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The Lighter Side of Job
An Interpretation by William Blake
Inside the Milwaukee Airport terminal is a used bookstore. I already had plenty of reading material in my carry-on luggage. But what is better to kill time with than an independent bookstore, so seldom found virtually anywhere? It was President's Day and I was feeling political. I wanted to learn more about Hillary Clinton. Who was the real candidate, I wondered, not the haloed heroine or mustachioed villain, according to the whimsical media? But the book I selected was $27.50. It was also a thick hardback that did not fit inside my briefcase. So, continuing the hunt, for $8 I bought a commentary on Job written by William Safire. Safire used to write for the New York Times. He was the leftwing's sensible voice of opposition. To me, the Book of Job is very dense and archaic. Few biblical books begin with Satan walking up and down, hither and thither, eventually entering into a conversation with God. Safire calls Job "The First Dissident", the title of his book, subtitled, "The Book of Job in Today's Politics". By today was meant the early 1990s. It included references to Richard Nixon, Brent Scowcroft, Gary Hart, Billy Carter, and others who, hoping to find some agreement here, tend to lighten up a rather tragic story, even if the ending is as happy as Hollywood hokum.
How does it begin? Just to jog the reader's memory, God gives Satan permission to test Job's righteousness. He takes from him his wealth, family, and health. The man falls precipitously from grace in "the land of Uz" to become a pitiful creature so greatly reduced that when friends come to call, they barely recognize him. They are awestruck, appalled, and can only marvel at Job's distress, speechless for the better part of a week. He is an utter wretch. Denied every conceivable comfort, including death, for which he expresses a degree of longing, he languishes in disbelief. Thus forms the backdrop for a series of speeches. I have also added in some weight to a makeshift Christian argument that the intercession of Christ might have been required so that Man and God can successfully communicate. It is cheating, in a way, even if it is, ultimately, the answer. Here, arguments are produced, grief expressed, and the Voice from out of the Whirlwind responds.
A Janos Kardos Interpretation
Eliphaz the Temanite
Eliphaz must have been a kinder friend during better times. Now, he cannot hold himself back. "What innocent man has ever perished?" he says. "Where have you seen the upright destroyed?" He gets a bit more eloquent a few lines later: "Mischief does not grow out of the soil/Nor trouble spring from the earth." Eliphaz seems to be trying to get Job to confess. He must have erred. This is a common mistake that is repeated unto this very hour. To make a man look bad, as though he has done something awful, just push him to the ground. People will walk away. "He must have had it coming," they'll say. But more importantly, Eliphaz has the undesirable honor of going first, beginning a series of arguments, none of which are correct, except in part. Man lacks understanding. At least that much is clear.
Interestingly, at the same time I'm writing this up, there lurks on the website a question about Satan for hubbers to reply to. "What is the greatest weapon used by our adversary?" A thread follows that may or may not be of merit. Some do not believe in the existence of such a creature. Indeed, by "some" I might actually be summoning to mind the majority of people who have given the matter thought. In his answer to Eliphaz, Job goes on at length about how God has made him suffer. He has "left me at the mercy of malefactors/and cast me into the clutches of wicked men." Absent throughout his lament is any mention of Satan, who is really the culprit he refuses to acknowledge or name. We have the same problem today. God is not starving the multitudes, giving them diseases, or butchering them in wars that have nothing to do with them. For these and other maladies we still have Satan, or, if you like, bad men and women -- Satanic men and women -- set on the use of pain and threat of violent death to bring about a desired end. God's allowance of it is a continued source of puzzlement.
Blake's illustration of Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar
Absence of God
This comes up quite often in the Book of Job and can be applied widely to a diverse and great amount of national and personal circumstances. Assuming that, if true, there will likely never be another Job, there is still goodness in both persons and collections of them that is quite often tested. Throughout the ordeal, be it the Civil War, as discussed in the Safire book ("Lincoln . . . saw evidence of the national sin in the national suffering"), or "involutional melancholia", as is a frequent point of reference in another study, instances are mentioned, whether in politics or psychiatry, of the perceived vacuity of an unfeeling Deity. Why does Satan get his way simply by asking? Naturally, he wants to prove a point. It is in effect a wager. The usual approximation of how it is all summed up comes when Job's wife says, "Curse God and die." Another interpretation is, "Blaspheme God and die." Yet another is "Bless God and die", since regardless of how he is punished, Job still blesses God for the sake of a greatness that eludes his comprehension.
The absence of Christ is also an issue. But as I have already mentioned, His time has not yet come either. All the same, God's voice, though depicted, I think, rather than recorded verbatim, speaks without need for interpolations. I prefer to regard Job as though he were an historical figure, which might be true, time-bound and unique in all creation. The reason I make this assertion is that so much effort is made, not just by Safire, but other "Jobans" as well, to relate his predicament to that of many others. Include mercurial political fortunes, and an unintended lighter side emerges. Nevertheless, Job is the one Satan specifically chose, though not without a big hint from God. What is it about Satan that makes him go after Job while he has the opportunity? First, he must bring Job down, insofar as Satan does not believe Man should worship God. Second, Satan wants God to confer some form of stewardship of the planet on him. He truly loves the place. Perhaps he knows about outer space, too: how vast the universe is, both too hot or cold for life, and how lonely and indifferent. To be sure, Satan's kingdom is not of another world. No, the plain old earth gives him no end of ideas.
The Voice of God
This is a particularly hard topic for me. That still small voice? Never heard it. Nor a trumpet blast, saying whatever. But for a scribe to put into words what God might have said -- because I cannot bring myself to believe that His response is verbal -- few if any could have done better. "But where can wisdom be found?/And where is the source of understanding?/No man knows the way to it;/ it is not found in the land of living men." These remarks are prefaced by how keen an eye and skillful a hand Man has to mine or process silver, gold, iron, and gems. Fair enough, if unpublishable, taking into account modern scruples. But it was not written for fame, fortune, and money. It was written for God, the sake of posterity, and against Satan.
No one takes offense at the chastisement of Man by God. "Where were you when I laid the earth's foundations?/Tell me, if you know and understand/Who settled its dimensions?" Of course, God not only has the upper hand, but shows it, at least in verse. But after this comes the parting of the ways according to the various interpretations that have ensued. Personally, I would like to ask, when it comes to the endurance of misery, when is it theological or not? "I call for thy help, but thou dost not answer;/I stand up to plead but thou sittest aloof;/thou hast turned cruelly against me." Job's suffering might appear to prefigure that of Christ, yet his story is in the Old Testament, upon which non-Christians maintain a standing claim. It is, for them, God alone who does miracles, or not, as the case might be. It is Man who suffers, or not, also as the case might be. That is about as far as I would want to go, except to say that the rich are not necessarily smart, the poor stupid, the healthy brilliant, the sick idiotic, or the family man closer to heaven than a loner in an alley.
Job on Video
Summer Reading for Springtime
- The William Blake Archive
A hypermedia archive sponsored by the Library of Congress and supported by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the University of Rochester. With past support from the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities at the Universi