And Then Job Said Unto the Lord: You Can’t Be Serious

In a new translation of the Book of Job, the famously repentant hero gives God a piece of his mind.

Job looks up at red asterisk.
Oliver Munday; Museo Nacional de Arte

So God says to Satan, “You there, what have you been up to?” And Satan says, “Oh, you know, just hanging around, minding my own business.” And God says, “Well, take a look at my man Job over there. He worships me. He does exactly what I tell him. He thinks I’m the greatest.” “Job?” says Satan. “The rich, happy, healthy guy? The guy with 3,000 camels? Of course he does. You’ve given him everything. Take it all away from him, and I bet you he’ll curse you to your face.” And God says, “You’re on.”

That—give or take a couple of verses—is how it starts, the Book of Job. What a setup. The Trumplike deity; the shrewd and loitering adversary; the cruelly flippant wager; and the stooge, the cosmic straight man, Job, upon whose oblivious head the sky is about to fall. A classic Old Testament skit, pungent as a piece of absurdist theater or a story by Kafka. Job is going to be immiserated, sealed into sorrow—for a bet. What is life? It’s a bleeping and blooping Manichaean casino: You’re up or you’re down, in God’s hands or the devil’s. Piped-in oxygen, controlled light, keep the drinks coming. We, the readers and inheritors of his book, know this. Job, poor bastard, doesn’t.

After his herds have been finished off by marauders and gushes of heavenly fire, and his children have been flattened by falling masonry, and he himself has been covered in running sores from head to toe—after all this happens to the blameless man, he cracks. He sits on an ash heap, seeping and scratching, and reviles the day he was born. “Let that day be darkness,” as the King James Version has it. “Let not God regard it from above, neither let the light shine upon it. Let darkness and the shadow of death stain it; let a cloud dwell upon it; let the blackness of the day terrify it.”

Howls of despair are a biblical staple, but Job’s self-curse—the special physics of it, the suicidal pulse that he sends backwards, like a black rainbow, toward the hour of his own conception—is singular. Dispossessed of everything, he is choosing nothing. That first prickle of my existence, the point of light with my name on it? Turn around, All-Fathering One, and eclipse it. Delete.

Cover of Job, a new translation.
Yale University Press

Edward L. Greenstein’s new translation of the Book of Job is a work of erudition with—as we shall see—a revolutionary twist. A professor emeritus of Bible studies at Israel’s Bar-Ilan University, Greenstein is not going for the deep-time sonorities of the Authorized Version. His language is lumpy with scholarly fidelity to the text. But the shock of repudiation is undiminished. “Why couldn’t I die after leaving the womb—Just go out the loins and stop breathing?” his Job demands. “For what did knees have to receive me? For what were the breasts that I sucked?” And later: “Why have you made me your target?” This is where we moderns, we dopes marooned in the universe, love Job and find brotherhood with him. Because he’s been in us since the beginning, since the first germ of our separateness from everything else—a man confronting the mystery, as if there was a strand of our DNA in the shape of a question mark: Why?

Now some friends of Job appear and offer, one after another, the conventional pieties: God is great, Job must have done something wrong, how dare he question the ways of the Lord, etc. They’re hard to take, these friends—Bildad, Eliphaz, and Zophar, droning away. Job rejects their arguments, and it’s here, as the debate goes windily back and forth, that a 21st-century reader reaches for his phone. The stark, existential lines of the drama have gotten spoiled; the Kafka-voltage has dropped.

But then: enter God. “Up speaks YHWH,” as Greenstein puts it, momentarily folksy—a voice “from the windstorm.” “Bind up your loins like a man,” God warns Job, before stamping on the effects pedal and delivering perhaps the most shattering speech ever recorded. Question after question, power chord after power chord: “Where were you when I laid earth’s foundations? … Can you tie the bands of the Pleiades, Or loosen the cords of Orion? … Do you give the horse its bravery?” No explanation; no answer for Job; no moral or theoretical content whatsoever. It’s the interrogation of consciousness by pure Being, by the Logos, by the unstopping, unmediated act of creation itself. Do not try this at home. “Does the falcon take flight through your wisdom, As it spreads its wings toward the south?” The human intellect shrinks before the onslaught. The language is incomparable. God, it turns out, is the greatest poet; no one can touch him.

And it’s at this point, with Job reduced to a pair of smoking sandals and the divine mega-monologue still ringing in the vaults of the firmament, that Greenstein and centuries of tradition diverge. He has produced his new translation of Job, he tells us in the introduction, to “set the record straight.” Every version of the Bible that you have read puts Job, in the wake of God’s speech, in an attitude of awestruck contrition or reconversion. “Wherefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes,” he says in the King James. “I’m sorry—forgive me,” he says in Eugene H. Peterson’s million-selling plain-language adaptation, The Message. “I’ll never do that again, I promise!” Greenstein’s Job, however, stays vinegary to the end. “I have heard you,” he tells God, “and now my eye has seen you. That is why I am fed up.” The Hebrew phrase commonly rendered as some form of I repent, Greenstein translates as I take pity on. Dust and ashes, meanwhile, is for Greenstein a biblical epithet meaning humanity in general. So the line becomes “I take pity on ‘dust and ashes.’ ” Job’s last word: What a world you’ve made, God. I feel sorry for everyone.

What does it mean? This newly revealed Job, writes Greenstein, “is expressing defiance, not capitulation … If God is all about power and not morality and justice, Job will not condone it through acceptance.” Upon the scholarly merits of this approach, I am unable to pronounce; as an idea, I’ll consider it. We don’t read the Bible, it’s been said; the Bible reads us. It searches us. And here for us in 2019, right on time, with tyranny back in style and riding its behemoth through the streets, is a middle-finger Job, a Job unreconciled to the despotism of experience. He’s been shattered by life-shocks; then God, like a wall of terrible noise, fills and overfills his mind. His response: Thank you, but no.

Gloria Dei est vivens homo, wrote Saint Irenaeus: The glory of God is a living man. Might not the Author of Life look with favor upon this brilliantly resistant creature, this unappeasable critical thinker, this supremely lonely and dissenting figure, this Bartleby with boils—unswayed by the sublime, scratching his scabs in the land of Uz? That might be the rankest heresy: Let me know, bishops. But consider what Greenstein’s nonpenitent, polarity-reversed Job has done to the ending of the book. As before, with the experiment over, Job is blandly restored to a state of health and wealth; as before, God upbraids the sententious friends, the Bildads and the Eliphazes and the Zophars, and sends them off to make some burnt offerings, “for you did not speak about me in honesty as did my servant Job.” The quality or valence of this honesty, however, has turned upside down. It has become a kind of white-knuckle existential tenacity, a refusal to disown oneself even in the teeth of the windstorm. Maybe that’s what this God, faced with this Job, is telling us: Bring it all before him, the full grievance of your humanity. Bring him your condition, loudly. Let him have it.

This article appears in the September 2019 print edition with the headline “Sorry, Not Sorry.”