Job and the Wild Duck

The lesson studies on Job are over, and there’s a new quarter beginning, but some scenes from Job just keep echoing in my head. Reading the endless discussions between Job and his friends is a little like reading a play. A very wordy dark comedy, perhaps.

Job: I am so miserable, I wish I could die. Eliphaz: Job, you must have sinned. You should confess. Bildad: God is fair and just—he blesses the righteous and punishes the wicked. Zophar: If you repent, God will bless you again. Job: But I haven’t done anything wrong—why is God hounding me this way?

That’s the abridged version.1 Of course, the joke is that most of the advice Job’s friends give is in fact true—or at least, it is certainly what we would call “biblical.” All through the books of Moses, the major and minor prophets, and all through the Old Testament, the words of Job’s friends echo and re-echo: God blesses the good and curses the bad. If you repent your sins, God will relent, forgive, and bless again. I can picture old Bildad whipping out his Bible, turning to 2 Chronicles 7:14 (or Isaiah 55:6 and 7, or Proverbs 28:13—how many examples do you want?) and saying, “Come on, Job—is the Bible God’s Word, or isn’t it? Does God mean what He says, or doesn’t He?”2 If Job were adapted as an opera, I could imagine Job’s friends punctuating their long, didactic arias with a harmonious leitmotif of “Trust and Obey.”

And I can’t help feeling a bit of sympathy for the four friends when God turns to them in the last chapter and says, “I am angry with you . . . because you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has” (Job 42:7). Huh? I can hear them protesting: “But God, we got it right from Moses, and Isaiah, and . . . so, God, let me get this straight—were you just kidding when you said all that stuff about punishing the wicked, and needing to repent?”

I’ll come back to Job & Company, but let me digress. I study late nineteenth-century drama, especially plays by Norwegian dramatist Henrik Ibsen. Talk about wordy plays—many of his scenes have little or no action, and consist mostly of characters sitting around like Job and his friends, having conversations (written in an era when shouting, swooning, fighting, and explosions were the usual order of stage business). First-time viewers in the 1890s complained that his plays were “dull, undramatic, verbose, tedious, and utterly uninteresting.”3

My mind has been going back to Ibsen a lot amid the Sabbath School lessons of the past few months. Ibsen was an iconoclast. His plays challenged the values that most of his contemporaries revered—masculine strength, feminine submission, marital affection, respectability, democracy. Not that Ibsen thought these values were always bad, but he argued that his society tended to treat these standards as idols. By insisting that these standards must be upheld for all people in all circumstances, people covered up their weaknesses and shameful secrets rather than seeking to correct them—whitewashing the tombs, as Jesus would say.

Again and again, Ibsen’s plays show characters attempting to conform to society’s standards, appearing righteous and upstanding, but in fact caught in a desperate attempt to keep up appearances. The antidotes for this, the plays imply, are “truth and freedom”—people need not only to acknowledge when they fall short of the standard, but also to recognize when the standards themselves are flawed—or at least, when they are understood or applied in flawed ways. The Pillars of Society shows a man who for years has kept his reputation as a model citizen by allowing another man to be blamed for his philanderings and shady business dealings. In A Doll’s House, a seemingly happy married couple realizes that they neither understand nor respect one another, and the wife shocks her husband (and the audience) by leaving him. In Ghosts, a wife does the opposite: she stays with her drunken, unfaithful, and syphilitic husband to keep up a virtuous married façade, and her reward is to have a son who inherits his father’s disease, and to watch in horror as that disease gradually destroys his body and brain. The Enemy of the People depicts the people of a spa town who discover that the springs and public baths that undergird the town’s tourist industry are contaminated with industrial waste; nearly all agree to keep the pollution a secret to protect the local economy, and the one dissenter who calls for the necessary but costly repairs is branded an anti-democrat, an “enemy of the people.” Again and again, Ibsen presents honesty, independence, and willingness to challenge social convention as costly, dangerous, and desperately needed correctives to hypocrisy. This idea, to some viewers, seemed simply an across-the-board rejection of marriage, family, gender norms, and religion, a promotion of free love and anarchy. Some viewers attacked his plays as immoral while others (the Ibsenites, as their opponents mockingly branded them) applauded and embraced him as a realist, a lone truth-teller in a hypocritical world.

