The Book of Job: “One of the colossal cornerstones of the world”

I’m currently reading G.K. Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man, described as Chesterton’s “whole view of world history as informed by the Incarnation”.

To be honest, I’m finding it a mixed bag. Chesterton wrote it in 1925, and it’s very much of its era in many ways: lots of references to “savages” and “heathens” and so on, and it’s very hard to tell how well his anthropological assertions have stood the test of time.

But, read judiciously and charitably, parts of it are truly excellent. For example, Chesterton’s observations on the Book of Job (pp.98-99), and how strange it is that this work was completely unknown to the rest of the classical world:

[T]here were things in the tradition of Israel which belong to all humanity now, and might have belonged to all humanity then. They had one of the colossal cornerstones of the world: the Book of Job. It obviously stands over against the Iliad and the Greek tragedies; and even more than they it was an early meeting and parting of poetry and philosophy in the morning of the world.

As Chesterton continues, in one of the best summations of Job’s message and purpose that I’ve ever read:

It is a solemn and uplifting sight to see those two eternal fools, the optimist and the pessimist, destroyed in the dawn of time.

But for all its grandeur and insight, the Book of Job remained confined to the nation of Israel; and indeed, even today its inclusion in the Bible has probably obscured its status as a literary work in its own right:

But this mighty monotheistic poem remained unremarked by the whole world of antiquity, which thronged with polytheistic poetry. It is a sign of the way in which the Jews stood apart and kept their tradition unshaken and unshared, that they should have kept a thing like The Book of Job out of the whole intellectual world of antiquity. It is as if the Egyptians had modestly concealed the Great Pyramid.

Though Chesterton suggests one reason why the Book of Job passed ancient antiquity by:

The sorrow of Job had to be joined with the sorrow of Hector; and while the former was the sorrow of the universe the latter was the sorrow of the city; for Hector could only stand pointing to heaven as the pillar of holy Troy. When God speaks out of the whirlwind he may well speak in the wilderness. But the monotheism of the nomad was not enough for all that varied civilization of fields and fences and walled cities and temples and towns; and the turn of these things also was to come, when the two could be combined in a more definite and domestic religion.

In other words: the remoteness of a pure monotheism had to be united with “that love of locality and of personality that ran through mythology”; a union that came through the Incarnation of Christ.


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