Is the book of Job anti-humanist? Zizek's alternative reading.

by slimboyfat 15 Replies latest watchtower bible

  • slimboyfat

    The book of Job has sometimes been read as an anti-humanist reply to the notion that the creator is a God who takes a personal interest in humanity.

    Job was stricken with illness and various trials. His three "friends" suggested that he must have done something to offend God for these terrible tribulations to have befallen him. Job protested his innocence. When Job finally hears from God he gets no explanation in terms of Job's personal situation or conduct. Instead God asks where Job was when he created the monsters of the sea, the mountains, and the heavens. This has been read as a rebuke to man who thinks he is so important that God should take notice of him, and chimes with recent postmodern and anti-humanist thought that questions man's assertion that he is of central importance.

    But is there an alternative reading of God's response to Job? What if he wasn't so much rebuking Job, and putting man in his place, as expressing similar bewilderment at the meaningless of existence as man himself may ponder. In effect was God saying: you think you have a hard time making sense of it all? What about me? I was there when the earth was formed, and the monsters of the deep emerged, yet I am no wiser than you are about the meaning of it all.

    Instead of constructing a chasm between mortal man and the God who is unconcerned with human affairs, this reading puts God and man on a level. And God is not so much indifferent to man's troubles as he is preoccupied with his own.

  • Albert Einstein
    Albert Einstein

    Slim, I dont want to disapoint you by not ading some deep philosophical comment on your topic, but my answer to

    Is the book of Job anti-humanist? is:

    I dont know. Maybe it anti-humanist and maybe it is humanist.

    Ithink its just a very very old writing written by some man living in a very very old time, in very different world and culture.... Iam afraid, that even if you will dig deep deep for hours .... to find out his intentions and feelings... You dig out just whatever you want to...


  • quietlyleaving

    very interesting slim and I hope you get a discussion out of this topic. Personally I think there is possibly room for both readings even if they very contradictory. what does Zizek have to say specifically?

    Another thing - I would like to know approximately when Job was written and what period does its ideas reflect. I ask this because I was reading something similar regarding Socratic thought. Socrates is credited with changing the direction of Greek philosophy away from cosmology to man's position in the world during the 5th century BC.

    edit: interestingly wiki suggests that Job may stem from Sumerian legends

    Possible Sumerian source

    The Assyriologist and SumerologistSamuel Noah Kramer in his 1959 book History Begins at Sumer: Thirty-Nine "Firsts" in Recorded History (1956), provided a translation of a Sumerian text which Professor Kramer argued evinces a parallel with the Biblical story of Job. Professor Kramer drew an inference that the Hebrew version is in some way derived from a Sumerian predecessor.

  • Leolaia

    slimboyfat.....It is an interesting idea, but I have trouble reconciling it with what is in the text.

