Culture Ideas
Culture: An Accusation of Timeless Dimensions
Monday, 20 March 2006 Written by
I remember stumbling upon, as a kid, The Book of Job in a family bible. Set in archaic language and almost indecipherable gothic font, it was a struggle to get through; but the story was absorbing and the poetry, otherworldly. Like countless readers before me, however, I was baffled by the ending.

ZapffeYears later, the existentialist philosopher Peter Wessel Zapffe (1899-1990) helped me make sense of it at last. His classic essay on The Book of Job is adapted from his masterpiece, On the Tragic, published in 1941 under German occupation. It is a subversive and blasphemous reading of this ancient meditation on the Problem of Evil, which Zapffe understood as an indictment of the human condition. The final paragraph never fails to send a chill down my spine.

I have done my best to render it below, presumably for the first time in English.

My previous translations of Zapffe are here, here and here. As before, I have chosen British spelling. The prose is extraordinary and I have no illusions of having done it justice.

But then, where is justice found in this world?

An Accusation of Timeless Dimensions

Peter Wessel Zapffe, 1941/1957

From the Norwegian by Sirocco


ScrollThe problem of interpreting a text that is either difficult to make particular sense of, or else allows more than one reading, is in theory the same for a work of today and one of bygone times. Only factually does there tend to be a difference - in the access to means and material. The interpretation may be determined by its causae, its effective causes; such is the case when the interpreter by means of historical and biographical knowledge seeks to present the author's supposed intentions, or reconstruct the contemporary reception. But it may also be determined by its telos; such is the case when the interpreter asks, How does the text affect a reader of today - what does it yield when studied in terms of our present-day preconceptions?

In the case of The Book of Job, we lack direct knowledge of the `author intention' or the attitudes of the recipients upon its `publication'. SchŘck places the poet in Alexandria in the 4th century B.C.E., suggesting that he, in the context of an ancient myth, voiced his own heartfelt views on the philosophy of religion. TheodicÚ, the `defence of God' as opposed to `criticism of the world order', gained burning relevance as Judaism and Hellenism clashed in the minds. Both causae and telos are thus at play in the following interpretation.

Job is a kindred spirit of Prometheus; they both suffer godly malice and appeal to the principle of justice. Furthermore, a network of historical arteries is believed to link Aischylos' play to the form given The Book of Job in canonical Scripture.

The textual history is interesting - with the `traditional book' as the source and servile theologians carrying a train of piety along. Together they frame a gem of world literature. It is a man of deeply personal acquaintance with pain, tremendous passion, and a reason of incisive clarity who meets us here, a thinker with a fanatic will to intellectual honesty and a poet of soaring cosmic pathos to match his flair for bestowing a blinding satirical form upon his abysmal hate of god. There is a golden irony in the destiny of the writing: through the interpolations of the pious, this book of revolt, with all its smoking imprecations, has gained a place among the rocks of faith upon which people build their metaphysical consolation even today.

The poet takes as his point of departure the tradition that Job was great in the eyes of his tribesmen in terms of religion, status, and wealth. He was `blameless and upright, one who feared God, and turned away from evil', and self-effacingly helpful too. He was the greatest of all the people of the East, happy and highly esteemed by young as well as old, poor as well as rich. There is none like him on the earth - so says the Lord himself. In other words: Job is perched at the pinnacle of his society's culture, and just those rare and fine qualities that placed him there become in turn the direct cause of his destruction, of his biological, social and metaphysical ruin. He is to be a bone of contention among the powerful; a victim, in a sense, of an inverted `envy of the gods'.

For the Lord brags to Satan about his servant Job - what must not I be like, who am feared by a man like Job, and Satan replies: Hah! Job worships you merely in tribute to your patronage. Now deprive him of his assets, and we shall see. Jahve agrees to the bet, and soon Job is struck by two fearsome floodwaves of disaster until his life is barely left him. God wants to show his adversary that Job serves and fears him (love is not at issue here) whether blessings or curses are sent, simply for `God's own sake' - however that is supposed to be motivated. Job has to prostrate himself unconditionally, humbly conceding - what? God's might or God's right? Well, that is precisely the burning question in what follows.

