On The Book of Job (1)

I have divided this exploration into two parts. Below is the first part which introduces the themes of repentance and theodicy. Part II will treat the concept of conversion more thoroughly. I have previously considered The Book of Job in a lecture that is available here.

The story of Job is at once ancient and immediate to us. Thousands of years divide us from the primeval setting of this story, and yet we encounter its strange protagonist with a sense of intimate familiarity. We may even see our own likeness in Job and his trials—who has not had his faith tested in the furnaces of hardship? Unlike the brawny and heroic figures that Homer presents in the likes of Achilles and Odysseus, The Book of Job puts on display all of the frailty of the human condition. And yet, Job also shows us the manner in which these trials by fire may become more than mere sources of suffering or woe. Instead, they can become catalysts for inner transformation. The same forge that melts the iron may also temper it. Indeed, transformation implies a dissolution of a prior form as a condition to establish the new one. 

I wish to briefly explore The Book of Job as something like a roadmap of “repentance.” Just like the story itself, the word “repentance” conceals its true meaning by appearing as such. Often “repentance” evokes associations with “regret” and “remorse.” Thus the significance of the term is hid under the bushel of a familiar word. But “repentance” is an esoteric name for an inner transformation. It may be conceived as  “intellectual conversion,” or “revolution of the spirit,” or “turning about of the heart,” or “going beyond the mind,” etc. “Repentance” appears as a conventional translation of the very expressive Greek term metanoia (μετάνοια, μετά- “above,” “about,” “over,” “after” + νοια “mind,” “intellect,” “spirit”), which evokes the image of interior conversion. Thus, The Book of Job is a manual of metanoia

Conventional interpretations of The Book of Job have tended to lay emphasis on the literal and theological dimensions of the text. More specifically, the story of Job is interpreted as the depiction of a righteous man, which others may emulate. The Epistle of James, for instance, affirms that “we count them happy which endure” and then puts forth Job as an exemplar: “Ye have heard of the patience of Job.” (James 5:11) Job is confronted with a trial that tests his faith. He overcomes the trial and God compensates him for his trouble: “also the LORD gave Job twice as much as he had before.” (Job 42:10) In this way, the story may serve to incentivise taking Job as a role model for the sake of guaranteeing a reward for ourselves. Interpreted in this way, the story may also seem to affirm the very principle of cosmic justice or karma that God’s speech from the whirlwind in the climax of the narrative nominally appeared to contradict. This is as awkward a reading as it is common, however, because not only do God’s deeds and testimony call into question that the world that he created and seems to minister is fair, but Job’s own speeches hardly strike one as the words of a paragon of unwavering faith and stoic endurance. If anything, The Book of Job recounts how Job’s stoicism is dashed on the rocks of anguish. “Naked came I out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return thither: the LORD giveth, the LORD taketh away, blessed be the name of the LORD” (1:21) gives way to a jeremiad two chapters later; like a dam that is burst by torrents of woe. Job begins his lament by cursing the day he was born, (3:3) and over the course of his replies, repeatedly accuses God of injustice (10:1-7, 12:6, etc.), demanding that God give an account and defence of his persecution, though at the same time affirming that God is unbeholden to this demand, “For he is not a man, as I am, that I might answer him, that we should come to trial together.” (9:32) Suffice it to say that these statements hardly resemble the virtues that we typically ascribe to Job. At the same time, Job also seems to possess the mustard-seed of redemptive faith: “For I know that my redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth: And though after my skin worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God.” (Job 19:25-26)

Job’s words are prophetic in the context of the narrative since he foretells his encounter with God at the end of the text. They are also prophetic in the context of the revelation of the New Testament since they affirm Jesus’ assertion that “…he that hath, to him shall be given: and he that hath not, from him shall be taken even that which he hath.” (Matthew 4:25) Still, Job’s soul is by no measure unanimous in the conviction of its eventual salvation and indeed, the bulk of the narrative concerns itself with Job’s trials and Job’s doubt and not his faith. Perceiving this discrepancy is what led me to inquire further into the meaning of the story of Job, and I will present some conclusions later in this exploration. First, however, I wish to touch on another theme that is conventionally coupled with this ancient text. This is of course the problem of evil, or theodicy.

The Greek philosopher Epicurus offered among the most concise articulations of this basic challenge to classical monotheistic worldviews: 

Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. 

Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. 

Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? 

Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?

 

 

The interlocutors in The Book of Job pose a similar dilemma. If God is just, and if Job is pious, why then does Job suffer? Eliphas, Bildad, and Zophar affirm the antecedent as an axiom and are forced to deny Job’s piety “Doth God pervert judgment? or doth the Almighty pervert justice?” (8:3)

Should thy lies make men hold their peace? and when thou mockest, shall no man make thee ashamed? For thou hast said, My doctrine is pure, and I am clean in thine eyes. But oh that God would speak, and open his lips against thee; And that he would shew thee the secrets of wisdom, that they are double to that which is! Know therefore that God exacteth of thee less than thine iniquity deserveth. (11:3-6)

Job, by contrast, retains unfaltering conviction of his own innocence and as a result doubts that God has dealt justly with him. For this reason, he demands that God give an account for the reason of his afflictions. As I noted above, the true object of Job’s faith appears to be in his own lack of sin and not in God’s fairness. “Thou knowest that I am not wicked; and there is none that can deliver out of thine hand” (10:7), “Behold now, I have prepared my case; I know that I will be vindicated” (13:18) while “The tabernacles of robbers prosper, and they that provoke God are secure; into whose hand God bringeth abundantly.” (12:6) 

