Job and Wisdom Literature

One of the works of "wisdom literature," Job is included with Proverbs and Ecclesiastes.  Two other books may be included from the Apocrypha, Ecclesiasticus (also called Sirach) and Wisdom of Solomon.

 The wisdom writings are in some ways quite "unbiblical."  Job hurls questions and challenges at the Almighty that verge on blasphemy; Ecclesiastes presents an even bleaker prospect for humanity, maintaining that all come to the same end no matter what -- death and the grave is the same for humanity and for animals, and thus we should all learn to eat, drink, and be merry; and Proverbs seems "this-worldly" in its advice as to how to live this life.

 We do not know the authors of the wisdom books, though Solomon was not the author of either Proverbs or Ecclesiastes as tradition maintains.  The books come from the royal court of Judah in the late-seventh/early-sixth centuries B.C.E., counselors to the king and people whose ability and duties put them on a par professionally with the leading figures in the national religion.

 Such wise figures were civil servants who had the responsibility for training a select few young men in the mysteries of the written word.  From what can be inferred from the wisdom books themselves, instruction would have been not merely in reading, writing, and counting, but in practical morality: how to conduct oneself in the world of affairs, what ends and means are appropriate to men of consequence. 

 They developed from an educated class in Israel that was still a relatively small and privileged caste.  That caste would thus have been the intended audience for the Deuteronomic History, Job, Ecclesiastes, Proverbs, and more popular books like Ruth, Jonah, and Esther.

The wisdom literature of Job, Ecclesiastes, or Proverbs applies only to the wise men of a century or two before and after the Babylonian Exile in the sixth century B.C.E.  The wisdom literature of later centuries held views that differed from those of their predecessors in several important respects. 

 The wise men in the centuries before, during, and after the Exile were little concerned with the "cult," that is, the organized religion of Israel.  At only one point in Proverbs is the reader advised to honor Yahweh (3:9-10), with a similar injunction to do "what is right" because its pleasing beyond sacrifice to the Lord (21:3).  Ecclesiastes has several passages inserted by scribes and later editors in an effort to soften the book's harsh view of life.

 In Job the only cultic activity referred to is found in the prose prologue and epilogue, where we are told that Job performs sacrifices and prays to Yahweh on behalf of his children and friends.

 The wise men appear not to have been nationalistic in spirit; they uttered no "Hear, O Israel."  They spoke to individual human beings concerned with the nature of the world and with how one lives a satisfying life -- a concern that was not simply Israelite, but universal.  They probably had contact with the wisdom of other nations as well: an Egyptian book of instruction addressed to a young man was the source of a passage in Proverbs 22 and 23.  Works that are quite like Ecclesiastes and Job and that may have been known to the authors of those biblical books were written in Mesopotamia as far back as the beginning of the second millennium B.C.E.Job and His Wife by Georges LaTour

 The wise men had no concern for Israel's place among the nations; they had no concern for the nation's past.  It may have been members of the wisdom school in the tenth century B.C.E. who wrote the official history of Israel, but their successors had no such interests.

 Although the wise men assumed the existence of a deity who created and sustained the world, they had no sense of a personal relationship between believer and God.  Job does cry out to Yahweh in his anguish and does receive a response, but that response takes the form of an overwhelming series of questions intended to belittle Job -- to crush him into insignificance by virtue of his being a mere man.

 The wise men could be expected to instruct the young concerning what was of value in the world and how to live the good life.  Two of the wisdom books, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, would have served this function directly; the book of Job would have done so indirectly by exposing common, but false, expectations about behavior and its consequences.  The majority of them would have accepted the ethical principles of traditional religion, the most basic being the principle that there is a necessary connection in God's ordered world between one's behavior and one's lot in life.

 By explaining the suffering of the godly in terms of chastening, the sages of the book of Proverbs could maintain the validity of their cause-and-effect ethical principle and at the same time the justice of the deity who stood behind it.  The same idea is espoused by the friends of Job -- 4:7-8, for example.  But Job disagrees: 9:22-23.  When near the end of the book the Almighty does speak to Job, it is in terms designed to make him understand that his reasoning about human suffering and god's justice -- or lack of it -- is utterly misinformed.  But then God defends Job and castigates his comforters: 42:7.  This is obviously perplexing: the author simply has gone as far in this poetic exploration of the insoluble problem of suffering as he can go.  The old prose tale that got him into the topic now serves to get him out of it -- but at the price of severe inconsistency.

 Job argues that there is no relationship between the good or evil a man does and what happens to him in life.  Where Job leaves off, the author of Ecclesiastes picks up and then pushes the argument to its ultimate conclusion: there are no guarantees that any kind of action will have the consequence the doer intends or thinks he has a right to expect.  As Ecclesiastes says, "For man is a creature of chance and the beasts are creatures of chance, and one mischance awaits them all: death comes to both alike" (3:19). 

