Naked Came I

Job in literature

Broadcast on Radio Three 1 August 2002

Even in an age when biblical stories are in danger of becoming as remote as Old Norse mythology, they remain a potent source of inspiration, not least to novelists. In the past two decades, Joseph Heller has explored the legend of David in God Knows, Howard Jacobson that of Cain in The Very Model of a Man, Jenny Diski that of Sarah in Only Human and Jeanette Winterson that of Noah in Boating for Beginners. The Old Testament story, however, that appears to speak most powerfully to writers of all persuasions is that of Job.

There are many reasons for its continuing resonance. In both tone and purpose, it stands apart from the other books of the Old Testament. Harvey Gotham, the protagonist of Muriel Spark’s The Only Problem, even declares, ‘How the Book of Job got into the holy scriptures, I really do not know.’ There is no consensus over when or why it was written. Some scholars date it from the period of the Babylonian captivity, seeing Job’s suffering as analogous to that of the exiled Jews, while others favour a date from the 5th century BC, noting its thematic

correspondence to the Socratic tragedies of Oedipus and Philoctetes. Its poetry is among the richest in the entire Bible (has there ever been a more evocative image of prosperity than Job’s ‘When I washed my steps with butter, and the rock poured me out rivers of oil’?). Above all, it is shot through with ambiguity. Although its moral is the clear-cut one of a good man tested by God, found worthy and restored to prosperity (to such a degree that the phrase ‘the patience of Job’ has become proverbial), its poetic emphasis is weighted strongly towards Job’s bitter complaints against his Creator.

The story is simplicity itself. In the first part, God conducts a wager with Satan, with whom he enjoys a far more intimate and less antagonistic relationship than in later biblical tradition, that Job will remain faithful in the face of all the torments that Satan can heap upon him. Satan, accordingly, kills Job’s sons, destroys his wealth and afflicts him with boils, through all of which Job stands fast, saying:

‘Naked came I out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return thither: the Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away: blessed be the name of the Lord.’

Job is, meanwhile, visited by three friends, elders of the community, who, expounding the traditional link between prosperity and virtue, insist that God must be punishing Job for his sin. Job rails with ever-increasing rancour against both them and God. Their bickering is interrupted by Elihu, a younger man, who condemns both Job and his comforters, after which God himself appears, ignoring Job’s wretchedness and exulting in his own creative power. Job reiterates both his faith and his subservience and is duly rewarded with the return of his wealth.

Although, on a narrative level, the story is a test of Job’s – and, by extension, mankind’s – good faith, on a poetic level, it is a test of God’s. His arbitrary wager with Satan and his dismissal of Job’s suffering display a similar despotism to his ‘look but don’t touch’ prohibition on the tree of knowledge in the Garden of Eden. God’s attitude has been most effectively analysed by the psychologist, Carl Jung, in his Answer to Job:

‘For seventy-one verses he proclaims his world-creating power to his miserable victim, who sits in ashes and scratches his sores with potsherds, and who by now has had a bellyful of superhuman violence. Job has absolutely no need of being impressed by further exhibitions of this power. Yahweh, in his omniscience, could have known just how incongruous his attempts at intimidation were in such a situation. He could easily have seen that Job believes in his omnipotence as much as ever and has never doubted or wavered in his loyalty.’

Whether consciously or not, the writer of Job is expressing his own frustration at the limitations of human power and the rigour of divine authority. Like so much else in the Bible, the Book of Job is of interest less for its revelation of divine purpose than for its insight into mankind’s perception of God.

Much of the attraction of the book lies in its openness to varying interpretations. For centuries these were the exclusive property of priests and theologians, who presented Job’s suffering as a straightforward morality tale. Job was a favourite subject of sermons for clerics from Gregory the Great to Calvin. The creative exploration of the story was left to visual artists, such as Georges de la Tour, whose painting of Job Visited by his Wife plays a significant role in Spark’s The Only Problem, and William Blake, whose illustrations to the Book of Job provided the inspiration for the Vaughan Williams Masque being performed and broadcast tonight.

