Bad Things, Good Person
Is misfortune God’s doing? A new work on The Book of Job asks what kind of world we live in.
Consider some of the major differences between the Fable of Job and the Poem of Job. The Fable is a simple story, in prose, using clear, simple language. The Poem, as you might imagine, is written in poetic form and employs a rich, and often obscure, vocabulary. At one point (4:10-11), the author uses five synonyms for “lion” in the space of two verses. Pity the poor translator. The Fable uses the most sacred Name of God, YHWH, a name that symbolizes God’s intimate ties to the Jewish people; the Poem never uses that Name until the very end. It uses less hallowed synonyms—El, Elohim, Shaddai. There are more instances of what is known as a hapax legomenon, a word that occurs only once in the Bible so that its meaning may be hard to infer, in the Poem of Job than in virtually any other biblical source. In the Fable, Job is a character; in the Poem, he is the most prominent speaker. But the most important difference is that, in the Fable, Job is never tempted to cry out or express anger toward God. He tells his wife, “Should we accept only good from God and not accept evil?” (2:10), whereas the first thing that Job does in the Poem is to curse the unfairness of his fate. All these factors lead Prof. Marvin Pope to write in the Anchor Bible’s volume on Job, “Critics have generally regarded the Prologue-Epilogue [what I have called the Fable] and the Dialogue as having diverse authorship and origin.” Another scholar puts it this way: “Like oil and water, the prose frame story and the poem tend to disengage from one another despite all efforts to harmonize them.”
This book returns me to the issue that I believe I was put on earth to deal with, the question of what kind of world we live in. Is it a world designed to sustain and reward goodness, a world in which God is clearly on the side of the virtuous? Or is it a morally blind world, a morally neutral world in which events happen because they happen, with no deeper meaning? The rain falls equally on the fields of honest and dishonest farmers; malignant tumors afflict charitable and selfish people without distinction. Or is there perhaps a third dimension to our search for meaning—where the fable and the poem fit together—beyond the question of “Why did this happen to me?”
This essay was excerpted and adapted from The Book of Job: When Bad Things Happened to a Good Person, out today from Nextbook Press.
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