The Book of Job in the Jewish Tanakh (and adopted in the Christian Old Testament) is a difficult one. It may reveal a lot about the character of God and it’s perception in the two monotheistic religions, Judaism and Christianity. Many years ago, long time before I decided to move to the Middle East, I became interested in the development of God’s character in the Bible when reading Jack Miles’ Pulitzer Prize awarded Book God: A Biography (Alfred A. Knopf New York 1995). The book of Job, a centerpiece of Miles’ work, is a monolith in the Tanakh in its radical description of God’s transcendence and might, even if limited comprehension of us human beings would perceive Him in this case definitely as pretentious and evil. Then, it marks the end of any discussions He used to have with His creation. After Job, He never talked to humans in the Tanakh again.
Good and Evil in the Book of Job
I’ll start with a brief summary for people not so familiar with the book’s disturbing content.
One day Satan (the ‘Accuser’) meets God who initiates a discussion about His whole-hearted and upright servant Job, who fears God and shuns the evil. Does he fear Him for naught? Satan asks God. Only touch all that he has, surely he will blaspheme You in Your face. While God agrees, Job’s catastrophe commences. Job lost oxen and asses, servants, sons and daughters. He himself only dared to exclaim his eternized sigh: The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord. Ironically, after some time Satan and God met again and had the same discussion about hapless Job. This time, God agrees on permitting Satan to hit Job with a painful skin disease. “Only spare his life,” he exhorts the Accuser. And so it went on. Thus, God bet twice about his servant with the fallen Angel Satan, the Accuser of Men.
Three of Job’s friends appear, each giving lengthy speeches about Job’s guilt and just chastisement. But Job rebuts each of them. A fourth individual, Elihu, steps on the scene before God Himself chimes in in two fulminating speeches: arguing out of the thunderstorm, immoral, unjust, blaming, pompous, and pretentious. Who won’t be shocked and awed by such a Creator who willingly destroys any confidence in divine justness? But Job does. And in withstanding God’s affronts, he manages that Satan disappears from the scene and God finally gives in and fully restores Job’s life and even his wealth. The bright side of God captures a victory over the dark one. It is the defeat of the former but also that of God. It is, in fact, a victory of Man, represented by Job.
Miles points to the in fact corrupted last few dozens of words in response to God’s speeches out of the tempest. It is not retreat but irony when quoting God’s words (in verses 3 and 4) in his reply:
Job 42: 1-6
1 Then Job answered the LORD, and said:
2 I know that Thou canst do every thing, and that no purpose can be withholden from Thee.
3 “Who is this that hideth counsel without knowledge?”
Therefore have I uttered that which I understood not, things too wonderful for me, which I knew not.
4 “Hear, I beseech thee, and I will speak; I will demand of thee, and declare thou unto Me.”
5 I had heard of Thee by the hearing of the ear; but now mine eye seeth Thee;
6 Therefore I abhor my words, and repent seeing I am dust and ashes.
Note that in the above translation quotation marks for verses 3 and 4 were removed and speaker and addressee exchanged (as identified by choosing upper case for Him). Here, the verses are given in the same way as Martin Luther in the revised version of the Bible translated them.
But what has that to do with almost a revelation as mentioned in the title? First, the obvious dualism of Good and Evil here and in other Books of the Bible is interesting. God is apparently not always good. And He used to deal with Satan, usually regarded as the Evil. It seems to be a standard characteristic of monotheism as represented by the Jewish and Christian Faith.
Jews and Zoroastrians
One has to consider the origins of the Tanakh, when it was written and why. The Tanakh, and thus the Old Testament adopted by Christianity, are not as old as many might believe. Much of the Holy Book had been compiled and canonized during the Babylonian Captivity (after 597 BCE) and in the times after the Jews had been freed by the Achaemenid Emperor Cyrus the Great (after 539 BCE) and one of his successors, Darius the Great (522-486 BCE), ordered them to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem. The Temple must not be considered as a mere place of worship. The main administration was located there and it was, of course, a much fortified building, securing Persia’s power in the periphery of the empire. One of Persia’s envoys in Yehud was Ezra, a loyal but most probably low-level Persian bureaucrat and priest, who had to unify the King’s Law and Yahweh’s religious rules of the Jews in Jerusalem. Darius’ strong influence as a lawgiver who respected local laws, represented also in the monumental multilingual inscriptions in Behistun in the West of Iran near the Iraqi border, expedited the canonization of Yehud’s religious texts, of course.
When reading the respective Books in the Tanakh it is important to realize that it was Persia’s administration which appointed governors such as Zerubbabel, Ezra, or Nehemiah in Jerusalem. Their main task was the implementation of the King’s Law in the colony of Yehud. Thus, traditions, religious laws, worship of Yaweh, all had to be streamlined in a way that would fit with Persian rules, regulations and laws.
