Episode 20: The Problem of Evil

The Old Testament, Part 6 of 10. If God is so good, then why do the good and innocent suffer? The Book of Job’s aim is to answer this question.

To download the episode, click the three dot icon on the right of the player, and then click Download.

The Story and Interpretations of the Book of Job

Hello, and welcome to Literature and History. Episode 20: The Problem of Evil. In this show, we’re going to talk about the Book of Job. The Book of Job is the first freestanding story in Christian Bibles – a self-enclosed narrative, 42 chapters in length, that ends the gigantic saga of the Historical Books.1 Job is a book that readers tend to remember.

My generation of literary critics were trained to be cautious relativists. We don’t talk any more about timeless truths. We don’t hold authors up any more and say that they are “not of an age, but for all time,” as Ben Jonson said of Shakespeare.2 We don’t build hierarchies of superiority, and talk about “great works,” or “masters,” these mythic, heroic figures who stand outside of time and illuminate the unchanging realities of the human condition. We understand that one person’s doggerel is another person’s James Joyce, and vice versa. We understand that something like Macbeth is only intelligible within the register of a very specific culture. And we’re all the better for it, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

byzantine manuscript book of job

An illuminated Byzantine manuscript displaying the central scene in which Job’s friends attempt to reconcile him to his sufferings.

But occasionally, something like the Book of Job walks into the room. And for the cultures that grew out of the Ancient Near East and Mediterranean, the Book of Job asks questions that were central to human culture 2,500 years ago, and questions that are central to our culture today. As scholar David Clines observes, “The book of Job is perhaps the most sustained piece of theological writing in the Hebrew Bible, and it is unique in the Bible for its sympathetic portrayal of different theological points of view.”3 Job is indeed a piece of theological writing – a debate, in a series of dialogues, about a central question. In these dialogues, a philosophical dispute unfolds such as you might find in the pages of Plato or Cicero, with different characters embodying different perspectives, until, at the culmination of the Book, the Old Testament God enters the conversation and takes over. The long dialogue that is the Book of Job ends irresolutely, with no perspective in particular having come out on top. God dominates the end of the narrative more due to the amplitude of his rhetoric and his powerful stature than because he has answered anyone’s questions.

The notoriously unresolved ending of the Book of Job, however, is one of its perfections. The book relentlessly explores the Problem of Evil – why bad things happen to good people under the watch of a beneficent deity. It does not have an answer. Almost a thousand years after the Book of Job was written, in 413 CE, when Saint Augustine wrote the thirteenth book of the City of God, he was still trying to answer the same question, his convoluted exegesis of the opening chapters of Genesis, for him and many others, at least, providing a sufficient explanation by means of the doctrine of Original Sin.4 But Job’s exploration of the Problem of Evil is more personal, and less theoretical than Augustine’s. Augustine went into the ancient past, and he theorized that evil existed because we’d brought it on ourselves. Job, the character, however, is not contemplating abstract theological questions. He is looking for answers immediately relevant to his own loss and suffering. Friends and acquaintances try to help Job, but no one can give him a giftwrapped, satisfactory answer as to why he has had to endure so much. There isn’t one. Instead, we come to the closing verses of the Book of Job, not with some shiny key to the Problem of Evil, but instead with an intense sympathy for its main character. We can relate to Job, and his sense of injustice at what’s happened to him. And at a broader level, we can appreciate that one of the most powerful critics of the theology of the Old Testament is, in fact, the Old Testament itself.

So let’s talk briefly about Job the character, and the dating of the Book of Job. Biblical scholars have not been able to establish a definitive timeframe for the Book of Job’s composition. Current consensuses can only place it some time between the 600s and 300s BCE, centuries which include the Preexilic, Exilic, and Persian era Second Temple periods. Many of the experiences of the early Israelites that we read about in the Historical Books would have prompted the story that Job tells – the story of a devout man unaccountably punished by his deity. And while the story of a just man suffering might have come from the Israelites’ experiences of the 600s and 500s BCE, the philosophical architecture of the Book of Job – its capacity to offer stage time to conflicting perspectives, demonstrates an intellectual maturity a bit different than the blunt partisanship of many earlier books of the Tanakh. In Job, energetic and intelligent people disagree with one another, and the truth is, chapter after chapter, a matter to be mutually discovered. The philosophical inquisitiveness of the Book of Job, then, might suggest a date during the middle or later Persian period, during which the Levant had become a junction between the Mediterranean west and the Achaemenid east, and Greek philosophical tradition was alive and well.

While the Book of Job may have been written in the Second Temple period, or the Exilic, or Pre-Exilic period, we can more definitely say that it chronicles events from a much earlier time. The Book of Job is set during the united monarchy of David and after him Solomon, a period way back during the 900s BCE. The ancient vintage of the book’s setting is part of its depth. Whoever set the Book of Job down wanted readers to understand that the injustices that later Israelites suffered were not unique to their generations, and that even the supposedly prosperous period of the unified monarchy had seen good people enduring terrible adversity. As such – set in a far off, storied period as it is, and featuring a fairly generic set of characters, the Book of Job purposely seeks to tell a universal story about all Israelites, showing us that even during the golden age of King David, the Israelites had still struggled with God.

And I think that’s enough background for this one – Job is, as it always has been, a pretty accessible book all around. Quotes from Job in this episode will come from the NRSV translation, printed in The New Oxford Annotated Bible, published by Oxford University Press in 2010. [music]

The Book of Job’s Opening

The Book of Job begins with these words. “There was once a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job. That man was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil. There were born to him seven sons and three daughters. He had seven thousand sheep, three thousand camels, five hundred yoke of oxen, five hundred donkeys, and very many servants; so that this man was the greatest of all the people of the east. His sons used to go and hold feasts in one another’s house in turn; and they would send and invite their three sisters to eat and drink with them. And when the feast days had run their course, Job would . . . rise early in the morning and offer burnt offerings according to the number of them all; for Job said, ‘It may be that my children have sinned, and cursed God in their hearts.’ This is what Job always did” (1:1-5).

Leprous-job-on-a-dunghill-and-the-devil book of job

A medieval manuscript showing Job plagued by the Accuser, who pocks him with boils.

Although Job lived in the land of Edom, southeast of Israel, Job was always good in his deeds, and steady in his belief, and God knew it. One day, as God presided over a gathering of his sons, a being called the Accuser joined this gathering. His name in Hebrew is hassatan, and he’s commonly called “Satan” in translations, but he’s not the devil of Christian theology – just an “accuser,” or “adversary” of mankind. So the Accuser showed up at this assembly of gods, and God bragged to the Accuser about Job. God asked the Accuser, “Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man who fears God and turns away from evil” (1:8).

The Accuser was not convinced. He asked, “Does Job fear God for nothing? Have you not put a fence around him and his house and all the work that he has, on every side? You have blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions you have increased in the land. But stretch out your hand now, and touch all that he has, and he will curse you to your face” (1:9-11).

