I like reading something unusual and quick before I roll out of bed in the morning or before I turn in for the night, mentally exhausted from finishing a novel or struggling with a philosophical text. Book snacking of some sort. I can’t quite say why, a few nights ago, I picked up the bible and turned to the Book of Job. Maybe I was lured by the beauty of the bible itself. Arabesque engravings on the cover. Gold-plaited fore-edges. Printed in 1845. One of my thrift store finds. So for days, I’ve been nibbling on Job, and he’s made me think a lot about suffering and the body.
You can only understand the extent of Job’s misfortune when you bracket, for a minute, the divine back story. That whole stuff about how God and Satan use Job as some kind of faith experiment is genuinely fascinating. But if we look at Job’s suffering from that standpoint, a kind of God’s eye view, we get way too big a picture. All of a sudden Job’s suffering makes sense because we are able to reduce it to a passing instance of Divine justification. And also because we are able to anticipate the end of his suffering. So while Job suffers, we have already been comforted.
So instead of bothering about two divine beings working out a tiff, I find myself fascinated by Job’s body. It’s one thing to suffer in private way. Losing a loved one is that kind of suffering. But it is quite another thing to suffer in a spectacular way. We know that Job lost all his possession. A good amount of his children died all at once. But from what Job says about his condition, it’s clear that these losses are not what bother him the most. He seems quite put out by what was happening to his body and how depressed it made him. “My flesh,” he says, “is clothed with worms and clods of dust; my skin is broken and become loathsome” (7:5). Often, he complains of the claustrophobic feeling of being in darkness. He is beset by insomnia. For seven days and seven nights, not even a wink of sleep. He fears for his life. How much longer would a body covered up in decomposing tissue hold up? He’s is obsessed with thoughts of dying. At some point, he says he can feel the poison from God’s arrow drinking up his spirit. All that stands between him and death are a piece of broken pottery that he uses to scrape his maddeningly itchy skin and the ashes on which he sits. He feels like a broken man. Literally, he feels like he is being broken to bits by misfortune.
“God has delivered me to the ungodly and turned me over into the hands of the wicked. I was at ease but he hath broken me asunder: he has also taken me by my neck and shaken me to pieces and set me up for his mark. His archers compass me round about, he cleaveth my reins asunder, and does not spare; he pours out my gall on the ground. He breaketh me with breach after breath, he runneth upon me like a giant…My face is fowl with weeping and on my eyelids is the shadow of death. (16: 11-16)
Job is convinced that whoever was doing this to him did not realize that his flesh is not made of brass and his strength of stones (6:12). It’s no surprise that he has nightmares. He calls them scary dreams and terrifying visions (7:14).