Job 3:11-19 II
Bill Long 5/1/05
The Psychological Verisimilitude of Job's Poetry
The previous essay attempted to give the "flow" of these verses but the question I want to ask today is whether the words of Job 3:11-19 are psychologically "true"--that is, do they tend to resonate with the experience of those who suffer great distress? My thesis is that they do, and that they do in three ways: first, by providing an escape from the pain; second, by having Job pose questions that he doesn't actually answer; and third, by returning to the questions that launched this section as a way of inspiring him to speak yet further.
Two observations help us begin. First, regarding literature. All students of literature are aware of the distinction between imaginative/escape and instructional/moralistic literature. The former simply provides pleasure or a respite from the tasks of the day, while the latter seeks to give guidance in the confusing maelstrom of life. Why do people read escape literature, however? For the same reason that others might drink, some others watch sports and root for their favorite teams and that others have the stash of M & M's in the desk: to provide a little relief, a dollop of pleasure, when the pounding intensity or the unremitting insistence of the day's tasks overwhelm. Though the forms of escape literature are varied, two themes that run through the most popular ones are (1) the notion of trips to other places and times; and (2) the idea of fabulous animals, people or sights that one might see.
Second, regarding battle fatigue. Studies have shown, and you can do internet research on "psychological escape" to verify this, that those long-exposed to combat situations seek psychological escape from their tasks. Often they will either feign or actually experience mental decompensation in order to relieve the horrors they daily face.
These two "modern" examples of "escape" provide the backdrop for understanding Job's mental journey especially in 3:14-15. He asks the question of why he had been born, and then he imagines a place where he would be with kings of the earth and rich princes. One aspect of the brief description of these royal worthies is that they "rebuilt destroyed cities" (v.14). What an arresting way to characterize them! Instead of listing the wonders of the world that they built, we can imagine, in the mind's eye, the creative energy needed to clear the rubble, design a city, reclaim land and energize people for the task of restoration.
Job's "escape" is true to form in that it takes us on a journey to another time and puts us in the company of great personages. The escapes that we seek do the same for us. In great pain, we imagine ourselves in another time and place of our lives; we seek a diffierent world than the one that faces us; we luxuriate in stolen moments of pleasure. Yes, Job, we too escape like you in the midst of our great distresses.
Job's Questions and "Non Answers"
Some scholars have noted, usually without comment, that Job's answers to the questions raised in 11-12 and 16 do not really address the questions. He asks why he had been born. But he seems to answer different quetsions. The questions he poses seem to trigger other thoughts. And, isn't this true to life? When the great distress comes we may think, and we may say, 'Why did this happen to me?' or 'Why can't I just die?' but then we keep on speaking and don't deal with the questions asked. We talk about our memories of the persons affected or the time "before disaster;" we speak of other people, other times, other feelings, other desires. The questions or objections we might seem to raise about our situation may be objections indeed, but at first they are only foils for comments that often have nothing to do with the questions posed. Listen to people who talk about the distresses of life immediately after they happen. The "whys" lead quickly to different observations that open the true concerns of the human heart.
The Repetitive Question
Again, scholars have noted that the question in 3:16, which seems to echo those in 3:11-12, really doesn't get you any further than the questions of vv.11-12. Thus, some even suggest "dropping" the question from the text here or moving it directly after v.12. Not only does this suggestion have no textual support but it flies in the face of the reality of our psychological process in dealing with grief. In brief, we return to the questions asked at the beginning of our questioning, questions we actually don't answer, and repeat them. It is almost as if these basic questions are fuel for the next exploratory journey in our lives. In this case, after Job asks again about why he was born, he focuses on the "little people" in his imagined world (v.18) before concluding that both small and great are there (v.19). The repeated question helps him fill out his speech; it gives him a chance to pause to "refresh" himself; it allows him to complete the thoughts begun in v.13. Thus, it seems to work like this, both for Job and for us: we ask the question; we don't answer it; we ask it again; we don't answer it again; but we end up saying what we desire. That is the rhythm and content of grief-inspired language. That is what Job gives us here.
Once Job has gone on his mental journey, with the aid of questions he never really answers, he finds himself asking new questions in v vv.20-23 which actually become the questions that really bother him. It takes hard work, and long speaking, to get to the real issues that bedevil us.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long