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The Comedy of Job

David Cowles

Jun 1, 2023

“Failure to appreciate the comic elements in Job has resulted in an almost universal misreading of the text.”

Comedy? I’ve heard the Book of Job described as tragedy, wisdom, and history, but never as comedy. How can the loss of one’s family, property, health, and social standing possibly be funny? Talk about ‘dark humor;’ but trust me (or don’t), it’s hilarious! 

The banter between Job and his so-called ‘comforters,’ even between Job and God, is as funny as any modern sitcom–no, funnier. The best way to show this would be to recast the epic poem as a stage or screen play. But where are Aristophanes, Shakespeare, Ionesco, and Beckett when we need them?

Absent a master’s touch, would you at least let me point out some of the funniest snippets of the epic?

This is not a sterile exercise in literary criticism. Failure to appreciate the comic elements in Job has resulted in an almost universal misreading of the text. As we shall see, proper recognition of the comic element sets things right.

The Book of Job consists of 42 chapters, 40 of which contain a magnificent epic poem, every bit the equal of Homer’s diptych. The poem is nestled between a prose Prologue and a very brief prose Epilogue. For various reasons, we will focus only on the poem itself (95% of the total text).

That said, I will also ignore the 6 chapters devoted to the input of a younger comforter, Elihu. These chapters are of dubious provenance and sit inert in the middle of the text. They contribute nothing to the discussion and neither Job nor God, nor the other comforters even refer to them.

The epic proper begins with Job lamenting the day of his birth. Nothing funny about this. But Job has the added misfortune of being surrounded by (false) friends, three so-called ‘comforters’, cold comfort indeed! 

Eliphaz speaks first. Like a pre-pubescent boy in a schoolyard, Eliphaz responds to Job’s genuine suffering and heartfelt reflection with a taunt:

“It is you who have fortified the trembling, and limp arms, you have strengthened. The stumbling would your words raise up, and buckling knees would you stiffen.” Eliphaz is, of course, being facetious. He applies to Job attributes usually reserved for God.

“But now that (calamity) has come to you, you cannot (bear it). It touches you yourself and you are shaken…Call out now! Does anyone answer you? ...Rather, I would seek out El (God), before Elohim (also ‘God’) I would lodge my complaint.”  

21st Century translation: “If you don’t like the way God’s treated you, sue him.” Eliphaz is urging Job to do what he himself wouldn’t dream of doing: “Let’s see if I can goad Job into doing something so stupid that God will punish him even more! How much fun would that be!”

But as we shall see (much later), Job turns the tables on Eliphaz and the other comforters. He does sue God…and he wins. Eliphaz and the other comforters are properly chastised and shamed. The story of Job has a happy ending, but the road to that climax is long and tortured; and in any event, I’m getting way ahead of myself.

For now, Job must be content to banter back: “Thus have you now become naught (to me); you see a terrifying sight (me) and you are seized with fear.” Like most bullies, Eliphaz’ behavior is grounded in his own insecurity…and Job knows that.

Foolishly, Job continues. Does he really think we can get through to these bullies? Now a second comforter, Bildad, joins the circle of torment: “(How long) will the words of your mouth be a massive wind? …(Suffering) is the fate of all who reject El.”

Of course, this is ironic, since Job alone ‘knows’ El and keeps his commandments. But what miscreant doesn’t love it when a goody-two-shoes (Job) gets his comeuppance, even when it is undeserved.

Job pretty much ignores Bildad’s noise; he is still mulling over Eliphaz’s suggestion: “If one wanted to press charges against him, not once in a thousand (times) would he respond…Even in the right, I would get no response…I do not trust that he would hear my complaint…and who can convene such a legal proceeding?” 

As with anyone in Job’s predicament, there is an inevitable undercurrent of despair: “The earth is handed over to the wicked. He covers the eyes of its judges; if not he, then who? …I will be found guilty, so why should I strive in vain.”

Now a third comforter, Zophar, joins in, “A hollow man (Job) will be filled with intelligence when a wild ass is born to a human.” In other words, when pigs fly, Job!

Here, Job loses his famous patience! There’s no reasoning with these taunters. He decides to call them out, “Truly you are people of intelligence and with you, wisdom will die! …Rather ask Behemoth (hippo) and it will instruct you, or the fowl of the sky – and it will tell you. Or converse with the earth…and the fish of the sea.”

