Commentary on the book of Job
I’ve recently been reading the book of Job.
Everyone loves this book in theory, because it reassures us that it’s Biblical a) to notice that life isn’t fair, and b) for suffering people to resent being told to cheer up or repent; and because some of the poetry is stunning.
Everyone who’s read it surely would also agree that it’s maddeningly repetitive and could do with being cut to about a third of its length; that Elihu the original Angry Young Man promises to make new points and then doesn’t; that it’s really not clear what it is that Satan fails to get Job to do (he may not curse God directly, but this seems pretty pedantic to me, given the bitterness of some of his complaints); and that God’s response also is a bit strange.
The relationship between God and Job’s suffering seems to be expressed in three ways:
- God had a secret arrangement with Satan to prove that Job wasn’t just good to win earthly benefits, which he doesn’t tell Job about at any point (chapters 1 and 2);
- God is bigger and more awesome than Job, who shouldn’t really dare to answer back (chapters 38-41, especially 40:2);
- On the other hand, Job’s previous answering back seems to meet God’s grudging approval (chapter 42), and God explicitly condemns his friends’ statements that suffering means sin, despite this thesis being widely put forward in other parts of the Bible.
A fourth moral is suggested in James 5:11 (“you have heard of the steadfastness of Job, and you have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful”) which makes one ask whether James had skipped chapters 3 – 41. I have myself sometimes wondered if these chapters, the bulk of the book, were inserted later than the rest.
Long ago in this blog I recommended a book called “The Man Who Was Thursday” by GK Chesterton. It remains my view that this novel is a deliberate commentary on Job, although Wikipedia doesn’t say so, and Wikipedia knows everything. If it is, it’s the most entertaining Bible commentary ever.
“The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare” (Chesterton insisted that people should remember the subtitle) is described by Kingsley Amis as “the most thrilling book I have ever read.” It’s also hilariously funny, if you like Chesterton’s style. Neither of these things could ever be said about the Biblical book of Job, but bear with me.
In what follows, there will be inevitable spoilers for the novel, but I will try to keep them to a minimum.
In a nightmare version of Edwardian England, civilisation is threatened by one or more teams of murderous “anarchists” – we would probably call them “nihilistic atheistic terrorists”. Gabriel (sic) Syme is a rather elegant poet who is recruited to the anti-anarchist branch of the police. He manages to infiltrate the Supreme Anarchist Council of seven men, code-named after the days of the week for no obvious reason except a wonderful title and Christian symbolism.
Syme and some friends, trying to prevent an assassination and then just trying to survive, proceed to have a series of preposterous adventures, which are highly entertaining to read about, but terrifying to them. One of the adventures involves roaming rapidly through a zoo. (I would mention that Job is pointed to the miscellaneous animal kingdom in chapters 39-41.)
All ends happily. Except that the friends then complain to their boss about the horrible and pointless suffering they’ve been put through.
The genuine anarchist, Lucian (sic) Gregory, turns up at this conclave. He is welcomed with a quotation from Job chapter 1 about Satan coming before God. The friends greet him with pity, which of course he scorns, cursing them. “I do not curse you for being cruel. I do not curse you (though I might) for being kind. I curse you for being safe! You [policemen/government/angels] sit in your chairs of stone and have never come down from them…. You have had no troubles.”
And so Syme leaps up to answer on behalf of himself and his friends and the forces of good and law’n’order generally, and to claim that he sees “everything that there is.”
“Why does each small thing in the world have to fight against the world itself?… So that the real lie of Satan can be flung back in the face of this blasphemer, so that by tears and torture we may earn the right to say to this man, ‘You lie!’… We also have suffered.”
I think this is a rather more inspiring way to put it than Job 1:10 (“Does Job fear God for naught? You have put a hedge about him and his house…”) but it’s basically the same argument.
To add to the fun… just when the book draws to a close, quoting Matthew 20:22, and the reader thinks, “Oh, I get it!”… my edition finishes by quoting an article written years later by Chesterton saying that no, you’re wrong, no one in the book is “a serious representation of the Deity”. Well, shucks, don’t do that to me, GKC!
(I think he means that someone in the book is still allowed to be a “non-serious representation of the Deity”, but maybe I’m wrong.)
(Warning: “The Man Who Was Thursday” is a fantastic and joyously daft book. By modern standards it’s also in places racist and possibly anti-semitic.)
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