#18- Job through the ages, with Mark Larrimore [MIPodcast]
“Oh, that my words were written down! Oh, that they were inscribed in a book! O that with an iron pen and with lead they were engraved on a rock forever!” (Job 19:23-24)Having indeed been written down, Job’s words are found in one of the most fascinating books in the Bible and in world literature more broadly. In the centuries since its composition it has been read and re-read by believers and skeptics, each bringing their own assumptions and values to the text and having their assumptions and values challenged by the text. In this episode, Mark Larrimore discusses the origins, reception, and interpretations of Job’s story to the present time. Larrimore wrote a biography on the book of Job as part of Princeton University Press’s “Lives of Great Religious Books” series.
BLAIR HODGES: It’s the Maxwell Institute Podcast. Since its establishment in 2006, the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship’s always been about more than the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies or the Mormon Studies Review. As our mission statement suggests, we perform scholarly study of religious traditions and texts. Ultimately the goal is to promote mutual respect, good will among people of all faiths, in addition to simply doing good scholarship for its own sake. We also seek to deepen understanding and nurture discipleship among Latter-day Saints. That’s why our work encompasses texts and traditions from the Latter-day Saint tradition, but also beyond the Latter-day Saint tradition. Think about the Institute’s Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, or our work on Syriac Christian texts, or the Dead Sea Scrolls. In all of this we’re working to place LDS scripture alongside great religious texts of a variety of traditions. By looking at other religious texts, which are worthwhile in their own right, we come to understand other faiths better as well as our own.
In this episode we focus on a text that Mormonism shares with Christianity and Judaism, it’s the book of Job. Dr. Mark Larrimore joins me to discuss his biography on the book of Job in the “Lives of Great Religious Books” series from Princeton University Press. Job is one of the most fascinating texts in the LDS scripture canon, so I hope you enjoy this episode enough to rate the podcast in iTunes and share it with your friends.
Questions about this and other episodes can be sent to email@example.com.
BLAIR HODGES: Dr. Mark Larrimore joins us today to talk about his biography of the book of Job. He joins us today from Shanghai. He’s actually a visiting scholar at Fudon University right now in religious studies. He’s also an associate professor of religious studies at Eugene Lang College. Thanks for joining us today, Dr. Larrimore.
MARK LARRIMORE: My pleasure.
HODGES: I guess I could call you Mark. Is that—
LARRIMORE: Please do.
HODGES: Alright. Great. I thought we’d begin here with an overview of the book of Job. So this book that you’ve written is in Princeton’s “Lives of Great Religious Books” series. It’s a really great series that looks at religious books and sort of the life of those books through the people who read them. So I think it would be nice, just to give people a refresher about the book of Job, and you do this at the beginning of your book, kind of a reader’s digest version. So go ahead and give us sort of the general plot points, the characters, in this book.
LARRIMORE: Okay. I imagine most of your listeners know the story well. It tells the story of a man named Job, the greatest man of the East who was extremely wise, extremely virtuous, and extremely prosperous. At the beginning of the story Satan comes to the divine court and tells God, “I think that this man is virtuous only because you treat him so well. If you take everything away from him you will find that in fact his piety is just a sham.”
So a series of deprivations follow. Job loses all of his crops, he loses all of his children, he loses his health, ultimately his wife leaves him it seems, and he is left with almost nothing. Three friends show up, sit with him for seven days, eventually they have an extended debate which becomes quite agitated, about whether Job could possibly be suffering innocently as he believes that he does. Eventually a fourth character, somebody named Elihu, shows up. We don’t really know who he is. He announces himself, speaks over everybody else, very beautifully, very eloquently, and then disappears again. Makes way for the main star, God, who then appears in two speeches from a whirlwind, at the end of which Job puts his hand over his mouth, says, “I have spoken of things whereof I do not understand,” and then everything in Job’s life, is restored, beginning with the friendships.
It always pains me to have to sort of summarize the story in any form because in my readings of the book of Job I found that other people, that everybody highlights a particular section that speaks most to what they take to be the central core theme of it, but there’s the outline.
HODGES: Thanks. So what’s interesting, and we’ll talk about this a little bit further along, is the fact that any time you try to do a brief synopsis like this you can choose different plot points to emphasize. You could make any of those elements the central core of the story and sort of read the rest of the book through that core and it could come out with a lot of different interpretations from that book for that reason. I assume you found that as you’ve looked at different interpretations throughout the years during your research.
LARRIMORE: Absolutely. In fact, if you ask people to do sort of the elevator version of the book of Job you would get very different stories at different times in history, and as you spoke to people from different religious backgrounds.
HODGES: That’s what makes this book so fruitful. So that’s sort of the general story. You cover it in the book in three really short pages, and then what’s interesting to me was the first actual verses that you quote from the book of Job in your book are from chapter nineteen. This is where Job is crying out that he wants his story to be known. The quote there from the book of Job, he says, “Oh that my words were written down. Oh that they were inscribed in a book. Oh that with an iron pen and with lead they were engraved on a rock forever.”
I wanted to ask you why grab hold of this particular excerpt at the outset of your biography of Job?
LARRIMORE: I’m so glad you asked that. That passage really has become sort of emblematic for my project as I was trying to make sense of it because what I found as I looked at the history of interpretations of the book of Job was that everybody, regardless where they came from, found they had to add something to the story and maybe leave some things out in order to make it into a coherent thing.
Job’s long encounter with his friends all has to do with his voice. They’re not hearing him. He speaks, of course he’s not entirely sure what he’s saying, he’s in great pain, he’s in great distress, the world has fallen apart, but still he expects people to hear him. He thinks his friends at least will remember who he is, what kind of person he is. Over the course of the dialogues of the friends that turns out not to be the case. At the end, not quite at the end, but as the conversation starts to become more and more difficult, Job speaks these words and says okay, I wish that there were a way in which my voice could be preserved because even my best friends can’t be trusted to hear, to understand, to listen to, to honor what it is that I am saying.
So as I was going through the book of Job over and over again in the context of this project, these words came to me to sort of represent what it is the book of Job demands of readers because it says look, my friends don’t understand me. Do you understand me? If only you could hear my words.
Of course, we as readers are hearing his words in a book. So there’s a way in which the book that sits in our hands as we’re reading it is the answer to his hope in this passage. So that’s why I put it there.
HODGES: I like that. It does frame a biography of the book of Job quite well because it places him sort of at the center in a way that highlights that he’s sort of not the center of the book. He’s kind of begging to be. Everyone else is coming in and telling Job oh, here’s your story, Job. Here’s your story, Job.
HODGES: Job’s like, no, no, that’s not right, even to God he’s sort of saying, “God, I’m bringing this to you and saying what’s happening to me is wrong.” So it’s a really cool way to begin the book is to highlight that tension, that central tension of the text.
Let’s start talking about what biblical scholars say about the origins and nature of this text and where it originated, and maybe how it wound up in the Hebrew canon to begin with. Because from what I understand, Job is not an Israelite figure. He’s from some place… we don’t know where he’s from. Right?
Larrimore: That’s right. So I’m not a biblical scholar by training. I’ve learned a great deal from biblical scholars in the context of this work, but my sense is that the biblical scholars despite their best efforts don’t know where the book is from. They have guesses. They have done an enormous amount of work on the text, which its language is very rich, it contains more words that appear nowhere else in the scripture besides there, so there are many puzzles, many philological challenges, and people have devoted entire careers to trying to trace particular passages to particular sources.
