God’s “Boss’ Life”: Humor in the Book of Job

April 15th, 2008

Job is a tale of power. It features numerous hierarchical relationships amongst God, Satan, Job, and Job’s friends, and it is dominated by long, repetitive discourses about these relationships. God’s culminating speech is an acerbic rant about how mighty he is—one which parallels some modern rap performances, such as Snoop Dogg’s narration of his supposed “Boss’ Life.”[*] God is undoubtedly the divine boss of Job’s world, but the tale portrays him as humanlike in his mannerisms to frame his seemingly senseless disregard for Job’s well-being in terms that a human audience can comprehend. For example, the audience might conceptualize this God’s apparent need to prove himself to Satan as rooted in self-consciousness. Even if such a view is an oversimplification, it gives the audience a “motive” to imagine while considering the other issues raised by the story. The juxtaposition of omnipotence and human traits thus serves a pragmatic purpose in driving the narrative forward, and an essential tool in producing the appearance of humanness is humor.

The most obvious example of humor in Job is God’s heavy-handed sarcasm. After describing the creation of the world through a long series of rhetorical questions asking if Job knows how the miraculous deed was done, God says, “Surely you know, for you were born then,/and the number of your days is great!” (38.21).[†] If his only purpose in speaking were to point out that he knows more than Job about these matters, God could leave the questions unanswered or state the already obvious fact that Job was not yet born when the world was created. Instead, he chooses to toy with language by ironically stating the opposite.

This rhetorical choice is an act of amusement. God is laughing at Job, making fun of him, using his predicament as a mechanism for entertainment. His behavior is not purely rational—it does not alter either side’s argument, and any pedagogical purpose it serves could easily be replaced with a more direct method, especially given his hyperbolic knowledge and power. Even if God’s sarcasm isn’t rational, though, we understand it because amusement is a fundamental human need. A purely theoretical deity has no need for diversion, but a purely theoretical deity is also very difficult to describe to an audience—except in the context of human needs and desires.

Sarcasm itself, even as nothing more than a pragmatic means for communication, is a human technique. There is no clear reason why a deity should need to do anything other than state the divine truth in order to drive a point home. Mortals, on the other hand, often need special strategies to convince their audiences and to place emphasis on their points. By identifying God with this inherently human strategy, the architects of the tale (themselves lacking the theoretical God’s glorious powers of persuasion) make the character of God accessible to the audience.

Sarcasm is not the only humor written into God’s speeches. Later in his rant, God spends an entire chapter extolling the strength and ferocity of his pet sea monster named Leviathan. He intersperses rhetorical questions about whether Job can hope to control this creature, including the tongue-in-cheek query, “Will you play with it as with a bird,/or will you put it on a leash for your girls?” (41.5). Amongst verse upon verse about Leviathan’s “double coat of mail” and the “terror all around its teeth” (41.13, 41.14), this taunt strikes a powerful comedic contrast between the types of furry little critters children play with and the greatest mythical aquatic beast yet conceived. Also, at a more implicit level, this verse makes fun of Job’s destitution by referring to his “girls” when God is fully aware that all of Job’s children have been brutally slaughtered—with God’s own explicit permission. Such jokes, however twisted they may be, attribute to the character of God a sense of dark amusement—a peculiarly human trait.

In an even more fundamental juxtaposition of his humanlike communication style and his ostensibly divine message, God mocks Job through imitation. While describing Leviathan, he says, “I will not keep silence concerning its limbs,/or its mighty strength, or its splendid frame” (41.12). This can be read as a reference to Job’s earlier refusal to keep silence concerning his suffering—“Therefore I will not restrain my mouth;/I will speak in the anguish of my spirit;/I will complain in the bitterness of my soul” (7.11). God’s mimicry of Job is another humanlike joke—one which also implicitly diminishes God to Job’s level of communication, further emphasizing that the main difference between the two characters is power: it certainly isn’t restraint.

Imitation also invites comparison, and thus God’s parody of Job points to several more of God’s humanlike character traits. His need to trumpet the power of his favorite sea creature seems to stem from pride in his work—which may be more justified than it would be if he was a mortal, but which is a human trait nonetheless. Writing pride into God’s demeanor allows the author to provide more details about Leviathan than would otherwise be possible, even though, strictly speaking, a single all-powerful God should be implicitly dominant and thus should have no need for pride and other forms of self-justification. The phrase “I will not keep silence” also reveals that God realizes he is ranting unnecessarily—but he plows on anyway with the dramatic showcasing so often observed in mortals.

God makes a vague reference to his own dark humor when, in the midst of a list of beasts over which he rules, he describes the ostrich. It “deals cruelly with its young,” as God has done with Job, but it is not an allegory for God himself because it is powerless and ignorant (39.16). Instead, its critical quality is that it “laughs at the horse and its rider” because it can outrace them (39.18). For both God and the instrumentality of the tale, the ostrich serves as an example of the fact that the strong can laugh at the weak even if the strong have committed atrocious deeds.

In contrast to the ostrich, however, God has the power to toy with people rather than merely to outrace them. His barrage of rhetorical questions, his sarcastic jokes, and his self-aggrandizement are mechanisms for his sport with Job. That is why he continues to demand of Job, “Gird up your loins like a man;/I will question you, and you declare to me,” even though Job has already realized that he can do nothing of the sort (40.7). God is enjoying the game, so, like a child, he insists on maintaining the same set of rules even after they have become ridiculous. Paradoxically, this dramatized persistence feeds his ability to critique Job’s earlier legalistic framework while simultaneously highlighting his own less-than-perfect characterization.

In a tale containing thirty-five chapters of pure religious debate, some comedy may seem necessary for entertainment. In Job, however, humor appears only in very specific contexts, which are concentrated in God’s speeches from chapter 38 through chapter 41. The jokes of Job are not included merely to entertain. They serve a literary purpose: giving God a sense of humor helps attribute humanlike motivations to his actions, which allows the audience to consider that power might exist independently of rationale. Even the most general structures of the plot point to this paradigm; the initial bet between God and Satan posits Job as a plaything for God to put on display. “Have you considered my servant Job?” God asks in chapter 1, verse 8; then he sits back to watch the show and revel in his “Boss’ Life.”

 


[*] I have never actually listened to this song, but the lyrics are available online. They include the following:  “Look at me man/I’m nothing like you/I got the kinda swagger that you ain’t used to.”
Dogg, Snoop. Tha Blue Carpet Treatment: “Boss’ Life.” Geffen Records, 21 Nov 2006. Lyrics available at <http://www.snoopdogg.com/lyrics/default.aspx/pid/2253/tid/28432&gt;.

[†] Job quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version.

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