My Favorite Hero: Job
"God is great; God is good; / And we thank Him for our food."
— Children's Prayer on Restaurant Menus, US 1950s.
I heard upon his dry dung heap
That man cry out who cannot sleep,
"If God is God, he is not good;
If God is good, he is not God.
Take the even; take the odd."
— Archibald MacLeish, JB
My favorite hero is Job, from the Book of Job.
When I was a boy, I liked Batman and Wonder Woman and the other superfolk, but my favorite hero was Captain Marvel. Captain Marvel got destroyed by Superman and a bunch of lawyers in 1953,and for a long time after that I mostly did without heroes. Then I took a Bible-as-Lit course in college and learned about Job.
The dating here gets tricky — my Oxford Annotated Revised Standard Version (1962) tells me the Book of Job is earlier than the Book of Ecclesiastes — but Job confronts and wrestles with the great philosophical questions expressed so robustly by Koheleth ("the Preacher," "Solomon," "Ecclesiastes"); and in the center of the Book of Job, in The Poem of Job, Job also calls out, and condemns, God.
Now that take 'nads!
The Book of Job deals with "The Problem of Evil," which is an issue for monotheistic religions unless, I guess, you worship Satan as the One God (in which case there'd be "The Problem of Good").
"If God is great" — all-powerful, all-knowing, and all that — "he is not good": look at all the suffering and evil in the world. Alternatively, "If God is good" — all good, perfectly good, good all the time, by any sensible definition of "good" — "he is not God": suffering and evil again; God might want to do good, but lacks the power, which makes him less than our monotheistic view of God.
One way to solve this problem is to say that the One-God theory is wrong, that there is no God. That elegantly solves the problem of evil (hey, shit happens!), but, as Jean-Paul Sartre pointed out in an essay<> a colleague called far too clear and simple to have been what a French Existentialist meant, atheism raises other problems. These problems can be summed up "by such terms – perhaps a little grandiloquent – as anguish, abandonment and despair." Atheism easily allows the important bumper sticker "Shit happens," but it leads also to such conclusions as (1) that Koheleth with his "Emptiness! Emptiness! All is Emptiness!" was an optimist, and (2) therefore the motto of your sophomore-cynic roommate was right: "Life sucks and then you die." The atheistic conclusion won't work for Job, however, not as a character in the Hebrew Bible. Torah begins, in the most popular translation of the line, "In the beginning, God […]" (Genesis 1.1). The Hebrew and Greek-Christian Scriptures assume God.
Another way to solve the problem of evil is to say God is Two: the Zoroastrian or Manichaean way, with a god of light and a god of darkness, good and evil, equal in power. That works, as does a polytheism with many competing gods, some mischievous, some, from a human point of view, dangerously destructive. "Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds" has an ominous ring to it (Bhagavad Gita11.32).
A third way is to say God is One and Three, and go with the Christian mythos. ("Mythos" is a way to say "myth" without getting into quite so much trouble or, in my case, having to affirm yet again that I take myths very seriously). In this version of things, you can get a "theodicy" like John Milton's Paradise Lost and "assert eternal Providence, / And justify the ways of God to men" (I.5-16). That is, shortly after the Beginning God created Adam and Eve and we got
Man's first disobedience, and the fruit
Of that forbidden tree whose mortal taste
Brought death into the world, and all our woe,
With loss of Eden, till one greater Man
Restore[d] us, and [we] regain the blissful Seat […].
There was the Original Sin, and that sin didn't just lose humankind our innocence and Eden but genetically (as 'twere) damned Adam, Eve, and all their progeny — us, every human — not just to death but damnation: the eternal lake of fire and all that (Revelation 20.14). Unless you have total faith in Christ Jesus and accept Him as your personal savior and believe and believe rightly — or maybe you're one of the Elect from the beginning of time, and that is that — unless you're saved, you're damned, and, as Jonathan Edwards told us in a tradition going back to St. Augustine, most of us are "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" and damned, damned, damned.