We don’t really know where it came from, but as you mentioned, what’s very important about it is that it isn’t a story about somebody who is part of the story of Israel. It’s not about somebody who is a descendant of Abraham, or even some later interpreters say he must have been in some way a contemporary or some distant relationship with Abraham, but the way he’s introduced he comes from nowhere and he stays nowhere. He’s in a different place. So the genre of the story already places him in a difference place and a different time. This makes it what nineteenth century scholars started calling an example of wisdom literature, so there is a larger body of literature to be found in a number of ancient languages about individuals intellectually pondering the meaning of their existence in the face of rather abstract questions about the nature of human life and destiny and suffering.
The book of Job, like Ecclesiastes, seems to be this kind of a text. That then comes to your next question which is wherever it came from, how did it end up in the Hebrew Scriptures? That’s again a question which scholars have very interesting and different views about. My own favorite view that I mention in the book is that in fact the book of Job, the poetry of it, was written by somebody as a kind of angry parody of these superficial simplistic stories of faith which people had been telling. People who have faith, it doesn’t really matter what happens to them. If God takes everything away from them, they’ll continue to bless Him. Then in the end everything will work out.
HODGES: And this is the poetry that you find sort of in the middle of the text, right?
LARRIMORE: Yes. And in fact the text is forty-two chapters long, and the first two chapters are in prose, and the last half of the last chapter is prose. So everything else is in poetry.
HODGES: It would sort of be like reading a set up story in regular, like, “Once upon a time, there was a guy named Job,” and then all of a sudden it shifts to, like, conventions today we would expect maybe a poem to rhyme or something. It would be that distinct, right, to a reader back then? Where they would say, this is prose, and this poetry.
HODGES: And the poetry is sort of telling a different story a little bit than the frame, right? You’ve got these philosophical arguments going on. The frame story just sort of sets it up, right?
LARRIMORE: That’s right. It sets it up. It introduces all the characters, except for Elihu, but even the way in which Job speaks, and he speaks a little bit in the prologue, is quite different from the way in which he speaks in the poems, in what some people call the “Poem of Job” or the dialogues, or the long speeches that are given. Even the name of God is different in these two sections.
So the theory that Bruce Zuckerman had is that somebody wrote the poem, some brilliant inspired genius wrote this poem, because he was or she was sick of the superficiality of the long stories about piety, because in fact piety is much more dramatic, faith is much more difficult, patience is much more paradoxical than these stories suggest. So Bruce’s idea is that somebody came up with this brilliant poem and it was so good that the authorities couldn’t control it, that even if they said this is a dangerous text, this is raising questions we’d rather you don’t ask, we don’t think it’s good that you ask them, that this text somehow took on a life of its own and ultimately became so powerful that the best thing that the canonizers could do was to appropriate it.
HODGES: When you’re talking about piety there, that sort of pertains to the idea that if you’re righteous you will be blessed by God, if you’re wicked then you’ll be cursed by God. Is that sort of the simplistic sort of story that this central Job poem is resisting?
LARRIMORE: Yes. That’s the kind of relationship that should obtain between human beings and their God. One could see this as a sort of a cynical story in which religion is sort of a silly thing and then smart people come along and make fun of it, but there are other ways of reading it as well in which you could say that in fact the depth of true religious experience is one that seems not to be captured very well by these simple stories. So the person who wrote this angry poem may have been inspired by a very deep religious feeling, not just by a sense of indignation at patched religious explanations.
HODGES: Right. So it kind of gives us a general idea of Job. We don’t really know exactly who wrote it, we don’t know exactly why it wound up in the Hebrew canon. We do know that it seems to be more of a mythical or poetic story that’s addressing questions of God’s relationship to humans, and the relationship of righteousness and blessing and wickedness and cursing. So this is kind of a general view of it.
You mentioned that you’re not a biblical scholar; you’re a religious studies scholar. So before moving onto the next section, maybe we can take a second to hear about how you came to be the one to do this particular book in the series, your academic background.
LARRIMORE: Okay. I come out of academic religious studies, and in particular out of sort of modern reflections on what religion is. Religion is something that seems to appear in lots of different cultures and lots of different times, and still seems to have some common features across traditions. So the academic study tries—and there are many different ways of framing it—but one way is to try and make sense of what this thing is, if it is in fact a universal of human experience, where it comes from, what the aspects in particular religious traditions are that have a universal as opposed to a more particular flavor, and then relate that also to the exclusive and inclusive truth claims made by different religious traditions.
So in that context I became very interested in the problem of theodicy, the problem of evil trying to respond to what seems to be the evil and injustice and arbitrariness of human existence. As something that seems to be a universal of human experience, which it seems that one could see religions around the world as trying to answer, trying to explain why it is that bad things happen to good people, in the simplest form.
So the great German sociologist Max Weber actually built a whole large part of his theory of sociology around precisely this question, saying that the development of religious ideas across religious traditions and different places and times was pushed, was forced by encounters, specifically with this problem of evil. In every discussion of the problem of evil the book of Job becomes front and center, becomes the most important text in many, many discussions and reflections on this.
So my own work in a more general way on the problem of evil, by way of Max Weber and modern theorists of religion, found over and over again that the book of Job seemed to be really the touchstone for especially western ways of trying to engage with the mystery of evil, and so then when I had the opportunity to teach a course about this on history of the interpretations of Job, I did so. As I was putting together the course I asked various friends, word got around, people thought the syllabus was kind of interesting, I suppose, and eventually I was called by Princeton University Press and asked if I might consider contributing to their series on the book of Job.
HODGES: How long did it take you to put the book together?
LARRIMORE: About three years.
HODGES: It’s about a three-year project. What’s it like doing a biography of a book that way?
LARRIMORE: Well, in a way it’s what I had been doing before. The earlier work on the problem of evil that I had done was a kind of historical way of trying to frame the question, to look at different thinkers, people involved in ritual and storytelling and so on as responding to a long history of ways of trying to make sense of evil and suffering and God.
So I had been doing a kind of biography stuff before, but the series “Lives of Great Religious Books” already has built into it this idea that books have biographies and that it’s a different project from just trying to understand what the book itself means, but the way in which people ordinarily or often approach a religious text is to just bypass the history of other readers and try to go straight to the text itself. There’s nothing the matter with doing that, except that over the generations as people have done just that, each time they’ve done something somewhat different.
So the story, the biography of a text like the book of Job is really the story not of other people doing biographies, but other people trying to get back to the source to try to understand. As we see that their views differ in very interesting ways, and coming from different places, they discover different engaging important things about the text. It starts to seem almost like the book of Job grows. So however it emerged, whoever wrote it, however it ended up in the canon, that’s not the end of the story of the book of Job, but only the first chapter. After that different people read it, tried to understand it, maybe added things to it, emphasized things differently, and people’s understanding of the book deepened and broadened, and so the biography of the book of Job tries to tell that kind of a story.
HODGES: I think it’s such a useful metaphor, that the entire series that uses this idea of a biography of a book basically for the reasons that you just outlined. The idea that these texts are added upon, and added upon as they grow and change according to different cultures and expectations and different readers and communities, and there’s still a certain fidelity to the text because the text is still the object that people are focusing on. But you can see what bothers people, or what people like, or what concerns people, what values they have. You can kind of dig that out of the type of interpretation they do.
