Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Job's Children

Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Job's Children

Article excerpt


In S. Y. Agnon's 1939 novel A Guest for the Night, one of the protagonists, Daniel Bach, recounts his loss of faith. Throughout World War I, as a soldier in the trenches, he had been meticulous about donning his tefillin to recite his daily prayers. Until one morning, the tefillin he reached out for in the dark turned out to be attached to the rotting corpse of another Jewish soldier, struck down in the act of worship. In response to this gruesome story, the "Guest," who had left Galicia before the war, offers a literary anecdote about one of the Jews expelled from Spain in 1492. He persisted in his faith after burying his family, who had died of starvation. The Guest adds that we know nothing of what happened next. Perhaps he found a Jewish settlement, remarried, and raised new children. Even so, he muses, this could never have provided genuine compensation for his suffering. The biblical Job was comforted for the loss of his wife and children when he was doubly blessed at the end of the book, the Guest allows, "but I doubt whether a living man would accept such consolation."

The Guest who narrates the novel shares Agnon's biography. Nonetheless, Agnon portrays him ironically and critically, as is his wont. The Guest concedes, in this conversation, that his pious erudition is an inadequate response to the horrors of the battlefield. Agnon, in effect, is intimating that art and anecdote are inadequate to reality, at least with respect to the depiction of evil. By distinguishing between Job and "a living man," the Guest alludes to one Talmudic view that regards the Book of Job as a parable. By this reading, the death and subsequent replacement of Job's children, along with his reactions, may be no more than an artificial fairy tale ending and need not (and perhaps should not) be treated as realistic depictions of human responses and emotions.

Yet real characters can inhabit imaginary landscapes. Job, in my understanding, is more than a philosophical drama in which everyone, including Job, is a bloodless prop in the service of the argument. Job is a robust character in his relationship with God and with his friends. He displays a discernible attitude toward his children. In other words, he is not just a universal allegorical figure of undeserved suffering and protest. He is a particular kind of father, for better or for worse.

The biblical Job, impeccably righteous though he may be, does not come across as a man of familial warmth. In the prose prologue, he is meticulous in sacrificing on his children's behalf, fearing that they may have cursed God in their thoughts during one of their parties. When they are lost, along with his other possessions, Job utters his famous line: "God gave and God took away, may God's name be blessed." By chapter 2, when he has lost his health, this becomes more tentative: "Shall we accept the good from God and not accept the bad?" Perhaps Satan was right when he insinuated that Job would be more sensitive about assaults against his own body than to harm affecting others. His concern for his children seems subservient to his ideal of himself.

This coldness or estrangement to his flesh and blood recurs throughout the book. Take the images of parenthood in his speeches. In chapter 3, Job curses the day he was conceived. Nowhere in that chapter does he say that he was born to a father and a mother. The knees that greeted him at birth and the breasts at which he was nourished are not linked to any particular human being; they could well belong to a midwife or a wet nurse. Neither in his poetic outcries nor in the long biographical apology that constitutes Job's last speech (chapters 29-31) does he reflect on his parents. When he alludes to parents at all, he figuratively calls the pit father and the worm his mother and sister (17:14). …

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