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Book of Job


Lest it be imagined that I'm not still working on that book I spoke about some time back, I feel like posting my rough, rough draft of my section on the topic of the book of Job. 

***

The book of Job is one of the more outstandingly strange books of the old testament. It is a story which most serious scholars take to be a parable, meant to impart cultural values by means of a story, which is not meant to be taken as historically true but rather as an example to be used for educational purposes.

The story, in brief, can be summed up thus:

The christian god and the devil are talking, as two old chums might, about matters of mutual interest. As such conversations tend to, it turns towards work. The devil asks the christian god about the relative virtue of his followers. Yaweh points out Job, a wealthy land-owner and one of his worshippers which he holds to be an exemplar of hebrew virtue. Job is spineless and mindlessly submissive; he places the health and welfare of his own family beneath his own standing in the eyes of his god, and will suffer any abuse in an effort to toady up to the boss. What more could you ask of a man?

The devil professes some skepticism on this count. This we might take to be a bit peculiar, in that the devil must surely know Yaweh to be omniscient and omnibenevolent – assuming that modern-day interpretations of the christian god are accurate - and thus incapable of either lying or being mistaken, but this is the sort of peculiarity we’re going to have to get used to by the end of this story. Yaweh decides, for whatever reason (perhaps offended pride?) that it is very important to him that the devil agrees with him. Why being high in the devil’s esteem is so important to him is not made exactly clear.

He therefore offers the devil the opportunity to prove him wrong, telling him that he can do anything he wants to Job in order to prove Yaweh wrong. His sole proviso is that Job himself is not to be killed. The devil most graciously agrees, and sets about this task he has been given, tormenting his boss’s follower in order to prove an intellectual point. There follows a series of tortures and agonies of escalating degrees. He destroys Job’s home, he murders Job’s wife and children, he infects Job will all sorts of disfiguring diseases, and more.

Throughout it all, Job – who is being ruined by his god’s own will, through his proxy, the devil – continues to praise his tormentor and generally demonstrate his own desire to remain in his god’s good graces in spite of all that’s been done to him. Eventually, the devil concedes that this is a toady of truly epic proportions, willing to kiss the foot which is kicking his teeth in and ask for more. Yaweh is pleased, and decides to reward Job for his performance. He sends him some new servants, and a new wife. Granted, Job’s old wife and children were murdered before his very eyes, and for no stated sins or crimes of their own, but this doesn’t seem to concern Job very much. True to form, it’s his own skin he’s really concerned with, and is very happy to have this new woman and servants, saying nary a word about the brutal and pointless murders of the old ones. There follows much joyous singing and dancing.

An apologist might at this point rush to their god’s defense by saying that the murders were not performed by their god, but by the devil. I would respond by pointing out that this is somewhat akin to defending a man who points a gun which he knows to be loaded at the face of a six year old girl and pulling the trigger. After all, it is not the man who blows the six year old child’s brains out the far side of her head; it is the bullet. The man must therefore be held blameless. Just as the man knows full well the consequences of his actions the moment he pulls the trigger, so too must an omniscient god know the moment he sets the devil loose on Job’s family what the consequences must be. So too must he be held equally responsible to the gun-wielding child-killer.

In the end, Yaweh adresses Job, but offers nothing but meaninless non-sequiturs and rhetorical questions in explanation of his horrendous actions. I would very much like to overhear a conversation between Job and Yaweh over the question of Job’s childrens’ death afterwards, if Yaweh were a bit more forthcoming : "Why were your children killed? Well, it’s kind of a funny story, actually. I know you’re going to laugh at this. Believe it or not, it didn’t even have anything to do with your kids. Hm? You? Oh, no. It wasn’t to punish you. Actually, your children were killed because you were so good! I know, ironic, right? As I was saying, though, it had nothing to do with them. I just needed to prove a point to someone. Hm? Who? Oh, the devil. He’s this guy I know. Nice guy. You’d like him. But don’t worry, I’ve got you covered. Here are some new women for you to marry, and you can have some new kids with them. Who knows? You might even like them better than the old ones!". Were I to find myself in Job’s shoes, I should like to think my response, as a man whose children were murdered before my very eyes for no good reason, would be something along these lines: "My children are dead so you could settle an argument? My children, who I raised from birth? The joy of my world, my hope for the future, the things I loved more than life itself, are dead, because you needed to satisfy someone’s curiosity? I will never praise you again, you monster. From this day forth, your name will not pass my lips without a curse to accompany it!". Job, sadly, seems to lack my capacity for outrage in the face of gross inequity.

