Reimagining The Book of Job

The Book of Job:

The Book of Job is surprisingly hard to re-read as an adult. When I was a child in primary school, the biggest shock was to hear that God was having a conversation with the devil. I wondered why the Lord God Almighty thought it was okay to entertain a conversation with the destroyer of souls. To say it changed my entire perception of God is a little extreme. But, it did change my perception of God a little bit. Contrary to the popular “why do bad things happen to good people?” my first question to God was actually, “Why are you talking to the devil?” Not only was God talking to the devil, God was allowing the devil do things to people who loved Him.

When I read Joan Acocella’s essay in The New Yorker- Misery- I found it quite funny that she compares the devil to a CIA agent. Geoffrey Aimers, in his essay “Give the Devil His Due” explains further;

“the satan is neither exactly the roving prosecutor nor the personification of evil, but is the ‘cipher for the principle of justice’, pointing out sins that God would rather ‘sweep under the carpet’ so that he could perhaps forgive an undeserving sinner…. This satan I propose is a cynical character who knows the weaknesses and foibles of his human targets. He thinks it is likely that people indulge in injustice more than they care to admit or even realize and neither might God be inclined to punish them”

Basically, the devil in the book of Job is God’s eye opener; his actual devil’s advocate, trying to burst God’s bubble of contentment. This Satan works hard to show God that humans are not as perfect as He thinks. So God’s reputation as perfect creator is always on the line when Satan returns to speak on the flaws of humanity.

Now, Goethe’s Mephistopheles in Faust has a similar conversation with his God. However, Goethe’s version of God seems to understand that “man still must err while he doth strive,” as opposed to the Biblical God who speaks of Job’s unwavering faith. While Goethe’s Lord already views Faust as a man given into confusions in the past, Job’s God has never seen Job waver in his faith. As he asks Satan everytime, “Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one on earth like him; he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil.” Also, Goethe’s Mephistopheles is not Lucifer, but Lucifer’s servant who seems to foreshadow the ugliness that Job could become if he accepts the contract.

In re-reading the book of Job the second time, I was struck by three things:

  1. The far far away Land of Uz
  2. the succession of things that kept happening to him. I was struck by the way all his misfortunes seemed to happen all of a sudden and all at once.
  3. The conversation between God and the Devil

As a result, my first re-imagination of the Biblical passage was a fable, narrated by a griot/storyteller. It was to be set in an animal kingdom, once upon a time, in a land far far away called Uz. I was interested in taking those three aspects of interest, and turning them into unrecognizable events and characters. I wanted to know if people would be satisfied with God’s long speech at the end if it were coming from a Lion or an antelope. Without fear of retribution, would people think that God was unfair? I imagined that the storytelling would be supported by a puppet show performance where Job was a bird, the devil was a tortoise and God was a Lion. I imagined that the story would narrate God and devil’s interactions, putting sounds and voices to these sacred beings that are never really humanized. The Griot would play the part of both God and the devil, wearing and changing masks to indicate who was speaking. I imagined that God would pull up the strings and one by one, we would see Job’s wealth disappear and leave him sitting/standing alone.

But also, in my research, I read a lot of scholarly articles on the poetic suffering of Job. Many scholars believe that Job represents the quintessential Jewish man who was discovering knowledge that made religion inexplicable. As Craig James says in The Monist:

“The spirit of the Jew is in Job,- Job, who all his life feared his God and now defies him. The voice of conscious integrity within could not be silenced. We are here with a spirit remarkable for an age when knowledge was in its twilight, and that broader conception of a universe, with all its implications, was unthought..”

