Ralph Williams’ lecture on the Book of Job was yesterday. The whole family attended, including the 7-year-old, who sat reading Carolyn Haywood’s “Eddie’s Menagerie” while we grappled with one of the 900-pound gorillas of world literature. (I’m pleased to say this arrangement suited everybody well.)
It was a good lecture. I judge it so because it rearranged my thinking about the text; the last time that happened was during a 1994 performance of “Hamlet,” so I guess I’m due for these shakeups every decade or so. Everybody says “Hamlet” is about indecision. Wrong. What’s Hamlet to do — a ghost tells him his uncle’s a murder, so he should run into the throne room and shank his ass? Not much of a play there. No, Hamlet’s a thinker, an intellectual. He needs to have all his ducks in a row before he acts. This is not indecision, it’s intelligence. His uncle is a murderer, and you can’t really say that if he’d acted rashly early on, there’d be fewer bodies littering the stage at the final curtain. It’s a tragedy.
Job’s a tragedy, too, and yet what lesson do we take from it? What’s the expression? “You have the patience of Job.” I don’t think this is a story about patience. It’s about an unjustly punished man standing up to God and saying, “This is wrong.” For his resolution and acceptance of his fate — not his patience — God rewards him in the end, although it’s a pretty thin reward, if you ask me. The God of the Old Testament is not a compelling figure. He’s like the world’s worst boss, always micromanaging, speaking inscrutably from the heavens, flooding the earth and calling a do-over on his own creation. Oh, and smiting people. Poor Job. The text says God didn’t do the smiting, but Williams pointed out that the temple that fell on Job’s family, killing all his children at once, was struck by a wind “at all four corners,” and what sort of wind is that, hmm? A whirlwind? And who likes to speak from whirlwinds?
Even more disturbing is the prologue, which features God and his advisers lounging around heaven, when Satan shows up from a stroll around the earth and the two get to talkin’. “Have you seen my servant Job?” asks God. “There is no one on earth like him; he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil.” And Satan says, essentially, “Sez you,” (this the little-cited NN.C translation of the original Hebrew) and suggests God mess up Job’s hair a little, and see what he has to say then. And God says, OK, do what you want, just don’t kill him. This, apparently, is what a pious lifetime of service to God got you in the land of Uz — to be used as a pawn in an intellectual exercise being argued in heaven.
So either Satan or God smites Job big-time, first robbing him of all his wealth, then all his children, then covering his body with sores, and then the fun really begins. His friends come over to say, “Look, you must have done something to deserve this. Repent and get it over with.” Job is, of course, blameless and maintains his innocence, or at least no idea why this is happening. And then there’s a lot of great poetry about how God is present in all things, and no one can really understand why things like this happen, and essentially Job says, “I give up,” and God says, “Good boy” and gives him everything back, although not the original children, but he gets 10 replacement children, including three daughters named Dove, Cinnamon and Eye-shadow.
As parables of suffering go, there’s little comfort in this one. Maintain your purity in the face of unspeakable agony, and maybe you’ll be OK in the end. Don’t waste time trying to figure things out. It is as it is. God knows best.
Like “King Lear,” I think Job is one of those stories you have to be a little older to really understand. I can’t imagine how the 20-year-olds in the class took it. Although they all took notes.