By Rev. Greg Little
I have recently been attending a Zoom discussion group at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London which is using lectures by Northrop Frye on the Bible as Literature. The lectures can be found here, and I highly recommend them.
Northrop Frye was a great literary critic who explored the impact of the Christian bible on Western art and literature in his works, The Great Code and Words of Power. The group is using video of his lectures at the University of Toronto in the early 1980s in the discussion.
The current lectures are on the Book of Job in the Christian Old Testament.
The Book of Job describes the account of a man, Job, who is the subject of a bet between God and Satan to see if Job, a man who, “was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil,” can be turned from loving God.
Satan bets that if everything that Job possesses is taken away from him, he will curse God. Satan is, in effect, betting that Job is just a fair-weather friend to God.
With the agreement of God, Satan is allowed to take everything away from Job, his vast possession and his children. The only caveat is that Satan must not harm Job physically: “Very well, all that he has is in your power; only do not stretch out your hand against him!” Even this condition is renegotiated and God gives Satan permission to attack Job’s health and he is, “inflicted loathsome sores on Job from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head.”
After a debate with friends who seem to embody the expression, ‘with friends like these, who needs enemies’, Job demands and receives an opportunity to appear before God and demand the justification for what has happened to him. God does not answer Job directly but justifies himself by declaring that Job, in effect, has no right to question him as Job was not present when God created the world:
Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements—surely you know!
God seems to come off looking like a bully and a tyrant – at least at first glance – and this has been the debate among theologians and biblical scholars probably since it became part of the canon of scripture.
However, engaging with the scripture as part of the study group I have seen another possibility. Frye gave me an appreciation of the meaning of property. He noted that it means what is proper to a person. Drawing on this, I believe that the Book of Job can be understood as an exploration of what it means to be a human being in its essence.
What is being demonstrated by the author of the Book, is what it means to be a human being. Is the essence of a person the things which the world identifies with that person – his or her job, his or her possessions, his or her achievements? Or does the fact that humans are created in the image of God the essence of how the person is?
Humans will identify with the image they present to the world. Carl Jung calls this their persona. If that is taken away, they are in danger of losing the identity, their self-image. Job had all that made him valued to his world. Even his wife told him to “curse God, an die.” However, he showed himself to be true to whom he was in his essence. This was the trial of Job in which he was found to be not guilty.
I do not know if I would pass the trials of Job but I might just take the advice of Job’s wife. I hope that I will never have to face trials anything like Job’s. I know that my journey has been an attempt to find out who I am in my essence.
I hope that you are blessed on your journey to find the essence of who you are.
Rev. Greg Little is the Honorary Assistant at St. James, Parkhill and St. John the Evangelist, Strathroy.