Job is one of the oddest books in the Bible — odd in a scary way, in an unsettling way, in a faith-shaking way.
Job is a rich man who is a devout believer in God. But, up in heaven, one of the multitudes in attendance to the Most High — a being called a “satan” (an adversary, a kind of prosecuting attorney) who, in many interpretations, is identified as the Satan — tells the Lord that Job is only devout because he’s received so many blessings.
This satan argues that Job will curse the Lord if he loses his blessings, so, as a test, God gives the satan permission to afflict the faithful follower in any way, except taking his life. So, the satan kills all of Job’s children and wipes away his wealth. Job responds:
“The Lord has given, and the Lord takes away.”
Then, the satan inflicts a terrible disease upon Job. But still the man remains steadfast in his faith in God.
Then, a new worse affliction arrives — three friends who, in their turn, tell Job that he must be a great sinner to have suffered so much at God’s hand. Job, knowing his innocence, complains to God about his treatment, raising pointed questions about why God treats a good man in such a way. But he stops short of cursing the Lord. Instead, he curses the day he was born.
Ignoring the questions — or maybe not — God responds “from the whirlwind,” telling Job that he doesn’t and can’t understand a Being who could create the world in all its array and beauty and complexity. In some way, with words that are knotty and difficult to translate and hard to understand, Job concedes.
God turns to the friends and tells them they have spoken falsely, unlike Job. At God’s command, the friends prepare sacrifices for Job to carry out. His wealth is restored. He is given a new family of new children, and, according to the story, he is happy the rest of his life.
The book of Job is a great work of world literature, and its greatness lies in its open-eyed inquiry into the problem of the suffering of the innocent and the existence of evil.
It is distinctive in its willingness to present a full panoply of arguments and perspectives about these problems, and, most of all, it is ever-challenging in its refusal to provide a resolution.
Through the words of Job and others, including God, the book raises questions that are not answered. They have no answer, really, although, over the past two and a half millennia, interpreters have tried to find one. According to Mark Larrimore, a religious studies professor:
In its jarring polyphony and in its silences, the book of Job speaks to and for the broken. In its protagonist’s persistence, it speaks of hope even in the depths of despair. In its unfinalizability, it offers a shared project for sufferers and witnesses, and an outline of a community of care.
Butterflies and mice
Larrimore’s 2013 work The Book of Job: A Biography is an energetic and accessibly erudite examination of the many ways this ancient text has been analyzed and comprehended down the centuries. It’s a journey that hears from some of the greatest theologians and thinkers throughout that time — from the great 12th century Jewish teacher Maimonides to St. Thomas Aquinas, from Calvin to Chaucer, from Kafka to Petrarch, from Kant to Luther.
Prior to the Enlightenment, those attempting to tease out the meanings in Job existed in a world in which belief in God was as real and omnipresent (and undeniable) as air. This limited the latitude that readers of the book had in evaluating the man Job and the way he reacts in the face of God’s actions or non-actions. Larrimore writes:
“[Twentieth-century philosopher] Simone Weil, one of the profoundest articulators of the depth of premodern understandings, put it well. Job is not a free agent but ‘struggles like a butterfly pinned alive in an album.’ Being ‘nailed down to the spot, only free to choose which way we look,’ may, however, teach us about our ultimate situation. We may find that we are ‘nailed to the center of the universe.’ ”
In 1714, Alexander Pope addressed Job and the question of innocent suffering in a long poem in which, Larrimore writes, he included lines that were “a kind of shooting the moon in answer to the problem of evil.” Those lines were:
“And, spite of Pride and erring Reason’s spite,
One truth is, ‘Whatever IS, is RIGHT.”
Forty-five years later, Voltaire wasn’t buying such optimism. The characters in his novel Candide go through great sufferings, and it’s up to an ill-tempered Muslim ascetic to provide the closest thing to an answer:
“What difference does it make…if there is good or evil? When His Highness sends a ship to Egypt, does he worry about whether or not the mice are comfortable on board?”
“A licensed way to grieve”
The book of Job is rich, mysterious and seemingly contradictory. Part of it (the introduction and conclusion) is prose, and the rest (the meaty center) is poetry.
Although the book is included in the Jewish Bible, most interpreters believe that Job isn’t a Jew, but a Gentile. The arguments that the friends trot out are in one way or another a lot like the arguments that, down the centuries, religious authorities have offered believers facing human suffering and the presence of evil and the reality of death.
For 2,500 years, people have talked about “the patience of Job.” But most of them probably never read the book, or, at least, beyond the opening and closing prose sections. Even a cursory glance at the poetic core shows Job to be grousing and grumbling and with good reason. He has no idea what’s going on, but he knows he’s no great sinner — despite what his friends tell him.
But, as Larrimore notes, there’s patience, and there’s patience:
[T]he story is more complicated. Job’s words of complaint and protest were rarely taken at face value, it is true, but they were nevertheless heard and contributed to a deeper understanding of patience. All of the book of Job, not just the pious frame story, came to define this virtue…
Job’s explosions of grief show what even the most holy are driven to by pain, loss, and the sense of divine abandonment. Since he was a moral paragon, however, commended by God for speaking rightly, Job’s words show us what response to unmerited affliction is permissible and even appropriate.
Job offers a licensed way to grieve. Submission was one part of it. Rage at misfortune and even at God was another.
“Every mortal soul”
In the Roman Catholic Church, Job is venerated as a saint. Larrimore reports that, since at least in the fourth century, pilgrimages have been conducted to the supposed location of his tomb — or, more correctly, locations since several places claim the honor. One even has relics of petrified worms, supposedly from Job’s diseased wounds.
From as early as the second century A.D., Job was made “a central voice of the Christian burial liturgy” through the Matins of the Burial of the Dead, part of the Liturgy of the Hours, also called the Office.
But, here, it’s not the Job of the framing prose story. That Job’s excluded. Instead, it’s the questioning, the confused, the overwhelmed Job — the one who feels abandoned. Verses from Job’s words to God — “Job’s darkest and most powerful words” — are interwoven with similarly focused excerpts from the Psalms. Larrimore writes:
The interplay of Job’s and David’s words and those of the congregation performs a kind of community theater. Job speaks for the deceased.
When he…says, “I know that my redeemer lives,” it suggests that the faith the believer takes…into death will be vindicated. But Job’s voice, especially as echoed and amplified by David’s, is also the voice of every mortal soul facing death.
The theatrical quality of this event suggests that we may need each other to keep ourselves from despair.
“Treating anguish with anguish”
Although this ritual was in use throughout nearly the entire history of Christianity, Larrimore reports that most of it has been dropped, relatively recently, from the rituals of the Catholic Church.
This is a sad fact to learn more than halfway through The Book of Job: A Biography because Larrimore mentions it after making a passionate analysis of the spiritual and emotional value to the burial liturgy as it was. He writes:
The Office of the Dead is strong medicine, treating anguish with anguish. It acknowledges that a sense of abandonment is part of the relationship with a transcendent God, and that the apparent injustice of God’s mysterious ways may make it seem better never to have been born.
It does more than acknowledge these reactions. It authorizes them.
The impassioned passages from the Book of Job kept alive in the Office of the Dead offer language for our own grief and confusion and despair, which it lets us express at once in the bitterness of our soul and in blessed community.
Wailing in pain, keening with sadness, complaining in the face of affliction — that’s OK. God can handle it. Each of us, alone and in community, feel all this confusion and all of this suffering, and we don’t have the answers. There are no answers that we can understand.
That’s the message — the hard lesson, the blessed comfort — of the book of Job.
Patrick T. Reardon