Some scholars propose that there was an optimistic/pessimistic division in the wisdom tradition.  But what we have is the expression of the diametrically opposed outcomes of the same process: the philosophical investigation of human existence with unaided human reasoning.


The Book of Job and What to Look For

Several problems exist with the Book of Job and how we read it.  First, students of literature have a greater affinity for the work than do others, because when the book is considered in terms of its merit as literature, these same students regard it from a tradition of classical tragedy.  In tragedy, a basic tenet assumes that no life makes sense.  The Greeks knew this, but it inspired them to give explanation to the inexplicable.  Greek tragedy defines a pessimistic view of life.  Lest we automatically reach for clich鳬 pessimism is not the opposite of "optimism."  Optimism gives way to ?feelings? or emotions that equate to a positive outlook on life?mood, if you will.  In no way does it have to do with philosophical systems of good vs. evil, happiness vs. sadness, or the energetic expectations as opposed to ?negative? views of life?s events.  Pessimism remains a philosophical outlook and belief, while optimism is not.  A pessimistic philosophical system maintains that all life remains inexplicable and unknowable, no matter how much or how strenuously one searches.  Because life does not make sense, we seek to give it meaning through our own constructions, such as art, religion, or any form of creativity or depth of meaning.  If life makes no sense, art may?should we create, we offer meaning to the meaningless, we grant purpose to the seemingly purposelessness of existence, and we decide how things will end, because we dictate that system.

Painting, drawing, composing in music or literature, or other artistic endeavors give meaning to whatever we wish.  This is our construction, to be rendered how we choose.  This is what the Greeks recognized.  Life may not make sense, but through art I may give it sense, orderliness, purpose, and even an explanation for cause and effect.  On the other hand, whenever we choose to paste this idea upon life, not art, we have not given any meaning; rather, we have given explanation to that which we can?t define.  To say something is God?s will is to admit that we do not know?its purpose is fathomless; and we admit this by saying ?it?s in God?s hands.?  To attribute to God all that we don?t understand merely attributes a meaning to things that are beyond our control and that for which we have no answer.  Tragedy, as a genre, admits this and says, in effect, ?that?s true; but at least through creativity I can grant meaningful purpose to events, to pain, to joy, to sorrow, to all I do not know or understand.?  This represents but one reason that counselors, psychologists, or psychiatrists ask patients to become involved in something with their hands (if only to write down what they think).  It's therapeutic.  Imagine what would happen if we truly believed that "all works out for the best."  If you were fired from your job, then you should go home and sit by the phone, knowing in all certainty that it will ring--don't go out looking for work.  Others would tell you, "God helps them who help themselves."  So, which is it?  Don't we have clich鳠for every occasion?

Pessimism is a philosophical system because it stands behind all works of creativity.  The Greek tragedies merely serve as the best examples, since they drew upon myths and other observable phenomena and attempted to put purpose behind them, if only to maintain that the gods were responsible.Job and His False Comforters, Fouquet  For the Greeks, the gods were not powerful, friendly deities that served mankind; they were petty, spiteful, and small in comparison to the humanity that attempted to understand them.  But the gods never had to play by humanity?s rules.  The best thing for humankind was to go unnoticed by the gods, who brought discord and pain to their lives.  But then, too, the Greeks had no understanding or definition of ?sin,? which is a Hebraic notion in our collective backgrounds in our mixture of East/West culture.  The Hebrews knew guilt and sin, the Greeks knew peer pressure, peer judgment, and the wrath of undeserved and irrational forces, which they called the gods.

For the Greeks, the idea most closely relating to sin was hamartia, which simply means ?missing the mark??it?s an archery term that defines ?error? by the inability to hit the bullseye of what the gods demanded?missing the ?bullseye? meant "error."  And what the gods demanded was so difficult to discern, so irrational, that anything could be seen as hamartia: being born beautiful, smart, clever, talented, or different in any way.  The gods wished to look down from the heavens and see an even  row of bowed human heads.  Anyone who looked up, stood out, or was different in any way was marked as guilty of ?pride??the closest we can come to the idea of hamartia.  And in the Greek pessimistic view of life, they believed that, because the gods punished all who were different, never to have been born at all was most desirable; the next best thing, they believed, was to die young.  Tragedy demonstrates this basic tenet: Oedipus the King shows us that there are far worse things than death.  And, of course, the Greeks did not believe in an afterlife?but then, neither did the Israelites.