And Job really bows, as he has been taught is the right thing to do, during both of his ordeals. In the traditional book he is also promptly rewarded, but this is where the poet enters to request a place for human nature in Job. And the human is more than a docile slave to his image of the god; he brims with earthly life and Úlan. So Job gives God what is God's due, but like Jeremiah, he curses the day he was born. It is better to be dead than to lead a life like this; still better, to never be born. Why does God force those to live who do not wish to do so?

William Blake: Satan Smiting Job with Sore Boils

William Blake: Satan Smiting Job with Sore Boils.

These thoughts provoke an outpouring of eloquence from the `friends' Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar. It is in reply to their more or less unthinking dogmatic cant that Job is to make an accusation of timeless dimensions, attaining a voice that concentrates all of humankind's prayers and threats, laments, hopes, and curses into a few immortal verses. Above the vital biological interests of the people and humanity, whose assurance was hitherto the only purpose of the pact with Jahve, the poet now elevates a new interest: The Book of Job is a drama about the emergence of culture; a depiction of a spiritual `mutation' comparable to Prometheus, The Eumenides, and Grillparzer's Libussa. One can perceive a new metaphysical consciousness crystallise under the maximal pressure of agony - a consciousness of the fundamental conflict between the god (or by analogy, natural forces) as the environment's master, and the sacred human demand for meaning in what happens.

The friends' traditional doctrine claims, with minor variations, that God rewards the righteous (law-abiding) and punishes the ungodly (law-infringing) in this life - a creed that Job too has grown up with. As Job is now `unpunishable', says the old Eliphaz, God will certainly deliver him from agony if only he endures in patience while recognising God's rightfulness in doing all this to Job. No man is perfect to God, not even you, which is why you now suffer. But when the cup of suffering is full, you will be reestablished in your former bliss. During the ordeal you may cry out as much as you like; none can hear you. Be grateful for His scolding of you; it only proves that you are in His hand.

I may perhaps have made too much of it, Job meekly replies, but this I simply cannot take! I have no peace while I swallow my spittle; I am after all a human, not a mineral! And yet I will try to be humble, if only you explain my fault to me, the fault that earned me such a treatment. For it can hardly be my impatience now after the fact that brought down my misadventure! - Neither here nor later on is there any sign that Job equals himself with God in moral stature - the respective demands are also different, to put it mildly. Job is merely requesting a reasonable proportion of `punishment' to imperfection, especially inasmuch as perfection is entirely beyond human reach. He must, given the central dogma, be free to compare his fate with those of others, and this is where he grows sceptical about the distribution of goods and ills. But his friends misjudge his zeal in pleading his innocence, suspecting a mad pride behind it: that Job regards himself as `absolutely', not `relatively', faultless. The source of Job's fervour is another, however: it is for the sake of the problem, in the interest of clarity, that he reviews his conduct. He queries what they mean by sin when basing their defence of God on the doctrine of the sinner's doom and the righteous person's vindication. It is easy for you to preach, he concludes in his reply to Eliphaz, who have all your assets intact. My life is in tatters; I shall soon perish from this disease, and then there is no more. Those are different terms, indeed. And since I have no more to lose, nor anything to gain by keeping quiet, I might at least indulge in lamenting my plight.

And now he directs his words straight at his, and his friends', God. What is the point of all this? Do you find me a worthy object of your destructive power? Have you no better things to do? Do you not think you lessen yourself by going on like this? Mightn't you stop while I am still alive and grant me a moment's peace - for when I shortly die, you must, after all, stop anyway!

The young Bildad then repeats Eliphaz' claim, applying it to Job's sons. They must surely have sinned egregiously who were so swiftly slain, for God's justice cannot be doubted.

