Job, brought down brutally, had been the Noah of his time. Both were righteous men in their different milieus. Job was living in Babel when the people took on God and built their tower. He gave the daredevil project a wide berth. Of the two, Job, for abstemious habits, clearly got the Almighty’s nod. The reward was great. Abraham himself did not escape life’s ups and downs like he did. Contemporaries could see that God would always protect and never test Job.
At the height of his career writs in the heavenly court are moved against the man envied from Babylon to Ramses. Job is accused of success. He is accused of taking God’s beneficence for granted. He is accused of fair-weather piety. How would he cope with a reversal of fame and fortune? A sentence gets handed down. It is open-ended: angels have carte blanche to act as they see fit. Job, they reckon, can be brought to book. He will be prodded and tormented until he blasphemes.
In quick time a localized apocalypse envelops Job and family. Deprivation, death and a skin disease are their lot. The mystique of a charmed life peels off with the ease of the skin of a snake. Everyone can see it’s not another bad luck story. Nothing is normal about the sequence of hits that convert a great magnate into a pauper. Pustule-ridden from the neck down, Job in a mourner’s sackcloth squats on a bed of cold ash. He has been taught the worst lesson that life can teach – that it makes no sense.
What occurs there in the city of Uz is not the common misery that catches up with mortals high and low. What makes it different is that it took longer than with others to catch up with Job. Still he’s up to the test. Against all odds, and the cajoling of a demented wife, he won’t curse God.
Great blessings, he tells her on her low stool cursing him for not cursing God, great blessings and great curses are two sides of one scale. The wife spits into the grey coals. From a household of more servants than they knew by face, they are left faring for themselves. Fate bitterer than bile is crammed down their throats.
The pauperising process began with ordeal by theft and killing. Marauders came from Sheba and Kasdim; took the livestock and put workers to the sword. If it was any consolation the criminals were human. Not so the bolt of lightning that followed, eradicating every animal the raiders had missed. What precautions can you take against a bolt from the blue? He’s been felled by a double hit. The natural and freak occurrences have wiped out every movable asset to his name.
He tries to solace. “What God has given,” he tells the wife, “God can take away. If He made me a landowner and business magnate, He can make me a beggar.”
She (people speculate about her real name and background) hugs herself and rocks. Bereft of property her spouse is no more that corporeal gent who caused people to step aside to let him pass. Overnight he walks and sits bent and lopsided. But the family is intact, and that is worth more than property. They have ten sons and ten daughters.
A note is on the way, a full day ride on Jezebel the retired mule, partially-sighted and forelegs that buckle at the mere prospect of hill or dale. The siblings have to be told. Their share of the estate must be sold to pay off debt and provision the different households. They will take it badly. The weekly feasting they take in turns to host, the bawdy entertainments, will become a fond memory.
There is something wrong when you send out a lame mule but a perspiring steed thunders up to your front door. A servant of one of the sons: out of nowhere a sirocco wind came and collapsed the house where feasting was in progress. All twenty children have perished under rubble.
Yet Job will not surrender. Belittled, he won’t blaspheme. Such fortitude counts for little in the court where sentences of life and death, of success and failure are handed down. It’s not proof enough of Job’s steadfast faith. The angel of death has taken the prosecutorial task. ‘My Lord, test your servant more. See if he won’t blaspheme.”
Fortitude has counted against the accused. Often he would ask friends, ‘Why are things the way they are? Why always perfect?’ As a precaution he sanctified the siblings daily. He would rise before dawn to offer burnt offerings for each, in case one of them had despised God in words or deeds. Apparently they all did – and too badly for roasted meat to make amends. Twenty children in one swoop gone to purgatory.
Even now the court has not finished with Job. The seal on the punishment is hideous as it is humiliating. The down-and-out mourner gets smitten by an ailment of the skin which alone would have tested the faith of Abraham. He squats on a pile of ash to absorb the discharge of wet pustules below the waistline. Dry sores higher up make him tear in frenzy at his torso. There is no separate discomfort he can pick out. He is tormented all over.
The wife is made of stronger stuff. Calamity can be boiled up to make passion. When he holds off from berating God she flays him wordily, even as the deranged man pleads with his Maker to put him out of his misery. At the end of her tether she summons three close friends to share the nightmare.
They come prepared to sit with a household in mourning, not to be tossed into bedlam. When last together at the mansion, the hearty host warmed his back at a blazing fire. He was wearing a silken robe over a snow white undergarment fastened at the waist by a gold-brocaded belt and buckle stamped with the legend, ‘House of Job.’
“Holy smokes!” Entering the door hung with black fabric they are pitched into Gehenna.
“A man must have done…what!” hisses the first man to enter. “God would never chastise …” Their friend presents a contemptible sight squatting and fretting, moaning and crying. “May the day of my birth be dark. Why did I not die from the womb?’
Confronted with such morbid suffering it’s no wonder the mourners lose patience quickly. God, they tell him mercilessly, is waiting for a confession. “Confess?” he says. “Confess what?” “In his place,” whispers Bildad the Moabite, “I think we’d all be in denial.”
The visitors wolf down a boiled capon on the table, some oat cakes and mugs of beer. They cannot empathise until they get to the bottom of the misfortune. Earnestness makes them cruel. It’s no wonder. Eliphaz is a grandson of Esau; Zofar hails from the city of Naam where a victim gets worse treatment than the villain. Bildad as a Moabite is worse: Jacob’s seed, by God’s express command, may not marry into his nation.
They tell Job the same thing. If God is just then evil befell the family because of guilt on their souls. To spare his feelings would be to spoil his chance for repentance. The wife dabs her mouth to cover glee. She swears at them under her breath, “You’re a big comfort to a house of mourning.” Her accomplishment has been to drum rebellion into Job’s skull and cruelty into her own, which gourds her to finish him off. “Life in your condition, Sir! What use to anyone are you!” By ‘anyone’ she means herself. Job’s got nothing to give her now. “Renounce your faith. Blaspheme and die quickly. It will be better than enduring a prolonged existence of poverty and distress.”
