By any measure, Job is a brilliant book. It’s also something of a mess. Allow me to page you through it. I’m particularly interested in the speeches of God that come near the end of the book and the relationship of those speeches to how we might think about life on earth. The speeches develop “a deeper ecology”—a way of viewing life, nature, and God that may provide us with a helpful perspective for our own time. But to get to that it’s best to get a sense of the whole book. And so I propose a brief read-through. It’s a reminder of the kind of book the Bible is, not just in Job, but in many other places. The Bible rarely proposes settled theological propositions but often presents intriguing questions and partial but evocative answers to those questions. Job is a book more of questions than answers.
A Job Read-Through. (If you would rather cut to the ecological chase, skip down to the section of the essay marked “The speeches of God: a deeper ecology.”
So then Job. Job begins with the little story that the book is known for: the story of a rich guy, Job, who loses everything, including his children, to a contest between God and haśśāṭān—Hebrew for “the satan.” In the story, haśśāṭān is not the devil but a sort of celestial prosecutor, a raiser of tough questions. The dispute that arises between God and haśśāṭān is about whether Job loves God and God’s ways for God’s own sake or whether he loves God because God has given him everything he could possibly want. In other words, is Job’s faith authentic?
To decide the issue, God gives haśśāṭān permission to destroy everything Job has, including his children. When this doesn’t shake Job’s faith, God gives haśśāṭān permission to attack Job’s own body short of death. Haśśāṭān afflicts Job with horrible running sores. Reduced to sitting on an ash heap, scraping his sores with a bit of broken pottery, his wife tells him to “curse God and die,” but Job refuses. His faith does not waver. We are told, “In all this, Job did not sin . . .” (1:13, 2:10). Yhwh appears to win the bet with haśśāṭān.
If this is all you have read or know of Job—and for many, perhaps most people, this is as much as they know of the book—you would think that it’s a story about faithfulness in the face of tragedy and pain: “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised” (Job 1:21, NIV). But it’s not that. Not at all. The next chapter—actually, the very next verse—blows up the opening story. Job, the supposed exemplar of patience and piety, “opens his mouth and curses the day of his birth” (3:1) and goes on from there to robustly complain about what has happened to him.
What follows is a long dialogue between Job and his “friends,” Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar. In the discussion, Job maintains his innocence and pleads for a hearing before God so he can vindicate himself. The “friends,” in contrast, keep telling Job in as many ways as they can find that he must have done something wrong. The way they see it is that either Job is guilty or God is, and if God is, it’s game over for the human race. Better to think that Job did something sufficiently bad to bring down God’s wrath on him. In Old Testament times, this was orthodox thinking. In many ways, it still is.
There’s more going on here. At every point in the dialogue, indeed, at every point in this book, the shadowy figure behind Job is the ruin of Jerusalem and with Jerusalem all the rest of ancient Israel. Job stands in for Old Testament people of God, a people who by the time of the writing of the book, probably sometime in the 6th century or later, have suffered the loss of their own property, their own way of life, their own fortunes, and, yes, their own children. It’s as if Yhwh had said to haśśāṭān, “Have you seen my people Israel? How they love me.” And haśśāṭān says back to Yhwh, “No wonder. You give them everything they want. Take it away and see what they will do.” And so Yhwh gives haśśāṭān permission to send in the Babylonians. The opening story, often construed as a story about the faithfulness of Job, might better be construed as a story about the casual unfaithfulness of God.
And not just then. What of the long history of the Jews since the time of the Babylonian exile, a history of persecutions and pogroms. Cannot the ashes in which Job sits be not only the ashes of Jews of the Babylonian exile but the ashes of the Holocaust perpetrated by the Nazis. And are not Job’s questions still being asked: to accusers of the Jews, what have we done? And to God, simply, why?
For twenty-five chapters (3-27), Job and his “friends” go back and forth and back and forth again arguing out the justice of God. By the third round of speeches, they seem exhausted. The dialogue begins to fade. Even the writer seems to have lost interest in it. Some parts of the last speeches of Job in the dialogue seem better suited to, say, Zohar than to Job, as if the author could no longer keep the characters straight. Carol Newsom in her brilliant The Book of Job: A Contest of Moral Imaginations (Oxford University Press, 2002) says that the discussion doesn’t so much end as collapse (loc. 1478).
What it collapses into is a poem about where to find wisdom. The poem stands by itself, connected neither to the dialogue that precedes it nor the Job speech that follows it. The metaphor that holds it together is that of mining for precious stones and metals. The poem concludes with this: “[Only] God understands wisdom’s path; he knows its location, for he has looked to the ends of the earth and seen all that is under the sky . . . Then, seeing it [wisdom] . . . [God] says to humanity, “The fear of the Lord; that’s wisdom. Turning from evil; that’s understanding” (28:23-4, 27-8). Say what? the attentive reader is tempted to interject: after twenty-five chapters of discussion about the moral order of the universe, now the answer is worship God and don’t worry about the rest. It’s the sort of thing one hears often hears even today among pious people: don’t try to figure it out; just trust God.
