Job, Jemimah, and the Almighty–Buckle Up Your Belt and Talk to Me Like a Man

“On a day the sons of God came before the Lord, and the satan also . . . And the Lord said, ‘Have you seen my servant Job, . . . a blameless, upright man?’ The satan answered, ‘Have you not . . . blessed his work? But touch all he has, and he will curse you to your face.’ And the Lord said, ‘He is in your power.’ [And the satan moved God to destroy all Job’s children and belongings, and cover his body with boils. Three friends came to comfort him.] (1:6-12). – – – – Job cried, ‘Let the Almighty answer me! . . . I know I am innocent. I would give an account of all my steps’ (31: 35-37). – – – – Then the Lord answered Job from the whirlwind, ‘Gird up your loins like a man . . . and declare to me. Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth, when the morning stars sang together? . . . Has the rain a father? From whose womb did the ice come forth? . . . Can you draw out Leviathan, which I made, and put him on a leash for your maidens? The folds of his flesh are immovable. His heart is hard as the nether millstone. He makes the deep boil like a pot. He is king of the sons of pride’ (38:3-7; 28-29; 41:23-24) – – – – And the Lord said to Eliphaz: ‘My wrath is kindled against you and your two friends: for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has . . . . therefore offer up for yourselves a burnt offering’ . . . . And the Lord gave Job twice as much as he had before, and . . . seven new sons and three daughters, the first named Jemimah . . . And in all the land there were no women so fair as Job’s daughters (42: 10-15).

Plead a case with you, god of storms?
Then let me try it, woman though I am and lightly belted.
What you brought down on my father
Is beyond all nightmares–
Children killed, his work destroyed,
Reputation wrecked and body racked with sores.
To his cries you roared and whistled down the gale
From a whirlwind you were riding,
Desert twister of sand and brine,
Told him the world is past all thinking vast
And killing cold,
Non-human it engulfs us–
Worse yet, in us the crocodile Leviathan,
Our fear of death and nothingness, crushes endlessly,
Drives our hardness to each other,
Rules our bedrock pride of self-protection–
And who was he, this Job, that would not take his knocks?

This should explain a malice so particular?
Let me try again.
So one day you put off your spurs and studded belt,
Quit bronco-busting storms and bedrock reptiles,
And held a court where such a deal my father got Because
He loved you best and did his best?
Your days are as a thousand years.
What sort of day was that,
God of the gods,
When Satan got from you this writ of habeas corpus?—

Tester of angels and humans,
The only good of him lies in cranking up a story.
Puck at the best he is,
Souring neighbors’ loves
By cupping a ventriloquizing hand
To make them hear things never said
By stumble-tonguing throats,
Stirring green-eyed rage, or blood cold running in fear
As ice-fed streams;
He’s trickster Coyote to grassland tribes,
Loki to others–shapeshifter, otter,
Known for crooked horse trades
Wangled even on the gods;
Scum-bucket tail-light-chasing lawyer in lemon polyester sport coat
Soaking bad drivers;
Or prosecutor slicking up muddled doings
Into eloquent regalings to tickle a jury,
Shyster, laying ironies on miseries,
Grabbing a money-making case his fancy likes
While numberless foul deeds go by unmarked;
Or rising D.A., nabbing a victim when someone must fry–
The less guilty the accused,
The slicker the witnesses.
We approach the case.
A cosmic guinea pig my father was.
But there, Satan lost all wit and skill
Unless the trial was of pure perversion–
The less the guilt, the worse the deal.

This you allowed, whirlwind God?
Why was no one’s mother in court, no sister
To raise her fists and cry foul?
Job was smitten, and my mother–
A byline as scolding wife is all she gets–
Her children dead, her garden seared and yearling lambs hauled off.
And Job gets blazing skin boils,
And friends to patter him platitudes
Weeks and days
To the tune of ‘It all must be just and right.’