God accepted this challenge. Not long this conversation, misfortunes fell on Job in four waves. His oxen and donkeys were stolen, and his servants were killed. Then fire fell from heaven and consumed Job’s sheep, and more of his servants. Next, his camels were stolen, and more of his servants were slaughtered. Finally, Job learned that his children were all killed when his oldest son’s house collapsed on all of them. Facing the horror of all these misfortunes all at once, Job said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return there; the LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD” (1:21).

Studying Job’s reactions to so many hardships in such a short span of time, God was satisfied with Job’s piety. The goodly man had offered a prayer to God, after all, rather than condemning him. God spoke again with the Accuser again, and for the second time, God bragged about Job’s singular devotion and probity. The Accuser, again, was dubious. The Accuser said, “Skin for skin! All that people have they will give to save their lives. But stretch out your hand now and touch his bone and his flesh, and he will curse you to your face” (2:4-5). And God replied, “Very well, he is in your power; only spare his life” (2:6). And so Job was afflicted with gruesome sores, and he scraped himself with scraps of pots and hunkered down in an ash pile. Job’s wife, seeing her husband’s misfortunes, asked whether Job continued to persist in his devotion to God. And Job offered subsequent history another storied one liner. Job asked his wife, “Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?” [music]

Eliphaz’s FirstSpeech and Its Aftermath

The Vision of Eliphaz book of job blake

William Blake’s The Vision of Eliphaz.

Notwithstanding his steely religious faith, Job’s friends knew he was suffering greatly. Three of Job’s friends arrived and were shocked at their comrade’s sufferings. For seven days, they sat with him, and listened to Job’s lamentations. As time passed, Job’s previous resolve seemed to have fissured. He wished he had not been born – that darkness would overtake the day. He said he was restless, and that his misery was deep.

Job’s friend Eliphaz was the first to console him. Job, said Eliphaz, had once counseled others to be faithful – Job himself, his friend Eliphaz said, ought to recollect his own advice. Eliphaz reported having a strange dream, in which a voice asked him whether humans could ever be righteous before God. God, said Job’s friend Eliphaz, didn’t even trust angels, and so how could he trust mortals, with all of their limitations? God couldn’t. Human beings, said Eliphaz, were destined to limitation. Eliphaz said, “[M]isery does not come from the earth, nor does trouble sprout from the ground; but human beings are born to trouble just as sparks fly upward” (5:6-7). Eliphaz then said, “As for me, I would seek God, and to God I would commit my cause. He does great things and unsearchable, marvelous things without number” (5:10-11). Eliphaz described some of these things, and proclaimed the only path to safety and happiness was confidence – confidence that even if God harmed a person six times, on the seventh, that person would enjoy unmitigated prosperity.

Job’s response was complex. Job was, more than anything, perhaps, exhausted. Looking at his expectant friends, Job said, “Is my strength the strength of stones, or is my flesh bronze? In truth I have no help in me, and any resource is driven from me” (6:12-13). He told his friends they were doing him more harm than good. He hadn’t asked anything of them, he said. Why were they reproving him? Job told his friends, “[L]ook at me, for I will not lie to your face. Is there any wrong on my tongue?. . .Will you not look away from me for a while, let me alone until I swallow my spittle?” (6:28,30; 7:19). Ultimately, Job said he wanted their understanding, and their pardon. He didn’t want to be their target, or for them to tell him what to do. Job’s second friend then spoke up. His name was Bildad. And he started telling Job what to do. [music]

Bildad’s First Speech

Here’s what Job’s second friend, Bildad, said to him. Bildad advised, “If you will seek God, make supplication to the Almighty, if you are pure and upright, surely then he will rouse himself for you and restore to you your rightful place” (8:5-6). Bildad followed this remonstration with cautionary advice. Job, he said, shouldn’t try to ponder things beyond his understanding. Bildad asked Job “Can papyrus grow where there is no marsh? Can reeds flourish where there is no water?” (8:11). The answer to both questions was no, and, Bildad emphasized, Job should not voice such questions, and must not expect to survive if he lost confidence in God’s perfect forbearance.

Job agreed that of course there was no resisting God’s power. When God was angry, there was no persuading him otherwise. But still, Job said, “How can I answer him, choosing my words with him? Though I am innocent, I cannot answer him; I must appeal for mercy to my accuser [but] I do not believe that he would listen to my voice” (9:14-16). There was nothing, Job said, that he could do. Job said, “I am blameless. . .therefore I say, he destroys both the blameless and the wicked. When disaster brings sudden death, he mocks at the calamity of the innocent. The earth is given into the hand of the wicked” (9:21-23). These were dangerous words. And Job did not stop there. He asked God, “Does it seem good to you to oppress, to despise the work of your hands and favor the schemes of the wicked?” Pressing even further, Job asked God, “Do you have eyes of flesh? Do you see as humans see? Are your days like the days of mortals, or your years like human years, that you seek out my iniquity and search for my sin, although you know that I am not guilty?” (10:4-7). Job asked God to just leave him alone, and to let him go down to the underworld forever. [music]

Zophar’s First Speech

These blasphemies finally drew the attention of Job’s third friend, Zophar. Zophar asked Job how he dared try to understand the mysteries of God. “Can you find out the deep things of God?” Zophar asked Job. “Can you find out the limit of the Almighty?” (11:7). The answer to Job’s disquiet was simple, Zophar said. Job had sinned, and he not realized it. Zophar said that God “knows those who are worthless; when he sees iniquity, will he not consider it?” (11:11).

Having had chapters and chapters of conversations with his friends, Job was still not in the least bit satisfied. Were they gaslighting him? Did they honestly lack a simple instinct for human compassion, what with their pushy insistence on telling him what to do and think? Job looked at his three friends. He had heard everything that they had to say. They had told him of the finitude of his own power of reasoning, and the scope of God’s power and knowledge. But still, Job was not convinced. Job told his friends, “I have understanding as well as you. I am not inferior to you. . .Those at ease have contempt for misfortune” (13:3-5). Job told his friends he well understood all the ways that God was great, and that God’s power could not be denied. He had seen it, and he heard it, and he understood it all.

But he wanted to speak to God directly. He wished his friends would be silent, and told them, “Your maxims are proverbs of ashes, your defenses are defenses of clay” (13:12). Making it clear that he would not back down, Job told his friends, “Let me have silence, and I will speak, and let come on me what may. I will take my flesh in my teeth, and put my life in my hand. See, he will kill me; I have no hope, but I will defend my ways to his face. This will be my salvation” (13:13-16). [music]

The Second Round of Speeches

Following these resolutions, Job began directly addressing God. He said to God, “[T]he mountain falls and crumbles away, and the rock is removed from its place; the waters wear away the stones; the torrents wash away the soil of the earth; so you destroy the hope of mortals. You prevail forever against them, and they pass away” (15:18-20). Following his long conversation with his friends, Job spoke more words to God than these, accusing God of being unjust, and of having no real scheme for rewarding the righteous. Job’s three friends continued to try and persuade him to reconcile himself to God’s will, preparing another round of speeches. His first friend Eliphaz said Job needed to stop talking so much. The wicked, he said, indeed suffered – they suffered the lack of God. They might persist in evil, but eventually they’d answer for their misdeeds.