But in The Wild Duck, his next play after The Enemy of the People, Ibsen bewildered his admirers and detractors alike by apparently turning his attack against his own idea of “truth and freedom.” The play depicts Gregers Werle, a man who declares himself devoted to truth at all costs, promising to drain society’s swamp of lies and pretense. He discovers that the wife of his friend Hjalmar Ekdal has long ago had an affair with his (Gregers’s) father, and that Hedvig, the Ekdals’ child, is in fact the illegitimate daughter of old Mr. Werle. He thinks he is doing Hjalmar a favor by announcing these facts and forcing the family to “face the truth,” and is amazed to find that no one thanks him. The wife berates Gregers for telling on her, the husband melodramatically threatens to kill the man who has dishonored him, and young Hedvig, helplessly watching her family fall to pieces, finally shoots herself. The tragedy of the little girl’s death is rendered darkly comic by the reaction of Gregers, who continues to wonder at the family’s ingratitude, their failure to appreciate their newfound freedom to “live the truth,” now that he has forcibly exposed their lies. It’s as if, after his earlier plays’ celebration of authenticity and attack on respectable hypocrisy, Ibsen thought his admirers needed a caution: “Listen to my lessons, but be careful how you apply them: ‘Living the truth’ is an admirable aspiration, but ‘living the truth’ doesn’t mean blurting out other people’s dark secrets willy-nilly.” For the fanatical Ibsenites, Ibsen created Gregers Werle, the arch-Ibsenite, as a caricature and a warning.

I see the book of Job, similarly, as a warning with a whiff of satire—Job’s friends might be read as caricatures of fundamentalist readers of scripture who, like Gregers, tended to take their creator’s words a little too seriously—or, perhaps, with the wrong kind of seriousness. God, like Ibsen (if I can make the analogy without irreverence), knew that some of His disciples tended to apply His ideas over-zealously, without thinking critically about where those directives might fit the situation and where they might not. Maybe I should say that the author of Job saw this problem, and, under divine inspiration, crafted the narrative in a way that would highlight the laughable tragedy of this well-meaning but blinkered biblical literalism and the needless frustration and harm it causes (he must have some reason for spending thirty-something chapters on this maddening dialogue, after all). We speak of God as Father, God as Shepherd, God as Savior, God as King. Might the book of Job be (among other things) a revelation of another facet of God’s character—a subversive, shrewd, and even playful God, God as Satirist?

Mary Christian holds a Ph.D. in English literature from Indiana University, specializing in drama and Victorian studies. She leads the music ministry and at the Bloomington Seventh-day Adventist church, and is an active member of IU's Adventist Christian Fellowship chapter.

NOTES: 1. I’m taking a leaf from the book of Archibald MacLeish, who, in J. B., gives barely three pages to Job’s friends’ admonitions. 2. Yes, I know those passages of the Bible weren’t available to Job’s friends. But if they were . . . 3. Clement Scott, review of Ghosts, published in The Daily Telegraph, London, 14 March 1891.

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/7838
1 Like

Job echoes the Book of Moses.
God playing Quid Pro Quo.
God to Man: "You make Me happy, and I will give you Rain, Lots of crops and Food.
Your animals will be Many, and they will be Fat. I will give you a lot of other nice things."
God to Man: "You ignore me, and I will give you dry, dusty fields, your Food supply
will be non-existant. Your animals will be few, and they will be thin. I will take away
ALL of the nice things I gave you."
We also hear this Echo through the rest of the writings.
We hear it Echoed even today. The Prosperity Gospels.
We hear it Echoed even today in Seventh day Adventist services on Sabbath.
Mal 3:10 – Bring in the TITHE and THEN I will bless you with abundance.

“Faith remains when Understanding Fails” – is what I think the Story is actually saying.

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Strange playfulness. I wonder if Job and his wife would see that way? All their children, spouses, grandchildren, friends and servants gathered at that house—all dead. All at once, in a few moments of sheer terror as their house blew down on top of them.