The greater intellectual freedom of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries allowed writers such as Voltaire to portray the suffering Job less in strictly moral terms than as a symbol of the human condition, a process that continued in the modern period with Kafka and Camus. In recent years, this viewpoint has been most powerfully expressed by the American poet Archibald Macleish, whose verse play, J.B., opens with two actors discussing a dramatisation of the Job story and considering potential candidates for the title role. One of them declares:

‘There must be
Thousands! What’s that got to do with it?
Thousands – not with camels either:
Millions and millions of mankind
Burned, crushed, broken, mutilated,
Slaughtered, and for what? For thinking!
For walking round the world in the wrong
Skin, the wrong-shaped noses, eyelids:
Sleeping the wrong nights in the wrong city –
London, Dresden, Hiroshima.
There could never have been so many
Suffered for less.’

The story of Job has inspired many eminent twentieth century writers, not only Spark and Macleish but Joseph Roth, Robert Frost and Neil Simon. And yet, however peerless it may be as poetry, the biblical story presents serious problems when regarded as either fiction or drama. In the first place, virtually all of the action occurs in the opening two chapters, with the rest of the book comprising a series of static and repetitive dialogues. Secondly, none of the central characters arouses much sympathy. Job is by turn obsequious and bilious; the Comforters complacent and hypocritical; Satan vindictive and cunning; and God narcissistic and overbearing. Thirdly, the scale of Job’s suffering when transposed to the modern world and a predominantly realistic literary tradition risks appearing melodramatic.

The ways that the various writers find to overcome these problems provide the key to their intentions. Roth, whose novel Job is largely set in a pre-Revolutionary Russian village, exploits the folk-tale elements of his Chagall-like setting. Frost and Macleish use the formality of their language to convey complex theological arguments and escape the constraints of realism. Spark, who by contrast writes in a predominantly realistic mode, avoids the danger of melodrama by allowing her protagonist, Harvey Gotham, to become a Job-figure only by analogy.

The least successful of these interpretations is that of Neil Simon, who applies Broadway conventions to the biblical narrative. The set descriptions of his play, God’s Favourite, ‘the palatial home of the wealthy businessman Joe Benjamin on the North Shore of Long Island Sound’ transports us instantly to familiar boulevard territory. Joe is at home indulging in inconsequential banter with his children when a mysterious stranger arrives with the news that, for no ostensible reason, God has decided to punish him. This duly occurs. After the collapse of his business (and the set), Joe is struck by a succession of vaguely comic ailments (itching, neuralgia, tennis elbow and haemorrhoids). The tone of these sit-com metaphysics becomes clear when, after failing to persuade Joe to renounce God (by means of an advert placed in the New York Times), the messenger renounces Him himself.

‘I give You up, God! Thanks for nothing. The Devil cares more about people. At least he entertains them… The Exorcist grossed over a hundred and thirty million dollars – domestic.’

God’s Favourite, needless to say, was a flop.

The journey from Neil Simon to Joseph Roth is that from the ridiculous to the sublime. Whether or not the biblical Job was intended to symbolise the captive nation of Israel, Roth clearly means his Job, the poor Hebrew teacher Mendel Singer, to symbolise Eastern European Jewry. So, in the most obvious divergence from his source, Mendel is poor rather than rich, a state towards which he betrays a rueful fatalism.

‘The poor are powerless. God does not throw them golden stones from Heaven, they never win the lottery, and they have to bear their fate with humility.’

Mendel is visited by a series of catastrophes, which leave him repeatedly asking ‘What sin did I commit? Even his immigration to America, the dream of so many Jews of the period, seems to be a curse when he encounters New York with all its noise, bustle, loss of traditional values and erosion of community.

In America, Mendel’s fortunes sink still further. In swift succession, his son Sam is killed in a First World War battle, his wife Deborah dies of grief and his daughter Miriam, who has betrayed her fiancé with his business manager, goes mad. Mendel laments:

‘He has no son, he has no daughter, he has no wife, he has no country, he has no money! God said: I have punished Mendel Singer! For what has He punished him? Why has He not punished Lemmel, the butcher? Why not Skovronnek? Why not Menkes? He punishes only Mendel. Mendel has death, Mendel has madness, Mendel has hunger – all God’s gifts are for Mendel! All, all are over – it is the end of Mendel Singer!’

Mendel is visited by friends who, though more sympathetic than Job’s, are equally ill-equipped to dispense comfort. His health and status deteriorate until, during the Passover Sedah (the timing has obvious significance), he encounters an unknown young man. In a clear refutation of his earlier remark that ‘Miracles happened long, long ago when the Jews still lived in Palestine. Since then there have been no more,’ Mendel is reunited with Menuchim, the son he was forced to abandon in Russia and who has subsequently become a renowned composer. Not only is their reconciliation intensely moving but there is an overwhelming sense that this Job’s restoration to love and happiness has been fully earned.

