Lecture given by Prof. Frye on Mar. 3, 1981 for the Bible and Literature course. Videotaped for the Bible and Literature series.
Copyright © 1982, 2013, Victoria University
LECTURE TRANSCRIPT: Lecture 21
JOB AND THE QUESTION OF TRAGEDY
I was looking at the Book of Job, and suggesting that because the dramatic form is closer to the Platonic symposium than it is to the typical tragedy or comedy, we often tend to assume that the Book of Job is a problem; and of course a problem is something that ought to have a solution. I think there are many wrong things about looking at Job as a problem, even though that is the point of view of Job himself and of the four people who are talking with him.
I suggested that, in the first place, Job is not being punished for anything, but is being tested for something, that God himself appears to have some kind of stake in the matter, as seems indicated by his colloquy with Satan at the beginning; and while it is no doubt true a priori that God knew the outcome in advance, we shouldn't let ourselves get too tangled up with ordinary conceptions of time. If God foreknows the end of an action, then it is just like a fixed horserace. There is something about it which is not quite genuine, and even Milton in Paradise Lost fell into that difficulty. But certainly the Book of Job does not impress us as a fixed race, as something which has been all worked out in advance.
One of the principles involved has to do with the relation of question and answer. When you answer a question, you accept the assumptions in the question, so that the answer, if it is a satisfactory answer, consolidates the mental level on which the question is asked. If it is the answer, it also annihilates the question. If you ask me where the nearest telephone is, I can accept the assumptions in the question, answer it, if I know where the nearest telephone is, and consequently annihilate or abolish that particular problem which the question symbolizes. But if you ask me, 'Where is God?', I can say only that conceptions of 'where' do not apply to God, and that the only way of answering such a question is to refuse to answer it. I cannot answer the question because I cannot accept the assumptions in the question. It's one of those 'have you quit beating your wife' questions, in which the matter of accepting the assumption in the question is primary.
Now it is for that reason that no serious religion ever attempts to answer questions. Because seriousness, whether it is in religion or in art or in science, is a matter of proceeding steadily to better and more adequate questions. In religion, the questions that you raise are not answered except in the most perfunctory ways because, if you think about it for a moment, you will see that to answer such a question as, 'Why do innocent people suffer?' or, 'Why is there evil in a world created by a good God?' really cheats you out of the right to ask the question, and certainly blocks your further advance. It prevents you from reformulating a question with rather better assumptions in it, and so proceeding in the way the human mind does proceed in dealing with very large and serious issues, by trying to make the assumptions in the questions it asks more and more adequate.
There is a very touching story about Gertrude Stein, that on her death bed, feeling that she was going, she called over her lifelong friend Alice B. Toklas and said, 'Alice, what is the answer?' And Alice said, 'Well, Gertrude, I'm afraid we don't know that'. Gertrude Stein thought this over, and said, 'Well, then, what is the question?' That, I think, is something of what is involved in the argument of Job. If you are looking for an answer to a question or for a solution to a problem, then you start this dreary chess game of whether God is or is not doing the right thing, which of course leads to a superego starting to scream that of course he must be and you're a wicked blasphemer for questioning it; and another part of your mind remains quiet and doesn't comment, but is not convinced.
Another aspect of this problem is that if there is an answer, you will never get out of the world of the question. The answer of God at the end of the Book of Job has, as I said last day, been very much criticized as a kind of bullying and hectoring response. But suppose there had been an explanation which took you back to the beginning to the original scene with Satan in heaven. Then you would have had a God who said, 'Well, you see, Job, it was like this…' And a God full of glib explanations for what happened would be more contemptible than even a bullying or hectoring God would be. If there is one thing the Book of Job cannot end with, it's God producing out of a hat a number of satisfactory explanations for the problems which have been worrying you. Job hasn't got problems, he's got tragedy and misery and boils. Intellectual problems or questions with answers do not get very close to where he is.
If a scientist is conducting a dialogue with nature, and nature doesn't say anything, somebody has to fill in the silence. That somebody is obviously the scientist, who is driven by the silence of nature to keep reformulating what he is investigating and observing. Now this is not quite what happens in the Book of Job, because here there is a dialogue. Job is in the world of time, which you can represent by a horizontal line. When we live in the world of time, we're being dragged along this line backwards, with our faces to the past and our backs to the future. And so, naturally, any question like, 'How did this happen to me?' and, 'Why did it happen to me?' is instinctively, according to all our normal mental processes, thrown backwards into the past. We're really asking questions about the origin or the cause of what happened. Well, the origin or cause of what happened to Job can only have been the origin or cause of everything that has ever happened—in other words, of the Creation itself. And everything follows from that original act of creation.
What God appears to be saying to Job is, 'You weren't around when I made the world, therefore you don't know what's in my mind. Therefore you shouldn't be questioning the judgment of my ways'. What I think he may actually be saying is something like this: 'You were not around at the time of the Creation. You were trying to find your way back there, to understand what has happened to you. Don't try it. There's no answer there. I'm not there, or at least no part of me is there that you can get hold of. And bound up with that, first of all, is the fact that how Job got into this mess is far less important than the question of how he is to get out of it. And secondly, that all you can see of a divine purpose when you're looking along the horizontal line, back to the beginning of time, is that of fatality or causation; and those are pretty chilly attributes of a God who is represented as taking an active interest and concern in Job's situation.