And, to be rigorously logical, that probably includes Job.
The Book of Job, as it stands, was emphatically a period piece even in its time: a story about a guy not even a Hebrew let alone an Israelite or Jew; and Job is definitely not a Christian.
In the world of Job, God is, and God is One, and Jesus is way in the future. Orthodox Jews may have come to believe in an afterlife, and the Christian tradition is strongly into heaven and hell — but in Job as in Ecclesiastes there is death and the grave and Sheol: basically, when you're dead, you're dead. The poet of Beowulf told a story set "In that day of this life," before Christianity reached his people, and as another Nordic type put it, in such a context, after death, "The rest is silence" (Hamlet 5.2.356).
If there is to be divine justice for Job, or any justice, it must be in this life.
So "there was a man in the land of Uz, whose name was Job," and this man, the Narrator and then God Himself assure us, "was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil" (prose Prolog, opening lines). And in this once-upon-a-time, the sons of God, the divine beings, come into the divine court, and Satan, the Adversary, is among them. And then, at one time very famously, God and Satan have a bit of a colloquy on Job. The Adversary, doing his job — he's like a prosecuting attorney — cynically asks, "Does Job fear God for nothing?" In ancient, pastoral-society terms, Job is rich and successful; he has been well rewarded for his worship, a worship Job has performed with a bookkeeper's fastidiousness: sacrificing for himself and his family an amount more than necessary to pay for any minor or inadvertent sins.
Take away the goodies, Satan says — although far more impressively — and Job will curse God.
Now, for a longer-form summary of the frame-story of Job, see Matt Stone and Trey Parker's "Cartmanland" episode (season 5, #6). The short form is that Satan destroys everything Job has that a patriarchal society would consider his — which includes children, but Mrs. Job is spared for plot purposes — and Job blesses God: "Naked I came out of my mother's womb, and naked shall I return; the Lord has given, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord" (1.21). So Satan wants to go two out of three: "But put forth your hand now, and touch his bone and his flesh, and he will curse you to your face" (2.4). God says, OK, so long as Satan doesn't kill Job (which would ruin the bet), and Satan does a real number on Job, physically, afflicting him "with loathsome sores," full-body. So broke and broken (in the RSV translation), Job "took a potsherd with which to scrape himself, and sat among the ashes. Then his wife said to him, 'Do you still hold fast your integrity? Curse God, and die.' But he said to her, 'You speak as one of the foolish women would speak. Shall we receive good at the hand of God, and shall we not receive evil?' In all this Job did not sin with his lips" (2.9-10).
Finishing the Prolog set-up, Job's three friends — sort of friends — come "to condole with him and comfort him. And when they saw him from afar, they did not recognize him," he looked that bad; "and they raised their voices and wept; and they rent their robes and sprinkled dust upon their heads toward heaven. And they sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great" (2.11-13).
And here beginneth the Poem of Job, which you may not have read in Sunday School — skipping over to the mostly pious prose Epilog, where God restores everything to Job, except the dead children and servants: the original ones, that is; he does get new ones, and the new kids are just great.
Now it may very well be that the editors of the Book of Job figured you'd skip the poetry part, but in any event the editors at the end of the Book have God condemn the three Comforters: "For you have not spoken the truth about Me as did My servant Job" (42.7) — a key point I'll return to, a couple times.
God's line to the Comforters is an er steht! moment, as your rabbi might have yelled at you, if you were making wise-ass objections to, well, most anything, and he were old-fashioned Ashkenazi: in this context, "It is written!"
The God of the pious Epilog of the Book of Job says Job is right, his three uncomforting Comforters wrong. So it is important who has said what in the long, long argument between Job and his Comforters, and also in the shorter — Spoiler alert! — theophany at the climax of the poem, when God reveals himself to Job.
Now even if you're an atheist with a strong background in statistics; even if you're convinced that "on a par with 'Love thy neighbor' and 'All men are created equal,' is the [… great principle of moral advancement] on the bumper sticker: “Shit happens” — even if you're Steven Pinker you might suspect that something highly unusual is happening with Job in the string of disasters he suffers.