The Jewish life of Job has been famously reimagined as Joseph Stein’s Fiddler on The Roof.  (Side note: If I were a rich man, One of the most popular tunes from Stein’s Broadway Show eventually made it into Gwen Stefani’s popular song “Rich Girl”)

Apparently, Job also inspired George Eliot’s Laertes in his book College Breakfast Party. In his book Laertes speaks with the resilience of Job:

“obedience is good: ay, but to what? and for what ends? For say that I rebel against your rule as devilish or as a rule of thunder-guiding powers that deny man’s benefit: rebellion then were strict obedience to another rule which bids me flout your thunder”

The question Laertes is asking here is important for my second reimagination: it says that rebellion and obedience are the same thing depending on which Lord is the rightful Lord and which one is the wrongful. Hence, for Laertes (and even Job), rebellion is not freedom but another submission to another power. This pushed me towards thinking about activists and political prisoners who suffer for the people and not for God. At the same time, I was getting more and more interested in the sound of voice. So that, when I travelled back to the scripture and read the poetry of Job, I heard immense pain in his voice and I heard the inflections of his voice, falling and rising. I started listening to my imagination of how the words may have been said. And so for my second reimagination, I was struck by two major things:

  1. The details of Job’s Suffering
  2. The sound of pain in his poetry
  3. Job as an ordinary man

Reimagination No2:

I imagined Job would be a political prisoner, judged for doing something that was not corrupt. He lived on little but did not ascribe to the popular ideology. I imagined he would be like Thomas Moore in A Man for All Seasons. My version of Job would have a man whose wife and children were butchered in front of his eyes. And then, Job becomes this naked man who spends seven days (or years) in a solitary prison. As a result of his abandonment in solitary prison, he develops skin diseases that resemble what Biblical Job had. Instead of having three friends who try to speak against his laments, I imagined that Job would develop conversations with himself over time, arguing against himself and his beliefs- wondering if it was worth it to be an advocate for his sense of righteousness. During the performance, there would be images of historically used torture instruments displayed on the screen, and sounds of Job screaming or the machines turning, or, sounds of a person drowning would fill the room in his absence.  I was less interested in showing God or the devil, but merely immersing people in the state of suffering that Job endured.

Drawn to Job’s suffering as an ordinary man, I was startled by God’s answer at the end which was not an apology but a disappointment in Job, for ever succumbing to the devil, and allowing himself bring God to question. All the rich poetry that Job speaks could easily be distilled into one question: Lord, why? 

This question, is how Terrence Malick begins his own adaptation of God’s answer.

Under the Youtube video that shows the 14 minute orgasmic clip, the first few comments were surprisingly insightful for my third and final reimagination.

screen-shot-2016-12-11-at-9-15-25-pm

As we all know, comment sections are usually full of doom and dread, but great work inspires a great audience (I suppose). It took me back to one of the things that first scared and impacted me about the book of Job as a child: God’s Voice

Back then, I couldn’t fathom the story of Job but that didn’t mean I didn’t accept it. Like the mystery of the Holy Trinity- God as Father, God as Son, and God as Holy Spirit- I accepted that the story of Job was a mystery. And what had that mystery taught me? That everything to happen on earth is God’s will. It taught me that as a Child of God, the important thing was to give yourself up to the God in Heaven to do as he pleases. In fact, I was taught that suffering for God was the ultimate calling. I dreamt about being called to suffer a Holy Suffering. I remember learning about Stigmata during a catechism class and praying, fervently, for Jesus to choose me to bleed from the places where he was crucified.

It turns out that Stigmata- the supposed gift of suffering- was usually self inflicted. Magdalena De La Cruz- a Fransiscan nun in Spain-  confessed that she had inflicted those wounds upon herself. Before the confession, she was praised as a living saint because of that stigmata. It turns out that 80% of Stigmata claimers are women. I believe that data speaks to the desire for women to access direct spiritual favor that priests and bishops and popes can attain by studying the word as men. The desire to continue the male line that God created when he called his son (and not his daughter) to come in his stead, keeps the leadership of the church a male thing. The idea that creation and leadership of the world belongs to men must take some responsibility for the number of women, drawn to attest divine favour by drilling holes into the palms of their hands, their sides, and their toes.

So, for my third reimagination I was fascinated by the following:

  1. Job as every man (meaning Job as Jesus as Adam as All men)
  2. The voice of suffering
  3. The transformation (birth) of Job in the seven days of silence
  4. The voice of God that speaks of His power to create and end all life
  5. Creating theatrical experiences that people encounter outside the blackbox or proscenium

I became enthralled by the opportunity to show how Job was born after his downfall. How Job wasn’t born in any Garden of Eden, but born into a human world that was already destructive. I was moved by Job’s cry after he had spent those seven days in silence:

After this opened Job his mouth, and cursed his day.