True enough, Job ponderously replies; it is futile for a human to challenge God. But now the critical breakthrough occurs in Job's thought: How so? Is it because we are so feeble in our sense of justice that we should bow our heads in shame if God the Lord were to explain to us the least of his motives? No, he infers with desperate rigour, it must rather be due to his overwhelming power relative to ours, his greatness in meters and kilos, that we cannot prevail against him. Our rightness or wrongness in the human sense makes no difference whatsover. It is immaterial twice over: firstly, he cannot be summoned for negotiations; he is invisible, exempt from our limitations, has no need for our facilities, and does not communicate with us as we do among ourselves. And secondly: even if he did arrive for negotiations - what good would it do? No umpire could arbitrate between us; he does not accept to be bound by even one explicit principle of justice. He is an absolute autocrat by virtue of his strength and knowledge; mercy I may appeal for, but no justice. Indeed, he can render the innocent guilty, twisting the sense of justice in his chest and forcing him to convict himself. Let him make us equal before the law, and I will answer him. As long as he keeps me on the rack, standing above me as an executioner, there is no basis for negotiation. Accordingly, even an indictment from God would be invaluable.

William Blake: Job and his daughters

William Blake: Job and his Daughters.

But surely there is at least a meaning in the misery, even if at odds with the idea of justice? Let me know then why you harrass me! I am, after all, your own creation wholly; in the name of reason you must have a motive for destroying it. The call for comprehension erupts like a flame toward the heavens; Job is hammering God's ear in hope of striking a humanly related cord. If you probe my sin and delinquency, there must at least be a chance of contact on a single point; one common principle must apply to your judgment and mine. If there is any truth in your claim to have made us in your image, then something must be commensurable in our respective views and verdicts, and this must also pertain to my sense of justice, which you created together with the rest. For if the god's understanding of justice deviates from humanity's, then it is as good as arbitrary for us; then our last chance is lost, there is no pathway of hope through perfectibility, we are surrendered to a metaphysical sweepstake, and there is no longer any guarantee that our highest virtues, faithfulness, humility and benevolence, are not in fact the broad road to damnation. But then, if his notion of justice deviates from ours, we will no more use the word `justice' of his dispositions. Nor will we condone the fraud inherent in the theodicÚ of the pious: calling an act the most heinous crime and irredeemable offence when performed by a human, but inscrutable love when by God. It is one out of two: same law and same verdict for both, or different laws and verdicts. If we are to accept the governance of our world as just, says Job, it has to be just in the human sense. Otherwise God can be as `just' as he likes in his own language, but in ours it is called unjust.

The same consideration applies to experience, Job affirms. When I see that a man is a crook, and he nonetheless, or precisely therefore, fares jolly well, the apologist cannot claim that he fares badly without giving a wholly new sense to the words. If he now pretends to use them in their ordinary senses, he is being dishonest in logical terms. So when Zophar, on God's behalf, repeats the hackneyed dogma that virtue shall be rewarded, and so on, Job is seized by the ruthlessness of battle. He takes on the creed of his friends (or foes), exposing it as nonsense by the standards of reason and experience - the only ones we may decently apply. After all, even animals can sense their subordination to forces that have nil to do with good and right, and as for the human world, injustice is rather the prevailing principle. The human condition is dreadful from the vantage point of death. You should not go so far to save your illusory grounds of consolation as to defend God by pure deceit. If someone can convince me, I will concede, but not to manifest folly. Nor will I yield to the talk of God's mysterious ways, for if I cannot form an image of him, neither can you; then we all stagger blind about.


Bildad's second entry introduces a new element: Of what significance are you, and your demand for justice, to the entire worldly household? This is the Stoic philosophy; it sits uneasily with the principle of retribution, but Bildad ties them together with a well-known apologetic trick: to connect the incompatible items with a `nonetheless'. Job takes no solace in the fundamental unimportance of his fate; he has no use for a world-scheme where humans play no part. The call for meaning erupts in him more insistently than ever; against Stoicism he demands that his destiny (i.e. all people's) be graven into the legend of the universe with everlasting letters. And his challenging thought proceeds to a higher authority than the god he was taught about but is dismissing, to one whose interests connect with the most sacred of human needs. Job has risen high above his individual pain and is speaking on behalf of all humanity; his sense of justice is incorruptible, ascending in merciless majesty from his despair. He even rejects the clause that the evil of `ungodly' ancestors be visited upon descendants, for any `punishment' must befall the delinquent in the flesh.

