January 05, 2004

Howard Dean and Job

By now U.S. Presidential candidate Howard Dean's latest effort to prostitute himself to the evangelical Christian voter is pretty common knowledge. But for those who don't follow American politics as closely (especially this early in the campaign), the story goes like this: Last week Dean, stumping somewhere in the Bible belt, was asked by a reporter what his favourite book of the New Testament was. His fuzzy-headed reply: Job, which is odd right away because Job is a book of the Old Testament, not the New (which correction he made a while later). He went on, in a sort of muddled and confused fashion, to say that he didn't like its optimistic ending, remarking that there are scholars who believe the last chapter of Job was tacked on later, and that without it the book is about "the power of God . . . it wasn't necessary that everybody was going to be redeemed," and that originally "Job ends up completely destitute and ruined."

(Someone really ought to give Dean lessons in PR. You do not ingratiate yourself to the evangelical voter by telling him someone has been tampering with the Word of God.)

A poster on the Bible Versions Discussion Board directed my attention to today's New York Times op-ed piece by William Safire, titled "Job and Dean," rightly noting that you don't often see this kind of discussion in the major media. Safire writes, concerning the controversy:

Despite his fuzziness, Dean is on to something. The moral excitement in the Book of Job is the sufferer's outrage at God's refusal to do justice. We are told at the outset that this pious, wealthy and powerful man is the subject of a wager between God and the Satan about whether Job's piety was merely the result of his prosperity. When afflicted, Job scandalizes his comforters by damning the day that he was born, calling for a redeemer who could take God to court on a charge of moral mismanagement.

God hears this incessant dissidence and, in the Voice from the Whirlwind, blows Job's whining away in the longest direct quotation of the Lord in Scripture, beginning "Who is this that darkeneth knowledge." In magnificent imagery and biting sarcasm, God answers Job's challenge by rebuking him for presuming to question the wisdom of the Creator of the Universe.

Where does that amazing diatribe leave sufferers seeking solace, or victims seeking retributive justice? Holocaust witness Elie Wiesel has written that he was dismayed by this non-response. The author Virginia Woolf wrote in her diary, "I read the Book of Job last night - I don't think God comes well out of it." Others say the book proves that suffering is no evidence of sin, and may even be a blessing in disguise - that it is beyond human understanding to know God's ways or discern his ultimate purpose.

Job, having succeeded in making direct contact with his Creator, reacts to God's awesome rebuke by putting his hand over his mouth and accepting the limits of his knowledge. In the ending that some find incongruous, he is forgiven and rewarded.

But is the ending of Job really all that incongruous? I had the privilege a little over two years ago to hear theologian Donald Carson deliver a lecture on wisdom literature in the Bible at Heritage Theological Seminary in Cambridge. In his survey of the wisdom books of the Old Testament, he took us on a whirlwind tour of Job.

Job is made to suffer by God, first losing his goods, then his family, then his own health. Through all this, he does not accuse God of injustice. His three friends - poor comforters, all - argue that God is totally, absolutely, just, and therefore, if Job is suffering, it must be because he is the unjust one.

Not so, Job says. He isn't unjust. The irony of the story is that the reader has read chapter 1, so they know Job is right: He doesn't deserve this. And so the drama goes on through all of Job's unsympathetic friends trying to comfort him, and Job insisting that if he had a Redeemer he could plead his case before God and make him understand. Job comes to a hair's breadth of accusing God himself of injustice.

Finally, God himself appears on the scene and confronts Job: "Stand up like a man!" he orders. God asks Job rhetorical question after rhetorical question: "See that animal? Could you have done that? Where were you when I hung Orion in the sky?" At the end of it, Job doesn't say, "Now I understand"; rather, his only response is, "I repent." Not of some sin that supposedly brought his suffering upon him, but of valuing his own justice so much that he nearly accuses God himself of injustice instead. At the end of this, God announces that it is Job, and not his friends, who has spoken rightly.

And so what are we supposed to make of that last chapter? Safire is right - if it weren't for the resolution of chapter 42, all that moral ambiguity in the rest of the story would be an existentialist's wet dream. But these people can't stand chapter 42, because it's such a happy, Pollyannic ending: Job gets has the same number of children again, plus twice the number of his original livestock. Poor Howard Dean; whatever happened to Job ending up "completely destitute and ruined"?

The last chapter of Job is the most important lesson of all. The point is eschatological, not existential. This is a book about God's justice, and chapter 42 tells us that, despite the unjust suffering we may receive in the present day, in the last day, God's justice will be done, but it will also be seen to be done.

In the final analysis Job is a book of hope, not despair. The existentialists, Dean, and to an extent Safire, all miss the point.