Copyright © 1982, 2013, Victoria University
LECTURE TRANSCRIPT: Lecture 20
JOB: A TEST
I would like to approach the Book of Job at this point in the course as a work that pertains to the categories of both wisdom and prophecy. If you look at the sequence of books of the Old Testament in the King James order, that is from Genesis to Malachi, with the Apocrypha in a separate section, you see an order which is derived from the Septuagint translation—the Hebrew order is a much more schematic one—and it seems to be pure accident that it actually makes its own kind of sense.
The books from Genesis to Esther are concerned with three themes: law, history and ritual; the closing one, Esther, is a story which explains the latest of the Hebrew rituals to be established, the feast of Purim. The second half of the Old Testament, from Job to Malachi, is concerned also with three different themes: with poetry, prophecy and wisdom. In that order, which as I say may be pure accident but still is an order, Job would occupy the place of a poetic and prophetic Genesis. It deals with the theme of how man was plunged into his present alienating situation, but deals with it in terms of poetry and prophecy and wisdom rather than of law and history and ritual.
When Milton, after pursuing the English Revolution of the seventeenth century through four of its stages, was finally checkmated completely by the restoration of the monarchy, he settled down to ask himself why the bid for liberty among the English people had met with so inglorious a failure, and why the great Exodus which had been undertaken in 1640 should have ended, in his phrase, with 'a captain back for Egypt'. That was why he told the story of the fall of man, which is based on the Christian conception of original sin, the notion that man, being born in a state of mortality, is conditioned from birth with a kind of inertia that makes it impossible for him to achieve any of the things that he really wants to do without divine assistance. Man says he wants freedom and—still paraphrasing Milton—thinks he wants freedom, but as a matter of fact, he does not want freedom: and if he gets it, it is only because freedom is something that God is determined he shall have.
Well, the story of the fall of Adam is a story of a breach of contract, which has always made it clear to the heart of theological lawyers, because it provides them with what passes for an explanation of the human situation. Why do we live in a world where we all die, and where we suffer various inconveniences ranging from earthquakes to mosquito bites? The answer in the Book of Genesis is: well, it was like this: many years ago, a hungry girl long past her lunch time reached for an apple on the wrong tree, and as a result, all this has taken place. The answer is insane, it's psychotic, but then, so is most theology; and at any rate, it is a kind of answer. The advantage of studying the Book of Job is that it deals with the same question: how has man come to be in this alienating situation? But there is no contract; there is no alleged explanation. There is no quasi- or pseudohistorical element in it. It is given simply in purely imaginative terms.
When I was dealing with wisdom, I said that wisdom is conceived in the Bible existentially as more of an attitude of mind than as anything connected with knowledge, because knowledge is specific: it is knowledge of this or that; whereas wisdom deals more with the potential. We think, for example, of Jesus as a wise man, but not necessarily as a knowledgeable man: that is not the point about him. Wisdom, we said, was the conception of law in individualized form, the way in which law permeates society.
Prophecy, we found, was an individualizing of the revolutionary spirit which seems to be peculiar to the Biblical tradition. The prophet is typically a figure who is isolated because of the unpopularity of the message he brings, and who is very frequently persecuted. He is a figure whose authority no society knows how to deal with, because society by itself has no standards for distinguishing an authority above the law from an authority below it. That is, the prophet who denounces society cannot be distinguished from the troublemaker or the subversive, and not only in the Hebrew tradition, but in Greek culture as well. As the figure of Socrates reminds us, most societies have difficulty distinguishing the authority of prophecy.
Consequently, the assumption arose very early in both Judaism and Christianity that the age of the prophets was over; and this assumption was accepted with a great deal of relief. In medieval Europe, for example, there was a High King and a High Priest, a Pope and an Emperor. But there was no place for prophetic authority as such; and the fates of such people as Joan of Arc and Savonarola indicate the same difficulty that society has always had. The liberty of prophesying was one of the things that the Protestant Reformation was supposed to be all about, but Protestantism can hardly be said to have succeeded in establishing a prophetic authority. That is, its prophets never strayed very far away from pulpits: they were not really a distinct class from the priesthood. Nevertheless, that position of the prophet as an isolated or alien figure who has an authority very difficult for his own society to accommodate enters into the structure of the whole Bible.