I want to zoom in on something you mentioned as well, and that’s that we modern readers, we tend to approach books with certain assumptions that complicate the way that we can understand the text. You describe some of these in your first chapter. In fact, a recent reviewer of your book I think misunderstood this excerpt.
So I wanted to take a moment and have you explain your perspective on the general default assumptions of modern readers that they bring to the book that make interpreting Job difficult for a modern reader.
LARRIMORE: Okay. I think what you’re referring to there is my rather blithe assumption that as moderns we think that all books are the same, that we know what a book is, that a book is something that somebody wrote at a particular time for a particular reason, and that we as readers have the job or the text or the privilege of going back to that moment, to that text which somebody wrote at a particular time. So in order to understand what the text means, we just need to go back, find the author if we can, interview them if we can, if they’re long dead then we have to imagine an interview or maybe we do other sort of stuff. But basically that’s the form that things like biblical books take, that they’re books. That some author wrote it and that it’s meaning is connected to the author’s intention.
As this reviewer pointed out, biblical scholars don’t think that and have never thought that, and that’s true. In fact, many biblical scholars would say that the question of a human author is already secondary at best when talking about a scriptural text. But my sense from the way in which I’ve seen people talking about the book of Job today is that people do talk about it as though it’s a book. Probably part of the problem is it’s called the book of Job, so of course it’s a book. They say, okay, it’s Job’s book. Let’s see what’s in Job’s book.
The assumption is that somebody wrote it, or maybe two people, maybe one person in this scenario that I mentioned, that somebody might have written this incendiary, brilliant, inspired poem as a way of responding to a stock-narrative which suggests that maybe two people wrote it. Maybe somebody wrote the original frame story, and then somebody else inserted this other thing into it.
In any case, what I was trying to get at there is that somehow if we can find the author then we will know what the text is about, is a very modern way of understanding a book, and also a very modern way of understanding the meaning of a text like Job, thinking that what it is that we’re trying to get through the book into the mind of the author.
Whereas the history of the interpretation of the book of Job, the first most important fact about it is that the book of Job is part of a larger book. It’s a different larger book if you’re a Jew or a Christian, but in fact it’s only a chapter. It stands not on its own, but in a complicated relationships with a whole bunch of other texts that, for other people to believe the Bible to be inspired, are the work of the same author yes, so you might say in order to understand what the author of Job thought, maybe you’d better read Genesis and some other things as well, that the author wrote.
HODGES: And that changes how you’re going to read the text as well, right? You’re reading a different book in a way based on what you assume it’s embedded in.
LARRIMORE: So it’s more like Balzac, where lots of different characters keep showing up in different novels and you don’t really understand what’s happening in one particular novel, but you can find out what’s happening, what this character is really about by reading the other chapters where the person came up. Or even if the characters aren’t the same, you know that this particular writer writes a certain kind of book. So you’ll get a better sense of the kind of thing that the writer might be up to by looking at the writer’s other work.
For a book as difficult as the book of Job, it’s natural then to try to find out more beyond the texts. So the really big difference I guess between modern ways of reading the book of Job and older ones is that modern people think that the book of Job has to stand, should stand on its own. It’s sort of a closed universe of meaning. Then you do lots of philological work, you try to clarify it, you try to get rid of things that shouldn’t be there, you try to figure out what the original form of the text ways, and then you understand it. Whereas the older view would be to say well of course the book of Job doesn’t, can’t, shouldn’t interpret itself. But there are other things that should be used in order to understand it. The first of these would be then other texts that are in its general environment, which would be other biblical texts, and then later on there would be authoritative interpretations of various kinds. The whole history of interpretations by rabbis or by the church fathers or that sort of thing.
HODGES: Now a moment ago, Mark, you also sort of pointed out a question people have when they come to this text. You’re raising these difficulties that we see when different interpretations happen over time. A pressing question is that we’re a sophisticated scientific awesome modern people, right? We sort of like to be on the cutting-edge, and most people aren’t going to pick up an astronomy book from 1830 and dig through it, let alone an astronomy book from the seventh century or something.
So what about interpretations of Job that occurred before biblical scholars understood the composite nature of the text better and maybe wanted to situate it using modern tools. Why don’t we just junk those older interpretations? Oh, they’re operating under limited understanding. What good are they?
LARRIMORE: Excellent question. So one of the difficult challenges for me putting together the book was there are a bunch of things that scholars now pretty much agree about the text. In particular that it wasn’t written all at once by one person, that it does have even within the text itself different layers. There’s no universal consensus on what they are, but it’s pretty clear that it seems to be composed of many different pieces. That changes the way in which you read it, because then each of these different pieces seems to require some kind of explanation on its own. So that’s the way in which many a biblical studies course about the book of Job would begin.
My concern as I was putting together this book, my book, was that none of the people I was going to write about for the first eighty-percent of the book knew this. They weren’t reading a book that was disjointed. They were reading a book that fit together. They weren’t stupid. They didn’t not notice disjunctions and things that we would now say was a scribal error or that was an insertion or that was a mistranslation or things like that. It’s not that they didn’t notice those things. They noticed them even more than we did because they thought that every word of this inspired text was important and the more paradoxical it was the more likely it was to contain very important truths.
So in the end I decided to put the biblical scholarship in my final chapter, which is where it happens in the history of the book. The book actually threw out more of its long history, came through as one thing full of riddles and paradoxes and other sorts of things, and the reason why I thought it would be safer to put it at the end was because if I put it at the beginning it would have been very difficult for many readers I think to take seriously, say, Medieval Jewish readings in which Elihu is centrally important. Elihu, just about every biblical scholar now agrees, was an insertion to the text. Even the way I told the story at the beginning when I said Elihu shows up, we don’t know he’s coming, and he introduces himself and then he disappears. This is sort of circumstantial evidence that people think it quite conclusive that Elihu wasn’t part of the original poem, that there was a stage when the story was just Job and his three friends and God. Then at some later stage somebody else put in Elihu. So again, that person might have been inspired, but still it’s clear that Elihu was added later.
LARRIMORE: So what would the rabbis think about that? That’s a silly question, but for them there was no question that however it ended up there, Elihu was really important. For some of them it actually turned out to be quite important to them that he came out of the blue. The suggests that he might be closer to God than some of Job’s friends are.
HODGES: So you can do some interesting things with the text when you sort of bracket these other maybe academic assumptions and you look at some of these older readings, and you’re going to notice different things in the text. One of the phrases you use, you ask people to pluralize their sense of ways of reading. So in other words you want people to learn that there are many different ways to approach even the same text. The fact is that even interpretation itself, even if you don’t even realize you’re interpreting it, every reading is an interpretation and every interpretation involves choice.
There’s this great excerpt on page two-ten. If you have the book there I’d like you to read it. It’s on page two-ten where you talk about this issue there.
LARRIMORE: Okay. Yes. Alright. “In one way the findings of historical critical scholarship have forever changed the ways in which the Bible is read and lived. Whether we absorb its suggestions or confine ourselves to a received text, with theological or literary reasons, we are making a decision. These decisions are not made lightly and are so shaped by communities of worship and interpretation that they may not feel like choices, but in a pluralistic age, choice is inescapable, even if it is the choice to accept the tradition you were born into.
