“Like wanton schoolboys”: the book of Job

“As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods; they kill us for their sport.”  — William Shakespeare, in “King Lear”

I like the Bible (does that make me a Bibliophile?) but I reserve my admiration for the Old Testament, which is a lot more intellectually complex than the New. I particularly like two brilliant books in the Old Testament – the book of Job, and Eccelesiastes.

Today’s post is about the book of Job, which I read in Stephen Mitchell’s translation some time back. The book has a fascinating set-up (in my opinion bettered only by the Bhagvat Gita’s war). Job is a pious, religious rich merchant who never fails to worship God with his family. He has several sons and daughters, and whenever they meet, Job offers prayers and sacrifices to God, because even though they haven’t done anything wrong, they may have *thought* something blasphemous or sinful. That’s how pious he is.

Satan decides to look up God one day after ‘walking the earth’, and God points proudly to Satan, telling him, “Look at my follower Job. Ain’t he a beaut?” and Satan says, “Yeah well, you’ve given him everything that all people wish for. Anyone would worship you diligently if they had all that Job has.” And God says, “OK, do your damnedest to Job. Just don’t hurt him. I bet you he’ll still be pious.”

And so one day, when Job’s daughters are feasting with their brothers, a servant comes running to Job and tells him that a foreign invasion has destroyed all his flocks of camels and sheep. And another servant comes running to him and tells him that a wall has collapsed over his children’s lunch party, and they are all dead.

Job grieves, but does not blame God – he says, God gave me all of this, and he has the right to take it away. And God boasts to Satan once again – “Look at Job! Did you hear what he just said? What did I tell you?”. Satan answers, “That’s all very well – his camels and sheep and children may be gone, but no one gives a damn unless something happens to them personally. Give me a free hand with Job, and I’ll have him cursing you in no time.” And God says (and this is the scary scene) “Do whatever you want with him – but keep him alive.”

So Job is infected with a horrible disease and develops boils all over his body. He is depressed and disheartened, and is sitting silently scraping himself with a broken piece of pottery, and his wife says, “What kind of a man are you to take all of this abuse lying down? There’s nothing left for you now, you pious bastard – just open your mouth, curse God, and die.” Job is aghast, and chastises his wife: “Foolish woman,” he says, “God gives us both good and evil.”

At this juncture, three friends of Job come to offer condolences from a faraway place. For seven days, they perform their mourning and bereavement duties silently; Job doesn’t speak. On the seventh day, however, Job lets loose all his bottled-up frustration and anger. He calls on God asking for an explanation. Never cursing God explicitly, he nonetheless raves against the seemingly uncaring deity, who has no sense of fairness, who rewards the evil and the good alike, and who is constantly watching Mankind like a prison warden, waiting for a transgression that can be punished with disproportionate severity.

Job’s friends are scandalized by Job’s statements, and turn on Job, telling him God would never have punished him if he hadn’t committed some Sin, which he now compounds by not confessing. They tell Job to confess, and that God will make him rich and healthy again. Job remains steadfast in his denial of having committed any sin. He proclaims, “God! If you have the guts, let’s go together in front of some impartial judge, and you state your case against me. I’m sure he’ll find that I’m innocent of anything that you may accuse me of.”

And then, suddenly, a whirlwind appears. And from within the whirlwind, God speaks. And God’s message is awesome, it is an experience not unlike the 12th chapter of the Gita – it is completely different from the anthropocentric message of the rest of the Bible. In essence, God says “Fuck you and your species. I make the sun rise, I give the lion cub his food, I hold the waters back from deluging the Earth. I created the morning stars and the angels wept at their beauty. I am responsible for all the awesome things in the Universe. I do whatever I want, and I don’t have to answer to you little people with your little laws about good and evil.”

I love this speech. I also love the appearance of two absolutely unexpected creatures in God’s list of “awesome things” he has created – the hippopotamus, “his penis stiffens like a pine; his testicles bulge with vigor; he is the first of the works of God, created to be my plaything”, and the crocodile, “go ahead; attack him; you will never try it again”.

How can you not love a God that created the hippopotamus and the crocodile?

(All of these incredible illustrations, by the way, are William Blake’s.)

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