On The Book of Job (2)

I have divided this exploration into two parts. Below is the second part. The first part is available here. I have previously considered The Book of Job in a lecture that is available here.

At the end of Part I, I set forth the theory that The Book of Job may be read as a map of sorts that describes the territory of metanoia (μετάνοια, μετά- “above,” “about,” “over,” “after” + νοια “mind,” “intellect,” “spirit”). Often translated as “repentance,” metanoia indicates an interior transformation. The transformation at stake can be described as a conversion, a reversal, or a turning-inside-out of the soul. Clearly, such a transformation does not come naturally because we ordinarily expect we can change without ceasing to be what we were before. As a result, we do not change at all except in dreams. Having imagined ourselves to have accomplished such a transformation, we no longer recognise the objective necessity of actually undertaking it. Job, for instance, imagines himself to be a pious and God-fearing man so when misfortune after misfortune is visited upon him, he has no way of responding productively. God appears to corroborate Job’s own estimation of his own virtue in prologue in Heaven, but this might just as easily be interpreted as a deliberate provocation of Satan to the ultimate effect of shaking Job from his complacency and impelling his evolution. [1]

The narrative introduces Job as externally pious:

And it was so, when the days of their feasting were gone about, that Job sent and sanctified them, and rose up early in the morning, and offered burnt offerings according to the number of them all: for Job said, It may be that my sons have sinned, and cursed God in their hearts. Thus did Job continually. (Job 1:4-5)

Together with his obvious piousness, however, is a strange detachment that is evident in Job’s actions.  This is especially manifest in his relationship to others, including God. The fact that Job does not know what his own sons feel in their hearts suggests Job’s alienation. Moreover, that his wife, who also represents his unconscious soul, tells him to “curse God and die” demonstrates Job’s estrangement and inadvertent duplicity. He seems to be enclosed in a kind of shell or chrysalis that closes him off even from his own heart. The metamorphosis of Job demands that the cocoon of perfunctory rites and worship that Job has woven about himself be laid to waste:

…that [he] put away, as concerning your former manner of life, the old man…and put on the new man, that after God hath been created in righteousness and holiness of truth. (Ephesians 4:22-24)

Elihu, the mysterious figure who appears out of nowhere in chapter 36, represents the “new man” that the Apostle Paul would later describe. Elihu’s youth and the fact that he possess the vision to rightly evaluate the hardship that Job has undergone both testify to this identify. 

Before Job’s conversion begins, Job was mechanically pious and resistant to hardship, responding to the death of his sons and daughters with the stoic phrase “the LORD giveth, the LORD taketh away, blessed be the name of the Lord.” (1:21) Job’s transformation begins when “the arrows of the Almighty” (6:4) finally succeed in puncturing Job’s cocoon. The beginning of Job’s initiation is symbolised by the “seven days and seven nights” during which he sat upon the ground in silence in the company of his three friends (2:13). After this time is elapsed, at once the floodgates of Job’s soul burst open and his repressed anguish rushes forth in torrents of lament. His grief is almost entirely self-referential. 

After this opened Job his mouth, and cursed his day. And Job answered and said:
Let the day perish wherein I was born, And the night which said, There is a man-child conceived.
Let that day be darkness; Let not God from above seek for it, Neither let the light shine upon it.
Let darkness and the shadow of death claim it for their own; Let a cloud dwell upon it; Let all that maketh black the day terrify it.
As for that night, let thick darkness seize upon it: Let it not rejoice among the days of the year; Let it not come into the number of the months.
Lo, let that night be barren; Let no joyful voice come therein.
Let them curse it that curse the day, Who are ready to rouse up leviathan.
Let the stars of the twilight thereof be dark: Let it look for light, but have none; Neither let it behold the eyelids of the morning:
Because it shut not up the doors of my mother’s womb, Nor hid trouble from mine eyes.
Why died I not from the womb? Why did I not give up the ghost when my mother bare me?
Why did the knees receive me? Or why the breast, that I should suck? (3:1-12)

Oh that my vexation were but weighed, And all my calamity laid in the balances!
For now it would be heavier than the sand of the seas: Therefore have my words been rash.
For the arrows of the Almighty are within me, The poison whereof my spirit drinketh up: The terrors of God do set themselves in array against me. And to God he can only bemoan his fate (6:2-4)

He nominally addresses his complaints to God and to his friends, and yet clearly fails to communicate with them. This is most apparent in the lack of semantic evolution in the exchange between Job and his three friends. Their exchange is more the aggregate of their respective monologues than any sort of conversation. Job repeatedly bemoans his experience of this fact and naturally scapegoats everyone else for a spiritual opacity that he himself typifies: “wearisome comforters are ye all” (16:2). Do we imagine that Job would have been capable of responding in any other way if the roles were reversed? He is subliminally grieved by his estrangement, and yet casts himself as a victim of forces out of his control. Thus he bemoans God’s decision to divide him from others:

He hath put my brethren far from me, and mine acquaintance are verily estranged from me.
My kinsfolk have failed, and my familiar friends have forgotten me.
They that dwell in mine house, and my maids, count me for a stranger: I am an alien in their sight.
I called my servant, and he gave me no answer; I intreated him with my mouth.
My breath is strange to my wife, though I intreated for the children’s sake of mine own body.
Yea, young children despised me; I arose, and they spake against me.
All my inward friends abhorred me: and they whom I loved are turned against me. (19:13-19)

Indeed, the majority of Job’s speeches consist in lamentation that borders on arraignment against God. Together with the above accusation, Job charges God with being intrusive and heartlessly destructive of human designs (7:17-21), wrothful (9:13; 14:13; 16:9; 19:11), severe (10:13–14), and hostile (16:11–14). 

