Classism and Sexism: Lingering Flaws of a “Perfect Man” in the Biblical Book of Job

In the very first verse of the Book of Job, the poet describes Job as “perfect,” but as this epoch poem progresses, this already perfect person manages to grow even more (Job 1:1). In the wake of tragedy, he learns to maintain faith while accepting ambiguity, cope with suffering, comfort the afflicted, and believe in himself even when others judge him as unworthy. He grapples with the question of evil and expands his perspective. 

And yet, modern readers can witness blindspots that stay with Job even after Job’s afflictions have helped him to grow in other ways. These issues are visible to us thanks to the work of generations of reformers who have opened our eyes to injustices which were so accepted and commonplace at the time of Job that neither he, nor his poet, nor the poem’s contemporary readers would have seen them as problems.

In chapter 30, without awareness of any problem with this attitude, Job reveals his disdain for the “vile” lower classes during a monologue about how unfair it is that he has joined their ranks.

1 But now they that are younger than I have me in derision, whose fathers I would have disdained to have set with the dogs of my flock. 

8 …They were children of fools, yea, children of base men: they were viler than the earth. 

9 And now am I their song, yea, I am their byword. 

Job 30:1;8-9

Job’s scathing contempt for these lower-class people takes the form of mocking their poverty: “Through want and hard hunger they gnaw the dry and desolate ground. . . . They are driven out from society; people shout after them as after a thief. In the gullies of wadis they must live, in holes in the ground, and in the rocks” (30:3, 5–6). 

—Carol A. Newsom, Job, Women’s Bible Commentary by Carol A. Newsom, Sharon H. Ringe and Jacqueline E. Lapsley

Although Job has expressed indignation about the failure of his societal equals—his “friends”—to show “kindness” to him, it does not occur to him that such kindness should also be extended to those of lower rank in their society (Job 6:14; Job 30). Job has been exemplary in his charitable contributions to the lower classes (Job 29:12-16). No one from his time period would have expected anything more from him.

If we want to read literature which better explores themes of classism, one example is Emma by Jane Austen, which was written more than 2,000 years after the Book of Job. Austen’s society was also heavily classist—ongoing reforms had not yet rooted out the sticky problem of classism, even more than two millennia after Job’s era—but society had progressed to the point that a philosopher like Austen could recognize classism as a sin.

Like Job, the character of Emma is a model upper-class person, dispensing gift baskets liberally to the poor. Until the end of the book, she also looks down on them and occasionally mocks them. But as the character evolves, she has an epiphany, “I have given them charity but not kindness.” (1996 film adaptation)

 

Returning to the Book of Job and turning the page to chapter 31, Job brags about his exemplary adherence to the law of chastity:

1 I made a covenant with mine eyes; why then should I think upon a maid?

9 …If mine heart have been deceived by a woman, or if I have laid wait at my neighbour’s door;

10 Then let my wife grind unto another, and let others bow down upon her.

Job 31:1, 9-10

Yikes! Job thinks the rape of his wife would be a just punishment to him for his infidelity, if he were to stray?

Job’s words are in keeping with the patriarchal perspective that saw a woman’s sexuality as the property of her husband and an abuse of it as an injury to the husband, rather than to the woman herself. Although modern readers are critical of the proprietary view of women in Job 29–31 and of the way concern for honor tends to translate into social resentment and contempt, there is little indication that an ancient audience would have so reacted. For them, chapters 29–31 would have presented Job in the noblest possible terms—a model patriarch. He is, as God has described him, a man who “fears God and turns away from evil” (1:8).

—Carol A. Newsom, Job, Women’s Bible Commentary by Carol A. Newsom, Sharon H. Ringe and Jacqueline E. Lapsley

Job and His Three Daughters by William Blake, 1805, Courtesy of National Gallery of Art, Washington DC

While women’s rights issues were off the radar of Job’s poet, there is a hint in some of the final verses of the poem that the attitude of Job toward women might have evolved, but this story was left unwritten in the background. When his time of adversity comes to a close, Job and his wife are blessed with children and the poet provides the names of Job’s three daughters: Jemima, Kezia and Keren-happuch; but not his sons, an unusual choice at a time when it was common to record the names of sons but not bother to record the names of daughters (Job 42:14). The poet reports that these daughters were included as Job’s heirs alongside their brothers, which means they were treated with unusual equity for women of their time (Job 42:15). 

The Book of Job is not the story of a perfect man, but rather, of a man who seemed perfect to the people of his time. We can learn from Job, both from the lessons he learned, and from those he didn’t. Even in the wake of life-altering disruption, Job found answers only to the questions he diligently sought to answer. The questions he never thought to ask remained a mystery to him. Suffering does not educate on its own. Simply experiencing adversity does not always yield enlightenment. Just as it is true that the most righteous people do not always have the most blessings—a major theme of the Book of Job—the most afflicted people do not always have the most wisdom. 

April Young-Bennett

April Young Bennett is the author of the Ask a Suffragist book series and host of the Religious Feminism Podcast. Learn more about April at aprilyoungb.com.

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3 Responses

  1. Fairy says:

    excellent!

  2. Robin Litster Johnson says:

    Hooray! A breath of fresh air! Someone who can look on and comment on a past leader without falling into ‘presentism’ – excoriating them for not living up to standards that we hold today.

  1. July 21, 2022

    […] Classism and Sexism: Lingering Flaws of a “Perfect Man” in the Biblical Book of Job […]

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