The First Dissident, by William Safire
The Man from Uz
The First Dissident: The Book of Job in Today’s Politics.
by William Safire.
Random House. 304 pp. $23.00.
Himself a man of some wealth and influence, William Safire, the well-known columnist of the New York Times, has written a book about another man of (much greater) wealth and influence: Job of the land of Uz, who had 7,000 sheep, 3,000 camels, 500 yoke of oxen, 500 asses, many servants, and sufficient authority to be “the greatest man in the East” when his atrocious sufferings were about to begin.
This admittedly rather feeble parallel offers the only explanation I can think of for Safire’s unexpected achievement. Tackling a biblical text even more intensively studied than most, on which, it would seem, nothing new and valid could be said, Safire nevertheless offers an interpretation both original and persuasive. Job was a man of power above all, and Safire evidently understands power far better than most of the commentators on this book who have preceded him—pious men all, who tended to see only the piety in Job.
When a journalist whose writings are so naturally congenial to a mass readership approaches so lofty a subject, all manner of pretensions may be feared, or else embarrassing displays of mawkish humility. But there is no striving to impress in Safire’s book, no exhibition of learning for exhibition’s sake, no pomposity. As for humility, one might well wish for some, however mawkish, because Safire not only addresses a most sublime work in routinely coarse journalese but seems to seize every opportunity to indulge his taste for low slang (“let God cop a plea”) and aggravated linguistic vulgarism (“. . . I then knocked out a draft of the speech that knocked out the markets in Tokyo”). Yet this will hardly matter to the reader with good gag control (as Safire himself might put it) because The First Dissident actually succeeds in presenting the book of Job anew, as a political dialogue.
The aim is certainly ambitious, the result fascinating, and the achievement considerable—but not because Safire had to overcome any great difficulties with the text. Though widely appreciated as the Bible’s most exalted peak of literary achievement, Job is a peak far from inaccessible.
To begin with, it is thematically very simple. Job complains of his fate, including his loss of political power—indeed, he complains most bitterly of that loss, for he has been left defenseless before his enemies who “bare their teeth to rend” him. His three friends, after first commiserating silently for a week (advice to those visiting the sick: “So they sat down with him . . . seven days and seven nights and none spoke a word unto him; for they saw that his grief was very great”), then offer him the standard religious explanations for human suffering, notably that it is a punishment for sin (even if unconscious, forgotten, or original); these Job rejects. He leaves unanswered the thesis of a young intruder on the scene, the sonorously named Elihu the son of Barakhel the Buzite of the family of Ram, to the effect that suffering tests the worthy and is thus good for the soul.
Suddenly God Himself speaks, first propounding a this-is-all-too-complicated-for-you-to-understand thesis in the most sardonic tones and then proclaiming the ultimate challenge: how would you, Job (i.e., mankind), employ unlimited power? And then Job submits. In the epilogue, we discover that God strongly disapproves of the explanations put forward by Job’s three friends, who are collectively fined a sacrifice of seven bulls and seven rams, while He has no comment on Elihu’s theory. At the very end, 14,000 sheep and goats, 6,000 camels, 1,000 yoke of oxen, 1,000 she-asses, as well as seven sons and three daughters, have been given to Job.
All this is plain enough. Even the book’s linguistic obscurities are no great obstacle. To construe what remains of the Latin author Petronius, one would need excellent Latin, some Greek, a large dictionary, and perhaps a full week. But any self-respecting graduate of a Jewish day school can read through Job in a day, missing the sense of only a few dozen words at most. Moreover, such is the power of the book’s poetic discourse in the original Hebrew that it survives even the customary treasons of translation, yielding a text not only of surpassing beauty but also of abundant clarity in whatever Englished versions I have seen, even that of the hateful New English Bible (which Safire unaccountably reprints here). As for substantive problems, they are still fewer. True, there are things we do not know—as, for example, where the land of Uz might be. But Uz is no more to be discovered by further research than the land of Oz, and what has no solution is not a problem.
Above all, the book of Job contains no alien mentality to resist our understanding; its past is not another country, but our own. Job’s wealth may be counted in camels, sheep, oxen, asses, and servants rather than in limited partnerships, shares, T-bills, or junk bonds. But as a barrier to comprehension and empathy that is entirely trivial as compared, for example, to the heroics of The Iliad (wherein a widow’s loud weeping is supposed to intensify the satisfaction to be had by her husband’s killer); or the genocidal ruthlessness earnestly propounded in Joshua; or the preposterously inflexible codes of honor presumed by Racine; or the impossibly naive martial enthusiasm of Rupert Brooke, whose war verse is closer to us by at least 2,400 years yet so much more remote in mentality. Poetical conventions aside, Job himself voices no sentiment that a modern might not express, and neither does the text.
Nor, finally, is there anything wondrous, weird, or exotic about the action that sets the stage for the book’s discourses. Even today, the disasters that befell Job are still, in substance, an everyday affair—a matter of mere statistical coincidences. (Thus, among newly diagnosed cancer cases, there are bound to be innocent bankrupts whose only children have recently been killed.)
So Safire confronts a text unmysterious to begin with, and of course already much studied. Of that he is well aware—in the opening he writes (with a characteristic after-twist), “I began collecting books about Job as a Syracuse University sophomore (just before I dropped out).” But though he has certainly read the scholarly literature, Safire’s own book does not conform to its norms: he does not add one more orderly brick to the cumulative structure of learning. Instead, he merely presents his own arguments, citing such other views as he pleases amid a mass of anecdotes and reminiscences of varying relevance and interest, including confessionals from almost every rogue and semi-rogue in contemporary American political life.
In sequence, Safire first strives in various ways to induce the reader actually to read the words as they are written, instead of construing them in accordance with entrenched pietistic misinterpretations that clash with the meaning of the text—a meaning plain enough, but too painfully harsh. The mere phrase, “the patience of Job,” common in many languages, suffices to show how deeply ingrained is the deformation, for Job is one sufferer in the Bible who, to the contrary, curses back (“perish the day I was born”), sneers at the explanations of his sufferings, and—most important by far—insistently demands that God break His silence to explain Himself to him.
Having rescued the plain meaning (as, to be sure, others have done before him), Safire concentrates on the core dialogue between an all-powerful God and an almost entirely powerless man. Presenting this dialogue as an essentially political exchange, governed by the enormously unequal power relationship between the two, Safire shows how Job proceeds to extract all the human dignity there is from the sliver of power that is still left to him—the power to call on God, to demand an explanation for God’s deeds, and to assert his own innocence the more tellingly by staking his life and honor on that very claim of innocence.
Job, as we know, is finally successful. God does break His silence to speak to him—indeed, in the entire Bible this is God’s longest statement in direct speech. As an attentive and experienced observer of the powerful, Safire is at his best in explaining the dilemma inherent in the potentially unlimited power of God: an all-powerful God, Who fully exercised all His power all the time, would allow no other live existence, thereby incidentally nullifying the meaning of His own power, leaving only a physical force able to command only inert physical phenomena.
In working out the implications of that dilemma, Safire has written a book that stands on its own as an always interesting and sometimes profound discourse on politics and theology, while most truly earning its keep as books about books should, by re-attracting readers to the original text. One does not have to be afflicted and in need of comfort to rediscover the book of Job as a sensationally good read.