HODGES: I think that’s really great. I really applaud the decision to put the academic and scholarly discussion near the end of the book so that people can focus on those earlier readings without having the modern scholarly ideas in their head to sort of obscure them or evaluate them that way. So those interpretations, I hope readers realize they have value in and of themselves beyond what modern scholarship talks about. Modern scholarship brings excellent perspectives to bear as well, but going back in time and seeing those other interpretations I think is really valuable. That’s sort of what I want to talk about next is ancient interpreters.
LARRIMORE: Right. Thank you for what you just said. That’s really the main thing I hope to do with the book, which is many contemporary readers would say well given what we now know about the book of Job, any kind of reading that doesn’t build in, the fact that Elihu was an add-on and so on, can’t possibly tell us anything interesting about the text, but in fact my sense is taste and see. If you actually sort of look at some of these earlier interpretations, not only will you find that they are entirely aware of the complexities of the text, but they discover things that you might not discover otherwise. They approach the text with a dedication that discloses things about the text that we might not otherwise know. My sense is that this text is so important and so complicated and so useful for such important questions that we need all the help we can get. So why write off all pre-twentieth century interpretation?
HODGES: That’s Dr. Mark Larrimore. He’s the associate professor of religious studies at Eugene Lang College. He’s joining us today from Shanghai where he’s a visiting scholar at Fudon University.
So let’s go on then to some of the ancient interpretations. You mention that the book of Job shows up in the collection of sacred books for two different religious traditions, began in the Jewish canon, the Hebrew Bible, and then was adopted by the Christian community. So what are some of the differences between Christian and Jewish interpretations of the book of Job early on?
LARRIMORE: That’s an enormous question. Before I answer that—
HODGES: By the way, it’s huge and you cover it in a relatively short chapter, and even then I’m kind of surprised at how much you were able to distill. The size of these biographies of these books is so small compared to the just sheer volume of stuff you could have talked about.
LARRIMORE: Thank goodness for the brevity of the book. It would be impossible to write a book longer than that. I think if the editor had said take as long as you need—
HODGES: You’d never do it, yeah.
LARRIMORE: It’s like, no, this is… especially because the more time I spend with these interpreters the more awe I actually feel, again, at their commitment at how hard they work, at how far they go, at how patient they are. And somehow or other I managed to be impatient and not go so far because I had this little window to write in.
So, I was going to say really quickly before talking about the difference between the ancient Jewish and Christian interpreters one important thing I think to mention is they’re both doing a similar kind of thing, which I’ve sort of been hinting at before, which is that they treat the Bible in a different way than we now do. They treat it, and there I use the work of a very important scholar named James Kugel, the idea that ancient interpreters, the people who put together the Bible during the Babylonian exile approached it with four assumptions, which he calls the idea that the Bible was a cryptic text, that its meaning doesn’t reside on the surface but you actually have to dig, you have to scratch, you have to turn it around to try to and get beyond it. The sense that the Bible speaks to us today, it’s not merely a work of history. The sense that the Bible has no mistakes so that everything that’s in there is in there for a reason, so that if a line is repeated that’s not an error and it’s not a redundancy. There’s a reason for every single part of it. There’s an answer to the question. You may not be able to find it, but you can and should ask about every single detail. Everything is there for a reason. Finally, the idea that the book is entirely divinely given, in which God speaks.
This is something that Jewish interpreters had and then the early Christians picked up the same thing. So in order to try and understand the text, they looked at every single detail, they assumed it was speaking to them, so the times they were in, the contexts they were in, the religious situation they were in was one that they thought was a relevant consideration for understanding what the book of Job might be saying. But they also, in order to understand it, looked at the other parts of this perfect, divine revelation, so the other parts of the Bible. So that if you were a Jewish interpreter you naturally looked to other sources in the Hebrew canon. If you were a Christian interpreter you would also look at a whole bunch of Christian sources. It’s easy to see these as very different things because they obviously look in different places and find different things, but the first point I want to make is they’re doing the same kind of thing. It’s something that’s worth learning from.
Major difference between the two of them that follows from that of course is that for Christians everything that happens in what Christians call the Old Testament is prologue, and ultimately the meaning of everything that happens in the Old Testament is disclosed finally only in the event of Jesus Christ. So the Old Testament can’t interpret itself. It can raise questions, it can tell you things, it can give you the template for understanding the way in which God relates to history and to human nature, but it can’t tell you the final story, the keystone of the arch has not yet been put in. So Christian interpreters would read the book of Job inevitably as every other text, would read it differently from the way in which Jews did.
Here, we’ve mentioned this before, the fact that Job seems not to have been an Israelite becomes a huge bone of contention in scenes between early Christian interpreters and their contemporary Jewish interpreters, where a number of these early Christian interpreters said, ah ha, so here’s this man, Job, who was the most virtuous person of his time, and he was not a member of the people of Israel. So you didn’t have to be a Jew in order to be favored by God, and you didn’t have to be a Jew in order to be a perfect human being or as close to a virtuous perfect human being as could be imagined. That was a great consolation and inspiration to Gentile converts to Christianity, so they saw in Job hope sort of demonstrating within their testament that you didn’t have to be a Jew in order to be a Christian.
By the same token, it does seem that a number of Jewish interpreters at this time started back pedaling quickly away from Job’s historical character at this point and said no, no, no, the story of Job isn’t about a real person at all. It’s just a parable. It’s just a story that people told about something, and it does seem that the Jewish Christian context can help explain why it is that some of these early Jewish interpreters moved away from thinking about Job as an actual historical figure, in order in some way to maintain the sense that the Jewish community was the place to be.
HODGES: Let’s talk about Maimonides for a second. You have a section in there, he’s a major Jewish figure from the Middle Ages. The Maxwell Institute’s actually done a number of really great academic translations of some of his medical works, and we’ve just made a deal to do a new edition of Guide to the Perplexed.
LARRIMORE: Really? Fantastic.
HODGES: Yeah. So they’re taking the text from, was it the University of Chicago that did the main one most people use?
HODGES: Yes. So we’re using that text and doing an updated edition of that through the Maxwell Institute. We’re really excited about it. I was happy to see you raise it here in this book. So Maimonides is a major Jewish figure who also engages Job and does that a little bit in Guide to the Perplexed too. Is that right?
LARRIMORE: Absolutely. Yes. In fact, the only thing more hubristic than taking on the book of Job would be for me to try and take on the Guide for the Perplexed as well. But I will say, standing on the shoulders of giants who have worked on Maimonides’ great work, that it does seem the discussion on the book of Job is a kind of microcosm of one larger part of the argument of the Guide for the Perplexed. Guide for the Perplexed is trying to understand how it is to relate the scriptures with philosophy. The book of Job seems very much to be pertinent to this question because it seems to be a lot of talk, a lot of people giving a lot of arguments. Since these arguments aren’t coming out of the Jewish tradition, they seem like general philosophical arguments.
