Saturday, March 28, 2009

Job 38-43: The Problem of Suffering, and Other Problems

So the Book of Job has been this long, long theological discussion about whether suffering is necessarily divine punishment, or if it might be either divine punishment or divine warning, or if it might just be something that happens randomly. Job and four of his friends have hashed this question out at great length without really getting anywhere, and when we left off last time I was excited to see that we would now get God's own words on this important question.

God on the Problem of Suffering

God's response, however, is not one either to satisfy those who would seek a relationship of dialogue with the Divine, nor even one that casts any light on the issue. Essentially, it's four chapters of sarcastic questions belittling Job for having thought to speculate on the nature of God.

Where were you when I laid the earth's foundation?
Tell me, if you understand.
Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know!
It goes on in this vein for four chapters. God describes the various things that he can do and Job can't, and points out that Job is nowhere NEAR as powerful and well-informed as he is. So, God's message on the question of suffering seems to be: "Shut up and stop asking questions."

The Narrative Conclusion

In Job 42, the storyline picks up where it left off in Job 2. Job apologizes all over himself for his presumption. Then, god tells Job's buddies that they have spoken of him incorrectly, and gives them instructions for making a sacrifice of atonement. To this extent, God seems to indirectly refute the notion that all suffering is divine retribution for sin.
Gerard Seghers, 'The Patient Job', early 1600s
Except, Job said that too at one point (although, see below), and God doesn't assign him any sacrifices. Indeed, God seems to be pouring on the rewards. Job is healed, his family comes around to visit, and in short order he has twice as much livestock as he did before. In the fullness of time, he has another seven sons and another three daughters, and -- this is stressed -- his second set of daughters is even prettier than the first ones were! So, Job's a lucky guy! I guess! And he lives to be really old.

Further Study

So I looked up Job in Peloubet's Bible Dictionary, copyright 1925, which Mrs.5000 purchased for me last weekend at an estate sale. (Mrs.5000 is freaking awesome.) According to PBD, Job "stands as the greatest poem in the world's great literatures." Hmm. Also, that "it is almost universally agreed that the basis of the Book of Job was an historical fact; that Job was a real man who underwent such severe trials and disasters that they made a lasting impression upon his age...." Hmm. "Every good man's life in the end is a success. With God's children there are no life-tragedies. There are dramas and lyric songs and epics, but no tragedies." Hmm.

So, I turned to the more modern Oxford Companion to the Bible. Here, we learn that Job "is not only a work of intellectual vigor; it is also a literary masterpiece that belongs with the classics of world literature." More usefully, the OCB summarizes some critical scholarship on Job. I am, apparently, not the first to notice that much of what Job says is actually an argument against what otherwise seems to be his main point. Most Job scholars apparently feel that the Book only makes sense with the speeches shuffled somewhat, so that chunks of Job's speeches are reassigned to various of his three buddies. I hope I am not too curmudgeonly to feel that a record of a discussion in which there is literally no way to keep the various lines of argument distinct from each other has some fundamental problems with its cred as a "work of intellectual vigor."

It is frankly silly to call it a "literary masterpiece." Although, who knows, it might sound amazing in Hebrew. In English translation, though, it is opaque, repetitive, confused, and dull. It is extremely interesting as a record of the thought of people who lived long ago, and no doubt that interest only increases for someone with real specialist expertise in Biblical scholarship. To the extent that the intent of the poem was "literary" as we understand the word, however -- something that seems awfully unlikely -- the most that can be said is that it is really, really, really old.

I am not just blandly naysaying the OCB here. Really, I think that it is important to call out anyone who declares a text this unapproachable and turgid to be overbrimming with literary merit. For when someone is told this, and then runs up against the brick wall of a text manifestly lacking in any kind of literary value as the term is commonly understood, their inclination may well be to dismiss the text -- the Bible, in this case -- as something unapproachable by any means. Or, they may just assume that they are not smart enough to appreciate great literary works, and as a result reject the possibilities of literature in general. In this way are lives made less rich.

If you approach the Book of Job expecting a literary masterpiece, I absolutely, positively guarantee you that you will be utterly disappointed. If you approach it expecting a real muddle of a theological discussion, you will probably be able to glean some ideas from among its chaos. I hope, having had this warning, you fare better than me. Please report back!


Rebel said...

I think this is where I get the basis of my general philosophy: Sometimes life is shitty, but you just have to keep going and someday things might not be so shitty anymore.

Elaine said...

Rebel, that's pretty much the way it is. But the OTHER part: you do not have to "keep going" alone. You can find other people to share the journey with...

I actually recommended one of Harold Kushner's books, first published in the early 80's, to Michael5000, because it discusses the Book of Job and the problem of human suffering so thoroughly: _When Bad Things Happen to Good People_. The title scared me so much that I actually got it from a library so I would not have to invest any money in what could have been a very upsetting book. Instead, I have bought and given away a dozen copies over the past 25+ years. One of those copies was for my daughter... but that is another story.

I think Job is an important book because it does tackle a very difficult, painful subject. I mean, the guy could have done a romance novel instead, huh?

Michael5000 said...

@Rebel: That's the principle of jihad (the REAL principle, not the relatively trivial "holy war" detail) in a nutshell. Perhaps a conversion to Islam would be in order? It would certainly give you something to talk about with the fam!

@Elaine: I TOTALLY agree with you that Job is important. It's actually about theology, and that makes it more significant as a religious text than anything since at least Leviticus.