Bob Schwartz

Tag: Book of Job

A Day for Job

In the Orthodox Church, today is officially a day for the marvelous and mysterious biblical character Job, who is called by that church Righteous Job the Long-Suffering. While the Book of Job is certainly read, used and debated in other Jewish and Christian traditions, this is the only official recognition he gets.

I’ve written before about Job (Yom Kippur and Job, The Radical Book of Job) because there is nothing like it in the Bible, not even close. Robert Alter writes in his enlightening translation and commentary:

The Book of Job is in several ways the most mysterious book of the Hebrew Bible. Formally, as a sustained debate in poetry, it resembles no other text in the canon. Theologically, as a radical challenge to the doctrine of reward for the righteous and punishment for the wicked, it dissents from a consensus view of biblical writers—a dissent compounded by its equally radical rejection of the anthropocentric conception of creation that is expressed in biblical texts from Genesis onward. Its astounding poetry eclipses all other biblical poetry, working in the same formal system but in a style that is often distinct both lexically and imagistically from its biblical counterparts.

“The patience of Job” is the way the story is frequently summarized, suggesting that even in the face of undeserved suffering, Job is a model of how unwavering faith will carry us through the worst times. Once you have read the Book of Job carefully, along with some of the many excellent interpretations, you find that this is not the case. The Book of Job does not solve any mysteries or answer any questions. All it does is deepen mysteries and ask more questions. This isn’t what we might want, but if you’ve lived a life, you know that is what you get. Which is precisely what makes the Book of Job so irreplaceably essential, even if not particularly comforting.

The Radical Book of Job

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.

Politics of Pessimism

Book of Job

It is one thing to say that things could be better in America. Another to say that things are terrible, horrible, very bad.

At the moment, that seems to be a Republican approach to “lifting up” the nation and winning the presidency. Make sure we realize just how dire things really are and then promise to swoop in as our rescuer. First we kill all hope.

Hope isn’t dead. Crushing our current spirit for the sake of future dominance is a terrible, horrible, very bad idea. The more Bible-minded will recognize this as one of the tricks played by some legendary figures. See, for example, the Book of Job.

For a post-debate review of this, see The ‘Everything is Bad’ Party.

You Kippur and Job

The days from Rosh Hashanah (“Head of the Year”, the New Year) and Yom Kippur (“Day of Atonement”) are the ten holiest on the Jewish calendar. Known as the Days of Awe or Days of Repentance, they are a time for reflection on the year past and the year to come, and a time to make amends—not by asking God for forgiveness, but by asking it from those who have been wronged, and through the practice of repentance (literally, “turning”), prayer and charity.

During these days, the Book of Life is metaphorically open, and on its pages your life is weighed: “On Rosh Hashanah it is written, on Yom Kippur it is sealed.”

The liturgy for these holidays, and particularly for Yom Kippur, is some of the most moving and soul-searching in all of the religious canon. There are Old Testament readings included, but not too often from the Book of Job.

There are two solid consensuses about the Book of Job.

Literary types agree that it is probably the greatest work of literature in the Bible.

Religious types agree that it is the most puzzling book in the Old Testament, and that even when you look at it in the most common and superficial way (“Why do bad things happen to good people?”), you end up scratching your head.

Job is the book to read for Yom Kippur. It is the book to ponder at the start of the year, at the end of the year, and at points between. (It was, by the way, Abraham Lincoln’s most studied book of the Bible.)

We begin with the book itself.

It is unusual for it to have been included in the canon of the Hebrew Bible because it is not about a Jew. When non-Jews appear in other books, it is usually a story of helping Jews or hurting Jews or marrying Jews or eventually becoming Jewish. None of that applies to the Book of Job.

The story is relatively simple, at least until the end. Job is a rich and pious man who has everything: health, wealth, family and friends (or so they seem). Satan wants to prove that Job’s piety is dependent on his having everything, and challenges God to take it all away. God does.

Job’s friends are convinced that he must have done something wrong, and urge him to figure it out and repent. The scenes with his friends are talky, like a play, or maybe like the film My Dinner With Andre—except this is My Dinner with Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Naamathite.

Job’s wife has a different suggestion: “Curse God and die.”

Job remains steadfast in his faith.

And then, in Chapter 37, God appears to Job, to explain it all.

The chapters that follow are a poetic and breathtaking description of the world’s wonders, by the one who made them. God tells Job that his friends don’t know what they’re talking about (God takes care of them later). And God implicitly tells Job the only two things to do: Be awed. Be humble.

Job’s reply in Chapter 42 is one of the most important passages in the Bible. It is not only the watchword for Yom Kippur; it is the watchword for everyone, religious or otherwise, who is convinced they are smarter than anyone in the room or in the universe:

Then Job answered the Lord:
“I know that you can do all things,
and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.
‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’
Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand,
things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.
‘Hear, and I will speak;
I will question you, and you declare to me.’
I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear,
but now my eye sees you;
therefore I despise myself,
and repent in dust and ashes.”

“I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.”

Whether this is a day of reflection and fasting, reciting centuries-old prayers, or an ordinary day of work or study, managing others or being managed; whether you are Job beset by unexplained misfortune, or Job’s wife, ready to kill him if he doesn’t kill himself, or Job’s friends so quick with advice; whether you are being punished by God, Satan, or whatever other forces you believe are working against you; whether you are the smartest person in the room or not; this is what we can do, even if there is seemingly no comfort in it:

Be awed. Be humble.