So Maimonides, building on earlier Jewish interpretations, like Saadia Gaon’s and others, sees Job’s conversations with his friends as a philosophical disputation and argues in fact that the three views of the friends, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar represent aren’t just random made up hypocritical views the way many modern interpreters don’t take Job’s friends seriously at all. They just think that they’re already lying to people. Maimonides and other interpreters in the past say well, they wouldn’t give us three voices if they were all saying the same thing. In fact, since we’ve mentioned Elihu’s important, Elihu turns out to be the key to this for Maimonides. The Bible wouldn’t give us four views if they were all the same view. So what we need to do is understand how each of these views is different. It takes a certain amount of effort to make them clear and coherent and different, but he then associates them with all the ancient views of providence that existed before revelation in order to try and understand it.
My reading of the way in which the book of Job functions within the Guide of the Perplexed is it’s sort of a moment where all these things come together. God speaks. God doesn’t answer the questions. So you’ve had these human beings who are trading the best philosophies they can come up with to try and understand the relationship of divine providence and human merit, or human understanding and philosophy are loggerheads, they can’t come up with one view or another. Every view has major problems of one kind or another. Then Elihu comes along and says God speaks occasionally, people don’t usually pay attention, but he does say enough, and by the way he sometimes tests people which interestingly was not a view that any of the earlier views had. Then suddenly God comes in and says, “Can I show you my zoological garden?’ And they weren’t talking about animals. They weren’t talking about the morning star and the hail and all the other sorts of things God talks about at all.
So Maimonides has this brilliant reading, again building on the history of Medieval Jewish interpretations, in which the only and best thing that God could say in response to human questions about providence is to talk about divine providence in a way that doesn’t immediately connect. So that you might say God missed the point, or God’s avoiding the question. Again, there are contemporary secular and agnostic readings of the book of Job that say that’s what happens, that God doesn’t have an answer the questions so he flusters or he bullies or he says, “Uh, let me show you the rhinoceros.”
HODGES: Yeah. Have you seen this thing?
LARRIMORE: And Maimonides says, again building on Saadia and others, what God is doing there is showing a kind of a providence that is like but not like any human understanding of providence. So it’s in some strange way recognizable as a providence, but it’s not clear what its relevance to human experience could be. That for him then provides a way of arriving at an apathetic understanding of divine providence in which we can say we know that God’s providence is real, we know that it’s not like any human conception of providence. This is something that could only be told in this paradoxical, inside out, dramatic, strange sort of way, and the book of Job does it through the way in which it’s structured by bringing in these friends who trot out all the best philosophical views, do the best to their ability, including Job, to try to make sense of human experience in the best human terms, and then God comes along and provides something that is indisputably providential and yet also indisputably not applicable in any straight forward human way to human experience. That gives you this almost touching the divine, which is what Maimonides is trying to get at.
HODGES: Yeah. So he’s like one of the central Jewish figures who sort of tackled the text. There’s a really unusual, well I guess it’s not unusual to most readers I guess, but in the New Testament there’s this reference to the patience of Job. You note that’s sort of puzzling because, correct me if I’m wrong, but the book of Job never describes Job as patient, and in fact if you read closely, well you don’t have to even read that closely, you just read what Job is saying and he’s angry. He’s not being patient. He’s not being very patient at all.
LARRIMORE: Yes. In fact, he’s a many, many thing. David Clines, who is a wonderful Evangelical Bible interpreter who has written an amazing commentary on the book of Job, sort of tallies up the different speeches Job gives and says that each of them is actually in a different mode, but none of these modes, and they are protest, and confusion, and grief, and distress, and anger, and self-righteousness, but none of them is patience.
But still you have James saying that well you have heard of the patience of Job. What? What?
HODGES: No, I haven’t.
LARRIMORE: Right. We’ve heard it from you.
HODGES: Yeah, from you.
LARRIMORE: Not from the book of Job. So that actually again is an interesting test case for sort of the difference between Jewish and Christian readings. So since Christians naturally and appropriately use the New Testament as the key to understand the Old Testament, since James is part of the New Testament, here you have somebody, an authorized later view, by the way Job is a model of patience. Then you go back and you look at the book of Job and you go this doesn’t look like patience to me, but if you’re an ancient interpreter then everything must make sense. There must be a way of making all of these things fit together.
So instead of saying ha, I think James got it wrong or I think James is talking about some other Job, which is what contemporary scholars now say, instead you’d say ah, okay, James must know something about Job that I haven’t seen. Let me read the text again and see if I can find some patience in it. There’s a way in which you can read Job as an exemplar of a kind of fidelity. It’s not a submissive patience, obviously, but it is an abiding in the hope of a relationship with God, or an abiding confidence that somehow or other justice will be done. So there may be ways, many ancient interpreters came up with them, in which Job comes up to actually be an example of patience. Then after you’ve done that suddenly the meaning of patience has changed. So what does patience mean? Patience means suffering, but it also means sort of abiding, persisting—
HODGES: He’s persistent.
LARRIMORE: He’s persistent, yeah. So we as moderns seem to think that persistence and patience seem like very different sorts of things, but maybe they’re not that different. Maybe one of the things that the Bible is telling us is that a purely passive patience isn’t the only kind. It may not be a sufficient kind. There may be times when patience takes the form of persistence.
HODGES: Right. See, I think that again speaks to the value of some of these ancient interpretations, where it can make you revisit the idea of patience and how reading that text can bring out a different element of patience than you might have on the top of your head in your culture and in your background, I think.
LARRIMORE: Right. Then you go back to the book of Job and then you notice a few things. One of them is that it’s not just at the beginning Job never sinned with his lips, but at the very end after his exchange when God speaks. He then turns to Eliphaz and the other friends and says, “You have not spoken of me what is right the way my servant Job has.”
HODGES: Right. After Job’s complained.
LARRIMORE: Yes. After all this time. And also the whole setting is set up as a wager between God and Satan, in which if Job actually did curse God, then Satan would win.
HODGES: Yeah, Satan would win.
LARRIMORE: But obviously Satan didn’t win. Satan disappears. If Satan had won that book, whatever its merits, would not have found its way into the canon scripture. So since Satan lost, in some way we must know that whatever it is that Job says can’t be counter evidence to his piety, but must be in some way a proof of it.
HODGES: Satan’s also sort of a difference between some Christian and Jewish, at least early on, I think Jews, I’m not fully up to speed on their view of Satan, but wasn’t the Satan character, what the Satan character became in Christianity is this person Satan that Lucifer, or whatever you want to call him, and in this Job text it’s like more of a label. It’s not like a proper name.
LARRIMORE: It’s a job. It’s a job description. He’s like the public prosecutor in the divine court.
HODGES: Yeah. So he comes there, and the whole frame story is very interesting to look at. Outside of the Christian lens have they personified Satan’s character. It doesn’t mean that there is no such being, what I’m saying is you’ve got, according to an older Jewish reading, you’ve just got this figure, sort of like a lawyer showing up. So it’s not a guy in a red suit and a pitchfork. It’s more of a lawyer figure. And that can change your whole reading of that exchange that God has in the frame story.
LARRIMORE: Right. He need not be in that level and force at all. He’s like a quality inspector. He’s like the quality control of the creation where like God is saying, “Wow, look at this wonderful creation I’ve made. Look at Job. They don’t get better than that.” Then the quality inspector says, “Really? I think that if you hit this with a hammer the right way it’ll sound hollow.”
HODGES: Yes. Yeah, that’s fascinating. Another figure that I wanted you to touch on, we’ve talked a bit about Maimonides. A Christian figure is John Calvin, and you identify him as a major figure in Job interpretations. So go ahead and talk about what happened to Calvin’s Job during the reformation.