    When God asks his rhetorical questions to Job, which highlight Job's lack of knowledge (cf. especially 38:2-5, 12, 18, 21, etc.), the point of which is to emphasize that Job cannot comprehend these things, the implication is not that God likewise cannot comprehend these things but that, in fact, he does. When Yahweh asks "Where were you when I laid the earth's foundation, tell me since you are so well-informed!" (v. 4), this sets up a chasm between Yahweh and man; Yahweh was there, and it was his own work that he performed, whereas man was not there and does not know what he did. God's work in creation is purposeful and emphasizes God's knowledge and wisdom. Yahweh goes on to say: "Who decided the dimensions of it, do you know?" (v. 5). God knows because he was the one who laid the foundations and he was the one who decided what the dimensions should be, whereas it is implied that Job does not know what God knows. When God asks: "Who pent up the sea behind closed doors?" in v. 8, God is not saying "I don't know" because he goes on to say: "...when I marked the bounds it was not to cross and made it fast with a bolted gate. 'Come thus far,' I said, 'and no farther, here your proud waves shall break' " (v. 10-11). Yahweh answers his own question by saying that he was the one who did this and he did it purposefully with divine command which the waters obeyed. In light of what is said in v. 11, the point to the next question in v. 12 should be obvious: "Have you ever in your life given orders to the morning, or sent the dawn to its post, telling it to grasp the earth by its edges?" The answer that Job would give is, "No, I cannot do this," but if God gives orders to the oceans to not cross their boundaries, then God is also the one who gives orders to the daylight to seize the earth by its boundaries (cf. 9:7). God is not saying, "I cannot make sense of it too" but that he is the one influencing and sustaining nature. When God says "Surely you know, for you were already born, you have lived so many years" (v. 21), this can only highlight the differences between man and God, that God is eternal and man is not. When Yahweh asks Job if he "ever visited the place where the snow is kept" (v. 22) the idea isn't that God is no wiser than Job on this matter, because he goes on to say that he is the one who "keeps" the snow and hail stored up for use in times of battle and war (v. 23). Yahweh asks Job: "Do you know the laws of the heavens" regarding the movements of the stars and binding them into constellations (v. 31-33), whereas Job already acknowledged that "on the stars he [God] sets a seal ... The Bear, Orion too, are of his making, the Pleiades and the Mansions of the South" (9:7, 9). To the question "Who endowed the heart with wisdom or gave understanding to the mind?", the answer has to be: "God" (v. 36). When Yahweh asks Job: "Who let the wild donkey go free, who untied his ropes?" (39:5), Yahweh is not implying that he doesn't know either. He goes on to say: "I gave him the wasteland as his home, the salt flats as his habitat" (v. 6). It was God's doing. The passage discussing the ostrich (v. 13-18) emphasizes the bird's stupidity, but God knows why this is the case: "God did not endow her with wisdom or give her a share of good sense" (v. 17). This repeats the idea from 38:36 that God is the source of wisdom, and it hints at an answer to Job's theodicean predicament: God did not similarly endow man with the wisdom to understand the reason why evil exists. The contrast between man and God is emphasized again in 40:9: "Do you have an arm like God's, and can your voice thunder like his?" It is God who "robes himself in majesty and splendor" and who can "cast one look at the proud and bring them low" (v. 10-11). The question of might is now relevant because Yahweh points out that Job has made himself "Shaddai's adversary" and "God's critic" (v. 2). God's might is depicted by describing how it is greater than the might of the two mightiest creatures formed by God. With respect to the behemoth, "he ranks first among the works of God, yet his Maker can approach him with his sword" (v. 19). With regard to the leviathan, "nothing on earth is his equal" (41:33), and if "no one is fierce enough to rouse him, who then is able to stand against me? Who has a claim against me that I must pay? Everything under heaven belongs to me" (v. 10-11), and that includes the leviathan. This last sentence is probably the clearest statement on the lack of parity between God and man. So I think the majority opinion is probably there for a reason. I would be quite interested to see how Zizek interprets the force of the statements that emphasize the disparity between man's knowledge and power rather than compare God's own ignorance and helplessness with that of man.

  • hamilcarr

    recent postmodern and anti-humanist thought that questions man's assertion that he is of central importance.

    The recent definition of anti-humanism entails also a-religion. The fact that Job's God was there is definitely not postmodern.

  • DrJohnStMark

    Yahweh: Who has a claim against me that I must pay?

    Perhaps Yahweh hides behind that rhetoric because he feels so insecure.

  • slimboyfat

    Zizek explains the idea from 6.26 of this video:

    and the start of this one:

    AlbertEinstein, maybe the important thing is not so much what the author originally meant, which as you say may be unrecoverable anyway, but rather what the text can usefully mean for us.

    ql I think the book was composed in two parts: the poetic part and the narrative part, and that the poetic part is the more ancient, and more interesting from the point of view of its discussion of the relation between God and man. I wonder if you have heard about or read Karen Armstrong's book The Great Transformation that discusses the sort of rupture in thought around the time of Socrates that you mention.

    I honestly don't know if the poetic section of the book of Job can be said to be part of that supposed transformation.

    Very interesting close textual analysis as always Leolaia. It would be interesting indeed to see the eclectic genius that is Zizek cornered, and forced to engage with your charateristic careful style of reading.

    With regard to the leviathan, "nothing on earth is his equal" (41:33), and if "no one is fierce enough to rouse him, who then is able to stand against me? Who has a claim against me that I must pay? Everything under heaven belongs to me" (41:10-11), and that includes the leviathan. This last sentence is probably the clearest statement on the lack of parity between God and man.