That is why the speech of God ends with the two poems on Behemoth and Leviathan, which look irrelevant to the problems of Job's boils and miseries and dead daughters but are actually less irrelevant than they may seem. We saw in our analysis of the imagery and narrative of the Bible that Leviathan, used as a poetic image in the Bible, expands into the entire world of time and space in which we are living, a world in which Satan has a good deal of control. We are all born inside the belly of Leviathan, which is why there is so much about Jesus as a fisherman in the Gospels. And for God to point out these two monsters to Job at the end can only mean that Job is outside them. And because he is outside them, he has been delivered from their power.
Let's look at the final chapter, the forty-second chapter, just at the end of the speech of God. 'Then Job answered the Lord, and said, I know that thou canst do everything, and that no thought can be withholden from thee. Who is he that hideth counsel without knowledge? Therefore have uttered that I understood not; things too wonderful for me, which I knew not. Hear, I beseech thee, and I will speak. I will demand of thee, and declare thou unto me. I have heard of thee by the hearing of the ear: but now mine eye seeth thee. Wherefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes'.
The tone seems to be one of unquestioning submission—'Yes, Lord, you know everything; I know nothing; you've got all the trump cards in your hand, and have from the beginning'— and so on. And yet I think we shouldn't be taken in too much by this Oriental manner of speaking, because Job also manages to say a few other things. He says, 'I will demand of thee, and declare thou unto me'. He still retains the right to speak and even to argue with his Creator.
And then he says, 'I have heard of thee by the hearing of the ear: but now mine eye seeth thee': which is a tremendous statement to make, because all through the Bible, the doctrine that God cannot be seen is invariable. The closest we get is Isaiah's saying that he saw God high and lifted up in the Temple. There is a very ancient legend that Isaiah was put into a hollow log and sawn in two on the charge of having claimed a direct vision of God. Yet this is what Job is claiming. There is only one reference to the Book of Job that I know of in the New Testament, and that is in the Epistle of James, where James says, 'Ye have heard of the patience of Job and have seen the end of the Lord'. And that picks up the same metaphor—'I have heard but I now see'. Of course, in James, there is still a Christian sting in the tail: what James' readers have seen is the coming of Christ; and that can hardly be within the historical context of the Book of Job itself.
Let's go on to the end of the folktale, in chapter forty-two. 'And it was so, that after the Lord had spoken these words unto Job, the Lord said to Eliphaz, My wrath is kindled against thee, and against thy two friends: for ye have not spoken of me the thing that is right'. Therefore he commands a sacrifice. And in verse ten, 'And the Lord turned the captivity of Job when he prayed for his friends'.
God is traditionally regarded as a trinity of power and love and wisdom. There's a great deal about the power and the wisdom of God in the Book of Job, and it seems curious that there should be so little about love. Various people have adapted the Book of Job, including William Blake in the series of illustrations that he did at the end of his life, and Archibald MacLeish in his play J.B, and it is interesting to notice that Blake and MacLeish make the same alteration in the story of Job: they both make Job's wife faithful to Job throughout, and they both caricature the friends. In Blake, the three friends are simply incarnations of moral virtue, which for Blake means something like a lynching mob. And in J.B., Job's three friends come to see him only because they are spiritual vampires attracted by the smell of misery. In other words, the notion of a Job cut off even from his wife is too tough for reasonably kind and humane people like MacLeish and Blake to take in. Similarly, they can come to terms with the friends only by thinking of them as malignant.
While it is true that for Job not to have even the support of his wife during this trial is tough enough, it is more important that this is the only place where an image of love would naturally emerge. Likewise, he has dismissed his friends as 'miserable comforters', and yet we are told that the Lord turned the captivity of Job when he prayed for his friends. So that perhaps the love which is based on the love of these three blundering and blinkered and yet utterly well-meaning old buffers is perhaps closer to genuine love than any other image that would be available to the poet.
In any case, the redemption of Job is the same thing as the re-establishing of his community. We are apt to forget, perhaps, that this drama is not being carried out in solitude. Job is a patriarch of the whole society in the background. That society disappears from the foreground of the action during most of the book, but it comes back again into existence at the end. 'And the Lord turned the captivity of Job, when he prayed for his friends; also the Lord gave Job twice as much as he had before. Then there came unto him all his brethren, and all his sisters, and all they that had been of his acquaintance before, and did eat bread with him in his house: and they bemoaned him, and comforted him over all the evil the Lord had brought upon him: every man also gave him a piece of money…So the Lord blessed the latter end of Job more than his beginning: for he had fourteen thousand sheep, and six thousand camels, and a thousand yoke of oxen, and a thousand she-asses. He also had seven sons and three daughters. And he called the name of the first Jemima; and the second Kezia; and the name of the third, Keren-happuch. And in all the land were no women found so fair as the daughters of Job: and their father gave them inheritance among their brethren'.
Now, in your experience of drama, you notice that it is characteristic of tragedy that it points to the inevitable. Because it points to the inevitable, it points to the credible as well. Even if you don't believe that Hamlet actually saw the ghost of his father, or that Macbeth saw the ghost of Banquo, you can still understand what state of mind Hamlet and Macbeth were in. Tragedy normally does not conceal anything from the audience. That is, we know who murdered Hamlet's father and Banquo, and we know what Iago's honesty amounts to, though the characters on the stage do not. That is why tragedy is always associated with irony, a perspective in which the audience sees more of what is happening than the actors in the play do. And so, when the tragic ending comes, it impresses us as inevitable, and we say to ourselves, yes, that is the kind of thing that can and does happen. That is how we reconcile ourselves to a tragic ending, through the fact that this portrays things as they can and sometimes do happen.