Job challenges the over-intellectualized theology of his tormentors. He suggests they return to basics. In the immortal words of John, Paul, George and Ringo (Yellow Submarine), “Be empirical, look!” Like Heidegger and others, the Job-poet calls for a theology rooted in phenomenology, i.e., personal experience. 

“I would rather speak to Shaddai (another name for God); it is an argument with El I desire. But you, you are smearers of lies, false physicians, all of you. If only you would keep silent – that would be wisdom for you!”

Well said, Job, but unfortunately these bullies don’t get the message. They never do! Eliphaz jumps back in: “Does ‘a sage’ utter such windy speech and fill his belly with an east wind?” To which Job answers, “Futile comforters are you all. Is there no end to (your own) windy speech?”

Throughout Job’s dialogue with the comforters and later with God, the interlocutors throw each other’s words back and forth. They repeat others’ words but put them in different contexts that give them different meaning.

‘Wind/windy’ is a good example. Job is the first to use the word, “Do you regard (my) words as just wind?” A classic victim’s mistake! A modern-day Maimonides needs to publish A Guide for the Bullied. Item #1: Don’t give your tormentors anything they can use against you.

Job flunks Victimology 101. “Do you regard my words as just wind?” is translated by the tormentors as “My words are just wind!” Wind is wonderful for word play; its various meanings run up and down the semantic register.

Job is into the game now: “Futile comforters are you all: is there no end to windy speech?”

On one hand, “windy speech” could mean, facetiously, “spirit inspired”…or it could refer to a disorganized and meaningless blast of air. It could apply to a verbose orator, but it can also refer to a certain noisy and often smelly bodily excretion, aka a fart!

After a second lame attack from Bildad, Job goes on offense. In the most famous lines in the entire poem, he succinctly summarizes his theology and warns Bildad of impending doom:

“I know that my Redeemer lives, and he will testify on earth. From behind my skin I look out, while in the flesh I’ll see Eloah (God). Something I myself will view -  what my eyes, not a stranger’s, will see…you (Bildad) had better fear the sword…you had better beware of demons.”

Job is digging himself into an ever deepening pit. There may be no recovering from this; Job may need to change schools. Now Zophar joins the circle of torment, but Job cuts him short: “After I speak, you may (continue to) mock yourself (i.e., blather on).

Yet, Job uses his tirade against Zophar to score a major point: “Should I not lose patience over evil?” The comforters are apologists for evil; they excuse God for that which is evident to their senses. 

Here, Job throws down the gauntlet: Evil is evil and there’s no excusing it, period! In other words, even God must be good. Today, people debate “Good without God?” Job asks a much more interesting question: “God without Good?”

From our 21st century theological perch, it is hard to appreciate how controversial this was at the time. Suffice to say, it only served to further isolate Job as a minority of one. 

Sidebar: There is a modern analog. In 1964, Presidential nominee, Barry Goldwater, addressed these words to the Republican National Convention: “Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice and moderation in pursuit of justice is no virtue.” One third of the delegates walked out! Evidently, they too were willing to make peace with slavery and exploitation. Not Job! 

The Book of Job reads like a textbook of modern political theory: any correspondence between rhetoric and reality is entirely co-incidental. 

Now Eliphaz jumps back in with a tactic worthy of his 21st century (CE) heirs. He accuses Job of precisely that crime of which Job is most innocent: exploiting the poor and neglecting their cry. It is a fabrication made from whole cloth, but hey, you can fool some of the people…, right?

Like any skilled debater, Job does not give Eliphaz’ nonsense the honor of a reply; he’s already on to other things: “If you would let me know how to find him (God)…I would lay before him my lawsuit.”

After a variety of legal maneuvers worthy of OJ’s Dream Team, God answers Job's summons and appears before him in a whirlwind. From the outset, God is contemptuous of his opponent and his remarks are dripping with sarcasm:

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“Who is this who obscures good counsel, (using) words without knowledge? ...I will ask you, and you will let me know…Tell me – if you truly know wisdom.” 

From here on, God’s speech consists primarily of a game of Have you Ever, punctuated with a few Double Dog Dares from A Christmas Story. He challenges Job to compare CVs with him: 

“Have you ever in your days summoned daybreak…Have you ever reached the sources of the Sea? ...Tell - if you know all of this. On what path dwells the light? ...You must know, for you were born then, your number of days is so many.”

God is furious; he cannot contain his anger at Job’s effrontery. His words are venom tipped arrows. But notice what God does not do! He does not ‘smite Job with the jaw bone of an ass’ nor does he withdraw from the legal proceeding itself. 