LARRIMORE: Okay. So Calvin was somebody who, going back to the very first passage from Job that I quote, the one about Job, I wish that my words were written down in a book, Calvin thinks that’s terrible. He wishes that it hadn’t happened. It’s a good thing that it happened, it’s scripture, but he thinks that in fact Job is really pushing the limits.
HODGES: Yeah, he’s uncomfortable with Job, right?
LARRIMORE: He’s deeply uncomfortable with Job. In a sense it’s because he’s listening very carefully to what Job says. By the time Calvin and the reformation’s happening they’re reading the book in a different way than earlier Christians. So instead of saying well, Job is really a figure for Christ and in fact he’s a prophet who knows that his redeemer lives, and so on, Calvin reads it in a more historical sort of way, looking at just the plain, plain meaning of the words. The plain meaning of the words is there was this guy who was pretty good and thought he was even better than that, and then God pushed him a little bit and then he starts whinging, and then he starts complaining, and he starts calling people names and all these other things, and he’s really not an example for us at all.
LARRIMORE: So Calvin actually thought that Job was a pretty bad example. His response in a nutshell is don’t be like Job. Be like David. So not only is David so you’re actually part of the covenantal tradition, but David was a sinner and knew it and repented and knew it. Job must have been a sinner. If you’re Calvin, these are reprobates. You may be the best of a bad lot. So maybe Job was the best of a bad lot, but a sinner he was, unquestionably, and is nothing compared to God. Somehow or other he thinks that he can and should have a relationship of equals with God. Very bad stuff.
HODGES: And that does import Calvin’s theology. Because if you just read the book of Job, if you just stick to the book it is saying Job was a perfect man. He was. The whole point of the story was to say here’s a perfect person who then was cursed. So what do you do with that? And Calvin’s saying wait, a human can’t be perfect.
So he’s putting his theology into the text when the text itself was saying no, Job was perfect. That’s the point. I think modern readers would kind of miss that because I think a lot of modern readers agree in a sense with Calvin that nobody’s perfect. The point of the book of Job was this guy was.
LARRIMORE: God himself, this is the God who in Genesis looks at his creations and says, “This is good.” This God looks at his creation and says, “Look, there’s no one like him.” So again, he’s not saying he’s perfect, but he is saying he’s pretty much as human beings can get. He’s really good.
HODGES: He didn’t sin against God. The point was like no, he hadn’t done anything to merit the bad things that were happening and his friends were starting to suggest that he had, like, “Oh, Job, what did you do, man? If this bad stuff’s happening, you did something, so just out with it and let’s be done with it.” And Job’s saying no, I didn’t do anything, and I’ll stand as a witness before God and I’ll have my advocate, the translation says redeemer, he says he’s going to have his advocate stand and testify on his behalf that he’s innocent in all of this.
LARRIMORE: What’s really interesting as Calvin reads Job’s encounter with the friends, is that everything the friends say is good Christian theology, as far as Calvin’s concerned. What Job is saying is pretty heretical, but still you have to deal with the fact that in the end God says—
HODGES: You all spoke wrong.
LARRIMORE: These guys haven’t spoken rightly about me the way Job has. So how do you deal with that?
HODGES: Calvin camped out in sovereignty, right? That was sort of where he went. Because God’s final speech is basically, “Look at my creation. It’s amazing. So do you really want to question me?” kind of.
LARRIMORE: And also, so similar to the argument we were talking about in Maimonides that God’s presentation of the wonders of nature is a kind of an argument about an order and a beauty and a rationality that are incontestable, and yet their immediate relationship to the human can’t be spelled out by us.
So Calvin has the same sense. God doesn’t shout at Job, God shows Job an extraordinary beauty, just how perfect the rest of creation is. Of course as he’s going on and Job realizes how small he is, and smaller and smaller and smaller, and so just one last point on Job’s innocence. So Job never actually says that he is innocent in the text. That’s one of the things that we all think he does. Instead he’s complaining, as you said, about like, well, whatever I’ve done I couldn’t possibly deserve what just happened.
HODGES: Yeah. It’s not equal.
LARRIMORE: So he’s not saying, “I’m spotless, I’m unblemished.” But still this unprecedented series of misfortunes and tragedies and torment that have happened to me that seem to single me out in front of everybody who is particularly in need of chastisement, why is it happening to me? I’m not worse than other people. I’m probably better than most people. So that better than most people bit was already that pride that got Calvin—
HODGES: Maybe that’s why… yeah. Well maybe that’s why Job’s friends started getting angry too at Job. Job’s like, hey, I’m better than you guys, you know.
LARRIMORE: Well, he was.
HODGES: According to the frame story he definitely was.
LARRIMORE: He was. But then again, if you’re Calvin then you’d have to say maybe he was, but that had nothing to do with his merit.
HODGES: Because he’s small and he’s got the original sin. Everybody’s fallen and everybody’s refuse in the eyes of God. So his theology drove that interpretation of John Calvin’s. It became a pretty influential interpretation down through the years then, right?
HODGES: We’re talking with Mark Larrimore. He’s the author of a wonderful biography on the book of Job. We’ll take a break for a moment and be right back with more of the Maxwell Institute Podcast.
ANNOUNCER: Sam Brown was a teenaged atheist struggling to get firmer footing when one August Sunday morning in 1990 he found himself sitting at a sacrament table in an LDS chapel next to his brother and two close friends, preparing to utter a prayer over the water. What brought him back? How did he go on to write a careful, sympathetic scholarly book on Joseph Smith and early Mormon theology? How did his research shape his faith? Find out in the Maxwell Institute’s new book First Principles and Ordinances: The Fourth Article of Faith in Light of the Temple.
Following on the heels of Adam Miller’s Letters to a Young Mormon, Sam Brown’s book is the latest in the Institute’s Living Faith Series. These are books aimed at spiritual and intellectual inspiration. You can find First Principles and Ordinances by Samuel M. Brown at maxwellinstitute.byu.edu or on amazon.com.
HODGES: We’re back with Dr. Mark Larrimore. He’s the author of the biography on the book of Job. Mark, a lot of scholarly approaches to religious texts focus on the interpreters of major figures like we’ve just been talking about Maimonides and Calvin. You also spend time in your book looking at Job as he was known to what you call many ordinary people.
I thought it would be interesting for you to take a little bit of time to talk about how ordinary folks through the years came to experience Job in different ways that aren’t these major figures like Maimonides or Calvin.
LARRIMORE: Yes. Well, ordinary people, that’s us.
HODGES: That’s us, yeah.
LARRIMORE: It’s hard to know what ordinary people thought. Hard to know what people who didn’t write things down, didn’t take the time to, or didn’t think it was worthwhile writing things down, were thinking. But historians in recent generations have worked very hard at trying to sort of recreate the lived worlds of ordinary members of religious and other sorts of communities. They pay attention to things like the rituals and festivals and things that people participate in.
Also practices of, say, Catholic Europe relics, turns out that Job was a saint. Or there was a Saint Job who was venerated by all kinds of medieval people. There’s still a church in Belgium. I had the great pleasure of getting in touch with them as I was putting together this book, called the Church of Saint Job in… I’m not going to be able to pronounce the name. Yes, they have this beautiful figure of Job. It seems that for a thousand years Job has been the central figure in their church and they had litanies and people came in and they prayed to Saint Job for intercession in various ways.