In a comedy, what we often get is some card up the writer's sleeve, some gimmick that he's thought up whereby the action is suddenly twisted from approaching complications and trouble into a happy ending. What happens in the ordinary New Comedy that was the tradition behind Shakespeare is that boy wants girl; girl is a slave or, that is, she's a prostitute; boy's father says, 'Nothing doing'; it then turns out that the girl was kidnapped or stolen by pirates in infancy and is really the daughter of somebody respectable, so that the hero can marry her without loss of face; and boy gets girl.
Well, in this comic action, there is a gimmick produced to which a normal reaction is to say that this kind of thing doesn't happen in ordinary life. But it happens in plays, and is rather nice when it does happen. Accepting it, therefore, is based on your own preference for a happy ending, but not on your sense of probability in the scheme of things. Fate specializes in practical jokes in bad taste: fate very seldom pulls out a card from the pack to help you.
So, reading the Book of Job, we are reading a drama which has always been classified with the world's tragedies, and yet it is technically a comedy by virtue of the fact that everything is restored to Job at the end. We can understand Job's miseries and trials: there is nothing about that which violates our sense of the probability of what happens in life. But can we actually accept his quite sudden restoration of Job to prosperity? That is what is incredible.
Now, in the first place, there is a rule in comedy expressed in the title of one of Shakespeare's plays, All's Well That Ends Well. That's the only title in Shakespeare with a predicate, and it is a statement that is true of the structure of comedy. But it is utter nonsense as a statement about human life. The reason it is true of comedy is that when a comedy ends well, that is traditionally the beginning of the real lives of the young people who get married at the end. But in real life, it is silly to say that all's well that ends well. Even in a society as patriarchal as Job's, a man who had lost three beautiful daughters would not be completely consoled by three brand-new daughters, no matter how beautiful or how impressively named: it's not a matter of consoling a child for a broken toy by giving him a new toy. The loss of the daughters would be a permanent scar on his existence.
So there are several possibilities here. One is the possibility that if we had seen Job in the middle of his restoration to prosperity, we might not have seen fourteen thousand sheep and a thousand she-asses and three beautiful daughters at all. We might have seen nothing but a beggar on a dunghill. And yet that beggar on that dunghill would have seen something that we have not seen, and would know something that we do not know. Of his three brand new daughters, one of them Keren-happuch, has a name that means a box of eyeshadow. She might not be there at all. And so, the credibility of the restoration of Job would have to involve different levels of existence.
The most ordinary image for two levels of existence comes from waking up in the morning, where we get rid of a dream world simply by abolishing that world. Something of that might be happening here: perhaps Job has wakened up from a nightmare world of loss and boils to find that it was only a dream. But if it were only a dream, then the end of Job is so discontinuous from the main action of the poem that there is hardly any point in the main action of the poem at all. So that's facile; it will hardly do.
I think that when you go back to the speech of Job, you get an impression that some kind of confidential look, almost a wink, seems to have passed between Job and God at that point, and that Job knows something in that instant from which we are excluded. What is it that Job knows that we don't know? The answer is that by definition we don't know, and that's not helpful. Nevertheless, it is something that the statement that he is seeing God, the restoration of all his goods, the re-establishment of his family and community, are all images for.
I've spoken of the form of tragedy, and tragedy is a form that people seem to have a constant itch to wish to explain. Early critics read in Aristotle the statement that the tragic hero must have hamartia, and nobody quite knows what that means, but it's the ordinary word in the New Testament for sin. Consequently, Aristotle has often been interpreted as proposing an extremely moralistic theory of tragedy, that the tragic hero must have done something wrong, so that what he does is morally intelligible. But if you think of the tragedies that you know, you'll see that that won't work. The particular thing called tragedy that happens to a tragic hero does not depend on his moral status. He may be as good a man as Shakespeare's Julius Caesar or as good a woman as Bernard Shaw's Joan of Arc or Shakespeare's Desdemona. Or he may be as bad a person as Shakespeare's Richard III or Macbeth. But the particular thing called tragedy that happens takes no account of that.
I think what Aristotle means partly by hamartia is being in a certain place which is especially dangerous or exposed; and very often the qualities that put you in such a place are the qualities of exceptional heroism. Because, after all, an oak tree is much more likely to be struck by lightning than a clump of grass. Cordelia in Shakespeare's King Lear, for example, does nothing wrong to deserve her banishment and her eventual hanging. She is just standing in a particular spot, and the lightning strikes that spot.
Similarly, one of the issues raised by the story of Job is the issue connected with the word 'property', which in Aristotle means that which is proper to a man, that which is really an extension of himself. And so one of the questions raised by Job's disasters is: how much can a man lose of what he has before it begins to affect the identity of what he is? That question is answered in a rather brusque way, perhaps, by God's remark to Satan that he has to spare Job's life. He can take everything he has, but he must leave what he is. In that situation, the identity of Job is being isolated. It's being cut off from his possessions, because it is still a question raised by Satan as to whether Job is not really a creature of his possessions, of his prosperity and his riches, rather than a creature of God. After he has passed the test, his goods are restored to him, because that question no longer means anything.
