I propose to raise two seldom-asked questions about the Book of Job: Why is there a Book of Job? And what does it do to you when you read it; what is its effect on you as a reader?
By asking why there is a Book of Job, I do not intend to deal with the historical circumstances of the book’s composition, such as the identity of the author and the date the book was written. Rather, I mean to inquire as to the necessary conditions for the book’s existence, implicit in the text itself. I am interested in identifying what is necessarily implied about the author and about the social setting of the text. I want to draw inferences from the text about the circumstances of its origin. What are the social, economic and political realities that the text itself points to?
The curious thing is that, in the vast scholarly literature, no one seems to have taken into account that the book is in fact a text, or to ask what brings a text of this kind into being, or what it signifies that a text of this character existed in ancient Israel. For most scholars, the Book of Job is a transcript of the author’s mind, a window on the ancient Israelite thought-world, a discussion of a theological problem—anything other than a writing, a product, a text.
Now a text is a production, a product made to be copied and circulated. All texts are that, unless they are private texts like letters or contracts. A text is, moreover, a commodity, created to be sold in the marketplace, consumed by customers. The author of a text such as Job intended a readership for his work, and had a conception of a public that would desire the work—desire it enough to put their hand in their pocket for it. And the author envisaged a public that would want to own the work, either in order to read it again or to possess in some way what they saw as the essence of the work, even if they never opened or unrolled it. All these things are in the nature of literary works, ancient and modern.
If, then, a text implies a public for the Book of Job, we need to ask, what public? And what kind of author, socially speaking, does such a public imply?
Obviously, it implies a Hebrew-speaking (or rather, Hebrew-reading) public, which is to say, no doubt, an Israelite one, even though the central character of the book is not an Israelite. And it implies a male audience, since all its principal characters are male, and women’s interests are ignored or repressed.
032It implies a highly literate public, with a rich vocabulary, a taste for imagery and a stomach for elaborate and extended rhetoric. It implies a readership that is not literal-minded, but rather one that delights in irony, exaggeration, misdirection and whimsy.
It implies an intellectual public, for the issues it ventilates are conceptual ones, the points of difference among the various characters in the book being sometimes quite fine; the arguments in the text are rarely stated in concrete or direct language. It implies a public that is intellectually curious, that is open to being teased and is willing to be left unsatisfied by its conclusion. It does not imply a readership that wants clear, quick answers.
It implies a leisured public. Not only does it take hours to read the book—if you are a very fluent reader—but its public must have the time and patience to take interest in theoretical and conceptual matters generally, and to process the arguments of the book.
In short, the book implies a very small readership, even among those who are literate. Without that readership, however, the book could hardly exist as a book. Perhaps the author could have written it purely for self-expression. But without a readership, without a circulation, it is unlikely the book could have survived, or, if surviving, could have been included in a collection of Hebrew books.
If such is the public that the book implies, what kind of author, from the viewpoint of class and social structure, does the book imply? What is its matrix, socially speaking?
Let us suppose that in the society in which the book was produced there were two classes, rich and poor. No doubt societies are generally more complex than that, but most societies have at least those classes in them. We hardly need to suppose the existence of such classes as the matrix of the Book of Job, because the book itself testifies to the existence of rich and poor in the world of the story.
If there are rich and poor in the social world of the text’s production, from which class does the book arise? Job is a rich man, in fact the “greatest of the sons of the east” (Job 1:3), so this is a rich man’s story—not only a story about a rich man but also by a rich man.
Or is that conclusion too premature? Doesn’t the story tell us that Job is not only rich, but also becomes poor? Perhaps then it is a poor man’s story. And in any case, why shouldn’t the poor also tell stories about the rich?
I reply, in the first place, that the Job of the book is not a poor man—not even a poor man who was rich—but a rich man, through and through, a rich man who loses his wealth, indeed, but who regains it and becomes richer than ever. And secondly, the experience the poor have of the rich is, overwhelmingly, of oppressors—of landlords, money-lenders, despots. They do not know of pious rich men. If Job is rich and pious, the implication is that the story is a rich man’s story, told from the perspective of the wealthy.
Once we recognize that the narrative implies the perspective of the rich, other features of the book fall into place.
