The Book of Job

We try to fit our lives into legible narratives. But we live in the fog of reality.

The first and last chapters of story is an old folktale of a good and prosperous man who is tried by many misfortunes and afflictions, who bore them all and patiently without losing faith in God until he was rewarded by the restoration of all he had lost plus more. Even the phrase "the patience of Job" antedates the book and refers to a simple tale of trust and patience rewarded in the end. Between the first and last chapters a person of genius inserted a poem that confronts the question of God's justice in dealing with men begins with a lament for the day he was born. …………. In the early 1950's I worked in a grocery store after school and on Saturdays. On Saturday the store remained open until nine or ten at night and since the employees began work at 6:30 in the morning we were all dragging by closing time.  Occasionally our spirits were elevated when about closing time a wonderful visitor would appear. The front door would open and a very black preacher with snow white hair would enter and walk like an old testament prophet down the aisle towards the back of the store where the owner stood waiting behind the meat counter. About half way down the aisle the preacher would sing in a beautiful bass voice, " Hitherto shalt thou come, but no further: and here shall thy proud waves be stayed. Job 38:11" and at the meat counter he would emit a Jovial laugh that sent waves of delight though the entire store. Then he and the owner would begin a lively conversation.

 Also in the early 50's a few hardy souls were still raising small patches of cotton with a Georgia Stock. There was one man who had a small farm at the edge of our village where he raised a few acres of cotton and cultivated the crop with plow and hoe. Mid-summer he would hoe the weeds in the cotton patch and when he reached the end of a row he too would too would sing, but a song of woe : "God Almighty Damn, man born of a woman is of few days and full of trouble. He cometh forth like a flower, and withers under the noon day sun." Such was my first exposure to the poem.


The Book has been exhaustedly studied, interpreted, analyzed, and debated for thousands of years (My choice for the best interpretation of the poem is God under Attack, by David Daiches from his Gifford Lectures. The lecture is reprinted in "The Book of Job", edited by Harold Bloom. ).  I only add one comment and that on Job's wife. The focus here is on a few varied interpretations over the centuries which reveal, in some cases, more about the interpreters that about the Book itself. Also, included are are few personal choice passages to consider.

 Job's Wife

Reading  the work in most English translations Job's wife comes across as a mean spirited comic shrew who does not fit well in the narrative. Then I came across an English translation from the Orthodox version which smoothes out her sharp least a bit...and provides a rationale for her unkind words.

Georges de La Tour. Job and his Wife. c. 1650. Oil on canvas. Musée Départemental des Vosges,


7 So Satan went out from the presence of the LORD and afflicted Job with painful sores from the soles of his feet to the top of his head. 8 Then Job took a piece of broken pottery and scraped himself with it as he sat among the ashes. 9 His wife said to him, "Are you still holding on to your integrity? Curse God and die!

Orthodox Version

9 And when much time had passed, his wife said unto him, ‘How long wilt thou persevere, saying, 9a “Behold, I wait yet a little while expecting the hope of my deliverance”? 9b For behold, thy memorial is abolished from the earth, even thy sons and thy daughters, the pangs and pains of my womb, which I bare vainly in sorrows. 9c And thou thyself sittest down, to spend the nights in the open air among the corruption of worms; 9d and I am a wanderer and a servant, from place to place and house to house, awaiting the going down of the sun, that I may rest from my travails and my pangs which now beset me. But say some word against the LORD and die.’ 10 But he looked on her, and said unto her, ‘Thou hast spoken as one of the foolish women speaketh. If we have received the good things at the hand of the LORD, shall we not endure the evil?’ In all these things that befell him, did not Job sin at all with his lips before God.

Choice Passages

Has thou given the horse strength?
Has thou clothed his neck with thunder?

He paweth in the valley, and rejoiceth in his strength:
He goeth on to meet the armed men.

He mocketh at fear, and is not affrighted;
Neither turneth he back from the sword...

He swalloweth the ground with fierceness and rage:
Neither believeth he that it is the sound of the trumpet.

He saith among the trumpets, Ha Ha;
And he smelleth the battle afar off,
The thunder of the captains, and the shouting.

The most astounding part of the book is  chapter 39 with the description of the war horse and the birds of prey. Both wisdom and human whining are dismissed in favor of the wonders of the world, including killers. If the voice from the whirlwind favors any humans they probably resemble the famous Bronze Warriors of Raice- not the pathetic schlemiel in the La Tour painting.. God may like  gentle blue birds, but he also admires the  osprey.