The argument of Job and his friends builds to a climax in the beginning of chapter 26. It looks as though an editor, or perhaps even the original author, has cut down the proportions of the dialogue here, because his scheme was originally to have the three friends all speak in turn. But in this round of speeches, the second man, Bildad, has a very curtailed speech, and the third man doesn't speak at all. But Job answers, and his answer carries on until the end of chapter 31, after which it is said that the three men ceased to answer Job because he was righteous in his own eyes.
Now, as we have already suggested, it's only from the comforters' point of view that he is righteous in his own eyes. The speech of Job himself is really the climax of the whole book as far as Job is concerned. It is his statement as a bewildered but still articulate victim of disaster, and there are insertions in it that make it longer perhaps than it needed to be, such as the hymn in praise of wisdom in chapter 28, which is probably a later interpolation; but Job's speech, from chapters 26 to 31, seems to me the most tremendously noble and impressive statement that I know of in literature of what can only be called the essential dignity and responsibility of human nature. Job does not claim virtue, he does not claim that he must have been unjustly treated: he has stopped all that kind of noise, and says merely that he wishes he knew what the charge against him is, if there is a charge; and he ends, at the end of chapter 31, in the closing verses that begin around verse 35, 'Oh that one would hear me! Behold, my desire is, that the Almighty would answer me, and that mine adversary had written a book. Surely I would take it upon my shoulder, and bind it as a crown to me. I would declare unto him the number of my steps; as a prince would I go near unto him. If my land cry against me, or that the furrows likewise thereof complain; if I have eaten the fruits thereof without money, or have caused the owners thereof to lose their life: let thistles grow instead of wheat, and cockle instead of barley. The words of Job are ended'.
It is the voice of a responsible ruler, like Oedipus of Thebes: there is a famine in the country, Oedipus is king, therefore he is responsible. So he must consult an oracle to find out why there is a drought. In the case of Oedipus, of course, the outcome is very different. He is told by a prophet that he has murdered his father and slept with his mother, and that the gods were offended. He says, 'But I didn't know anything about this', and the prophet said, 'Well, that's just too bad'. But in the Book of Job, you have the same willingness to assume responsibility, the same essential dignity which is possible only to a conscious nature. Job is doing what he can with the gifts of consciousness and intelligence. In ending on that tone, he makes it clear that God has won the wager, that Job's integrity is still there and still untouched. After that, you don't need Satan anymore.
What follows is the speech of Elihu, which as I say is a later interpolation. Elihu is a young man, and his following the three old men represents a kind of social cycle of moral condemnation which goes on and on. But Job lets Elihu's speech go by without commenting on the fact that he's extremely cocksure. Elihu says things like, 'Suffer me a little, and I will show you what I have yet to say on God's behalf, as though God had hired him as a lawyer. Job makes no comment on the arguments of Elihu: he's heard it all before, it's all true, and it's all nonsense. He's waiting for a different kind of voice altogether. And eventually, out of the whirlwind, the voice comes.
Northrop Frye and Michael Dolzani
Copyright © 1982, 2013, Victoria University
TEACHER'S GUIDE Lecture 20 &
Lecture 21, Part 1
JOB: A TEST
(Note: AV=Authorized Version, OT=Old Testament, NT=New Testament)
The fact that the Book of Job opens with Satan present in the court of God illustrates a very significant fact: that only in the Book of Job are Satan and the powers of darkness and chaos treated as creatures of God rather than as his enemies. Satan in that court is acting as the Accuser in a lawsuit, and Job expresses his faith that he will have an advocate or 'Redeemer'. Job's three friends are also thinking in terms of law and accusation, which is why they are certain that Job is being punished for some infraction of the Deuteronomic Code. But Job's case goes beyond the legal perspectives of law and even wisdom, for the reason that nothing he could possibly have done could warrant such extreme punishment. Job is rather being tested by God. To turn God's actions into a puzzle, however, turns Job's suffering into an intellectual problem of theodicy. There can never be a satisfying answer to a problem so stated: its only value is to force us to question the assumptions behind the question itself, so that by reformulating them, we might escape from the world or the mental level which they consolidate.
Program Lecture Outline: Key Facts
- The tremendous act of poetic originality that opens the Book of Job with Satan in the court of God provides one key to the book's meaning. Only in the Book of Job are the darkness and chaos with which Creation began in Genesis treated as creatures of God tolerated within his Creation, rather than as excluded adversaries.
- As representative of those forces within God's court, Satan acts as the prosecutor or Accuser of mankind, carrying on the legal metaphor or 'judgment' that runs all the way through the Bible.
- Job expresses faith (19:25) that he will find an advocate or 'Redeemer', though the charges against him remain a terrifying mystery.
- Job's three friends are 'miserable comforters' for all their real devotion because, in being unwilling to believe in any situation not covered by their interpretation of the Mosaic Code, they insist that Job must necessarily have done something wrong; and in doing so, they carry on Satan's business of accusation.
- But what has happened to Job does not bear any sane relation to anything he could conceivably have done. Therefore, the legal perspective of law and wisdom, insofar at least as it is limited to ideas of reward and punishment, must be expanded in Job's case to include prophecy's vision of an entire fallen world of reality.
