timberland clothing A Philosophical Reading of the Book of Job Religion EthicsAustralian Broadcasting Corporation
I am a philosopher who believes that Western philosophy begins not with Plato, but elsewhere, and earlier, with the Book of Job. That is because I believe that the problem of evil is the central point where philosophy begins, and threatens to stop.
The experience of inexplicable suffering and basest injustice forces us to ask whether our lives have meaning, or whether human existence may be deeply incomprehensible. And if that is the case, then the urge to philosophy can seem to be a simple mistake. Put more optimistically: if the task of philosophy is to show how the world is, or can be made rational, then it must address the presence of evil in the world.
Classically, the majority of thinkers dealt with the problem by denying the third claim. Evil doesn’t exist, or anyway not really: you can’t have light without having shadows; you wouldn’t want to eat sugar all the time and nothing salty (these are Leibniz’s examples.) Everything we take to be evil actually happens for the best, and if we knew all that God knows we would understand that too.
Though one still does hear versions of this view from surprising corners, it is the route we are least likely to take these days, largely since the mid eighteenth, century certainly since the twentieth century. For it denies what we witness nearly every day: children are murdered in Afghanistan or Florida, and the world keeps on turning, and not even the punishment of those responsible if it happens at all can make a dent in the cosmic flaw that is revealed when that kind of evil shows itself among us.
Before the eighteenth century, however, nearly every major thinker preferred to deny the evidence of his senses than deny the central theses of monotheism that God exists, and is omnipotent and benevolent. Perhaps it would have seemed a denial of hope. The Book of Job is matchless because it is unwilling to make the problem easier by dropping any of these claims, and makes us feel the force of all of them.
Note that the example I just used is an example of moral evil, which is different to what, up to the mid eighteenth century, was called natural evil namely, the suffering that is caused through things like earthquakes, plagues and floods. One revolutionary turn of the Enlightenment was to make a radical distinction between these: there is a fundamental difference between what happens when a child is killed by a vigilante thug and when he is killed by an earthquake in Italy.
I am simply here pointing out that the distinction between natural and moral evils is not a distinction that is important for most traditional believers, and hence not for Job. The book notes no difference in the misery he feels when the suffering was caused by lightning or by marauding neighbours after all, both the lightning and the neighbours are all ultimately in the hands of God. So this book ignores a quintessentially modern distinction, but before you conclude that this makes the book less timeless, you should know that Sigmund Freud profound atheist and demystifier held the distinction to be of little importance. There is good reason, at first glance, to believe this. Even the best translations cannot obscure the incredible differences in language: the poetry of the main body of the text Job’s outrage, and God’s answer seems worlds away from the language of the prologue and epilogue, which is not only prosaic, but so wooden as to come closest to soap opera or slapstick.
Just consider the way in which Job’s suffering is introduced: the first messenger appears with the announcement, “The oxen were ploughing and the donkeys grazing and the Sabeans attacked and took them and killed the servants and only I escaped to tell you.” Before he had finished speaking another one came and said, “Lightning fell from the sky and burned up the sheep and servants and only I escaped to tell you.” Before he had finished speaking, another one came and said, “Your sons and daughters were feasting and a great wind came out of the desert and they’re dead and only I escaped to tell you.” If you saw this on a stage, you might laugh, or sneer. You can do neither in the main body of the text.
Moreover, the weakness of the language of the prologue and epilogue seems to reflect the weakness of their content. The opening premise is clearly outrageous: God makes a bet with the devil? God allows someone He Himself describes as a man of perfect integrity to be tortured as a means of proving a boast about His own power? And speaking of power, in the second round of torments, the Almighty behaves like a sulky child, complaining to Satan that “You made me torture him for no reason”. It looks like a tacked on happy ending, straight out of Disney, which simply ignores all the questions that the rest of the book poses. Is there incomprehensible suffering in the world? Of course not, or not for long: at the end of the book Job has 14,000 sheep instead of 7,000, 6,000 camels instead of 3,000; the Lord doubles Job’s possessions, and gives him just the same number of children he had before.
Moreover and this is perhaps the most crucial point the Job of the prologue and the epilogue seem to be a wholly different man from the one we see in the poem. In particular since this was one of the books of the Bible whose canonization was hotly debated, for reasons I think obvious scholars have speculated that the epilogue was tacked on at the end in order to support conventional notions of religion and morality that are threatened by the body of the text. If you happen to suffer along the way, just hang on and your reward will eventually double.