The moral significance of the life of Jesus has been traditionally assumed to be his perfect conformity to a moral code, as the one man who did not sin. But perhaps equally important is his significance as a figure that no organized or established society could possibly have tolerated. That is, the Christian teaching about who crucified Christ is not that the Romans or the Jews or whatever people happened to be there did, but that you and I did, and that all human societies without exception are involved in the crucifixion of Christ. That sense of the figure who was negatively as well as positively outside history is something that has to be taken into account in trying to see what the importance of prophecy is. Society, in order to preserve itself, has to assume the priority of its interests to those of any individual; and what the high priest Caiaphas says in the Gospel of John, 'It is expedient that one man die for the people', is a statement that has been echoed by every human being without exception at some point or other. I want to approach Job primarily as an example of a book of wisdom which cannot be satisfactorily understood without some reference to this conception of prophecy as well.
The Book of Job is relatively late among Old Testament books, I suppose around 300 B.C. or thereabouts. It seems to be dramatic in construction: there are even things in it that remind us of certain things in the great tragedies, such as having the catastrophe announced by a messenger, though it is extremely unlikely that the author of Job was thinking of any kind of theatrical presentation. In fact, it is unlikely that he had seen a theater or knew what a theater was. It is more likely that the particular idiom in which Job is cast is, insofar as it is dramatic, something of an accident, because the dramatic form to which it is closest is not so much that of acted plays, whether tragedies or comedies, but to the Platonic dramatic form of the symposium, the discussion in which certain themes are pursued from different points of view.
The story is an ancient folk tale; and this ancient folk tale, which is in prose, appears at the beginning and at the end of the Book of Job that we have. But the author of Job simply cut the tale in two with a pair of scissors—that is, if scissors had been invented by that time: I'm a very sloppy scholar in some respects—and between the first and the second half put this enormous expansion of the theme which is the book that we know.
According to the story, then, we begin with Satan in the court of God, and that, at once, is unique. It's not just that it's a tremendous act of poetic originality that has haunted the imaginations of every great poet ever since, down to Goethe's Faust and beyond. It is also because it illustrates something I've mentioned before, that in the account of Creation at the beginning of Genesis, God is said to have separated the light from the darkness and the firmament from the chaos, the deep. So you can think of darkness and chaos as outside the Creation, and therefore as enemies of God. But the Creation actually incorporated darkness as an alternate to light, and it incorporated chaos in the form of the sea, as distinct from the land. Consequently, we can also think of chaos and darkness as incorporated dialectically within Creation, and as creatures of God rather than enemies. In most of the prophets, the forces of chaos and darkness are thought of as God's enemies, as certainly Satan is. But in the Book of Job, and there alone, both Satan and the powers of darkness are treated primarily as creatures of God, as things which he tolerates within his creation.
We've already seen that a legal metaphor runs all through the Bible, and that it is appropriate therefore that we should speak of the end of all things as a Last Judgment, as a trial in which God is thought of as the judge, in which there is a defendant and a prosecutor. The role of the prosecutor is the traditional role of Satan. The word means 'adversary', and his primary function is that of the accuser of mankind. The Greek word diabolos, which is the origin of our word 'devil' originally meant or included the meaning of the person opposed in a lawsuit.
So all through the Book of Job, this metaphor of a trial and a judge is hovering in the background. If you were killed in a feud, the person whose duty it was to avenge your death would be called your go'el or avenger, and the same word could be applied to someone who would go bail for you if you were accused, or who in general would take the part of the accused person. In the Book of Job, Job expresses his own confidence that he has such a defender. In Job 19:25, he says, 'I know that my go'el liveth.' The King James translation is 'redeemer', which is perhaps an overly Christianized translation: but the general sense is that he is sure that there is somebody on his side in this lawsuit. Then the question is, who is his accuser, and much more important than that, what is he being accused of? Because if there is anything particularly nightmarish about a tyranny or a rule of terror, it is the possibility of being arrested and held without being told what the charge is. That is a situation that one finds in Kafka's novel The Trial; and almost all of Kafka's writings form an extended commentary on the Book of Job.