At this advice, Job only shook his head in disgust. He told Eliphaz, “I have heard many such things; miserable comforters are you all. Have windy words no limit?” (16:3). Nothing that they were saying had brought him any peace. He made this unequivocally clear – God had viciously, ruthlessly, causelessly hurt him, and shamed him, and his friends quite inexplicably were offering him empty rhetoric when what he really needed was sympathy. But Job did not receive any sympathy from them. Again, Bildad, Job’s second friend, answered Job’s expressions of grief. Bildad told Job that the earth didn’t stop just because Job was suffering. And indeed, Bildad said, the wicked did get punished – Bildad offered Job a bouquet of metaphors about the wicked answering for their misdeeds – in line after line he painted pictures of the wicked being punished. But the whole speech was a non sequitur – and Job recognized it as such.

Job asked his friends “How long, will you torment me, and break me in pieces with words?” (19:2). Nothing that they had said – no admonishment, no remark of inspiration, no flowery assurance of God’s power, or infallibility, and no figurative speech, or vivid imagery of God’s justice – none of these things – had answered Job’s concerns. He told his friends with little ambiguity that “God has put me in the wrong” (19:6). Job deployed his own elaborate speech to convey the extent to which he believed God had acted against him. His lamentation crescendoed with these famous and theologically significant lines:
O that my words were written down! O that they were inscribed in a book! O that with an iron pen and with lead they were engraved on a rock forever! For I know that my Redeemer lives, and that at the last he will stand upon the earth; and after my skin has been thus destroyed, then in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see on my side, and my eyes shall behold, and not another. (19:23-7)

But, sadly for Job, his impassioned request went unheeded. His friends continued to treat him piteously, and his old comrade Zophar, like the other two, offered Job a second speech.

Zophar said he was insulted. Obviously, Zophar said, the wicked did not get to exult in their wickedness for long. Like Bildad, Zophar painted vivid and varied portraits of wicked people in order to show that they were indeed punished by God. But these portraits, just as Bildad’s hadn’t, did not answer Job’s single, original concern. His children had been killed. His body was riddled with a horrific disease. And the wicked everywhere were running rampant, gleeful and unrepentant. The wicked, Job said “spend their days in prosperity, and in peace they go down to Sheol. They say to God, ‘Leave us alone! We do not desire to know your ways. What is the Almighty, that we should serve him? And what profit do we get if we pray to him?” (21:13-15). Job told his friends that their advice was idiotic. If God withheld punishment on wicked people, and instead punished their children, then the wicked went down to the underworld impenitent, not having a single regret, and getting away with everything. Job asked his friends, “How then, will you comfort me with empty nothings? There is nothing left of your answers but falsehood” (21:34). [music]

The Third Round of Speeches

Although Job had accused his friends of not understanding his simple need for pity, they continued to chastise him for asking questions about God’s plan. Eliphaz told Job his suffering must be because he’d not given enough food or drink to passerby, or perhaps he’d failed to give sufficiently to widows and orphans. In any case, Eliphaz said, Job ought to stop questioning God, and make peace with the situation. And yet again, Eliphaz promised that God’s light would shine on Job.

Job seemed not to hear. He said that he wanted to speak with God himself – not just pray aloud to God, but to have a conversation with the deity. Job said, “I would lay my case before him, and fill my mouth with arguments. I would learn what he would answer me, and understand what he would say to me” (23:4-5). Job said yet again that he had been blameless in his conduct, and that he wanted to know from God himself why he was experiencing such suffering. His friend Bildad’s third piece of advice seemed to hearten Job more than Eliphaz’s. The sheer weight of the rhetoric had had some effect on Job, for in a long and figurative speech, Job pondered the miseries of the wicked, and wondered where the root of wisdom was.

Still, though, after a pause, Job could not help fantasizing about his younger days – days when his kids were still alive and life was happier and easier. Reflecting further, Job said he really had been a good man – he’d been philanthropic, and kind, and he had worked to fight injustice. And with these images of his righteous past, Job could not help but think – yet again, of his ignominious present. He had come full circle, once again arriving at his central question. He’d been a good man. And his family had been murdered, and his health been torn away from him. He looked at his friends and said, “Does [God] not see my ways, and number all my steps? If I have walked with falsehood, and my foot has hurried to deceit – let me be weighed in a just balance, and let God know my integrity!” (31:4-6). He asked God to tell him, specifically, what he had done. He’d been a faithful husband, and a generous giver to the poor. He’d never done anyone violence, nor become preoccupied with money. He’d never been vindictive to those who’d harmed him, and had always been fair and dutiful with the way that he’d managed his fields. And always – always, Job told his friends, he’d remembered the might of God. None of them had done a thing to answer his questions. All of the back and forth, all of the assurances, and Job was still absolutely unclear on why such unmerited suffering had fallen over himself, his children, and his servants. [music]

Elihu’s Arrival and Advice

Now, this had been quite a tumultuous conversation. And a local youth – a boy named Elihu, had heard the lot of it. And Elihu did not like what he’d heard. He told the men that he knew that he was young. And he said he needed to speak up. Elihu said he’d been listening to what Job had said. And young Elihu said he knew what Job’s problem was. Job refused to pray to God and joyously accept what had befallen him. Mortals suffered to the edge of death all the time. Mortals needed to remember that God was infallible, and to have confidence that they would be repaid for their deeds. Yet in spite of young Elihu’s bombastic introduction, soon he was simply repeating things that Job’s friends had already said. People needed to remember, said Elihu, that God was incapable of behaving unjustly. People needed to remember all of the harsh ways that God punished the wicked.

And above all else, Elihu continued, returning to his original, and sort of new argument, people needed to not question God’s treatment of them. People needed to accept that God was good to the righteous, and harsh with the wicked. Could anyone understand lightning, or the depths of the sea? Could one understand the snow, or rain? Likewise with clouds, ice, lightning, wind, golden sunlight? How could Job question these things?

God and the Whirlwind

And then comes the climax of the story. Young Elihu stopped trying to convince Job that what had happened was just. Young Elihu stopped, because God himself appeared. As the Book of Job tells it, “[T]he LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind: ‘Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me’” (38:1-3).

Behemoth and Leviathan blake book of job

William Blake’s Behemoth and Leviathan, with God and Job at the top. The Old Testament god certainly makes his monster slaying talents sound impressive, but answers none of Job’s questions.

Now, excepting an epilogue, the rest of the Book of Job is God’s speech to Job, and most of this speech is a series of rhetorical questions. God asked if Job had seen him lay the earth’s foundations, or set the bounds of the ocean, or put clouds and darkness over it. God asked whether Job commanded the morning and the dawn, and whether Job had been to the base of the ocean. He demanded to know whether Job had seen the places where snow and hail came from, or the places where light and wind had come from. Had Job thundered and rained over a desert? Had Job moved the Pleiades, and Orion, and the other constellations? Did Job give food to baby ravens, or watch mountain goats give birth? Did wild animals serve Job? Did he give the horses or hawks his might? God demanded a response. Side note, by the way, none of this, obviously, answers Job’s questions –the fact that Job doesn’t have any experience feeding baby ravens or watching mountain goats give birth has nothing to do with the fact that Job’s innocent children and servants were all murdered. Anyway, all the same, God’s talk about oceans and thunder and little goats did seem to strike a chord in poor Job.

