Thoughts on Job
I read the KJV Book of Job over the past few days, start to finish. Better late than never.
I can now forgive myself for being a less than thorough student of some of those great books I was assigned in college, now, or at least I can see the patterns—why I devoured some and couldn’t slog my way through others. Some of those texts are perfect for young people starting out on their lives, whether or not the protagonists are old or young: Genesis and Exodus, the David arc, Homer, Virgil, Cervantes, Plato. I struggled with the classical historians but I can see how maybe if I’d been less attached to an alienated relationship to history—seeing myself as a Jew still living out a kind of anti-history—those texts would have excited me too, especially Herodotus and Livy.
Job and and Dante—these are texts for middle age. It’s been so easy for me to make the mistake of imagining Job as an old man. I blame William Blake, whose Job is as ancient as the Bible says he is, in years. To me, Biblical years are meant to be taken impressionistically--like we say 'he's a billion years old but still walks 5 miles every morning.'
For me, Job is a 35-40 year old man who had children quite young. The psychology of the poem really sings, read this way. It reads almost like a novel in verse, especially if you’re willing to take some weight off of God and Satan’s definition of the character in heaven and look to Job and his friends on earth for characterization.
I found chapter 29 (capped by the first verse of 30) to be the most moving part of the text, before the climactic encounter between Job and God. Job remembers the kind of man he used to be:
Oh that I were as in months past, as in the days when God preserved me;
When his candle shined upon my head, and when by light I walked through darkness;
As I was in the days of my youth, when the secret of God was upon my tabernacle;
When the Almighty was yet with me, when my children were about me;
When I washed my steps with butter, and the rock poured me out rivers of oil;
When I went out to the gate through the city, when I prepared my seat in the street!
The young men saw me, and hid themselves; and the aged arose, and stood up.
The princes refrained talking, and laid their hand on their mouth.
The nobles held their peace, and their tongues cleaved to the roof of their mouth.
When the ear heard me, then it blessed me; and when the eye saw me, it gave witness to me;
Because I delivered the poor that cried, and the fatherless, and him that had none to help him.
The blessing of him that was ready to perish came upon me; and i caused the widow’s heart to sing for joy.
I put on righteousness, and it clothed me: my judgment was as a robe and a diadem.
I was eyes to the blind, and feet was I to the lame.
I was a father to the poor: and the cause which I knew not I searched out.
And I brake the jaws of the wicked, and plucked the spoil out of his teeth.
Then I said, I shall die in my nest, and i shall multiply my days as the sand.
My root was spread out by the waters, and the dew lay all night upon my branch.
My glory was fresh in me, and my bow was renewed in my hand.
Unto me men gave ear, and waited, and kept silence in my counsel.
After my words they spake not again; and my speech dropped upon them.
And they waited for me as for the rain; and they opened their mouth wide as for the latter rain.
If I laughed on them, they believed it not; and the light of my countenance they cast not down.
I chose out of their way, and sat chief, and dwelt as a king in the army, as one that comforteth the mourners.
But now they that are younger than I have me in derision, whose fathers I would have disdained to have set with the dogs of my flock.
The character of Elisha comes into the story toward the end to call Job out on his vanity, but I don't have the heart to call this vanity. Do you? I think we all feel a certain falling-off from what it felt like to be 25.
I think the best way to come at Job today would be to set the question of the divine aside and come at piety a different way. I imagine job as a politician in a democracy. As a younger man, he commanded a lot of attention, and enacted reforms with real consequences, working from a grassroots-style movement, at least symbolically. He never made it to a high office, although maybe he tried. At middle age, he finds that he has become irrelevant. The younger generation no longer cares about what he has to say. And then, adding injury to insult, he faces a series of personal catastrophes. How does that man come round to the second part of his life? What will a meaningful life be like for him?
Shakespeare put a lot of Job into King Lear, following the same instinct--a 'politician' of a different kind, but can I really claim to have gotten this idea independently of Lear? I'd like to think so....
In the Bible it takes a direct encounter with God for Job to understand how little he understands, and how little he's really done or able to do, in light of what God knows and does. Outside the Bible, how do any of us at middle age find our bearings again? I haven't read Jung's Answer to Job, but based on his insights elsewhere into the relevance of age to psychology, including moral psychology, I'd bet that his take on Job is in this ballpark. To be continued....