Job and Prometheus in Conversation

In the Biblical account of Job, one of the primary themes found is that of unmasking. The hidden courts and councils of God are revealed, with the very enemy of God having access to His throne (1:6). The conventional wisdom of Job’s day, that material blessings denoted righteousness while wickedness was evidenced by cursing, is also unmasked, exposed as a nonsensical way of looking at the world (36:5-12). And of course Job is unmasked: his piety is revealed to not be without its own sense of pride, and his infinitesimally small place in the universe is shown to him in concrete ways as God responds to Job’s complaints (38:4-7). As these masks fall away, a true vision is shown to the reader, one which recognizes the Creator of the universe while understanding that His very existence defies understanding. The veil is pulled back, and the truth seems to only muddy the waters.

The Hebrew people were not the only ones to wrestle with such topics and suffering and justice. The Greeks, some five hundred years later, would make such queries the primary themes of Sophocles’ Theban Plays and Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound. However, while Oedipus might be shown to have a fault or two of his own which led to his downfall, it is only in Aeschylus’ Prometheus play that a rival for Job can be found. Like Job, Prometheus found himself suffering after having done only the right thing (lns. 92-100). Again, like Job, Prometheus’ only recourse was to seek answers for his relief, and found comfort in the promise of a deliverer (lns. 780-781). And in the end, Prometheus’ suffering would not last eternally, and his accuser would not persuade him to think of himself as sinful (lns. 165-176). But for all these similarities, the loud, striking contrasts must be remembered.

To the Greek mind, such suffering drove the even the gods to wish for death, as Prometheus declares early in his suffering (lns. 152-159). But to the Hebrews, such a thought was surely a sign of something less than righteousness, a sign that one had given up and truly deserved death (2:9-10). The suffering of Prometheus is a confirmation that the good will suffer, specifically at the hands of the gods, for no good deed can redeem someone from an unjust tyrant. But Job knows the falsehood of such a notion: “Let me be weighed in a just balance, and let God know my integrity!” (31:6). Unlike the Zeus Prometheus knew all too well, everything Job knows of the Lord tells him that God is just and will recognize integrity when it is before Him. This is the strength of the Biblical understanding of suffering.

God is not petty, and He does not hold grudges against His people. His gracious expands to the point where He “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matt. 5:45). Prometheus knows only injustice from the king of the gods, however: “I know that he’s savage, his justice a thing he keeps by his own standard,” (lns. 186-187). For Prometheus, and his audience, the ultimate comfort can only be found in the idea that even the vicious, selfish ruler of divinities will one day be held account by the Furies, “for he too cannot escape what is fated,” (lns. 518). Suffering is unavoidable, but at least that is true for Zeus too! By contrast, Job sees a way out: “For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth,” (19:25). God’s justice extends to the righteous and the unrighteous, to those who serve Him and those who do not. And this justice is tapered with the grace and mercy that only the Lord can offer, which will see its ultimate fulfillment manifested when the Deliverer steps into existence, and walks among His creation. The Greeks cannot rest in such hope, for their culture and dreams are crafted by the one subjugated to torture by the god of justice (lns. 505-506). The dichotomy between these things is why suffering is also one dimensional; to suffer punishment is to be under the judgement of the Greek gods, but they have no true claim to wield such power. But for Job, suffering is purposeful and meaningful. Though he does not see it at first, Job realizes that God’s ways are never devoid of hope nor reason, and his repentance shows that he can endure suffering in a far more gracious way than the Cursed Titan might ever hope to do.

Bibliography

Aeschylus, Prometheus Bound. In Aeschylus I, translated by David Grene, Richard Lattimore, Mark Griffith, and Glenn W. Most. 3rd Edition, 165-216. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013.

Job. In The Holy Bible: English Standard Version, 267-286. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016.

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