Job, Salieri and the Meaningfulness of Work


The social scientist in me is delighted that Justin Taylor has posted a statistical analysis of “What Is the Longest Book in the Bible?” I have to disagree with his findings, however.

The longest book of the Bible is Job. Anyone who says otherwise hasn’t really read it.

Job is actually my favorite book of the Bible. I don’t often have a strong subjective sense of God’s presence, but I usually do when I read Job. It is as though God said: “You want to talk? Okay. Let’s really talk.”

I thought of Job again today as I was re-reading Tim Keller’s new book on faith and work. In chapters 5-6, Keller points to the figure of Salieri in the famous book and movie Amadeus to illustrate several points about how the fall has affected our work. Salieri is gifted with a desperate thirst to make great music, and has not been gifted with the ability to do so. Instead, God gives this ability to the immature Mozart, who doesn’t have to work for his gifts and doesn’t even seem to appreciate the greatness of what he’s doing. After a lifetime of trying to bargain with God for the talent he feels he deserves, Salieri curses God for what seems like his capricious, even imbecilic distribution of talents. Keller uses Salieri to point to the fact that our work is meant to be fruitful (i.e. Salieri is right to want to make great art) but if we don’t do it in service to God it becomes pointless (both because the tide of history will ultimately wash it away, and because we will be frustrated with it ourselves even within our own lifetimes).

Here’s what made me think of Job. When I first began to wrestle with Job, I asked myself: Why did Job have to suffer? The first answer I came up with was: So we could hear this story and witness the goodness of God clearly vindicated against Satan’s accusations. At that time, being young in the faith and having been led in a somewhat fundamentalist direction in my assumptions, I took it for granted that Job must have been a historical figure. I know better now, but that first answer still seems right to me. I see it implied, at least, in the opening dialogue – not only implied in the content of the dialogue, but implied by the very inclusion of the dialogue in the story. Job was almost certainly not a historical figure, but the question “Why did Job have to suffer?” is still meaningful; it means “If this story were true (i.e. within the world of this story), why did Job have to suffer?” The answer is to vindicate God against Satan before all witnesses.

But Job himself is unaware of this. Job does not know why he has to suffer. He is called upon to trust God that his suffering is meaningful. So are we all, when we suffer, or when we see evil or the appearance of chaos in the world. A former pastor of mine once illustrated this with the statement: “I once saw a group of masked men strap someone to a table, knock him unconscious, cut him open and cut out his heart.” That is, he witnessed a heart transplant operation. But if you didn’t know what a heart transplant operation was or what good it accomplished, the partial description of it seems horrible.

Even when he confronts Job, even when he restores Job, God makes a point of not telling Job the reason for his suffering. That’s important – Job must repent without knowing why he suffered, and for that act to be meaningful, Job must still not know even after he repents. For a long time it felt to me like the ending to the story was just a little too pat, a little to deus ex machina (if you’ll forgive the expression). I see now that it isn’t. Yes, after he repents Job gets his wealth back and has lots of new children, but he never finds out why he suffered. Things are not really back to the way they were before the calamity hit him; they never will be, because he never finds out.

The difference between Job and Salieri, of course, is that Salieri curses God and Job does not. It is not often remembered that Job does not curse God. We focus on Job’s desire to bring a complaint against God; the Hebrew scholars say the text points to a legal complaint, i.e. Job wants to file a grievance against God if only he can find a court with jurisdiction to take the case. But if your neighbor’s tree falls and damages your house and he refuses to pay, you can file a grievance against him without cursing him. Part of the point of Job is that he does not curse God even though he believes he has a grievance. Job is rebuked by God for believing he had a grievance, but he is not condemned in the same way his false friends are – God even orders the false friends to let Job act as their mediator and make sacrifices on their behalf to restore them before God, indicating Job is accepted for a priestly role in which the friends have been rejected. It appears from the text that the story takes place during an era when God was accepting sacrifices from heads of faithful households; the false friends have apparently been deemed unworthy to sacrifice until Job’s mediation restores them.

This may seem trite to say, but the reason Salieri curses God when Job did not is that Salieri never really served God in the first place. He told himself he was serving God, he gave up all kinds of opportunities (for pleasure, for money) because he told himself he was serving God, but he was never really serving God. The first and most fundamental command of God’s law is “love me and trust me.” If you don’t obey that, you haven’t obeyed any of the other laws, either. Calvin pointed to this as the basis of all Protestant theology: You can’t get holy and then be declared just, as Rome holds, because until you’re declared just you remain alienated from God, and you can’t get holy if you’re alienated from God because the first and most fundamental law of holiness is “love me and trust me.” How can we love God – really love God, love him for who he is, love him disinterestedly – until we know he has taken us back?

In our daily work, we suffer and toil routinely. Keller’s book emphasizes that honest work is always meaningful in spite of our suffering and frustration. I would add that even the suffering and frustration itself has a purpose, even if we don’t know what it is. That’s one of the many lessons of Job.

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