In response to God’s self-aggrandizing narrative, Job said “See, I am of small account; what shall I answer you? I lay my hand on my mouth. I have spoken once, and I will not answer” (40:4-5). God was not quite satisfied with this show of submission, for he continued his speech, paired lines of rhetoric frequently underscoring one another. He demanded to know whether Job would actually condemn God’s reason over his own, and reminded Job that he controlled the thunder. God proclaimed that he had created a monster called the Behemoth, and that he had contended with the Leviathan. Could Job ever control a Behemoth? Did Job have any ability to best the Leviathan in combat – a giant monster with an armored hide, flaming breath, and stony heart? The Leviathan frightened all the gods – it didn’t fear iron, or arrows, and it could boil the ocean. God had tamed this monster – did Job think he could? Did he?

Job was cowed. He didn’t dare say another word on his behalf. Instead, Job stammered, “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted. . .Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. . .but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes” (42:2-3, 5-6). God was satisfied. His talk of thunder and sea monsters had subdued Job’s restless querying for a logical explanation. God demanded that Eliphaz and Bildad and Zophar sacrifice animals for Job’s sake. Though Job never found out why God had killed his family, as time passed, Job was given “fourteen thousand sheep, six thousand camels, a thousand yoke of oxen, and a thousand donkeys” (42:12) along with a drove of fresh children. Job had learned his lesson, and “After this Job lived one hundred and forty years, and saw his children, and his children’s children, four generations. And Job died, old and full of days” (42:16). And that’s the end. [music]

Job and Literary History

So that’s the story of Job, a genuinely breathtaking narrative that builds and builds in intensity, asks incredibly piercing questions, offers answers to those questions, and then criticisms of those answers, on and on until the climactic appearance of God at the end shuts down the conversation. For a certain selection of interpreters – especially, interpreters who have themselves experienced a degree of pain and suffering in their lives, if you happen to know a bit about their biographies, the Book of Job is the unequivocal core of the entire Bible. These interpreters have included Pope Gregory the Great, Boethius, Maimonides, John Calvin, Voltaire, William Blake, Johann Gottfried von Herder, Tennyson, Kierkegaard, Dostoevsky, Kafka, Elie Wiesel, and many others. These writers have used the Book of Job to advance a variety of different arguments – the truth of Christianity, the doctrine of predestination, atheism, romanticism, modernist dissent, and hope for the future after the atrocities of the Second World War. Job has been many things to many people. His is a book that you tend to remember. The prophets might sometimes blur together, and the Psalms are often interchangeable, not to mention the dozens of commandments and proscriptions in the Pentateuch. Among all of the books of the Old Testament, Job has historically been remembered, and written about, and analyzed, by those seeking an explanation for their own sufferings, and those who have lived in more bloody and turbulent epochs of the past two and a half millennia.

Before we talk about the Book of Job as a piece of theology, or a piece of philosophy – and of course it’s both – but before we talk about its hefty religious importance, I want to talk about it as a story. As a narrative alone, Job is a magnificent piece of work. From its opening exposition, it quickly builds in intensity that never lets up, its unfortunate protagonist gradually becoming resentful and outraged at his friends’ bungling attempts to soothe him until he steps into the dangerous waters of seeking a confrontation with God himself. It’s a story so full of dialogue that it could have been a play, and indeed, a play called La Pacience de Job – the Patience of Job – survives in a 15th-century French manuscript. La Pacience de Job has a huge cast. It took great poetic license with the Biblical story of Job, and added archangels and devils into the mix, but it retained the original Book of Job’s central interest in the title character’s sufferings, and his questions.

Whichever century is reading it, or retelling it, one of the astounding things about the Book of Job is that it’s a narrative that works on two levels. On one level, the more obvious one, we have a man who is angry and brokenhearted because he feels that his God has betrayed him, and wants to know why. But on an additional level – a level appears more gradually and subtly across the course of the narrative, we have the story of a man whose friends do not understand him, and who again and again offer him their advice, admonition, and judgment rather than their love and compassion. Job’s tragedy in the book thus unfolds on two levels, for he first loses nearly everything dear to him, and then, rather than receiving sympathy from his friends, he gets platitudes and exhortations, adding to his sense of desperation, and isolation.

The Hebrew word hassatan, again, “the accuser,” sets the tone for what the Book of Job is. It is the story of a trial. An innocent man becomes the plaintiff due to the accusations of a divine prosecutor. The defendant wonders why the punishment has occurred. His friends, rather than defending him, more often than not serve alongside the prosecution, heaping accusations on Job, and making suppositions about his motives. Job attempts to be his own advocate, but he begins to buckle under the sheer weight of the prosecution’s pummeling. Yet as the defense’s stamina seems about to break, Job finds a second wind, and then a third, and from chapter to chapter defense and prosecution go toe to toe, until finally, God shows up, like a judge suddenly taking the bench and deciding the case without bothering about the details. Job, God says, can’t question the jurisprudence of the court. The court is all-powerful, and it’s older, and far more powerful than Job. Job has to accept whatever sentence he has. And so Job, in the end, admits that he’s powerless, and his sentence is mitigated. Though his family, and servants, and animals have all been butchered, and though his physical frame has been ravaged, he’s given a new family, and some new sheep and camels, and the prosecuting attorneys are all given a slap on the wrist for not quite following protocol.

Thinking of the Book of Job as structured like a trial has been a common way to understand it. At one point, Job is particularly flabbergasted by his three friends, he exclaims, “I know my Redeemer lives” (19:23). Christians have frequently interpreted this line to be about Jesus, understanding that Job, about a thousand years before Jesus, has a vision of a period of eventual rescue by a divine savior, and the real reason that the ending of the Book of Job never properly answers Job’s questions is that Job lived centuries before Christ. By reading Job in this fashion, Christianity has historically understood Job as a sufferer who lived inconveniently early, who has since most certainly received his just rewards.

There are some problems with this Christian approach to interpreting Job, though. One is that it still doesn’t really answer any of Job’s own questions. Even if Job is awaited by choirs of angels and a plush afterlife, his family, and his servants were still slaughtered, and his body was still riddled with boils, and the pain he has experienced is still very real. And the line – Chapter 19 verse 23, so central to the Christian interpretation – “I know my Redeemer lives,” can also be translated as “I know my vindicator lives,” “I know my kinsman lives,” or “I know my advocate lives.” “Advocate” doesn’t have quite the same theological connotations as “redeemer,” but the Hebrew word go’el means one as much as it does the other. So in this famous juncture in Chapter 19, so important to Christian interpretations, Job may be wishing for the coming of some sort of savior. But what the Biblical Hebrew indicates most clearly is that at a moment when he has no one on his side, he’s desperately looking for a “vindicator,” or an “advocate.”

