Religious Knowledge, Lecture 17


“…a blend of the tragic, comic and satiric”

Lecture 17. February 10, 1948

To understand Job, you must see that the book is a blend of tragic, comic and satiric.  All great drama is a blend of these three.  The satiric tone is a blend of the moral and the humorous.  Pure humor is not satire; pure denunciation is not satire.

Satire is a detachment from evil; it brings out its wrongness and ridiculousness.  You can’t find anything more detached from evil than God; therefore, there are some aspects of the sardonic in God, or the gods.  This is inescapable in any serious religion.  Wrath is the reaction of good when confronted with evil, and wrath is the opposite of irritation.  God is incapable of irritation, which is a personal egocentric thing which desires to triumph over and score off someone.  Wrath is impersonal, detached.

God speaks in the tones of the wrath of the sardonic.  Yet these tones are different from Job’s friends who approach him with elaborate friendliness and politeness.  They talk in vague, general terms about the goodness of good and the badness of evil.

Then their approach sharpens; the reproaches come clearer to a point of open antagonism.  They are trying to hint that Job had better “‘get right” with God.  They are trying to interpret their own sense of the wrath of God, of man in an evil state.  But Job insists that he’s done nothing wrong.  The friends become irritated; they want to score him off.  Job tries to score them off, too.  All agree there must be some justice somewhere.  Only Job’s wife suggests something else: curse God and die.  At the end, God curiously enough seems of the same opinion.  Man searches for a God equal to him.  God feels the same way; he wants a man equal to him.

The dialogue breaks down into a deadlock.  If Job has done nothing wrong, then nothing makes sense.  His friends are pious Jews thinking in terms of the Hebrew law, the best of the Pharisaic mind that Jesus condemns.  They try to interpret God’s design in terms of the law.  Job comes to the discovery that rain falls on the just and unjust alike; the sun shines upon evil and good alike.

Job, his three friends, and Elihu are all under the same cloud.  The breakdown point is that there is no revelation of God to Man.  All seems to be mystery. The collapse is tragedy and satire, not comedy.

Tragedy and satire are inseparable.  There is an ironic kernel in all Shakespeare tragedies.  Hamlet’s death is a tragedy, yet it takes place after a muddled attempt at revenge.  Horatio must tell that Hamlet has been a damn fool.  In Othello’s last speech he is trying to cheer himself up and rescue some fragment of dignity.  It is not that he realized what a fool he has been, but what a fool he is.  In Antony and Cleopatra, the Antony who held the stage in Julius Caesar, the demagogue, in this play is crowded right off the stage by Cleo.  She has him killed off in Act IV and has the fifth act to herself.  She puts on a good show, but the irony is that it is a good show.  Octavius comes in at the end of her show and says, “Oh yes, I heard she was doing some research on a painless way to die.”   The hanging of Cordelia, in Lear, blasts any theory that there is a moral order in tragedy.

The point of tragedy is not punishment, but that the hero fell, whether he deserved it or not. That is the irony.

The author of the Book of Job is not trying to clear God’s name, as Milton was.  There is no self-defensive, aggressive tone as in Milton’s God.  At the end, God speaks with what seems colossal impudence. He feels he has a right to condemn Job, in a sense, for feeling that he is righteous in his own eyes.  The reader has the curious feeling that God has done something wrong, in view of the prologue.


Why do the innocent suffer is the problem of the Book of Job.  What is the meaning of the term “innocent”?  If we look at the people in the Bible who claim to be innocent, we come up against Pontius Pilate.  For Job, comes the dawning that there is no such thing as innocence.  There is no reason for Job’s troubles other than that of his own existence.  He was quite right in cursing the day of his birth.  Both good and evil men are caught in the same rat-trap.  The “innocent” person is not only free from sin, but free from the consequences of everybody else’s sin.  There is no such person but God himself.  So, there is some stain on Job’s birth which the goodness of his life cannot remove.

Two things limit the rewards of virtue, if it can be said there are rewards:

  1. You can’t escape the sin of other people.  You cannot be a good man in a Nazi state.

You’ll be polluted by it even if you become a victim.

  1. There are diseases and disasters in the world that man cannot control.  You cannot discover any divine benevolence in nature or in other men.  Nature is indifferent to moral values.  There is no guarantee that lightning will strike the drunk and not the saint.

Job is led to the fact that there is a fatality in being born which the goodness of your life will not remove.

Now we can see what Satan is and why he entered into the pact. Satan is the agent of all these disasters which fall on Job.  He is bound up with this world that limits and conditions us.  Satan actually is this evil world.  He is called the Prince of this world, Prince of the powers of the air, of tempests, floods––and boils.  When man is born there are two powers which control and watch him.  There is God himself, but a certain amount of autonomous power is given to Satan.  What finally unrolls is a picture of man born into a Satanic world, with God permitting Satan to have a certain amount of leeway.

Job has observed the laws of God, not for self-interest, but because he is good and because God is God.  There are a lot of people who will follow God only so long as things are pleasant.   Satan bets on this.  The bet is to test the holy-willys of this world.  Liberty is given to Satan because it is the only adult conception of God above that of a God who says “do this or else.”  The immature idea is of reward and punishment for behaviour.  If there was a law like this it would be a kindergarten world; there would be a visible and clearly operating moral law in this world.

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