The Impatience of Job

An introduction by Louis de Bernieres

One would naturally assume that a book of the Old Testament must have been written by an Israelite, and indeed the earliest rabbinical tradition asserts that Moses was the author of the Book of Job. In the past , Christians readily accepted this notion, which is why, for example, one finds Isaak Walton referring to it whilst discoursing on the alleged patience of the angler. in fact, there are literary parallels to the story in Persian,Sumerian , Akkadian and Babylonian, and in the Biblical version there appear to be several allusions to Ugaritic myth. Some of the unique or rare words in the text are possibly Edomite.

There exists an apocryphal "Testament of Job", and there is even an amusing tale about Job and his wife in the Islamic tradition. It would seem , then, that the story is a variant on an ancient folk-tale that may indeed be as old as the patriarchs, but could have been composed by anyone from any of the interlocking mosaic of cultures that existed in the region between 2000 and 700 BC.

God in the story is not omniscient (He asks Satan what he as been up to), there is no clear belief in the afterlife and Satan is still one of God's courtiers. This means if the tale is Jewish, it would have to date from before the exile in Babylon.

There may have been at least three authors of the book, since Elihu's intervention, and the long and wonderful poem about the inaccessibility of wisdom are almost certainly interpolations, but whoever the main author was, he was a great poet. The original is very terse, but since Hebrew requires half the number of words required in English, no English translation could hope to do justice to it.

Furthermore, no one knows exactly how Hebrew poetry was stressed or scanned, and so for us the quality of the verse will depend upon the force, aptness and beauty of expression; the reader of Job will be struck mostly by the skill of the author in repeating the same thoughts in new ways that are continually refreshing and illuminating.

It has to be said that one gains very little new information from each speech, and anyone looking for snappy action and exciting new events would certainly be better off hiring a video, the point being that this is really a long and beautiful poem about divine justice, rendered in the forms of narrative, dialogue, hymn, lament, proverb and oracle. The compilers of the King James Version did not have the benefit of modern scholarship, and so their rendition is often confused and inaccurate, but they have nevertheless managed to contribute their sonorously fair share of poetry to the English language. Chapter 14 stands independently as a moving lament for the human condition: "Man that is born of woman is of few days, and full of trouble. He cometh forth like a flower, and is cut down....."

Elsewhere we find the proverbs: "The price of wisdom is above rubies" and "The fear of the Lord, that is wisdom", and the memorable words adapted by Handel for his Messiah: "I know that my Redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth; and though after my death worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God." It may be unfortunate that this is a hopeless mistranslation of the original verses, which are not about redemption and resurrection at all, but it is still great writing.

The book is in fact very largely about faith, and particularly about the issue of theodicy - whether or not one can have faith in the goodness and worthiness of an omnipotent creator who is apparently responsible for creating evil, and tolerating the suffering of the innocent. Whereas Job's attitude is profoundly felt and deeply personal, his four comforters take a more detached and philosophical line, but it is important to remember that God and Satan are the only two who really know what is going on.

Satan is portrayed as an affable but astute fellow who is on terms of familiarity with God; when the latter asks him where he has been going, Satan casually replies, "From going to and fro in the earth, and walking up and down in it." When God invites Satan to admire Job's righteousness, Satan very acutely points out that God has made sure that Job has had an easy ride of it, "but put forth thine hand now, and touch all he hath, and he will curse thee to they face."

God accepts the challenge, with the proviso that Job himself must not be physically harmed whereupon Satan destroys Job's oxen, sheep , camel, servants and children. Job's equanimity survives these trials, and Satan points out to God that an attack on Job's person is more likely to do the trick.

God gives his permission, and Job is struck down by a revolting combination of foul diseases. At this point Job does indeed turn against God, and Satan is heard of no more, having won his wager. The quantity of shekels involve in this bet is not recorded, but no doubt Satan spends them whilst going once more to and fro in the earth and walking up and down in it, his conscience eased by the thought that he has merely been obeying orders from a superior.

Job's comforters are possibly the most irritating characters in all of literature, and Job more than once tells them that they are completely intolerable. Elihu is the last, and is the most annoying of all of them, since he announces that all of the others have been beside the point , whilst he, although the youngest, has the conclusive arguments. He then says nothing interesting or original, in the manner of sententious bores the world over. He says that God rescues people repeatedly, that it is up to God to choose what happens, that Job must have done something wrong, because God is righteous, that God is beyond our capacity to comprehend, and that God does not do evil.

To be fair to young Elihu, he was probably not in the original story, but the other self-righteous prigs certainly were. Each has three speeches, and Job replies to them in turn. Eliphaz says that God only punishes the wicked, that God saves and protects, that we cannot know God's plans, that Man is naturally vile and unclean in God's eyes, that God punishes sinners in their own lifetime, and that Job must therefore be a rebel and a sinner. His concluding comment is that none of us makes any difference to God one way or the other.

Bildad asserts that God does not pervert justice, that we are ignorant of the real condition of things, that God will not reject the upright, that we are punished for forgetting God, and that Job must therefore be evil and Godless. His final thought is that we are nothing, before God's omnipotence.

Zophar says that God knows what the reality is , and that therefore Job must be guilty of something. The mirth of the wicked is brief, he says, and God brings them down.