The first is the lack of realism in the book about poverty. Job has lost his property and his income: his 0337,000 sheep, his 3,000 camels, his 500 yoke of oxen and his 500 she-asses. All that he has is “touched” or struck (Job 1:11). Yet he still has guests in his house (who ignore him), maidservants (who treat him as a stranger) and his own personal valet (19:15–16). He is, in short, maintaining a considerable household—on nothing, on no income and no resources. And he is never hungry. He is distressed by his skin afflictions and he cannot sleep (7:4, 30:1), but he never complains that he has no food. So he is not really a poor man. Or at least, the author does not know how to depict him as a poor man. The truly poor are not worried about their status, as Job is; they are worried about where their next meal is coming from.
When truly poor people are described in the book, they are either despised or glamorized. The Book of Job depicts men who from “hard hunger” (30:3) have to gnaw the dry ground, picking mallow and the leaves of bushes, living in gullies and caves, warming themselves by burning the roots of the broom plant (30:3–7). But there is no sympathy on Job’s part or the author’s for these desperately poor people; rather, they are a senseless, disreputable brood who have been “whipped out of the land” (30:8). True, they are said to “make sport of” Job (30:1), which is not very pleasant. But everyone else is rejecting Job, too (or at least, that is how it seems to Job)—men gape at him and strike him on the cheek (16:10), friends scorn him (16:20), mockers surround him (17:2) and all his family ignore him (19:13). But it is his truly poor despisers who come in for the severest criticism, who are themselves despised for their poverty and not just for their attitude to Job. The implication must be that the book does not originate from among them, or represent their interests.
Where the truly poor are depicted elsewhere in the book, their poverty seems to be sympathetically portrayed. The “poor of the earth,” dispossessed of their property by the wicked, have to go out into the wasteland like asses to scavenge food for their young (Job 24:5). They go about naked, they have no covering in the cold, and they shiver from the mountain rains (24:10, 7–8). They have no share in the food they are producing: “Though hungry, they carry the sheaves…They tread the wine presses, but suffer thirst” (24:10–11). This is not an unfeeling depiction, but it shows the hand of the rhetorician rather than that of the fellow-sufferer. Our author can imagine poverty only as the deprivation of wealth. The picture of the poor in chapter 24 is not a depiction of real poverty; it is a glamorization of poverty; it has an eye for the photographic opportunities in it, but it does not know the world of the poor from the inside.
A third feature of the book is that wealth is regarded as unproblematic. In the world of the Book of Job, no question is raised about one man’s having so much wealth that he can own “very many” slaves or servants (1:3), no question about a social and economic system in which many men function to support the status and wealth of one man, a system that produces a narrative in which humans are listed as property of the rich man, like—and after—sheep, camels, oxen and she-asses.
034What of the gender matrix of the book? Not surprisingly, it must be characterized as patriarchal, a social system in which men have unproblematic power over women. For example, whatever Job’s wife means by telling him to “curse God and die” (Job 2:9), it is evident that she plays her role in the story only as a foil to Job: his patience contrasted with her impatience, his piety with her blasphemy, his wisdom with her speech “like one of the foolish women” (2:10). There are no wise women in the Book of Job, only foolish ones. We cannot help wondering whether, when Job says his wife is speaking like one of “the foolish women,” he actually means “women in general”—as if to say, dismissively, “There you go, talking like a woman.”
Job’s wife suffers, as women do, at the hands of the patriarchy of the book. Her suffering is ignored, though her husband’s is everywhere trumpeted. The fact is, she has lost as many children as Job, and she, every bit as much as Job, has lost her status and standard of living. But she has, in addition, to endure a suffering that Job does not: She has to go on living with a spouse whom everyone in the society now regards as a heinous sinner.
Secondly, her very existence is ultimately repressed by the narrative; for though we hear in the epilogue 035that Job again has seven sons and three daughters (42:3), not a word is said of her, the woman who by now has spent 15 years of her life pregnant with Job’s new set of children. The children are Job’s, of course, not hers: She has been effaced.