If one is to be completely honest, on must admit that this is not the omniscient, omnipotent, omnibenevolent god of modern-day christians. An omniscient god wouldn’t have needed to go through the motions in order to prove anything, as the outcome would be infallibly known in advance. An omnibenevolent god wouldn’t kill a bunch of innocent children just to make a point (or, one would imagine, for any reason). An omnipotent god would have had a host of options to deal with the situation which didn’t involve all the ugliness; he could have created a flawless simulation of things to come in order to demonstrate his point, or could have resurrected Job’s murdered family and servants at the end instead of the fairly mild intervention of hooking Job up with new ones. It’s always hard to square away the concept of a triple-omni god with almost any story in the bible without needing to engage in obfuscation, doublethink, and preposterous excuses for the behaviour of the god depicted therein, but here it stands out like a sore thumb more than in most.

Here we see a god who is in many ways little more impressive than a mortal king. He is potent, yes: He is capable of arranging events in such a way that Job is set up with a new life for himself in the end. He is reasonably well-informed; he knows the right person to pick in order for his test to go as he hopes and wants it to. He is not completely cold-hearted, in that he offers a token restitution to the one and only person to survive his perverse psychodrama. However, it is difficult to say more for him than this.

If one takes this story as literal truth, as many christians of many denominations across the world would assert that all of the books of the bible must be taken, then there are some difficult questions to answer in terms of squaring it away with the characterization of their god as they like to preach it today. This is a being who will kill (or enable the killings of) innocent children for the sake of convincing one of his underlings that he knows what he’s talking about. Why would he care? Why would he feel like he has anything to prove? Why would he need to go through the motions? Why does he place the welfare of his own people so far beneath the winning of a simple argument? This is a cold, lofty, indifferent and self-interested god, self-indulgent and outlandishly egotistical. He has more in common with the Olympian gods of Greek myth than any modern depiction of the christian god. How, then, do bible literalists square away this radically-different character with the way they like to imagine their god?

If one takes this story as an instructive parable, many of the same problems present themselves. If this story is meant to demonstrate a moral or ethic, then what moral or ethic is this meant to teach about the character of the god or his religion? The party line runs something along these lines: "If you continue to have faith in and praise this particular god, even during hard times, you’ll be rewarded in the end. Don’t lose faith, or else." Another interpretation, which seems to hold up to the story as presented, might be "You are nothing more than a vessel for obedience to your superiors, and neither you nor anyone around you have any value except in this regard. Bend over, don’t make too much of a fuss, and take it, and perhaps you’ll get to walk away with no more than a few disfigurements".

In fairness, it must be said that in the context of the times – the bronze-age middle-east – this is actually not a bad lesson to learn. The rulers at that time were by and large brutal, callous, self-important and war-like tyrants. This is what authority amounted to at this time. It would seem reasonable to assume that the original readers or listeners of this story would have heard this story and not taken the brutal tyranny of the god character presented herein amiss, since it would seem perfectly in line with what might expect of an authority figure in their experience. However, what amounts to goodness and fairness in these primitive and unenlightened times does not necessarily amount to goodness and fairness in a more enlightened time, and a god which seems morally acceptable in such times might not seem so when judged by the standards of today.

Certainly, measured by today’s standards, it is difficult to look at an authority figure who would have a subordinate of his kill innocent children in order to illustrate an intellectual point and see anything but a monster. A truly omnibenevolent, omniscient god, though, should literally be all-good; acting according to a moral standard so high that by any measurement he is obviously excellent. He should not require the bar to be set so low as needing to be compared to bronze-age war-lords in order to come off looking good. Such an entity should have literally been centuries, if not millennia ahead of the times, knowing in advance the highest standard of morality possible and then meeting it.

Even so, if one holds this to be no more than a parable, one could conceivably excuse such shortcomings. The limitations and faults of the author should not be held against the god who he has proven incapable of adequately depicting, one might argue. Unless, that is, one holds the bible to be divinely inspired. Divine inspiration is the line of thinking which says that the bible, even where not dictated by Yaweh himself, is the product of his intercession into the thoughts of the authors. Theoretically, it holds, anything which is to be found in the bible today is there because the christian god has decided it belongs there, since it was written according to his will.

