Job’s Path to Enlightenment

By Ethan Dor-Shav

A new interpretation of the Bible's most enigmatic book.

The best way to appreciate the author’s intent in portraying the early Job’s iniquities is by following his unfolding changes. They begin to take shape when Job’s old religious maxims start to fail him emotionally. Job’s self-centeredness cracks with his second reply to his wife: “Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and shall we not receive the bad?”43 While he still echoes religious formality, there is an important difference. Where before Job employed only a singular “I,” he now discovers the plural “we,” including his wife in his frame of reference. In literary terms, the introduction of her voice into the story is the spark of another voice within Job. Her words—and her possible suggestion of suicide—signify the instigation of an internal dialogue. This new voice breaks the spell of sleepwalking years, and creates the first rift between the Job of external appearances and the Job of internal contemplation. “In all this Job did not sin with his lips,” says the text, hinting that while he is as yet unable to express it out loud, deep inside, thank God, “sinning” has begun.
This crack triggers Job’s first great outcry. As we shall see, it proves to be a small step from cursing his wife to cursing his life—just a few verses later—in point of fact following her chided suggestion almost to the letter. In chapter 3, as “Job opened his mouth and cursed his day,”44 we witness a visceral outbreak of emotion that signifies the true beginning of his transformation, sweeping away a lifetime of innocence.45 This speech, authentic and empowering, replaces Job’s earlier reflexive utterances. After a week of silent meditation with his friends—likely the first such introspective period in his life—Job’s outcry represents an initial indication of genuine self awareness:46
And Job spoke, and said: Oh that the day had perished wherein I was born… Because it did not shut up the doors of my mother’s womb nor hide the toil from my eyes…. Why is light given to him who toils, and life to the bitter of soul?... For my sighing comes before I eat, and my roarings are poured out like the waters.47
While the entire speech is obsessed with death, it is actually the moment of Job’s mental rebirth. Indeed, the consideration of death has been the impetus for spiritual quests on the part of thinkers as diverse as the Buddha and Albert Camus. Psychologically, however, Job still has a long way to go, for the personality expressed in his first speech is clearly regressive:
Why did I not die from the womb? Why did I not perish when I came out of the belly? Why did a lap receive me? Or why the breasts, that I should suck? For now I should have lain still and been quiet, I should have slept: Then had I been at rest.48
One cannot ignore the implications of Job’s oral-stage mother attachment, or how his death wish constitutes a Freudian, infantile drive to return to the womb. In Job’s fantasy, the desired “sleep” is the equilibrium of the womb to which he has already promised to return naked in chapter 1.49 In addition, Job’s grievances lack direction at this stage. He does not point a finger at wrongdoers or toward God.50 Instead, he rants like a child, throwing a tantrum at abstractions such as his date of birth, or at fantasized body parts.51
Paradoxically, Job’s despair leads his friends to introduce the subject of God’s justice, which he himself did not raise. It is their insistence that suffering has meaning which will compel Job to shift his grievance from that of being born to that of being wronged. The heated debates between Job and his friends soon lead him to replace his stoic acceptance with righteous indignation. This anger is vital to his moral development, as the Book of Ecclesiastes states: “Anger is better than laughter, for as the face is grave, the mind turns pure.”52 It is Job’s anguish, and his anger toward his friends, that catalyzes his next phase of development.53 In this new and extroverted stage (chapters 6-19), Job leaves his symbiotic affair with the womb, and, at last, begins to notice those around him. In chapter 12, Job becomes aware of archetypal characters such as thieves and elders and begins to take note of animals and nature. Two chapters later he even mentions his children.54 What Job projects onto the people around him, however, is hardly tender empathy. Job’s first acknowledgment of his friends is “my brothers betrayed me,”55 a sentiment he elaborates upon:
My kinsfolk and my close friends have failed me; the guests in my house have forgotten me; my maidservants count me as a stranger… I call to my servant, but he does not respond… I am repulsive to my wife, loathsome to the sons of my own mother… All my friends abhor me, and those whom I loved have turned against me.56