But this is the way that the book of Job goes. It gives you a perspective—say the little story that opens the book or the long dialogue that follows or the poem that follows that—and then it moves on to something else, another, completely different, perspective. Newsom calls it a “contest of moral imaginations,” as if each section of the book presents an option for how to view life and God. These options are set side-by-side, without the author clearly choosing one perspective over the other. It’s as if the author of Job were saying to us, the readers: you like that? Then try this.
The poem is acts in the story almost a palate cleanser, and then it’s back to Job, now not in dialogue with his “friends” but turned towards us—to the reader, the fourth wall. He gives us an apologia for his life and makes a last appeal to Yhwh (chapters 29-31). The speech winds up with a set of if clauses: “If I have lived a lie, if I have hustled toward fraud” (31:5), if, if, if, “then let briars come up instead of wheat and stinkweed instead of barley” (31:40). This seems a bit late. The briars are already up and he’s been eating stinkweed for some time. After formally signing off (31:25), the speech ends with an editorial note: “Here end the words of Job,” which is not quite true. Job has a few more words. We will come to them in an epilogue at the end of this piece. But for the moment Job falls silent.
You might think that this would be the moment for God to finally speak, but no, you don’t get God. Not yet. You get Elihu, a pompous young man who thinks that he can succeed in condemning Job where Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar have failed (chapters 32-37). He adds little but overheated rhetoric. Newsom suggests that Elihu represents a frustrated reader who wants to get in his say. At the end of the speeches of Elihu, you want to say, “Enough, already. Is God going to speak or not.”
The speeches of God: a deeper ecology
God does. Just when we have begun to despair that God will ever respond, out of the storm cloud, Yhwh speaks (the pattern of divine names in Job is interesting, but I’ll leave that for another time). Two long speeches (chapters 38-39 and 40-41). On first reading (and perhaps even on subsequent readings) the speeches seem disappointing. Yhwh does not directly answer Job, never says, “This is what you did wrong.” Or, “This is why you are suffering.” Or, “This is why I allowed haśśāṭān to inflict pain on you.” Instead, Yhwh wants to talk about nature and animals, about the created order.
The speeches don’t accuse Job of sin but of ignorance. Yhwh keeps asking Job, Do you know? And were you there? Were you there when the earth’s foundation was laid (38:4)? Where you there when “the morning stars sang and the angels shouted for joy?” (38:7). Were you there when I set in place the physical order of the universe? (38:12). Do you know the laws of the skies (38:33)? Do you know when mountain goats give birth (39:1)? Question after question. Were you there? Do you know? Can you?
If it’s these sorts of questions that occupy the first speech, the second speech moves on to particularly complex set of images centered on two mythic monsters, Behemoth and Leviathan. To get at what’s going in this speech, one must see that the imagery has two different levels. At the first level, these two beasts are powerful but fully earthly animals. Behemoth is perhaps a hippopotamus; Leviathan, some kind of large sea creature (in the lore, Leviathan has several heads). The descriptions of these two beasts are intricate, arcane, and often funny. Behemoth, for example, has a ”tail” that sways like a cedar (40:17). You can be quite sure it’s not a tail that the author has in mind. In the Leviathan section, we are asked to imagine going fishing and catching such a beast with a hook and line. Not something one would want to do. The imagery at this level is tied to earth and human experience.
But these intricate and humorous descriptions bleed into something quite else—into myth. The figures of Behemoth and Leviathan come from the world of ancient Canaanite mythology. They represent, each in its own way, the forces of chaos that impinge on the world. Order in this way of thinking is fragile, threatening always to degenerate into the primordial soup.
In the ancient view, this is true at many levels. It’s true at the level of civilization—human culture. Civilizations threaten to come apart and frequently do. It’s also true at the level of the natural world. As we know in our time, nature is fragile. We are in the midst of a mass extinction. It’s even true at the most fundamental levels of the universe. The universe can devolve. Creation can be uncreated. Our science, like ancient myth, suggests that the seeds of the dissolution have been present from the beginning in our evolving universe.
In the mythic world, these monsters stand for the forces that would unravel life as we know it. One can begin to see how Behemoth and Leviathan might have a certain relevance for the story of Job. Job’s life has come apart, been in its own way uncreated. And this is even more true if one considers Job as a symbol for Jerusalem—for the ancient people of God, Israel—whose world has come apart. And it becomes suddenly relevant for our own world, a world that seems about to come apart.