The Book of Job, Kafka’s The Trial, and Social Conditioning


Franz Kafka (1883-1924) in 1923. Kafka was one of the Book of Job’s more astute readers.

An when we hear “advocate,” it’s hard not to think of the idea, again, of a trial. And literary history’s most extensive treatment of the Book of Job has been to take the whole thing, and imagine it as a trial. The Czech-German writer Franz Kafka, at the time of his death of tuberculosis in 1924, left two novels incomplete. One of them, The Trial, is certainly a masterpiece, taking the story of Job and setting it in the grimy alleyways and smoky warrens of an unspecified 20th-century European city. The main character, Josef K., has much in common with Job. Josef, a financial officer at a bank, is arrested on his thirtieth birthday for an unspecified crime. Chapter after chapter of Kafka’s The Trial pass like the 41 chapters of the Book of Job. Kafka’s character Josef is warned by a succession of people – his lawyer, the arresting officers, the judge, another downtrodden defendant named Block, a painter named Titorelli, a priest, and others – all of these people tell Kafka’s version of Job to simply accept the court’s sentencing. A shadowy and morally questionable government lurks behind the officials and prosecutions of Kafka’s novel, and across the board, the poor Josef – again, the Job character – is told that he is powerless to resist. Just as in the Book of Job, dialogue takes up a large portion of Kafka’s The Trial, and the dialogue in each narrative is similar. A main character, regardless of his objections, regardless of his certainty of his innocence, is told again, and again, and again, and again, and again that protesting is futile, and that submitting to a central authority is the only possible course of action.

I think that the Book of Job and Kafka’s The Trial are both at their most tragic in these dialogue scenes, when you start to see each character begin to break down under the sheer weight of the counterarguments that are deployed against them. Imagine that you had incurred a terrible punishment, and in spite of your crystal-clear certainty of your innocence, everyone you knew, and whole parades of seemingly authoritative strangers, day after day, began telling you that you were actually mistaken, and that you deserved the punishment, after all. Maybe some of us could withstand that onslaught of counterargument. Many of us couldn’t.

I put it into a thought experiment. Let’s say you work at an office, and you need to make some photocopies. But the copy machine is broken. You tell a coworker. “Hey, the copy machine is busted. What’s the number for facility maintenance?” And the coworker says, “Oh, we won’t be using the copy machine any more. We’re going back to copying by hand.” And at first you say, “Yeah, good one, goofball. Now what’s that number?” And he says, “There is no number. We will all be copying by hand from here on out.” So you go to another coworker, and say, “Hey, Anna, Fred said we’re not making photocopies any more. He’s being silly. What’s the number for the repair department?” And she says, “Oh, there is no repair department. We’ve chosen to go back to copying by hand.” And you say, “What are you talking about? I have a meeting in ten minutes. I need to make some copies.” And she says, “And you didn’t start making your manual copies early enough?” Then the first guy Fred hears the conversation and they gang up on you. “Photocopying,” he says, “just won’t do here. We’ve gone back to copying all documents and diagrams by hand.” “It’s much nobler. It makes you value your own work,” Anna says. “Why would you let a machine anywhere near a document that you’ve written?” And Fred says, “All of your work deserves a human touch – your touch. Come on, now, you should know this.”

You’d laugh them off. And then maybe two more employees would tell you the same thing. And you’d go home and tell friends and family about the annoying practical joke, only they’d tell you the same thing. Photocopying? they’d say. How outrageous! Everyone knew you had to copy documents by hand now. Your superiors at work, and the facilities people – they’d all say the same thing. All documents needed to be handmade. Copy machines were barbaric. And you’d endure week after week of this, month after month, and the copy machines wouldn’t ever be repaired. Now, granted, this wouldn’t be life and death, like the stories of Job and Josef K. But how long would it be before your sense of normalcy would begin to deteriorate under the sheer, quantitative weight of argumentative opposition? How long?

Hopefully, we will never have to find out the answer to this unsettling question. But Job and Josef have to, and both men, facing a diverse and rhetorically capable series of debaters, show signs of buckling beneath social pressure. So, in addition to the many huge questions the Book of Job broaches, one of the biggest isn’t even a religious question at all. It’s a question about just how much social conditioning can meld our sense of justice and propriety. And Job’s answer is that social conditioning can affect our sense of justice and propriety quite a bit. [music]

The Book of Job and the Problem of Evil

Well, appetizer over. It’s time for the main course. The main course in the Book of Job, as you surely know, is an old and evergreen theological issue called the Problem of Evil. If God is just and good, then why do innocent people – like Job, or like pious victims of natural disasters, or innocent children slain in wars and genocides – if God is just and good, then why does all of this horror exist? If God is just and good, then what’s with the century after century of undeserved misery? What’s with tsunamis obliterating villages, or Ebola wiping out little kids – or on the opposite side of the coin, really selfish, terrible people living like kings and dying peacefully of natural causes?

The Book of Job asks, but does not answer this question. Instead, it closes with God telling Job not to question him. After all, God created a Behemoth. He bested the Leviathan in combat. He fed the little ravens, and watched mountain goats give birth to young. That’s Book of Job’s the answer. We, like Job, wait for a divine verdict – something as powerful as the rest of the Book of Job. And instead we hear about sea monsters and baby goats. And while the speech that God gives at the end of the Book of Job is a stirring piece of writing, bringing to mind everything that the Bible’s creator deity did to set everything up, God’s speech doesn’t answer the questions that Job has been asking for almost forty chapters. It doesn’t answer them at all.

The Book of Job is the first time this question is allowed to surface decisively in the Old Testament. In prior books, it’s there, bubbling beneath the Pentateuch and Historical Books. If God is just and good, then why do the Israelites from Exodus to Kings keep getting battered by adversaries on all four sides and God from above? The most consistent explanation offered up until the Book of Job is that the Israelites bring it on themselves, breaking their covenant again and again. For hundreds of chapters, this is the answer. The Israelites are a collective. All have to answer for the misdeeds of some – most often the misdeeds of wayward kings and upstart idolaters. Breach of contract by any member of the Israelites warrants divine punishment of the lot of them.

We are used to this pattern if we read the Bible straight through. We have considered, in previous episodes, the cyclical nature of the stories that stretch from Exodus to Kings, in which transgressions lead to punishments in several different ways, and, less often, pious behavior results in rewards. The Book of Job, being a narrative focused on a single protagonist and set over just a few days, is interested in different issues than those of the Historical Books. The Book of Job is interested in the fate of the individual, and not the collective. No one tells Job that his king, or some distant patriarch, has sinned, and thus Job is being punished due to his political or familial association. He is never deemed guilty by association, as thousands of Israelites under, say Ahab and Manasseh tacitly are in the Historical Books. Job makes his own choices, and they are virtuous choices, and then, for reasons only disclosed in a framing narrative, Job is brutally punished. I can’t tell you the right way to interpret the story. But I can tell you some of the main ways that it’s been interpreted.

