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Many of the books in the Hebrew Bible take the form of histories, while some are collections of poetry or prophecy, and a few are like short novels. The Book of Job, uniquely, is a play. Its brief prologue tells of the catastrophes inflicted by God on the hero, a wealthy and virtuous farmer. These include the deaths of all his children and servants, the loss of his entire livestock, and affliction with a vile skin disease. In the verse drama that then follows, Job bemoans his fate in a series of chilling suicidal laments: “Let the day perish wherein I was born, and the night in which it was said ‘there is a man child conceived'.”
Job is not by himself. Three of his friends set upon him—there is no better phrase—with successive attempts at counselling. The three men are models of piety. They are scarcely less eloquent than Job. Their reasoning and sincerity are a match for the millions of homilies that must have been delivered to the bereaved and despairing over the centuries since then. Job will have none of this. He rails against the men with as much vehemence as he does against his misfortunes, God, and life itself. His friends, undeterred, inflict a second round of counselling on him, and then a third. (At this point, the biblical text becomes confusing, with gaps and interpolations, including the arrival of a fourth comforter. The drama probably makes more sense if you skip chapters 23 to 37, and then read these later for their poetry alone.)
Enter God, in a whirlwind. In three chapters of terrifying poetic power, God makes no apologies, and no excuses for himself. Instead, he describes creation in all its beauty, its cruelty, and its utter unfathomability: “Doth the eagle mount up at thy command, and make her nest on high? Her young ones also suck up blood: and where the slain are, there is she.” We are no longer in the world of infantile religion, or naive therapy for the survivors of trauma. “The grand vista of nature opens before Job,” writes one commentator, “and it reveals the working of God in a realm other than man's moral order.”
A friend of mine, a Catholic priest, once described to me how he had to perform the funeral of a small child. He told me that there was only one way that it was possible for him to do it, with any degree of honesty or authenticity: to offer no explanations, no pretence of understanding, no defence of his faith. Good doctors, and good counsellors, do likewise. The God of the book of Job is not the reasonable, bland God of wishful liberals, nor the vengeful and punishing God of fundamentalists. He is as he is. That is what makes this book possibly the most challenging in the whole Bible, and the most enduring handbook for any of us who have to deal professionally with tragedy, loss, and despair.