I’m not the only person who loved the wifely tribute in Proverbs 31. Many readers wrote to tell me it’s one of their favorite Bible passages, and several Jewish correspondents noted that observant Jews read the verses every Friday night during Shabbat prayers, with a special emphasis—and nod to the wife—on the line, “You surpass them all.”
The most interesting e-mail about Proverbs 31 came from reader Jordan, who asks a penetrating question about what it’s saying about the role of women. Click here to read it.
OK, time for Job!
It is one of the greatest embarrassments of my life that I have never read the book of Job. (Other big embarrassments, for those who are curious: repeatedly referring to Christian Scientists as “Scientologists” in an article for my college newspaper; having a semi-panic attack during a high-school track meet and choking on all my high-jumping attempts; a short-lived ponytail; an even shorter-lived goatee.) Job is a fundamental text of Western civilization, the Bible book that even people who don’t read the Bible have read. Yet, I managed to avoid it.
While not reading Job, I apparently developed a gross misconception about what it was. Like everyone with a pulse, I knew the basic outlines: God bets Satan—a gentleman’s bet, no cash at stake—that His most upright servant, Job, will remain faithful even in the face of catastrophe. God and Satan afflict Job, and he endures patiently.
But as I am learning from the first few chapters, I seem to have wildly misunderstood the story in two ways. First, I assumed the book was the story of Job’s trials—an endless series of unfortunate events, punctuated by Satanic (and divine) laughter. In fact, God and Satan wipe out Job by the middle of Chapter 2. The next 40 chapters are just argument. Second, because I believe clichés, I thought that Job would be patient (see: “patient as Job“). He’s the opposite of patient. He’s frustrated, enraged, petulant, and agitated about his situation. He can’t believe how badly he has been screwed, and he’s desperate to fix it, right now.
Anyway, on to our story. Who is Job? And when did he live? The book does not give us many clues. Based on its language, it seems to take place before the time of the patriarchs—sometime between the Flood and Abraham. It’s pretty clear Job is not an Israelite since the book doesn’t mention the patriarchs, or God’s covenant, or Israel. Other evidence that it takes place pre-Abraham: It sounds like the early parts of Genesis when God was intervening busily in earthly affairs, and when God concerned himself with all humans, not merely His chosen Israelites.
Job lives in the land of Uz, which is not to be confused with the Land of Oz (though, as we shall see, Uz, like Oz, is vulnerable to sudden tornadoes that cause deadly building collapses). Job “feared God and shunned evil,” and his goodness made him the richest man in the East, the Warren Buffett of Uz, with 7,000 sheep and 3,000 camels. He also had seven sons and three daughters. (That 7-3 numerical pattern is kind of odd—why are sheep like sons and camels like daughters?) One day, God’s divine beings drop by His house for a visit. Accompanying them is “the Adversary,” or as we have come to know him, “Satan.” (Satan means “adversary” in Hebrew.) Here is what this Satan is not: a fallen angel, wicked, omnipotent, demonic, living in hell, warring with God for dominion over the earth, carrying a pitchfork, smelling like brimstone, or wearing red spandex. Here is what he is: an arguer, a troublemaker. But Satan is actually the kind of guy any smart God would want around, because he questions authority. He asks the tricky, contentious questions that make God more thoughtful about His own work. (The kind of questions, say, that presidential advisers should ask the president.) Satan makes God uncomfortable, but only so God will do His job better.
The Lord asks Satan what he has been doing. Satan says he’s been wandering around the world. The Lord asks if he ever got a chance to meet his star earthling, Job. God starts bragging about how good Job is. Satan interrupts the love fest, jeering that Job only loves the Lord because He has given him so much wealth. If God takes away all his good fortune, Satan says, Job will curse Him. God accepts the wager. He tells Satan to do his worst to Job but not to harm him physically. The most heartless sadist would have a hard time topping the next seven verses. In short order, four messengers arrive at Job’s house. The first announces that all Job’s oxen and donkeys have been stolen. The next that a fire from heaven incinerated his 7,000 sheep. The next that the Chaldeans took his 3,000 camels. And the last that “a mighty wind” blew down his son’s tent, killing all 10 of his kids inside. But Job does not curse God: He tears his clothes, cuts off his hair, and cries one of the most famous verses in the Bible: “Naked I came out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return there; the Lord has given, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.”
Round 1 clearly goes to God. But Satan isn’t satisfied. He gibes God a second time. The only reason Job isn’t complaining is that he still has health and life. “Lay a hand on his bones and his flesh, and he will surely blaspheme.” (Is it just me, or is this exchange eerily reminiscent of the debate over torturing al-Qaida terrorists and the question of whether their faith would, or wouldn’t, make them resist the most brutal interrogation techniques?) God can’t say no to a challenge. He tells Satan he can do anything short of killing Job. Satan gives Job wicked sores all over his body. Completely incapacitated, Job sits and scratches himself with a broken piece of pottery. His wife, rather inexplicably, tells him he should curse God, but Job is philosophical: “Should we accept only good from God and not accept evil?”