How does The Book of Job seem to answer the challenge of theodicy? Hearkening to Epicurus’ formulation above: God certainly seems able to prevent evil by refusing to oblige Satan’s request following their reciprocal provocation of one another. A brief note on the character of Satan is in order before continuing on the question of theodicy. Satan (שָּׂטָן‎) seems to us to be a proper noun. But to the Hebrew reader, it was also a title. Indeed most proper names trace their origins to titles. Satan translates roughly as “the accuser” or “the adversary.” Thus Satan appears as a divine prosecutor who indicts Job in the heavenly tribunal. Ironically, the defendant of this process imagines he will put God on trial. This metaphor poses the question, however, of whether there is an advocate for Job, especially since God does not seem especially inclined to engage in the disputations of his own courtroom. Instead, his answer from the whirlwind is more akin to “turning the tables on the money changers” than entering into any kind of reasoned argument. In Job’s case, he himself must serve the role of playing his own advocate against the accusations of his friends, who in their prosecution, appear to channel Satan. In The New Testament, however, Jesus seems to proclaim an addition to the divine tribunal: “But when the Advocate is come, whom I will send unto you from the Father, even the Spirit of truth, which proceedeth from the Father, he shall testify of me” (John 15:26). “Advocate,” or “Comforter,” as the King James Version has it, is a translation of the Greek word Paraclete or Parakleitos (Παράκλητος). The word is sometimes translated as “intercessor.” In any case, it presents a clear picture of a spirit who raises his voice against Satan to speak in defense of the accused. Here I am tempted to inquire into the nature of the Paraclete, the Third Person of the Trinity in more detail, but I will refrain and save such an exploration for another time. 

Returning to the theme of theodicy: it must be affirmed that God does not prevent evil, and yet this alone does not make him malevolent. Indeed, The Book of Job ultimately makes Epicurus’ syllogism look like so much straw before the whirlwind of theophany. Paul articulates the situation very concisely in his first letter to the Church of Corinth: “For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God. For it is written, He taketh the wise in their own craftiness.” (1:21) He adds by way of explanation that “the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.” (2:14) The categories of good and evil seem like maps that do not fit the territory of divine initiative. The actions of God can only appear incomprehensible from the perspective of our conventional logic and its facile contrarieties. Again, I believe that the revelation of the New Testament serves to clarify this enigma in the Old. Thus Jesus’ response to his disciples in John 9 speaks in answer to Job as well as his own immediate audience: 

And as Jesus passed by, he saw a man which was blind from his birth. And his disciples asked him, saying, Master, who did sin, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind? Jesus answered, Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents: but that the works of God should be made manifest in him. (9:1-3) 


Jesus always upends our hermeneutical complacency that tries to get at the truth by way of literalness or dogmatism. Jesus’ counterposition against the Pharisees and Sadducees in the Gospel accounts is an allegory of the truth poised between outward appearance on one hand and strict adherence to ritual and tradition on the other. Job also seems to find himself between two influences: his wife, who enjoins him to “curse God and die,” (Job 2:9), and his three friends who axiomatically affirm God’s benevolence and thus conclude a priori that Job must have sinned.

The Book of Job does not offer facile or trivial answers to the mighty questions that it poses. Still, in respect to the problem of theodicy, it seems possible to conclude that to imagine God as a transcendent “scorekeeper” in wrong. This is partly because God’s character as he reveals it at the end of The Book of Job (and further in the New Testament) prevents this conclusion. More importantly, however, the story of Job seems to demonstrate that even if God were such a scorekeeper, mortals would not be able to understand what counts in his tally. When it is suggested that Job’s suffering was all for nothing, or that he was ultimately compensated when God returned all of his wealth twofold, this misses the most essential points. First, Job’s suffering was a crucible for his interior transformation. It is written that “God is a consuming fire.” Fire is a sensible manifestation of transformation and thus the metaphor is fitting as it applies to Job, since Job at the beginning of the narrative is not the same as Job at its end. Second, to suggest that Job’s suffering was either senseless or outwardly compensated ignores that typological nature of myth. Wealth is a symbol for value. By itself it is just an arbitrary datum. Job’s reward was to converse with God in the rubedo of his spiritual conversion. This leads me to the theme that was my true inspiration for this essay. Namely, to explore the concept of metanoia in The Book of Job. Specifically, I believe the narrative may be read as a map of sorts that describes the process of interior transformation.

Part II will follow.

Illustration to Book of Job - William Blake - WikiArt.org
Illustration to The Book of Job by William Blake (1821) 

 

4 Comments Add yours

  1. Isn’t that an interesting name: “Job.”

    Like

    1. Max Leyf says:

      “Infinite Warrior” is not so bland either.

      Like

  2. it seems possible to conclude that to imagine God as a transcendent “scorekeeper” is wrong

    As is the notion that the story of Job is all about a gambling bet made between God and Satan as to whether Job would cave.

    Yes. Believe it or not, that “interpretation” is in circulation. (And where people get this stuff is quite beyond me.) Seen in a much different light than a game of chance, it might actually make some modicum of sense, but certainly not otherwise.

    Essence is emptiness.
    Everything else, accidental.

    Emptiness brings peace to loving.
    Everything else, disease.

    In this world of trickery
    emptiness is what your soul wants.

    — Illuminated Rumi, translated by Coleman Barks

    Liked by 1 person

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