If this is true, and the depiction of the cold, callous, egotistical and exploitative god which we see in this book is according to the will of the christian god, then even if these particular events never took place, then what is it that this god is trying to tell us about himself by having inspired such a story? Certainly nothing congruent with what the modern-day followers of this figure would have us understand of him.

If, though, this story, and the characters portrayed within, are purely works of fiction, neither depicting actual events nor divinely inspired… it makes a bit more sense. The author of this story, himself nothing more than a bronze-age middle eastern sheep-herder or somesuch, would lack the imagination or foresight to envision the higher moral standards which humans might one day aspire to, and thus be incapable of inventing a god who could do so either. This would also account for the seeming incapacity of the god in this story of producing elegant solutions such as creating a flawless simulation of things to come in order to avoid the pointless suffering of his followers. It would account for this god’s inability or unwillingness to simply resurrect the murdered family members of Job so as to mitigate the harm done to them. Such a lack of imagination in an omniscient god is baffling. Such a lack of imagination in an author of this limited frame of reference and life experience is precisely what one might expect.

Ultimately, if this story is genuinely instructive of anything, it is instructive of the limitations of the peoples who lived in that area at that time, in terms of their morality, their enlightenment, their literary skills, and their sense of social priorities. As with so much of the bible, especially in terms of the old testament, it is a peek into the minds of the people who invented these figures – human, divine, and otherwise – to reflect their often primitive and brutish world-view. Christians of today, uncomfortable with such insights, and unwilling in many cases to admit to the premises which are necessary to examine them, are forced to create elabourate excuses for the god-figure depicted therein in order to accommodate this story and others like it within their modern-day world-view. The simple fact of the matter is that doing so is pointless and even inappropriate; it has no place in a modern-day world-view. It is an archaism; a relic of a bygone and primitive age, just as is worship of the god depicted therein. Neither has any place in the society or the minds of people of modern, civilized times.

As with so much of the bible, it is useful for nothing more than insights into the minds of people who lived in a particular bygone time and place and there imagined gods which were reflective of the horrors and travails of the time in which they lived.

Comments

( 4 comments — Leave a comment or comments. )
fingerbones
22nd Aug, 2007 20:36 (UTC)
I find this essay interesting,well written and well thought out, from the point of view of aomeone who is unlikely ever to read the book of Job. I agree with a lot of your concluding remarks with the exception of "Neither has any place in the society or the minds of people of modern, civilized times", perhaps something similar to "Neither should have any place in the society or the minds of modern educated people exposed to scientific knowledge" could be better.
PS: could you use an "LiveJournal Cut" for long pieces to make it easier for me to scan through my friends page.
dave_littler
22nd Aug, 2007 20:45 (UTC)
As to the first, it seems perhaps I have been insufficiently clear in my point, and so I will need to clarify it in later version. My point was not so much that the supernatural mumbo-jumbo needs be dismissed by the modern, scientifically-educated mind. My point ran more along the lines that the ethics contained herein are ethics which the modern, post-enlightenment mind might find abhorrent. It is more than anything else a question of the degree to which our morals have evolved and surpassed those of the ancient times of which the book of Job are a product.

As to the second: I had considered putting the bulk of this text beneath a cut, but dismissed the idea as pointless; The time you spent typing the words "PS: could you use an "LiveJournal Cut" for long pieces to make it easier for me to scan through my friends page." was doubtless greater than the time it would have taken you to scroll past the text in question in the event that you should not have wished to read it. The livejournal cut is a valuable tool where imagages of high resolution or risque content are concerned, but in the case of text, I hardly see its merit.
fingerbones
22nd Aug, 2007 22:02 (UTC)
Thanks for the clarification. I had misunderstood.
Second point. It was just a request for my personal convenience, I hope you didn't read it as some sort of side swipe at you. As you know, you are free to present your journal in any way you please. I enjoy your journal and do not mean to be atall discouraging.
(Anonymous)
4th Oct, 2007 01:29 (UTC)
Hmmm...you might be interested in this podcast (http://wondersforoyarsa.blogspot.com/2007/10/atheist-interviews-me-on-book-of-job.html) where I am interviewed by an atheist about the book of Job. It's a great conversation, and addresses some of your objections above.
( 4 comments — Leave a comment or comments. )

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