Cursing the Day of One’s Birth

The concrete subtleties of Hebrew narrative can easily elude readers versed in theological talking points and religious ‘viewiness’ (to quote Cardinal Newman). We all have just enough pseudo-education in our blood that we can’t really help but reduce the Book of Job to a predictable series of lame paradoxes and postmodern clichés. Meanwhile, the Job story demands intrepid readers—you know, the kind of seekers who peer at words in the same way explorers once groped doggedly along fog-shrouded shores seeking the elusive Northwest Passage. Sadly, the age of exploration has long passed, and so, it seems, has the age of books and reading. In their places, we have sated rich folks queuing up Everest at 60,000 dollars a pop, and instead of real books of discovery, we have commentaries on top of commentaries (and blogs to no end).

I am fairly certain that some exegete has already noted in his dismal commentary that when Job curses ‘his day’ in Chapter 3, he was actually cursing God. And I am sadly aware that in not a few North American Sabbath Schools, the resident wag will repeat precisely this querulous insight, letting it hang in the air like a stink bomb to the Faithful’s serene confidence in the Quarterly. It follows that my reading of Job, Chapter 3, will be a primitive one: concrete instead of abstract. Ancient literature has ever been ‘of the world’ in the sense that it trades in the res; the things that God has made (however marred by sin). What secular modern and postmodern man invents: the abstractions, the generalizations, the pomposities of theory and speculation cannot be found in the world of God made things. They exist only in our sordid minds.

When Job curses ‘his day’ (his birthday, that is), he is not cursing his life. Neither is he cursing the God who gave him life. If, as Augustine claims, words mean something because they signify what God has made, we can only understand the semantic value of Job’s cursing of ‘his day’ if we leave the words in the linguistic welter of things that make up Chapter 3. A quick read of the chapter reveals a crescendo of lament: first, Job would have the day of his birth ‘perish’; he desires his birthday to vanish from the calendar— a day that never dawned; a day ‘stained by the shadow of death’. A day uncreated by God because that day failed to abort Job’s birth—it failed to ‘shut up the doors of my mother’s womb’ (verse 10). Second, failing the removal of his birthday from the calendar (the erasure of history, as it were), Job wonders (more realistically) why he could not have just died at birth: ‘why did I not give up the ghost when I came out of the belly?’, and rather perversely, ‘why did the knees prevent me? Or why the breasts that I should such?’ (verse11-12). Finally (and here the crescendo reaches it climax), Job contemplates the advantages of being dead and of dying in the present; very real advantages, by the way, which we often fail to acknowledge in our inculcated paranoia of death:

[In the grave], the wicked cease from troubling; and there the weary prisoners rest… the prisoners rest together; they hear not the voice of the oppressor. The small and the great are there; and the servant is free from his master.

Verse 19 is telling, given its implied longing for a just world: a world in which ‘the servant is free’ from oppression. Note, too, how the crescendo reaches a bleakly positive climax: death is good to the extent that it achieves the great leveling or just equalizing of human society. Here Job reveals his tragicomedy dilemma: justice will come to each of us, but only, it seems, in the grave.

Job’s desire to have died at birth (or his wish for death as an adult) does not mean that Job has come to hate God; nor does it in the least signify that Job is suicidal (this is not a tragic story and not just because of its happy ending!). Job wishes he had died at birth (if not before), not because he presently hates life or the God of life; rather, he has come to hate the ‘misery’ in life; its injustices, to be precise (verse 20). And for that reason, alone, he desires to have never been born (there is no evidence in the text that Job ever contemplated self-murder). Job resolutely maintains a distinction between life and the misery that inhabits life, like some grotesque cancer. Job longs for the grave because the dead ‘rest’ there (verse 17); it is the rest he desires, not the grave, per se. Job also expresses a wish to die because he can see no purpose in knowing the light of justice in a world where dark injustice seems to prevail. The question is raised: ‘why is light given to him that is in misery, and life unto the bitter in soul…?’ (verse 20). To put it bluntly, Job is fed up with injustice, and for this reason, and this reason alone, death has become attractive to him. His question is a profound one: why can’t I just die and, thus, escape the gross injustice that now stains my life?

The indirect but superbly ethical and concrete answer to that question is only found in the Book’s epilogue when Job grants his second set of daughters ‘inheritance among their brothers’. Here, and nowhere else, we discover the ethical imperative within human suffering: Job must suffer and God must allow it, not only to settle a metaphysical dispute, but also to enable Job to gain empathy as a necessary condition if Job is ever to recognize the suffering of others and do something to remedy it. You see, in Job’s culture, sisters were often invited to their brothers’ birthday feasts (the Ugaritic tables bear this out), but they were not, as far as we know, typically granted equal inheritances with their male counterparts. The contrast between Job’s treatment of his first set of daughters (their benign but unjust inclusion at the brothers’ birthday feasts) contrasts heavily with Job’s treatment of his second daughters. What changed?

The only plausible inference we can draw here is that Job’s suffering enabled him to move from a conventionally benevolent regard for his daughters to an empathetic understanding of their plight as women. Job’s misery, alone, made possible the radical and culturally incomprehensible change with respect to how Job both regarded and, thus, treated his second daughters. It is as if God says, ‘No, Job, you cannot die just yet; the grave may be a ‘fine and private place, but none, I think, do there embrace’ (apologies to Andrew Marvell). No, Job, while it is true that the dead are ‘together’ (verse 18), it is not true that they enjoy relationships. The Epilogue enjoins a truer kind of sociability: the unity of shared pain and the promise of a greater level social justice in this life (no secular utopianism here; just ethical actions that change things as much as possible).

