A Spinozian Job: On Stephen Mitchell’s Translation

God speaks from the whirlwind, by Walter Russell.
Reposted from St-Takla.org

I used to think of the book of Job with the utmost contempt. You know, it’s that bit of the Bible where God torments poor Job to win a bet, and then bullies him into being damn well thankful for the favor. As for many people who’ve rejected Christianity, for me the book seemed to embody the worst aspects of religion. It seemed, that is, to be propaganda encouraging us to embrace our own domination and degradation—pawns to be manipulated by a cosmic thug, as well as by anyone who can dupe us into thinking that they wield his authority.

This was before my friend Howie Wettstein introduced me to Stephen Mitchell’s translation of the book. Since then, it’s become one of my favorite works of literature. This isn’t, however, because I’ve embraced Christianity or Judaism, or because I love it on its aesthetic merits alone. Rather, I see it as a text with deep religious significance, but of an unusual, Spinozian sort.

If I recall correctly, Howie first mentioned Mitchell’s translation in the context of our discussions about some themes from his own wonderful paper “Against Theodicy”. Although a devout Orthodox Jew, Howie thinks there’s something perverse in the notion of theodicy. Simply comforting ourselves with the thought that all the evils of the world are worthwhile as necessary parts of a just and good divine plan involves a failure to treat evil with the gravity it deserves. I wholeheartedly agree, though at the time I saw it as a reason to reject religion rather than as Howie seemed to: as a reason, rather, to re-think it.

The story of Job, as it’s traditionally rendered, contains what’s often treated as an image of theodicy. At the end of the book—after God has scolded Job for his arrogance, and Job has collapsed before God in repentance—God restores Job’s health, family, and wealth to him, each in greater measure than before. A happy ending: as in God’s divine plan, everything turns out alright.

The image, though, can seem cartoonish: a sick Panglossian fantasy. God grinds Job underfoot, and then, like a mustache-twiddling villain tossing a wad of cash into an underling’s face, gives Job a nice little reward for licking his boots. In soliciting our approval for Job, the book, then, encourages us to become happy little bootlickers, numb to the evils, not just in our own lives, but also in the world at large as we patiently await some future salvation—our own little wad in the face.

As Mitchell presents things in his translation, though, we get another picture entirely. A handful of editorial and translational choices make all the difference. First of all, Mitchell abandons the usual division of the book into chapters and verses. This system wasn’t used in the original Biblical texts, but imposed upon them in the 13th-16th centuries. Instead of using it, then, Mitchell divides Job into sections reflecting something about its original form.

The opening and closing sections of the book were written in prose, in contrast to the bulk of the text that they sandwich, which is in poetry–a formal distinction happily ignored in many translations. Further, the prose sections recount “a legend that was already ancient centuries before [the author] was born”. God’s wager with Satan, Satan’s subsequent torment of Job, and God’s reward for Job at the end of the book: all of these things are part of the legend. Thus, Mitchell sets off these sections and entitles them, appropriately, “The Legend”. By doing so, he invites us to consider this legend as a frame narrative: an old tale the author used as a scaffolding on which to hang their own creation, rather as James Joyce used the Odyssey for Ulysses.

The poetic narrative contained with this frame, then, is simply the story of a man who’s suffered ultimate loss. We do not know what this loss is: the specifics are contained only in The Legend. Instead, at the start we’re given only his howl of suffering, in which he curses his own existence. Then, we get several rounds in which his further howls are met by would-be words of comfort from friends, to no avail. The man, then, is left with only words of grief to express, at which point a voice from a whirlwind addresses him, and the man responds.

The tenor of this story is altered, not only by separating it from the frame narrative with which it’s juxtaposed, but also by two key translational decisions. First of all, Mitchell’s translation describes the voice from the whirlwind as issuing from ‘the unnameable’, marking a contrast between this term and both the ‘Lord’ described by the narrator of The Legend, and the ‘God’ whom Job and other characters mention. The unnameable speaks, yes, but there’s an open question whether it’s one and the same character as the proud, wagering Lord; or the unresponding tormentor Job makes God out to be.

Second and most importantly, there’s Mitchell’s translation of the poetic narrative’s final lines, which are also the final words of Job’s response to the unnameable. Most translations give these lines—Job 4:26—a strikingly different rendering than Mitchell does. The original King James Version is representative: “Wherefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes.” Translations like these suggest two themes governing these lines: self-flagellation, and repentance. A perusal of many other major English translations will find Job saying that he despises or hates or reprehends himself, is ashamed of himself, or counts himself vile. Even in those translations that have him only retracting, rejecting, or taking back his words, he nevertheless proceeds to express repentance.

Mitchell’s translation: “Therefore I will be quiet, comforted that I am dust.” No self-flagellation: rather, Job merely resolves to silence his howls of suffering. No repentance: rather, Job takes comfort in his insignificance.