Patriarchy also expresses itself in the way Job’s second set of three daughters is treated. At first it may seem they are more highly esteemed than women generally are in ancient culture, for they alone of his children are named and they, uniquely in the Hebrew Bible when there are surviving sons, share their father’s inheritance (Job 42:14–15). But the syntax of the narrative is very revealing: “In all the land there were no women so beautiful as Job’s daughters; and their father gave them an inheritance along with their brothers” (42:15). But we mistake the meaning if we think these are just two unrelated facts about Job’s daughters: They were beautiful, and they gained an inheritance from him. No, the waw consecutive (the single Hebrew letter that serves as a particle indicating “and,” “so,” “but” and the like) functions like the waw of Job 1:2, where we are told that Job was blameless, and so he had seven sons and three daughters, and so he had 7,000 sheep, and so on. Similarly, because Job’s daughters are the most beautiful in the land, he gives them an inheritance. In a male world, women exist to be looked at by men. “Beautiful” is the judgment of the male gaze, whether Job’s, the narrator’s or the author’s. The sons inherit because they are sons; the daughters inherit because the man is charmed by them.
So what of the political context reflected in the text? The Book of Job, which is so directly and overtly concerned with wealth and poverty, telling as it does the story of a rich man who becomes impoverished, at the same time represses the conflict between the social classes that are determined by wealth and its absence. In so doing, it deploys various strategies:
It portrays the concentration of wealth in the hands of one man as unproblematic.
It tells a story of movement from riches to poverty, and from poverty to riches; it tells of a man who in his lifetime is rich, then poor, and then rich again—as if the boundaries between the classes can be casually crossed. But we know that is not possible for the vast majority of people.
It deflects attention from the political to the realm of ideas, and elevates theology above economics. It transmutes the issues of wealth, power and class into issues of human innocence and the divine governance of the universe. Even if we think theology is more important than economics, we can hardly deny that it’s a different subject—and changing the subject is the classic way of repressing conflict.
All texts, according to Fredric Jameson,a owe their existence to a desire to repress social conflict, to make life easier for both oppressors and the oppressed, to allow the oppressors to deny their responsibility and to enable the oppressed to forget their suffering. They carry out that program by papering over cracks in the social fabric, minimizing the conflict, writing it out of existence. A book about a rich man—about the richest of men—who loses his wealth must have something to do with class, which is to say, with class conflict. The book’s existence, and its narrative, implies conflict, or at the very least a tension among diverse interests, in which the rich feel the need to explain themselves and re-invent themselves under the figure of Job. The fact that no one reads this book as a document of class struggle is evidence of how successfully it has repressed the conflict it presupposes.
Why is there a Book of Job? Because there was a social, gender and political need for it. This is not the whole story, but it is a story that has to be told, especially when the prevailing story is that all it represents are the cultured theological sensitivities of its author.
Now to the second question: What does the book do to you when you read it? How has it been read? What impact does it have on its readers?
Four main strands can be identified in the history of the book’s interpretation. In the first, Job is seen as the 043ideal patient man, piously and fatalistically accepting his suffering as the will of God. This view prevailed in both Jewish and Christian interpretation up to the Renaissance. Then another reading appeared that described Job as the champion of reason against dogma, of empirical observation against tradition.
In the modern period, another image of Job has developed, one that sees him as the victim of a cruel and absurd world, and that finds even in the divine speeches a defence of a cosmic irrationality. The fourth strand of interpretation, which has persisted up until the present, is the conception of the book as “wisdom.” In traditional interpretation, that meant that the speeches as well as the narrative were didactic or moral literature; and moral truth could be supported equally by both the friends’ speeches and Job’s (if anything, the friends’ speeches were more serviceable for sound morality than the angry and intemperate speeches of Job). The categorization of the book as “wisdom” continues by means of the construct of the “wisdom movement” or “wisdom school” in ancient Israel. Questionable though the idea is that there was such a movement or group within ancient Israelite society, it is currently the prevailing paradigm for reading the book.
In the case of the most ancient, and (to judge by its longevity) most persuasive, interpretation—Job as the ideal patient sufferer—the reading is so palpably untrue to the book as a whole that I feel constrained to offer a reason for it. In the first two chapters we do get a picture of Job’s patience—but then there is always some ground for misreadings. Perhaps readers have rarely gotten beyond the first two chapters and therefore have thought that the character of Job is adequately presented in these two chapters. Or it could be that the portrait of Job in the first two chapters unduly influences readers who persevere through the later, quite different depictions of Job? But I think it more likely that the misreading of Job as a patient sufferer should be construed as the result of readers’ resistance to Job’s often intemperate and near-blasphemous speeches (see, for example, Job 6–7), to their refusal to accept that the hero of a biblical book could be so hostile to heaven. Whatever the reason, the portrait of Job that I find inscribed on every page of the book except the first is entirely effaced by an interpretational mode we might designate as “Job’s patience.” What the Book of Job has done to its readers is less than what the readers have done to the Book of Job; or, rather, the book has so provoked them to moral outrage that they have felt it necessary to suppress the evidence that has been staring them in the face.
