Bultmann’s Job

April 29, 2010

The Book of Job has always disturbed me. The thought of God being taunted into proving anything to Satan seems ridiculous to me. As you know Christians refer to this book during life’s trials. The back and forth argument, punishing a devote follower, it reeks of human weakness. I would expect God to be a little more mature, above human emotions.
Is it me? I’m not the most articulate person so I would love to hear your take on this.
Daniel Galanti

You have put your finger on one of the prime examples of what Rudolf Bultmann said was wrong with mythology. Though, he said, it is the proper and inevitable language of religion, dealing as it does with matters that are not mundane facts, myths cry out for existential interpretation, lest their intended message be lost. Mythology speaks of the Transcendent in terms of the immanent, the only thing it can do, after all, since all language derives from our everyday experience of the world. Myth, a type of poetry, strives to create (the illusion of?) momentary transcendence, something that can really only be experienced , not explained. If we try to take the stories of religious mythology literally, we miss their point and wind up thinking we have to defend a lot of pre-scientific nonsense. For example, myth speaks of God living way up there , e.g., atop a high mountain (Sinai, Olympus, etc.). God is pictured as being separated from us geographically . So what? Philosophy and theology by contrast, speak of God being separated from us ontologically , belonging to (or constituting) a “higher” order of Being. If we feel the impulse to worship or the call of absolute moral obligation, it is the Transcendent we sense, not mere spatial distance.

In the case of Job, particularly the famous prose prologue to which you refer, we find a strictly mythical God, one who keeps order in the universe by means of a bureaucracy of subordinate governors (the “sons of God,” gods or angels who each rule one country as Jehovah’s lieutenants) and who keeps an eye on things by means of a patrolling security chief, “the Satan” (which was originally no proper name but rather a title, “prosecuting attorney” including sting operations man), who roams the world, keeping files on people whose supposed loyalty to God he questions. Job, for instance. At this point in the evolution of biblical mythology “the Satan” is not yet considered an evil being or an opponent of God. That happens later and only insofar as he has somehow been combined with evil mythic entities including Beelzebul (Mark 3:22-23), Ahriman (Luke 10:19) or Leviathan (Revelation 12:9). In the Old Testament (Zechariah 3:1-5; 1 Chronicles 21:1) he is God’s servant, testing God’s mortal servants. He continues this role even in the New Testament (Matthew 4:1-11; Luke 22:31; Revelation 12:10). This is what we see him doing in Job chapters 1 and 3.

All of this, obviously, implies that God does not know what the outcome will be—unless the point is that he knows Job well enough and merely wants to vindicate his trust in him against the Satan’s suspicions. It all bears the character of a folktale and even appears to be based on earlier Babylonian legends of a righteous sufferer pestered by evil spirits. But the point underlying the whole story is that it is really Job who must be shown what he is made of. By extension, the reader is invited to ask whether his devotion to God is all he hopes it is. For non-theists nothing is lost, since we, too, need to view life’s tragedies as challenges and opportunities, unless we are to be crushed by them.

Bultmann said we can see the process of demythologizing (interpreting the myth for its existential value, since all myths embody a culture or a religion’s self-understanding) already in the New Testament, even in the Old. This is certainly true of the Book of Job. This becomes apparent once one learns that the first two chapters and the last part of the final chapter are portions of a prose folktale version of Job, and that someone has separated it into a prologue and an epilogue for the huge central section, which is very much like a Greek drama. There is nothing in the poetic drama about a wager between God and Satan; we never learn why or even if God is behind Job’s travails, or whether Satan has anything to do with it. Job bitterly complains of how God is tormenting him for no reason, while his self-righteous friends are assuring him he must have committed some sin, since God does not afflict the righteous. (We call what they are doing “blaming the victim.”) God appears and rebukes these know-it-alls, especially Job. How dare a pipsqueak like him, with the limitations of a mere mortal, presume to figure out what God is up to and to second guess his plans? In other words, the text accuses Job and his friends, with their complacent assumptions about an anthropomorphic deity, what God does and why—of superstition . Yes, demythologizing has begun.

Robert M. Price