The Book of Job is a long and difficult story, which is often read as an affirmation of faith in the face of suffering which we do not understand. What follows is a new reading informed by the literary approach to Bible as well as some of the foundational principles of psychoanalysis. We start by looking at the Bible as literature, and ask a simple question - what happens to us when we read a book?
When we pick up a book, we see it as a “story at arm's length” which allows us to identify deeply in a way which is safe but educational. When we relate to the main character of a story we can safely say ‘their story is my story.’ Perhaps this is why Job is presented as an ‘everyman.’ All we are told is his name and where he lived. We do not know if he is an Israelite or not, or how he came to be in this story. There is even an opinion among our Sages that he never actually existed.
This allows us to say “Job's story is our story,” which in turn allows us to gain insight into ourselves through a psychoanalytic approach to the book.
A founding concept within psychoanalysis is the covenant with the mother, an all-embracing, loving existence of togetherness. Birth is the beginning of a catastrophic break in the covenant which finds its literary parallel in the Bible in the expulsion from Eden and the struggle to rebuild a life of Divine intimacy. Life is filled with longing for the idealized enveloping embrace of the mythic mother, just as the Bible is filled with the longing for Eden.
The story of Job is a story of a man who achieves mythic covenant with God, who is able to have real faith, true love for God, despite the suffering which appears to stand in his way. This is a story which teaches us that true love can only flow from love of the truth, that if we refuse to see existential truth, our love for other will always fail.
The book opens with a description of Job's greatness and moves quickly to a literary frame which describes a gathering of the Divine court, among whom appears the Adversary, HaSatan. When God calls attention to Iyov (Job), praising his righteousness, the Adversary replies by saying "Of course Job is God fearing - You have done everything for him. Take it all away, and he will curse you."
From the literary and psychoanalytic standpoint, we can also look at God as the protagonist of this story. In this exchange, the Adversary has just touched the most vulnerable of spots - how can God know that Job really loves him for himself, and not for what God gives him? Which is, of course, one of the most painful questions of the human existence.
We can look at God and the Satan in this exchange as representative of two parts of our inner life. God is the side which seeks love and believes in its reality. The Satan is the shadow which emerges from the dependency on the other which is bound up with relationships of love – the doubt, anxiety and fear which so often cause their rupture. This is the paradox of dependence which underlies love - our love makes us dependent to some degree on other, but they will always remain to some degree other than us.
One can hide from this reality through various psychological devices, refusing to accept the truth of our conditionality, or one can accept the partiality and dependent nature of our existence. It is this acceptance of existential truth, which is itself a love of true reality, that allows for true love.
When the Adversary says to God: You see this other whom You love? He doesn’t love YOU, he loves what you give him," he is thrusting the paradox of dependence straight in God’s face. This in turn is what arouses God’s desire to take everything from Job – to see if his love is real.
In response to this inner dilemma, God sets out to prove the truth of Job's love by taking away everything external which be the source of his love. Read Job 1:12-2:8 to familiarize yourself with the text. Job is stripped first of his children and external possessions, and then of his health. The situation is so bad that his wife calls on him to give up:
In a loving relationships the other whom we love offers a mirror image of ourselves. This image can become a threat because it shows us the things about ourselves which we do not want to see. Think of being threatened, and even angered, by seeing wrinkles on the face of your spouse because you are afraid aging. Of course, humanity was created in the image of God. From this perspective, God sees the fragility and dependence in Job mirroring God's own need for love, and attacks it.
Another challenge of love is our ability to accept the other as they actually are. This is an acceptance that we will never really know them, and that they will remain to some degree a mystery. You can read Chapter 38 to see God's insistence that the Divine lies beyond human knowledge. This itself is somehow a response to the Adversary saying to God: You don’t really know Job.
A last challenge is the ethical issue of desire. We desire the other for ourselves, but ethical behavior requires that our desire consider the needs and fragility of other. There is no true love without considering the independent existence of the other, and so God strips Job down to his essence, taking anything which might give him love in order to test if he truly loves God. Sadly, the very act of testing is a “fall for God.” If we say that we trust another person, that we believe in their love, the minute that we test this love we lose the hope of really believing in it - we are avoiding the existential truth that we can never really know what lies in the heart of another.
As the story progresses, three friends gather around Job, attempting to help him find meaning in his suffering through well-worn phrases, "Think now, what innocent man ever perished? Where have the upright been destroyed?" (Job 4:4) Job will not be comforted by simplistic theology. He only asked that God see him, that God recognize that his suffering is undeserved - that it is a Divine fall driven by the need for certainty in love.
In the end, Job's great desire is to see God and he is answered in Chapters 28-41, but this revelation out of the storm wind is itself a second fall for God. Rather than addressing Job's need to be seen, God declares the Divine nature as unknowable. The book ends with Job's acceptance of his inability to know God, and in this he sees to switch places with God, succeeding to find love when God fails. Job's recognition of the existential truth leads him to true love.
The crux of Job's response to the revelation is found at the beginning of Chapter 42:
One can read the last line here as:
עַל־כֵּ֭ן אֶמְאַ֣ס (Therefore I recant) - I don’t want to be in a place of anger and complaint any longer.
וְנִחַ֑מְתִּי (and relent) - Therefore, I accept you God as you are, I chose to love you unconditionally.
Through this acceptance of what is, Job is returning to that primordial state of oneness, saying that we are one, just like the child and mother before birth.
This type of love which flows from an unconditional acceptance of what is, of the truth of existence, finds a parallel expression in the way that the Talmud describes the death of the great Sage, Rabbi Akiva. Like Job, Rabbi Akiva suffered terribly - though his story ends in death rather than revelation. At least at first glance:
As Rabbi Akiva approaches his moment of truth, he is focused on saying the Shema, on accepting upon himself the yoke of heaven. The fact that his students are bearing witness to his suffering is critical, because when they ask him: "Even now?! Can you really still cleave to God after all you have endured?!" his answer illuminates the meaning of the story. In essence, Rabbi Akiva tells them: You think that the Romans have won, that their torture of me is an expression of their power. In reality, my whole life I have loved God with all my heart and all my possessions, but I could not love God with all my life. The Romans, indeed all of history, are nothing more than the stage, the setting for me to actually able to love God with all my life. This is not a punishment or a victory over me, but rather a unique spiritual opportunity.
Rabbi Akiva dies with the word "One" on his lips, declaring the unity of God, the union between humans and God, and expressing the fundamental psychological desire to return to source. Both the story of Job and that of Rabbi Akiva teach us the existential freedom which we have as we face every reality, so long as we connect to it from within as an undeniable reality, and in their stories, as an expression of God. The power of these stories flows from the wonder which we experience when we read about these mighty heroes who, in the face of the boundaries of human experience, still find inner connection, and still find faith. This doesn’t save them from suffering; rather, it lifts them above the physical, beyond the immediate circumstance into the transcendental.
The traditional reading of Job is that in the end he accepted God’s judgement, an act which is expressive of the greatness of his faith.
I want to read the story with a different ending, one in which Job refuses to accept God’s acts but chooses to love Gd nonetheless. This is a far greater act of faith. It is an acceptance of the existential truth of one's life, which allows one to love God, the source of that existence, without conditions. Job teaches us that this may be the only way to love God - not because of what we receive, but as an act unto itself.