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The seductions of catastrophe


This is an intriguing essay about a number of related things, framed around the question of whether the most famous lines from the Book of Job have been mis-interpreted and therefore mis-translated for a couple of millennia now. Assuming you read your Bible Brett, you’ll remember that after God explains to Job that he has no right to even raise any questions regarding the justice of what has happened to him, because God is the greatest of great greatnesses, and Job is by comparison a worthless miserable worm, Job replies in the standard translation:

My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you;

Therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.

This is one of the most mysterious and troubling moments in the Bible, unless you’re really into authoritarianism in a big way. But it turns out this all may be a major misunderstanding:

Greenstein points out that a huge portion of what looks like Job praising God throughout the text may be meant as the opposite: Job sarcastically riffing on existing Bible passages, using God’s words to point out how much He has to answer for. Most importantly, Greenstein argues, there’s something revolutionary in the mysterious final words Job lobs at God, something that was buried in mistranslation.

In the professor’s eyes, various words were misunderstood, and the “dust and ashes” phrase was intended as a direct quote from a source no less venerable than Abraham, in the Genesis story of Sodom and Gomorrah. In that one, Abraham has the audacity to argue with God on behalf of the people whom He will smite; however, Abraham is deferential, referring to himself, a mortal human, as afar v’eyfer—dust and ashes. It is the only other time the phrase appears in the Hebrew Bible.

So, Greenstein says, Job’s final words to God should be read as follows:

That is why I am fed up:
I take pity on “dust and ashes” [humanity]!

Remember, for this statement, God praises Job’s honesty.

The deity does not give any logic for mortal suffering. Indeed, He denounces Job’s friends who say there is any logic that a human could understand. God is not praising Job’s ability to suffer and repent. He’s praising him for speaking the truth about how awful life is.

Maybe the moral of Job is this: If God won’t create just circumstances, then we have to. As we do, Job’s honesty—in the face of both a harsh, collapsing world and the kinds of ignorant devotion that worsen it—must be our guiding force.

Although my ignorance of the underlying textual debates is total, I very much like this re-interpretation, that explicitly transforms the entire book into a kind of subversive attack on theodicy in all its forms.

On a related note, I was struck by how the essay’s author — an agnostic Jew who seems to be exploring his own faith tradition in a really interesting and provocative way — catastrophizes in the classic cyber fashion with which we are all familiar, and no doubt prone to do as well, given that we spend so much time on the Internet:

These days, countless people are experiencing agony on par with that of the biblical Job: An awful war is carrying with it a terrifying nuclear threat; a plague rages; liberal democracy seems to barely cling to life; and, as we corrupt the climate on which our species depends, legions die drowning, burning, or running. If there is a God who loves humanity, He’s showing it in the most mysterious of ways.

Religious people who wait for a messiah may soothe themselves by believing that divine intervention can bring about an end to mortal horrors, and that the pious will eventually ascend to a state of eternal existence. But for secular types—including agnostic Jews like me—who find themselves concerned about the state of the world, both reform and revolt seem impossible routes out of all of humanity’s messes. If it all keeps getting worse, what’s the point of anything? . .

Absent the book’s likely tacked-on epilogue, the Book of Job teaches that there is no final victory, no ultimate divine deliverance. As I think about how to respond to the concurrent cataclysms threatening the nation and the globe, I at least want to be Job—not a person with divine patience, but one who cares so much for his fellow mortals that he will spit acidic truth into the face of the Lord to the very end.

What’s the alternative? Giving up? Waiting for oblivion? Such an attitude is its own kind of submissive patience. It’s understandable—but when things inevitably get even darker than they are today, it will be about as useful as waiting for God to save the day. What Job has given me is not exactly hope. But it’s something.

This frame of mind — that things are bad, arguably worse than ever, and obviously and probably unstoppably getting worse — is an epidemic in the cyberworld, to the extent that it even generates its own vocabulary, i.e. “doomscrolling” etc.

Now empirically speaking this interpretive frame seems quite dubious. Human beings all around the globe are by all objective measures vastly wealthier and healthier than they were 100 years ago, let alone in pre-industrial times. Here are a couple of statistics that illustrate that fact:

(1) In 1900, a child born in the USA had almost a 20% chance of dying before reaching adulthood. Today the odds of that are 1%.

(2) Over this same time frame — note that there are still people alive who were born in that decade — the percentage of the world’s population living in extreme poverty has declined from about 65% to 10%.

Obviously there are at the moment some extremely evident challenges to this state of affairs — war crimes, climate change, pandemics, and our good old and for awhile somewhat forgotten friend, thermonuclear apocalypse, so it’s not as if life is a basketful of puppies by any means.

So why are people so pessimistic about the path of human history at the moment, especially as that pessimism manifests itself in cyberdiscourse? (I’m not excluding myself from this puzzle, as I find myself often attracted to and seduced by our epidemic of pessimism.)

Anyway, this seems like a topic worth exploring.

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