Job & Ecclesiastes

The two great pronouncements of Jewish doubt– or as I prefer, spirit— are the Books of Job (between 600 and 400 BCE) and Ecclesiastes (250-225 BCE). Both exalt an inquisitive and challenging sensibility, a clear-eyed reaching for justice in the face of life’s least tolerable facts that concedes nothing to implacable mystery.

The influence of Epicurus seems to pervade the latter especially, with his most solid practical wisdom transmitted by Ecclesiaastes’ author Koheleth: Love your spouse. Get some work to do… enjoy the simple pleasures. Forget worldly recompense; forget the afterlife; forget being watched or judged by God. And hardest of all, for most of us in this world of vanity: forget being remembered. Oh, and don’t expect life to be fair. Under the sun, the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong etc.

Bart Ehrman: “It cannot be overlooked that in the divine response from the whirlwind to Job’s passionate and desperate plea for understanding why he, an innocent man, is suffering so horribly, no answer is given… suffering does not come for known causes or known reasons. Suffering just comes, and we need to deal with it as best we can.” God’s Problem

Ecclesiastes, like Job, before him, ends up surrendering. There is no reason to struggle against the great, and the crazy, and the evil: we ought simply to be glad we are alive.

Why? Why can’t we be glad but also gird our loins and get out there and scrap for justice? As James said, life feels like a fight so let’s go.

That doesn’t mean we refuse to acknowledge our appreciation for life’s treasures. Woody Allen’s answer to Job, in the person of his schoolgirl friend Tracy, deserves to be heard. “You’re God’s answer to Job.You would have ended all argument between them.He’d have said “I do a lot of terrible things but I can also make one of these.” And Job would’ve said “OK, you win.”

But– sorry, Woody– that’s just too Hollywood. This is a bit trivializing too, but I still like it:

At first, Job’s friends counsel passive acceptance of his accumulating scourges– including the deaths of his loved ones– with a centuries-early foreshadowing of Leibnizian theodicyJob must have deserved this punishment, since it was happening, so it must be all for the best. Right.

His faith finally stretched beyond possibility by cruelly-targeted conspiratorial assault, Job quite reasonably explodes: Miserable comforters are ye all… I loathe my life. He begins at last to press an aggressive prosecution… but then crumbles when faced with God’s righteous indignation, “Where were you when I laid the foundations of earth” etc.

God’s defense offers no apologies, no promises of ultimate justice, nothing but the rhetorical equivalent of a smack-down. He is great, Job is puny  and ignorant, so just shut up. Might makes right, as Plato’s Thrasymachus would have it. Not nice.

And Job caves. I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes. What?!!?

There’s nothing for Job to apologize for, from any reasonable standpoint. We have an explanation for most of the natural wonders in Job… we feel the opposite of how Job did (small and powerless). OK, we’re still small enough to warrant some humility. But we’ve been places and understood some natural phenomena, we’re not worms. We don’t need to grovel, and He’s got some explaining to do, to have as little sense of justice as the universe exhibits… What kind of God is that? If the main reason for persisting in believing in God is that he made the world and all the creatures in it, it will be hard to argue that he does not have the power to make it a less actively dangerous and chaotic world.

Job may have relented, and accepted his substitute/consolation family, but he did get sort of get the last word: after the Book of Job, God never speaks again.

And btw: how about an explanation of the no-time before time itself began? Yes, we know: that’s hard.


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5 Responses to “Job & Ecclesiastes”

  1. Kristin Says:

    I haven’t yet read Ecclesiastes, and to be honest, I nearly died reading Job. It just went on and on and on, and it made me wonder if maybe I were underestimating its intent, and the feeling one gets READING Job is the point. For me, minus the physical manifestations, of course, that feeling very closely paralleled what Job was describing in his experience, the continual beating down and extinguishing of all hope until, just when you feel like you can’t take one more verse of it, you finally reach the end and can go out to play, or throw yourself in front of a bus, or whatever’s inspired in you by that particular book. Or I might just not get it.

  2. osopher Says:

    I suppose the point, for a non-theist, is that Job’s experience is ours, albeit magnified to absurdity, and that a God like that is just not credible. But I hope you’ll steer clear of the bus! Just think about it, then go out and play. And then think about it…

  3. Another Philosophical Oliver Says:

    I understand the perspective and I do think we should stop worrying about being judged and watched by a God but I find it better to replace the necessary void with being loved, disciplined and protected by God. By the way, I heard Bart Ehrman may be coming to MTSU to speak at a Lyceum. Is this true?

  4. osopher Says:

    It is true, he’s an old classmate of Prof. Hinz… he’ll be here next February (that’s how far ahead he books now) so watch for details.

  5. Kristin Says:

    Typically, I have a keen sense of where all the buses are in my neighborhood and when one appears to be bearing down on me, and I do take great care. I need to go and play more. Tomorrow I get a new serpentine belt. At least I think they’re cheaper than timing belts. Still way ahead of Job. Were people in that time particularly thick-headed or are so many things in the Bible magnified to absurdity just to be sure the point is driven home, and then lasts for eternity (assuming it was thought out in any such fashion)? It’s one of the things I wonder about, the relationship Christians are really “supposed to” have with the Bible…because especially if you took all of it literally, I don’t see how you could possibly come out a theist, even if you allow for some of the stories being miracles. Most of them aren’t even claimed to be miracles, just the stuff that took place, except that those things didn’t happen that way. I totally see where the skepticism gets life. I just think God’s a whole lot craftier than [he] gets credit for and capable of well-placed drama and high-end analogies.

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