And Job spake, and said,

Let the day perish wherein I was born, and the night in which it was said, There is a man child conceived.

Let that day be darkness; let not God regard it from above, neither let the light shine upon it.

Let darkness and the shadow of death stain it; let a cloud dwell upon it; let the blackness of the day terrify it.

As for that night, let darkness seize upon it; let it not be joined unto the days of the year, let it not come into the number of the months.

Lo, let that night be solitary, let no joyful voice come therein.

Let them curse it that curse the day, who are ready to raise up their mourning.

Let the stars of the twilight thereof be dark; let it look for light, but have none; neither let it see the dawning of the day:

10 Because it shut not up the doors of my mother’s womb, nor hid sorrow from mine eyes.

11 Why died I not from the womb? why did I not give up the ghost when I came out of the belly?

12 Why did the knees prevent me? or why the breasts that I should suck?

13 For now should I have lain still and been quiet, I should have slept: then had I been at rest,…

 26I was not in safety, neither had I rest, neither was I quiet; yet trouble came.

I read this and thought back to a poem I had read in high school called Songs of Sorrow by Kofi Awoonor:

I.
Dzogbese Lisa has treated me thus
It has led me among the sharps of the forest
Returning is not possible
And going forward is a great difficulty
The affairs of this world are like the chameleon feces
Into which I have stepped
When I clean it cannot go.1
I am on the world’s extreme corner,
I am not sitting in the row with the eminent
But those who are lucky
Sit in the middle and forget
I am on the world’s extreme corner
I can only go beyond and forget.
My people, I have been somewhere
If I turn here, the rain beats me
If I turn there the sun burns me
The firewood of this world
Is for only those who can take heart
That is why not all can gather it.
The world is not good for anybody
But you are so happy with your fate;
Alas! The travelers are back
All covered with debt.
II.
Something has happened to me
The things so great that I cannot weep;
I have no sons to fire the gun when I die
And no daughters to wail when I close my mouth
I have wandered on the wilderness
The great wilderness men call life
The rain has beaten me,
And the sharp stumps cut as keen as knives
I shall go beyond and rest.
I have no kin and no brother,
Death has made war upon our house;
And Kpeti’s great household is no more,
Only the broken fence stands;
And those who dared not look in his face
Have come out as men.
How well their pride is with them.
Let those gone before take note
They have treated their offspring badly.
What is the wailing for?
Somebody is dead. Agosu himself
Alas! A snake has bitten me
My right arm is broken,
And the tree on which I lean is fallen.
Agosi if you go tell them,
Tell Nyidevu, Kpeti, and Kove
That they have done us evil;
Tell them their house is falling
And the trees in the fence
Have been eaten by termites;
That the martels curse them.
Ask them why they idle there
While we suffer, and eat sand.
And the crow and the vulture
Hover always above our broken fences
And strangers walk over our portion.

 

Job, as portrayed by French Painter Leon Bonnat
Job, as portrayed by French Painter Leon Bonnat

 

Both poems are declarations of suffering without cause. And both poems are speaking about the types of arbitrary suffering that I have come to recognize in women’s lives. Indeed, all human suffer- that is the fact of Job. But, there is another layer to human suffering that is the realm of female suffering, placed upon us by the mere fact of our bodies (menstrual cramps, childbirth) and also, by the injustices done to women based on this arbitrary belief that women are inferior- usually supposed to be guided and hardly expected to lead publicly. Her leadership in the household is simultaneously praised and dismissed. she is told to be satisfied with the power in the home, but then again, housework is dismissed as lesser work when compared to men’s work. As a result, I decided that my final reimagination would be an adaptation of the day Job wished would never exist: The day he was born. But that birth would carry a double significance for the day he was born into the world as a child, and also the day he was born into this new realm of suffering. It would be about his creation, and would simultaneously adopt the symbols that God speaks to in his speech at the end.

