What I’m Reading: Job

My final reading for Lent: Job.  I’m sure everybody knows the basic story.  Satan comes to God, who asks him what he thinks of Job, an especially devoted man.  Satan responds that of course Job is devoted to God, for God has blessed him.  But take away Job’s riches, family, and health, and he would curse God as anybody else.  God accepts the wager, and Job is made to suffer the loss of everything he holds dear as part of this divine contest.

I’m not sure I realized beforehand that much of Job is poetical.  After the brief prose introduction setting up the situation, there are a series of alternating poetic speeches between Job and his friends.  Job laments his situation, but never does curse God.  Meanwhile, his friends encourage him to repent, claiming he must have sinned in some way for God to punish him so.  Job knows he’s done nothing wrong, however, and longs for a hearing or trial so he can hear God’s charges against him and plead his case.

In the end, God comes in the shape of a great storm and does respond to Job, though it is not the response Job expected.  Rather, he demonstrates to Job that his wisdom and power are beyond human understanding, and that Job must simply put his trust and faith in God no matter the circumstances.  He never reveals the wager (which in any case he has won–for Job did remain faithful, despite all his complaining) or otherwise explain himself, essentially for the same reason you don’t explain yourself when you tell your two-year old child not to run in the street or that he can’t have a juicebox right now.

The language in Job is quite beautiful, full of metaphor and grandeur, if quite ornate by modern standards.  I wouldn’t have minded it a bit shorter, though it’s not difficult to read.  The arguments between the friends do seem to go in circles after awhile.  On the hand, I would have liked more on the relationship between Satan and God.  Oddly, they speak to each other almost as old friends–it would have been interesting to have this explicated at more length.

It occurred to me while reading it that the author (who is thought to have written this down around 600-400 BC) was himself writing ancient history, for the story is set in the time of the patriarchs (i.e. somewhere around 2000-1500 BC).  Not sure whether he considered himself to be recounting an actual historic episode, or if it’s meant purely as a fable or parable.  Wikipedia suggests there are “Jobic” stories found in earlier Sumerian and Egyptian literature, although no direct antecedents.  Whether the author knew of these or not is an open question.

Interesting that in Job, riches consist of flocks of camels and goats, and Job, who is said to be the richest man in his area, lives in a tent.  I would guess even by the author’s time this was considered a pretty rustic way of life.  I imagine some Jewish scholar in a town, perhaps Jerusalem itself, imagining how life had been 1,000 years earlier.  He does a good job of it!

For those interested in reading the Bible, I would probably not recommend you start here, unless you have a special interest in the question of how a just God can allow humans to suffer.  Ruth or Esther offer gentle, beautiful stories, while Exodus is full of action, and the Acts of the Apostles is a fascinating history of Christianity’s early days.  But for those ready to tackle deeper questions, Job provides a thorough and tough examination of one of the thorniest theological issues.

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