- Job is not being punished: he is being tested by God. God's reasons for this are bound up with the whole intellectual problem of theodicy, the question of the origin of good and evil. But there can be no satisfactory answer to a question framed in these terms.
- We are forced to return to the original mystery and reformulate the assumptions behind it. The Book of Job refuses to give an 'answer' to the situation it portrays, in order to force us to reinterpret and transform the way in which we have defined, and thereby in a sense created, that situation for ourselves.
Biblical Passages Cited
Job 19:25.—'For I know that my redeemer liveth'.
Job 16:2.—'Miserable comforters are ye all'.
Job 2:11-13.—Job's friends: 'So they sat down with him upon the ground seven days and seven nights'.
The Teacher's Perspective
The three lectures on the Book of Job, of which this is the first, are in many ways the climax to this entire series, and recreate its content in microcosm. This is in part because the Book of Job does something similar to the entire Bible: as The Great Code says on page 193, it is 'the epitome of the narrative of the Bible, as the Book of Revelation is the epitome of its imagery'. But it is also because, like their subject, the Job lectures seem to have an impact that is particularly dramatic, even more so than the version of them that appears in The Great Code itself. For that reason, it is very satisfying to be able to preserve them in something like their original form, though the teacher should notice that, even now, material remains in the transcripts that might very well be made use of.
There is another reason for this expanded treatment, however. For the purposes of this series, Job has absorbed the perspective of prophecy in such concentrated form that no separate discussion of prophecy remains in the video lectures. The advantage of this lies in the capacity of the Book of Job to isolate the salient characteristic of prophecy as a phase of revelation: the vision of reality as a fallen world, a world of radical alienation and discontinuity that becomes the dialectical opposite of the reality of custom, tradition and continuous institutions embodied in law and wisdom. These two perspectives keep recreating each other throughout the entire Biblical tradition. Though the Book of Job is sometimes classed with the wisdom books, it might be more illuminating to think of the Old Testament as divided between legal and historical material on the one hand and the more purely imaginative material of poetry and wisdom on the other, with prophecy's application of the imagination to history forming a link between them, and with Job itself as a kind of key to prophecy. The work's concerns are in themselves non-historical: Job is from Edom, not Israel, and he uses the general terms El, Elohim and Shaddai ('the Almighty') for his God. But it is in Job that we find the vision that the prophets apply to history, the vision of reality as a dark, fallen world of violence and terror. If we are not to view the prophets simply as political malcontents screaming their lungs out whenever the established authority refused to follow their recommendations, we must give them credit for some such larger vision. They are not merely wasting something like one quarter of the length of the Bible with paranoiacally-repetitive threatening and cursing: they are trying to tell us that we are living in hell.
Examining the poetic aspect of the prophetic material might enable the class to make this distinction more clearly. The teacher may ask the students to discuss how the political propaganda aspect of the prophets' message is in tension with the visionary and imaginative thrust of its highly figurative language: why should the latter remain so prominent, as well as so haunting to posterity, if the prophets were only looking for a violent chastisement of their enemies or even of their own people? Comparison with examples of real political propaganda might help to make this difference clear.
Nowhere is the pre-eminence of figurative language in prophecy more apparent than in Second Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55). The class may find the comparison with Job to be very striking, not only in the imagery of the 'suffering servant' and the idea that redemption might come out of victimage and endurance, but in the repeated use of the same term go'el, 'redeemer'. Scholars find it striking too: some of them even hypothesize a direct influence, given the probable closeness of the two texts in date of composition (somewhere in the area of the 6th-4th centuries B.C.).
But Job has other, more general resemblances to prophecy. We may remember that Elijah, the archetypal prophet, is also spoken to by God in connection with a violent wind (I Kings 19:11-12). A windstorm is a common Biblical accompaniment to a theophany, and some scholars think that this goes back to the alleged origins of Yahweh as a desert storm god (or maybe storm demon). But what is more important is that Elijah, in making his way back to Mt. Horeb, is repeating the original covenant-making ceremony of Moses with God; and that Job, in his own encounter with God, is also both repeating and transcending the conditions of that original contract, and thereby expanding the legal perspective that had come down from it. If this seems at first only a farfetched analogy, it would be well to remember how intensely Job recapitulates the vision of the entire Bible, including the Exodus-dominated perspective of so much of the Old Testament. As The Great Code puts it: 'But Job seems to have gone the entire circuit of the Bible's narrative, from creation and fall through the plagues of Egypt, the sayings of the fathers transmitting law and wisdom, the flash of prophetic insight that breaks the chain of wisdom, and on to the final vision of presence and the knowledge that in the midst of death we are in life' (197).
It is interesting to examine how the question of good and evil and the problem of suffering inevitably frame themselves in a legal perspective, so that metaphors of trial and imprisonment are hovering in the background. In Christian legalism, the rationalization for the existence of evil and suffering is the doctrine of original sin, which goes back to the sense of a contract or covenant with God that was broken by Adam. Though Christ is supposed to have redeemed us from Adam's sin, and left us baptism as the perpetual renewal of his redemptive act through history, most versions of Christianity have prudently postponed the final efficacy of his redemption until the end of time. Even Milton, pressured to explain why, if Christ has already redeemed us, tyranny and corruption are still flourishing, ends by putting some self-defensive speeches in God's mouth in Paradise Lost , Book III.
