Literature Annotations


Author 2, Unknown
The Book of Job


Genre Poems (Sequence) (18 pp.)
KeywordsAbandonment, Aging, AIDS, Alternative Medicine, Body Self-Image, Cancer, Catastrophe, Communication, Death and Dying, Depression, Disability, Disease and Health, Empathy, Grief, Human Worth, Illness and the Family, Illness Narrative/Pathography, Individuality, Loneliness, Mourning, Nature, Pain, Patient Experience, Power Relations, Prayer as Medicine, Religion, Scapegoating, Spirituality, Suffering, Suicide, Survival, Trauma
Summary

Job, a prosperous but god-fearing man, is stricken with a series of misfortunes, losing his goods, his sons, and his health all as a result of a wager between God and Satan about whether or not a "perfect and upright" man will remain thus under relentless misfortune (1:1). As he sits in ashes, covered with boils, a group of friends come to mourn with and comfort him, sitting beside him for seven days and nights in complete silence "for they saw that his grief was great" (3:13).

Job proves a good bet by never following his wife's advice to "curse God and die," but he does deliver a series of lamentations and questions about his condition, countering his friends' theories about the possible causes (unacknowledged sin, primarily) for his troubles and finally asserting his desire to speak directly to God and ask Him the reason that a good man has been burdened with a host of sorrows (2:9). Job's friends, including a fourth speaker, Elihu, who was probably added into the text by a later writer, reprove him angrily.

God appears suddenly and speaks to Job from within a whirlwind, ending Job's complaints with his chastening response. Rather than offering a rationale for Job's suffering, God reminds him of the limitations of a human perspective. Ultimately God rewards Job and reprimands Job's friends.

Commentary

This ancient exploration of the problem of suffering has for centuries been a catalyst and touchstone for diverse groups of readers. In the culture of health and illness, it lends itself to discussions of the social treatment and individual experience of cancer, AIDS, any other serious illness, or the successive health problems that can sometimes accompany old age--as well as the social, financial, and other crises that often combine with illness to make life seem unfathomably difficult unless there is some reason or purpose behind the misfortunes.

Job's laments explore a variety of perspectives on suffering. He describes the experience of physical misery: "My flesh is clothed with worms and clods of dust; my skin is broken, and become loathsome. / My days are swifter than a weaver's shuttle, and are spent without hope" (7:5-6). He wonders why he was born and wishes for an unmaking of his own birth that alludes to and opposes the words of Genesis: "Let that day be darkness" (3:4). He increasingly alienates his friends with his refusal to let them rationalize his misery as somehow deserved. Job is anything but a docile sick person, which makes him particularly engaging.

If the text does offer reasons for suffering, one possibility is that it catalyzes individual development in ways that a life without suffering cannot. An alternate, ironic, answer is suggested by the frame narrative: the reason behind Job's suffering is a bet between God and Satan in which humans are victims of the quarrels of higher beings, a plot suggestive of polytheistic Greek culture.

Job weaves a rich fabric of metaphor to express his suffering, suggesting that critiques of the metaphoric treatment of illness (notably, Susan Sontag's Illness as Metaphor and AIDS and Its Metaphors; see this database) must consider who controls the flow of figurative language: describing one's own illness metaphorically may have very different effects than when one is the object of someone else's metaphoric description.

In addition, Job's use of metaphor may be the strategy he uses to avoid cursing God; by displacing his descriptions of his situation onto the natural world, he is able to express his sense of injustice without directly accusing his creator. Some translations, however, have suggested that Job actually does accuse and denounce God. The ambiguity of the text makes it even more open to use by a variety of readers, regardless of religious orientation.

See also the annotation in this database of William Blake's painting, Satan Smiting Job with Sore Boils, which is linked to an on-line representation of the artwork.

SourceThe Holy Bible, King James version
PublisherThomas Nelson
Edition1984
Place PublishedNashville
Annotated by Holmes, Martha Stoddard
Date of Entry 01/21/03
Last Revised 11/25/08