Gradually, however, traces of a transformation become evident in Job’s plangent speeches. His emphasis begins to shift from lamenting his own miserable fate to enunciations of God’s awesome power. Job begins to acknowledge that, in spite of his ill fortune, he does not have a monopoly on misery. Rather, Job begins at once to accept God’s unfathomable might as well has the fate that he shares with all mortals. These realisations come like “chinks of his cavern,” [2] to quote Blake, that represent a turning point in his initiation:

If I have despised the cause of my man-servant or of my maid-servant, When they contended with me;
If his loins have not blessed me, And if he hath not been warmed with the fleece of my sheep;
If I have lifted up my hand against the fatherless, Because I saw my help in the gate:
Then let my shoulder fall from the shoulder-blade, And mine arm be broken from the bone.
For calamity from God is a terror to me, And by reason of his majesty I can do nothing. (31:13-23)

The appearance of Elihu, “the new man,” follows this final answer from Job. Elihu recasts Job’s suffering as purposeful. The extent of Job’s insight into hardship before the arrival of Elihu was the perception of his own suffering. As a consequence, that God would afflict him with such hardship could only appear arbitrary to Job. The narrative is something of a dramatic irony because the reader is privy to the exchange between God and Satan in the prologue and thus is aware that Job is mistakenly ascribing all causal power to himself to precipitate his circumstances. Job presumes that he himself must have occasioned everything that befalls him when he may merely be the accidental maleficiary of a line of divine causation that he encountered. If a farmer is plowing a field and his plow turns up buried treasure, it is not supposed that the farmer’s decision to plow the field was causally responsible for the treasure being buried there. Instead, the farmer’s decision is part of a discrete causal sequence while it is assumed that there was a separate causal chain responsible for the treasure being buried there. Thus, the farmer’s discovery of the treasure was an accidental convergence of two formerly discrete chains of causation. Job and his friends together make a mistake akin to the person who believes that the farmer’s decision to plow his field was responsible for the treasure being buried there. Thus they can only conclude that Job occasioned his own suffering through sin, or that God is spiteful and arbitrary. In any case, Job is always the locus of concern and they find themselves incapable of discovering any purpose in his suffering other than retribution for a hypothetical trespass. 

Elihu represents the conversion or metanoia of Job’s soul such that he ceases to speculate about the meaning of his situation or to doubt whether he deserves it or not. Instead, Job seeks a manner to accept it and thereby transform it. Jesus’ word in the Garden of Gethsemane provide the archetypal image of this new orientation: “Father, if thou be willing, remove this cup from me: nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done.” (Luke 22:42) Elihu prefigures Jesus in his injunction to refrain from theorising about God’s motives and rather seek to align oneself with God’s will. Suffering may serve to shock a man from his complacency and render him receptive to wisdom which his own self-pity had otherwise closed him from. In this way, a man may turn material adversity to the advantage of his soul. In Elihu’s words:

He delivereth the afflicted by their affliction, And openeth their ear in oppression. (36:15)
He then rebukes Job for having deafened himself to wisdom by having obsessed himself with moral scorekeeping:
But thou art full of the judgment of the wicked: Judgment and justice take hold on thee. (36:17)

In one sense we might read Elihu’s answer to Job as just one more speech among the eight speeches that his three friends have already offered. At the same time, however, Elihu seems to articulate the precise change that Job must necessarily undergo to cast off his cocoon of isolation. Elihu awakens Job to the manner in which his own psychological orientation had closed him off from the world and from God.

In this way, Elihu does not have to be seen as anything other than Job in his newly transformed state reflecting on the prior condition from which he just emerged. This view has the advantage that it accounts for Elihu’s spontaneous appearance in chapter 32 without speculating about plotlines extrinsic to the text. The character of Elihu is the virgin birth of “new man” from the soul that finally allowed itself to be fructified by wisdom. And this rebirth is the condition for encounter with the divine and not merely concepts of it: “no one cometh unto the Father, but by me.” (John 14:6) God is always there for us, only we are not there for him. And we remain absent to him until Christ has been born in us and we cease to live in our old selves and begin to live in Christ “nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me.” (Galatians 2:20) Thus, God’s appearance in the whirlwind after Elihu’s speech is not accidental to the logic of the narrative but rather an expression of this logic. 

B783C8C8-CC72-4E79-9F28-A0A41A42D218
William Blake’s illustration of the Behemoth and the Leviathan from The Book of Job (1821)

Ich bin ein Teil von jener Kraft,
die stets das Böse will und stets das Gute schafft.

“I am part of that power which
would do forever evil and which does eternal good.”

(J. W. von Goethe, Faust. Translated by A. S. Byatt. Penguin Classics, 2005. (p. 70).)

[2] “If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.”

—William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

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