This was in some ways very much continuous with the way in which Job was understood in the Catholic Middle Ages, where Job, if he was a prophet, was somebody who had a special understanding of the divine. And if he was a figure of Christ, surely had a special relationship with Christ. Therefore that would make him a very useful and powerful intercessor if you needed help with something. So Job becomes a figure of prayer, somebody to whom you turn. There were amulets. Job, since you had saints who were there as kind of a spiritual medicine for all kinds of things, Job was somebody you would turn to for a whole bunch of different kinds of things.
So Job was a really important part of people’s lives in that way. And also, as people started to form… let me take a step back. Job’s voice was a very important part of the liturgy of the dead within Christian traditions. What’s really interesting, what really blew me away when I first learned about it was that the speeches of Job that are in this practice in this liturgy that was done initially in monasteries are those in which Job is at his most anguished. Those which to some modern readers seem most impatient and most impious. In fact, those with which he wishes he were dead and wishes he were never born, and nothing makes sense to him at all, and God has become totally mysterious and opaque to him. These words turned out to be a very important part of the way in which death and the terror of death and terror of the judgment, the mystery of those things were experienced in monastic communities and then through books of hours, which were little books that lay people took to do kinds of prayer on their own in their houses, these words of Job became parts of the daily practice of many women especially.
One thing that really moved me deeply as I was looking through this was trying to imagine what it would be like to be somebody in fifteenth century or the sixteenth century. I don’t know what’s happening in your life or something, but as part of your religious practice you spend some time every morning and every evening with this prayer book, going through various prayers. Among the speeches that you intone are these speeches in which Job wishes that he had never been born. What could that possibly be? What could that do? It came to me that what that did was just the way in which if Job is patient, then the book of Job teaches us what patience looks like. If Job is in this text as a sort of an authorized voice, then as I give voice to his words, as I perform them in my own life, he shapes me. He gives words, he articulates things in my own experience that I might otherwise not know how, might be afraid to, might be unwilling even to express.
So my rather bold suggestion in that section was that it was when these words of Job sort of moved out of the communal liturgical context of the monasteries into private individual experience of people working with their books of hours, that that’s really the beginning of kind of a, say, modern individual subjectivity in that Job is my voice. In my life everything’s falling apart, I don’t know what’s happening. Who do I turn to? In the past I might have turned to Saint Job, since Saint Job helped me. But now I’ve become Job. Job’s words become mine. Job teaches me how to be patient, or how to be persistent.
HODGES: And even how to be toward God. I think a lot of the scripture before Job is sort of God and his prophets facing the people, and in Job you have a person, Job, turning around and facing back to God. So that sort of gave people a way to face back to God and speak to God, rather than being spoken to. I mean, God does come and speak to him in the text, but it’s after all of these anguished—
LARRIMORE: That’s right. And then as you’re reading this, again, this is hypothetical, just speculative, but as one of these people is reading this text you kind of know the story of this. You know that in fact Job was suffering terrible torments and there was a reason which he may never understand, but then at the end things work out.
HODGES: One of the most fascinating things about Job is that the book has provided grist for the augmentative mill of believers as well as doubters and skeptics. Part of it circulates around this idea of the problem of suffering and the problem of evil. So there was this rise of critical interpretations of Job, some of them atheistic, some of them skeptic.
I’m thinking, for example, of Voltaire versus Alexander Pope. You write about the way that they use Job to different ends. Can you kind of give the gist of that story? Sort of the different ways that these figures used Job?
LARRIMORE: Well, that would take a long time but I’ll try and be really quick. I think most people know the story of Candide, which is a famous eighteenth-century novel by Voltaire, which is about this rather simple, guileless person who goes through a life and all sorts of terrible, terrible, terrible things happen to him. He has a teacher who is with him all the time named Pangloss, and Pangloss glosses over everything—
HODGES: Yeah everything glosses.
LARRIMORE: And Pangloss always says, “Everything is for the best in this best of all possible worlds,” and at the end palpably that’s not true. They go through earthquakes, they go through…. it’s just one misery after another. It’s kind of a cavalcade of horrors. It’s kind of disaster porn, to use a contemporary word actually. But at the end somewhere Candide says, you know, I’m just not interested in these questions anymore, let’s just cultivate our garden. Don’t even ask. Don’t even ask these questions at all. Because in fact human experience is meaningless in the context of the larger thing.
Voltaire in correspondence with somebody, I think it was Frederick the Great of Prussia, or someone like that, said that in fact the book of Candide is the story of Job brought up to date. So this is my way of packaging what I think the book of Job was telling us that’s very important, which is don’t ask. If you did find out, you wouldn’t like what you heard, because in fact human beings don’t matter. That’s the way of reading the theophany, the divine speeches is basically saying ostriches are important. Crocodiles are interesting. Human beings? Not too much. I’m not going to talk about that.
So you have Voltaire doing that, and one of the people he’s responding to is Alexander Pope, who wrote a beautiful essay called the “Essay on Man” which is a sort of expanded version of the theophany but in a different way in which it’s to them it’s focusing on the fact that God speaks to Job; God speaks to human beings and explains things in human language. So he explains things that are paradoxical and sublime. Things that blow our mind. Things that don’t make sense to us. But it’s very interesting that this view, which basically said that all order, what is it, all suffering has been ordered that you cannot see, or something? This idea that…
HODGES: There’s meaning to it all, no matter what.
LARRIMORE: There’s meaning to this all. In fact, this is such a great meaning that, you know, as the parts don’t make sense, but when you have to see the whole then you realize how much better it is at the dark parts because the whole thing adds up to this large, spectacular thing, like what people sometimes say if your creation is a mosaic. If you’re just focused on two or three little dark tiles or something or tiles that are all the same color you might say oh this has no pattern at all. But if you step back, then suddenly you’re seeing this magnificent thing.
But what’s really interesting about the Pope-Voltaire encounter, where Pope is providing a kind of philosophical articulation of a Christian stoic view, and you have Voltaire providing an almost sort of atheistic epicurean modern skeptical view, both of them are working with the template of the book of Job in order to make their point.
HODGES: Now those are two figures from quite a while ago. I think biblical criticism of scholars, say in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, certainly impacted how Job would come to be read, but there’s one particular historical event that you say probably impacted interpretation of the text more than any scholar could. How did the Holocaust impact the book of Job and the way that it’s been understood? The Shoah, the Holocaust.
LARRIMORE: Yes. There I was profoundly inspired by the work of Elie Wiesel, who had been wrestling with the book of Job since the time when he was a child and was deported to Auschwitz. He was lecturing about the book of Job immediately after the end of World War II in 1947 in displaced persons camps in France, and continued to write about Job in many, many different forms.
He has a quite wonderful series of claims about Job. One of which is even if Job didn’t exist, he certainly suffered. Which is to say that the story of Job is unbelievable. We don’t think that sort of thing could possibly happen to anybody, and yet every part of that story we know is true. It sort of gets beyond the historical question in some way. Even if Job didn’t exist, the suffering did. So we use the story of Job. So let’s not get caught up on who this one particular person was and where this person lived and if this person lived at all. That’s actually a distraction from the fact that we know that the kind of suffering the Job endured happens all around us all the time. It gives us a way of talking about that. Don’t let the figure of Job distract us from that.