We’re only halfway through Chapter 2, and almost all the action of the book has taken place. The divine bet, the punishments of Job, his perseverance. What’s left to happen? A lot of talking. Job’s three friends Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar hear about his tragedies and show up at his house to console him.
At this point, Job turns from prose to poetry. Both translations I am reading pause to observe, almost apologetically, that the poetic language of Job is incredibly difficult. Translating it seems to be a crapshoot. My two translations differ immensely, and differ from other translations. Reading it is confusing. It’s very hard to figure out what Job and his friends mean. All of which is to say: Excuse me if I botch this.
Job has not cursed God—in that sense God is winning his parlay with Satan—but Job certainly isn’t taking his misery lying down. His first words to his friends are, “Perish the day on which I was born.” It goes downhill from there. He asks why God let him live, only to make him suffer, and why God doesn’t let him die now.
Chapter 4 and Chapter 5
Job’s three friends—who turn out to be more “frenemies” than friends—immediately lay into him. Eliphaz rebukes Job, laying out the key argument of the friends: No innocent man was ever punished by God. If you’re suffering, it is surely because you have done wrong. You, Job, are evil, as we are all evil: “For man is born to do mischief, just as sparks fly upward.”
Eliphaz suggests—as Proverbs does—that Job should be grateful for God’s punishment. The Lord is wounding him, only to heal him later. Eventually, God will give him wealth, protect him from violence, and apparently give him a lifetime Viagra supply. (“When you visit your wife, you will never fail.”)
Chapter 6 and Chapter 7
Job is unimpressed by Eliphaz’s Panglossianism. He points out that his punishment is undeservedly great. He’s suffering so much that he can’t endure any longer. I confess that these chapters befuddle me. Job rebukes his friends for taking sides against him. He demands that they look the facts square in the eye and recognize that he is “in the right,” that he is being unjustly punished.
Job doesn’t seem to curse God, but he certainly waxes against Him. “I will complain in the bitterness of my soul.” His flesh is infested with maggots, happiness has abandoned him, and when he seeks comfort in sleep, God sends nightmares. Job brilliantly mocks the famous line from Psalm 8: “What is man that thou are mindful of him?” Job turns it inside out, urging God to stop paying so much attention to man, since his attention is so unpleasant. This is God as Big Brother: “What is man, that You make much of him … You inspect him every morning, examine him every minute. Will You not look away from me for awhile, let me be, till I swallow my spittle?” (That final “spittle” line is a killer—self-aware, angry, ironic.)
Second “friend” Bildad chimes in, also blaming Job for his own problems, and telling him to shut his trap. “Your utterances are a mighty wind.” Of course Job should suffer, because God would never “pervert justice.” Job’s sons probably died because they sinned. God doesn’t punish the blameless.
The book takes an enthralling turn. As I’ve mentioned, one repeated theme of the Bible is the lawsuit between man and God. Again and again, we are suing the Almighty or He is countersuing—usually for breach of covenant. This legalistic ethos surely helps explain why Judaism is so strong at analytical scholarship (and produces so many great lawyers). In any case, this chapter presents the opening statements in the dooziest lawsuit of them all: Job v. God. The friends have urged Job to take his case to God. Canny lawyer that he is, Job recognizes that he faces an impossible appeal—like trying to persuade Justice Scalia to reverse a death-penalty judgment. “Man cannot win a suit against God,” Job moans. God can move mountains; he can “command the sun not to shine.” How can Job possibly argue with him? How could Job possibly defeat him? God would fix the outcome. He would cheat to win. Even though Job is innocent, “It will be I who am in the wrong.” Even if Job washes himself, “You would dip me in muck.” Again, Job doesn’t exactly curse God, but he comes mighty close, accusing Him of vicious injustice, of punishing the blameless and mocking the innocent.
Job has directed most of his comments to the friends, but now he gives it to God directly, scraping Him for His sadism. God knows he’s innocent yet punishes him. Poignantly, Job wonders why God would bother to make him—to fashion him “like clay”—just so that he can suffer. Job thinks it must be a game for God, an ego trip, like hunting a lion. (What’s interesting, of course, is that Job is right. God is behaving with manifest injustice, and it is a kind of game for Him.)
Job says these terrible things about God, yet they don’t seem to count as curses for the purposes of God’s bet with Satan. Why? Perhaps we are to conclude that even though Job is angry at God, he still accepts His authority. Job still appeals to God, still assumes that God can act to make it right. Truly cursing God would be abandoning him. Job never gives up: He begs, berates, insists, and screams that God do better. But he always accepts that God is the decider.
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