Raice osprey


Doth the hawk fly by thy wisdom, and stretch her wings toward the south?

 Doth the eagle mount up at thy command, and make her nest on high?

She dwelleth and abideth on the rock, upon the crag of the rock, and the strong place.

From thence she seeketh the prey, and her eyes behold afar off.

Her young ones also suck up blood: and where the slain are, there is she.

(“no one can dispute the literary power of the book of Job, but what is wisdom literature if it abnegates wisdom?” -Harold Bloom)



Pope Gregory I, or Gregory the Great (540-604)
wrote a six-volume study of Job.
Moralia on Job.  circa 591. It is based on talks Gregory gave on the Book of Job to his followers who accompanied him to Constantinople. The work was completed soon after his accession to the papal office. An allegorical interpretation of the Book as parallel to the New Testament; in particular, Job’s torment was thought to presage the sufferings of Jesus.  
St. Thomas Aquinas (13th  century) He treated the Book as a quaestio, or debate, the primary mode of learning at the University of Paris, where he was a professor. Job won the debate.    
Jewish scholar Maimonides (12th century) “Guide for the Perplexed,” says that we must yield to the text’s divine authority. In Job, he believes, we can understand God’s message only in glimpses. If the work seems to contain contradictions or errors, that is our fault.  We needed to dig for deeper, subtler meaning.  
In 1536, John Calvin wrote his “Institutes of the Christian Religion,” with meditations on Job. Calvin’s view is an attempt to reconcile the existence of evil with a benevolent and omnipotent God. Calvin said that God had a higher justice, veiled to human eyes.    
Voltaire’s “Candide” (1759):Voltaire said that Candide was “Job brought up to date. “ ‘What difference does it make,’ said the dervish, ‘if there is good or evil? When His Highness sends a ship to Egypt, does he worry about whether or not the mice are comfortable on board?’ ”    
Jewish Enclycopedia  The negative result reached by these arguments of the Book of Job may be stated as follows: What hitherto has been called divine justice is merely the display of the omnipotence of God. His decisions are devoid of all moral qualities, and are pronounced indifferently, as blessings or as curses, upon all men, upon the good and the bad alike. In the same way men are prosperous or unhappy according to the fortuitous events of their lives, quite independently of their ethical qualities. The gifts of fortune and the strokes of calamity are in no wise connected either with God's justice or with man's moral nature. But as these arguments deprived the divine omnipotence, as manifested in the world, of all ethical quality the danger arose of excluding this quality altogether from the divine nature, and of actually destroying the attribute of justice in God. Hence the poet attempted to rehabilitate the latter in a round-about way, succeeding, however, only by means of a postulate. He declares that many of the phenomena of nature are indeed the manifestations of an omnipotence that overwhelms man by the terrors of its sublimity (xxvi. 6-14), but that this is not the only thing that nature declares of God. The marvelous law and order of those phenomena, of nature and the multiplicity and curious modes of life of her creatures, are also the manifestations of a hidden wisdom, to which man simply must submit.  
David Hume 18th century  “Is he (God) willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is impotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Whence then is evil?”    
William Blake in the 19th century  Blake did not need God to make sense. He is a  figure of pure energy, like the
"Tyger Tyger, burning bright, 
In the forests of the night; 
What immortal hand or eye, 
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?"

Nor did Blake mind conflicts, in his "Marriage of Heaven and Hell”: “Without Contraries is no progression. Attraction and Repulsion, Reason and Energy, Love and Hate, are necessary to Human existence.”
The German theorist Johann Gottfried von Herder and  the Anglican bishop Robert Lowth in the 19th century They stopped trying to figure out God’s plan, and instead focused on the poetry, whose art was meaning enough; the ambiguity enhanced the sublimity.    
Elie Wiesel, an Auschwitz survivor,  began lecturing about Job in 1946. He regards the Book as a great text, and a great torture... Job epitomized the suffering of the Jews during the Second World War and their perceived response to it, which Hannah Arendt described as going like lambs to the slaughter. As God shot dice with his life, Job grieved and protested, but he didn’t take any action.

Wiesel, in his “Messengers of God: Biblical Portraits and Legends” (1976), argues that Job did not submit when God told him that he must. You can tell, Wiesel says, because, in the text, he submitted so quickly...he was just pretending..a schlemiel. The true ending, Wiesel preferred to believe, was lost. More recently, he has changed his mind, and settled on the idea that Job merely chose silence, not submission.