Job and Dean

January 06, 2004|By William Safire

WASHINGTON - "Who is this that darkeneth knowledge by words without counsel?"

So thundered God in the Hebrew Bible to his servant Job. That upright and blameless man had dared to challenge the Lord's unfairness in stripping him of his wealth and killing his children.

Last week, some five or six millennia later, "words without counsel" by Howard Dean were heard about the most controversial book in all theology.

As he heads into what H. L. Mencken called the "Bible Belt," the candidate moved to plug an apparent hole in his rM-isumM-i about an interest in religion.

After hearing Dr. Dean's observation beginning, "If you know much about the Bible - which I do," a reporter asked about his favorite New Testament book.

Dr. Dean named Job, adding, "But I don't like the way it ends. ... In some of the books of the New Testament, the ending of the Book of Job is different. ... There's one book where there's a more optimistic ending, which we believe was tacked on later."

The candidate returned an hour later to confess error: Job was in the Old Testament, not the New. Beyond that slip, his recollection of "one book where there's a more optimistic ending" is muddled; the Book of Job in the Old Testament has an upbeat ending, with God doubling Job's former wealth and giving him new children for having sustained his piety through all his trials.

"Many people believe that the original version of Job is the version where ... Job ends up completely destitute and ruined," said Dr. Dean in his correction.

That's accurate, though there's no other Job book in Scripture with an ending other than the familiar one.

I think he means that some scholars believe that the Old Testament Book of Job that we know was amended by later rabbis fearful of portraying God as unjust.

"Many people believe," concluded Dr. Dean, presumably among them, "that the original ending was about the power of God, and the power of God was almighty and all-knowing, and it wasn't necessary that everybody was going to be redeemed."

He's right about the existence of that interpretation. A decade ago, in The First Dissident, a book about the politics of the Book of Job, I reported the belief that a "Hollywood ending" had possibly been tacked on.

Despite his fuzziness, Dr. Dean is on to something. The moral excitement in the Book of Job is the sufferer's outrage at God's refusal to do justice. We are told at the outset that this pious, wealthy and powerful man is the subject of a wager between God and the Satan about whether Job's piety was merely the result of his prosperity. When afflicted, Job scandalizes his comforters by damning the day that he was born, calling for a redeemer who could take God to court on a charge of moral mismanagement.

God hears this incessant dissidence and, in the Voice from the Whirlwind, blows Job's whining away in the longest direct quotation of the Lord in Scripture, beginning "Who is this that darkeneth knowledge." In magnificent imagery and biting sarcasm, God answers Job's challenge by rebuking him for presuming to question the wisdom of the Creator of the Universe.

Where does that amazing diatribe leave sufferers seeking solace, or victims seeking retributive justice?

Holocaust witness Elie Wiesel has written that he was dismayed by this non-response.

The author Virginia Woolf wrote in her diary, "I read the Book of Job last night - I don't think God comes well out of it."

Others say the book proves that suffering is no evidence of sin, and may even be a blessing in disguise - that it is beyond human understanding to know God's ways or discern his ultimate purpose.

Job, having succeeded in making direct contact with his Creator, reacts to God's awesome rebuke by putting his hand over his mouth and accepting the limits of his knowledge. In the ending that some find incongruous, he is forgiven and rewarded.

Dr. Dean, under Democratic fire for shooting from the lip, says, "I'm feeling a little more Job-like recently." He identifies with the Gentile from the Land of Uz, now called Iraq, because he feels he is being unjustly punished for standing up to authority.

How's that for chutzpah?

William Safire is a columnist for The New York Times.

Columnist Thomas L. Friedman is on vacation.

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