Tragedy represents the best illustration of making life into some sensible order or meaning.  Audiences could see the reasons for things, to comprehend, to see behind the veil of mystery.  So, when students of literature read Job, they?re right at home.  Unfortunately, those of faith and those who read the Bible as divine will do not often appreciate this fact.  And it is a fact, for the book does not adhere to what we are led to believe prior to reading it.  The problem here is largely due to what one finds in the Bible.  In the Epistle of James, the writer tells of the ?patience of Job.?  Unfortunately, for those who read the work for the first time (usually in a class like this, and not from dutiful study of Holy Writ), the idea that Job is patient becomes difficult, at best, to discern.  In fact, as the editor of the Anchor Book of Job, the Yale scholar Marvin Pope (and another university colleague to my old prof, Harold Bloom) states in his Introduction, Job?s patience represents something on the order of a little under 1/10th the work?a little concept of patience from the first of the work, and a little from the end, and that?s it.

Another problem is that after we get past God and Satan discussing and bartering over Job, there remains for most of the book some fairly dull arguments by Job?s so-called ?counselors,? or friends.  This argumentative section represents, in fact, the greatest portion of the book, which students of literature are more apt to find of interest because of its rhetorical values and strengths?the arguments remain classic in their investment in poor arguments, ?rhetorical fallacies,? and questions on a divine or cosmic scale that need answering, but never are.  And this also proves unsatisfying to many readers, because we are back where we began at the first of this exercise: Yahweh maintains that Job wasn?t there when things began, can?t answer as to their reasons or explanations, and so he remains small while God stays in command.  If you were looking for answers, you would be better off with a good Greek tragedy or work another form of art, because this book doesn?t supply the answers, but responds rather to the questions in a set piece of rhetorical questions of its own: in other words, no answer is offered--the answer by God is intended, apparently,  to make us, as with Job, feel small and insignificant.

When Job becomes angry at the end of the work, where ?pray? tell is the patience?  When Job receives many-fold what he lost, we can?t help but remember that the original sons and daughters can?t be replaced?no matter how many substitutions are given him.  And we remember the arguments of the friends or counselors with Job because they?re the questions of life--that is, if anyone has the ?patience? to listen to and then attempt as well to articulate them.  Thus, the book remains a masterpiece?of tragedy.  And it?s no coincidence that it is usually taught as such.  Consider, for instance, that an anonymous author of this book wrote it about the same time as Sophocles was staging Oedipus the King.  While this undoubtedly remains coincidental, it still intrigues those of us who care about great literature.

Our endeavor, then, is to rectify faith with literature.  For many, this presents no problems, while for others the indelible imprint of what James, in his epistle, said of the book remains; we understand this effort to represent that of patience, of trial, and faith that endures.  Nor may we underestimate the impression we have already that the Book of Job is, as we have been told from the earliest of our childhood teaching, to be that of patience, faithful duty to God, and reward in the end.  For some, it goes beyond patience, but no more than ?God gives and God takes away.?  This for the true student, whether of literature or of faith, will present difficulty if the book is read fairly?or indeed read at all, for most of us skip carelessly past the ?tedious? arguments of the counselors with Job, looking for the ?message? that must eventually take us back to the notion of which we have at first been led to believe.The Book of Job, plate 14, by William Blake 

So the first test in reading the book is to do exactly that: to read it.  Other understanding will help, and I hope that those of us who wish to read the ?Bible solely, and to admit no extraneous understanding save what is present within Holy Writ? will allow the work to stand upon its own merit and to speak to us as it will.  But to fail to understand the idea behind it or the standing context of the book will cause one to see it as ?tedious? and to return to a naﶥ understanding of what the effort truly is.  This represents maturity?knowing the context and ramifications of something?for nothing comes so blatantly obvious to us that we need no help or study (if that were true, parents could leave us alone until we readily decided to attend church, read the Bible, or to have morals?anyone who has experienced a two-year-old knows that futility).  For the Hebrew writer of this text, and we do not know who that person or persons may have been or how the book happened to become part of the accepted canon of received words of God, was knowledgeable in a cosmic view of the world that accepted what has been termed as ?Distributive Justice.?  The concept, though a bit more difficult than I render it here, means essentially that no afterlife exists.  Only through the acceptance and the following of Yahweh does one find reward (or the contrary misfortune), and this is reason enough to follow the tenets of Yahweh.  In other words, those who follow and obey Yahweh?s commands and restrictions may expect gain or good fortune in this life.  Those who do not will suffer in reverse proportion.

