The Old Testament is often viewed as a creaky, incomprehensible tome, full of history, violence and a wrathful, bombastic God. Often, it is used as a manual: This is what God wants, this is what would displease the Creator, and so on and so forth. There are two particular books of the Old Testament, Job and Ecclesiastes, stand out from the crowd. They ask and seek to address the fundamental questions of life and spirituality.
Before diving into content and themes, it is important to acknowledge structural differences between the two books. Job is told from the third person and is a story with a clear sequence of events and plot. In fact, “it is likely that versions of Job were told by many peoples of the region.” (Seow, HB 726), and “That the final form is the product of a complex history of transmission”. It consists of a narrative, focused in the introduction and epilogue, with a series of dialogues between them.
Ecclesiastes, on the other hand, is more akin to an essay, interspersed with poems, proverbs and songs to support his conclusions. This requires a much telling and little showing, but allows for more wisdom to be dispensed.
In both books, the mysterious workings of the world, ostensibly controlled by God, cause consternation. Job’s livelihood is ruined, even though he was a decent man. As for Ecclesiastes:”I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.” (Ecclesiastes 9:11, King James Bible)Through much of Ecclesiastes, he laments the mysterious unfairness of existence and the apparent powerlessness of mankind. The first parts of the book are about accepting that this is just the way the world is. His conclusions are as follows: That life must be enjoyed when it can be, for they are few; that we are largely powerless over our own destinies, and that God is in an unfathomable and entirely separate, wonderful realm without mortality or time. Ecclesiastes also contended that the only true judgment of worth was from God itself.
Job’s plot makes for a slightly different conclusion. Job, bewildered, speaks with his comforters, who offer that varied interpretations of the events that transpired, which Job argues against. God enters the scene and speaks, chastising Job, who had disputed God’s will. Additionally, Job’s friends, who had so far been speaking on behalf of the deity, were punished. The message that no mortal can comprehend the will of God, and that to do so is an offense to the Creator, is stronger than in Ecclesiastes. While Ecclesiastes warns against false piety and talking as if one knows when one does not, direct justice is applied to a specific case to cap off the book of Job.
The final lessons are, for the most part, trite and oft repeated in scripture: That good deeds and worship are the only sure resolution. Both of these scriptures look at the fundamental senselessness of the way the world works and put God in charge of it; both acknowledge the relative powerlessness of the individual. Both also acknowledge that an individual cannot transcend our frustrating state of being without turning to God.
An explanation of sources:I am aware that sacred texts would normally count as “Popular” sources, but the Oxford Annotated is garnished with ample commentary from dozens of theologians; Footnotes and essays consume about half of the text. I am considering the King James Version a popular source, which is the only sacred text that does not require notation in the Sources Cited page (Raimes, 158).
Raimes, Anne. Keys for Writers. Fourth. New York, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2005.
The New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocrypha (NRSV) Ed. Coogan, Michael. Oxford University Press. 2001.
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