The point is clear: only Job’s own unjust suffering enabled Job to see what his culture had blinded him to; namely, the painful scenes of his first daughters attending their brothers’ birthday feasts year after year, but never having any birthday parties of their own. It follows that God does, indeed, answer Job’s question as to why he must endure misery and injustice as a Believer. The answer is in the epiphany of Job’s suffering; an epiphany without which no truly liberating ethical action would ever be possible, given the self-absorbed nature of the fallen consciousness.[1]

[1] A scholarly version of this essay is forthcoming in the Journal For the Study of the Old Testament. I would also hasten to observe that this essay does not qualify as a species of feminist criticism, since it allows that a patriarchal figure (under God’s rather severe instruction) may possibly remedy the abuses of women in his family if not his entire culture without having to either abandon his patriarchal role or empower said women to remedy their own injustices themselves.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/7710
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We can hope that Benjamin M. Palmer, Presbyterian minister, founder of Rhodes College, and advocate of slavery, secession, and racial segregation, experienced a sudden epiphany as he was tended to by African-Americans after being hit by a street car. But there is no evidence during the twenty remaining days of his life of a change in heart.

Samuel’s account of the death of one he truly loves, Eli, constitutes a strange prayer for the dead. What Kurt Weill puts to music is no doubt true: “Nothing you can do will help a dead man.” But Samuel implies, and by stretching his implication prays, that Eli’s fall out of the chair is accompanied by a sudden moment of clarity and act of repentance. Of course, Scripture’s best example of a barely-making-it story is the last-gasp repentance of the thief on the cross. As we read these stories and the story of Job, we fervently hope and pray that the violence, pain, and death experienced by our departed loved ones worked some miraculous good.

Scripture glorifies the fantastical. And we want the fantastical to be real. As we enjoy reading Scripture, we enjoy reading Flannery O’Connor’s short stories, because she also depicts last-second moments of clarity and acts of repentance that are catalyzed by violence, pain and death. But as we move away from Scripture and fiction, we observe that most people die remaining as they are.

We must resign ourselves to the realization that there will be no sudden epiphanies that dislodge opponents of women’s ordination from their misogyny. Change will happen by normal attrition. The Benjamin M. Palmers of the Seventh-day Adventist Church will die and be replaced. It is our fate to recapitulate history no matter the attendant trauma and pain that could have been avoided. As much as we might like to believe in Seventh-day Adventist Exceptionalism, we are very much like everyone else. For most of us, our final moments of life will be unremarkable.

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As someone who has to teach this week’s lesson, I very much appreciated the Spectrum piece, and the first response to it. The lesson author of the quarterly seems so focused on things that in my mind, are just distractions from the real issue…such as spending one whole day using Job’s words to validate our doctrine of the state of the dead. Job also mentions ‘Leviathon’, so perhaps the author should have included a discussion of clean and unclean meats!

In my mind, the overarching issue or question, whether one believes in a literal interpretation or an allegorical approach, is that you have this good man Job, who has one terrible life-altering tragedy after another roll over him in short succession, stripping him of everything dear and leaving him physically tortured, scraping his sores with a piece of broken pottery; and he wants to know WHY!

We still dance around this timeless question with the cliche’ God permits things to happen’. Conversely, I have come to the belief that God is all powerful (omnipotent), but I also believe He has chosen to limit the exercise of His power within the context of the Great Controversy in ways which I simply cannot understand.

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Yes, well…I haven’t read the quarterly for many years, even when I used to teach SS, but I know of what you speak. Like every prescription for a surgeon is surgery, so every SS lesson is a validation of at least one of the 28, no matter what the topic is. But then, these weekly pep-rallies aren’t meant for serious Bible study.

The superficiality can be overwhelming sometimes. I have had quotes from one of Job’s comforters used as a defence of God - “context - context - context” should be the motto for any Ss lesson, just like “location - location - location” defines property.

Perhaps some one can write a SS lesson from the viewpoint of one of Job’s sons. That should be interesting.

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To say the Book of Job is a literal narrative is, in my opinion, an expression of extreme disrespect to the person of Yahweh(almighty God) who gave instructions for the creation of Homo sapiens at a crucial Council Meeting of those Elohim who were resident on earth the time. The fossil record indicates this was about 300k-250k years ago , and this time calculation could well be correct . But this is not the major point at issue here. Man was created by God to do work on the Steppes of the Edin, perhaps that part of it which passed through southern Iraq. Mesopotamian records (predating the Bible) indicate that there was a work strike by lower ranking Elohim which had caused a crisis. Man was created with high intelligence to take their place. This alarmed many in heaven as it was felt by many including Satan that man would pose a threat sooner or later by the splitting of the atom and the manufacture of nuclear weapons long before he really understood how his instincts and his brain in general worked. Long story short. god was in favour of making females fecund as some Elohim wanted man to be reproduced by cloning s0o that the species would die out after the Elohim returned to “heaven”. He therefore gave man the chance to prove himself worthy of survival by letting the fecund ones and their mates make a way for themselves amid what must have been horrific suffering amid predators stronger, faster, with awesome weapons of poison fang, and power.Man survived using his God given intelligence and moved northward from Africa through the bush to form colonies in Asian and Euro homelands, adapting to climatic conditions as he went by means of natural selection. Now this was suffering, but not just cruelty, willy-nilly on a gamble imposed by the almighty as depicted in the story of Job, God has seen the potential of mankind to be partners of the Elohim. Gen Chapter 6:1 ff records the beauty of human females which can even inspire the admiration of the " sons of the Gods" (literal meaning of the text").God would never indulge in a gamble with man’s well-being as depicted in the book of JOB or in the story of the sacrifice of Abraham’s son. These stories reflect the blood culture of the times which have become more evident as we study the Bible from modern perspectives.

