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The First Dissident: The Book of Job in Today's Politics.

The one thing good people were never supposed to do was say a bad word about God. The Creator might let the innocent be killed in concentration camps or let robbers rip off the S&Ls or let the Chaldeans your camels or smite you with run- and you were supposed to sit ghill with legendary patience hing pious like, "The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away."

Not Job, according to this book, which claims instead that our man was, well, the first dissident who furthermore has received a bad rap throughout history, depicted as a boring old yes-man when in fact he stood on his hind legs and said, in effect, "Knock it off, God."

William Safire, readers may know, is not a theologian or scripture scholar. Worse still, he's a journalist, a highly conservative one at that, even a former speech writer for Richard Nixon, for God's sake; but on the brighter side he's the fellow who writes all those New York Times columns about words. In short, Safire is something else.

And so, he says, is the Book of Job, first written approximately 2,500 years ago but done over, Safire claims, by a succession of ecclesiastical truth police who did not think the rest of us could handle the scandal of a Job who asked God to explain himself (Job's is a male God).

Those of us who grew up taking the legendary Job for granted (Safire includes the entire book as an appendix) will be surprised, on looking closer, at what we may have missed or forgotten. At an early stage God asks Satan (Safire always calls him the Satan) where he has been -- as if there were something all-knowing God did not know. The ensuing narrative takes us smack into what Carl Jung called God's self-doubt. God needed to prove to Satan -- and, implicitly, to himself -- that, in an imperfect world, Job at least was "a man of blameless and upright life."

So, suddenly, bad things began happening to good people. All of Job's 10 children were killed, all his sheep and camels slaughtered, his home and stuff destroyed by a great wind. And that is only the beginning. (One begins to ask oneself along the way: Why would a perfectly good God allow even one camel to be slaughtered -- a God-made camel after all -- with all the cruelty and unreasonableness that goes with slaughter, just for the sake of a wager between God and, of all people, the devil?)

Job does what he is legendary for: He is patient. When his wife, first, and then three eminent Eastern chiefs, "envoys from the world's elite," as Safire calls them, berate and commiserate, Job humbly insists that the God who gives has the right to take away, that his sores and his dead kids are part of a bigger plan.

This first passage, writes Safire, is written in "the childlike style of a folktale." But now the narrative turns from prose to "potent poetry," and the writer from a passive wimp to a man on a mission.

"Damn the day that I was born," this newly assertive Job says. In cursing the day of his creation, Job is implicitly cursing his creator, claims Safire.

His three eminent friends are shocked. One trots out the cliche, "Man is born in trouble." Another is even more God-fearing. "Happy the man whom God rebukes." But this feisty Job will have none of it. "Let me have no more injustice," he tells them. "I will not hold my peace; I will speak out in the distress of my mind and complain in the bitterness of my soul."

As his three companions counterfulminate (they have given the not-very-complimentary term "Job's comforters" to posterity), Job ups the ante with the very original strategy of putting God on trial.

No sooner has he put forward the idea than he backs away from it: God is so powerful, Job would not have a chance. But once the trial is mentioned, the challenge is out there demanding an answer.

Writes Safire: "The prospect of power triumphing over justice depresses Job, who bitterly accuses God of moral mismanagement: 'The land is given over to the power of the wicked.' ... Poet-Job has now enabled his protagonist to escalate the struggle from a divine test of Job's faith to a human test of God's morality."

You can't expect God to take all this lying down, least of all in his own Bible. He "comes roaring out of a whirlwind to jolt Job with the most intimidating series of sarcastic questions ever posed." There is little one can say when God asks, "Have you descended to the springs of the sea or walked in the unfathomable deep? Have the gates of death been revealed to you?"

But, Safire reminds us, throughout all the divine bombast "God pointedly does not answer Job's legitimate questions about the suffering of the innocent."

In the face of this onslaught, our hero caves in: "What reply can I give thee, I who carry no weight?" God fulminates a bit more, going for Job's jugular. Job gets humbler and more patient, and God finally metaphorically pats him on the head, restores his camels and kids and lets him live another 140 years. As Safire notes, "the ending is unrelievedly upbeat."

It would not seem conducive to the promotion of any religion to have its God challenged by an ancient upstart. It is Safire's contention that the Book of Job as we know it was tampered with, at various times, by nervous defenders of the faith afraid of scandalizing their followers: "Scribes down the centuries mistranslated (Job) to tone down his borderline heresy."

In particular, he believes, they tacked on the beginning and end. But he gives the ancients credit for allowing such a contentious work to survive at all, and even make its way into the approved canon of the scriptures.

Perhaps it survived because it cuts to the core of the human condition, and the redactors, however eager not to rock the theological boat, could not in good conscience deny the central insight. It is no surprise that the debate has been ongoing. Safire spends much of his book on "how Job's message of outrage at injustice was recaptured and reshaped to fit the new orthodoxies and mystic visions of modern theologians, artists and politicians."

Just as Shakespeare saw the devil citing scripture for his purpose, Safire sees the ancients tailoring Job for theirs. The original Job of oral tradition was used among the Jews to propagate monotheism -- "a single, all-powerful God who dispensed Justice tempered with mercy to those who selflessly worshipped him." Then came our poet-Job, a philosopher, Safire writes, with the courage to confront the less cozy realities of life, including the elementary truth that, as far as we can see, God does not always reward the good or punish the wicked.

There follows a run-down of history's better known ideological dissidents, all citing Job for their purposes, from Moses Maimonides to Herman Melville. Including Aeschylus: "Both of these original thinkers dealt with the need to reconcile godly omnipotence and human dignity."

Perhaps it is not surprising that, as blind, unquestioning faith faded in the last century or so, shaken by rationalism nudging people to question a despot God, Job's popularity flourished anew. Danish theologian Soren Kierkegaard, for example: "The secret in Job, the vital force, the nerve, the idea, is that Job, despite everything, is in the right." These are sentiments that fear or awe kept most of the human race from voicing throughout most of history -- and remain daring today. The book's subtitle is The Book of Job in Today's Politics. Politics has been a large part of Safire's life, but it might have been better to leave them for another book. On every occasion the book drops to the banal level of secular politics, the debate loses its shine.

In the introduction, for example, we read: "In the depths of his despair, Job's friends let him down; how much loyalty can a politician in hot water legitimately demand from his friends?" It is a long drop to Washington's bank scandals from Job's joust with the almost ineffable.

As to Job's periodic comebacks "among creative artists, philosophers and political soreheads," Safire thinks it's because the author, having set up his daring design, left the outcome unfinished so that each of us who dared could supply our own ending in word or deed.

The author confesses he set out to supply his own particular ending, "to write an angry book about an unfair God and a badly used man." A romantic notion, he now admits: He would identify not only with the thinkers but with the doers. He would be one with the defiant who dared the world's Gulags under the banner of integrity.

But in the end he pulls back, a bit defensively, opting instead for safe haven in a backwater of his own Jewish tradition: "Jobans do not go with any flow, even one that exalts dissent and condemns obedience.... I started my journey into this book with doubt in my faith and have come out with faith in my doubt."

That may be why, in another 2,500 years, seekers bothered by the pebble in their high-tech shoes will bypass Safire, however interesting he may be, to encounter instead the original renegade's daring outburst.
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Author:Farrell, Michael J.
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Feb 5, 1993
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