, taking narrative shape gradually. There is some talk of the difficulty of governing Israel at that time, a mysterious split in political factions, which perhaps helps to explain the strange portrayal of God.

Let's look at a few different readings. First of all, many people understand the Book of Job to be about a person's willingness to remain faithful to God in the face of enormous suffering. This particular perspective engenders phrases like "The Patience of Job" and "Job is pious."

Other people say that the text is altogether confusing, especially the dialogue between Job and his three supposed friends, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar. . W. W. Norton and Company , the creators of our anthology of World Masterpeices, must be in partial agreement here for they recently omitted much of the conversation between Job and these men. In this case we focus, then, on specific parts of the text. We may choose, for instance, to analyze powerful images within the text like God as a whirlwind.

We could even consider Job as a rebel against God; the hero questions the very tenor of religious doctrine. This approach seems contrary to the first reading. What does all this mean exactly?

Well, Job's traditional world view is shattered; he speculates that God punishes him without cause. He knows he is righteous but god allows, even prompts, Satan to destroy his happiness, his family, his health. Job must face another horror. Things may happen to you for absolutely no reason--the doctrine of retribution no longer applies. His world collapses around him, so he attempts to come to terms with the enigma of the cosmos without understanding the dimensions of that reality.

Okay. What does this mean? The life of Job is still a worthy subject for Hollywood. In the last decade of the twentieth century, the computer hacker and master mind plays God (for an enormous fee) in the 1997 motion picture The Game. This story is analogous to the plight of the Job, a character now played by Michael Douglass. He doesn't understand the forces affecting his life. He doesn't know that his brother is giving him a gift.

Look at Chapter 9--Job says he is abandoned by God (9:11). In 9:17 Jobs says, "He breaketh me with a tempest and multiplieth my wounds without cause."

At this moment in the story the dramatic irony comes crashing down on the house, as we know that Job finally knows what we know from the beginning. That is, God destroys him without cause (Job 2:3). It is a wager with Satan. This is where things get interesting. In real life the wicked prosper and the innocent get snuffed out (Abel is an archetypal prototype). Stories that say otherwise make a mockery of human experience. Life is not fair. Perhaps this belief about God suggests that we must affirm all of life, the good and the bad. In the final book of the Iliad, Achilles tells King Priam that two great urns rest at the feet of Zeus--one contains human blessings while the other contains misery. From these two urns, Zeus mixes the gifts for man, now misfortune, now good times in turn. This is the truth of life. This is Job's new knowledge.

Stories repeat this truth century after century. For instance, Danny Glover says to Kevin Kline in the film Grand Canyon (1991), "Life is a mixture of good and bad and one thing is for sure, all of us are going to be around long enough to see plenty of the bad in one way or another." In the autobiography This House of Sky, Ivan Doig writes: "my father was simply in the mood to accept that life is fatal to us all, one way or another."

In the beginning of the story of Job, Satan tells God that there is a hedge around Job. Satan's claims that Job is a spoiled favorite and follows God because he is bribed to do so. Satan claims that Job would quickly abandon God if things changed. Some scholar or psychologist, I cannot remember who, said that Satan was the first great behaviorist. According to him, Job is conditioned to love God. It is this hedge that, in the narrative, falls away from Job; in Chapter 9, he is no longer insulated from the harsh and arbitrary ways of life.

The Book of Job is a different kind of telling, the story we live instead of the story we say we are living. It is essentially different than what we intend to say when we open our mouths to speak. If we want to get anything out of the story, then, we have to close our eyes to all the usual interpretations of events, close our eyes to the dogmas that surround us and the false accusations of our peers. We think we know how things work and what they mean, but this story says otherwise. How does Job remain a hero? He penetrates rational explanations, gets past the accusations of his three friends, and remains true to himself. He holds will and understanding in balance in a world where meaning is not limited to human categories and where the laws of imagination have dominance.

The problem is that we want to believe that the choices we make count. That if we are righteous and do the right thing, we may ask God to change our situation or circumstance. Make me wealthy. If only I had money then I could believe in God's justice. Or if my father hadn't died on the operating table, or if my beautiful child had not perished in a senseless accident, then I could believe. Then I could have faith. In the Book of Job, personal desire cannot determine consciousness. Compassion for life is not always logical and cannot be explained by our notions of cause and effect.

From "A Masque of Reason" by Robert Frost

God. Oh, I remember well: you're Job, my Patient.
How are you now? I trust you're quite recovered,
And feel no ill effects from what I gave you.

Job. Gave me in truth: I like the frank admission.
I am a name for being put upon.

--lines 34-38

God. I've had you on my mind a thousand years
To thank you someday for the way you helped me
Establish once for all the principle
There's no connection man can reason out
Between his just deserts and what he gets.

Too long I've owed you this apology
For the apparently unmeaning sorrow
You were afflicted with in those old days.
But it was of the essence of the trial
You shouldn't understand it at the time.
It had to seem unmeaning to have meaning.
And it came out all right. I have no doubt
You realize by now the part you played
To stultify the Deuteronomist
And change the tenor of religious thought.
My thanks are to you for releasing me
From moral bondage to the human race.
The only free will at first was man's,
Who could do good or evil as he chose.
I had no choice but must follow him
With forfeits and rewards he understood--
Unless I liked to suffer loss of worship.
I had to prosper good and punish evil.
You changed all that. You set me free to reign.
You are the Emancipator of your God,
And as such I promote you to a saint.

---lines 47-51 and 59-79.