Quaker Universalist Conversations

Mark Larrimore’s The Book of Job: A Biography – A Review

What do Quakers say about the dilemma provided in the biblical Book of Job?

The Book of Job: A Biography, by Mark Larrimore (Princeton University Press, 2013) Mark Larrimore’s The Book of Job: A Biography (Princeton University Press, 2013) focuses the reader’s attention on the experience of injustice, the success of the wicked, and the suffering of the innocent in human experience. It is a universal human experience. Humans have tried to explain it, with varied results.

This book is a biography of the Book of Job as a story, in the sense that it is a description of the life of Job in its varied interpretations in the Western tradition. It is clear from this interpretive catalogue that Job has collected and documented a diversity of interpretations.

How do we better understand that mystery at the edge of our perception of reality in the face of the suffering of the innocent and the triumph of the wicked?

Job does not know. The author of Job does not know. The Jewish tradition and the Western Christian tradition of interpretations of the Job do not know. Do we? Is there something offered in our Western Christian tradition to help Quakers?

Yes, Job is a challenge for Quakers as well. If one says the meaning of Job is this and another says it is that, what can Quakers say? Is there something offered in the Quaker tradition to resolve this uncertainty?

This is a cafeteria book. The reader is hungry. None of the offerings are satisfactory. All the offerings are partial.

Mark Larrimore’s book is a catalogue of the history of the interpretations of the Book of Job over 1,500 years. Pope Gregory1 (5th century) was the first significant commentator, followed by Maimonides2 (12th century), Thomas Aquinas3 (13th century), John Calvin4 (16th century), David Hume5 and Voltaire6 (18th century), William Blake7 and Emmanuel Kant8 (19th century) and Elie Wiesel9 (20th century). None provided a sustainable answer.

We are still accumulating suggested responses to explain and counsel Job in the resolution of the dilemma posed by the Book of Job. Proposed solutions have included:

  • Amorality Recognition: The world has no morality. The world makes no moral sense. God is amoral. God exercises amoral power.
  • Atheism: This injustice dilemma is real and evidence that God does not exist.
  • Avoidance: God is not to be challenged. Be distracted from the injustice issue. Focus on other matters, like the poetry and style of the Book of Job.
  • Bitterness: Complain to others about the unfairness of the punishments.
  • Denial: Deny any personal guilt and hold fast to consistent life practices in the face of the punishments.
  • Diversity Tolerance: Acceptance of the many equal, but inconsistent, interpretive views, including those of the agnostic, relativist and the latitudinarian.
  • Doubt: Uncertainty about the nature of misfortune. Injustice is a mystery.
  • Indifferent: God has limitations. God is uncaring and unwilling to remedy injustice.
  • Unjust Reality: God is not just.
  • Inscrutable: God and God’s justice are beyond human understanding.
  • Limitation: Doubt the infinite scope of God’s capacity. The nature of God’s power is limited. Deny God’s omnipotence.
  • Obscurity: We humans are too ignorant to understand God’s nature and justice. Human sight is veiled. This is a vague recognition of God’s higher and inscrutable justice.
  • Passivity: Accept injustice and submit to the penalties.
  • Protest: Show resentment at the injustice of the punishments.
  • Rebellion: “Curse God and die” as Job’s wife counsels is tinged with resignation in the face of injustice.
  • Resistance: Resistance can be real, pretended, or silent.
  • Restoration: Demand deep reparations and restoration. Personal property and real estate restoration do not provide an adequate solution
  • Silence: Neglect and ignore the bad things in life.
  • Sin: Confess the guilt. Job must have sinned in some way in the past and deserved the punishments.
  • Unable: God is incapable to fix injustice. Impotence in the face of injustice.
  • Unrelated: God has no relationship with individuals and is not responsible for injustice.

This is a suggestive list of the diversity of the interpretations of the Book of Job, but even this list here is not complete. Larrimore outlines these interpretations and others as clearly as any book available. His catalogue is an excellent tool for reflection on this powerful theme.

"The Lord Answering Job out of the Whirlwind," Illustrations of the Book of Job, object 15 (Bentley 421.14), William Blake (1826) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Larrimore provides a critical evaluation of the Book of Job and the origin and development of the text of the document. There are many questions about the document, including the authorship, the origin date, location of the story, and textual corruptions in transmission, all of which are helpfully addressed. These issues do not distract attention away from the fundamental human dilemma described.

This is a small book in size, but it provides all we need for thinking about the dilemma. The author provides extensive endnotes and a helpful index.

The Book of Job holds us in fascination. The human experience it describes is not easy to ignore. The story is amoral. The defense of God’s goodness may seem a less immediate issue for the 21st century so far, because people make less reference to God as a direct cause of misfortune and give more recognition to human agency in the cause, mitigation, and cure of injustice harms.

What does the Quaker tradition and current Quaker experience contribute in a response to the human obstacle of rewarded wickedness and the defeat of righteousness?

Currently, based on my life experience, the experience I see of my community, and my current understanding of the testimony of my tradition, I choose doubt and resistance through mitigation and reparations (see above).

Is there some other source of authority to bring to this matter? I could be mistaken or naïve.

What can you say?

Your answer can inform my understanding and my conforming practice in my daily life.


