Saturday, November 17, 2012

Job, interpretations, and jobs

Seth Andrews posted the following image on his facebook page today:

Christians will love to inform you that this is not the point of the story.

The point of the story is that god will reward you for keeping your obedience and faith in face of severe obstacles.

Personally, I think that one point of the story is that being good is not a ticket to a good life, and that life is simply unfair - I can well imagine that the reconciliation part was added later on. (Most theologians agree that the wager part was a later addition - there seems to have been some uneasiness about the whole oeuvre even in biblical times.) Or that it was not even meant to have a message, and was just an attempt at reflecting the relationship between the law, god, and human freedom.

After all, Job seems to have been written around the same time as such ominous books as Kohelet, Ruth, and Song of Songs. Those books don't seem to quite fit in with the rest of the Old Testament - to me, they always seemed to portray a somewhat deviant, reflective, almost rebellious attitude toward the law, the society of Israel, and all too self-assured righteousness.

But stories like that simply do not have one, and only one, correct interpretation. You do not write a story to make a point, and when someone then points out that there are other points to it that you didn't intend, you steadfastly deny it. I'm sorry, but that's just not how storytelling works.

Homer probably didn't intend us to read Odysseus as an opportunistic prick who had his fun outside of marriage for a while and was not all too unhappy about all the obstacles the gods threw at him (he did actively choose to listen to the Sirens, remember?). But heck, that interpretation is valid, and how!

Much the same way, the prodigal son can be read as a failed coming-of-age story. This one has always bugged me - it seems the superhuman grace of god can only ever be expressed in terms of unfinished or thwarted emancipation. Superdaddy will never let you go. He won't let you fly but he might let you sing. It doesn't sit right with me, sorry. It reeks of old wives' tales designed to instill fear and beat children back into obedience.

That multitude of meanings is there in every story. Of course, that's what makes a good story fascinating and captivating - but there is a price to pay: The author doesn't get to deny one interpretation just because it doesn't fit her original intention. Sorry, you should have written a different story then, or just plain told us what you wanted to say instead. Can't have your cake and eat it, too.

"God is an immoral monster" is part of the message of Job, regardless of whether the author wanted to say that or not. (And that message of obedience is, at the very least, morally dubious.) On a deeper level, of course, that's just what you get when you're an omnipotent being who created the world. It's unavoidable that bad shit happens, and god's outrageous and arrogant speech is nothing but the classic denial of a person in power who refuses to take up the responsibility for the mess they've made. Job shows us precisely what happens when people in power act like that: The subordinates suffer. We see that happening in offices and workplaces around the globe on a daily basis, and Job does a terribly good job (npi) of presenting god as the ultimate uncaring, antisocial villain.

And who knows - maybe that WAS the original intention, after all?

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