The Bible sometimes uses these monsters as symbols of the chaos that must be defeated for God to establish and maintain order. For example, in Psalm 74:13-14 (and under the name of Rahab in Psalm 89:10) the founding of the world requires the defeat of Leviathan. In Isaiah 27:1, Leviathan represents all that threatens the life of the people of God. Leviathan even appears earlier in Job, in Job’s first angry speech, when he curses the day of his birth. In 3:8, he takes the curse a step further, invoking the monsters of all that would uncreate creation, naming Yamm, the mythic sea, and Leviathan, the dragon of the deep. In the New Testament, you get both Behemoth (the beast summoned from the earth (Behemoth) and Leviathan (the beast summoned from the sea) in Revelation 13. The summoner of the beasts in this chapter of Revelation is the great dragon, which is just another form of Leviathan.
In the instances I’ve just cited, the chaos monsters of the mythic tradition represent destructive power. They are symbols of that which would destroy creation or the people of God or someone as innocent as Job. They are to be feared, subdued, overcome. They represent the perpetual struggle between God and evil. But not here. Not in these speeches by Yhwh in Job. Here, we get a very different perspective on the chaotic and the wild.
In the speeches, Job 38-39 and 40-41, Behemoth and Leviathan belong—belong to the divine order. Not only belong but are in their own way beautiful. Newsom notes that “God describes them with evident admiration” (loc 4197). God says of Behemoth, “Look at Behemoth, whom I made along with you [Job]” (40:15). “He is the first of the works of God” (40:19a). “First,” in this instance, can mean literally the first thing to be created or, perhaps better, “primary,” God’s top-level creation.
In these speeches, Behemoth and Leviathan appear to represent not chaos but what we might call “the wild,” that which is untamed and beyond human control. And God—Yhwh in the speeches—appears to delight in what from our perspective is dangerous. Newsom says, “The uncomfortable sense grows that God’s identification with the chaotic is as strong as with the symbols of order.” Perhaps instead of “chaotic,” it would be better to speak wildness. The world—the divine order—is wilder than Job knows. Than we know. And not only the world. God, too, is wilder than Job thinks. Or, perhaps, than we think.
This makes sense of what God says to Job at the beginning of the Behemoth/Leviathan speech: “Would you invalidate my justice? Would you put me in the wrong in order to put yourself in the right?” (40:8). Perhaps “justice” here (Hebrew mišpāṭ) stands in for what we might call “order.” God is asking Job, “Would you invalidate my order?” An order which, notably, includes Behemoth and Leviathan. What these speeches point to is a larger idea of order, a deeper ecology.
It’s this deeper ecology we sense when we step out of our cities and into the world around us. We are in the presence of something larger than we are, something we cannot entirely control, something both fearful and exhilarating, terrifying and bracing. In her introduction to a recently published set of essays by the late Barry Lopez (Embrace Fearlessly the Burning World. Random House, 2022), Rebecca Solnit says, “We learn from both what resembles and what differs from ourselves; we learn about being human from the nonhuman. . .” To impose our order on the what is not our order is to destroy the very thing we need to live.
What Job wants to do and what our theology often tries to do is to impose our idea of order on a universe that does not entirely respond to our human needs. Newsom, in passing, references Wallace Stevens’s “blessed rage for order.” The phrase appears in the great poem, “The Idea of Order at Key West.” In the poem, Stevens and a companion are walking beside the murmuring sea. Above the sound of the sea, they hear a woman’s voice, singing. Her voice and the sea seem for the moment one. But Stevens says:
Even if what she sang was what she heard,
since what she sang was uttered word by word.
It may be that in all her phrases stirred
The grinding water and grasping wind,
But it was she and not the sea we heard.
For she was the maker of the song she sang . . ..”
God does not say to Job, you may not sing your song, but God—Yhwh here—also says, your song is not the whole song. The universe sings songs both stranger and more beautiful than we can know. Not only the song of Job but the songs of Behemoth and Leviathan.
All of this points to a deeper ecology, an ecology of wonder, of the sublime. In our “blessed rage for order,” we try to tame that which should not, cannot be tamed. We try even to tame God—to fit God to our categories, to make of God what we want, to require God to do what we have in mind. The book of Job pushes back on our pretensions, back on our easy theologies, our human assumptions.
If you start with the Yhwh of the opening chapters of Job, by these chapters a very different Yhwh has been names and described. If the opening chapters represent a conventional and unexamined theology, but these chapters that God has disappeared into a God who loves both Job and Leviathan, a God beyond our imagining, a God we can only worship.