Job's Comforters aren't stupid, but they are conventionally pious and generally conventional: in their time — and at most times in human history — they would believe that Job is operating under a curse; and from this their argument follows.
They reason that God is great, all-knowing and all-powerful; God is good, and "good" centrally includes just, and merciful. Except for a brief moment when one (Eliphaz) twists the argument toward an indifferent God — "Is it any pleasure to the Almighty if you are righteous / or is it gain to him if you make your ways blameless?" (22.1-3) — they hold the orthodox view that God is active in the world, rewarding and punishing; and Job is suffering. Therefore, God must be punishing Job; and, therefore, Job must have sinned.
Their job is to get Job to acknowledge his sin and repent and sacrifice and atone and get himself again right with the Lord.
The Comforters think deductively, and their deduction is logical, but wrong.
Job thinks inductively, starting with the fact that he hasn't sinned, or at least he hasn't sinned enough to deserve the destruction of his wealth and the murder of his servants and children. And within the Book of Job, that is the case; or more exactly, and to repeat: Job was "a blameless and upright man who fears God and shuns evil" (1.8, [1.1]).
Job never curses God. The day of his birth — yeah, that's how Job starts his poetic speeches, cursing at some length the day he was born and regretting he wasn't stillborn (3.1-16), but he never curses God; Satan loses that bet. Indeed, I don't think Job ever ceases to love God, which makes all the more painful for him God's betrayal of their relationship (Hosea 2.19 f.).
Nor in his argument with the Comforters does Job succumb to the second temptation. He will not curse God and die, but neither will he "Agree with God, and be at peace […]" (22.21). Job wants to "speak to the Almighty" and "argue my case with God." He accuses the Comforters of being apologists for God: "As for you, you whitewash with lies," speaking falsely for God and deceitfully pleading the case of the one who is supposed to be the righteous judge (13.1-8). Job claims truth for himself; as long as he lives — significantly put, "as long as my breath is in me, / and the spirit of God is in my nostrils" — he will refuse to lie: "till I die I will not put away my integrity from me. / I hold fast my righteousness, and will not let it go; / my heart does not reproach me for any of my days" (27.1-6).
Job knows he's blameless and upright and God has been unjust to him, and his vision and compassion expand from his own case to the world generally: "[…] I cry out, 'Violence!'," Job says, but he is "not answered; / I call aloud, but there is no justice" (19.7). Evil people frequently prosper while decent folk die "in bitterness of soul"; as in Ecclesiastes the good and the evil "lie down alike in the dust, and the worms cover them" (21.7-26). On a larger scale, "From out of the city the dying groan, / and the soul of the wounded cries for help; / yet God pays no attention to their prayer" (24.12).
So Job fights his way to a radical conclusion and asks a quite literally challenging rhetorical question. "I am blameless; I regard not myself; I loathe my life" — so don't tell me God will strike me dead for what I'm about to say: "It is all one; therefore I say, / he destroys both the blameless and the wicked" (9.21-22). For "[…] if it is not he," God, "who then is it?" (9.24).
"Could it be — Satan?!", to quote Dana Carvey's Church Lady. Well, no, it couldn't, not ultimately. Not in terms of what was evolving into Jewish theology, and not in terms of what we saw in the Prolog to the Book: Satan is one of the divine beings in the story of Job, one of the sons of God — and Satan does nothing without the express permission of God.
So Job makes his accusation against God, and Job's wants to hear God's accusation against him. To put together the translations of the Revised Standard Version and the Jewish Publication Society's Tanakh of 5746/1985:
O, that I had someone to give me a hearing:
O, that that the Almighty would reply to my writ,
O, that I had the indictment written by my adversary!
I would bind it on me as a crown:
I would give him an account of all my steps;
like a prince I would approach him! (31.35-37)
Job's heroism will be maintained, I'll maintain, if he keeps his integrity, even when confronting God— and when confronted by God.