Let’s talk about the way readers have historically understood Job’s undeserved suffering. The Midrashim, or post-exilic interpretations on Job, were the first known works of scholarship on this key book of the Bible. The midrashim are writings which perform often elaborate analyses and interpretations of a section of the Tanakh. The midrashim on Job work to try and understand why his story is in the Bible in the first place. Job is not an Israelite, and so perhaps the question of his suffering is a moot point, since God had no covenant with gentiles. Provided that you accept the idea that divine justice only extends to a single ethnic group, this early solution to the Problem of Evil in Job is reasonable in its own way. While, through midrash and other commentaries, Jewish intellectuals during the Tannaitic and Amoraic periods continued to work to understand the Book of Job, early Christians also worked to make sense of problem of evil in Job.

Antonello da Messina 010

Gregory the Great, by Antonello da Messina (c. 1472-3). Gregory’s interpretations of Job are among the most famous out there.

Pope Gregory the Great, who lived from about 540-604, spent a lot of time analyzing the passages in which Job scraped his boils with a piece of pottery. It’s a bit of a gross passage, but in it, in a book called Morals in Job, Pope Gregory I saw the boils as people’s sins, and the scrap of pottery as Jesus, scraping them away. Incidentally, if you think this interpretation is strange, you have yet to be introduced to the wacky world of the midrash, exegesis and medieval scriptural gloss – the Gregory interpretation of the boil-popping pottery scrap as Jesus Christ is par for the course in the theology of the Middle Ages, and even before. We’ll see more of it in the next couple episodes. To return to Gregory, in Gregory’s view, Job’s hitting rock bottom in his sorrows and his lamentations is a precursor to his salvation. Only through being ravaged by loss, as Job is, Gregory says, can we truly become detached from the material world and be ready for the spiritual one.

In general, early Christianity drew extensive parallels between Jesus and Job. Both had to endure great suffering. Both were misunderstood, and persecuted. And then there’s that famous line that we discussed in Chapter 19: “For I know that my go’el lives” (19:23), go’el being translated as “vindicator,” “kinsman,” “advocate,” or, as Christianity has preferred, “redeemer.” To early Christian interpreters, Job was an early sufferer whose life paralleled Christ’s, who in an impassioned moment seemed to have a revelation of the coming of Christ.

But these early Christian interpretations still don’t really do much to explain the Problem of Evil as it’s depicted in the Book of Job. We can certainly understand that both Job and Christ suffered terribly at the hands of persecutors. But while Christ’s persecutors in the Gospels are intolerant Sanhedrin court officials, Roman provincial functionaries, and an angry mob, in the Book of Job, the titular character’s persecutor is unambiguously God himself. If Job is an early Christ figure, then the God of the Book of Job, analogously, is akin to those who put Christ to death. While most Christians have readily seen the parallels between the privations of Job and those of Jesus, they have been less quick to point out the parallels between Job’s God and the jealous clergy and corrupt provincial administration that kill Christ in the Gospels. Job might well suffer some of the privations of Jesus. But the Problem of Evil in Job, after the early Middle Ages, as of yet had no solution – only add ons, and workarounds, and interpretive gymnastics. By the 1100s and 1200s, Job’s story, in spite of a lot of theological work, still posed troubling questions to its readers. [music]

Maimonides and Aquinas Respond to the Book of Job

The high Middle Ages saw Maimonides, a 12th-century Jewish philosopher from Spain, and Thomas Aquinas, the great 13th-century Catholic theologian, directing their efforts to the interpretation of Job. Though their theological backgrounds were quite different, they were both satisfied with an old solution to the Problem of Evil, a solution that’s commonly been called privatio boni in Latin, or the “absence of good.” In this theory, which we can date back to the Neoplatonist philosopher Plotinus in the 200s CE, and then Saint Augustine of Hippo a little after 400, who took it from Plotinus, evil does not exist. Evil is simply the absence of good, a whirling vacuum that thrives when goodness and virtue aren’t there.5 While the privatio boni has been an occasional answer deployed to respond to the Problem of Evil, it has never been a very satisfying answer.

This is because the “absence of good” argument doesn’t explain anything at all. It simply renames “evil” as “the absence of good.” More of a dubious semantic gimmick than a philosophical solution, then, the “absence of good argument” is an occasional tool on the argumentative Swiss Army Knife that theologians have used to try and answer why bad things happen to good people. Maimonides and Aquinas, in the 1100s and 1200s, respectively, thus renamed evil, but left the entire problem of evil as it had always stood – an allegedly beneficent God oversaw a world in which random brutality, pandemics and natural disasters ravaged humanity, regardless of the goodness and piety of individual believers.

Did Aquinas successfully answer Job’s questions? Was the solution simply that Job hadn’t experienced any evil at all, but only an absence of good? Of course not. Job had still been a good man, and always honored his God, and God, in a sort of divine horse race bet with a being called The Accuser, had killed everyone close to Job, and then the Accuser convinced God into giving Job a second round of punishments. There had been plenty of good in Job – not an absence of it – and God was right there on the scene when everything bad happened. Whether we call suffering the result of evil, or the result of “not good,” it still suffuses the Book of Job.

John Calvin and the Book of Job

The incomprehensible and persnickety behavior of God in the Book of Job posed little problem to the unique theology of John Calvin (1509-1564).

So, did anyone ever satisfactorily answer the troubling questions implicit in the Book of Job? Are they answerable? Let’s look at one more heavyweight in the history of Christianity. His name is John Calvin. When people learn about John Calvin, the 16th-century French theologian, the first thing they learn about is his doctrine of Predestination. God has a predetermined population of people called the “elect,” and these are the folks who are going to heaven, and the rest of us are out of luck. Along the way, you’d better look for any sign that you can find that you’re among the “elect.” That’s the story in a couple of sentences. Outside of the context of Early Modern European religious history, John Calvin’s doctrine of Predestination is hard to understand. Christianity grew and diversified for fifteen hundred years in no small part because its doctrine of merit-based salvation was so logically appealing during uncertain times. As long as you did the right thing, you’d go to heaven. And then along came Calvin, with the outrageous notion that God had it all configured ahead of time, and that even the most saintly and moral person, if she weren’t among the elect, was still going to hell. Why would people want to believe that they were utterly powerless to do anything about what God had in store for them?

Let me give a shot at explaining Calvin’s predestination for you. I don’t know what your religious beliefs are – but you and I both know that sometimes people pray for silly, trifling things. Dear God, let me do well on this math test. Oh lord, please let me find some mints in my glove box. That kind of thing. Calvin’s doctrine of predestination, formulated toward the end of Institutes of the Christian Religion and first published in 1536, was a reaction to a long history of people wheeling and dealing – most importantly through the intercession of the Catholic Church, for salvation. Calvin’s most famous book, rooted to some extent in Late Antique Christian ideas, was a piece of reactive theology deployed to counter the notion that buying indulgences from the Catholic clergy, or otherwise taking various tactical steps to advance yourself toward heaven, were all misguided, because God had it all orchestrated ahead of time, and certainly had more important things to worry about than livres or other coins you forked over to your priest. So let’s get back to John Calvin and the Book of Job.