The second strain in interpretation—that sees Job as representing reason and experience in opposition to dogma—has much stronger grounding in the book itself, but it nevertheless represents a projection of the interpreters’ self-understanding upon the book—and a distortion of the book itself. On the one hand, it minimizes Job’s attachment to the conventional theology of his age; although he dissents from the friends’ views of exact retribution, he nevertheless believes in retribution of some kind (for he believes that an innocent man like himself should not suffer), and in every other regard he stands for the religious dogma of his time, rather than for unfettered rationality. This reading turns the Book of Job into nothing but a collection of Joban speeches, a vehicle for Job’s ideas. This interpretation must therefore systematically write out of the book the prologue, the friends’ lengthy speeches, the divine speeches and the epilogue. In this interpretation, what the book has done to its readers is to engage their sympathies with the character of Job so thoroughly that they lose sight of the book as a whole.
The third strain in interpretation—that reads Job as representing humanity as the victim of an absurd universe—does indeed take the divine speeches into consideration, making them an affirmation of the irrationality (from the human perspective) of the divine activity. But it too, like the second strain, essentially makes the Book of Job a collection of speeches by Job and negates the book as a whole, with its prologue, its epilogue and the speeches of Job’s friends.
The fourth strain in interpretation—the categorization of the book of Job as “wisdom”—functions so as to protect the argument of the book and its assumptions from criticism. True, in scholarly language the term “wisdom” means, properly speaking, “Israel’s wisdom tradition” and it does not imply the critic’s assent to its validity. Yet in practice that is the stance taken by virtually all scholarly readers of the book. The Book of Job is said by all those who write commentaries on it to be a masterpiece of world literature and to express profound insights into the human condition. The result has been that Job himself or the book as a whole has become virtually immune from criticism—even though the book itself makes it crystal clear that 044Job’s whole argument in defense of his innocence results from his ignorance of the reasons for his suffering, and even though the speeches of the friends, which form the bulk of the book, are said by the most authoritative voice in the book, God’s, to be in the wrong.
If Job is entirely under a misapprehension and the friends have not spoken what is right, where is the “truth” in the book of Job? No one seems to have seen it this way, no one seems to have been troubled about regarding as “wisdom” a book that—by its own admission—is mostly wrong.
The history of the interpretation of the book, I conclude, shows that what the book does to you is suppress your critical instincts and persuade you to adopt the book’s implicit ideologies.
So much for the history of how the Book of Job has been interpreted. But what does it do to readers of our own day?
The book persuades its readers that there is a causal relation between piety and prosperity, and that this relation is unproblematic. Yet it does not explore that question.
I mean to say: The hero of the book is a pious and prosperous man, whose prosperity is the consequence of his piety. That is a given of the story and it is never challenged. God has blessed Job and all that he has; there is no mistake about that. What the book raises as an issue is not whether prosperity can indeed be a consequence of piety, but whether a poor and suffering man, as Job has ostensibly become, can be pious. In focusing upon the piety of this most untypical poor man, the book deflects attention from the deeper and prior question: Why should anyone imagine there is any connection at all between wealth (or poverty) and godliness?
In short, while the problem explicitly raised by the book is whether a suffering man can be an innocent one, the real problem of the book, the problem constituted by the book, is a different one: whether there is a cause-and-effect relationship between piety and prosperity. Yet this question is not addressed by the book.
If there never was, or if no one thought there was, a causal connection between piety and prosperity, the Satan could never have asked his question, God could not have authorized the testing of Job, Job could not have suffered, and there could have been no book of Job. For the Satan’s question asks God to remove prosperity to see if piety collapses—and that question hangs on the assumption that there is a causal relationship between piety and prosperity.
