I see in the scriptural book of Job, with all of its darkness and flailing around, a dark treasure in the depths of its obsidian beauty. Of course, not everyone feels that attraction. The book is often the recipient of disgust at the horrific unfairness of the suffering of the just. I’m sure it’s easier for me to appreciate the brutal poetry because I haven’t felt the sense of utter abandonment by my God and by everything that I love and hold dear.
Or has that desensitized me to it all?
Job has been subjected to rigorous study and sympathy since ancient times. Almost everything under the sun has been twisted from the character and the book that bears his name. In recent times, the difference between the prose sections at the beginning and end of the book—and the poetry that comprises the majority of the book—has been especially highlighted. The prose and poetry have been pitted against each other as almost mutually exclusive. I can see some truth in that.
The prose is portrayed as telling the story of the legendary Job, the upright, the patient one who accepts whatever fate comes his way. The poetry is the angry, impatient Job who is (literally) sick and tired of putting up with the sh*t that God, the universe, whatever powers-that-be have served up to him. Some commentators of today dismiss the efforts of those in the past who reconciled the “two Jobs.” The patient Job was alleged to have silenced the impatient Job. It was just too hard to deal with his rage and blasphemy!
Mark Larrimore in The Book of “Job”: A Biography looks at this. He notes that “some premodern readers saw the poetic portion as showing how a virtuous person grieves, and as showing the true heart of ‘patience’ to be closer to protest than moderns imagine. Job’s most rebellious words were often explained away as driven by physical pain and grief, but premodern readers did not simply ignore them. Closer experience of the agonies of sickness and loss may, indeed, have made them better listeners than moderns are, hearing the anguish and delirium of the flesh where we may just see a mind pushed to its limits. To them Job’s protests are remarkable not for how far they go but for going no farther.”
The defiance of Job is a faithful defiance. It isn’t easy to explain—or to hear. We too quickly want to write it off as the ranting of one who is (unjustly) pissed off at God and at the world. I struggle with that when I am confronted with the vitriol of those in pain. Too often, I also come up with my own explanations. I don’t listen, and I don’t listen in faith.
In the darkness, there are both screams and silence.
[The quote is from Mark Larrimore, The Book of “Job”: A Biography (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013), Kindle edition, Chapter 5, section 3, paragraph 4. The image is a painting by William Blake.]