Red Booth Notes: GK Chesterton on The Book of Job and the Study of Scripture
“Our minds,” said Chesterton, “are mostly a vast uncatalogued library.” There’s much truth in that. How often do we take stock of the things we’ve read, or give thought to how they’ve made us who we are? One could spend a week pondering the import of that one sentence. It’s one of Chesterton’s most arresting word pictures.
Gems like this were a catalyst for the calendar compendium called A Year with G.K. Chesterton, a book I was privileged to publish last year with Thomas Nelson/HarperCollins. In essence, I wished to catalogue some of Chesterton’s finest passages—to mine “the library,” as it were, of his writings.
One golden day, quite by accident, I discovered a great Chestertonian essay called “Leviathan and the Hook.” I was looking though American periodicals of the early 20th century, and I happened on this description in the December 16, 1905 issue of The Public magazine: “The best essay ever written on The Book of Job is reprinted in The Living Age for November 18 from The London Speaker. It is by G.K. Chesterton, whose books and essays are beginning to be recognized as the work of an original genius.”
A few minutes more, and I was reading this extraordinary essay for the first time. It was Chesterton’s review of the book, The Original Poem of Job, translated from the Restored Text by E.T. Dillon, (London: Fisher Unwin, 1905). As soon as I finished reading, I knew I had to include passages from this piece in A Year with G.K. Chesterton. Here is the heart of the essay—
From GK Chesterton’s review of The Original Poem of Job, transl. by E.T. Dillon, The Living Age magazine, November 18, 1905:
To dive into any very ancient human work is to dive into a bottomless sea, and the man who seeks old things will be always finding new things. Centuries hence the world will be still seeking for the secret of Job, which is, indeed, in a sense the secret of everything. It is no disrespect to such able and interesting works as Professor Dillon’s to say that they are only stages in an essentially endless process, the proper appreciation of one of the inexhaustible religious classics. None of them says the last word on Job, for the last word could only be said on the Last Day. For a great poem like Job is in this respect like life itself. The explanations are popular for a month or popular for a century. But they all fall. The unexplained thing is popular for ever.
There are weaknesses in the Higher Criticism, as a general phenomenon, which are only gradually unfolding themselves. There are more defects or difficulties than would at first appear in the scientific treatment of Scripture. But after all, the greatest defect in the scientific treatment of Scripture is simply that it is scientific. The professor of the Higher Criticism is never tired of declaring that he is detached, that he is disinterested, that he is concerned only with the facts, that he is applying to religious books the unbending methods which are employed by men of science towards the physical order. If what he says of himself is true, he must be totally unfitted to criticize any books whatever.
Books exist to produce emotions: if we are not moved by them we practically have not read them. If a real book has not touched us we might as well not have touched the book. In literature to be dispassionate is simply to be illiterate. To be disinterested is simply to be uninterested. The object of a book on comets, of course, is not to make us all feel like comets; but the object of a poem about warriors is to make us all feel like warriors. It is not merely true that the right method for one may be the wrong method for the other; it must be the wrong method for the other. A critic who takes a scientific view of the Book of Job is exactly like a surgeon who should take a poetical view of appendicitis: he is simply an old muddler.
It is said, of course, that this scientific quality is only applied to the actual facts, which are the department of science. But what are the actual facts? There are very few facts in connection with a work of literature which are really wholly apart from literary tact and grasp. That certain words are on a piece of parchment in a certain order science can say. Whether in that order they make sense or nonsense only literature can say. That in another place (say on a brick) the same words are in another order science can say. Whether it is a more likely order only literature can say. That on two bricks there is the same sentence science can say. Whether it is the sort of sentence one man would write on two bricks, or two men happen to write on their own respective bricks, only literature can say. Let me take an example from Professor Dillon’s own interesting introduction. Referring to a controversy among scholars about the possible indebtedness of the unknown Hebrew poet to other Hebrew writers, he says: “On the one hand it is doubtless possible that the words:
Art thou the first man born?
Or wast thou brought forth before the hills?
were suggested by the verses in Proverbs, ‘Before the mountains were settled, before the hills, was I brought forth.’” Of course it is possible, but I cannot see (as a matter of literary common sense) why it is in the smallest degree likely. Surely two independent people or two hundred independent people might use so natural a phrase as that a thing was older than the hills. We might as well bind together in chains of plagiarism all the people who ever said that a thing shone like the sun or bloomed and faded like a flower. Outside the use of hills (those rare objects) and of being brought forth (that unusual and pathological process), the two passages are not in spirit or inspiration in the least similar, for the passage in Proverbs (if I remember it aright) is an abstract, mystical excursus of which the point is that a Logos or idea, preceded all physical phenomena, whereas the passage in Job is simply a sharp, savage joke, of which the point is that a man is an uncommonly unimportant fungus on the face of the earth. No poet would naturally take a thing from one to use it in the other; but then to feel this is simply a matter of poetic sentiment and science is no more use in the matter than gardening. Science can only say that the same Hebrew word is used; but whether the word is common, or natural, or forced, or affected, or inevitable is a question of pure literature; and it is the whole question at issue. The Higher Critic, as such, can only see that the words are the same; that is, he can only see what a child could see.
