Isn’t it a Pity: Dramatic Irony & Catharsis in the Book of Job


Sometimes we read the Bible for spiritual comfort and inspiration.  Sometimes we read the Bible to enjoy the beauty of the words.  Occasionally we do both at the same time.  And often, when we do read the Bible as literature, we discover more spiritual meaning.  Applying the techniques of literary criticism to the Bible can provide enlightenment as to the Bible’s theological message.  Let us take for example the literary device of dramatic irony and apply it to the book of Job.

Dramatic irony occurs when the audience/reader has knowledge which has been withheld from one of the characters.  For example, in the Greek tragedy Oedipus Rex, as Oedipus searches for the identity of his father’s murderer, we in the audience already know the killer’s identity.  Because we know the story of Oedipus, we know the person he is seeking is himself. Watching the play knowing that Oedipus’s search will lead him to discover the truth about his father’s murder, as well as the truth about his relationship with his mother, yet being unable to warn Oedipus, creates a tension in the audience which is essential for achieving the catharsis the Greeks wanted.   The tension created by the dramatic irony forces us to fear for and then pity Oedipus.

One of the thornier theological questions surrounding Job is, “why is Job made to suffer?”  Has he done something to anger G-d?  What exactly is the nature of his transgression?  What is the meaning of his suffering?  If we take a literary, rather than a theological, approach to reading Job, the question of Job’s suffering isn’t even moot: it is never raised at all.  As readers of the text, we know exactly why Job is made to suffer.  The text informs us at the very beginning: Job is made to suffer because of the challenge HaSatan made to G-d.  Like an audience at a performance of Oedipus Rex, we have knowledge which is withheld from the characters.  And, as with those ancient Greek theatre-goers, the dramatic irony creates a tension within us as we watch Job demand an answer from G-d, knowing all the time the answer solves nothing; the true answer will only make matters worse.  Just as with Oedipus, we fear for and pity Job.

Fear and pity.  Two emotions the ancient Greeks believed dangerous for society.  The two emotions they wanted to eliminate through catharsis were fear and pity.  Fear we sort of understand.  Leaders can manipulate a populace when the populace is afraid.  But, isn’t pity a good thing?  How is feeling pity for someone bad for a society?  First, the emotion of pity is based on privilege.  Whom do we pity?  Those “less fortunate” than ourselves; those who lack something we possess; those who are different than us.  Put simply, we pity “the Other.”  Pity reinforces otherness and strengthens the divisions between us.  Second, pity is insular: it requires no action be taken to help those upon whom we take pity.  Acknowledging that we are capable of pity is enough to make us feel good. We need never do anything for those we pity.

Like Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar, are we not to pity Job?  No.  Unlike Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar, we are to empathize with Job.  Empathy destroys privilege.  Empathy eschews the “I-It” relationship of pity for an “I-Thou” relationship.  Empathy forces me to suffer with you (not with the “Other,” but with you).  Most important, empathy demands action.  Action must be taken to alleviate your suffering and to prevent the future suffering of you and all others.  Empathy connects us to each other as part of G-d’s creation.  Without that connection we are isolated from each other and from G-d.  And that would be a pity.

2 responses to “Isn’t it a Pity: Dramatic Irony & Catharsis in the Book of Job

  1. I love this tract! I never really saw the difference between pity and empathy. I wonder where compassion fits in? It is probably almost synonymous with empathy. On a more contemporary note, try listening to “The Balance” by the the Moody Blues. It conveys a similar message and helps realize that none of us are without blame even though we may be without intent.


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