Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Job: Covenant in Crisis

Job in a classic attitude of dejection

"The Destruction of Leviathan" by Gustave Dore

Covenant in Crisis: the Book of Job

The title page of William Blake's remarkable illustration of the book of Job.

On the deepest level, the Book of Job is concerned with God's covenant with man. The body of the book, the poetic portion, is taken up with Job's demand to know why God has seemingly forsaken him; the book ends with his loss of faith reversed.

The changing nature of the Hebraic covenant can be traced thus. First, it entailed individual responsibility (with the Mosaic covenant), then dependence on regal sovereignty (with the Davidic covenant); and finally, with the collapse of both, it was comprised a radical faith in the endurance of divine grace, as manifested in God's covenant with Abraham (with Jeremiah). The book of Job is more than an elaboration on Jeremiah's conception of grace, however; it is an unflinching investigation that takes into full account its possible failure.

The crux of the book of Job lies in the shift in Job's perceptions from an anthrocentric to a theocentric view, from a Ptolemaic to a Copernican cosmogony, so to speak. By recognizing the limitations of his human perspective, Job evolves from demanding justice from God and believing the design of the universe is centered on mankind, to accepting the subordinate position of man, when he realizes that the reasons for human suffering will forever be unfathomable to the human eye.

Towards the end of the book, this epiphany is marked by a theophany (chapters 38-41) in which God mockingly points out what a fool man is to expect unfailing protection from harm, for Creation was not wrought for man's sake; man is but a minor component of it. By acknowledging God's omnipotence—through repentance—Job returns to His grace, symbolized in the last chapter by the resumption of his good fortune.

The transformation of Job's attitude from outrage to humility marks the increasing desperation of Hebrew theology that developed as traditional institutions and relationships inevitably corrupted as time wore on; it was almost the end of the road. With the failure of both the Mosaic and Davidic covenants, there was little doubt when the book of Job was composed that God's chosen people had failed Him.

At the time of the composition of the book of Job, the question was being raised among the Hebrew people of whether God might decide to turn his back on them. Using the leap of faith that all religions perform to surmount the stumbling-block of materialist rationality, Job is able to reorient himself in the cosmic order, by redefining his position in it.

Job's victory of coming to terms with man's lack of a supreme place in the universe exemplifies the tough-minded faith, humility, and sense of responsibility that insured Judaism's survival while virtually all of its competitors crumbled. Even so, it was unable to resist the temptation of shrill apocalyptic outbursts, as seen in Hosea, Isaiah, and Jeremiah.

Even Job, in 19: 25-9, longs for a Redeemer, a divine intercessor who will act as his defense lawyer against Satan's attorney for the prosecution. As it became revealed in subsequent history, the majority of the people of the Fertile Crescent lacked Job's hard-won faith, and in time they succumbed to their apocalyptic yearnings, to their need to listen to some good news for a change.

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Note: I originally wrote this essay as a Religion paper while a senior at Princeton in April 1977.


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