The Book of Job is commonly — and mistakenly — seen as a story of the “patience of Job.” And sometimes people have trouble locating its place in the Bible.
Asked by reporters last January to name his favorite book in the New Testament, Howard Dean answered, “The Book of Job.” He was one testament off, and returned later to tell reporters he knew it was in the Hebrew Bible. He said he liked it because it “sort of explains that bad things happen to very good people for no good reason.”
Dean’s confusion about the location of the Book of Job generated a fair amount of ridicule at the time from commentators — but not from William Safire, the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist of The New York Times, who is speaking next week about Job at Sinai Temple.
In his column that week, Safire said that Dean, in his description of Job, was “on to something.” The book, Safire wrote, is the “most controversial book in all theology” — the outraged cry of a blameless sufferer, a call for someone to “take God to court on a charge of moral mismanagement” (and perhaps breach of contract).
The story of Job is one of a righteous man from whom everything is taken — all his sons and daughters, all his wealth and then his health — and who rejects the comfort and counsel of his friends, with their established wisdom about God.
Job’s friends tell him he must have done something wrong (“Happy is the man whom God corrects”), that the experience should lead to greater piety (“If thou wert pure and upright, surely now God would awake for thee”), that in the end everything will be all right (“though there be darkness, it shall be as the morning”).
But Job is not consoled. On the contrary, he is outraged at the injustice. “The tents of robbers prosper, and they that provoke God are secure.” But as for him, “I looked for good, and then evil came. When I expected light, then came darkness.”
Job curses his life and dreams of escaping God: “For now I shall lie in the earth; thou wilt seek me, but I shall not be.” Above all, he wants it known that “God has wronged me” — and that God should respond.
At the end, after a series of speeches by Job of unusual power and eloquence, God does appear. In the longest speech by God in the Bible, Job receives his response — and it is a non-answer. God simply invokes sheer power and superior knowledge: “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Declare, if you have the understanding.”
As Safire noted, not everyone thinks God comes off well in that response. Others fault Job for his confrontation with God, or for his subsequent response to God’s speech. The ending to the story is controversial. But what is indisputable is that the confrontation caps a literary, religious and political story that is among the greatest of all time.
Even if viewed only as literature, the Book of Job is extraordinary. Thomas Carlyle said there is “nothing written, I think, in the Bible or out of it, of equal literary merit.”
Alfred Lord Tennyson called it the “greatest poem of ancient and modern times.”
Cynthia Ozick went even further. In an essay devoted to Job, she says the words in the book spring from “an artistry so far beyond the grasp of mind and tongue” that we think of the Greek plays; we think of Shakespeare — and still that is not marvel enough.”
Safire added a new perspective on Job, interpreting the book as a political parable. Since his college days, Safire had been collecting books about Job, and in 1992 he published a remarkable book titled “The First Dissident: The Book of Job in Today’s Politics” (Random House). Reviewing Safire’s book in Commentary, Edward Luttwak called it a “profound discourse on politics and theology.”
Safire viewed the story as a victory for Job — because Job called the Lord of the universe to account. It was the archetypal dialogue between a powerless individual and an all-powerful authority — a model for the miraculous things that, in modern times, powerless individuals had achieved, standing only on the moral questions they raised: Andrei Sakharov in the Soviet Union, Ghandi in India, Martin Luther King Jr. in the United States.
Job’s questions of God — why do the wicked thrive, why do the innocent suffer — endure (in Ozick’s words) in “death camp and hatred, in tyranny and anthrax, in bomb and bloodshed.”
In Archibald MacLeish’s “J.B,” a character notes how many modern Jobs — blameless sufferers caught in unspeakable conditions — there have been:
Millions and millions of mankind
Burned, crushed, broken, mutilated
Slaughtered, and for what? For thinking!
For walking round the world in the wrong
Skin, the wrong-shaped noses, eyelids:
Sleeping the wrong night wrong city —
London, Dresden, Hiroshima.
And after Sept. 11, we can add: for going to work on time in Manhattan on a beautiful fall day; for boarding a plane in Boston on a trip to the coast; for dancing in a discotheque or eating at a pizza parlor in Tel Aviv. The world is not just. It is not Eden. But that awareness is the beginning of the story, not its end.
Safire’s book drew from Job a message about political injustice: It need not be accepted. On the contrary, justice must be pursued, and established authority confronted. One person can make a difference — and ultimately justice in this world is not God’s responsibility, but our own.
In his 1999 book, “Making Loss Matter: Creating Meaning in Difficult Times” (Riverheads), Rabbi David Wolpe drew a similar message from Job about confronting life’s inexplicable injustices. His book did not seek to explain God, but rather mapped a path to making our inevitable losses meaningful, even absent an explanation for their origin or cause. He saw in Job a larger lesson about the nature of our lives and our relationship with God.
Written thousands of years ago, with literary beauty, religious insights and political lessons still relevant today, it is hard to think of a more remarkable book than Job, or more important books than the ones Job has inspired.
On Nov. 20, William Safire will speak at a luncheon at Sinai Temple on “The Book of Job and Today’s Politics,” followed by a dialogue with Rabbi David Wolpe. He will speak at a brunch on Nov. 21 on “The Significance of the Election on the Next Four Years.” Reservations are required. To R.S.V.P., call (310) 474-1518.