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Well…if Sabbath School class is not a place for serious study we are really in trouble…because our Pastor has openly stated that his sermons are geared to a 6th-7th grade level…


Actually, both johnm and gideonjrn make good points. And their comments really underscore my belief that Sabbath School class should be a place for serious study. I try hard to teach in a provocative way, to delve into scripture and raise a consciousness of inspiration…as the teacher, I want to be able to ask questions I
don’t already know the answer to…to stimulate critical thinking and discussion. What was the author of Job, through inspiration, trying to tell us? What does it mean to our lives? How do we view our own role in
the great controversy?

I asked my class to write a couple of sentences on a small card the first Sabbath of the quarter, stating what they thought the book of Job was about…what it contributed to the canon. And then to keep the card in their bibles. I am hoping at the end of the quarter we may find that our individual understandings have deepened, or perhaps become clarified. And that we have become enriched by our collective, corporate study.

Interestingly, in my neighborhood, there is a contemporary church which closes the disconnect between sermons and the weekly lessons. Their pastor preaches a sermon and his staff prepares study guides for
small groups to use to delve more deeply into the topic the following week. It appears to be a highly attractive methodology…attracts lots of young people and others who have felt ‘church’ has not worked for
them in the past.

Anyway…thanks for your well-crafted ideas.

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Job came extremely close to cursing God—by repeatedly blaming and accusing him of acts of violence, indifference, injustice and silence. I think Job’s honest protest is an expression of disappointment and anger toward God. Maybe anger is not cursing, but it’s close enough.

I think it does. His justice is not subject to human understanding. Why? Because it is. An all-beneficent Being sends good and evil. Both good things and bad things. Blessings and favors. While others God sends suffering and sorrow, for no apparent reason. To others God give long nearly pain free life, while others who trust and pray for deliverance, experience the silence of God living with injustice.

Job 2:10 “You talk like a foolish woman. Should we accept only good things [from the hand of God, good days] from the hand of God and never anything bad [receive evil, adversity, trouble, tragedy, problems]?” So in all this, Job said nothing wrong.

6:4—“The Almighty has struck me with poison arrows.”
7:13-14—Sleep offers no comfort: “For God “shatters me with dreams and terrifies with nightmares.” 
7:19-21—God “why don’t you leave me alone…what have I done to you…why do make me your target, Am I a burden to you?” 
9:14-20—Job is frustrated with God, he does not listen to him, God  attacks and wounds him without a reason
9:28-29—“I know there is no justice with God. You will not find me innocent I will but guilty no matter what.” 
9:34—Job asked God to “stop beating me up.”
10:1-3—Job says, “You reject me while I am innocent and smile at the wicked”
10:16—“You hunt me like a lion”
10:20—God, “Leave me alone.”
13:20-24—God, “take your heavy hand off me…You treat me as an enemy.”
16:9—God assaults me like a wild animal: “God hates me, he tears me apart with is teeth”
16:11-God is like a traitor to me: “tossed me into the hands of the wicked.”
16:12—God as a wrestler that “has taken me by the neck and broke me to pieces.”  
16:13—God as an archer: “pierces me with his arrows without mercy and wets the ground with my blood.” 
16:18: Like Able’s blood, Gods’ wrongful attacks will lead to my death.
30:18,19—“With a strong hand God grips my collar and throws me into the mud. I am nothing to him but dust and ashes.” 
30: 20-23—“God I cry to you… you don’t answer, even look at me. You are cruel toward me. You through me into the storm. I know you  are sending me to my death, I expect it any moment.”[quote="ronaldosborn, post:12, topic:12231"]
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I am not sure, we need an apologetic “Job didn’t curse God…”. God can handle our curses better than we can handle curses hurled at us. No worries there.
Yet the relational aspect portrayed in the essay (and the above discussion) certainly is noteworthy. It seems - no matter what - Job did not stop relating to God. And in consequence being changed, as the author so aptly points out.

As to experiences with Sabbath School and sermons… there may be notable cultural differences. I will be blessed today by a very lively, honest Sabbath school that won’t discuss 28 FB, but somewhat more existential issues. And I am looking forward to a sermon that will lift the church well beyond 7th grade level. But I certainly have travelled enough to know that this is a special grace not to be taken for granted.

Addendum: now that the Sabbath is over … I can confirm that I was right. Discussions were lively and relevant in Sabbath School. And the sermon - on Job and his Friends - was absolutely mind boggling as well as heart rendering (yes, I sat through that highly intellectual sermon … crying, crying, crying).

