The Radical Book of Job

by Bob Schwartz

The Bible is a radical document. Just ask Pope Francis, who will be visiting the U.S. for Yom Kippur. Just ask the conservative critics of Pope Francis, who have been made very uncomfortable.

The Gospels particularly offer subversive guidelines for individuals and society. But there is also much of this in the Old Testament. Take the Book of Job.

As a Bible text, the book of Job is one of the most complex and challenging for biblical translators, interpreters and scholars. So it is no surprise that it has been boiled down in common understanding and tradition to a simple story. A good man suffers, his faith in God is shaken, God explains, the man renews his faith, God returns him to good fortune. End of story.

Except that is not what happens. There are many ways to interpret Job that look nothing like that. A number of characters appear, do a lot of talking, and offer divergent views of what Job should do in the face of his intolerable burden. Most infamously his wife, whose recommendation to her husband is “Curse God and die.” Someone named Elihu makes a late brief appearance (likely the result of a later addition to the book), offering his own take on things. And of course, God has (almost) the final word.

In his overview of Job in The Jewish Study Bible, Prof. Ed Greenstein reviews the possibilities, including this one:

A second, and arguably even more prevalent, theme in Job is that of honesty in talking about God. The book examines and tests the limits of appropriate speech. The test of Job is all about speech—will Job, severely afflicted with anguish and physical distress, “blaspheme [God] to [His] face” (1.11)? The dialogues, it goes without saying, consist only of speech—there is no action within them. Job’s companions continually denigrate the way he talks (e.g., 11.2–4), and he feels he must beg to be heard (13.13). Their view is shared by readers such as the Talmudic Sage Rav, who suggests that “dirt be put in Job’s mouth” to silence him.

But while the friends regard Job’s discourse as no more than hot air, “useless talk” (e.g., 15.2–3), Job takes pride in his absolute commitment to speaking only truth (see 27.3–4). The radical turning point in the book comes at its conclusion: God turns to Job’s companions and reproves them for not speaking “truthfully” (nekhonah is adverbial) about Him as Job “My servant” had done (42.7–8). Job may not have arrived at the truth, but he had reason to believe in what he was saying, as it came to him honestly, unlike the words of the companions, who merely repeated uncritically the wisdom they had received. Seen this way, the book of Job promotes honesty in theological discourse and rejects a blind reliance on tradition.

Promoting honesty in theological discourse and rejecting blind reliance on tradition. A radical approach we can consider this Yom Kippur, along with the universe of our humble introspections and pleas for forgiveness. A radical approach that Pope Francis seems very good at. A radical approach missing in the hot air and useless talk we hear from so many of our self-righteous public figures.

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