Notes

1 Pope Gregory the Great, Morals on the Book of Job (5th century)

2 Maimonides, The Guide for the Perplexed: Book III, chap. XII (12th century)

3 Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on the Book of Job (13th century)

4 John Calvin, Sermons on Job (16th century)

5 David Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (18th century)

6 Voltaire, Candide (18th century)

7 William Blake, Illustrations of the Book of Job (19th century)

8 Emmanuel Kant, “On the miscarriage of all philosophical trials in theodicy” (19th century)

9 Elie Wiesel, Messengers of God [reviewed in Kirkus Reviews] (20th century)

Image Source

The Lord Answering Job out of the Whirlwind,” Illustrations of the Book of Job, object 15 (Bentley 421.14), William Blake (1826) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Comments

The obvious answer has escaped so many people: No human being really knows how to bring a person to Enlightenment. People spend decades staring at a spot on the wall sometimes, go over the monastery wall — all sorts of efforts, sometimes quite desperate.

In Job’s case, it took a considerable amount of undeserved suffering. But it took him from a ‘hearsay’ form of religion to “Now my eyes see You!”

Forrest,

Thank you for taking time to respond to the review. The book is really excellent in my view and was very helpful to my reflection by explaining the many approaches in history of human reflection, supported by diverse personal experiences, to understanding the reality of repeated unmerited tragedy.

I conclude that I am slow in this path and I do not understand the explanation that you propose regarding enlightenment, the monastery and the two forms of religion. For my benefit and that of others, could you offer a longer description of the answer that you have suggested in the form of a blog post? This gift is particularly important and timely for us all in the face of Remadi and San Bernardino experiences.

In any case, we appreciate your responding so far.

Thanks,
Larry

Did the book you reviewed look at Carl Jung's Answer to Job? This book speaks to my condition.

I was taught the Orthodox Jewish teaching that G-D is Omnipresent, Omnipotent and Omniscient and All Powerful. Well, If G-D knows all and is all powerful, that tells me that Evil has to be known to G-D . Since it continues to exist, it must be OK with G-D, too! Anyone reading the Jewish bible or the daily newspaper can see that evil continues pretty much all over the world.

Jung knocked my socks off when he explained Job to me in this great little book. The idea of G-D needing to learn about relationships before empathy or even compassion can be part of G-D’s understanding is makes a lot of sense to me. On the Day of Atonement, I not only ask G-D & the people I have offended for their forgiveness, I also remember to forgive G-D for allowing so much pain and suffering in the world.

Christians seem to have made G-D into a “Nice Guy” motif and especially as we approach Christmas 2015, that “branding” as G-D the bringer of the gift of hope continues unabated by the reality of the evidence around us. One reason I joined the RS of F 30 or so years ago was that my search for the Truth could now include ideas and information from everywhere.

Thanks for this Universalist Friends blog!

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Answer_to_Job

Free,

Thanks very much for your testimony on dealing with the experience of Job on our behalf. We are all growing in our understandings. All later traditions have dealt.

The Larrimore book focuses on the interpretations within the western tradition. I wonder what a comparable book would say about Job from the eastern tradition, the Islamic part of our common family tree. I wonder if there are additional and different and more insightful interpretations of this dilemma within the Islamic tradition.

Regarding Jung specifically, Larrimore does include Jung’s understanding to the effect that God suffered such a moral defeat in the Job experience that God had to assume human form (Jesus) and sacrifice himself in order to recoup.

It seems that each branch of our common tradition does its utmost to integrate it into our particular previous story line. It is a human endeavor. We keep digging.

Thanks again for your response.

Larry

If only the diggers didn’t transform the evidence they found to conform to their preconceptions. Worse, they discard what may contradict long held beliefs.

Jews cannot “see” G-D or utter G-D’s name without being stuck dead immediately. This kept us from creating images to worship or even dreaming up names that seem to become just another way to divide us. How many wars have been and are now being waged over differences in names & images of G-D?

I can not say much about the eastern tradition, but the Chinese culture is more or less free from idolatry before the 2nd Century and from the doctrine of original sin afterward. A culture of living by consciousness believes that heaven or the Lord of heaven has a plan and things will workout at the end of time. To united or communicate with God one has to be holy, and the definition of holiness is kindness, justice, courteous, and wise. And there is no fear in the person lives according to his or her conscious.

Yon Choi Yeung,

Thank you for your comment. You are pointing to several elements reaching the common core of all religions, from what I understand.

My question based in the Larrimore book on Job is how do we explain unmerited suffering in this life, which is unrelated, to our current sight, to holiness in practice and good works. Is the answer that it will all work out in the end of time and according to plan and that we misunderstand the merit of current unmerited suffering? This is the point made in Job for us all.

Thanks again for your good points.

Larry

“We see dawning in the consciousness of this unique tragic personality, Job, yet another connection of pain and suffering, a connection with the ennobling of man. Suffering appears to us then as a testing, as the root of a climbing upwards, of a higher development. Suffering in the sense of this Job-tragedy need in no way have its origin in evil, it can itself be first cause, so that what proceeds from it represents a more perfect phase of human life”.

This is an excerpt from a lecture by Rudolf Steiner. I invite you to explore his ideas on the matter, including his insights into Karma and Reincarnation. You don’t have to believe anything unless it resonates with what you consider as plausible based on your own experience. Check this out: "Origin of Suffering, Origin of Evil, Illness and Death," by Rudolf Steiner.

Larry,

I am just looking at the unmerited blessing of Job from a Chinese perspective, as suffering is normal in terms of number.

Best regards,

Yun Choi