The phrase "the patience of Job" could not be further from the mark. Job is , for all but 3 of the 42 chapters,exasperated by his comforters, reduced to abject misery by his afflictions, and disillusioned and furious with God. "The defiance of Job" would have been a far more apposite figure of speech to have passed into the language.

His comforters have all the usual inane, pious, platitudinous, facile morsels of cod-wisdom at their fingertips, but it is Job who has all the passion, and all the grasp of the real paradoxes implicit in the idea of theodicy. Job tells his comforters that his argument is with God, and not with them, and that , if they are just trying to curry favour with God, then the latter will surely see through them.

He says that in their position he would talk the same rot. He even accuses them if behaving like God, and persecuting him unjustly. Readers, of course, are in the privileged position of knowing that all the arguments of the comforters are either false or completely beside the point, since God's assault on Job is nothing whatsoever to do with just punishment, it is to do with an interesting bet between Himself and one of His friends.

There is an amusing vignette, wherein Job's wife advises him to curse God and die, whereupon he says, "Thou speakest as one of the foolish women speaketh." Before long, however, he is indeed cursing God and wishing for death, and no doubt Mrs. Job (whose name was said to be Sitis) derives some quiet satisfaction from this.

Chrysostom proposed that Mrs Job might have been Job's "greatest scourge of all", but that would seem to reflect the former's peculiar preoccupations rather than anything one can find in the story. Job is very like the character of Philoctetes in the play of Sophocles, abandoned on an island whilst his foot rots, and his sentiments are very much those of Jesus on the cross, who cries out, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?"

There is also a remarkable, but probably coincidental, resemblance between Job's declaration of innocence and the speech of the dead before Osiris in the Hall of Righteousness, as inscribed in the Egyptian Chapters of Coming Forth by Day (The Book of the Dead).

Job reproaches God, saying, "They are tricked that trusted.". He avows ignorance of any wrongdoing on his part, and he demands how one is supposed to have a sensible argument with God, when the latter is omnipotent, invisible, unaccountable and unjust.

It is futile asserting one's right when God is adversary, judge and executioner and why does God take vicious action against that which he has created? God is an oppressor, He is incapable of human sympathy; behind a smiling face He hides an evil heart. Job asks why we bother to serve God; the wicked prosper, He does nothing to help the desperate ("God thinks nothing amiss").

Job's despair is so well depicted that we get a distinct and lasting impression of his character, the most notable feature of which is his absolute refusal to disengage his intelligence, be a hypocrite, or give up his case. He is not going to be cowed, even by fear of God or by the untrue accusations of his friends. This makes Job a very modern figure (in literature if not in real life), one who asserts his individuality and integrity in the face of all conventional wisdom or arbitrary power. He is , in other words, a classic existentialist hero.

At the end of the tale there is a theophany; God speaks out of the whirlwind, and demonstrates, to His credit, that he finds the comforters as tiresome and obnoxious as Job does. He reproves them: "My wrath is kindled against thee... for ye have not spoken of me the thing that is right, as my servant Job hath.".

It is rather startling to find God thus admitting somewhat disarmingly to all of Job's indictments, but it is true even so that he comes out of this story as the most morally tarnished. The comforters may come out of it looking stupid (which they are) but God does so looking like an unpleasantly sarcastic megalomaniac. Instead of answering Job's charges of injustice and heartlessness, God devotes 129 verses to a magnificently irrelevant and bombastic speech about His own accomplishments and abilities. It is as if He knows perfectly well that He has abused his power, but does not wish to address the issue. God boasts about two of his favourite and most impressive creations, Behemoth and Leviathan, but at no point does He clear up the mystery that we call "The Problem of Evil". We are left with Job holding the field philosophically, with no one to deny that God finds nothing amiss, and would not care even of He did.

It is true that God restores Job to good health and good fortune, but He absentmindedly does not restore to life the servants or the children killed off in chapter 1; they get no justice. Not only do we have a God, therefore, who is a frivolous trickster, but one who even botches up the reparations when He decides to make them.

There are many episodes in the Bible that show God in a very bad light, such as when he commands Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac, or when He commands Saul to destroy the Amalekites ("Utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass"), and one cannot but conclude from them either that God is a mad, bloodthirsty and capricious despot, or that all this time we have been inadvertently worshipping the Devil.

In the modern age in the West there has been a great falling of of religious faith, because although Jesus Christ and a deluge of sophistical theology did much to improve God's image for a few centuries. Job is still winning the argument, and the Book of Job is still invidiously subversive.

If God is omnipotent, we cannot blame anything on the Devil, and if God is no help, we have to do his work for Him. He has still failed to appear in court, and we construe his absence either as non-existence , hubris, apathy or an admission of guilt. We miss Him, we would dearly like to see Him going to and fro in the Earth and walking up and down in it , but we admire tyranny no longer , and we desire justice more than we are awed by vainglorious assertions of magnificence.


This introduction by Louis de Bernieres, is part of a boxed-set edition of 12, published by Canongate, priced 14 pounds 99 (as at 10th October 1998)

It has been published in the Guardian newspaper on September 19 1998 and read out on BBC Radio 4.


Comments to Steven Carr

General messages (not for publication) can be sent to me using Not for Publication

OR Use the Comments page ,if you do not want to use email

OR Use the Guest Book Comments page , to leave an entry in the Guest Book

OR View previous entries in the Guest Book