The Book of Job is one of the most distressing books in the Bible. Hence, a plethora of interpretations. So shocking is the perspective that some consider Job an entirely fictional character. Yet even if this is the case, it doesn’t solve the problem created by the Book of Job. There are tragedies and sufferings in this world more intense and complex than Job's. The issue is not whether Job really existed or if his suffering was real or imaginary. The main contention is about God: why did God allow such terrible things to happen?
However, there is a discreet, dissonant character in the dark corner of this narrative—someone who has a different attitude toward the tragedy. Apart from a consensual general condemnation[i] and branding her as the original misotheist,[ii] Job’s wife has been largely ignored.
There is a cultural reason for this apprehension: in a patriarchal, deeply masculinized culture, the author of the book was keen to emphasize the sufferings of the male character and to dismiss the spouse, especially for her boldness in disagreeing with the divinely meted fate. We can sense here a sort of literary "character assassination," not just minimizing the suffering of someone who happened to be a woman but eventually to cancel out that presence.
Job’s wife—we are given no name for this invisible woman—reacted instinctually, naturally, as any human might. She was shocked that God could be involved in such catastrophe. Perhaps she represents the (culturally) feminine trait of prioritizing relationships over loyalty to the norms of her time and tribe. She is not bound to a particular worldview or way of understanding, but sees the situation through the lens of her relationships—to children, husband, and God.
Her second shock is at Job’s response to the pain—his passivity and submission. Nowhere in the book does Job mention his children as the main reason for his dismay; rather, his righteousness is emphasized. Job's wife comes across as collateral damage in this drama, on the same level with the slaughtered cattle, destroyed goods, and dead children.
In fact, Job’s wife is the main victim as a childless mother. In the Middle Eastern milieu of this time, to be a childless woman would be the supreme curse.[iii]
Where is Job in all this? He is embarked on an impossible quest to solve the mystery of righteous suffering and God’s involvement. He portrays the stereotypical difference between men and women—he is not able to participate in his wife’s suffering as his communication skills are superficial. In spite of his long lament, Job wasn't able to communicate meaningfully about his true feelings and experience. He just repeated clichés about injustice, suffering, evil and righteousness. Job's suffering was mainly theological; his wife's pain was existential.
Job's wife remained uncomforted in her pain because Job was more concerned to justify himself before the Almighty One. What was Job supposed to do? If Job would have spent more time comforting his wife through sharing her pain (by embracing his own) and not debating his friends, maybe the book wouldn't have been a literary masterpiece but at least a spiritual balm for all those distressed individuals, men and women, who are unable to cope with the pain in their lives.
Job's wife stands as a perpetual reminder, as a symbol for all misunderstood, marginalized and uncomforted women and men for whom only God whispers a gentle, "Don't cry, don't be afraid!"
I was told that only a feminist could eventually rescue Job’s wife from the bottomless pit of her maverick dissidence. That you need a miraculous exegesis if anything good is to come from this theological “Nazareth.” That extending an equal share of sympathy to his wife would somehow shadow Job’s outstanding performance. The expression “like a foolish woman” (Job 2:10) is actually understood as a subtle compliment, not a righteous rebuke or a holy tantrum; and being similar to foolish is in fact the opposite of it if is told by someone intimate to you. That the suffering of a righteous husband cannot be compared with the pain of a godless wife.
In short, a wife cannot be a hero if her husband is a saint. However, few would like to have their own biography encapsulated in one phrase in or out of context. And given the restricted biographical space, only ten or twelve words, it is quite a performance to send someone straight to the eschatological left without listening to her. But everything is possible for one who believes in a particular, normative worldview.
This is precisely the trouble with Job’s wife, that she opens the possibility of suspending a certain belief even if this would be translated as speaking against God. This is a hard saying. Who can hear it? Obviously not Job. According to his wife, Job should challenge God, even if the consequence is death. The challenge of the outsider seems far more threatening than a critique voiced from within. Job did not sin, his wife did. At least this is how we are used to interpreting the story.
We are not comfortable with her bold attitude. Who we are to question God? Isn't it much safer just to play dead, to accept whatever may come? To hide ourselves behind theology and debate, even behind God, not willing to confront the reality or question the status quo? I am not trying to minimize Job's suffering or to downgrade his righteousness; all I want is to elevate his wife's pain to the same level, to somehow rescue her alternative spirituality. To suggest that if a certain belief is clouding your judgment, dismissing your spouse and downsizing your God maybe it is not foolishness to speak against it.
Sorin Petrof is a minister of religion, originally from Romania, now based in Watford, UK. Currently he is pursuing his PhD programme in Communication Science at Université Paul-Valéry Montpellier 3, France. He is married with one son.
Image:Georges de La Tour - Job Mocked by his Wife, 1630s
[i]Augustine labeled her "the devil's accomplice." Calvin called her "a diabolical fury."
[ii]In Bernard Schweizer’s book, Hating God: The Untold Story of Misotheism(Oxford University Press, p. 29), the author has listed Job’s wife as the original misotheist, the mother of all haters of God, from Epicurus to Pullman.
[iii]See Ruth 1:20-21 and especially 1:13: "It is more bitter for me than for you, because the Lord’s hand has turned against me!”
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/5588