This translation was the first thing Howie told me about Mitchell’s Job. I had to read the whole book in light of it, though, to see why it’s important. The alteration in these two key lines of the book has the power to transform those that come before: the long, gorgeous speech from the whirlwind.

The weak-kneed remorse that Job expresses in most translations casts a certain light on this speech. That is, it makes the thing read as one long chastising screed: the divine tantrum that brings about Job’s terrified, self-hating genuflection. “How dare you question me, you ignorant weakling!”—God bragging about the immensity of his power and understanding in order to cow Job into submission.

The first thing one notices when considering the speech in light of Mitchell’s rendering of 4:26 is that there’s nothing in it, considered on its own, that definitively suggests anger. The opening words of the speech are these:

Who is this whose ignorant words
smear my design with darkness?
Stand up now like a man;
I will question you: please, instruct me.

In the speech as screed, the opening question expresses the put-upon outrage of someone looking down upon Job from on high. The command that follows is a roar of authority demanding that Job present himself for punishment. And, the final request is dripping with sarcasm and malice.

However, a question, by itself, simply inquires. Who is Job? Of course, in the course of asking this, the unnameable also calls Job ignorant, and says that he’s smeared its design with darkness. But for all we can tell, it might be simply noting some facts. The attribution of ignorance need not be read as mockery, nor the attribution of smearing as accusation. It could very well be that the question’s been posed in a soft, calm, and curious voice.

Notice, further, that no mention is made in this opening question of what lies behind the darkness with which Job has smeared the unnameable’s design. Is it light? The darkness is certainly in part that of the world from the viewpoint of Job’s ignorance: his failure to get a clear view of it. Beyond this, though, remember that Job has demonstrated this ignorance in all of what he’s said before the whirlwind’s arrival. In both his opening curse, and his various responses to the comforters, he’s called the world evil for what it’s done to him: darkness, not just as what obscures, but also as what preys upon us.

Is it, then, the light of understanding and well-being that’s revealed when Job’s smear is cleared away? This is how a theodical interpretation of the book would go, of course. However, besides what preys upon us and what blesses us, there’s also that which is indifferent to us—whose goings-on aren’t about us at all. And, besides understanding and ignorance, there is incomplete comprehension. For all that the unnameable says, then, behind darkness might be something other than such light: an indifferent world about which we understand woefully little.

When the unnameable tells Job to stand up like a man, is it urging some masculine bucking-up—for Job to take his punishment without sniveling? Or is “man” meant in that more general (if still chauvinistic) sense, so that the unnameable is urging him to present himself qua finite, fragile human being? On the latter reading, the unnameable isn’t necessarily telling to Job to stand at attention like a soldier before a punishing authority. Perhaps he’s simply being told to become Exhibit A—to present himself to be used as an example of something that we all share. And not just an example for us, but for himself: perhaps Job is about to find out who he is.

The unnameable does indeed go on to declare it will inquire of Job, and requests his instruction. But this need not keep us from thinking that Job is in for a discovery. Socrates isn’t the only one in history to have known we sometimes learn by being asked.

And asking questions is precisely what the voice from the whirlwind goes on to do. What reading of its inquiry could reveal to us how it gives Job comfort? Consider, for example, the most famous passage from this inquiry—its opening lines:

Where were you when I planned the earth?
Tell me, if you are so wise.
Do you know who took its dimensions,
measuring its length with a cord?
What were its pillars built on?
Who laid down its cornerstone,
while the morning stars burst out singing
and the angels shouted for joy!

As here, in what follows, Job is repeatedly asked questions to which the answer is ‘no’—questions whose gist is “Do you know?” or “Are you able?” As the unnameable asks these things, it gives Job a synoptic view of the world. And, in soliciting his naysaying, it presents the world as the domain of the ungovernable—of what can’t be understood or controlled by him.

More than this, these questions give Job a view of a world that isn’t about him—whose fundamental structures are only distorted when seen through the lens of his own concerns, or even those of human beings more generally. Thus, they don’t reveal the light of unrestricted revelation and benevolence behind the darkness of his smear. Rather, they reveal light of a different kind: on who Job is and his place in the world. They disabuse him of his illusions.

Job’s mistake isn’t that he grieves. Instead, the viewpoint he’s adopted is distorted insofar as he’s demanded reasons for being treated as he has been. More specifically, though, he’s asked for reasons of a kind never mentioned in the whirlwind’s speech. The whirlwind speaks only of causes, whereas Job wants the kind of reasons a person might give to defend themselves against an accusation. In other words, he wants the explanation to take the form of a justification, and one aimed at him. In doing so, he’s presupposed that the reasons for which things in the world happen must be of a sort to fulfill this role, and in this sense takes the ways of the world to be about him.

The unnameable disabuses him of this notion. Its second round of questioning begins like this:

Do you dare to deny my judgment?
Am I wrong because you are right?
Is your arm like the arm of God?
Can your voice bellow like mine?
Dress yourself like an emperor.
Climb up onto your throne.
Unleash your savage justice.
Cut down the rich and the mighty.
Make the proud man grovel.
Pluck the wicked from their perch.
Push them into the grave.
Throw them, screaming, to hell.
Then I will admit that your own strength can save you.