    With regard to power there is no doubt about the chasm between man and God in Job. But I am not sure that really touches Zizek's point. Despite all his power and all his interrogating Job, God does not flat out say that, whereas man is perplexed by the apparent meaningless of reality, he, as God, has all the answers in himself. He asks all the questions, but never states that he himself has the answers. That's the point. It seems to me that there is room for Zizek's reading: despite the disparity in power between God and man, and despite the fact that God was there at the beginning while man was not, he still does not offer any answers as regards meaning, and can be said to appear just as bewildered by it all as the man Job is. So in a certain respect the fact that God is here much more powerful than puny man actually serves to underline the point that, nevertheless, the almighty gives no better explanations as regards meaning than man himself can come up with. Even so I suspect you may be less than sympathetic with Zizek's attempt to combine this reading of Job with later Christian thought, and Jesus on the cross in particular, as he called out in extremis.

    hamilcarr you mention:

    The fact that Job's God has all the answers is definitely not postmodern.

    But that's the very "fact" that Zizek disputes in his reading.

  • Leolaia

    Thanks, slim. Regardless of which view is right (or more likely to be right), Zizek's suggestion as presented by you is quite interesting and challenging. I haven't yet viewed the videos, but perhaps his interest is less exegetical and more in terms of the kinds of philosophical problems that may be raised by different readings of the text.

    [God] asks all the questions, but never states that he himself has the answers. That's the point.

    But more to the point, God never states that he himself is bewildered by the questions he asks, or that he is at a loss of how to answer them. And throughout, he does hint quite often that he does have the knowledge that the questions seek (as given in my last post), which is what weighs against a reading that infers that God has the same (or a similar) ignorance of matters as man. I still think that the key is 38:36 and 39:17; God cannot explain divine justice to man because God did not give him/her the understanding and wisdom to comprehend it. This does not necessarily mean that God cannot understand it either. God similarly did not give the ostrich the wisdom to care for its young, but this does not mean that God similarly lacks this wisdom (as the ostrich is singled out for this deficiency compared to the rest of God's creatures), he simply created the ostrich without these instincts while endowing it with other special abilities (v. 18). And if God did not create man with the capacity to understand divine justice, that doesn't mean that God hasn't blessed and endowed man with other abilities and powers of discernment. But if man cannot comprehend divine justice, then Job's questions cannot possibly be answered. The best God can do is demonstrate to Job the limits of his knowledge. And that is why God engages in an extended rhetorical interrogation aimed at highlighting Job's woeful lack of understanding while hinting throughout that God has purpose and wisdom beyond what is knowable by man.

    Anyway that's how I read it. I could be wrong.

  • DrJohnStMark

    But if man cannot comprehend divine justice, then Job's questions cannot possibly be answered.

    So the answer is 42... More seriously: At the time of compiling the book of Job, there was legitimate uncertainty about how strong the God of the jewish people was, compared with the other Gods of the prospering nations around, and this is reflected in the text.

  • slimboyfat

    Honestly, Zizek explains the idea better than I have attempted to. I think I have misdirected the discussion somewhat by saying that God asks all the questions but does not supply the answers. That's not really what Zizek argues when I review it again. God demonstrates to Job his antiquity and his knowledge of how the creation came about and how it all works and so on. But the point is that God nowhere touches upon Job's fundamental question about why things happen the way they do. Why did Job undergo all these hardships? Or why does anything happen the way it does? God's reply talks about the mechanics of how the creation came to be, but not why it came to be, or why it takes the form or the path that it does. As Zizek says, it is as if God is saying: "you think you are in trouble! Look at me, I created a totally chaotic universe, I don't know what is going on, like, God again [as with Jesus on the cross] is overwhelmed by the confusion of his own creation."

    I like Zizek's reading, but you do seem to have found some suitably deflating holes in it from the text, I must admit, if we read the verses that contrast God's wisdom with man's incomplete knowledge as implying that God has the "answers" (answers regarding meaning, not simply the mechanics of creation that are the explicit topic of God's discourse) but either chooses not to communicate them because man is of no account, or man is simply incapable of comprehending the meaning of existence in any case.

    ...then again maybe Zizek's view has merit, and God's silence on the question of meaning could be taken as implying an actual lack God's part, rather than divine arrogance or inscrutability.

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