 

My Final Reimagination: In his silence, Her voices: Using 7 as the symbol of perfection, we would find a land, and till the soil until it had grown enough plants to look like a semblance of the garden of Eden. After that, based on the mythology of the Yoruba creation story, I would invite 16 women and one man to inhabit spaces in the field. From the first month till the 7 month of the year, the women alone will spend their days creating a house that would use traditional techniques of mud and wood carving to build a temple. In my vision, these women would be architects and artists with a history in creation. Not only will they build this house from scratch, they would also use West African traditional techniques of beautification to beautify the house so that every detail of the temple is magnificent to behold. Showing that women create magnificence with their hands as well as through their vagina.During the 7 months, I hope to invite women from all around the world to teach these women voice techniques- there shall be exchange of songs.

On the first day of the 7th month, these women will go into a reflective silence. Then, on the midnight of the 6th day, my idea is that every 7 minutes will be spent in the vocal lamentation of these women. There will be 6 songs, in 7 hours- each going for 7 minutes. At 6:43 am, the women will recite a Yoruba Oriki that simultaneously praises and gives a prophetic energy to Job’s life. In the Oriki, there will be recollections of all the things that Job will go through that show up in the Bible. There will be inclusions of some of the things he will say in his cry for help when suffering falls upon him. While the Oriki is being recited, there will be a chicken laying an egg. Once the clock strikes 7, the egg will finally be born (one has to train a chicken to give birth in 7 minutes). Then, the chicken is taken and killed (brutally) and then its blood and faces are used to “activate” the body of the man in the room (In Yoruba culture, the encrustation of figures with such mixtures like blood and excrement is called an “activation”)

Once that happens, Job leaves the house. However, before Job opens the door, the women leave the house to signal their disappearance and their invisibility. Though it seems empowering in its truth, this birth of Job is a tragedy of history repeating itself. The house will become the adaptation, and the story will surround the house as a myth to it’s creation. The beauty of the house should attract and stun the audience; the work of the women should be recognized without them.

 
Sound bank: Here are the voices that inspired what I thought of for the seven minute songs:
(Women from Solomon Islands singing polyphonic song (east of Papua New Guinea )

(Gori Women’s Choir- the crystallizing voices that change emotion (from Georgia Russia)

(“Păpăruda” performed by Surorile Osoianu. Romanian traditional rain invocation during severe drought, Moldova, Basarabia area version.)

(Ergen Dada sung by Bulgarian women ( I actually performed this song with the Women’s Chorus here))

(Philippine women chanting at the cemetery ( Pangasinan, Philippines)

(Burundi female chant and Lobi tribe “High Life”)

(Female Gospel Preacher, Dorinda Clarke, turns her suffering into a Gospel Song. Women come up to her and console her as she breaks down in tears)
My Own attempt to create a voice of feeling that does not use English words but simply uses sounds from various registers of throat, chest and even head voice. The hope is not that it’s beautiful, but that it has affect on a person
(Unfortunately, that’s unable to load onto this blog because of it’s size. I’ll keep working on it)
P.S: This is the documentary Leviathan that also counts as an adaptation of Job in a way where Job is ordinary and suffering. The directors went on a commercial fishing boat and let go pro cameras into the water, and into where the fish die/are killed. The passage quoted from the Book of Job in the beginning implies that all the fishermen are Job; each person’s humanity and need to labour makes him Job. To think of it as a documentary is quite fascinating.
 Sources:
  • The Book of Job: Aesthetics, Ethics, Hermeneutics edited by Leora Batnitzky, Ilana Pardes
  • Misery, by Joan Acocella, published by The Newyorker
  • ‘Give the Devil His Due’: The Satanic Agenda and Social Justice in the Book of Job, by Geoffrey J Aimers
  • Salakpi, Alexander G. K. “Social Alienation as a Consequence of Human Suffering in the Book of Job: A Study of Job 19:13–22.” Order No. 3385573 The Catholic University of America, 2009. Ann Arbor: ProQuest.
  • Craig, James, A Study of Job and The Jewish Theory of Suffering: Who was Job? The Age of The Book and its Purpose; The Monist (A Quarterly Magazine Devoted to the Philosophy of Science
  • Faust, by Johann Wolfgang con Goethe
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