These are ironic words coming from a man who has never mourned the loss of his children, consoled his grieving wife, thanked his friends for their support, or noticed his shepherds’ demise. But as the psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott explains, this reaction is an unavoidable and necessary step on the road to developing a sense of morality: “Simultaneous love-hate experience implies the achievement of ambivalence, the enrichment and refinement of which leads to the emergence of concern.”57 At the same time, despite Job’s self-pity, his words could not better describe what psychology calls “Differentiation”: a realization of the world and the people outside oneself. As Job both loves and hates his friends, guests, servants, wife, and children, he begins, at last, to acknowledge their independent existence and social significance.
As Winnicott would predict, concern does indeed emerge in chapters 24-27, in which we encounter a very different Job, one whose eyes have opened to the world. Suddenly, Job’s expanding awareness acknowledges the misery of the less fortunate. Even as Job condemns Heaven for their state, conveniently leaving himself out of the picture, his tragic portrayal of social reality is worlds apart from the egocentric ranting that marked his previous self, just as his description of injustice is no longer theoretical in nature:
Men… drive away the ass of the fatherless; they take the widow’s ox for a pledge. They thrust the poor off the road…. Behold, like wild asses in the desert they go forth to their toil, seeking prey in the wilderness as food for their children…. They lie all night naked, without clothing… hungry, they carry the sheaves… they tread the winepresses but suffer thirst. From out of the city the dying groan, and the lifeblood of the wounded cries for help.58
It is a small step from this to another breakthrough, when, for the first time, Job considers his own role in compassion and begins to re-invent himself anew. To do so, he employs the psychological device of reconstructing his identity by re-writing his history. A full twenty-nine chapters into the book, Job suddenly “remembers” to depict himself as a saint, describing proactive deeds:
I delivered the poor who cried out, The fatherless and the one who had no helper. The blessing of a perishing man came upon me, And I caused the widow’s heart to sing for joy. I put on righteousness, and it clothed me; My justice was like a robe and a turban. I was eyes to the blind, And I was feet to the lame. I was a father to the poor, And I searched out the case that I did not know. I broke the fangs of the wicked, And plucked the victim from his teeth.59
We have good reason to doubt this self-glorification. Maimonides dismisses it as “boasting.” At the same time, however, one must appreciate Job’s new grasp of his moral responsibility toward others.60 Soon thereafter he internalizes the fact that it is not enough merely to act according to custom and routine—one must also feel. Therefore, the guilt-ridden Job cries out: “Have I not wept for him who was in trouble? Has not my soul grieved for the poor?”61 We know that Job did not, in fact, weep or grieve for anyone, save himself. But in claiming to have done so, Job implicitly acknowledges that he should have.62 The suffering of others has finally touched his heart.
In his last major speech, two-thirds through the book, Job displays a level of morality that few attain. He articulates a flash of insight into why he must respect the human rights of his serf: “Did not he that made me in the womb make him? And did not one fashion us in the womb?”63 This question asserts the basic principle of human equality. Note also how the previously fantasized womb, expressing Job’s regressive state, has now become concrete and realistic. Throughout this speech, Job articulates the quid pro quo that governs a just society. If I steal, he says, may my crops go to others; and of adultery: “If I lurk at my neighbor’s door, then let my own wife grind for another…. For that were a heinous crime!”64 Having finally understood the core values of moral behavior, Job no longer desires to simply deflect punishment. Rather, he wants to do what’s right.65 Job ends his speech with a series of oaths:
If [it be that] I raise my hand against the fatherless, because I saw help in the gate; then let my shoulder blade fall from my shoulder, and let my arm be broken from its socket…. If [it be that] I have eaten its yield without payment and caused the death of its owners; let thorns grow instead of wheat, and foul weeds instead of barley. The words of Job are ended.66
This represents a revolutionary transformation for a man who was once completely oblivious to the world around him. He now embraces the desolate under caring wings of love. The philosopher Emmanuel Levinas points out that: “For pure suffering… a beyond takes shape in the inter-human;” this “beyond oneself” has opened itself to Job.67 Previously self-centered, Job has learned to empathize with the experiences and suffering of others. By the end of chapter 31, he has become a morally righteous man and has effectively exorcised Satan from both himself and the book as a whole.

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