The idea of afterlife comes late in the Hebrew concept of God and how the universe functions.  The Book of Job merely reinforces this idea, if at times sarcastically; but the evidence is clearly there.  One needs to turn to the later Scriptures, late in terms of the earliest writings and interpretations, and read Daniel or some of the later prophets to find the concept of an afterlife.  During the time of Jesus, for example, most do not understand the distinctions between those with whom he differed, the Sadducees and Pharisees, those who gave Christ his most difficult times in Jerusalem, which ultimately led to the condemnation and illegality (in terms of their own laws) of the Sanhedrin meeting, when they met, and what they discussed in passing the death sentence upon Jesus.  The Pharisees were the ?blue collar? or late group of diviners of Holy Law, those who sought to make up for their less noble calling by adhering to a strictness and literalness of the law that caused them to gleefully engage in debate and the finer points by which to prove their righteousness and understanding of the Law.  They were ?nit-pickers,? given to great shows of the learning and piety (hence, the idea of Jesus that condemns them for their public prayers.   By contrast, the Sadducees were those of the older, nobler families of the Israelites, those who placated the Romans by accepting their designs upon the territory and by making the best of a bad situation.  In most every way, these were the people who feared reprisals by the Roman Pax Romana, seeking to save their families, lands, and future.  But the Sadducees also did not believe in an afterlife, while the Pharisees did; thus, the more ?Israelite? party of faith did not adhere to what the rebellious new group brought into their midst, the need for uprisings, rebellion against Roman rule, or the martyrs that such causes demand.  Martyrs respond to the concept of a divine place in the heavens for their sacrifices, an idea particularly appropriate and understandable by current world events.

Job?s own discussions with his wife, or her demands made of him, clearly indicate that no afterlife is sought, expected, or in anyway part of their belief.  What we have is the stuff of classical tragedy:  Job knows that he has not sinned and therefore expects reward, which has been granted up to the point of the narrative when we see God and his advocate, Satan (not an evil spirit or personification, but rather a ?spokesman? for God, as the name so indicates) debate in a matter of ?gamesmanship, ? which results in what will happen to the chess piece with which they play.  But because Job has lost all possessions and family, his friends correctly interpret Distributive Justice for what it indicates: Job has sinned and brought loss upon himself.  This is the stuff of tragedy, because no answer exists.  Both parties are correct; no ?wrong? exists here for either, so why should this be occurring?  Classical tragedy states by implication that we have ?push comes to shove,? that both parties are right, and there exists no relief to either side.  That defines as well as anything what happens in Job.

In classical tragedy, we find the gods bickering, fighting, and doing all that makes up their anger in the form of the sylleptor, meaning ?partner.?  The term is ironic, for no human asks for the partnership of the god who possesses him or her.  But possess they do, so that they find relief in their petty quarrels between themselves by means of the human chess pieces, which they move about by literal possession, becoming daemons and inhabiting the human form for whatever term they desire.  All of these gods and their corresponding possessions we recognize today as basic, human emotions: love may turn to passion, which is far less stable than ?love,? more destructive, and has depth to it that no one may measure until it strikes.  What indeed are we capable of?  The thumos, or soul, was like the sea: depthless, always in motion, unknowable in what inhabits it, and, once turning into storm, unstoppable until destruction lies in its wake.  Aphrodite could do this to one, as could other gods in similar forceful if uncontrollable ways by means of passion, desire, intelligence, hubris, artistic accomplishment, etc.

The beginning of Job clarifies for us that the test?and we?ve seen this before, most especially with Abraham and his directed sacrifice of Isaac?which the reader may know, but in true dramatic irony, the players of the drama do not.  God and Satan play at the expense of a faithful servant who has every right to expect reward, due to Distributive Justice.  When it does not work as promised, his ?friends? rightfully accuse him of wrong, yet the readers, as well as Job, know otherwise.  In other words, we know the reason for his suffering, but not what it entails insofar as how Job will fare from this test.  The sufferer?s final arguments with his God are profound, but no less than the still unanswered statements from God as to why these things happen, or what Distributive Justice means after this trial.

It?s no accident that so many books about Job have been written in the context of Greek tragedy; indeed, if one wanted the best explanations or scholarship done on the work, he would turn to literature and classical tragedy for the best information or the best critiques as to what takes place here.  What the reader must do, then, is to approach the Book of Job as if for the first time (which, indeed, it most often is, because it?s one of those catch-phrase remembrances from Sunday School or sermons so that we think we know what takes place in the book and what that means, even though in truth we haven?t read it) and to see it as a test or trial very much like Abraham?s, so that we as readers are tested as well.

The rhetorical arguments of the work bore many; but they're profound and excellent in ?correctness? for both sides, as well as for their obvious ?fallacies? in logic.  A careful reading of these arguments rewards the thoughtful reader.  However, the depth of the work remains very much like anything of value: it has complexity, has been over-simplified so that we think we know it, and possesses an abundance of ?life?s questions? that will not, perhaps cannot, be answered.  If it were staged, we would recognize the genre as tragedy; but it is not.  Read it carefully, with ?patience,? and pay close heed to the debate, which God and Satan begin, but soon becomes handed over to their mortal counterparts for more ?simplistic? arguments, which are typically human and equally unsatisfying.