The Song With No End

A Man Named Job/17 The first and last hour of the poem of our life are always a gift given to us

by Luigino Bruni

published in Avvenire on 05/07/2015

logo GiobbeIn Job I am the one who sings, it is the man who exists and, if you will, it is the man himself who can seek the light that he is looking for with the help of this book - a book that is absolutely his. Because, after Job, there was nothing new said by any man about the problem of our lives.

David Maria Turoldo, Da una casa di fango – Job (From a Mud House – Job)

There once was a righteous man named Job. He had many properties, daughters and sons, he was blessed by God and men. One day a terrible calamity hit him and his family, and the man accepted his misfortune with patience: "Naked I came into the world, naked I shall leave." When they found out about his bad fate, knowing his righteousness, his friends and relatives joined him in his mourning, to comfort him and help him. But in the end it was God himself to intervene in his favour, by giving him back double what he had lost, because Job proved faithful and upright in the test.

The primitive legend of Job was like this or something similar, known in the ancient Near East and in the land of Israel. The author of the Book of Job, however, broke away from this story. He kept the materials and used them for writing the Prologue (chapters 1-2) and the Epilogue: "And the Lord restored the fortunes of Job... And the Lord gave Job twice as much as he had before. (...) And he had 14,000 sheep, 6,000 camels, 1,000 yoke of oxen, and 1,000 female donkeys. He had also seven sons and three daughters. And he called the name of the first daughter Jemimah (Dove), and the name of the second Keziah (Cassia), and the name of the third Keren-happuch (Silver). And in all the land there were no women so beautiful as Job's daughters." (42,10-15)

But when the author began to compose his poem, that ancient legend became something very different. The wonderful songs of Job were born, the dialogues with his friends and maybe the words of Elihu and those of God. At the end, he found himself with a work retaining very little of the original and yet fascinating legend. Job is shown as anything but patient: he protested and shouted against God and life. Instead of being comforters, his friends became torturers and lawyers of a trivial God. And the same God - when he finally enters the scene - is a disappointment: he does not come to comfort Job or to answer his questions. That ancient legend became the container of a theological and anthropological revolution and an authentic literary masterpiece.

So when we come to the end of the book, to the Epilogue, we are amazed to read: "After the Lord had spoken these words to Job, the Lord said to Eliphaz the Temanite: 'My anger burns against you and against your two friends, for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.'" (42,7). Here God becomes the judge between Job and his "friends", in a process that Job wins but that he had never asked for nor desired (he had sued Elohim, not his friends). And so Job, first reprimanded and silenced by the Almighty God, now suddenly becomes "his servant," the only one who said "what is right". No mention of the illness of Job, his rebellion, or the bet with Satan.

Obviously we are dealing with materials from different traditions, but we should attempt an interpretation even this last time. Of course, even here we could easily solve the problem by saying that the Epilogue was added by a later, final editor, perhaps the same that added the Prologue. There are, in fact, many people who suggest this solution. But not all. Some think that it was the author of the great poem of Job who wanted to leave the materials of the ancient legend behind, like the builders of the first Christian churches who used the stones and columns, sometimes even the perimeters of the former Roman and Greek temples. And so, set inside his cathedral, the ancient author has created and left some magnificent columns and beautiful capitals to us. But these ancient materials, along with their beauty, bequeathed some architectural and stylistic constraint, too.

If you write using other stories received as a gift (and every writer does, stories and poems have always fed them: every word written is a word received first) as your point of departure, you should know that if you want that gift to bear fruit, you should also have respect for it. You cannot only use it for your own construction without obedience to the "spirit" that the story gave you engraved in the gift itself. There is also a continuous and essential exercise of truthfulness and gratuitousness to which all those are called who do not aim at profit only but to serve the daimon that's in them, and that inhabits the earth in them. All stories, even the greatest ones, are born on columns erected by others.

"And after this Job lived 140 years, and saw his sons, and his sons' sons, four generations. And Job died, an old man, and full of days" (42,16-17). This is the last verse of the Book of Job. All stories have a profound, almost invincible need for a happy ending. The demand for justice, the desire to see the good triumph and the humble being exalted at the end are too deeply rooted in us and in the world for us to be able to settle for dramas and stories that end with the "why" of the penultimate chapter.

