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Is the Book of Job a Folktale?

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November 29, 2015 by Paula Reed Nancarrow

Job and His Family. William Blake, 1826

Job and His Family. William Blake, 1826

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.

Satan Smiting Job with Sore Boils William Blake, 1826

Satan Smiting Job with Sore Boils

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.

job-rebuked-by-his-friends-wallpaper-665601031

Job Rebuked by His Friends

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.

Behemoth and Leviathan - William Blake

Behemoth and Leviathan

16 thoughts on “Is the Book of Job a Folktale?

  1. jan says:

    Interesting analysis of a horrifying story! I’m no expert but I thought Folktales rarely mention God and they generally have some sort of moral lesson. You’re a brave soul to take on this assignment!

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  2. Thank you for another thought-provoking and insightful blog post. I don’t have your easy familiarity with the Book of Job (and I can’t imagine devoting an entire course to it) but I am now tempted to get better acquainted with the poor man, even if it is just to see if I agree that Job’s God has a lot of explaining to do.
    I find the way you mix the personal with writerly and intellectual concerns very engaging and your blog is one of the few I read as soon as it appears in my inbox. I was therefore sorry to learn that you were able to relate to Job’s suffering because of your own recent experience and I didn’t want to glide over that small, understated reference as if it were minor tangent when I am sure it wasn’t. Not much to say thought except I’m sorry for your trouble…

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    • Thank you, Bridget. That is a tremendous compliment. And I appreciate the concern. At some point I may actually decide to post the story I performed, which was about my mother’s growing debilitation from Alzheimer’s, and the senselessness of that suffering. But I am not entirely sure it is in its final form yet. Still, I suppose I should have made sure no one thought I had been afflicted with boils. ;-)

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Sue Vincent says:

    Excellent article, Paula. The more you examine the stories of the Old Testament, the more you start picking the threads of myth and symbolism apart. Genesis is an incredible read from that perspective.

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  4. Annecdotist says:

    Great to see you back, Paula, and I’ll be interested in your version of Job when it comes.
    Over the past few years I’ve been involved in a project (a guided walk) telling Hindu stories of the god Ganesh. I don’t know if it’s just with the version of Christianity that I was indoctrinated with, but I was struck by how the Hindus look at their sacred texts as stories to be analysed and chewed over, whereas the Christians – unless at your daughter’s level – have to accept them as a given, which really seems to both the limit their usefulness and stifle creativity. But, as I say, this stems from a childhood with a God who was not open to question. Maybe it’s different for others.

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    • I think I saw a video in which you told such a story on your blog. ;-) There are a lot of different kinds of Christian approaches to the Hebrew Scriptures, but the literalists – at least those who think they are literalists – are certainly the most difficult. There’s nothing more problematic, for example, than the passage in Job in which he says “I know that my Redeemer liveth,” which “literalists” are sure is a prophecy of the coming of Christ. Jewish scholars, of course (and my daughter’s course was taught by a preeminent scholar, Michael Fishbane, one of the editors of the Jewish Study Bible) see things quite differently.

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      • Annecdotist says:

        I’m sure it’s open to all kinds of interpretations once you get into it. I had to smile as my heart leapt at that phrase “I know that my Redeemer liveth” not because of the meaning, but it’s such a lovely part of Handel’s Messiah!

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  5. Judith Post says:

    I, too, hate the book of Job, but many mythologies think of their gods as fickle. God doesn’t come off too well in this story. The only way I can appreciate Job is as a mortal asking Why do bad things happen to good people? Even if there is no good answer, it’s a good question. And glad you’re back!

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    • Thanks, Judith. Yes, at least one of the interpretations I read saw the book as a step in the evolution of an understanding of God as Master and human as Servant to God as parent and humanity as child, and the need to reevaluate that relationship, put it on a more equal footing, as a child becomes an adult. He did not take the “were you there when I made Leviathan?” passage as arrogant superiority but more like the “where did this kid come from anyway?” conversations parents have with themselves, wondering, when they see they had underestimated the qualities of their own progeny. It’s worth considering, though sometimes I wonder myself how far a theological apologist will go to interpret a sacred text in a way that satisfies a contemporary moral view.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Judith Post says:

        When I listen to people talk about the Bible or politics, it seems each person interprets it in whatever way supports his own belief system. Which is fine. To a point:)

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  6. elainemansfield says:

    I was raised loosely Christian and didn’t know about the Book of Job until I studied Jung in the 1970s. I tackled Jung’s “Answer to Job” in a class with a Jungian scholar and was amazed by this wrestling match with the dark side of god and the shadow side of divinity. I haven’t read it for a long time and need to go back. I’ve experience the dark side in recent years. It’s changed my perspective. I watched as my mother-in-law insisted “God wouldn’t do this to me.” It happened. I often think of God as just what is. As a Jungian, I look for the lesson about getting hammered and thrown to the ground. Mythology helps a lot, including Christian mythology.

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    • That is the second time that book has been mentioned to me, Elaine. The first was by one of my fellow storytellers, the day before we performed in PROMPT together. I think I may have to check it out. ;-)

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      • elainemansfield says:

        It’s a 110 page article in the Collected Works (Vol II). I haven’t seen it in book form, but I see it’s still available as a small and inexpensive book. It was a seminal early work by Jung.

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  7. Leif Wallin says:

    is the entire bible a folk tale. that could be quite the conversation starter.

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