The last sentence here suggests that Job’s demands for justification are driven by the conviction that “your own strength can save you”. He has stood in judgment of the world—like an emperor issuing verdicts—because he thinks that he can thereby conquer its ungovernability. Specifically, he thinks that he can call the world forth and make it answer for itself, and give him what he’s owed.

Thus, it’s Job’s desire to flee his helplessness—his dependence on and vulnerability to an ungovernable world—that drives him to adopt the vision of things presupposed in his howls of suffering. Beneath his despair lies a comforting story: the pathetic hope that he can rise above his own insignificance—achieve transcendence, as we sometimes say.

The whirlwind then invokes the figures of the Beast and the Serpent (more well known by their Hebraic names behemoth and leviathan). These creatures are wild and untamable. Can Job overcome the ungovernability of either? No, the whirlwind urges:

Look: hope is a lie:
you would faint at the very sight of him.
Who would dare to arouse him?
Who would stand in his way?
Who under all the heavens
could fight against him and live?

It’s at this point that Job responds:

I know you can do all things
and nothing you wish is impossible.
Who is this whose ignorant words
cover my design with darkness?
I have spoken of the unspeakable
and tried to grasp the infinite.
Listen and I will speak;
I will question you: please, instruct me.
I had heard of you with my ears;
Therefore I will be quiet,
comforted that I am dust.

Again, though, what is it that comforts him? The natural answer is: the vision of the world revealed to him by the whirlwind’s inquiry. In other words, this vision has presented to him the particular sense in which he’s dust. Job cursed the world for having given rise to him, only to make him the pawn of its ungovernability. It burned his life to the ground for reasons he can’t understand, and due to forces he can’t control. Even as he gave in to despair, though, he couldn’t really face up to that ungovernability: he took up a stance that presumed it could be conquered, and in doing so, also took up a warped viewpoint on the world and himself.

At the end, though, Job finds comfort in precisely what he previously cursed: the fact that he’s at the mercy of an ungovernable world. To take comfort in a fact, one must face up to it, whereas Job has acted as if it isn’t there. He took up his pathetic conquering stance, presuming as he did that conquest is possible, and calling out into the cosmos to get it done. In doing so, he told himself a little story about this person named God to whom he was calling—an image of the conquerer Job wants to become, and whose powers of conquest Job hopes he can summon. He didn’t, as he’s doing now, face the world for what it is—the ungovernable whirlwind.

What would it look like to achieve Job’s comfort? And even if we knew, why should we aspire to doing so? These are, as I see it, the central questions for Spinozian religion. The pinnacle idea in his most ambitious work—the Ethics—is that the world’s ungovernability, and our consequent dependence on and vulnerability to it, are utterly ineliminable. More than this, though, the fact that this is so doesn’t need to send us into a panic—what he calls superstition. We need not, for example, live our lives according to comforting illusions like the one in the legend from Job’s frame narrative: that there’s a cosmic king out there who can save us from this fate, and has set up the world to do just that. Nor are we left to simply tolerate an overwhelming, mysterious world: accept it with resignation, or with the defiance of Camus’s Sisyphus.

Rather, this condition—what Spinoza calls our finitude—can be a source of joy. In fact, this joy is so profound, he thinks, that he calls it beatitude (Latin: beatitudo)–the term from traditional Christianity for the greatest kind of well-being of which humans are capable. To achieve Spinozian beatitude, we have not only to give up our superstitious illusions, but also to re-orient ourselves away from the hatred of finitude that inspired them in the first place.

The book of Job as translated by Stephen Mitchell dramatizes the stakes of this struggle with incredible beauty and power. It is framed by an ancient story of a man who faces a capricious anthropomorphic God. Yet, it tells a story that stands in stark contrast with this frame: of a man who’s suffered absolute loss, yet finds comfort nevertheless in being a drop in the sea of Nature.

The possibility of such comfort is the idea on which Spinozian religion stands or falls. Many, I suspect, will react by rejecting it out of hand. The joy of Job will sound like a strange sort of masochism, or else self-deception, or else a vile kind of coldness to the things that matter most. For me, these are the most urgent worries about Spinoza’s religious views. In next week’s post, I’ll try to make a start on addressing them.

3 thoughts on “A Spinozian Job: On Stephen Mitchell’s Translation

  1. Tina V. Cabrera

    I got a Kindle version of Spinoza’s Theological-Political Treatise, and am currently reading the chapter on prophets. The intro helped me understand his approach the study of scripture, taking it on its own merits without preconceived ideas. Your post makes me want to read that translation of Job.


    1. Mandel Cabrera

      I don’t remember if you’re an audiobook person. If so, there’s a wonderful reading of the Mitchell translation on Audible.com. I just re-listened to it while writing this week’s post.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s