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Karl, thanks for this challenging reading of the meaning of Job’s cursing the day of his birth. I hope you would allow that the text is rich enough and elusive enough to invite multiple faithful interpretations. In the spirit of dialogical criticism, I want to push back against parts of your essay. Elsewhere I have argued the following:

I read Job’s curse in chapter 3 as a nihilistic reversal of the creation, not to be “querulous” with God or with Scripture, but precisely because of what the text plainly appears to say. God’s answer to Job’s protest takes us back to the beginning of creation because Job’s words—“That day, let it be darkness” (3:4)—have a broader significance as decreation or anticreation language, effectively reversing the divine “Let there be light.”

Consider the following additional evidence from the text (I will refer to Robert Alter’s translation and commentary):

  1. Job summons the “day-cursers . . . those ready to rouse Leviathan” (3:8), i.e., those sorcerers whose spells awaken the primordial sea-monster of Canaanite mythology that signifies not order but a return to chaos.
    
  2. Job calls not only for “darkness” and “death’s shadow” to fall upon his day of birth (3:5), he also declares, “Let its twilight stars go dark” (3:9)—an extinguishing of the heavenly bodies ruled over in orderly fashion in Genesis by the divinely appointed “lesser light”.
    
  3. Job expands his protest against the day/light in the role of spokesman for all who suffer. Better to be “like babes who never saw light” (3:16). “Why give light to the wretched and life to the deeply embittered”? (v.20).
    
  4. Suffering is the condition not only of Job or a few other unfortunate ones but in fact of humankind in its entirety. “Like a slave he [man] pants for shade, like a hired worker he waits for his pay” (7:2). “Man born of woman, scant of days and sated with trouble . . .” (14:1). “What is man that You make him great and that You pay head to him?” (7:17). These words of Job, Alter notes, might at first sound like pious praise for humankind’s Creator but they are in fact “a sardonic citation—and reversal—of Psalm 8:5–6.”
    
  5. Job’s protest against God moves from the realm of human suffering into an extended commentary upon the terrifying moral inscrutability of the non-human world. God “uproots mountains” and “makes earth shake in its setting” (9:5–6). He “bids the sun not to rise,” “stretches the heavens,” and “performs great things without limit and wonders without number” (v.7-10). There is thus little that God says of himself in the final chapters of the poem that Job has not already anticipated. But instead of redounding to God’s glory as in traditional doxology, all that Job’s recitation of the Creator’s sheer power serves to prove is the injustice if not absurdity of his ways: “If it is strength—He is staunch, and if it’s justice—who can arraign Him? . . . He mocks the innocent’s plight” (9:19, 23). Power and justice are not the same thing. What we detect here, Alter writes, is the “fundamental idea that will lead to Kafka’s The Trial.”
    
  6. Job’s scornful commentary on the creation continues. God “lays bare depths from the darkness” (12:22)—a reversal, Alter again helpfully points out, of the creation account in Genesis in which God calls forth light from darkness. What is more, God “stuns the minds of the people’s leaders, makes them wander in trackless wastes—they grope in darkness without light, He makes them wander like drunken men” (v.24–25). The “wastes” or tohu in this verse, according to Alter, is “the same term used for the primordial void in Genesis 1. Job continues the boldly heretical idea that God, far from being a beneficent Creator establishing order, uses His violent power perversely to mislead humankind.”
    

I wish I could claim great originality in detecting an essentially nihilistic strain in what Carol Newsom refers to as “Job’s anti-creation imagery,” but I cannot. As George Steiner writes in Grammars of Creation (with reference to Karl Barth, Martin Buber, and Rudolf Otto, who all held similar readings):

“If the Maker is such as his motiveless torment of his loving servant suggests, then creation itself is in question. Then God is guilty of having created. In strict logic, Job would, at the start of chapter 3, undo Genesis. ‘Let the day perish wherein I was born, and the night in which it was said, There is a man child conceived.’ The pereat echoes exactly that in Jeremiah 20, 14–18: ‘Cursed be the day wherein I was born . . .’ But in Job it is no individual, it is the cosmos which is cursed. The day is to be made darkness, ‘Let the stars of the twilight thereof be dark,’ let light go out undoing, uncreating God’s primordial fiat.”

In one sense Job’s protest is the very antithesis of nihilism. He retains a powerful sense of justice, injustice, and his own virtue, which no one can convince him out of. He calls God to account from a place of unshakable conviction not only that he has done no wrong but also that he has been wronged. When I refer to Job’s decreation or anticreation language as “nihilistic”, then, I do not mean to suggest that he is a kind of Nietzschean moral relativist. His nihilistic impulse, as I am calling it, is that of someone who has concluded, on highly moral grounds, that nonexistence or nothingness would be better than a seemingly morally indifferent creation filled with unjust and unjustifiable sufferings. The parallels to Ivan Karamazov should be clear.