John Calvin’s was a religious philosophy much closer to Iron Age Judaism than, say, medieval Catholicism was. And not surprisingly, Calvin’s vision of God as merciless and incomprehensible fits the Book of Job like a glove. Calvin wrote a whole series of sermons on the Book of Job, and for our purposes the most important points he made were that indeed God did not care about any of Job’s good deeds, and – equally importantly, Job’s sufferings and earthly punishments were nonetheless no sign that Job was damned. Calvinist theology, above all, emphasizes God’s providence and power. Job could yammer all day about how good he’d been, and how little he deserved what he had suffered through. In the end, whatever Job did or said, God would still swing the sledgehammer in the way he’d planned from the beginning. For some, Calvin’s interpretation of the Book of Job might not be the definitive way to understand this book. But theologically, you can see that Calvinism isn’t really troubled with the issues in Job that have traditionally proved problematic to other interpreters. Calvin, with his doctrine of predestination, may well have authored the best interpretation of the Book of Job, though it’s an interpretation that requires you to accept Calvin’s rather severe and merciless view of the Christian God.

Let’s move away from interpretations of Job for just a moment, and think more generally about the Problem of Evil, and its history in theology. Theologians at work on the Problem of Evil have traditionally deployed one of three solutions to it. They are as follows, in no particular order. The first is that God works in mysterious ways, and we cannot understand God’s mind. This is Calvin’s solution as we just heard it – this notion that God is vast and grand and already has everything set in ironclad providence, and his far-reaching agenda is incomprehensible. The “God works in mysterious ways” solution is ultimately the Book of Job’s solution to the Problem of Evil, although the Book of Job deploys the other two customary solutions, as well.

The second common solution to the Problem of Evil is the notion that suffering is purification and purgation. Gregory the Great’s interpretation, as we heard earlier, is along these lines. In Gregory’s mind, Job scrapes scratches at himself with a potsherd, and his misery, though awful, is also a process of self-realization. There is some sense of this, from time to time, in the Book of Job itself – that Job’s dreadful torments have allowed in him a spiritual awakening and intensified sense of God’s ineluctable power. And the third common solution to the Problem of Evil – the one that I believe has ultimately had the most bearing on subsequent Jewish and Christian history – is that evil exists because we bring it upon ourselves. This is the governing theme of the 400 chapters of the Old Testament that Christians read before reaching the Book of Job – that from the time Adam and Eve transgressed in Eden, all the way down to the bittersweet dawn of the Israelites’ post-exilic return, their hardships resulted from their own misdeeds. In later Catholic history, after Saint Augustine finished tinkering with interpretations of Genesis in the early 400s CE, the doctrine of Original Sin became Christianity’s catch-all solution to why bad things happen to good people.

Incredibly, though Jewish and Christian theologians have never stopped trying to address the Problem of Evil, the Book of Job introduces all three of these solutions. First, Job, as God so emphatically reminds him toward the close of the book, cannot understand the awesome nature of a being sovereign over all creation, nor the agenda of that being. There’s the God works in mysterious ways solution. Second, as Job’s friends remind him, his sufferings have offered him a lesson in humility – a palpable awareness that he is subject to the caprices of beings vastly more powerful than him, and so in a way, his anguish has been an awakening. That’s the “suffering is purgation” solution. And finally, third, Job’s friends variously suggest that perhaps Job himself, with an unnoticed sin or bad habit, indeed did bring the wrath of God onto him, and that all of his pleading on his own behalf at the witness stand is misguided. That is the “evil exists because we bring it on ourselves” solution. The Book of Job, then, is at the same time the beginning, as well as the end of the Abrahamic religions’ analysis of the Problem of Evil, as no new solutions have been arrived at since the Iron Age.

Other Solutions to the Problem of Evil

If we move beyond John Calvin, into the centuries of the 1600s and 1700s, we come to a different time. Beyond the frameworks of Judaism and Christianity, with all of their innovative midrashim and exegeses, beyond the theological evolutions that have taken place internally to the two religious over the past two millennia, there was always a very simple answer. That answer is that, contrary to what most of the species believes, and has believed, we live in a universe governed by classical and quantum mechanics, that beyond the Kuiper belt and Oort cloud of our solar system is interstellar space, and that no omnipotent beings are superintending all of it with a benevolent eye on the tiny human opera of planet Earth. Whatever we call this belief – atheism, or scientific materialism, it tidily explains why bad things happen to good people. And while a belief in no gods is a functional enough solution to the Problem of Evil, so, too, is the belief in many gods.

Thus far in our podcast, we read Hesiod’s Theogony and Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. These poems, a bit older than most of the Old Testament, did not need to grapple with the Problem of Evil. Their gods are not benign. Thunder-chucking Zeus, jealous Hera, trident-waggling Poseidon and the gang – at least in the poetic record – tear through humanity with the indiscriminate force of a tornado, and the same is the case in Bronze Age cycles like the ones produced by the ancient Babylonians, Hittites, and citizens of Ugarit. When we open the pages of the Tanakh, some of what we see is amply precedented, as we’ve seen in episodes leading up to this one. The world always seems to get created out of darkness and water when we tell stories about it, and there’s often some early crisis and then a renewed period of tranquility. Barren women suddenly giving birth are all over the place, and so, too, are original transgression tales that help explain why life is the way it is. For the length and breadth of the Bible’s historical books, they really are unique, but they are also composites of fact and poetic license, offered with nationalist partisanship, such as Herodotus, Livy and Plutarch would later write.

The Book of Job, however, is a different story. While we’ll never know for certain how early monotheism came along, nor the belief in a singular and kindhearted deity, the Book of Job is the first surviving, sustained account of a writer grappling with the Problem of Evil. It was, during the 600s, 500s, 400s, or 300s BCE, a rather novel problem. Polytheists didn’t need to deal with it. But to monotheists, it has long been a core strand of religion’s DNA. Never mind that the Problem of Evil is insoluble – like alchemy, like rhetorical sparring on the streets of Classical Athens, like the debates of Talmudic sages, the Problem of Evil has been a whetstone on which many fine minds and arguments have been sharpened. We may, depending on our religious persuasions, or lack thereof, have readymade solutions to it, and feel content to dismiss it out of hand. But that doesn’t mean that the problem itself hasn’t been one of the main stories of intellectual history, a story that burst to life during the Iron Age with the powerful chapters of the Book of Job. [music]

The Book of Job as a Lamentation

There’s a lot I wanted to get to in this episode that we didn’t quite get around to. I wanted to explore the textual history of the Book of Job. From the work of Marvin Pope in the 60s to the scholarship of modern writers like Harold Kushner, careful readers have noticed that the framing narrative and various parts of the Hebrew text of Job show telltale signs of being composed by multiple authors.6 The speeches of the tardy young Hebrew Elihu have been singled out as likely insertions by a later writer, and various uncharacteristic portions of Job’s speeches are thought to have perhaps been spoken by Bildad and Zophar.