But we know that the Jobs of history do not die as the patriarchs, "old and full of days". The living Jobs die too soon, sometimes they do not even become adults; their goods and children are not returned to them (because no child can be replaced by the gift of another one), their health is lost forever, their wounds are not healed, the powerful are always right, God does not answer, their misfortune not never stops, their cry does not calm down. But, more fundamentally, the children and the assets that life gives us are not there forever, good health ends sooner or later, and if we have the gift of seeing the angel of death face to face, we almost always leave this world with a "why". It may be pronounced with an "amen" and perhaps even a "thank you" which make it tame, but it does not disappear.

So as we read this Epilogue arriving as a gift of an ancient pearl to us, we should not forget the song of Job and, thanks to it, the song-cry of the many Jobs who do not know and neither would be helped by that last chapter - which brings us back into the retributive theology of the "friends" of Job. And so we do not finish the book by reading Chapter 42. We return to the prayer to the earth “O earth, cover not my blood, and let my cry find no resting place” (16,18), to Job's quarrel with God “Even now, behold, my witness is in heaven (...) that he would argue the case of a man with God, as a son of man does with his neighbour.” (16,19-21), to his desperate protests ("I cry to you for help and you do not answer me; I stand, and you only look at me.” (30,23). These are the words with which we all can and should pray with, even those of us who pray only to ask that the sky should not be empty. The Job who is the friend of men, in solidarity with all creation and with every victim, is the one who stops a step before the Epilogue. This is the path of every true human solidarity, the one that departs from misfortune and ends with disaster, and the one that is surprised, just like the misfortunate, if and when paradise arrives on earth or in heaven. Paradise is always a chapter that's donated, the one that no book can write for us, not even the great books of the Bible, because if it were already written we would not even leave the book and enter the mystery of our life, which is called life exactly because the past chapters can only be the penultimate ones.

But perhaps there is another hidden message in this Epilogue donated to us. We are not the authors of our finale. We are not the creators of the auroras and the beautiful sunsets of our lives, because if they were our creation they would not surprise us, they would not be as wonderful as the first love or the last glance of our spouse is. As in the most beautiful stories, where the real conclusion is not written and the ones that every reader has the right and duty to write (the eternal novels are those unfinished). We, too, come to the world within a horizon that welcomes us and shapes the landscape in which we're going to live. We write the poem of our life, but the prologue and the epilogue are given to us, and the masterpiece is created when we are able to inscribe our song in the oldest and largest symphony of all. We can and must write the many hours of our day, but the first and last ones are a gift given to us - and perhaps that is because they are the truest.

It was difficult to start reading Job, and now it's even harder to leave him. He wants to stay, the scenery one can contemplate from the top where he has taken us, holding hands in the journey, is so beautiful. Thank you, ancient nameless author. Thank you for your entire book. But above all thank you for Job. The commentaries of Genesis were a great adventure of the heart and the spirit. Exodus offered us the discovery of the power of the voice of YHWH on earth and that of the prophets, who are not false prophets - if they free the slaves and the poor. But Job was the most unexpected discovery, the greatest gift that I have received ever since I started writing. I want to thank those who followed me - all the way or even just for a while. There were many comments I received that joined in my own reflection, many words have become my words. You can only talk about these great texts together, by singing them in a choir.

There once was a man named Job. The God that Job sought, hoped for and loved, however, did not arrive. The innocent continue to die, children suffer, the pain of the poor is still the greatest that the earth has ever known. Job taught us that if there is a God of life then he must be the God of the not-yet. And that because of this he can come at any time, even when we least expect it, leaving us breathless. Come!

Our dialogue will resume on 26th July, after a break for two Sundays, necessary after crossing the 'continent of Job', thanks to director Marco Tarquinio who continues to believe in this unusual "page three" of the Sunday edition of Avvenire. (Luigino Bruni)

And thanks to Luigino Bruni, economist and writer, who continues to believe, as we do, that our hard and wonderful times can be understood, loved and saved by the deep encounter through the words he has spoken and continues to tell and tell himself and to us driven by love. (Marco Tarquinio)


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