Consider also chapter 19, in which Job declares, “I know that my redeemer lives” (v.25). This is not a declaration of unflagging trust in God. The redeemer in ancient Jewish context refers to a family member who comes to one’s defense in a legal setting—and the legal setting before us is God on trial, with Job in the role of accusing victim. The verse can be literally translated, “I know that my kinsmen lives.” But the chapter is a sustained barrage of protest against God that starts with the direct charge, “Know then that God has wronged me” (v.6). Job’s flayed skin (v.26), Alter writes, is like that of the condemned man in Kafka’s story “The Penal Colony”, whose crimes are painfully etched on his body by a terrible machine. “From my flesh I shall behold God” is in this reading a bitter charge—not a pious benediction (which would be very strange to insert into the middle of a long diatribe against God, which is how the rest of the chapter reads). Basically, Job seems to be saying: “I know that someone among my relatives will come to my defense even after I am dead, and I will boldly look God right in the face to confront him with the evidence of his injustice: my own devastated body.” This is a long way from Handel’s Messiah.

It is only when we read Job as posing fundamental metaphysical charges about the goodness of creation and the ultimate nature of reality (is life absurd and arbitrary? is God capricious and indifferent?) that God’s answer to Job begins to make sense. Job is right, I think, to cry out in protest against his own sufferings (and God says that he spoke correctly); yet in turning his personal experience of suffering into an indictment against the creation in its entirety—against the injustice of existence—he goes too far (and so God also tells him to watch himself and hold his tongue). God speaks in defense of the creation in its entirety because it is not merely God but the creation itself that has been challenged by Job. Why is it better that there should be a world with suffering included rather than no world or nothing at all? That is the question at the heart of the book. The only possible reply is a kind of non-reply (or perhaps aesthetic reply, according to Steiner) from the creation itself. The meaning of creation remains elusive yet is held in God’s hands and cannot be reduced anthropocentrically to tidy human measures. The book of Job thus does not answer the problem of suffering nor does it provide us with particularly comforting lessons for moral edification, but it does tell us that it is better for there to be a fallen but still good creation rather than for there to be nothingness. “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?” As an answer to the challenge of personal suffering, the book of Job leaves us perplexed and bewildered. As an answer to the challenge of nihilism as a response to suffering, however, the book of Job seems to me to have profound and overlooked things to teach us.

One of the most beautiful commentaries on the book of Job, incidentally, is the extended evolutionary sequence in Terence Malick’s profoundly theological film, The Tree of Life. Another beautiful sequence that also begins with a quotation from Job contrasts “the way of nature and the way of grace.”

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I’ve been thinking about Job as one of God’s friends. God was a personal friend of several of the Old Testament characters, including Moses, Abraham and David. Really good friends trust each other with their thoughts and struggles, and can talk about anything together. They can toss ideas back and forth and work through them as they try to understand each other. I believe that Job had that kind of relationship with his God, and the amazing thing is that God stayed by and listened to Job’s rant, then answered him in the same tone. They’re sparring verbally, but as good friends. God’s other friends talked with him that way, too, especially David. They’re saying, I’ll just throw it all out there…I trust You with all my thoughts because I know You’re my friend". God seems to enjoy that kind of discussion. I was glad when I heard that the book of Job was the subject for SS, but I’ve approached it from a whole-book perspective. Everything has to be in context in this beautiful story - the single-verse approach doesn’t work. Sources I’ve found helpful are: Graham Maxwell’s comments from his series, “God in All 66”, and Phillip Yancey’s book, “The Bible Jesus Read.” Please permit a final personal observation. I would dearly love to be God’s friend, because I seriously need a friend like that - I have no one else. So when I’m sad and overwhelmed by alone-ness and confusion, I’m experimenting with talking with God like that. So far, He comes through with peace and joy, though not always clarity about the subject 'under discussion.

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Frank, if Job answered the problem of suffering there would be no need for the New Testament…although I’m not sure the New Testament answers the problem of suffering fully either. Instead of God providing a rationalistic explanation for suffering, he enters into it through Christ’s incarnation. That may be about as much as we can say this side of the parousia.

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Ron,
Thank you for your response. As you observe in the latter part of your response, ‘nihilism’ is not really an appropriate term to apply to Job’s speech in Chapter 3. And,frankly, I am not yet persuaded that literature, itself, ought to be reduced to philosophical categories, since by doing so we invariably end up with something less that literature, but that is another discussion that mostly has to do with the demise of the humanities, generally.

Since you alluded to Kafka, I would like to consider him a bit more. I don’t know if you’ve read Gunther Anders’ book, ‘Kafka’, but if not, I would heartily recommend it. It exists in an English translation (hard to find), but is worth seeking out. The German original is extremely difficult to translate but considered by some the most literary German of its time (the book is one of those rare instances of criticism that easily passes as great literature in its own right). At any rate, when I first read Anders’ book, he confirmed the strong revulsion and fascination that Kafka inspires in Christian readers, given its apparent nihilism that is so implicitly and explicitly expressed by his writings. Anders’s reading of Kafka allows for the truth of Kafka’s artistic expression, but he does not do so admiringly; or to put it another way, he views Kafka’s stories as negative exempla whose only proper function within society is to serve as a dire warning. Allow me to quote Anders:

 The character of the age in which he lived is divided and confusing.  On the one hand, 
 in almost all its pursuits, in technology, economics, politics, and science it had long
 ceased to look for 'meaning'; with the 'death of God' it had also lost the concept of
 Providence, indeed, of any meaningful purpose; it had even ceased to trust in the 
 concept of Progress, that last short-lived, optimistic substituted for Providence
 and for all other lost concepts of a meaningful world.  On the other hand, this period
 was intellectually and spiritually not able to bear, not 'up to', the meaninglessness
 of its own activities: it carried along with it i potsherds of long-shattered religions,
 the remnants of metaphysical and moral vocabularies, as ornaments and amulets.
      Kafka took the potsherds seriously.  He glued them together into lenses which
 gave him a meaningful vision of a meaningless world.  If his account still contains
 much that is illogical, modish, or absurd, he is not to blame.