And so Job says, 'Why hasn't my adversary written a book? Why hasn't he stated the case against me?' That is of course the question to which the poem mainly addresses itself. First of all comes a disaster which wipes out his family, his goods and his possessions—all but his wife, and his wife turns against him as well. Then comes another disaster, which takes the form of boils. We are told in the opening scene that Satan is taking his usual part of prosecutor, and is telling God that according to the Code of the Book of Deuteronomy and elsewhere, he has really set things up in such a way that he can't lose. If it is in man's interest to obey the law and to follow the precepts of God, then man is an incredible fool if he does not do so. And if it is true that the good man is always rewarded, and that it is only the bad man who is punished, then God has really created a race of automata who are not free beings at all. God says, 'Well, maybe that's true: but there is one man called Job, and I think that he would stick to me no matter what happened'. And Satan says, 'All right, let's try'. And so the disasters fall.
At that point, Job's three friends come to see him. The three friends have become proverbial as stupid and unimaginative people. We get this impression partly from Job himself, who says, 'Miserable comforters are ye all'; and so we tend to think of them simply as replicas of Satan in the lower world, and as carrying on the whole process of accusation. On the other hand, whatever one thinks of them, they are certainly not fair-weather friends. They have nothing to gain from coming to see Job in his utter destitution. In chapter 2, the last three verses end, 'So they sat down with him upon the ground seven days and seven nights'— that's the ritual period of mourning—'and none spake a word unto him, for they saw that his grief was very great'. And so, if we are tempted to think of the three friends as stupid and unimaginative, we should not forget either those seven days of silent sympathy.
At the same time, the three men, while they are devout, pious and eloquent men—they are all fine poets—still are very heavily conditioned by their own understanding of the law and the way it operates: that if you obey the Deuteronomic Code, you will be happy and prosperous, and if you don't, you'll be miserable. Job is quite clearly unhappy and miserable: so he must have done something to break the law. They begin to suggest this more and more deviously as time goes on: there is even a suggestion that Job might have done something unconsciously, as Oedipus did in Greek drama. But it is also said that Job has taken care of unintentional offenses by the sacrifices that he has made before he fell into this state of things. And in any case, Job eventually begins to understand what they are saying; and he feels outraged, not because of the imputations of divine justice, but because what he is really saying is that what has happened to him does not bear any kind of sane relationship to anything he could conceivably have done. If it is a question of punishment for wrongdoing, the situation is utterly insane, and raises more questions than it could possibly solve.
The three friends and Job remain devout and pious men. Consequently, the one explanation that never once occurs to them, and never possibly could occur to them, is the one that has already been given to the reader: namely, that Job is not being punished at all, but that he is being tested for something. And the reason it couldn't have occurred to them is that the bet with Satan suggests that God has a stake of his own in the matter. That just doesn't come into their conception of the universe anywhere. But we have in fact been told that God is actually risking something, and risking it on Job's fidelity. In the kind of view of God that both Job and the friends have, he could never be as vulnerable as that in his relationships with human beings.
The discussion reaches a deadlock, and we're told that these three men cease to answer Job because he was righteous in his own eyes. That is an extremely unfair comment to make about Job, and is perhaps expressed only from their point of view. Then Elihu comes in. Elihu is a later writer's addition: he came two or three centuries later probably. He says he is a young man, and consequently is following the custom which says that the old fools have to speak until their senility is fully exposed, and then he will get into the discussion himself. However, though he is a fine and eloquent poet, he doesn't really add much to the argument: he really just sums it up again. Job lets this go by without any comment at all, partly because it is a later addition. Then God himself enters the discussion, and speaks to Job out of the whirlwind.
Now at first we are deeply disappointed in what God says. He is a pretty fair poet too: he's not as good as Elihu, but he begins by saying, 'Who is this that darkeneth counsel by words without knowledge?' If he means Elihu, he's a bit ungrateful, because he's cribbed a great deal of his speech from Elihu. But in any case, his speech seems to consist of a number of rhetorical questions, all of which, as they say in Latin grammars, expect the answer 'no'. The questions are all to the same effect: were you around when I made the world? Do you know how it was made? No? Then why are you questioning the justice of my ways? And Job says, 'Yes, Lord, I know nothing, and you know everything'. Whereupon God says, 'Well, that's better', and proceeds to restore to him everything that he had before.