But now Bildad comes along with his last bullet: God's greatness of quantity; if sitting in the entire colloquium, he has either failed to understand a thing or refused to do so. As Job lacks the Lord's astronomic dimensions, he should not try to prevail. Baffled by the argument, Job asks: With whose help have you uttered words, and whose spirit has come forth from you? Being only too acquainted with this aspect of the Lord's exertions, Job schools Bildad in the sublime poetic art of extolling the many mechanistic wonders that we cannot copy. But then - Job ominously concludes - that also circumscribes his powers; he can storm and roar as much as he likes, that does not help one iota in the matter at hand. On the contrary: the Lord abused his might to violate my right. At this point I must stand firm, for I cannot betray my conviction without harm to my soul. And I do not shy from calling any cosmic force ungodly that strays from the rightful path. If Job's expression `my enemy' refers to Jahve, as the context suggests, then he here puts forth a novel theology: the notion `divine' shall not conform to `the god that be'; rather, the god we can accept shall conform to the norm of divinity - to our conception of the ideal god by the token of humanity. And so we require the god to embody the highest wisdom, shooting all creation through with order and meaning. Where, then, is the well-spring of wisdom, inquires Job - where is the source of spirit that animates god and human alike? Jahve is obviously not this source, though he alone knows the origin of spiritual power. And to what end has he put it himself? To wreak havoc with wind and rain and lightning, playing war games on humanity. `Fear Me and depart from evil' - that was all he got out of it.

A later author finds no way to save the three reproachful friends. Job has torched every imaginable argument - yet cannot in all decency be ceded the dispute without further ado. Thus he adds a fifth character, Elihu, who is previously unmentioned and supposed to speak the timely words to satisfy the demands of both faith and experience. However, despite notable pretensions, he is able only to rehash and vary what has already been said. It must therefore mystify the reader that the Lord, when the Day of Reckoning arrives, does not rebuke him for heresy together with the other three. Even more surprising is it, though, that he hauls them over the coals after repeating the gist of their lectures himself. But we are only mystified because we still retain some notions about the divine logic. After the Lord has made his personal introduction, there shall be nothing more to surprise us.

For this speech of God must be one of the most marvellous passages in the whole of canonical Scripture. Job, for one, is clearly perplexed by the rich demonstration of all that is weird and wonderful in nature.

And when the Lord expectantly prompts his reply, Job says rather quietly: You know what I think of my misery. These zoological conjuring tricks hardly concern our differences. What else do you want me to say?

So the Lord is compelled, however reluctantly, to address the question of justice. (God was careless enough to show up on the scene; he cannot pull out now without loss of prestige. And in prestige, vanity, is perhaps the deepest motivation for this god's benighted rule.) How dare you allege that I am unjust?? asks the Lord in the whirlwind. Do you not see my strength and do you not hear how terribly I can roar? Prove that you have my might, and I will bow to recognise your right. Only might carries weight in my eyes. Do you know what is the apex of my creation? Not the human spirit with its sickly sense of justice, as you fool believe, no the hippo sir! Its legs are copper pipes and its bones like iron rods! A far cry from you effeminate whimp with all your tender sensibilities. Now maybe you think Man is second to the hippo? Oh far from it, the crocodile is its only equal. It has armor plates, that one, but what have you? Aye, you are quite someone to lecture me about justice!

William Blake: The Lord Answering Job out of the Whirlwind

William Blake: The Lord Answering Job out of the Whirlwind.