The question for me is this: was Kafka’s vision in any way the same as Job’s? I think not. Anders goes on to excoriate readers who celebrate Kafka’s stories as profoundly true, since their only truth lies in their deceptive powers. As Anders write, Kafka is a ‘realist of the dehumanized world: but also its exalter.’ That is the problem: his stories make the absurd, the cruel, and the unjust seem tolerable and many times downright beautiful. Again Anders writes, ‘the severest treatment which we should inflict on Kafka would be perhaps to understand him so well that his appeal is destroyed.’ In other words, the genius of Kafka’s art should not gull us into thinking for a moment that the nihilism of our age can sustain anything other than gross and ugly horrors (Kafka’s enticing little stories notwithstanding!). As Anders writes in his final sentence: ‘it is a picture drawn by a good man, who finally came to doubt the value of his own work, and even pleaded for its destruction. His work could never be of use either to himself or to others as positive counsel; but as a warning it may be truly helpful to us after all.’

Now, Ron, I am not assured that Job’s heartfelt desire to be uncreated amounts to the same thing as the nihilism of our time; the anachronism is just too severe. Kafka inherited the bleak end of history in his person; Job lived in another, far less exhausted, age. Job does not imagine the ‘death of God’; he does not suffer the dehumanizing effects of the industrial age, or the silly optimism (failing even as it seemed to triumph) of the Enlightenment. And, then, when I compare Kafka to Job, I note that Jobs ‘despair’ is the despair of meaning… that is, Job presses God for explanations whereas Kafka has no God to press, at all. There lies the massive divide; the gulf fixed, as it were, between us and Job. We truly have to bridge that chasm if we are to avoid twisting Job into a secular anachronism.

I could, perhaps, go along with Robert Alter and Carol Newsom in their reading of Job if I were secular, but, my faith commitments aside, as a literary historian, I consider them to have effected a mis-reading, since they commit an act of interpretative hubris when they assume that the nihilism of our age has always infected the human imagination. The historical/literary record simply does not bear that assumption out. Steiner is another story: I do not think he belongs where he sometimes visits. I would note that the Steiner quote you supply is predicated on a big ‘if’, and I often find that when Steiner seems to go along with the postmodern tide, he really is not doing so at all. Steiner and Gunther Anders are very much alike in this respect…

I find Job Chapter 19 to be a linch pin for the entire book. It is there that we find the explicit textual data that refutes the supposed strand of postmodern nihilism in Job: ‘For I know that my redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth: and though my skin worms shall destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God: Whom I shall see for myself, and mine eyes shall behold, and not another…’ (verses 25-27). The theologians mangle this verse in their attempt to prevent Job from believing in in a bodily resurrection, but, then, they lost their ability to read a long time ago!

There is a great deal of difference between the absurd as invoked by, say Achilles, and the absurd that Kafka attempts to make repair. Achilles sees the absurd nature of the Greek afterlife, but he never even remotely imagines the gods to be dead (therefore he can live with meaning; however tragic in its lineaments). Kafka has no gods… so he must step in and try with what he has left to assemble meaning from unmeaning. In this he errs, but his error is a dire warning to those postmoderns who would tell stories (or theories) as a means to avoiding the horror of their unbelief.

Apart from them both, Job stands unwilling to implicate God, but honest as to his confusion and pain in a world where Justice and Injustice compete so freely. But I maintain that wanting to die, or not wanting to exist as an individual, is not the same thing as declaring God to be dead, or embracing chaos over order and life. My essay shows that Job’s speech ends up with a simple wish to be dead, and it is that final stage in his ‘argument’ that demonstrates his fundamental belief in meaning and comedy over unmeaning. A longing for death is not nihilism; never was and never will be.
Cheers,
Karl

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Karl, thanks for your helpful reply. Anders’ book sounds well worth reading and I quite agree with you that it would be anachronistic to project 20th century atheistic nihilism or death-of-God theology back into the book of Job (just as it is anachronistic to read 20th century “secularism” back onto the story of Cain, as I argued in your Sabbath School class at Sligo a few weeks ago). But I don’t think Alter would disagree with you. He is simply suggesting that there are elements of the Job story that are important precursors to modern literature and that there are elements of Job’s complaint against God that can fairly be described as “Kafkaesque.” We should make no mistake that Job mounts a powerful complaint against God, framed in judicial and moral terms. “Know then that God has wronged me” (19.6). This is why I think the most fitting comparison is not to Kafka’s The Trial but to another literary work, Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov. Like Ivan in the chapters “Rebellion” and “The Grand Inquisitor,” Job accepts the reality of God’s existence, which is precisely what makes putting God on trial possible in the first place. Ivan’s rebellion is modern and infected by atheism and so for him God’s reality is accepted merely hypothetically, for the sake of the argument, to show that even IF God is real his creation is still unjust. But in both cases we have a powerful challenge to existence and a refusal to accept that God’s sheer power is an answer to the problem of suffering. In a sense, this is a critique of “nominalism” or “divine command theory”, i.e., the notion that things can be good simply because God names them so without any reference to humanly lived and felt realities. But note that reading chapters 3 and 19 of Job in this way does NOT commit us to the view that the final message of the book of Job is a nihilistic or essentially rebellious one. I read God’s reply to Job–his defense of creation in the face of Job’s call for the extinguishing of light–as a rebuke of nihilism, whether ancient or modern, religious or secular, no matter their differences or how contested the word might be. To refuse to allow that Job poses any such questions, it seems to me, is to refuse to allow that the God who finally speaks in reply to Job might have a reply to our own nihilistic tendencies as well.