Roth gives the Job story a specifically Jewish emphasis. Mendel’s equation of misfortune and sin is a direct echo of Job’s comforters who, in turn, reflect traditional Old Testament teaching as set out in Deuteronomy:

‘Wherefore it shall come to pass, if ye hearken to these judgements, and keep, and do them, that the Lord thy God shall keep unto thee the covenant and the mercy which he sware unto thy fathers: And he will love thee, and bless thee, and multiply thee: he will also bless the fruit of thy womb, and the fruit of thy land, thy corn and thy wine, and thine oil, the increase of thy kine, and the flocks of thy sheep, in the land which he sware unto thy fathers to give thee.’

Such an attitude has long been obsolete. In Robert Frost’s A Masque of Reason, God attributes the change to Job himself:

‘I have no doubt
You realise by now the part you played
To stultify the Deuteronomist
And change the tenor of religious thought.’

An even greater impetus was provided by Christ who equated not wealth but poverty with virtue, and it is his vision that informs Muriel Spark’s exploration of the Job story in The Only Problem.

Spark’s central figure, the Canadian multi-millionaire, Harvey Gotham, far from being blessed by riches, is cursed by them, both directly, when the French police suspect him of financing a terrorist cell, and indirectly, since they offer him the means to keep the world at bay, thereby destroying his chances of intimacy. Harvey has settled in the Vosges area of France, where he can pay regular visits to the de la Tour painting of Job Visited by His Wife in the Epinal museum. His isolation provides him with the conditions necessary to work on his own study of Job, which he regards as ‘the pivotal book of the Bible.’ Having disowned his wife when she stole a bar of chocolate from an Italian petrol station in protest against the capitalist state, he is doubly appalled when she turns to terrorism and he finds himself first interrogated by the police and then pilloried in the press as a mad American prophet. These tribulations lead him to identify personally with the subject of his book.

Even so that identification is largely intellectual. As he himself remarks: ‘I am hardly in the position of Job. He was covered with boils, for one thing, which I am not.’ Moreover, the abuse he suffers is several degrees milder than that of his biblical counterpart, who considers himself to be an outcast among outcasts who ‘abhor me, they flee from me, and spare not to spit in my face.’ Harvey’s comforters merely threaten his philosophical position, as when his sister-in-law, Ruth, denounces Job for submitting to his fate even when his children are killed, remarking that it is only when his own body is attacked that he even begins to kick against God.

‘Then he gets covered with boils, and it’s only then that his nerves give way, he’s touched personally. He starts his complaint against God at that point only. No question of why his sons should have lost their lives, no enquiries of God about the cause of their fate. It’s his skin disease that sets him off.’

Harvey’s obsession with the Book of Job derives from his belief that it deals with, in his words, ‘the only problem worth discussing’ – that of suffering.

‘He could not face that a benevolent Creator, one whose charming and delicious light descended and spread over the world, and being powerful everywhere, could condone the unspeakable sufferings of the world; that God did permit all suffering and was therefore by logic of his omnipotence, the actual author of it, he was at a loss to square with the existence of God, given the premise that God is good.’

Harvey is right. The Book of Job offers a direct challenge to anyone who believes in a creative and benevolent power that governs the universe. The theme of God’s relationship to human suffering is one I myself have explored in two novels although I did so through the prism of Christ rather than of Job. Human consciousness in general – and religious consciousness in particular – underwent a seismic shift by the end of the New Testament. Christ, while regularly hymned as a second Adam, might equally be considered a second Job. He too suffers disproportionately but, in his case, the suffering is the answer rather than the question.

So I would like to conclude by quoting the reply given by Blair, the Christ-figure at the heart of my novel, Easter, to a young confirmation-candidate’s questions about Christ’s suffering:

‘Perhaps He came not to suffer for us but to suffer with us. And to suffer with His father: to be the visible expression of His father’s pain. It may be heresy, but I’m convinced that God’s sacrifice in the act of creation was as great… if not greater than Christ’s on the Cross. Christ gave up His body; God gave up His spirit. He breathed His own life into Adam, animating him with a vast cosmic kiss. And out failure to respond to that love has caused Him infinite anguish. Even so, He must believe that it’s worth enduring or He would have ended the world long ago. Which is what gives me faith in the future. And why you must never despair.’