The other really interesting thing he said was that Job became Jewish over time. So we mentioned that since Job was not a member of the people of Israel at the beginning and that even that you had some Jewish interpreters at the time of early Christian interpretations started to distance themselves from the reality of Job, and even from Job because these Christians found him too useful for a Christian message about how Jews are not the important a part of the story of salvation. So Wiesel knows all this stuff and says okay, so Job wasn’t Jewish at the beginning, but over time he’s become more Jewish. That’s because the figure, as it were, this sort of thing is like you’ve been filled in and the story of his life has been filled in by the extraordinary series of horrible, horrible depravations and suffering and genocide, which the Jewish people have suffered most decisively the in the Shoah, so that by the end of the Shoah Job has become Jewish. The Jewish people have lived every part of Job’s story.
So Job then becomes the face of the Jew after the Holocaust, in which everybody has turned on the Jews who have thought in Germany, for example, that they had found a place they could be at home, and in fact their friends turn on them the way Job’s friends turn on him. Nobody is there for him at all. Everything is taken away from him; he is stripped to nothing but a single voice crying in confusion and distress and anger. So Job becomes Jewish.
For the Jews whatever discomfort they may have felt as Job as this strange figure before was no longer an issue. In the same way, because of the Shoah, the Holocaust, became sort of the archetype of a kind of appalling entirely disproportionate, entirely unbelievable suffering visited on good people. Job has become sort of a representation of the Holocaust in Jewish people for many Christian interpreters now as well.
HODGES: Right. So it’s even spilled over. Right.
LARRIMORE: Yeah. So for Jews as well as Christians. Not all Jews, not all Christians, but for many, many more Jews and Christians when they look at the story of Job now they see not the story of some wise man in the East who live in the time of the Bible but wasn’t really part of the story of the people of Israel, no, they see the Jew in history. The one who has a special relationship with God, which somehow or other manifest itself in a special history of suffering.
HODGES: As I’m reading your book, and I did notice your emphasis on the question of theodicy, and that sort of stems from your background, and one of the things I appreciated most about your biography of Job is that it struck me as I’m reading that in the past I’ve sort of considered myself, put myself in Job’s shoes because we all have trials and difficulties and so I would imagine myself as Job or sort of put myself in his shoes as someone who was blessed by God but then felt like I had been cursed by God and sort of trying to reckon with how that stacks up.
But you invite people to consider themselves also as Job’s comforters, perhaps even more than Job himself. You invite readers to approach the text s friends of Job themselves. How did you come to that point of emphasis? Maybe you can flesh that out a little bit.
LARRIMORE: That’s a great, awkward question. I’m not really sure why I had time for the friends of Job when so few other people do. Everybody else is looking at the story of Job, Job clearly a person who is suffering terrible things that he ought not to be suffering, and his friends come along… so the modern reading’s at least going back to counter these friends are not friends, but in fact what they do is they try to distance themselves from Job, they try and play God; they try and say we’re on God’s side, not on your side. They’re really looking out for themselves. Not only is what they say does it have no meaning, but in fact they are not friends.
But again, partly I guess because I’ve been spending time with these ancient interpreters it’s kind of like well, you know, but the conversation with the friends is more than half of the book. If they were just false friends you could have brought them in and out in two or three lines, the way Mrs. Job was a whole other subject. Mrs. Job gets brought in and out with a single line.
HODGES: Yeah, she’s like “Just curse God and die” kind of, and then she’s gone.
LARRIMORE: Right? So why do the friends get so much more billing? So my sense is that maybe what the book of Job was really teaching us was not that you should find good friends not bad friends, but that in these moments of the greatest suffering and confusion, even your friends will turn on you. But that also means that in moments of confusion and uncertainty, I may turn on my own friends. What the book of Job is telling me if I read it is that my best effort to be faithful to my friends will probably fail in the face of the mystery of human suffering. That fills me with anguish and a commitment to be more faithful in the witnessing of suffering of others.
You compare that then with other readings that say okay, well we know exactly what Job is feeling and his friends are rotten. Well that’s just what Elihu did. So Elihu came into text and said you know, Job, these other friends of yours, they’re not listening to you. Let me tell you what happened to you. So he doesn’t listen to what Job’s been saying either. So many, many readings, and these are good readings by good people, I don’t mean to demonstrate what I’m talking about saying that they all think they’re better than Job, but there’s a real temptation to come in and say, “You know, if Job had just said it this way,” or, “If God had just made himself clearer and said this.”
There are all these readings and interpretations of the book of Job, good well intentioned ones in which people say Job, move aside. Let me say what it is you’re trying to say. Or, God, okay, give me a chance. People aren’t getting it, let me put it in human language. But the text in some way invites people to come in and play God or displace Job. These are the two things that the book of Job really tells us we should not be doing, that we can’t actually understand what God is doing, and that the Job situation isn’t one that his friends, even his best friends, can understand. The best thing that we have is his voice.
So, what I invite readers to do is as you look at the book of Job and imagine yourself in this situation, and many of us have been in Job-like situations and we will be again, realize there are lots of other situations in which we are friends with other people who are in Job’s situations, and let’s try and be better friends. We may fail.
HODGES: I don’t remember who made this observation, but it stuck with me ever since, that some of the best work that his friends do in the book of Job, some of the best work they do is in that first seven days is when they just sit with him and they don’t talk. They’re just there, sitting.
LARRIMORE: Absolutely. Yes. So that’s one part that people usually forget, in fact I forgot to mention it in that little summary I started with, that the first thing they do when they see Job—
HODGES: No, you mentioned it. You did. You said they were there for seven days.
LARRIMORE: The first thing when the friends come, they don’t even recognize him. He’s such a ghost of his former self that they don’t even recognize him. If you have a copy of the book, the picture on the front is from a Byzantine bible illustration showing the friends at the moment of recognition, where for the first time they realize that this poor wreck of a human being they see in front of them is their great friend, Job, to whom something has happened. So they tear their hair, they tear their clothes, they go through all the gestures of mourning, and then they sit with him in seven days in silence. They don’t speak until he speaks. That’s better than most of us could do.
HODGES: Right. And again, it really is some of the best work they do. I think the book of Job, it’s still such a relevant book. There’s so much that you can draw from the book of Job. I think that’s the value of your biography of Job, is to sort of get people to pluralize their readings, to be open to different interpretations of the book of Job, to chew on the book of Job, and to really dig into it and get different perspectives. Your biography certainly will help readers do that. So, congratulations on that.
I appreciate you taking the time today to talk to us on the Maxwell Institute Podcast.
LARRIMORE: It’s been a great pleasure. Thanks a lot, Blair.
HODGES: That’s Dr. Mark Larrimore. He’s the author of a biography of the book of Job from Princeton University Press’s “Lives of Great Religious Books” series. You can pick that up on Amazon. You can probably pick up the book of Job on your own bookshelf tonight and start to read it again. I’m sure that you’ll see things there that you never saw before. I’m Blair Hodges, and this is the Maxwell Institute Podcast.
The views expressed here and in Maxwell Institute publications are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Maxwell Institute, Brigham Young University, or The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“Seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith.” (D&C 88:118)