Note: As with my take on the Book of Samuel and the Book of Job, this post was originally posted on Facebook. At the time I had just begun to read the Bible — I read Proverbs and Ecclesiastes in Alter’s translation. I have edited the original piece slightly.
I finished the Book of Proverbs and the Book of Ecclesiastes, which along with the Book of Job make up the “Wisdom Books” of the Old Testament. The books have very distinct narrative styles. For most of his book, Job is Matthew McConaughey in “True Detective” – downbeat, cosmic, anti-natalist. The Book of Proverbs reminds me of Dave Ramsey — upbeat, optimistic, and practical in a theological context.
Deliver yourself like a gazelle from the hand of the hunter,
And like a bird from the hand of the fowler.
Go to the ant, you sluggard!
Consider her ways and be wise,
Which, having no captain,
Overseer or ruler,
Provides her supplies in the summer,
And gathers her food in the harvest.
How long will you slumber, O sluggard?
When will you rise from your sleep? Proverbs 6:5-9
And Ecclesiastes… I hear Ecclesiastes the voice of John Derbyshire. The writer shares with Derbyshire a general pessimism and skepticism, a fear of chaos greater than a fear of arbitrary rule, and a rational take to maximizing enjoyment of life. “Eat, drink, and be merry” is one memorable line — “of making books there is no end” is another.
The words of the wise are like goads, and the words of scholars are like well-driven nails,
given by one Shepherd.
You can see the difference in emphasis in how Proverbs and Ecclesiastes judge kings. They are the arbiters of justice:
The king’s favor is toward a wise servant,
But his wrath is against him who causes shame. Proverbs 14:35
And the cause of censorship:
Do not curse the king, even in your thought;
Do not curse the rich, even in your bedroom;
For a bird of the air may carry your voice,
And a bird in flight may tell the matter. Ecclesiastes 10:20
Proverbs reminds me of the praise hymns and the sermons that we all kind of remember from childhood. Job is what happens when that world view encounters death. Ecclesiastes is after an even more challenging confrontation: the ups and down of a mostly successful life.
The Five Books of Moses (the lost world of Genesis, the Breaking Bad arc of Exodus-Numbers, the sacrifices of Leviticus, the true intentions of Deuteronomy) are more mysterious.
The Former Prophets (the war story of Joshua, the westerns of Judges, the Shakespeare + Game of Thrones * + House of Cards* intrigue of Samuel, the Battlestar Galactica destruction of Kings) are better stories.
But the Wisdom Books (the philosophical horror of Job, the cheery ministry of Proverbs, the skeptical and human theology of Ecclesiastes) are more thought provoking. They are the closest the Hebrews came to philosophy and, by emphasizing the human measure of all things, are in many ways superior.
Note: As with my take on The Book of Samuel, this post was originally posted on Facebook. At the time I had just begun to read the Bible — I read Job in Alter’s translation. I have edited the original piece slightly.
The Book of Job is about a wealth, respected, non-Jewish man who worships God and cares for his family. Disaster after disaster falls on him. He blames God, but never doubts in God’s existence.
Most artistic images of Job are of a broken man, a victim and a whiner, moaning the cruelty of the world. Job is more of a man than that. A better image is Matthew McConaughey in “True Detective,” clinically explaining why consciousness is a mistake and life the worst fate that could befall us.
Job, the Horror Writer
The horror writer Thomas Ligotti has condemned giving birth as a violent and evil act. He is ripping off Job
Annul the day that I was born,
and the night that said, “A man is conceived…”
Why did I not die from the womb
from the belly come out, breathe my last?
Why did knees welcome me,
and why breasts, that I should suck?
For now I would lie and be still,
would sleep and know response
with kings and the councilors of earth,
who build ruins for themselves Job 3:3, 3:11-14
In Ligotti’s fiction, he proposes a sort of pan-demonoism, a belief that the core of reality is an oozing malevolence against which man may — meaninglessly – rebel. Job would agree
For SHADDAI’s arrows are in me —
their venom my spirit drinks
the terrors of God beset me…
I would speak, and I will not fear Him
for that is not the way I am Job 9:4, 35
Faced with the churchy bullshit his friends “console” him with, Job does them one better, referencing a Psalm
What is man that You should remember him
and the son of man that You pay him heed.
And you make him little less than the gods
with glory and grandeur You cloak him Psalms 8:5-6
to make a dimmer point:
What is man that You make him great
and that You pay him to geed
You single him out every morning
every moment examine him.
How long till You turn away from me?
You don’t let me go while I swallow my spit Job 7:17-19
An Aside: The LORD in the Flesh
In Job’s speeches, there are two breaks that grab a reader’s attention. The first is quick, and is jarring because Job appears to be a contemporary of Abraham. While both the Book of Genesis and the Book of Job occasionally refer to God as “SHADDAI” and feature men who wrestle with God’s messages, in Genesis the LORD is flesh and blood, and even joins Abraham and Sarah for a meal (Genesis 18), but Job seems unaware of this:
Do you have the eyes of mortal flesh
do You see as a man would see?
Are Your days like a mortal’s days
Your years like the years of a man Job 10:4-5
Of course, the LORD had dinner with other men and women: Peter, Mary, Martha, and others.
What, then, did Job know of that?
Would then, that my words were written
that they were inscribed in a book,
with an iron pen and lead
to be hewed in rock forever.
But I know my redeemer lives,
and in the end he will stand up on earth
and after they flay my skin,
from my flesh I shall behold God
For I myself shall behond
my eyes will see– no stranger’s
my heart is harried within me.
Should you say, “How more can we hound him?
The root of the thing rests in him”
Fear the sword, for wrath is a sword-worthy crime,
so you may know there is judgement.” Job 19:23-29
“Look at the birds of the air, they do not sow or reap or store aware in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?” Matthew 6:26
Job considers birds very well indeed
“Yet asks of the beasts, they will teach you,
the fowl of heavens will tell you,
or speak to the earth, it will teach you,
the fish of the sea will inform you.
Who has not known in all these
that the LORD’s hands has done this
In Whose hand is the breath of each living thing,
and the spirit of all human flesh.
Does not the ear make out the words,
the palate taste food: Job 12:7-11
Eventually God puts an end to the back-and-forths between Job and his friends (and even more thankfully, the rambling punk kid of one of Job’s friends), states that his friends’ churchy bullshit makes Him look bad and them look stupid, and even picks up the bird metaphor
“Does the hawk soar by your wisdom,
spread his wings to fly away South?
By your word does the eagle mount
and set his nest on high?
On the crag he dwells and beds down
on the crest of the crag his stronghold.
From there he seeks out food,
from afar his eyes look down.
His chicks lap up blood,
where the slain are, there he is.” Job 39:27-30
Throughout the book, Job remembers his suffering and injustice, and returns again and again to the random brutality of the world.
Job’s churchy friends try to tell him that justice always wins out in our lives.
God tells those friends to stfu, tells Job that he’s at least half right (unlike his friends, who are simply wrong), but that there’s awe-inspiring and exciting parts of the universe too.
The heart of the Book of Job is in these dialogues, and there’s a fairy-tale-like story surrounding it. That story is wrapped up too. Job gets really rich, and Job’s wife (who was acting bitchy during the disasters) presumably becomes jealous of their has three hot daughters, named (in Hebrew) Dove, Cinnamon, and Eyeshadow.
But like in Ezekiel something is wrong with the narrative. Job doesn’t end where it begins, there’s no follow-up to the bet between God and Satan. What was the point of it all? Who won? Why did any of this happen?