People often misread or misunderstand the Biblical story of Job. The story of Job is not a moral lesson, but rather, it is an absurdist and dark comedy to prove that life does not make sense, that life, at some level, is ridiculous, and it’s not up to us to understand. I call it a Coen Brothers’ style story because they essentially modernized it in their film, A Serious Man, and the impulse of dark comedy in that movie perfectly captures the proper reading of Job.
A comedy? Think about the story structure of Job. In the Greek tradition, a comedy is a story that simply has a happy ending. It need not be funny. But I think Job goes beyond that. Consider, for example, how most modern comedies begin. Usually, the main character has something happen to them so that their life, which they thought was solid and safe, gets turned upside-down. A simple example (and so many could be named) is the comedy, Old School. Luke Wilson, our protagonist, comes home early to find his wife is some sort of orgy. Soon enough, his marriage is over, he is out of the house, and he is looking for new meaning in his life.
So, how does Job start? He’s the richest man in the East, the Bible says. He has riches, a huge household, and not only that, he is a righteous man. And what happens? Well, God makes a bet with Satan about how righteous Job is, and to put this bet into practice, God allows Satan to take all of Job’s wealth, kill all of his children (A house fell on them!), take his home, kill his servants, his animals, etc. This is ridiculous. And how does Job respond? He says the famous line that we hold up as righteous, when I believe we are supposed to be laughing: “Naked came I out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return thither: the Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.”
Not righteous? No! This is not a story of righteousness, as we shall soon see! This is the absurd premise of the story of Job. Job believes that if he does right, chance and chaos and absurdity will not touch him. I don’t believe Job is based on a historical person. The story lays out too perfectly as a performance piece, as a story with a lesson, but the lesson it holds is not that we ought to be righteous. It goes to prove that we do not have any control in life, that we are arrogant to think we can ask why and get an answer. Don’t believe me? I’ll continue.
Essentially, the book is broken up into three pieces. Act I: Job’s loss. Act II: Everyone trying to understand why. Act III: God’s response to Job. We’ve already talked about Act I, which is mainly captured in chapter 1, though it goes on some as God allows Satan to give Job diseases and such, but it’s simply what we call in fiction, an inciting incident.
Act II makes up most of the book. In this section, Job deals with a series of people, but we are going to focus on four. The first is his “loving” wife. After seeing him lose everything and seeing how things continue to get worse, she says to him, “Dost thou still retain thine integrity? curse God, and die.” … I don’t care who you are, that is fucking funny. Can you not see this woman? Can you not see Job’s absurd patience as he holds to a life that is all but destroyed? Beyond that, Job meets with three of his good friends: Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite. Now, I don’t know about these places or peoples, but often, absurd characters get absurd names. I dunno. If I told you that in this comedy, there’s this great character who is named Bildad the Shuhite, wouldn’t you find that plausible?
So, Act II continues with each of Job’s friends “consoling” him. Initially, they signal virtue and mourning by tearing their clothes, weeping, sprinkling dust on their heads, but they go on to give these long-winded speeches to Job as if they understood something more about life than he did. Eliphaz starts it out and says to him, “Think now, who that was innocent ever perished? Or where were the upright cut off? As I have seen, those who plow iniquity and sow trouble reap the same.” Bildad follows up with the same line of thinking: “See, God will not reject a blameless person nor take the hand of evildoers.” Finally, it is Zophar’s turn to join the chorus: “If iniquity is in your hand, put it far away, do not let wickedness reside in your tents. Surely then you will lift up your face without blemish; you will be secure, and will not fear…. Your life will be brighter than the noonday.” All his friends see is that life makes sense, and that, certainly, if Job was righteous, he would not be punished.
Job’s response to all of this is classic and hilarious: “miserable comforters are ye all!”
How does it end? Well, this is the best part. So, Job’s people are laying into him about how bad he must be to get such treatment from God, and Job denies this without fail, speaking of his righteousness, and God, finally, starting in Chapter 38, shows up! And, again, think humor as we consider what he says in response to these verbose conversations on the nature of life, calamity, and God: “Who is this that darkeneth counsel by words without knowledge?” Ha ha! God comes out and says, Job, why are you listening to these dumbasses?
Next, God takes him away, and begins to ask Job a laundry list of rhetorical questions that I cannot help but read sarcastically. For example, God asks, “Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the Earth? Declare, if thou hast understanding.” To translate, I read that line like this: “Oh, I’m sorry, where were you again when I created this planet from nothing? Were you there? I forget. But how’d you become such an expert, hmm?” God does this for four chapters! It’s one rhetorical question after another, and though Job does not answer to each, you can imagine him throwing his hands in the air and shouting, “I know! I get it!” After four chapters of hilarious sarcasm (in my eyes), God finally gives Job a chance to respond in the final chapter. He learns the lesson. He says, “I know that thou canst do every thing, and that no thought can be withholden from thee.” This is the equivalent of when Happy Gilmore said to Chubbs, “I’m stupid. You’re smart. I was wrong. You were right. You’re the best. I’m the worst. You’re very good-looking. I’m not very attractive.” Job recognizes that he doesn’t get to ask God or pretend he can know why things happen in life, and THAT is the lesson.
So, what happens to Job? Well, the story of Job ends like a comedy. He gets more money, a new family, a slough of kids (Apparently, his new daughters were hotter than his old ones? 42:15), and he lived happily ever after.
In Conclusion: Look, most people read this book incorrectly. This is not a historical person or story. The Book of Job is a three act play with all of the basic elements of fiction. Job is not a morality tale about how to live, but rather, it is a comedy trying to show people that life sucks and it makes no sense, and you know what? You will never get the answers you want. Job is a very funny book, but when we teach it as a sort of O’Henry morality tale, we miss the point entirely. The point is this: you are just man. You are weak and stupid and you know nothing (Jon Snow). Get over it.
Alright, well, thanks for checking out my reading of the book of Job, which happens to be my favorite book of the Bible. Maybe give Job a rereading. Maybe watch A Serious Man before you do … it might help. Anyway, am I wrong here? Let me know what you think of my interpretation. Thanks for reading!