Now, if that is what the Book of Job actually means, then we can only conclude that some bungling and terrified poet took over the conclusion and spoiled what was originally one of the great visionary dramas in the world's history. That is the view of it that Bernard Shaw takes when he speaks of the ignoble and irrelevant retort of God at the end of the book. Bernard Shaw also has a story called The Black Girl in Quest of Her God, where a young African woman armed with a big stick goes out to find God. The first god she meets is the God of Noah's Flood, who makes thunderous noises at her, so she whacks him over the head with her knob and he disappears. Then she meets a god who says, 'Now I do love to have my creatures argue with me, so I can tell them how much wiser I am than they are. Do you have any questions?' She doesn't ask any questions, she just whacks him over the head and he disappears. Well, this is a conceivable view of the Book of Job. I don't think it is the right one: but if the King James Bible is right when it puts in its marginal headings at the top of the page that 'God convinceth Job of ignorance', then it seems to be almost the only moral that we can take from the story. So maybe we should retrace our steps a bit.
In this speech of God, there is the series of rhetorical questions that I mentioned, followed by two lyrical poems at the end: at least I am going to assume that there are two. They are about two fabulous monsters that we have met already in the imagery of the Bible, a land monster named Behemoth and a sea monster named Leviathan. The New English Bible notes that behemoth is simply the intensive plural of the word for 'beast' in Hebrew, and consequently, it reduces them to one, to the Leviathan only, but I am going to ignore that. Traditionally, there have always been two, a land monster and a sea monster: you'll find them referred to even as early as II Esdras in the Apocrypha.
God says in 40:15, where the two great hymns start, 'Behold now behemoth, which I made with thee', and then goes on to talk about Leviathan in chapter 41. The two animals seem to have developed out of the kernels of the hippopotamus and the crocodile. That is, they are both Egyptian animals, and it is perhaps significant that Job, although he observes the Israelite law, comes from Uz in the kingdom of Edom, and so is strictly speaking outside the jurisdiction of the Biblical countries.
But we remember that the account of the Creation at the beginning of Genesis, where God creates light from darkness and the firmament from chaos, is a later development of what was originally a dragon-killing myth, and that the dragon-killing myth has been referred to many times in the Old Testament, though always as a poetic myth rather than as a matter of belief. And we see that of these two creatures, Satan and Leviathan, one appears at the beginning of the poem, the other at the end of it. And that everywhere else in the Bible, Satan is the enemy of God, and Leviathan the dragon who is to be hooked and landed in the last day. But here, Satan is a tolerated guest in the court of God. And I imagine that Goethe sums up the feeling of Job rather accurately in his Prologue in Faust where Mephistopheles walks out of heaven saying to himself, 'I like to talk to the old boy now and again; it is really very decent of him to talk to me'. Similarly, the behemoth and leviathan are not spoken of here as enemies of God, or as outside his order. God is pointing to them with something of the nervous admiration of an artist, saying, 'Look, Job, aren't they splendid, aren't they wonderful? I made them, you know: don't you like them?' And if you think of them in that context, you'll see that it is not really a problem in the poem that we hear no more about Satan, and that at the end of the poem, God makes no reference to the original deal that he made with Satan. According to our table of demonic symbols which we drew up last fall, Satan and the leviathan are metaphorically the same thing, but are simply seen from different points of view. And by pointing out these two monsters to Job, God is implying, or at least the author of the poem is implying, that Job is outside them. He must be outside them, or he couldn't see them. You remember that we are mythologically all born inside the belly of Leviathan, and that the whole fishing imagery of the Gospels is connected with that fact.
So it's possible that Job is getting a genuine enlightenment and is not being told just to shut up. Further, if the conventional understanding of Job were right, that Job is merely being bullied by God into silence, then his three friends must have been right about God all along; because their point of view throughout has consistently been that God rewards the righteous and punishes the disobedient. And if that doesn't happen, then all we can say is that the ways of God are mysterious and too high for us to understand. As I say, if that is the meaning of the poem as a whole, then the friends' conception of God is vindicated. But God says explicitly that the friends are wrong in what they said about him. What they said is forgivable—they are welcomed into the community at the end—but what they have said is wrong. Another thing which seems clear is that if Job had suffered in silence all the way through the poem, there would have been no revelation either to him or to anybody else at the end. It is only because Job yells bloody murder that there is a Book of Job at all. Job's protests, his loud demands to know why this has happened, are the kind of things which indicate the integrity that God insisted he had from the first.