I am no scholar of scripture, and I’m dubious of those who claim to be, even within the Church and its long history of scripture scholarship. Not only is complete fluency in the ancient languages of scripture necessary, but also a thorough knowledge of the ancient cultures in which those languages were spoken.
At the church I attended in New Orleans, St. Maria Goretti, one of the priests was an expert in the history of scripture. He said that the book of Job is actually the oldest written book, possibly written even before the Torah was committed to writing. I’ve thought about that a lot over the years. Why is it the oldest—the first known written word of God?
There has to be a reason it was written presumably even before the Code of Hammurabi, the often-cited source of the Commandments, and we should look at Job in the light of that information. It assumes the reality of God. But, existentialism not yet invented, it ascribes a human motive to God for the suffering sent to Job–testing, which is hard for the Christian to accept, believing as we do in the omniscience of God and in his justice, and unwilling as we are to believe that Satan got the better of God. It’s likely that motive is a gloss, as the conversation with Satan and his challenge to God sounds like an oft-told tale. If it is a gloss, it’s a reiteration of the same spiritual hubris of which Job himself was guilty, something the reader might consider more deeply.
Dismissing that conversation and that motive as a possible, even probable, later gloss, we are left with the story of Job’s suffering, his refusal to accept the counsel of his friends or his wife, and his ultimate confrontation with God. Each of these elements demands thought, scrutiny; each is separately meaningful in human experience. You could go into each of them, but the question of the book’s primacy in time would have to addressed before examination by anyone could begin, because it’s that age that endows the book with its weight in the first place.
Its age makes it universal throughout space and time, most obviously to educated westerners in the Greek tragedies, but in eastern tales as well, even among primitive societies. In other words, it’s a lesson for all of humanity, everywhere, and in every age. That lesson is sublimely simple: Only God is God.
So many explain the book in ways that pander to the contemporary Christian desire to regard Jesus as some kind of personal teddy bear. But it’s God the father who commands that teddy bear in Gethsemane, and it’s God the father whom Christ obeys, even though his submission, like Job’s, is fraught with unspeakable suffering. And like Job, the submission is a choice. Job refuses to lie by attributing his suffering to false causes of his own making. In short, he refuses to deny truth. The denial of truth would be a denial of God himself. It would mean that events are in his own control, and not in God’s, which would be an attempt to be God.
The ever-recurring demand that God explain himself in the suffering of the innocent is the ever-recurring story of Job. The angry and defiant “Why?” is the question of Job and of Everyman. Sooner or later, we are all Job, in our own suffering or in those we love, or in the banality and meaninglessness of the evil in the world. Suffering is universal. But how we respond is always and everywhere an individual, solitary choice each of us makes. Fake surrender doesn’t work, bartering doesn’t work, angry defiance doesn’t work. Nothing works. But we have a choice: “Though he slay me, yet will I trust him.”