- Reading the Book of Job in the Pandemic
The disaster came fiercely and unexpectedly, like what happened to the biblical character Job. For the past half year, the whole world has suffered enormously from a wildly spreading new type of coronavirus, which was named COVID-19 by the World Health Organization (WHO) on 11 February 2020. Up till now, no single medicine has proved to be an effective cure, nor is there any vaccine. The disease consumes life and causes panic. We have been in one way or another like the biblical Job, going through an existential crisis, unsure of the underlying causes but very sure of the lived consequences. In the present context, there are a range of biblical texts that may resonate with our experience, but Job clearly deserves discussion.
Job the Sufferer
Apart from losing his children and property all of a sudden (Job 1:13–19), Job suffered first and foremost from the physical pain caused by a certain kind of skin disease: the “loathsome sores” ( ) inflicted on him by the satan “from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head” (Job 2:7).1 The kind of the disease Job suffered has long been the subject of scholarly discussion, and proposals for the identification of the disease have ranged from leprosy, scurvy, and syphilis to elephantiasis and so on.2 While it may be difficult to identify the disease, it is not so hard to recognize that Job, a model of piety, surprisingly suffers a Deuteronomic curse: “The Lord will strike you on the knees and on the legs with grievous boils [ ] of which you cannot be healed, from the sole of your foot to the crown of your head” (Deut 28:35).3 The correlation in the wording is unmistakable. [End Page 607]
Without knowing the cause of his suffering, without any verbal consolation from his three friends, Job breaks the silence and curses his birth: in the burning torment, he longs for death (Job 3:1–19). The friends have come, each from his own place ( , 2:11) “to comfort” Job, yet they are initially speechless, as most of us would be, seeing that Job’s grief is “very great” (2:11–13). They are disappointed at Job’s impatience about his distress. In their view, Job must have done something wrong to be “reproved” by Eloah (5:17). For his part, Job is irritated, and indeed offended, by their misunderstanding and moral “teaching” (6:24–26).4 Instead, he suggests that the friends learn some harsh teaching from creation (12:7–9), which once again resonates with our own context of reading. Nature seems to have its own laws, but these laws are not correlated with human blessings or curses (Job 38–39).5
Job the Mourner
Confronted with the friends’ unanimous scolding, Job begins to defend his integrity and innocence. Surprisingly, a large part of Job’s speeches is addressed to God rather than his friends, as Job believes that God is the author of his suffering. In this sense, Job shares his friends’ opinion that suffering generally comes from divine discipline or punishment for one’s sin. Job differs from them, however, in his view that he has done nothing to deserve such disasters. His integrity has not protected him from the human condition.
Like a slave who longs for the shadow, and like laborers who look for their wages,so I am allotted months of emptiness, and nights of misery are apportioned to me.(Job 7:2–3)
Job’s self-defense intertwines two thematic threads: emotional mourning for his misery and insistent protest—even summoning God to court. The two threads are united by the common goal of questioning the validity of divine justice.6 [End Page 608]
Job’s pain is real and acute: his skin “hardens and breaks out again”; he cannot sleep (7:4–5), because nightmares will haunt him (7:14). His mourning is expressed in a particularly touching manner with the “optative formula” (“Oh that …,” or “Would that …”):7 “Oh that you would hide me [ ] in Sheol, that you would conceal me until your wrath is past, that...