More on Job: A Response to Jesse Turri

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Off the back of my latest post on Job, my friend Jesse Turri blogged in response to aspects of what I had written. I appreciate and am excited by the engagement. As such, I wanted to offer something of a reply to certain parts of Jesse’s engagement with my initial post. To do so, I will offer a few qualifiers that expand my position on tangential issues, before then opening up further regarding my reading of Job.

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Just as for Jesse, the book of Job “is less about the ontology, sovereignty and/or benevolence of God,” the same might apply to me. I wouldn’t like to be understood as recapitulating old discussions over God’s goodness and the problem of evil and theodicy. I don’t understand myself as having anything at stake here. I’m interested in giving the narrative some consistency, as I read it. Insofar as I can, I want to try and understand how the text understands God, and as a subsequent extrapolation and interpretation interpolate radical theological conclusions and categories.

Additionally, nor would I like to be seen as essentialising “evil” – like Turri, I find the idea of “Evil” unconvincing. I wouldn’t essentialise like this, but the text does. God is said to have done “evil,” through what God has permitted to happen to Job. I use the word evil in this sense alone.

Further, I see Jesse’s interpretation of Job as sitting well within other readings I find interesting (which I have written about here and here); readings that take a different metaphysics from a process-theological perspective. What Turri admits, however, is what I struggle to resolve between this reading and the text: that the reading forgets the context of the book itself.

It is not my intention to say texts cannot be appropriated in new ways; only what I, in the case of Job, find compelling. If God is dead, so is the author; if the Word is dead, then we are lost in words – texts are open to dynamic and creative use. We make our own truth.

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Given the above, I am open to and intrigued by Jesse’s interpretation that places the events of Job’s life within a “web of existence;” within a contingent, “shit happens” field. Why I can’t follow Jesse, and others such as Catherine Keller and Cheryl Exum who propose such readings, along this line is its knowing failure to take up the text as a whole. It proposes a new (understanding of) God, all the while ignoring the actions of the God presented in the text, which might be said to follow a basic outline like this:

  • God enters into crisis when the satan provokes God to consider Job’s integrity;
  • God sanctions everything that happens to Job;
  • After Job refuses to concede any of this was deserved, God vindicates Job but admits nothing of God’s crisis;
  • The book concludes with God seemingly paying Job back for all that God did to him.

What, given this basic structure, the narrator’s conceding that God has done evil does is actually serve to threaten the radicality of the book. The basic premise of the book is that God fits a deuteronomistic paradigm of moral accountancy and book balancing (e.g. bad things happen to bad people etc.). The book, in this sense, throws this understanding into doubt: Job doesn’t deserve any of this. As such his friends, who defend this understanding of God, are wrong in the case of Job; but the question then is, are they wrong as a rule or in this case? Does not the epilogue dilute the radicalism of throwing out this deuteronomistic God? God balances God’s own book, giving Job more than he had to begin with (with all questions about whether it is actually enough included) for his exemplary conduct.

Is the (tame) conclusion not then: Sometimes shit really happens, and you don’t deserve it, but God will pay you back even more, provided you don’t curse God’s name? This certainly seems to be the conclusion the narrator’s naming of God’s conduct implies. There’s a seeming roundedness this concession brings to the text and its implicit assumptions regarding divine agency and so on.

Of course, I have not even mentioned or explored Job’s intense and deeply provocative and resonant questioning and protesting (which I’ve developed here, here, and here). My problems lie ultimately with what has to be said of the divine. The text ultimately seems to lack the courage of its convictions: Yes, question God’s goodness and ability to control the situation; but, in the end, be confident that God will vindicate and reward you.

In this sense, were Jesse prefers to, in some way, rehabilitate the God the text presents; for me what is to be done is to simply reject and laugh at what the text fails to do: it fails to fully carry out the death of God it has brought about. As Zizek observes, in the interstices of the text, Job appears to play along with God, as God speaks with great divine bluster.

Why did Job keep his silence after the boastful appearance of God? Is not this ridiculous boasting… the very mode of appearance of its opposite, to which one can answer by simply saying: “OK, if you can do all this, why did you let me suffer in such a meaningless way?” Do not God’s thundering words make his silence, the absence of an answer, all the more palpable? What, then, if this was what Job perceived, and what kept him silent: he remained silent neither because he was crushed by God’s overwhelming presence, nor because he wanted thereby to indicate his continuous resistance, that is, the fact that God avoided answering Job’s question, but because, in a gesture of silent solidarity, he perceived the divine impotence. God is neither just nor unjust, simply impotent. What Job suddenly understood was that it was not him, but God Himself, who was actually on trial in Job’s calamities, and He failed the test miserably. (The Puppet and the Dwarf, 126-127)

Of course, let’s be clear, this is an extrapolation and an interpretation about what is plausible in our post/modern condition. Nor, with this, am I ignorant to the fact that, ultimately, the Book of Job houses “the presence of multiple perspectives without a clear resolution of their tension” (124). I only present an understanding of these tensions that is compelling and coherent to me; as well as a subsequent interpretation of those tensions that find their place within my wider thought.

All this said, I do also feel I risk conflating presentation with endorsement – something the editors of Job may cleverly have risked as an act of subversion, and which Zizek’s reading wonderfully displays. For example, we have an evil God, all the while having a God who says Job – who has just called into question a whole divine order – has spoken truly. There are many rightly disparate elements; but the text recognises that God did evil, which I feel is significant. I’m down with it.

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