Do Your Job

IT WAS LATE ON THE FIRST NIGHT of Corona Times Passover and my teenage son chewed on a piece of matzo. Mind you, we were not following dietary restrictions. We’d had Hawaiian pizza for dinner, during which I’d rehashed the flight from Egypt, but hours later we were bored and peckish and broke in to the box of Streit’s my wife, who is not Jewish, had been kind enough to score at the supermarket.

“Tastes like shit,” my son said, chewing.

“They didn’t have time to make real bread.”

“Who, the people at the matzo factory?”

“No, the ancient Jews. I told you that. Anyway, it doesn’t taste like shit. You should try it with peanut butter. That’s how I liked it as a kid.”

But I knew what he meant. Matzo isn’t supposed to be delectable. Same with the bitter herbs at a Seder. You have to taste something crappy to understand life’s propensity for crappiness, or to understand faith in the face of it.

Look at Job.

William Blake, Job’s Evil Dreams (detail), ca. 1805–10, pen, ink, wash, watercolor, and graphite on paper, 9 1⁄2 × 11 3⁄8".
William Blake, Job’s Evil Dreams (detail), ca. 1805–10, pen, ink, wash, watercolor, and graphite on paper, 9 1⁄2 × 11 3⁄8".

Actually, I had already been looking at Job. For my job. One of my workshop students was writing about a character whose father had been a combat aviator and I brought up the famous James Tate poem “The Lost Pilot.” Tate’s father died when his plane was shot down in World War II. The poem is about, among other things, Tate suddenly becoming older than his father would ever be, and imagining his dad forever in “crazy orbit” up in the sky, even as the survivors of the crew suffer the degradations of time. “Your face did not rot like the others,” it begins. The copilot, whose face is now “cornmush,” has maybe lived a hard life, or just lived life, which is hard. “He was more wronged than Job,” Tate writes.

Then, around the time I was thinking of Job for my job, I was asked to write about him, his book. Coincidence? Divine design? 5G cell-tower-directed mind virus? I don’t pretend to know these things.

What is there to say about the book of Job? It’s a vile story. Job is a super-successful man of Uz. Nowadays you’d call him an oligarch. Maybe you would have back then. He’s got more sheep, oxen, camels, and donkeys (specifically she-asses) than most anybody. He has a wife, ten grown kids, heaps of loyal servants. He’s also God’s biggest fan. Sings His praises constantly. Makes the burnt offerings on the regular. Definitely the most devout guy in the Greater Statistical Uz Area, and maybe the world.

One day, God and Satan are hanging out. Why would they do that? I’m not really sure. It must be like the way sometimes celebrities can only socialize with each other because the little people just don’t comprehend the enormous pressures of fame. Anyway, God asks Satan what he’s been up to and Satan says he’s been spending time on earth, or, to be more exact, “going to and fro in the earth” and “walking up and down in it.” God wonders if during this to-ing and fro-ing Satan noticed a fella named Job. God goes on to brag about what an unabashed fanboy Job is of all things Creator. God’s a serious gloater. Maybe He wants Satan to feel bad because nobody worships Satan with the same fervor, though of course this is all many years before Aleister Crowley and Led Zeppelin. Satan sneers, says something to the effect that Job wouldn’t be so into God if he, Job, didn’t possess such wealth and familial fruitfulness. God says, No way, and I’ll prove it. Go ahead, He tells Satan, and “put forth thine hand” on everything Job has. He’ll still be smitten, still kiss my tush. You watch.

Next thing, Job’s servants are running to him from every direction with terrible news. Your oxen and donkeys have been swiped by Sabaeans; your servants are slain; a fire from the sky has burned all your sheep and a bunch more servants; Chaldeans have stolen your camels. And oh, also, a great wind whipped in and knocked down your oldest son’s house, killing all of your children inside. What does Job do? He rips his clothes, shaves his head, falls down to the ground, and worships. “The Lord gave,” he says, “and the Lord hath taken away.” Job keeps the faith.

What do you think of that, Satan? God asks the guy He had problems with when they worked together but who is now like a cool new friend. Job is my boy.

Satan sneers some more.

Losing all your stuff, and even your family, is one thing. Physical torment is quite another.

Fine, fine, God says. Go fuck him up. He still won’t curse me. You’ll see. Fuck him up but don’t kill him.

Next morning Job wakes up with horrible sores all over his body.

In terms of real action, that’s pretty much the story. Then it gets very talky. Or really silent, and then talky. Three of Job’s friends show up and sit and grieve with him for seven days. Then comes a series of debates. Job’s buddies make the case that Job must have sinned in some way to deserve this fate because God is just. Job won’t have it. He won’t curse God—instead he curses his own birth—but he really won’t back down either. Eventually another dude comes by to chat, and then God shows up. He and Job get into it. And God basically says we can’t even really have a conversation about this because I created everything and you’re just a schmuck covered in boils. You’re a piece of shit and I’m big league. And Job, maybe realizing that there is no reasoning with this blowhard, admits that he really can’t know why the Lord does what He does, and as a faithful servant all he can do is take whatever comes.

Whereupon, boom, he gets all his swag back. Actually double the swag—double the sheep, double the camels, double the donkeys. This windfall is the reward for Job surrendering his reason. He also gets ten new kids. (Children, apparently, were utterly interchangeable back then.) He keeps the same wife, who, incidentally, when he was at his most tormented, told him to shut up and die. God never mentions the wager, or the fact that He sanctioned the ruin of a good (if very privileged and oligarch-ish) man and the slaughter of his children just to flex on Satan.

What’s this got to do with COVID-19 or dead pilots or my son’s distaste for matzo? I guess it’s the idea of tests. They abound, and we are living through one right now. They remind us of the loss, of the crappiness we must endure. They are the loss and crappiness we must endure. They do not make us stronger. Like surviving aerial combat, or time on a ventilator, they can make cornmush of us, both inside and out. And it’s not clear what’s worse, the notion that these tests are just random hardships inflicted by an indifferent universe, or else accepting the possibility that they might very well be the cruel games of an insecure and narcissistic overlord who is more concerned with His popularity than the well-being of the poor creatures in His charge. I’ll have to think about it.

Meantime, pass the peanut butter.

Sam Lipsyte is the author of The Ask (2010), The Fun Parts (2013, both Farrar, Straus and Giroux), and Hark (Simon & Schuster, 2019).