I just finished reading the Book of Job for the second time in two months, and this time I read it in a single day, which produced a new experience for me with this very old friend of a poem.
Reading Robert Alter’s translation this time, I skipped his footnotes and read them only at the end, so I could take in the poem as a single voice, to the extent possible. I also left for the end of my reading, the Hymn to Wisdom in chapter 28 and the Elihu speeches of chapters 32-37, which are thought to have been written later by another author. That allowed me to read in one day the prologue, the poetic speeches among Job, the Friends, and God, and the epilogue.
I was inspired to do this by Alter’s reading of the Book of Job; he hears God’s speeches as direct poetic replies to the earlier words of Job. So I wanted to read Job’s words and God’s with as little space between them as possible, to do it in a single day, and to see what impression that made in me.
It was needless to say, a deep impression, but I’ll be specific about why.
Incidentally, I read all the poetry chapters out loud, and it made an immense difference.
The first new impression that came on me by reading like this has to do with the animals.
God speaks a lot about animals in this book. But as I read all this, it dawned on me how different His speech about the animals was from the passages I’d read only a few hours earlier: Job and the friends had spoken of animals, but usually only to make a point about human morality. Predators like the lion or eagle, pouncing on their prey, were brought in as metaphors for an evildoer and his victim (so Eliphaz in 4:10-11) or for God and Job himself (so Job in 9:26, 10:16). Animals were also made into metaphors for hungry humans (Job in 24:5-6), outcast humans (Job in 30:7, 30:29), unwise humans (Bildad in 18:3). Elsewhere, animals appeared as the possessions of successful or wicked men (21:10, 24:2-3) — and they appear as such in the prologue and epilogue, stolen from and then restored to Job.
So as the reader you’re not really thinking about the animals in these early speeches, you’re thinking of human beings. But then you have God speaking of the animals as themselves, not as metaphors — and He speaks of them repeatedly as free animals, not as possessions of men.
Leviathan in the most mythologized passages in God’s speeches may be meant at least partly as metaphor, but this cannot be true when God is speaking of ordinary wild animals giving birth in the mountains.
God is surely still making some larger point by speaking of the animals, but he’s speaking of the animals themselves and not making them mere stand-ins for humans or for God. You feel this powerfully when reading the book straight through like this.
Of course when you open up this book you expect to be moved by Job’s famously eloquent speeches. But maybe because this time I read them out loud, or because of Alter’s translation, for whatever reason, everything Job said tended to move me into silence and reflection. And his reminiscing about his old life, beginning in chapter 29, was unexpectedly touching.
The first 10 or so chapters are always dark, and difficult to proceed through. But always impossible to abandon.
There are many exquisite lines, even from the Friends. Just a smattering of them:
Zophar (11:17) —
And life will rise higher than noon
Eliphaz (15:35) —
Pregnant with wretchedness, giving birth to crime
Bildad (18:13b-14) —
Death’s Firstborn eats his limbs,
tears him from his tent, his stronghold,
and sends him off to the King of Terrors.
Job (7:3) —
Thus I was heir to futile moons
God (40:23) —
Look, he swallows a river at his ease,
untroubled while Jordan pours into his mouth
From about chapter 24 through chapter 27 there is confusion about who speaks what — as readers have long observed. I didn’t stop too long to analyze those questions, and tried just to let the words on the page speak to me.
We read that Leviathan is God’s gentle slave (40:27-28) and pet bird (40:29) — that in any direct encounter he’d terrify Job (40:32) and even “the gods” (41:17). The effect of these lines is to leave you certain that there are greater forces of destruction and chaos than anything that Job knows, and that God contains and even commands them — forces that would not even permit human life, if they were permitted free rein.
I had never realized in any previous reading how often the Friends throw Job’s words back at him.
Job says (6:4) —
For Shaddai’s arrows are in me—
their venom my spirit drinks.
The terrors of God beset me.
Later, Zophar describes what happens to a wicked man (20:24-25) —
Should he flee from the iron weapon,
a bow of bronze will pierce him.
Unsheathed, it comes out through his back,
the blade through his gall,
casting terror upon him.
This is such a sick callback, because the Friends aren’t merely intent on accusing Job of wickedness — they insist on making him recall and feel his pain.
You know how it’s said that a key to sympathetic, effective listening is to show in your own words that you’ve heard the words of the one speaking to you. Well that may be doubly true for unsympathetic listening, of which the Friends are masters.
Job says (17:7) —
My eye is bleared from anguish,
and my limbs are all like shadow.
So Bildad replies, only minutes later (18:13), with this statement about what happens to a wicked man —
Eating his limbs and skin,
Death’s Firstborn eats his limbs.
Eliphaz says this about the rewards that await the good man (5:25) —
And you shall know that your seed is abundant,
your offspring like the grass of the earth.
— which is a particularly cruel thing to say to someone who has just lost all his children.
And so on. There are a lot of these.
We all like to “knit” books, by which I mean, to make links between different lines, sometimes lines that are very far apart. Reading all this in one day, with even the earliest speeches still fresh, I found many spots to thread right away. Of course, one will find links, and more of them, by reading and studying anything over a long period of time. But I enjoyed being able to feel these connections all in one day, as one experience.
I’ll finish by knitting two verses of Job’s, both having to do with slaves and masters.
First, Job states that master and slave will come to the same end, the grave (3:19) —
The small and the great are there,
and the slave is free of his master.
Later, recalling that he always defended the rights of widow, orphan, hungry, poor, and foreigner, Job affirms that slave and master have common origins, and divine ones at that (31:15) —
Why, my Maker made him in the belly,
and formed him in the selfsame womb.
Everything that Job is saying in these two verses can’t be reduced to one simple meaning. But they show me that even after suffering has darkened his vision of the world, of other people, and of God, the largeness of his vision and soul still comes through.