November 29, 2015 by Paula Reed Nancarrow
Is the Book of Job a folktale?
Well, some of it is, yes. At least that is what I discovered while I was preparing to tell a story based on the Book of Job for Story Arts of Minnesota’s PROMPT series. These are “stories based on, inspired by, or tangentially related to classic works.”
I did one such event last year when the classic work was The Odyssey, which I retold from the perspective of Penelope. (Yes, I referenced Margaret Atwood.) You can read the end result here.
Most of this month I have been a stranger.
To my blog. To Twitter. At times, to myself. No, I have not dropped off the face of the earth. I have been in the Land of Uz, wrestling with what I would say quite literally is a God-awful book. It left me with little energy for any other creative endeavor.
This wasn’t an assignment I volunteered for, at least initially. I met the show’s host, who I know and have worked with before, at a nonprofit event – we are both grant writers – and he told me that one of the people scheduled to perform had to drop out. He asked if I would be interested in taking her place.
I have always hated the Book of Job.
Its depiction of a God who brags about His obedient servant, and then makes a wager with Satan, “the Adversary,” that His servant would stay faithful to him no matter what. The unintentional comedic echo when each messenger comes back, after each loss of property and family, saying “and I alone am escaped to tell thee.” For awhile I was certain this line had been part of a Monty Python sketch, though all I could find online was the conclusion of Moby Dick and a poem by Howard Nemerov.
I have always hated the book of Job.Though I admit to loving William Blake’s engravings. Perhaps that is because he had a similarly ambivalent relationship to the God revealed there.
So why on earth did I say yes to telling a story based on it?
Because I’d just had an experience of apparently meaningless suffering. Because I wanted to know where God was in that. And because I wanted to see if the story was a worthy container for my experience.
The book is not a container at all.
It is a jagged assemblage of genres. The first and the last chapters have the characteristics of a folktale, the middle sections are full of wisdom dialogue and poetic lament. There’s even a point at which Job imagines himself taking God to court. That section, predictably, sounds like a legal brief.
The three friends sit in silence for the required seven days and then trot out inadequate theological responses. Job dismisses all his friends “helpful” advice, particularly that which insists that he must somehow deserve his suffering. He pays little attention to the fourth speaker, a young whippersnapper whose soliloquy seems so out-of-place that many believe it’s an interpolation.
Of course God has the last word.
Basically, he tells Job he’s too puny and small-minded and creaturely to judge anything God has a mind to do, and Job, overwhelmed by the sublimity of God’s creative awesomeness, agrees. The folktale returns, God tells everyone Job was right all along and tells the others to have Job make sacrifices on his behalf, then restores and doubles his property, his progeny, his lifespan.
At the University of Chicago, my daughter took an entire course on the Book of Job. On Halloween night I went over to her apartment with a bottle of wine – like you do when you’re about to take on a problematic ancient text. We had dinner, drank the wine, passed out candy to cute kids in costumes (and a few not so little ones), and talked Job. It was very companionable; I enjoy my daughter’s company. She reviewed her notes with me, and sent me home with a lot of academic reading.
When I was done slogging through the critics, I appreciated Job better.
I understood the historical context, the evolving conception of God’s power, the dynamic evolution of the relationship between the human and the divine. I was able to cast my experience into categories Job might understand.
But it still did not make sense. Nor did everyone live happily ever after. Even with a new family, the dead family is still dead.
The book is not a folktale. Nor is it a container. It is more like a series of containers opening one into the other. Like one of those recycling waterfalls. The story pours from one vessel into to the other, returns to the top, begins again.
Job does not rest upon an answer. It simply explores the questions.
When it came time to tell my story, so did I.