Job, the book, commands our attention because it portrays a tragic story of human suffering that resonates with the archetypal experiences of persons and societies since recorded history. It is called a "sacred" writing because it holds a respected position within the Hebrew and Christian canon, the Bible. However, the book has prompted commentaries, critical studies, and artistic creations outside the parameters of organized religion. Consider, for example, its impact upon depth psychology (Answer to Job by C.G. Jung), literature (Spiritus Mundi: Essays on Literature, Myth, and Society by Northrop Frye) and theatre (J.B.: A Play in Verse by Archibald MacLeish).
More than most sacred texts, Job escapes the boundaries of its religious canon and engages the world in its secular forms. However, Judaism and Christianity lay claims to the text and draw upon its richness of spiritual expression for comfort in the travail of human suffering. We see this, for example, in the Episcopal Church's service for the burial of the dead, drawing upon a passage in Job (19:25):
As for me, I know that my redeemer lives and that at the last he
will stand upon the earth. After my awakening, he will raise me
up; and in my body, I shall see God. I myself shall see, and my
eyes behold him who is my friend and not a stranger.
(Translation from The Book of Common Prayer, p. 491)
In Judaism, this same text may be translated differently. For example, "Redeemer" may be translated as "vindicator," implying a human being who will intercede in Job's lifetime to plead his case before his deity. However, the text was considered by some earlier rabbis to point toward a belief in some form of afterlife in the "world to come." That idea of another world, "Olam Ha Ba," may refer to a distant age in this existence or to a spiritual realm where immortal souls are gathered.
My point in elaborating on this specific verse in a text considered sacred by both Jews and Christians is to illustrate the seriousness with which such a text may be regarded even though translated differently. Still, it holds a key for the religious adherents to gain understanding regarding the most serious matters of life and death.
We find the same to be true in all religious traditions. For example, tracing the theme of how to understand and approach death we find the following text in the Bhagavad Gita.
With mind unwavering, and united to love, and the power of
meditation, he at the time of death, perfectly concentrating
his vital powers between the eyebrows, attains to that supreme,
(Translation by Chatterji, p. 139)
And for Lao Tzu in the Tao Te Ching, spiritual maturity teaches that the Way gives both life and death, and therefore one grows into an acceptance of death's approach (#33):
It is wisdom to know others;
It is enlightenment to know one's self.
The conqueror of men is powerful;
The master of himself is strong.
It is wealth to be content;
It is willful to force one's way on others.
Endurance is to keep one's place;
Long life is to die and not perish.
(Translation by Blakney, p. 86)
Another example of texts found in the major religious traditions that offer comfort, is found in this section of the Buddha's sermon in the Deer Park at Benares:
(1) Now this, monks, is the noble truth of pain:
birth is painful, old age is painful, sickness is painful,
death is painful, sorrow, lamentations, dejection, and
despair are painful. Contact with unpleasant things is
painful, not getting what one wishes is painful. In short,
the five groups of grasping are painful.
(2) Now this, noble monks, is the noble truth of the cause
of pain: the craving which leads to rebirth, combined
with pleasure and lust, finding pleasure here and there;
namely the craving for passion, the craving for existence,
the craving for non-existence.
(3) Now this, monks, is the noble truth of the cessation of
pain, the cessation without a remainder of craving, the
abandonment, forsaking, release, non-attachment.
(4) Now this, monks, is the noble truth of the way that leads
to the cessation of pain: this is the noble Eightfold Way;
namely, right views, right intention, right speech, right
action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness,
(Translation by Burtt, p. 30)
Finally, I am including a statement by Jesus of Nazareth, a portion of the Sermon on the Mount called "The Beatitudes," found in the Gospel of Matthew (5:3-10):
How blessed are the poor in spirit:
the kingdom of Heaven is theirs.
Blessed are the gentle:
they shall have the earth as inheritance.
Blessed are those who mourn:
they shall be comforted.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness:
they shall have their fill.
Blessed are the merciful:
they shall have mercy shown them.
Blessed are the pure in heart:
they shall see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers:
they shall be recognized as children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted in the cause of uprightness:
the kingdom of Heaven is theirs.
(Translation, The New Jerusalem Bible, pp. 1615-1616)
Each of these texts from which I have quoted is regarded as sacred in the respective traditions of Judaism, Hinduism, Taoism, Buddhism, and Christianity. Individuals and groups have given their lives to preserve the texts, and in many cases have taken the lives of those who would blaspheme or destroy the writings.
We can imagine why. Each of the texts represents the voice of some divine or iconic figure, whether it be Yahweh, Krishna, Lao Tzu, Buddha, Jesus,or what one understands to be the Spirit of God. Further, each of the particular sacred texts describes some pathway through suffering, equipping believers to face and/or to survive death. Note also that the texts have become imbued with power in the minds of the faithful. The texts support their religious traditions, their God-images, their views of the world; and, in most cases, and among perhaps the majority of its adherents, the texts have become inerrant, infallible. The scriptures have come to carry the weight of an absolutism by which one's total life is to be lived, including how one must live to ensure life in the world to come as well as how to ensure one's health, success, and prosperity in this world.
As I said above, this absolutism attempts to protect the texts by formulating dogmas that teach inerrancy and infallibility. "Inerrancy" means that there can be no errors in the scriptures; "infallible" means that the particular doctrine described by the text must be understood to be a truth that cannot be questioned or investigated in any critical way.
But a close reading of the scriptures will reveal contradictions and archaisms that prompt no little effort to explain and smooth over the inconsistencies and conflicts. Such are the attempts to portray a pseudo-harmony and unity. These efforts are driven by fear that the scriptures will lose their "authority." Or, more disturbingly because the scriptures have come to be seen as holy, sacrosanct and inviolable, all efforts to study and explain the history of their origin and transmission will be regarded as dangerous and blasphemous in the eyes of dogmatic believers. Thus, dogma triumphs over compassion; right belief becomes more important than consolation; moralism prevents the seeking of truth by which people are set free to live moral lives.
This brings me back to the passages from sacred texts quoted earlier. How incredible that these words of comfort and guidance in the face of suffering and death should have come to be embodied in writings that have become superstitious and magical. How tragic that the dogmatists of those religious institutions which claim ownership of the texts have set them up to be ridiculed and dismissed by persons who can neither understand nor value ancient writings that have been placed out of reach of human reason -- and consequently, the human heart as well.