Let it not be supposed that Professor Dillon’s work is thus weak; he makes many wise suggestions and emendations. But when they are entirely wise they are also literary and entirely undemonstrable. To take one instance out of many, at the end of that noble Nihilist chapter three, in which Job curses his day, which is indeed the sublimest point of suicide, the very crest and imperial crown of cowardice, Job says in the authorized version: “For my sighing cometh before I eat and my roarings are poured out like the waters.” This is evidently an extremely literary and ingenious rendering by the original translators of a passage of which they could not make head or tall. According to the later version the meaning is simpler and stronger and more in the manner of good primitive poetry. In Professor Dillon’s book it runs “For sighing is become my bread, and my crying is unto me as water.” This has all the elemental energy of the primeval phrase; it would be difficult to express with more directness what is the worst part of pain or calamity, the fact of the abnormal thing becoming the normal, disaster becoming a routine. We can all endure catastrophe as long as it is catastrophic; it is maddening the moment it is orderly.
In a sense this small matter expresses the whole of Job. Professor Dillon analyzes very well the main and obvious idea that it is a protest against that paltry optimism which sees in suffering a mark of sin. But he does not, I think, quite pierce to the further and ultimate point of “Job,” which is that the true secret and hope of human life is something much more dark and beautiful than it would be if suffering were a mark of sin. A mere scheme of rewards and punishments would be something much meaner and more mechanical than this exasperating and inspiring life of ours. An automatic scheme of Karma, or “reaping what we sow,” would be just as gross and material as sowing beans or reaping barley. It might satisfy mechanicians or modern monists, or theosophists, or cautious financiers, but not brave men. It is no paradox to say that the one thing which would make suffering intolerable would be the thought that it was systematically inflicted upon sinners. The one thing which would make our agony infamous would be the idea that it was deserved. On the other hand, the doctrine which makes it most endurable is exactly the opposite doctrine, that life is a battle in which the best put their bodies in the front, in which God sends only His holiest into the hall of the arrows of hell. In the book of Job is foreshadowed that better doctrine full of a dark chivalry that he that bore the worst that men can suffer was the best that bore the form of man.
There is one central conception of the book of Job, which literally makes it immortal, which will make it survive our modern time and our modern philosophies as it has survived many better times and many better philosophies. That is the conception that the universe, if it is to be admired, is to be admired for its strangeness and not for its rationality, for its splendid unreason and not for its reason. Job’s friends attempt to comfort him with philosophical optimism, like the intellectuals of the eighteenth century. Job tries to comfort himself with philosophical pessimism like the intellectuals of the nineteenth century. But God comforts Job with indecipherable mystery, and for the first time Job is comforted. Eliphaz gives one answer. Job gives another answer, and the question still remains an open wound. God simply refuses to answer, and somehow the question is answered. Job flings at God one riddle, God flings back at Job a hundred riddles, and Job is at peace. He is comforted with conundrums. For the grand and enduring idea in the poem, as suggested above, is that if we are to be reconciled to this great cosmic experience it must be as something divinely strange and divinely violent, a quest, or a conspiracy, or some sacred joke. The last chapters of the colossal monologue of the Almighty are devoted in a style superficially queer enough to the detailed description of two monsters. Behemoth and Leviathan may, or may not be, the hippopotamus and the crocodile. But, whatever they are, they are evidently embodiments of the enormous absurdity of nature. They typify that cosmic trait which anyone may see in the Zoological Gardens, the folly of the Lord, which is wisdom. And in connection with one of them, God is made to utter a splendid satire upon the prim and orderly piety of the vulgar optimist. “Wilt thou play with him as with a bird? Wilt thou bind him for thy maidens?” That is the main message of the book of Job. Whatever this cosmic monster may be, a good animal or a bad animal, he is at least a wild animal and not a tame animal; it is a wild world and not a tame world.
 From page 607 of the Saturday, December 16, 1905 issue of The Public, Louis F. Post, editor, vol. 8, no. 402.
 From pages 443-445 of the November 18, 1905 issue of The Living Age magazine, seventh series, vol. 29, no. 3202, (Boston: The Living Age Company, 1905).
An award-winning writer and literary historian, Kevin Belmonte is the author of Defiant Joy: The Remarkable Life & Impact of G.K. Chesterton (Thomas Nelson/HarperCollins, 2011).