Rather than diving into textual scholarship here at the tail end of this show, I’d actually to wrap things up with a quote from Elie Wiesel, and a last word about the religious climate that produced Job. The two are connected. For Judaism, after the Holocaust, the Book of Job, already important within the history of Judaism, took on an even more powerful role. Unmerited suffering, as had been Job’s curse in the Old Testament, ravaged millions. Whether it led 20th-century Jewish people to secularization, or a renewed sense that even the horrors of concentration camps were evidence that a God with an incomprehensible plan had singled them out for something – either way, the Holocaust brought the Book of Job to the forefront.

Scholar Mark Larrimore’s recent book on Job – it’s called The Book of Job: A Biography – contains a powerful summary of the new resonance of the Book of Job after Auschwitz, and in the book, Larrimore quotes Elie Wiesel extensively.7 Elie Wiesel wrote that at certain junctures of World War II, Job “could be seen on every road of Europe.”8 And in his Nobel peace prize, Wiesel described Job as “our ancestor. Job, our contemporary. His ordeal concerns all humanity. . .He demonstrated that faith is essential to rebellion, and that hope is possible beyond despair. The source of his hope was memory, as it must be ours. Because I remember, I despair. Because I remember, I have the duty to reject despair.”9

This was the last thing I want to get to. It’s not a happy note to end on. And that’s the point. A whole genre existed in the Ancient Near East called the lamentation – one that dated back to Sumerian compositions from the third millennium BCE. The Book of Lamentations in the Old Testament, along with dozens of Psalms, and hundreds of chapters of the Prophetic Books belong to this tradition of lamentation. As the name implies, these are texts that, collectively or individually, express deep sadness about a terrible loss. They are not meant to be consolations, or to answer your questions about your own life. They don’t invite you to sing, or clap your hands. Lamentations are not meant to tell you that the good will be rewarded and the bad will be punished, nor that you will enjoy an eternity of heavenly bliss. Lamentations are dark. They look the horror and chaos of the past in the face and they don’t blink, and that’s it. One of Judaism’s late summer holidays, Tisha B’Av, is a 25-hour fast, during which the Book of Lamentations is read, a book about the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 586 BCE.

I think it’s very reasonable to consider the Book of Job as a sort of lamentation. Heaven and hell don’t exist in the Old Testament – later exegeses have retrojected heaven and hell into the Old Testament, but they don’t show up in ancient Jewish writings until the second century BCE Book of First Enoch.10 Job himself, certainly, has no sense that he will go to a happy hereafter. In the tenth chapter of the Book of Job, the title character sees his own death and says, “I [will] go, never to return, to the land of gloom and deep darkness, the land of gloom and chaos, where light is like darkness” (10:20-2). He’s going to Sheol, the underworld, the abode of the dead in the Tanakh. Throughout most of the Book of Job, this is all he knows. He has lost everything, there will be no rewards in the afterlife, and all he can see in his future is that “mortals lie down and do not rise again; until the heavens are no more, they will not awake or be roused out of their sleep” (14:11-12). This is Job’s reality. If there’s one thing that biblical literalists and secular readers alike can agree on when they read the Book of Job, it’s this. Sometimes, things aren’t fair. Sometimes, things get pitch black. You can’t do anything about it – no more than you could challenge a creator deity. And that’s it. And as Elie Wiesel said, we remember such moments of suffering, and because we survived them, we cannot lose ourselves to despair. We know we have the power to endure going to the brink of annihilation, and any story about that power brings honor to us all. [music]

Moving on to the Book of Psalms

Well, I hope you enjoyed that summary and bit of background on the Book of Job, a text that’s absolutely worth reading for yourself if you’ve never been through it before. Next time, we’re going to look at the Psalms. Throughout the past six shows, we’ve been going through some of the darker parts of the Old Testament. But as we move into Psalms, and Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs, fortunately the subject matter of the Old Testament starts to pick up a bit, and even if it’s not a pop song, these books are a bit sunnier than the boil scraping depths of the Book of Job. Psalms, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs, which we’ll cover in the next few episodes, are some of the most beautiful books in the Old Testament, and they show some sides of the Tanakh that we haven’t seen yet in our journey together so far.

There are 150 Psalms – 151 in some Bibles. In our next show, Episode 21: The Bible’s Magic Trick, we’ll explore the Book of Psalms as a whole, consider them in groupings that have traditionally been used to understand them, take a look at some standouts, and then learn a bit about the way they may have been used in public worship settings in antiquity. We’ll learn about something called “parallelism,” one of the Tanakh’s governing literary devices, and by the time we’re through, though you won’t know every line of every Psalm, you’ll definitely have a good sense of the structure, contents, and history of the Bible’s short poems. Thanks for listening to Literature and History. There’s a quiz on this program in your podcast app’s “Details” section if you’d like to review. For those of you who want to hear a song, I’ve got one coming up, and otherwise, thanks again for listening to today’s story about the Book of Job.

Still listening? So I got to thinking. God never answers Job’s questions. I mean if he had answered Job’s question, we wouldn’t have Gregory the Great, and Maimonides, and John Calvin all working in later centuries to explain what the Book of Job means. God never answers the questions, and instead the book ends with a bunch of braggadocio about God putting the Leviathan into a full nelson, and God making the behemoth, and all of that. When I finished reading Job for the first time, I thought, “Great, obviously you’re all powerful, God, your speeches are wonderful, but what about answering Job’s questions?” I got to thinking, what if Job put all of his questions into a song? And what if, in that same song, God answered those questions? And also, what if the Job part was like – an orchestral musical – and the God part was – like a techno or dub step song? I’m sure you’ve wondered the same thing. And even though the orchestral musical slash dub step song about the Book of Job is surely a very, very crowded genre of music, I figured I’d add my contribution, and wrote the following song, which is called “Boom Boom Boom Sea Monster.” I hope it makes you smile, and I’ll see you next time with the Psalms.

1.^ The Tanakh places Job third in the Ketuvim, perhaps a less prominent place than that afforded to it in Christian Bibles.

2.^ Johnson, Ben. “To the Memory of William Shakespeare” (43).

3.^ Clines, David. “Job.” Printed in The New Oxford Annotated Bible. Oxford University Press, 2010, p. 726.

4.^ For the dating see Augustine. City of God. Edited, translated and with an Introduction and Notes by Henry Bettenson. Penguin Classics, 2003, p. viii. Book 13 (13.3) provides Augustine’s most representative example of Original Sin as he understood it.

5.^ This is in Plotinus Enneads (I.8) and Augustine (most succinctly) in City of God (XI.8).

6.^ Kushner, Harold, The Book of Job: When Bad Things Happened to a Good Person (New York: Schocken, 2012), Pope, Marvin, The Anchor Bible: Job (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., 1965).

7.^ Larrimore, Mark. The Book of “Job”: A Biography. Princeton University Press, 2013.

8.^ Wiesel, Elie. Celebration Biblique (1975), translated by Marion Wiesel as Messengers of God: Biblical Portraits and Legends (New York: Random House, 1996, p. 213).

9.^ http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/peace/laureates/1986/wiesel-lecture.html

10.^ For the dating, see Charles, R.H. “Introduction.” Printed in The Book of Enoch. Oxford, 1893, pp. vii, 1.