The political version of the legal argument is traditionally the idea of the social contract, put forth in positive terms by Edmund Burke and in negative ones by Rousseau. It is usually dependent at some point on its religious counterpart, since it bases its claim for the necessity of law and authority on the assertion that the heart of man is fundamentally corrupt. If we are tempted to dismiss these as a blatant rationalization for tyranny, however, we may remember Prof. Frye's remark that what the high priest Caiaphas said in the Gospel of John (11:50) has been echoed at some point by every human being whatsoever: that it is expedient that one man die for the people. The teacher may have the class read some version of the quintessential statement of this problem of 'the greatest good for the greatest number', a parable whose power to haunt the imagination has caused it to be repeated by a number of writers, including Dostoyevsky in The Brothers Karamazov, Thomas Mann in The Magic Mountain (the chapter called 'Snow') and Ursula LeGuin in 'The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas'. The dilemma is this: if the whole world's suffering were to be ended, and the only price exacted were that one innocent child were to be tortured forever in a back room of Utopia, would you consent to it? Can one avoid being involved in guilt by either choice, in fact, since to say no is to condemn untold numbers of other people to suffering and death?
The point of this story is that it is essentially a retelling of the legal aspect of the Book of Job. One condition of the bargain is that the child is never even to be told why he is being tormented, so that from his point of view, his sufferings will seem as mysterious as Job's do to him. The students will probably be familiar with the story of the young Charles Dickens in the debtors' prison and the blacking factory, recounted in fictional terms in David Copperfield, and be able to realize how Dickens in a very real way personally re-enacted that parable, with shattering effect on his personality. The image of the tormented child or childlike person shows up relentlessly in his fiction: from Mr. Pickwick to Amy Dorrit, who is swallowed up by the Marshalsea, the prison where Dickens went with his family. In Little Dorrit, the prison not only becomes the same kind of symbol as Leviathan in the Book of Job, but in a passage where shafts of sunlight become bars of the prison of 'this lower world', the whole world is suddenly revealed as being caught in that prison, engulfed by that Leviathan. It is the saintlike Little Dorrit herself who becomes the go'el, the redeemer, for the hero Arthur Clennam. Biblical images in this novel are nearly obsessive: Clennam's Calvinistic and self-righteous mother has a picture of the plagues of Egypt on her wall, just to make sure that we get the message.
The point is that no real God could be the kind of judge implied by a child-tormenting parable: the legal perspective, in its simplistic formulation at least, has to be transcended, which is one reason why the bet with Satan drops out of the Book of Job itself. The question has to be reformulated. The whole business of asking better questions is really another aspect of the idea of phases of revelation, the sense of an increasingly-expanding comprehension. The teacher may have the class look at Shaw's The Adventures of the Black Girl in Her Search for God, mentioned by Prof. Frye in the transcripts, which reads like a humorous version of Blake's Seven Eyes of God. On a more serious level, there is Jung's Answer to Job, with its idea of a blind, unconscious deity who has to develop into consciousness and discrimination, of which more later in these programs. There is also a profoundly relevant passage in Joseph Campbell's The Masks of God, volume 4, Creative Mythology, called 'The Symbol Without Meaning'. Finally, on a more abstract and philosophical level, the French philosopher of language Jacques Derrida has founded his influential philosophy of deconstructionism on the postulate that symbols, including words in a language, do not point to meanings, but only to other symbols, since any 'meaning' we give for a verbal symbol has to be articulated with other verbal symbols. Thus, there is never any meaning or 'signified': there is only an endless chain of symbols or 'signifiers'; which is to say that there are no answers, only different questions. But in Derrida, we are stuck with the 'letter', the signifier; the spirit, the meaning or signified, turns out to be an illusion, and we are left with the ironic images of an imprisoning 'chain of signifiers' and a riddling labyrinth of language, Leviathan with his mouth sealed shut.
1. Biblical Passages
Isaiah 53.—The suffering servant.
I Kings 19:11-12.—Elijah at Mt. Horeb.
John 11:50.—'It is expedient for us, that one man should die for the people'.
2. Corresponding Passages in The Great Code
Chapter Five. Typology II.
pp. 125-29. Prophecy.
Chapter Seven. Myth II.
pp. 193-98. The Book of Job.
Suggested Essay or Discussion Questions
- Prof. Frye refers to theodicy as 'that dreary chess game'. Given the meaning of the film, how does this evoke that actual chess game that the Knight plays against Death in Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal? Are there ways in which this film resembles the Book of Job? What Biblical echoes are found in it?
- Provide some examples to illustrate Prof. Frye's remark that Kafka's works can be considered an extended commentary on the Book of Job.
- Discuss Yeats' poem 'At Algeciras: A Meditation Upon Death' in light of our discussion of the Book of Job.
Lecture 21, Part 2
JOB AND THE QUESTION OF TRAGEDY
Though the Book of Job is usually classed as one of the world's great tragedies, Job's restoration to prosperity at the end makes it structurally a comedy. As such, it follows the comic pattern of a sudden and improbable reversal of the action at a crucial point; so that the inevitable and ironic ending of tragedy is averted in favor of the kind of happy ending that is true of comedy but not true of normal human life. And so, if we had seen Job in his restoration to prosperity, we might not have seen sheep and she-asses and beautiful daughters: we might have seen only a beggar on a dunghill. But that beggar would have seen something that we have not seen, of which his restored prosperity is really only the symbol, something bound up with his statement that he has seen God. Despite the comic ending, however, Job's deprivations raise an issue often raised in tragedy: how much can a man lose of what he has before it begins to affect his sense of what he is? And the Book of Job also resembles tragedy in that no moralistic explanations will work to explain its catastrophe.