As the Book of Job currently stands, there's a long pause here as a new character comes on stage, Elihu son of Barachel, who presents an argument to Job that Job doesn't answer. This is often called "The Elihu Interpolation" and the Oxford editors tell us it's of some theological importance; still, it's a later addition, and I'm going to ignore it.
'Cause if you ignore Elihu (chs. 32-37), Job calls out God and pronounces an Oath of Clearance for himself (like the Egyptian Book of the Dead) and then "The words of Job are ended" (ch. 31) — and God's begin (chs. 38-42).
Job gets his trial: "Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind" (38.1).
If William Blake gets the image right, and I'm reading Blake's engraving right, in the theophany in the poem, the Comforters don't see much of anything — they're bowed down — and Job (and his wife in Blake's engraving) see God. Going from there, I'll say that for sure, Job sees God; other onlookers might just see the whirlwind: a tempest; being born in Indiana and raised in Illinois, what I'll see as a tornado. However you picture it, keep that image in mind.
What God says to Job is "Gird up your loins like a man" — put on that princely jock strap, guy — and "I will question you, and you shall declare to me" (38.3). And God proceeds to berate Job with a series of mostly rhetorical question on the theme, And where were you when?! — with God taking Job on a tour of the ancient cosmos. "Who is this," God forcefully asks Job, "who darkens counsel, / Speaking without knowledge?" — and starts with the biggie, "Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? / Tell me if you have understanding" (38.2, 4).
The upshot of this one-sided trial is that Job repents speaking out of ignorance and ends the poem saying that he despises himself and, as the RSV has it, repents "in dust and ashes" (42.6). And you may justly challenge me with, What kind of hero is this? Where is Job's integrity in backing down?
My answer would be that Job finally says to God (again combining RSV and Tanakh translation),
I had heard of You by the hearing of the ear,
But now my eye sees You;
Therefore I recant and relent
Being but dust and ashes.
Job keeps heroic integrity if, but only if, in that seeing, the theophany — in God's revealing himself to Job — if in that seeing and hearing Job learns something beyond the fact, in the world of this story, that God is very, very powerful and can get seriously snarky. Job is heroic if he speaks truth to power, ultimate Power, and arguably more heroic if he changes what he says when he gains an altered view of truth.
One can argue that Job just wimps out, if understandably; and such an argument is made very elegantly by Nickles, the Satan-figure in Archibald MacLeish's fine modernization of Job, his play JB.
I have faith in Job, and think he retains his integrity, but I won't push the point: theophanies are necessarily "ineffable": you really can't talk about them, nor, when they're over, trust even your memory of them if you're the person seeing God. As a modern scientist might say and the old rabbis did say, "A miracle is no proof": it's outside nature and reproducible experiment or experience; it's the ultimate in personal perception but not really empirical; it's an encounter with the infinite that isn't going to fit into human language or human memory and consciousness.
We can't talk intelligently or even very intelligibly about Job's experience, so we might do best to shut up.
But we won't. Or at least I won't, or not for a bit.
To follow the Job poet's example and repeat yet again, Job was "a blameless and upright man who fears God and shuns evil" (1.8, [1.1]); but Job, I'll fastidiously put it, is not without sin.
Job is guilty of pride — "pride" is the last word in the RSV rendering of God's speech to Job — and Job is blameless. Job judges God in the poem, and even in the pious prose Prolog Job puts God within a human system, making sacrifices to God for his children's possible sins, "according to the number of them all" (1.5). God sets the rules; Job obeys the rules; in case his kids don't, Job sacrifices: a kind of double-entry moral accounting, working through a contract — a loving contract, but still a human-style contract — with God.
Job puts God within a human system, trying to confine the infinite within the finite, which is pride in action and also all the man can do since he is a man. There is an arrogance in thinking we humans can say much intelligent about the material universe; to talk about God is stupid if there is no God, and absurdly arrogant if there is a God.
