A Zen Reading of the Book of Job

There is an easy way and a number of dense and difficult ways of reading the Book of Job, a book that foregrounds the question of unjust suffering. I’m going for the easy way.

Recall the main premise: that Job is an “upright and blameless” man who ends up losing his children, his wealth, his livestock, and his health. Why has God allowed this to happen to a man as upright and blameless as he, he laments. What follows are arguments from his friends, who accuse him, without warrant, of having sinned this way or that way, as well as his increasingly incensed replies to this charges. The story culminates in the Voice of the Whirlwind representing God’s enigmatic appearance and with Job’s transformation. (Set aside the folkloric Epilogue.)

The hard way is to grapple with the problem of evil head on and, I think, to come out of the puzzle of theodicy exhausted, wild-eyed, and empty-handed. I already announced that I’m going for the easy way: Job needs to learn a Zen lesson–namely, that some of our questions are asked from the wrong position. In this case, it is the diremption between man and the divine, between the finite and the infinite, the temporal and the eternal that gives rise to the question in the first place. That diremption produces second-order, theoretical consciousness, which, though no bad thing, isn’t up to the challenge of answering the questions it puts to itself. By the end, this harried and fraught dualism, this sense of “dread” (in Thomas Merton’s understanding of the term) has been dissolvedWhat has the Whirlwind done but ply Job with koan after koan about the mystery of creation, a creation so strange and beautiful and sublime that it belies the powers of human comprehension to grasp its length, breath, contours, and curvatures? Job’s conscious mind has been overcome and, in consequence, there comes the breakthrough.

Job, as if he had been pounded by Socratic questioning, has not arrived at knowledge but at a certain “mindlessness,” a state of being in which he can no longer resist, only stand stupefied and silent. It is a silence of fullness. What has disappeared is Job’s ego, that entity charged with asking the question of unjust suffering, and what arisen is an experience of contemplation, a beholding, the second stage of the mystical path.

The lesson I take from my Zen reading of the Book of Job is that in life many of our feverish, hot and bothered questions are asked from the wrong position. Rather than answer them, we need to step away from them and thus from “ourselves.” And what may emerge may be the fullness of silence.