God of many names, el Shaddai, Adonai of the gods
And name to be Unspoken, who yet in unconsuming fire are
One– Sung by Miriam
You rode Egyptian chariots,
Leaping off the flash flood tips
That took them under
To lead a rescued people’s dancing story of ‘who we are’–
At least, storm rider, you had the decency to roar downwind
That my father was
Right to shout for dignity,
Right to scream to the winds for hearing,
That of your dealings here
His wise and righteous friends had spoken

Now scars have covered my parents’ wounds–
Years will do that,
Will make one dip again the sops by the bowl
And build new vineyards.
But the scarred face of inner years
Presides above their silence.
A storm splintered their world
Just when it came ripe
As beading white October grapes–
The pelting rain had no father, the ice no mother?
And Satan had to have his fun?
And we the human tribe
Another of our darkest numbing stories?
Or was it that I could be born
Belated, called the fairest, to dry my parents’ tears–
A gift? Or sign of horror.

Almighty One, you spoke better words
To our prophets, mothering lullabies,
That you would hold us in your hand
And write our names there,
Almighty One, you spoke better words
To our prophets, mothering lullabies,
That you would hold us in your hand
And write our names there,
Thus says the Lord,
Bounce us on your knees,
Thus says the Lord,
No more dash us down than would a mother do
The sweet-fingered nursling stroking her breast.
What then of the sons and daughters?–
Each ambling gait and sidelong curly grin of them
More loved than any thousand rams you took?
You rode a storm down on their house.
The roof beam crushed their skulls.
The Satan made you do it,
So you say–
That same excuse we use ourselves?
We approach the case.

The unfathered rain and icy motherless hail
And rocky-heart Leviathan
Were the better answer to my father
Though we cling to Satan rather,
Cozy, cruel, and motivated–
Quotidian and almost human.
Did you weep at least
Above their bodies, god of storms,
Those children of my parents’ works and days
And yours?–
Weep like goddess Ashtaroth in our forbidden stories,
Looking on her children floating
Food for fishes
On the flood she’d made?

I hear no answer but the blowing wind.
Then let me mount the storm behind you
Who cover yourself in glory
And ride on thunder clouds,
Clutch your hobnailed belt and pulsing torso,
Cling on for life and bounce– ]
Shout down the wind with you–
Until beyond the splintered wood and bloody tracks
Some still and fresh contouring valley shows Gray-green in early sun,
Under vines with velvet buds,
Where new goat kids lie sucking milk–
A valley cushioned on the hair of your storm-reining arm,
Dangling beneath your breast,
Brooding and breeding God, so in motion, so at rest.

A Nightmare Walks on the Green Grass

Job lived in the land of Uz, but scholars can’t find it in ancient records. Uz seems to have meant “nowhere,” like the land of Oz, a place where a tornado might carry you off to, but so very familiar for all that.

This one was the place where your worst nightmares come true.

A storm blew down the house where Job’s children were partying and killed them all. Livestock raiders killed all his herds and burned his vineyards and orchards. A skin disease covered his body with oozing boils. His reputation and right to speak in the city council were gone; people were sure God was punishing him for something horrible. His wife told him to curse God and die. You can’t say her advice wasn’t à propos. The last straw was when friends tried to get him to agree that his sins must have brought this ruin down on him, or at least, that God had a purpose for it. He began to rage at them.

In our parish some years ago, a family lost a teenage son in a diving accident. A few weeks later their other son, a little boy riding in the back of a friend’s station wagon, was also killed. They’d been rear-ended, the tailgate flew open, and he fell out. The cars were hardly even damaged. It seemed surgical. The father, already an internationally renowned scientist, threw himself into his career. He still had his work, and his health, for what they were worth. The mother visited the boys’ graves every noon time for months, talking to them—the city parks workers built her a special bench. The parish priest at the time was said to have felt that this second funeral was the most suffocating moment of his priesthood. The mayor arranged to have all the town’s churches ring their bells. Some friends of my informant’s children, fellow teenagers and members of a fundamentalist high school club, claimed that the deaths happened because God was punishing the boys for scorning Him. While the kids scoffed at this, they hadn’t been to church nor anything remotely religious ever since.

Job refused to curse God–maybe partly because his wife told him to do it. God is great, he said, I worship God because of His own glory, not for what He gives me. At least, that’s what he said until his friends started in on him with reasonings. Then he fell to cursing indeed–still not cursing God, but the day of his own birth. You never heard anyone curse a day so well. Why did the sun of it ever rise? Why wasn’t it blotted out of the calendar? Why wasn’t the cry of joy stifled when the midwife shouted in that night that a boy child was born? Etc., etc. He had to curse that day and that birth because, last and worst of all, his own selfhood, his own place from which to speak at all, was now being threatened by the explanations that blathered around him, filled with the weight of a thousand years of a people’s proverbs—God rewards the just, punishes the wicked. On and on. It felt as if they were playing with him, to patch up their own consolation, making a veil to protect themselves from what he had to feel. He had to reclaim another life of his selfhood, born on a better day, when the sun did a better job of rising.