I never realized that girls’ birthday parties were so important to God. God killed all Job’s children so that, ever after, all birthdays might be celebrated.

Really, God, birthday parties are nice, but…you shouldn’t have…

But wait…

It wasn’t just about birthdays and inheritances.

The universe had to witness God’s version of Extraordinary Rendition, i.e., turning Job over to Satan for torture, so that it could see how good God really is.

Thought experiment: God lets the Mafia kill all your children, on a bet with the mob boss.

You want to die. Of course you do.

God gives you “replacement children” because you have learned to be sensitive about birthday parties and such.

Happy ending?

I guess that’s up to the Unfallen Worlds to decide.

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Ron,
Yes, I take your point seriously; and I stand corrected as you may recall vis a vis my attempt at Sligo to push Cain and his descendants into the secularist category, since, after all, they were not secular in the least. They had broken faith with God, but they were not atheists or agnostics; they were not, in that respect like us at all, given that they did not possess our history. But, and here we seem to agree, they did depart from God, and we do that too, except that our mode of leaving God is secular, and their’s was… well, something different than the fashion we assume when we reject our Creator.

 I understand the temptation to read Job's lament in Chapter 3 as like, in kind, to postmodern nihilism, but I do not find that the actual language of the speech supports that reading.  My own view is that nihilism in the modern age stands so far beyond comedic hope that if Job had reached that sort of philosophical point of view, he would have done worse than 'curse God'; he would have denied His existence, and, more to the point, he would have committed suicide!  Am I wrong in raising this very question?.  If we say that Job did not commit suicide because of his faith, then nothing he says in Chapter 3 is really nihilistic.  A true nihilist would (or, should I say, an honest one able to face his 'truth' without flinching would kill himself; of course, most do flinch).  I just can't accept that nihilism and prayer (and all of Job's speeches are really prayers!) can go together.     

I still reject Alter’s Kafka analogy simply because Kafka consistently tries to make ‘normal’ or ‘beautiful’ the nihilism he inherited. Job actually does the opposite with his suffering: he exposes it as grossly unjust, and he calls for an accounting. This is why the Book of Job troubles Christians so much; it refuses to apply platitudes to suffering; it demands change; dare I say, ethical action on God’s part! Job’s tenacity is incredible in this regard; it is in my view the best proof we have of his integrity and his blamelessness!

I agree with you that Dostoevsky is a better analogy. In the ‘Rebellion’ chapter, Ivan raises the brutal genocide of Bulgarians by the Turks. In vivid detail, Ivan describes how the Turks threw babies in the air and caught them on their bayonets. He also describes how the Turks delighted in torturing babies… tickling them, getting the baby to laugh, and then a Turk holds a pistol to the baby’s mouth; the baby laughingly reaches out to touch the pistol, and the Turk fires a round into the baby’s mouth; they all laugh uproariously.

When I first read this I felt sick for hours.

But Ivan is not a nihilist; nor is he religious in the conventional sense, as he unflinchingly refuses to beautify human suffering with religious consolation. He believes in God, but he has decided to forgo Job’s example and just ‘return his ticket’ to God. That is Ivan’s downfall… he is not Job. He will give up his prayers to God; he will solace himself with life’s little pleasures and leave off pushing God to do something to fix this mess. Job never stops praying; he cannot, it seems, just ‘return his ticket’. And for this reason, and this reason alone, God responds.

Finally, like Ivan, I too don’t have any nihilistic ‘tendencies’; I do have an ethical problem with God, but like Ivan, my constant temptation is to stop praying honest prayers and turn instead to platitudes, distractions, and other more pleasantly mundane things that I find easier to the raising of constant importune prayers to God regarding the injustice of this world. I maintain that God cannot reply to nihilists, since they, by definition, cannot hear God; neither are they willing to put any questions to God beyond a few whimpers. But God can and does answer the man who demands justice from God. That demand, itself, precludes any taint of nihilism; it is the demand of the blameless, the ‘24 elders’ beneath the alter in ‘Revelation’, the righteous man who has lost all 10 children and cannot understand why. The nihilist simply resigns himself to bitterness and negation of any possibility of justice. That man God cannot help… so I guess I do not believe that the Bible responds to the nihilist anymore than God ‘answers’ Satan in the Book of Job.
Cheers,
Karl

Ron,
My last response to you got garbled, for some reason. My second paragraph raised the question as to why, if Job was a nihilist, he did not, indeed, commit self-murder, since that is the only option available to a real nihilist (and, after all, Job certainly longed to be dead!). My answer would be that he did not kill himself because he was determined to get God to act… thus he had a driving purpose that precluded nihilism; an ethical drive that he shared with God, in fact.
Karl

Cassie,
I do want to respond to what you wrote, as I am sensitive to the perspective you expressed. But I also want to suggest that you read my essay with a bit more generosity, as I do not think you have done it the justice it deserves. I am convinced that the reason that Job had to suffer unjustly (and it is certainly unjust) is because Job’s suffering plays a key role in the eventual elimination of all suffering in the Universe (that much is heavily implied by the book’s prologue). But I think that the Job prologue also makes available an ethical and existential rationale for unjust suffering; not as the sole rationale for Job’s suffering, but as an often over-looked positive aspect of unjust suffering that exemplifies how God is able to turn Satan’s evil intents to good (as Joseph so famously explained to his brothers).