Program Lecture Outline: Key Facts
- Tragedy points to the inevitable and credible, and is therefore always associated with irony. By contrast, 'all's well that ends well' is more descriptive of the structure of comedy, which wrenches the action by a violent twist toward an ending that is not only improbable but impossible. That is, in the case of Job, three new daughters could not realistically wipe out Job's experience of losing his original daughters.
- One of Job's daughters has a name that means a box of eyeshadow. In other words, Job's restored prosperity involves his having moved to another level of existence, and on the normal level of credibility, we might not be able to see his restoration at all.
- During their confrontation, something has apparently passed between Job and God, for which everything that happens afterward is only the symbol, including Job's tremendous statement that he has actually seen God, as well as the restoration of his goods, his family and his community.
- Questions raised by tragedy remain relevant to Job, however, despite the containing comic structure. One tragic characteristic he possesses is Aristotle's hamartia, which does not imply a moralistic explanation for tragedy, but simply the sense of being in an exposed position, most often because of the possession of exceptional qualities.
- Satan is in fact testing the nature of those qualities to see how far they are inherent in Job and how far they are dependent upon his property. Thus, the Book of Job resembles certain other tragedies because it raises the question: how much can a man lose of what he has before it begins to affect his sense of what he is?
Biblical Passages Cited
Job 42:14. Jemima, Kezia and Keren-happuch: Job's three new daughters.
Job 42:5. 'I have heard of thee by the hearing of the ear: but now mine eye seeth thee'.
The Teacher's Perspective
This program examines some aspects of the literary form of the Book of Job. It is highly significant that a book which we have described as a key to the entire Biblical narrative should have a character so entirely imaginative and so little historical. Though we have described its wrestlings with the law in terms of the Deuteronomic Code, it remains true that the terms in which it does so are universalized, even when considered in relation to other obviously-fictitious Biblical narratives like Tobit, the latter forming an interesting comparison to Job in its similar relation to wisdom and its very different treatment of unjustified suffering. It is clear that the book's nonhistorical setting is at least partly what enables it to be so daring in its questioning, without quite so great a worry of unintentionally becoming a kind of lightning rod for historical, moral and theological anxieties.
At any rate, despite Job's character as an imaginative narrative, historical scholarship has done with it what such scholarship's analytic nature is designed to do with a text, i.e., broken it down into a number of component parts. The poem on wisdom in chapter 28 and the Elihu speeches may be later insertions; there may be reorderings and curtailments in the third cycle of speeches, and so on. There is no question of the value and accuracy of historical scholarship; there is only the caution that we can never interpret the text without at least tentatively assuming its unity in the state that we now have it; and this would remain true even if the prose folktale and the poetic dialogues were found to have two different authors. To criticize the poem as 'really' an altered tragedy, in other words, is to revise it to suit our purposes. Actually, in the state we have it, it more resembles what in Shakespearean criticism has been called a 'problem comedy'. The teacher may even want to have students compare it to a play which it shows some striking analogies to, Measure for Measure, drawing attention in particular to such thematic words as 'justice' and 'mercy', and to the resemblance of its rather inscrutable Duke to Job's God. The Merchant of Venice, with its ritual ordeal and its plot device of the cruel irrational law, is another possibility; and one notices in both plays how the final happy ending is in powerful and deliberate tension with certain more ironic elements, very much as it is in the Book of Job.
The conditional independence of literary criticism from historical considerations may extend even to translation. Prof. Frye has noted the occasional tendency to shrink Behemoth and Leviathan to hippopotamus and crocodile (if not to combine them into one animal); something similar has happened in the Anchor Bible to the unicorn in chapter 39, which it turns out is likely historically to have been only a buffalo (The RSV has 'wild ox'). The class may discuss whether this is not another case of an inspired mistranslation, not because a unicorn is more glamorous than a buffalo, but because it may be closer to what God is actually saying to Job. Prof. Frye has said that Job is in some ways a poetic and prophetic Genesis, and it seems that all through God's speech to Job in chapters 38-41, he is trying to tell Job that once one reaches a perspective outside the imprisoning body of Leviathan (see The Great Code, 195-96), the Creation may look like something quite different than it does to Job, to whom it means boils and violent storms. There, the size and power of these animals becomes an aspect of their beauty. Similarly, in going through God's speech, the class may notice that it is a vision of nature in terms of magnificence and sublimity, where the typical animals are horse, hawk, eagle, and so on. The fact that the unicorn, like the dragon on which Behemoth and Leviathan are variations, does not exist in nature as we know it suggests that in God's eyes nature is present in its original unfallen form, in which the gates of death open at will (38:17) and the morning stars sing together. Second Isaiah, who is close to Job in so many ways (compare, for example, God's speech with Isaiah 40:12) insists that God is a Redeemer precisely because he is the Creator: when he tells the earth to shout and the mountains to break forth into singing (44:23), he seems to be referring to the same kind of vision of an unfallen nature completely alive and bursting with energy that we get in Job and in some of the Psalms.