Like Don Quixote in his pasteboard armor and chamber-pot helmet, shaking his lance at laughing bystanders and declaring “I know who I am”: a knight called to uphold truth and protect the innocent”–like him Job yelled, “I know that my redeemer lives, and that in my flesh I shall see him.” I–shall see Him.

This is what needs to happen when people are have identified as someone who, they suddenly find, can’t be seen or heard by those around them—as Job was heard no more at the city market. They may be someone of color who has mostly just pretended to feel white, and got along well enough until some shocking fence came down around him in a new situation, and suddenly he understood that when his mouth moved, white people didn’t really hear anything, didn’t even see him. Ellison’s Invisible Man. He had no self to speak from that they could recognize. When they detected a noise coming from somewhere outside their horizon, they began to repeat standard reassurances that nothing is out there, everyone is the same, and any voice saying otherwise should hush up.

Or a woman feels she has a calling to be a priest. “I know who I am,” she says, swinging her limp half-stole. But 1300 copies of her book are shredded, unsold, by the Benedictine press that published it. Did we think book-burnings died out in the sixteenth century?

Or maybe someone is deaf. Don’t tell us about that. Don’t bother us with a person at the front of the room doing sign language—the funny motions makes us feel odd. Or someone is bisexually-inclined but has never acted on it and always kept it silent. Something happens to make that silence intolerable—no more complicity in homophobic jokes, innuendoes, rolled-up eyeballs. The person begins trying to speak from a new place. But there is no place to stand that anyone can hear words from, except a ghetto where it’s thought that beings from planet purple live. Awkward first attempts bring a great shushing, and repeating of assurances that nothing is out there, only straight desires are good, we can’t hear about anything else.

In the gospel stories it was blind men yelling to be heard, or collaborator/tax-collectors like the short guy up a tree. Zacchaeus was invisibly short so he made the tree his place to see and speak from, his place of selfhood. Just call me ‘Sycamore,’ he said. I know who I am. The crowd control people around Jesus told such people to shush up. But Jesus said if they did, the stones would cry out.

As for Job, he fought back against his friends’ shushing with his best poetry. It was time for dark words. Counter-poetry. Poetry and activism, that’s what people do when their chance for a hearing, a voice–a self fitting the way they really grew and are–is being squelched, shushed, declared unhearable. Poetry invents not only new language but new places for language. Job said that yes, he was sinful, but he knew he had not done anything so uncommon as to deserve what happened to him. Since no human being at all would listen, he screamed for God to be the audience. Rage and poetry. The best medicines.

“O tell of his might, O sing of his grace
Whose robe is the light, whose canopy space.
His chariots of wrath the deep thunder-clouds form
And dark is his path on the wings of the storm.”

And so to this human poet with his back to the last wall came the first poet, riding a whirlwind, and thundered such images as Job could never have concocted. Of wild stallions trampling and neighing, caring nothing for anyone’s fences or little ones; of a dragon Leviathan with a heart hard as a millstone–did he expect the beast tied up with a ribbon round its neck to entertain little girls? And where was he at creation when the solid ground was separated from the sea, and all the morning stars sang about it together? On and on the searing chant went, until Job plugged his ears and begged for silence.

The worst of suffering was outdone by the wildest of poetry. And Job came to himself and said he could be quiet now.

Hebrew scholars say that the ending (like the opening stuff about Satan making a bargain with God, and Job’s busy wife pestering him)–that this beginning and ending, this frame tale, was tacked on. It’s in a different idiom of earlier Hebrew, and shows itself to be a folktale. Job gets a new batch of children, new herds, new respectability, etc. So what. We like a happy ending.

We like a story. Please, not so much poetry, we beg. We like a story. It’s our veil of protection, like the rationalizing that Job’s friends kept weaving, and the new kids and herds he eventually got. Master-narratives, about everything coming right in the end, all having had a purpose.

But before the ending is tacked on, the friends are told from the whirlwind to be silent. To ask Job to offer a sacrifice for them, and to find a way to speak their truth about God and their own lives, as he had.