What’s more, the book as a whole affirms the truth of the doctrine of reward for piety; for Job, the most perfect of humans, ends up the wealthiest. Even if he has been impoverished, his poverty is only temporary. Once again, however, readers have their attention deflected from this subliminal assertion of the book, for the narrative has convinced us that Job has been unjustly treated—Job himself has made out his case eloquently and persuasively—and the narrative has aroused in us a desire for Job’s vindication, which means, in Job’s terms, the restitution of his fortunes. When we read, at the end of the book, about Job’s becoming wealthy again, we are glad for Job; we like happy endings and we crave closure; yet there is not one in a hundred among us who says, “Aha! so piety does lead to prosperity in the end!”
What we are persuaded not to notice, by the flow of the narrative and by the attractiveness of the character of Job, is that in fact Job has not been treated unjustly—not unless the doctrine of retribution is true. Job’s protest against the injustice of his treatment is very sympathetic, so much so that readers rarely resist him. But unless his piety should have been rewarded with wealth and health, there is no injustice in what he suffers, and no deserving in his restoration.
The Book of Job powerfully persuades its readers that wealth is unproblematic ethically speaking. Who among its readers is unable to sympathize with Job simply because he is a rich man? I never raised this question until I lectured on Job at a Black seminary in Atlanta and had a student say, “Man, I don’t like this dude Job. He is a rich man, and I am not. I have to get up at four in the morning to go to work before I come to school; I have to do three jobs to keep my family and pay for my education. Why should I be interested in the story of this rich man? He has nothing to do with me.”
The Book of Job takes wealth for granted as a good thing, even representing extreme wealth as going hand in hand with great virtue. It persuades its readers who are wealthy that it is perfectly all right to be wealthy, that they should not feel bad about it, in fact they should not even stop to think about it.
It persuades readers, too, that explanations of reality, especially causal explanations, are worth having. In the story of the Book of Job, Job is suffering, and thereupon the primary question on the book’s agenda becomes, why is he suffering? What is its cause?
Now this is a typically intellectual attitude—that explanations for states of affairs are worth having. I myself, being an intellectual, naturally think it is good that there are people in the world who try to understand situations and account for them. So I am by profession partial to the Book of Job. We intellectuals tend not to notice that understanding reality is only one option; some people think it more important to change things than to understand them, and still others prefer merely to use or enjoy things. Faced with a bicycle, we can choose to study how it works, or discover its prehistory—or ride it. And there is no reason to think that understanding the origins of the bicycle will be of any use at all in learning how to ride from Sheffield to Barnsley.
Faced with suffering, we have no reason to think that understanding its origin will have much value. Knowing how to handle it, how to behave ourselves while suffering, how to remain ourselves while suffering—these may be much more important.
Finally, it persuades readers that it somehow answers the problem of suffering. So successful is the book at persuading readers of the rightness of its position that they rarely notice the enormous paradox the book presents: The book is generally regarded as dealing with the problem of human suffering in general but the narrative is clearly about a quite exceptional occurrence. Job is a very untypical human being, since he is the most perfect and most wealthy man of all.
And if the book is not principally about the man Job but about humans generally, what then? If the testing of Job is meant to establish not just whether Job himself serves God “for naught” but whether it is possible for human beings in general to do so, then Job’s maintenance of his piety under the onslaughts of the Satan has resolved the question once and for all. If that is so, then the reason for Job’s suffering cannot be (or is unlikely to be) the reason for anyone else’s suffering. The book, however, persuades readers that they are reading about a universal human problem, when in reality they are reading about Job’s problem—a problem that is, by the logic of the narrative, no one else’s.
What the Book of Job does is to inveigle you into a willing suspension of disbelief. By its charm and force, by its rhetoric and passion, it persuades readers of ideas that cannot be defended. It engages our sympathy for a character we know to be laboring under a vast illusion—that piety and prosperity are somehow related. The book seduces us into considering problems of suffering in the book’s own terms. The Book of Job keeps on having its way with readers—which is what we mean when we call it a great, powerful work of literature.
Adapted from “Why is there a Book of Job?” in The Book of Job, ed. W. A. M. Beuken (Leuven, Belgium: Peeters Publishers, 1995).
I propose to raise two seldom-asked questions about the Book of Job: Why is there a Book of Job? And what does it do to you when you read it; what is its effect on you as a reader?