The Job poet is heroically arrogant in putting words into the mouth of God. Theophany, the mystic experience of God is ineffable, but this schmuck of a writer is going to try it.
And he — the poet and God-the-Character — gives us some hints about what this revelation of God by God is revealing.
Early in his harangue, God asks a question that has as its only answer in the poem the everyday fact — the God part assumed — that God sends "rain on a land where no man is, / on the desert in which there is no man," which may "satisfy the waste and desolate land, and […] make the ground put forth grass" but where it's useless.
In each of our points of view, we are the center of the universe: that's just part of human perception; look around: the world revolves around me. Expand that a bit — and expanding Job's and our views is central to the poem of Job — expand that a bit, and we see humankind at the center of things. And if you live on a bleeding desert, you will be justifiably pissed off if God sends rain where you can't use it.
God also talks about the ostrich, who "leaves her eggs to the earth, and lets them be warmed in the ground, / forgetting that a foot may crush them," leaving her, like Job, childless. But she seems undisturbed, "because God has made her forget wisdom, / and given her no share in understanding" (40.13-18). Part of the reason Job suffers as much as he does is that he's a human being and has the intelligence to suffer more than, in losing offspring, an ostrich does.
Nowadays, we wouldn't let God off the hook so easily, and if you want to argue the intelligent design of nature you have to recognize in that design such horrors as the ichneumon wasp family. Still, as far as we know only humans get all upset over evil and suffering as intellectual problems, and that is because we have reason, which people would come to argue is what makes us made "in the image of God."
So we have some indication that what Job learns is that things are basically OK in most of the universe outside of human beings.
God's rant, though rambling, is leading toward an upsetting idea. "In the beginning, when God was creating the heavens and the earth," he was, of course, laying the groundwork (literally) for — drum roll here — us. To crown creation, God is going to create us and put us in charge, and let's hear it for — more drum rolls and a fanfare — Adam! Man! Humankind! Us.
And to prepare the universe for us, the first act of the creator gods, let alone God, is binding the chaos monster(s) because we humans need an orderly world, and orderly by the standards of — drum roll, fanfare, and a hundred-arrow salute (Job's story is set long ago) — us.
If you're a modern monotheist, believing in, in some sense, creation from nothing (ex nihilo), you should be sensing a problem here. The problem is resolved in this poem, but scarily. God tells Job, "Behold Behemoth, which I made as I made you" and later adds "He is the first of the works [or ways] of God." Now this can just mean that God created the hippopotamus, and you can add to that God's later claiming to control Leviathan, which can just mean a crocodile (41.1 f.). However, Behemoth and Leviathan are two chaos monsters or two names for the chaos monster. If God organized the universe from Chaos, where did Chaos come from? The God of Job claims that "everything under the heavens is Mine" (41.3/11).
God created Chaos, and chaos, from a human point of view, may be what we see of God: a whirlwind, the tempest — a mindless, overpowering, lethal, city-levelling tornado.
But Job, for a moment, in the story, sees God within the whirlwind, and hears God out of the whirlwind, and what he learns from this, and what only can be hinted at, makes him change his mind and "therefore […] recant and relent" — and not a moment sooner. Not from hearing pious platitudes from uncomforting Comforters who don't love God enough to argue with God, to wrestle with faith. Not from hearing lectures from conventional sorts who love their neighbor and friend Job so little that they accuse him falsely of deserving his suffering.
And Job's refusing an unquestioning faith — a comfortable faith — I respect as heroic.
As does God, assuming the God of the Epilog read the poem. This God says to the Comforter Eliphaz, "I am incensed at you and your two friends, for you have not spoken the truth about Me as did My servant Job" (42.7).
The "null hypothesis" is always open, and there may be no God. Job is in part a fairy-tale character, from "once upon a time" even when the poem was written. Within the poem, though, Job is a hero — Richard Sewall saw him as a near-archetypal tragic hero — and, among literary characters, where uncomplicated heroism is most likely to be found, Job is my favorite hero.