Job is unfazed. Like Moses and Elijah, Job has anticipated God’s bluster and knows he must remain impassive if he is to get through it. Think Menelaus holding on tight to the shape-shifting Proteus.

Eventually, God runs out of steam, “Should Eloah answer an accuser?” After all the ink and tears that have been spilled over this, now God questions whether he should even have responded to Job in the first place: “Maybe I should have taken the fifth…or drank a fifth.” Too late now, God, that horse is long since out of that barn.

God’s rhetorical question creates an opportunity for Job to get a word in edgewise, finally, and Job makes good, but laconic, use of the opportunity:

“Lacking respect, how can I answer you? My hand I place over my mouth. I have spoken once, and I will not repeat – Twice, and I will no more.”

For millennia critics have taken Job’s words as an apology; how could they? At the most, this is the unfelt, sarcastically toned apology of a teenager. At the very most! 

Ask yourself, “Who’s disrespecting whom?” Either Job has disrespected God, and so forfeited the right to answer him, or God has disrespected Job, and forfeited the right to hear Job’s answer. In the first instance, Job’s words must be understood facetiously; in the second instance, as sarcasm.

Job has apparently ‘rested’ his case. God now has one last chance to make a convincing argument. Wisely, he chooses a different tack:

“Will you go so far as to breach my justice? Accuse me of wrong so that you are in the right? If you’ve an arm (as strong as) El’s…crush the wicked where they stand…Then I myself will praise you.”

In other words, “Just do it!” Enough with the rhetoric, Job, if you can do better, go ahead; I won’t stand in your way and the whole world is anxious to see what you can accomplish.

Bill Clinton is famous for saying, “It’s the economy, stupid.” In other words, stay on message. Job is famous for saying something like, “It’s justice, stupid,” and sticking to it. He must not, and he will not fall prey to God’s distractions.

God closes with the tired reminiscence of an old man regaling the rest of his nursing home gang with tales of his past exploits: “I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker.” (Eliot)

God spends his last 13 verses lionizing his creatures, Behemoth and Leviathan. One can imagine him thinking, “Yes, they are fierce, but at least they don’t talk back like you, Job.” 

God’s final stanza is nothing but sad, “He (Leviathan) has no match on earth, who is made as fearless as he. All that is haughty he’s got in his view; over beasts of all kinds he is king.”

Job has previously stated something akin to the swami’s famous line in the Beatles’ movie, Help: “I will say no more!” But like the swami, he will say more. He cannot resist ‘the last word,’ and on that ‘word’ rests the whole meaning of Job, the foundation of Judeo-Christian theology:

“I have known you are able to do all; that you cannot be blocked from any scheme. (God’s defense is not responsive to Job’s complaint.) Who is this revealing counsel without knowledge? (God.) Truly, I have spoken without comprehending  - wonders beyond me that I do not know. ‘Hear now and I will speak! I will ask you, and you will help me know’ (not). As a hearing by ear I have heard you, and now my eye has seen you. That is why I am fed up; I take pity on ‘dust and ashes’ (human beings).”

Doesn’t it make you just want to reach out and slap him (Job that is, not God)? Oh, to be back in the 1950s! Any reader who has ever parented a teenager can put herself in God’s shoes, and any superannuated child can sympathize with Job. It’s the age-old battle of the generations, played out on the grandest of all scales. 

How can anyone have missed this? How come almost everyone has missed it? Answer: the incredible power of popular superstition. “God cannot be wrong, not even in an allegorical fable because he is God. What need have we of evidence…or even legal reasoning?” 

Theology 101 should begin with the Book of Job…and with the much older story of Job. It is a searing indictment of top-down theological reasoning. As Heidegger said, genuine philosophy (and by extension theology) must begin at the level of first person experience.

We need to take ourselves more seriously…and less! We need to see the humor behind our entire endeavor. We need to eschew Sartre’s Spirit of Seriousness. God laughs at our efforts to understand him, but I hear that laughter as good-humored (not like that of Job’s comforters). We need to take a page from God’s book: lighten-up and know that I am God.

**Calling all playwrights! Do you wish you’d written Waiting for Godot? Or even Hamilton? Now’s your chance to write a play that will leave these two triumphs in the dust. Your Comedy of Job will keep the Broadway lights on for what will seem like forever.”**


David Cowles is the founder and editor-in-chief of Aletheia Today Magazine. He lives with his family in Massachusetts where he studies and writes about philosophy, science, theology, and scripture. He can be reached at


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