You are right-- the spectacle of Job’s misfortunes could never have been justified for the sole reason that his second daughters might be treated with equality. But that is not what I claimed. My point is simply that the suffering brought to us by Satan has the potential to be used by God to make the world a better place. That ethical imperative (made effectual via empathy) is not the reason for Job’s suffering, but it is the effect of that suffering in real terms in his own family. I would also suggest that without that suffering, Job would never have noticed the injustice done to his daughters, given the culture and time in which he lived; but his suffering enabled him to see what would otherwise have remained invisible to him. Thus, there is purpose or reason in the fact of Job’s pain; it is not a reason which justifies the pain or explains why it happened, but it is a reason that gives the pain a purpose, and that, I think makes all the difference. Pain is not soul destroying when it has purpose…

As for your dismissal of the importance of birthdays: I do not account religion of much value if it neglects the feelings of children; little or grown. Note, too, in Chapter 3 how much significance Job places on his own birthday! Birthdays are not trivial matters in the ancient world, since to be born and to celebrate life on one’s birthday tokens faith in God and the Life he has made! It is only in our secular time that birthdays have been shorn of all religious/spiritual significance!

I am no feminist, but I am terribly aware of the unethical treatment of women by men; even blameless men. What does it mean to celebrate one’s sons birthdays and not do the same for one’s daughters? True religion takes into account not only the spiritual health of one’s daughters, it also looks keenly after their daily welfare; otherwise it is a religion that needs reform badly.

Job is not a tragic story, but that does not mean that it is without tragic aspects. The same can be said of the story of redemption. But a thoroughly tragic story would end as the life of Hector ends in the Iliad… a pointless waste of life without any purpose whatsoever. Sure, the death of Job’s children appears pointless, but on closer examination, it was not. Their sacrifice was not in vain. Not only because Job’s second daughters enjoyed equal status with their brothers, but because Job and all of us who read Job’s story learn that justice does prevail in the end. The fact that the dead children remained dead does not subvert that just ending. It does not do so because their deaths served to demonstrate the very justice that they did not enjoy. If that strikes you as wrong, then I suggest you consider that God cannot just wave a magic wand and make all the bad things go away.
But God can redeem; that is he can take the bad case and wring the good from it. It’s rather like ecology: a dying and decaying world that God manages to keep alive by using death to sustain life.

No, its not a ‘happy ending’, in the sense that we Americans prefer after 50 years of Hollywood trivialization; but given that sin did come about, it seems to me a remarkably good ending, especially considering the now proven vileness and deathly nature of sin… I’ll not begrudge God his comedic ending, given how bad we’ve all become.

Karl, I won’t try to defend Alter’s Kafka comparison as it has been too long since I read The Trial and the debate would be above my pay grade. Dostoevsky I could certainly talk with you about at some length. Yes, you are right that in a certain sense Ivan is not a nihilist since he retains a love for life in spite of himself. But remember that Ivan’s ideas provide the inspiration for the sullen and most certainly nihilistic household lackey Smerdyakov to commit murder. The seeds of nihilism, Dostoevsky is clearly suggesting, are already contained in Ivan’s rebellion, even if for sentimental reasons he is unable or unwilling to act consistently upon the implications of his own logic. Your point about the differences between Ivan and Job is well taken. I just think that there are enough similarities to still invite the comparison. I also find the idea that Job is using decreation or anticreation language persuasive from a plain reading of the text. Reading Job in this way helps me to better understand the nature of God’s reply from out of the whirlwind. If Job has called the creation into question, it makes complete sense that God’s reply would take the form of a powerful defense of the goodness of creation, no matter how fallen. If Job has not in any way challenged the goodness of creation, we are left with more perplexing riddles than answers.

I don’t have a problem with believing God is good, and I certainly don’t believe in magic wands.

My child’s dead body lies undiscovered in the wilderness.

I could say his blood cries up from the ground.

I live with that every day.

There is something deeper than justice afoot, something that tortured theodicy cannot touch.

I don’t need the psychological device of “Satan” to explain anything about God or my life to me.

I don’t begrudge anyone their favorite stories, but life can reveal them to be inadequate.

I don’t expect anyone to take my word on that. That wouldn’t be right.

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Why not? Of course God could make all the bad things go away (even using a magic wand if he wants). God has promised to do exactly that someday in fact, so one could assume that making all the bad things go away is both a possible and desirable thing.

The problem is that if this God exists, this God chose to make bad things a part of this universe (even when capable of creating a space without bad things) and has chosen to not make the bad things go away for millions of years.

I find this ultimately impossible to reconcile. Making the bad things go away eventually after placing them there yourself to begin with doesn’t make up for it. Nor does entering into our suffering in some way. I realize others see it differently.

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