The religion of the Achaemenid Emperors in Persia was Zoroastrianism. In a way, it might be considered the oldest of the revealed monotheistic faiths with the divine authority of Ahura Mazda. While it is not clear when its founder Zoroaster had actually lived, one may assume that the 6th century saw a first flourishing of the religion in Greater Persia and Central Asia. Most Achaemenid Emperors were tolerant as regards to local faiths of conquered people as long as they were loyal to the new rulers. However, the influence of Zoroastrianism as the state religion in the Persian centers Susa, Ecbatana, and Persepolis was definitely strong. It might taken for granted that, besides a desire for establishing its own founding myth and religious independence, the origins of Judaism’s core faith might lie Zoroastrian Persia. When considering the developing path of the three main monotheistic religions, we may trace also the origins of Christianity and Islam to teachings and revelations of Zoroaster.
Dualism in Zoroastrianism
In Zoroastrianism, at the cosmic level, Ahura Mazda, the Creator of the World, is opposed by the Evil principle of chaos and negative energy (Angra Mainyuh). While a pure world is created by God’s creative energy, this is continually attacked by Angra Mainyuh making it impure. Respective attributes are aging, sickness, famine, death, and natural disasters.
Another, moral, dualism refers to good and evil in the mind of mankind. It is important to note that God gave human beings a free will, so man has to choose between Good and Evil. While the path of Evil (druj) is leading to misery and eventually hell, the path of Truth (asha) will inevitably lead to peace and everlasting happiness in heaven.
Ayyub in the Qur’an
It has to be emphasized here that, although Judaism is downright monotheistic, conceptual similarities with (dualistic) Zoroastrianism are more than obvious. The quasi-familiarity in the talks between God and Satan as it is narrated in the Book of Job may be more than disturbing when considering traditional views of the Evil principle, especially in Christianity. However, that Satan is a fallen angel does not entirely disqualify him as an angel. As the Holy Qur’an knows, Iblis (i.e., Shaitan, Satan) denied prostrating before His new creature, Adam.
11 And We created you (humans), then fashioned you, then told the angels: Fall ye prostrate before Adam! And they fell prostrate, all save Iblis, who was not of those who made prostration.
12 He (Allah) said: “What hindered thee that thou didst not fall prostrate when I bade thee?” (Iblis) said: “I am better than him. Thou createdst me of fire while him Thou didst create of mud”.
In Fariduddin Attar’s (d. 1221) Musibatname, the tragedy of Satan’s outsized love for God who won’t submit to anybody else than Him (he is regarded by many Sufis as the only true monotheist), may lead to deep compassion in the reader for the fallen angel, irrespective of Satan’s clear misconception. Adam might have been created from mud. But he received the Almighty’s breath of life.
Attar’s work as well as new aspects of Job’s fate have come to my attention a couple of years ago when reading German/Iranian orientalist Navid Kermani’s book about Attar, Job and the metaphysical revolt (Der Schrecken Gottes, C. H. Beck, Munich 2005). Attar, who was most probably killed in the Mongolian Storm of the 13th century in the city of Nishapur in Khorasan, has something in mind which will be described as theodicy in 1710 by German philosopher Gottfried Leibniz, the problem of Evil. Kermani’s brilliant work assembles much of the medieval, enlightenment and contemporary literature on the topic without providing the reader with a final answer (except strengthening views of an agnostic). One impression I got is that in what the West in a misconception calls Middle Ages (in fact, darkness was prevalent but not in the Islamic World which was bright in these long centuries), Jews, Zoroastrians, Christians and Muslims were living in peace in, say, what is now Eastern Iran, knowing each other’s Holy Books, and getting their inspirations for spiritual journeys from both the Qur’an and the Bible.
The knowledge of our common spiritual origins may really matter when it comes to mutual respect and understanding. When comparing the sober verses about Job in the Holy Qur’an and colorful legends most Muslims are able to tell about the fate of this just, whole-hearted and upright man which are nowhere narrated in the Qur’an, we have to assume that the common traditions are still alive.
No Muslim will, of course, believe that the Almighty was betting with Satan on poor Job. There are only four suwar briefly naming Ayyub, Q4:163 and Q6:84 listing him among the other prophets; and Q21:83f and Q38:41ff where his suffering and patience is mentioned. I was long wondering, why. I had my respective revelation when reading Kermani’s book. All stories differ when told by different protagonists. Each of us has a different viewpoint, and conclusions may be to the contrary. Muslims believe that the Qur’an is God’s uncreated Word. But the Bible has been written by many authors, edited, compiled, over many centuries, by humans. God’s words may be reported, but it is not God who is speaking.
In the Book of Job, one protagonist, wretched Job, tells his version of the events. In the Qur’an, it is God Himself, who won’t admit that He was betting with the devil (actually, he did it twice!) on His servant. He would not report on His disturbing speech out of the tempest.
Regardless any theories about when and how the Holy Qur’an has been revealed or written, one has to realize the consistency when compiling God’s word, and only God’s word. It is very clear throughout that it is not Muhammad who is ever speaking.
Prophet Ayyub’s (Job’s) tomb may be found in the vicinity of Salalah in Oman’s Dhofar Province.
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C.G. Jung’s book, Answer to Job, also has some fascinating psychological commentary about what that encounter revealed about God and Job.