I am about to start Jon Levenson’s book on the love of God in Judaism. It is a book that responds to at least two circumstances. One of them is that what happened to Jews in the Nazi and Stalinist periods of the last century seems to call the love of God into question. The other is that Christian teachers have often used Judaism as a shadow enemy, contrasting the supposed cold legalism of Judaism with the loving God of Christ.
But for some of us it has been more on the personal than the historical stage that the love of God has become a question. God seems to break our things and kill our loved ones. It is to us that the Book of Job speaks. (My community has just been through a tornado. What did God say to us out of the Whirlwind?) The God of Job is not a loving God, at least not in the conventional, sentimental sense.
That is why I want to call your attention to a review from the New Yorker. Joan Acocella reviews The Book of Job, A Biography by Mark Larrimore.
In her opinion people today care less than they used to about why bad things happen to good people. In a world of evolution and natural processes bad things are going to happen. But Job gives us a vision of the God who might still be behind it all.
I believe that if you woke a lot of people in the middle of the night, and asked them why they cared about the Book of Job, they would name the most troubling, least sympathetic character in that document: God. He, not Job, is the star of the Book, and though he is not loving or fair, that seems to be part of the attraction. Once God appears and speaks, you are almost blown to the ground. “Hast thou an arm like God?” he demands. Then, in a rolling magnificat, he names the things that he has created: the earth, the sea, the night, the light, the constellations, the clouds, the winds, the dew, the rain, the snow, the hail, the frost, the thunder and lightning. He goes on to the animals: the goats, the asses, the hinds, the peacocks, the ostriches, the grasshoppers. In two celebrated passages, he describes with pride the monsters he created: Behemoth and Leviathan, Behemoth’s counterpart in the sea: “His breath kindleth coals, and a flame goeth out of his mouth.” God’s description of the warhorse is even more exalting, because this creature is unquestionably real, not fantastic. Likewise the eagle: “She dwelleth and abideth on the rock, upon the crag of the rock, and the strong place. From thence she seeketh the prey, and her eyes behold afar off.” She brings pieces of flesh back to her children. They feed on the blood.
God’s speech slaughters the moral, the what-should-be, nature of the rest of the Book of Job. It is the knife flash, the leap, the teeth. And despite, or because of, its remorselessness, it is electrifying. It is like an action movie, or a horror movie. Of course, Job is important in the story, but today he seems the pretext, the one who is like us, and makes the argument that we would make. As for God, he makes the argument that, at least as far as nature is concerned, is true.