Mark Larrimore was still in high school when he had his first experience with the Book of Job: he had a bit part in Archibald MacLeish’s play J.B., a dramatization of the Bible’s famous rumination on suffering. “I didn’t get to be Job, or God, or Satan, or any of the friends, but I was the messenger who brought all the news of the deaths of Job’s family,” Larrimore says.
Now Larrimore is a messenger of a different kind as the author of The Book of Job: A Biography (Oct.). As part of Princeton University Press’s Lives of Great Religious Books series, The Book of Job is not a biblical commentary but a reception history that traces how philosophers, rabbis, poets, and others have interpreted Job through the centuries. Larrimore, a philosopher at Eugene Lang College The New School for Liberal Arts, says he is “interested in the presentation and conversation about Job.”
How people address Job in different eras, Larrimore suggests, reveals as much about the interpreters themselves as about Job. For example, centuries ago there was much hand-wringing about “why God gets into a wager with Satan in the first place. Is God playing dice?” And early rabbis “were often nervous” about the question of whether Job was Jewish.
Today, if anything, the ambiguity of Job’s religious identity is part of the book’s appeal. “Because Job has a relationship with God outside of the covenant, it makes him a quintessentially modern figure,” Larrimore explains. “Job stands alone facing God, and I think that’s true of many modern religious people.”
In fact, Larrimore notes that the Book of Job has taken on a literary life of its own apart from the rest of the Bible. “In some Great Books courses in colleges, Job is the only thing they read from the Bible. This is in direct contrast to earlier generations, when people said, ‘This book is really hard to understand! Good thing we have the rest of the Bible to help us make sense of it.’ ”
Both classical and modern interpreters have roundly criticized Job’s friends, who are infamous for their unhelpful advice, but Larrimore believes we should be careful of this. Although the friends appear clueless and limited, Larrimore says there is no textual evidence that they ever leave Job’s side, and this constancy in itself teaches us something.
Larrimore cites the later chapters of the Book of Job—the theophany when God calls attention away from human experience and toward the rest of creation—as particularly relevant to contemporary thinkers who approach the book with a holistic, environmental sensibility. His own next book, as yet untitled, is related to this; it explores human ethics in the context of “broader moral communities,” which includes animals, plants, and rocks.