I had actually read the Book of Job before, as a reading assignment in my high school English class.* Reading it again as an adult was a much different experience though. I’m all the more certain that people should not rely on their childhood studies.
I remember being really angry at the story, because God is so incredibly unfair to Job. While the text remains the same, my perspective on both the events and the dialogues gives me a very different interpretation.
The overarching structure of the story is a challenge offered by Satan and accepted by God, to test Job’s faith, but the majority of the text is a series of Plato-esque dialogues between Job and the various people who come to remonstrate with him. While the arguments are long and repetitive, I think the combination of the arguments and Job’s replies offer some seriously important lessons.
First: I’m fairly sure that Job’s wife was suggesting that Job go the Hamlet route, and avoid the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune by killing himself. To which Job replies that good and bad both come from God, and you can’t choose to just get one.
This bit reminded me of Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet, where he writes:
But if in your fear you would seek only love’s peace and love’s pleasure,
Then it is better for you that you cover your nakedness and pass out of love’s threshing-floor,
Into the seasonless world where you shall laugh, but not all of your laughter, and weep, but not all of your tears.
Second: Job’s three friends come to tell him that since he’s being punished by God, then he must have done some pretty awful things to deserve that punishment, and maybe it’s time for him to repent and beg forgiveness. To which Job replies that, no, he doesn’t understand why he’s being punished, but he knows that he has only ever acted righteously, and has done nothing to deserve the punishment. The friends get progressively more vicious in their anger at Job’s refusal to admit to culpability. I think the moral of these three arguments and three rebuttals is to not blame the victim.
I think this is an incredibly important lesson. It’s also kind of in direct contradiction to what I’d previously recalled from Bible studies, which tend to be heavily weighed towards the lesson of the good being rewarded and the evil punished. But, no, this book acknowledges that sometimes bad things happen to good people, and that doesn’t mean they deserved it.
Third: God comes in a whirlwind to remonstrate with Job directly, but it’s interesting how the remonstration is focused. God essentially lists a long series of challenges to Job’s understanding and abilities regarding the world. Does Job know about the wild horses or the eagles or the ostriches? Did he make them in all their wildness and does he understand them? They’re all clearly rhetorical questions, and at first I thought that it was just God being something of a bully: I’m powerful, you’re not, so don’t question me. But the more I read and the more thought I gave it, I think instead, it’s more a demonstration that the world is complex, and Job is not the center of it.**
The lesson here is that Job’s punishments are not because of him at all, but part of something greater. We don’t know the full story behind Satan’s challenge to God, and all we see is Job’s part of it, and we can only take on faith that there is a purpose.***
Fourth: After Job apologizes to God about questioning his actions, God then turns to remonstrate the friends for victim-blaming. God lets them know that they’re only going to be forgiven for their sins if Job asks for forgiveness on their behalf.
Keeping in mind that this is the Old Testament, it’s still interesting to see that God’s forgiveness is not all-encompassing. In this case, the friends have been castigating a righteous man and their sin is not going to be forgiven with simple repentance. They need the forgiveness of their victim before God will grant them forgiveness.
And final thing of note: In the beginning, Job had ten children, seven sons and three daughters, who were all massacred along with their families as part of the test of Job’s faith. In the end, Job has ten more children, seven sons and three daughters, who live and prosper. Of his twenty children, only three are named, his three surviving daughters: Jemimah, Keziah, and Keren-happuch, to each of whom Job gives an inheritance to match their brothers’.
One of the things I’m increasingly aware of sexism in the modern era is the way it projects into the past. There was certainly plenty of sexism in the past, but it wasn’t nearly as pervasive as it’s generally thought. Women did many of the same things as men did, they just don’t tend to be described in the history books, and when they are described, they aren’t widely studied. Case in point: the book of Job names three of his daughters even though I had always had the impression that, like in the various begat sections, only the males get named.
I am reminded yet again, of how important it is to read this for myself rather than relying on the generalized sense of the book coming from no particular source.
Anyway, instead of concluding with a recommendation****, I’m going to end with a summation of what I think the moral is (if you disagree, feel free to comment.) The overall moral: Don’t victim-blame. Don’t assume that a victim deserves their suffering or did anything to warrant it.
* We also read the Mahabharata and Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Mrs. Fort was going to teach great literature and if the school board disagreed, then they could fire her. They didn’t fire her. She was awesome!
** In addition to the long series of challenging questions about the goat and the ox and the donkey, there’s also long descriptions of the powerful might of the Behemoth and the Leviathan, that mostly left me confused. Okay, God, you created some really tough creatures. Is there a point to this description? If yes, I’m missing it.
*** I’m still not happy with the argument that you shouldn’t question the actions of God. I prefer the relationship that Raprasad Sen has with the divine, demonstrated through his poetry in honor of the Hindu goddess Kali. (Grace and Mercy in Her Wild Hair: Selected Poems to the Mother Goddess, by Ramprasad Sen, Translated by Leonard Nathan and Clinton Seely.) In his case, worship doesn’t mean blindness to faults, nor does devotion mean constant happiness. Like any other love, the pious love can include times when you’re not very pleased with the other person.
**** My overall recommendation is: If you’re a member of one of the religions that sees the Bible as holy script, then read it yourself so you know what it says, rather than relying on anyone else to tell you–if these are God’s words, then let them speak to you, rather than play telephone via someone else. If you live in a society that uses the Bible as a guide, then read it so that you know what’s truly in there and what’s not, and allows you to both understand where arguments are coming from and when they’re wrong. If you’re neither, then it’s probably still a good book to be familiar with, although maybe focus on the religious texts of your own religion and region first.
Next up: The remaining three quarters of Genesis.