I am in no position to answer such textual questions, or evaluate the attempts made to argue for the unity of the text. I raise them just to say that scholars are still debating them, and if your initial reaction in reading Job was a sense of severe dissonance between parts of the book, you are not alone.
What we can say, however, that the text has been transmitted to us as a unity. We are moved by this book because we accept, or begin by accepting, its basic premises. We take the text at face value because something about it seems true. Here is a good man who suffers the most horrible series of catastrophes, for no reason at all. Though he tries to bear them with humility and fortitude, he breaks down in a rage that we share: where is justice, and meaning in the world, when this sort of thing is possible?
A brief survey of the immense literature on Job reveals that Job’s world is much closer to ours than the world of the intervening centuries; for every earlier interpretation sought to deny some piece of that picture we find undeniable. Some medieval Christian interpretations did this in the most straightforward of ways: they simply censored those pieces of the text in which Job expresses rage. If you leave those out, you get the figure of the patient Job, who remains humble and pious throughout every twist of fate; you get some bits of traditional theodicy about the mysteriousness of God’s purposes for the feeble human mind; and Job’s piety is rewarded in the end, serving nicely as an example for schoolchildren.
This is precisely what John Calvin did admittedly, I haven’t read all 159 sermons that he wrote on Job, but in the sample I have taken he goes on to add that Job was actually fortunate to have his riches taken away, given how hard it is for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven, before rushing to add that the story also tells us that riches per se should not be despised. Hello, Max Weber! In sum, the lesson Calvin draws is that Job shows we should be patient until God discloses His reasons, for God can dispose of His creatures at His pleasure. Calvin doesn’t mention the children.
Other Christian readings viewed the problems in the Book of Job to be problems within Judaism, which Christianity had resolved. Job was seen as a parallel or precursor to Jesus; one theologian wrote that Job is the question, and Jesus the answer. Moreover, some Christian theologians continued, the difficulties in Job stem from the failure of traditional Judaism to develop an adequate theory of the afterlife. On some views, that theory just is an answer to the problem of evil: the Jobs of the world land in heaven, where the infinite duration of their reward makes any problems they had in the world below seem fleeting and trivial. But traditional Jewish interpretations can deny the immensity of the problem just as surely as do Christian ones. Here we find no straightforward censorship; once a text has been canonized, it cannot be cut. As a text, it is sacred. If passages in it seem problematic, it is precisely the business of scholarship to explain them, by argument and analogy, by imagining details that were left out of the original text and make it explicable.
In short: Jews don’t cut texts, we write more of them. One Midrash (a collection of sacred tales meant to explain problematic passages of Scripture) tells us that Job was punished for the sin of neutrality. Three non Jews were asked what should be the fate of the children of Israel in Egypt. The father in law of Moses, Jethro, said they should be liberated, and he was rewarded appropriately. Pharoah said they should be annihilated, and we know what happened to him. Job remained silent, undecided, neutral on a question of good and evil; hence the very peculiar nature of his torment.
Another Midrash tells us the following: as the children of Israel were trying to cross the Red Sea, Satan came along to try to stop them. In order to divert Satan long enough for the people to cross, God threw him Job, just as a shepherd may temporarily leave the strongest of his rams to battle the wolf while herding the lambs to safety.
Let’s reflect the philosophical structure of these tales. In the first, what is claimed is that Job was guilty of something after all; therefore his punishment was deserved. (Indeed, a host of traditional interpretations accuse Job of a variety of sins, from self righteousness to rebellion itself. Since God, knowing everything, knew that Job harboured rebellious thoughts, Job can justly be punished for having them even before he expresses them.) The neutrality story is interesting for its political implications, but however complex the sin it describes may be, its solution to the problems Job poses is very simple: Job was guilty, and God punished him. In the second Midrash, what is being argued is that Job’s suffering served a higher purpose, diverting Satan so that the children of Israel can escape to freedom. This turns Job into a kind of Hegelian resistance hero who, albeit unwittingly, is strong enough and righteous enough to plunge into the slaughterbank of history for the sake of other’s lives or freedom.