As it turns out, these issues have contemporary relevance. The New York Review of Books in its December 8, 2022 issue contains an essay by the philosopher Martha C. Nussbaum, “A Peopled Wilderness.” The essay presents in short form the argument of a book slated for publication this month: Justice for Animals: Our Collective Responsibility (Simon and Schuster, 2023). In the essay and book, Nussbaum argues that, contrary to what I’ve just said about the argument of Job, humans should impose order on nature. She contends that we do so already in ways not sufficiently planned or considered. No argument with that. But she goes on to say rather let the wild be wild, we should for the sake of the animals impose a moral order on their lives. We should not allow lions to kill antelope or, for that matter, house cats to kill mice. To allow such predation is cruel. For Nussbaum, the only moral order is the human order, and it should be extended to animals. She thinks of our notion of the wild as so much Romantic nonsense.
Nussbaum’s proposal is bold and even counter cultural, but in this matter, I’m with the author of Job. Our “blessed rage for order” often ends in human hubris. Better, I think, to learn that there is a larger order, a deeper ecology than we have imagined. Better, I think, the humility about human existence in the book of Job than the arrogance of thinking we can take the measure of the world about us and make it better. We are very likely to make it worse. Which, I suppose, is part of the point of Job.
So how, in the book, does Job respond to God. Does he see what he did not see before? And what of the story with which the book began? How should that be resolved? I can hardly leave those questions entirely unanswered, and so I’ve appended an epilogue below for those of you who wish to know the rest of the story.
Read on only if you wish to know how the book of Job comes out. After the speeches of Yhwh two small sections remain to the book: the first is the response of Job to what Yhwh has said in the speeches, and the other, a brief conclusion to the story with which the book began. Both are important and, unfortunately, both are difficult.
The last words of Job come at the beginning of chapter 42 in a back and forth discussion between Yhwh and Job. In the absence of discourse markers, it’s hard at times to tell which voice is which, which words are Yhwh’s and which are Job’s. I’ll not sort that out here. In understanding the point of view of the author in this section,it’s Job’s last line in verse 6 that is the issue. The NIV, along with most other versions, reads verses 6 as follows, Job speaking: “Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.” This is an old way of reading the text. It’s basically the way the Latin Vulgate and the King James version read the lines. In this reading, Job repents. He says, in effect, I was wrong, and I feel terrible about it. Often in summaries of Job, this reading prompts commentators to say that the point of the book of Job is that we shouldn’t question God. God is beyond us.
But is that in fact what the words say? That’s not clear. Take the first verb, “despise.” The Hebrew has, “Therefore, I despise . . ..” But despise what? The verb ordinarily takes an object. The versions like the NIV supply one: “myself,” but there is no “myself” in the text. The next clause, typically translated, “and I repent in dust and ashes, actually appears to say, “and I am sorry upon [the matter] of dust and ashes.” No “in.” No sense that these are the “dust and ashes” of mourning. “Dust and ashes” are occasionally used to mean “human life,” as in Genesis 18:27, where Abraham says to his divine visitant, “I have been bold to speak to my Lord, even though I am only dust and ashes.” Or, Job 30:19 says: “He has thrown me into the mud, and I have become like dust and ashes.” So, perhaps, the Hebrew should or, at least, could be read to say something like, “I [still] despise [all this], and I’m sorry about [what it means for] human life.” A paraphrase, perhaps, but with this line everyone is paraphrasing.
Taking account of these difficulties in the Hebrew and a long alternative tradition of interpreting the line, Edward Greenstein has proposed an alternative reading that preserves a defiant Job. According to Greenstein, Job says, “That’s why I’m fed up; I take pity on ‘dust and ashes’” (Job: A New Translation. Yale, 2019). I’m not sure this is right either, but if the author had in mind to portray an abjectly penitent Job, it would have been easy to have done so. Was the author just clumsy here or was the intention all along to leave some ambiguity in the line. Did the author wish to raise the question whether Job repented in the end or held on to his truth? As the text stands, the author seems to be saying to the reader: You decide.
And then there are those last few verses in which Job gets everything back and the “friends” get their just desserts. I’ve never liked those verses. Some things can’t be restored. New sons and daughters, for example, don’t replace the old sons and daughters. Human lives are not replaceable. And even if Job gets almost everything back double, as the story has it, Job is not the same. Everything has changed. After Job’s experience, would double everything seem a blessing? Or backhanded slap?
Again, I think the author has confronted us with this for a reason. If the author is thinking not just about Job but about Israel—the Israel of the exile—then this section of the book contemplates the restoration of Israel, and what the author suggests is that Israel will not be the same either. Having gone through the tragedy of the destruction of Jerusalem, the people will not be the same. Nor were they.
And not just Israel, but the God of Israel, Yhwh. After the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem can Israel go back to the same theology—the theology of, for example, some of the prophets: do good and you will prosper; do evil and you will be destroyed. Really? Jewish theologians have raised the same questions after the Holocaust: can we see God the same way again?
And not just God but us—the readers of Job. It’s a book that will not allow easy answers, a book that when deeply considered will not leave you the same. As I said at the beginning: Job is a brilliant book. We are still trying to take the measure of it.