Second thought. The context appears to me to be in pre-Mosaic times or pre-Abrahamic. More likely post Eden style of worship. When claimed to have not sinned he recounted social responsibilities to his servants, widows and strangers. He did not boast in Sabbath observance, circumcision, clean or unclean foods or commandment keeping. Religion was simple: Do good to others and pray for them. Know that God will bless you if you do good and curse you as in the Flood if you fail to treat others good, which they called “sin.” After Job they had a new doctrine: bad things happen to those who do good as those who “sin,” all send from the hand of God.

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I fully agree with Mary Christian that the book is “like a play.” In my comments to one of the lessons last quarter I suggested that the dialogues and the words of the narrator were full of irony. My conclusion was that the author intended to teach that all our images of God and how God works are not to be taken too seriously because to do that would result in idolatry. The playful way in which this essay suggests “God the Satirist,” however, makes me think that there is something to it. After all, satire and irony are not too far apart.

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I read Job as a poetic allegory. The Song of Songs is another. both have theological value but neither can walk on all fours. TZ

I, for one, am not willing to flog this text in a, so far, futile attempt to rationalise every iota of (supposed) revelation of the character of God. The very fact that the best “brains” in the SDA church, or even in Christendom, can offer no convincing explanation of the, apparently, split personality of our creator should spur more research into the motives of the “ancient IBSEN” who penned this tale. I suspect, however, that more focused scrutiny could unearth awkward questions for Biblical literalists. As one born in an Adventist family and one who was a fundamentalist/literalist SS Quarterly through early teenage I was flooded with rationales for literalist positions, but even then I could not understand the JOB text , presented as an important part of my religious culture. It is clear that Western Christianity (pre-or -post Luther) has no answers to many human phenomena. The most amazing records of human spiritual achievement I have come across is the story of the African religious leader Simeon Toko as recorded by American Journalist Tom Dark in Nexus magazine. Toko is alleged to have completely baffled the top hierarchy of the RCC, including Pope John 23rd , even though it is on frecord that RCC priests survived the Hiroshima atomic explosion when others around were dead or dying, by saying the Rosary and calling on the blessed mother for help. Toko was chopped to pieces by thugs working for the Portugese colonialists , and according to Dark, he revived himself. He was minced to pieces under a reaper by Portugese foremen and even while they were high-fiving the event To resurrected himself causing them to flee calling him a God. The POpe sent emissaries to ask him if he was an incarnation of Jesus. while there the dictator Salazar ordered that Toko be taken up in an Air Force plane and dumped in the Atlantic. The RCC priests were asked to be on the plane to offer prayers to counter TOKO. When the assassins rose to throw Toko out Toko rose and ordered the plane to stop in mid flight.The assassins fell ton the knees and begged for their lives. Lastly, Tom Dark relates in his NEXUS article that some European doctors under guise of doing a checkup removed Toko’s heart to examine it . Toko, bleeding profusely sat up on the table and asked "Why are you persecuting me so Give me back my pump?"If true there has never been a case like this in human history. Toko had decided to be a Baptist and had thousands of followers. He even had a "pentecostal night where people 25 miles away claimed to be able to hear what was going on.He did not waste time speculating why he was so persecuted as Job did. At the very least, a man of God as Job claimed to be in the text should not have been baffled by suffering and adversity , but should have been able to heal himself , thereby demonstrating that righteousness is greater than following a sinful pathway. That makes the text flawed and indulging in useless mystique and fear mongering in my opinion. I now am leaning to the view that a true man of God can conquer death and suffering to show others a lesson by so doing. When Toko decided to die, One of his assassins, A Commander of high rank, pushed his way to the front of the church , apologised, and declared that he did not believe Toko was dead.

I just saw the movie The Daughter, a retelling of Ibsen’s The Wild Duck, and I thought “Job.” This article is very interesting and I agree with the comparison between the play and the biblical book. I was raised well versed in the bible, and studied literature in University, and I think that many people today forget how immersed Ibsen’s contemporaries were in biblical stories and Christian culture. Yes, there were different beliefs about the correct interpretation of the bible and over who should be interpreting it, and some people rejected Christianity in cultures that were still mostly Christian, but everyone who was watching Ibsen’s play would have been familiar with any biblical comparisons one could draw. Thank you for your article.