The patriarchs could not have stood up to this. Job does. “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken back. The children and property were given to me. It’s the Giver’s right to take them back. I was born naked and I will return to the earth naked.” Heroic. The test he has passed could be the most severe since Abraham introduced the world to one God. Dark yet steadfast, he is close to being superhuman.
He would have been had he kept it up. The problem is what Job feels. Feelings are inborn. A donkey feels resentment when made to suffer. At heart Job blames the constellations. The star he was born under is at fault. To the visitors he curses the star on the day he was born for ruining him. A touch of bad luck. It would be better had he blamed God. Idolater. They nod at one another. He gives the stars power over events. At heart he renounces God. His thoughts have blasphemed.
Here was victory, of a sort, for the spouse. By cursing his luck and sins, he spares himself from prolonged misery. God terminates the life of a sinner quickly – a preferred end. Let purgatory greet him in the afterlife.
This whole dogma of reward and punishment has pitfalls. Those of simple faith take comfort that destiny, the oldest enigma, is controllable. Behave well to be blessed, behave badly to be punished. It makes life easy to understand, though it’s not what life really is.
Bildad, clearing his throat, goes at Job like a dog gnawing a meatless bone. “If you are righteous, which you say you are, why are you being punished?” The answer, “I told you what has punished me,” draws murmurs of protest. That wrong star business!
Should he be told the truth? Would Job hate them for it? The righteous and the wicked suffer alike. Everyone has some of both in them. But there’s no telling it to someone down and out. Let Job blame his unlucky star, the lesser evil. Cursing God would be the greater. It’s a prickly predicament for a man who fears God. He is caught in a cleft stick. He must either believe that God allows the constellations to supervise the world, or that God is capable of punishing a blameless man. Which of the two would get His goat the most? Or would they be equally heinous?
“Let me be sure I have it right,” says Eliphaz grimly. “It’s beneath the Almighty to look after His lowly creatures. I think that’s what you said. Divine Providence over man, according to you, is not possible. God’s is infinite and cannot be interested in the problems of an individual. Hmm…How proper is it to believe that?”
Zofar is the pugnacious one. He goes right up to Job on the bed of ash, and looks down at him. So – God knows nothing of our deeds. Is that it? But look at you my friend. Every day you got up in the dark, trudged to your fields, slaughtered a fatted calf, let your servant string the carcase over your private altar. Every day a burnt offering. Every day you knelt. ‘Lord, pardon my sins. Pardon the sins of my family. Pardon pardon pardon.’ Not good enough for Almighty God?”
“Don’t do that, brother,” Bildad shouts. “Gently now. He is not to blame for the children dying. They had weekly feasts. There was too much levity. God took them out of the world.”
“A little harsh, Bildad?” Eliphaz has a moment of clarity. He says that reward comes to those who seek God with sincerity and not hypocrisy. Suffering first, reward later. You pay for reward with suffering. God makes it all worthwhile. If indeed Job is free from sin, as he insists, God has made him suffer so that He can reward him. The amount of prosperity at the end will be greater for the suffering. If Job lost twenty children and eighty thousand livestock, God could be waiting to repay him three times over.
Eliphaz fails to see the stupidity. Is it really how he understands Providence? How can it possibly be? The wicked get prosperity for a punishment, the righteous get tribulation for a reward. Can the world be run so perversely? And how can two identical happenings – suffering – lead to different results? Like a wild storm that blows off both fruit and leaves from a tree, so God chastises both the wicked and the righteous. It cannot be.
There are all kinds of people,” says Bildad when Zofar makes that point. “There are people who do all kinds of evil which God rebukes with all kinds of punishment. Job – what do you think?”
Job thinks like a heretic. The saga of the wrongly punished. He doesn’t fear Divine punishment since he’d done nothing punishable. He’s been humbled and frightened into an obedient brain-dead beast for nothing. He now makes up a rule that no one there had heard before. It is better, he says, to deny Providence than to call God unjust. He has a clever answer to everything. He berates Bildad, shocks Eliphaz, and makes Zofar walk out in disgust.
Why are they hammering at me? says Job. Even if he had transgressed, it was not proper for God to be heavy-handed with the rod. And what about some leniency when the evil done had not been deliberate? To err is human to forgive divine.
In fact they know more than they’ve said. The problem is they understand why Job has been brought so low. He had sinned not directly but by omission. How could they tell a mourner in his situation? They’d heard it from Balaam, who knew firsthand. At the time he and Job had Pharaoh’s ear. What should be done about the Israelites in Egypt? Bondage or expulsion? Balaam voted for bondage, and for tossing baby boys into the Nile. Job kept his tongue. It was his silence that marked him down in God’s book.
The truth is – and they don’t blame Job for not knowing it – God expects man to intervene to frustrate the decrees He makes. Like a game. A man is judged favourably if he intervenes and guilty if he doesn’t. That a Divine decree is unstoppable means nothing. God had hardened Pharaoh’s heart. The bitter bondage would be implemented come hell or high water. Job’s sin, strange as it may sound, was to let God do what God meant to do.
So it was with the sale of Joseph by his brothers. Though God had decreed that the brothers would sell him, they were punished for selling him. Job lost everything by letting the Divine decree, the bondage happen. He was powerless to nullify it, but he sinned by failing to try.
The visitors give the sufferer a fleeting grin. He doesn’t know why.
“Come and visit after the mourning period,” they say.
“Why my lords?”
They purse their lips. They don’t explain.
“No hurry. Come when you’re mended and know better.”