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The Book of Job: "Curse God and die!"

"Curse God and die!" says Job’s wife, who quickly emerged for me as the most interesting character in The Book of Job. On the Internet, most Christians seem to read her as the embodiment of what Job proves not to be — breakable and bitter, angry, wrong — but some choose to read her as the most misunderstood woman in the Bible. The former seem to be working off the text provided, whereas the latter go off page to imagine and empathize with what hardship the woman must have endured. Sure, she’s lost all the material wealth that Job lost — which was considerable — but she, unlike her husband, remains able-bodied. Consumed with physical pain, Job is her chronically ill patient and she his sole caretaker. Without sons, and having lost her daughters too, this woman who was used to a finer life would have been reduced to begging just to support herself and her husband. Able-bodied, she must tend to the realities of their daily needs. For these reasons, many sympathetic Christian readers allow her this moment of verbal diarrhea, for they acknowledge that from within her personal suffering the temptation to “curse God” would have been strong.

In A History of the Wife, Marilyn Yalom points out that the exchange between Job and his wife:

draws from an antique Mediterranean tradition in which wives were often seen as foolish: caught up in the grief of their losses, insolent to indifferent gods, they were presumably unable to see the ‘larger picture,’ be it political or metaphysical. Like the Greek queen Clytemnestra who never stopped blaming Agamemnon for the sacrifice of their daughter Iphigenia, Job’s wife had no compunctions about cursing the God who had taken away her children. Whatever the prescriptions about wifely obedience, wives obviously opposed their husbands in the privacy of their homes, and even opposed the supreme patriarch — God himself. (10)

I’m reminded of another woman in ancient mythology, Niobe, who appears in Book 6 of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and who loses her fourteen children because she dares to say that she, not Latona, should be celebrated — because although they are equals in all ways, she (Niobe) has more children. Latona sends her children, Apollo and Diana, to kill Niobe’s. First they shoot her seven sons, after which Niobe’s husband, Amphion, kills himself (unlike Job). And even as she cries, Niobe says she’s still got seven daughters. They’re all shot too. She grieves and cries until finally turning to stone. 

What’s interesting to note here is that, just like in The Odyssey (Greek), the gods in Ovid's Metamorphoses (Roman) are vengeful. Mortals and even other deities are punished for misdoings and/or for misspeaking. In The Book of Job, however, God and the Accuser are not punishing Job for losing faith, or for any reason at all. He is chosen, in fact, because he is so faithful. Job does and speaks no wrong. His suffering is without cause but for that Vegas-like bet between God and the Accuser. Many like to point out that God is unjust. Others offer that here we see a young God trying to figure out how to become the God that He’ll ultimately turn into, but after this, my very first read of The Book of Job, I kind of think God here is exercising His own faith in Job, His model creation. That the Accuser is the real bully and God simply a bystander does raise the excellent question of whether we should always speak up and act when anyone we know mistreats another. I think we would all agree that, yes, we should. In so doing, then, do we become somehow more just than God himself?

Even as Job’s friends victim-blame him (in, btw, a stunning onslaught of hybrid poems / speeches / chapters within a prose frame that begins like a fairy tale), he struggles to understand why God would punish him so. But he is not being punished. This bad shit is just happening to him because sometimes bad shit happens. Not everything has an explanation. (Even if in this case there is one, even if in this case it’s not much different from the dead religions’ gods and goddesses enacting their power and will over the lives of mortals, raising the question of whether or not God is as much a literary creation as Zeus? As Jupiter?) Job’s friends, who insist his suffering is punishment — as would the mortals in any ancient myth — are verbalizing what seems to be a logical fallacy. They are trying to explain the bad shit and make it Job’s fault. If Job doesn’t deserve this bad shit, then who’s to say bad shit can’t happen to anyone, at any time, for no reason at all?

Job’s friends, like so many among us, are desperate to believe good behavior is rewarded and bad is punished. For this reason, they will insist upon Job’s guilt. Job’s wife, however, doesn’t seem to care why this has happened to them — and even though she says to curse God there’s no evidence that she’s saying this in relation to God’s actions against them. Cursing God, at the time, was thought to result in one’s immediate death. Cursing God is not much different than her saying, “Jump off a cliff and die!” Or “Stab yourself and die!” All of which is really to say: Put an end to your suffering and die! Death is better than this. Presumably, hell is better than this. For if Job curses God before he dies, it stands to reason he won’t end up in Heaven. In any case, like the mythological gods, Job’s God can and does put an end to his suffering and, just like the ancient deities, even rewards Job with 140 years and twice as much property and family as he had before. His wife, who also benefits, nonetheless must bear twice as many children as she had before. Is this her reward? Or her punishment?

Or nothing at all.

*

To conclude, I guess for now I'm just thinking about the following: 

(1) How The Book of Job occupies a vague space between Homer's The Odyssey and Ovid's Metamorphoses, texts in which gods and goddesses inflict pain and misery on mortals who cross them. The difference is that in these ancient mythological texts, the actions of the deities are clearly either punishments or rewards for bad mortal behavior and disrespect. The author of The Book of Job, however, is really wrestling with the question of how humans are to act in a world made by a God who stands by and watches them suffer for no reason, even at the Accuser's (devil's) bidding.

(2) The edition I have suggests that the prose frame and the interior poetic narratives were written by different authors. If this is so, I'm interested in the idea of reading them separately. The prose frame, divorced from the poems, is pretty much a fairy tale. It begins like a fairy tale "in a land" far away, provides a succession of challenges that the protagonist must overcome, and ends like a fairy tale, happily ever after. My edition suggests the poetry within is an ironic commentary on the prose story. I haven't read too much about this yet, because I'm not sure how much more time or energy I have to unpack Job, but I do know that in my ongoing efforts to locate the "liminal" and analyze how these spaces are narrated, it seems likely that I'll have to return to the generic form(s) of the book overall.

(3) Perhaps my biggest takeaway for now is simply this: it is good to know that such an early canonical text breaks frames and forms and that, like The Odyssey before and Metamorphoses, Arabian Nights, The Decameron, Inferno, The Canterbury Tales, and so many after, The Book of Job is a story within a story that houses many stories. Again and again, my posts keep leading to the role and value of storytelling in ancient times. The ongoing question and investigation, of course, concerns how to tell stories today. Lance's question dies hard, because really, how, if at all, can we write the contemporary? 

Sappho: "Who ever desires what is not gone?"

The Hermeneutic Problem