The Book of Job in a New Light

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.”

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