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117. An Interlude on Job’s Situation and The Uncertainty of Knowledge


An (extended) analogy from the professions of law or medicine may help shed light on Job’s situation at this point. Each of these professions has its basic principles, doctrines or methods. In law, for example, the basic idea (at least, in American law) is that ‘the law’ is based on common law principles, constitutional interpretation, statutory rules, administrative regulations, and that case law interpreting all four is the current ‘final word.’ Some court cases are ‘persuasive;’ some are merely ‘suggestive;’ and some are binding on other courts. Yet new situations arise all the time that don’t precisely fit into established categories. This causes confusion and leads either to creative ways to use the tradition or to things like suggesting new legislation that handles a new problem that has emerged. A good lawyer is one who can apply legal principles to new situations. But some of the most exciting times in law are when you have no specific guidance with respect to your current conundrum. In a word, you live in uncertainty.  


The same can be said about medicine. Though doctors may be good at giving avuncular smiles and reassuring words, most of them know that the tools they use to diagnose and heal are relatively primitive, that their ability to solve problems is actually pretty limited, and that many times they simply don’t know how to interpret what is before them. Confusion and uncertainty is the mark of the professions that seek to push back the limits of knowledge. It is good never to lose sight of basic principles In the confusion and uncertainty, since the principles are your basic interpretive framework of life, but you realize that the principles alone don’t solve current problems for you. In order to solve the ‘never before seen’ problem in front of you, you need to reframe knowledge, often using different analogies and literary pictures to try to define your current situation. Thus it is increasingly bewildering to me why crack medical research teams and legal scholars don’t have poets and language experts on their teams, because these people will be helpful at putting a new linguistic spin on the bewildering reality that you face.


Job needs such an interpreter in his situation. He doesn’t need someone who just  rehashes eternal verities or even tries to apply them to his situation. He has, as it were, discovered a new kind of cancer, a different disease, and preoccupation with the manifestations of that disease must now take precedence over everything. That disease must be observed, described in the most minute detail, interpreted to the extent possible in line with inherited knowledge, but also honored as our teacher. The disease must be the thing that provokes our questions; the disease itself will give us clues to the conquest of the disease. But we have to examine that disease, fearlessly, continually, and come up with words that seem to capture its movement, spread, containment or features.  


That, in a word, is what Job is trying to do. He has experienced the outbreak of some new and unprecedented ‘disease.’ The friends are sure that it can be ‘confined’ or ‘interpreted’ by the traditional categories handed down for generations. Everything has its category, and Job’s distress is no different, according to them. Job will not be convinced any longer by that mode of thinking, even though he still affirms the basic principles and beliefs of that system. The beliefs that got him ‘safe thus far’ will no longer ‘lead him home.’ 


What makes Job’s case particularly nettlesome is that Job tries at first to interpret things according to the way the tradition says he should. He wanted to approach God with his complaint; he wanted to go to the right source. But that source is silent, and the answers offered by friends that seemingly satisfied generations of prior sufferers are no longer convincing to Job. Call it pride, chutzpah, determination or stubbornness, but Job feels that in some way his situation is unique. The friends don’t see that and really can’t see that. Yet Job is like the lawyer confronted with a new set of facts which no legal theory has been stretched far enough to explain; Job is like a medical researcher seeing cells multiply or divide in ways that have no explanation or precedent. He will seek an answer, and he will not give up until he has some kind of satisfactory explanation for what he knows is the situation before him. While he may respect and even embrace the attempts of previous generations to deal with problems like his, he easily sees the inadequacy of past explanations.

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