One can imagine Job's boundless consternation at this tangible appearance of Jahve. Here Job has been attributing to his problem the profoundest, most crucial significance of principle - assuming himself faced with an adversary who should convince him to the point of mortal shame as soon as his tongue touched the burning questions - a god so dignified and sacred and pure that even his indictment must cause exultation! And now he is met with a grotesquely primitive world-ruler, a cosmic caveman, a blustering braggart, almost endearing in his utter ignorance of spiritual culture. Job also readily realizes that it would be laughably na´ve to raise theoretical questions here; to assert a persuasion requires an adversary who is equipped to comprehend it and to see the argument as common ground. Nothing could be more misplaced than to beat his chest in a display of moral heroism until Jahve puts his paw down to squash him like a flea. He might as well take his high-minded stands vis-a-vis the hippo and the crocodile, who much more than Job are created in the Lord's image. The situation is utterly transformed now that Jahve has made the mistake of revealing his true nature and no longer benefits from the idealising human imagination. `I had heard of thee by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees thee; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes'. Job is paying lipservice to God as one does to the mentally unbalanced. His battle with God was based upon a false premise. What is news to Job is not God's greatness of quantity, which he fully knew beforehand. It is the poorness of quality. His loftiest belief, his conception of the god, has taken a fatal blow. To this inane ur-force, Job can yield without the slightest shame, since the `battle' left his principled stance untouched. A spiritual force may be annihilated, but not `defeated', by the annihilitation of its corporal vehicle. Not even corporally is Job `defeated', for in that area he did not fight. He is unpersuaded of having erred about the justice of the worldly order; on the contrary, his views are borne out. By so capitulating, he deals the tyrant the most damning insult there is: that the adversary does not even merit a fight.

One who does not smell as rat is Jahve: thrilled as a child by his `triumph', he initiates a grand reconciliation. The poor friends, who thought they had served their master diligently, adhering to the law that has just been confirmed by personal revelation, and even foretelling the reconciliation itself - those are harshly dealt with, while Job, who has still not recovered from his initial shocks, sees the return and doubling of his chattel and wealth. He gets as many sons and daughters as were crushed in the beginning - it is clearly the Lord's opinion that no harm is done as long as the number is preserved. What an unflattering light does not fall on this godly Caliban, who believes he can make it all up with money and cattle when Job has put his finger on the rotten rub in the very world machinery!

Thus ends this grand metaphysical confrontation in blind comedy. Job keeps wisely quiet in his newfound bliss, but he shall hardly forget the glimpse that he, in his time of terror, caught behind the scenes of creation, even as he grows to be 140 years old and full of days.

Has Satan lost his bet? If he is of Jahve's caliber, he has. But if he is a clever Mefisto, then he and Job now share a little secret. Within, Satan achieved a victory far more precious than one without: the colossus has exposed his weak spot, allowing his arch-enemy a grip on the human mind previously unthinkable. God missed the scope of Job's test; a ruler's whim during merry recreation has turned into a deadly serious affair.

Job's tragedy is, in the first regard, the outer one that he is broken along with his household for being the most praiseworthy person in the land. But here the causal chain is ascribed to a Prolog im Himmel and cannot be tied to known earthly conditions. True, wealth might attract robbers, but storms and leprosy are accidents in the light of experience. So this tragedy is rather bereft of philosophical substance.

All the weigthier is the inner tragedy. Firstly, his sense of justice (the new greatness evoked by the outer tragedy), unique to Job within his circle and his finest quality in the eyes of the modern reader, brings him melancholy and Weltschmertz, the severest of mental anguish. Secondly, Job's vivid imagination and noble spirit render him especially prone to such anguish - he is dismayed when the Almighty gives him `the visions of the night'. Shallow natures are spared such deep Hamletian vistas, and the `ungodly' have no analogous problem of justice. This dilemma concerns us all the more for being somehow `eternally human'.

But the god in The Book of Job - does he concern us? Is there anything more to it than poetic play with a conception of god now exotic and obsolete? Do we know this god? Indeed, we do from the history of religion; he is the god of the Old Testament, the god of wars, armies and divisions, the jealous, or as we would say, the harsh and vigilant Jehova. But does he only dwell in the history of religion? We are hardly so fortunate: he holds sway in experience as well, today as 2,400 years ago. He represents a familiar social and biological environment: the blind forces of nature oblivious to the human craving for order and meaning, the unpredictable strikes of disease and death, the ephemerality of fame, the betrayal of friends and kin. He is the god of machines and might, of rule by violence, Moscow tribunals, party yoke and conquest, of copper pipes and armor plates. Job is not alone to confront him with weapons of the spirit. Some are trampled underfoot in heroic martyrdom; others see the limitation even of martyrdom - they bow in outer things, but hide despair in their hearts.

This article is also available at Sirocco.