It may be too, then, that it is in God's own vision that Job is present in the form of his restored prosperity. Job's statement that he has seen God would mean in that case that he has for a timeless moment looked through God's eyes, and seen as God sees. Shakespeare's King Lear also suffers the progressive loss of everything he has, and his tragedy is also associated with three daughters. In the final moments of the play, he makes some mysterious-sounding remarks that suggest that in his dying moments he is looking on another kind of world, one in which he also sees his beloved daughter alive and restored to him again. The Canadian poet Jay Macpherson has a poem called 'The Beauty of Job's Daughters' (see Job 42:15) that is nearly as beautiful as the daughters themselves; and there is also T.S. Eliot's haunting 'Marina', a vision of restoration and the recovery of a daughter as expressed in terms of Shakespeare's Pericles. Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov is another work that suggests that redemption may be in the eye of the perceiver, as the evidence by which Alyosha concludes that God must exist is the same evidence by which Ivan concludes that he cannot possibly exist. The shaking of Alyosha's faith by the sudden decay of Father Zossima's dead body indeed evokes the central paradox of faith in Job, the one Handel set to music in The Messiah : 'And though… worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God' (19:26). There is also of course the temptation theme running through the Grand Inquisitor episode.
This latter may call to mind the situation of Milton's Paradise Regained. In The Reason of Church Government, Milton distinguishes two kinds of epic poems, the full or 'diffuse' epic in twelve books (or a multiple of twelve), and the brief epic, of which his model is the Book of Job. Since Milton's own contribution to the latter form is Paradise Regained, the teacher may ask students whether they can see any resemblances of Milton's poem to Job. First of all, there is the similarity of dramatic situation: both Christ and Job undergo a trial, a test. In each case, this has two aspects, a physical trial by ordeal and a mental contest or verbal agon. Second, there is the curious link between Job's restoration and Milton's title, Paradise Regained. We are not used to thinking of the Temptation as the act that regains paradise; but the explanation of this oddity is that Milton is thinking typologically. Of the three contests between Christ and Satan after the latter's initial defeat at Christ's hands and his fall from heaven, it is the one embodied in the Temptation scene that directly repeats the temptation of Adam by the serpent. It is this triumph as the Second Adam in the very beginning of his ministry that is, from one point of view, the crucial point of Christ's career: it is what ensures beforehand that his crucifixion and death are not another fall like Adam's, but a victory and a consummation. Or, to put it briefly, the Temptation is the antitype of the fall of Adam; and Paradise Regained could be considered a kind of poetic antitype of Paradise Lost , a concentrated recreation of its vision (including the vision of redemption at the end), this time in terms of realization and fulfillment. The connection with Job is this: when Jesus returns at the end of Milton's poem to the obscurity of his mother's house, it may not look to the world as if paradise has been regained at all. The whole quest of Christ into hell, the death and resurrection in the form of a dragonslaying is yet to come, and so is the final battle with 'that old dragon' at the apocalypse. But to Milton, the real battle with Satan was not a physical contest but a crisis of vision; and there is a sense in which Job too triumphs in the end over his adversary in the form of Leviathan, even if he may not be able to land him in a physical contest. For comparison and contrast, see Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea, Melville's Moby Dick (whose last chapter begins with a quotation from Job), and Roger Zelazny's science fiction story 'The Doors of His Face, the Lamps of His Mouth', whose title comes from the Book of Job. We may sum up the argument at this point by saying that Paradise Regained and Job are alike, not because of a series of accidental resemblances but because they are both recreations of the same total structure of Biblical narrative. The same is true of Blake's example of the brief epic, Milton, which is exactly half as long as his diffuse epic, Jerusalem, and has Milton himself as the hero in quest of a clarified vision, in contest with the powers of darkness.
1. Biblical Passages
Job 39:9.—'Will the unicorn be willing to serve thee, or abide by thy crib?'
Isaiah 40:12.—'Who hath measured the waters in the hollow of his hand, and meted out heaven with the span…?'
Isaiah 44:23.—'shout, ye lower parts of the earth: break forth into singing, ye mountains'.
Job 19:26.—'And though…worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God'.
2. Corresponding Passages in The Great Code
Chapter Seven. Myth II.
pp.193-98. The Book of Job.
Twentieth Century Interpretations of the Book of Job, Paul S. Sanders, editor, New Jersey, Prentice-Hall, 1968.
Suggested Essay or Discussion Questions
- Compare Archibald MacLeish's J.B., mentioned by Prof. Frye in the transcripts, to the Book of Job in both form and theme.
- Goethe's Faust is often said to be modeled on the Book of Job. What resemblances can be pointed out? (Students may notice the explicit parallel of the Prologue in Heaven, with Satan in the court of God; also the association with wisdom in Faust's opening speech; the temptation by Mephistopheles; the splitting of the poem into Part I and Part II, which are tragic and comic-apocalyptic respectively, the latter ending in the redemption of Faust by a threefold feminine principle, one of whom is the beloved lost by Faust in Part I).
- Compare Plato's Apology and Crito to the Book of Job: what similarities and differences are evident? (Students may observe the relation to the problem of wisdom, the element of verbal contest or debate and the quasi-dramatic dialogue form, the three accusers—associated by Blake with Job's three 'comforters'—and the rejection by society of the potentially prophetic figure).