For Jonah

 

In the long room hard by a street of marble cutters

they take turns submerged in a large pithos

of greasy water, naked and gritty lining the benches.

Voices rise and fall between the excitement of dice.

Just beyond the offing dark and moonlit

the holy sails glide home from Delos.

So much for his defense when they return.

He has seen the cistern in a further room

full of terracotta shards wet with hemlock,

and more than once has tried overhearing from his bed

the sound made from having sipped one’s death.

He is ashamed to have listened with so much attention,

and sorry, too, for the sense of comfort he’s found

in the relative quiet, almost casual talk

that follows the breaking of the clay cup.

Did he not tell Phaedo death was nothing,

hence no more reasonable to fear than praise it?

Or else it must be enjoyable as a good night’s sleep.

He knew the arguments like he knew love,

and that to be in love was the greatest happiness.

Yet there it was, like a thing misplaced,

a sense of compensation, an accounting.

The tallies against him grossly unjust,

his wife and sons taken from him

by the sleeved hands of Meletus,

by impotent and unconsidered resentment.

His friends made to look uncharitable,

pooling minae to bribe the courts with

as though he were a criminal, or worse, a sophist.

He desired, in spite of wisdom, for reckoning,

and cursed the name Athens beneath his breath,

repeating the maxim to himself like a prayer,

“I’m not angry with my accusers. They’ve done me no harm,”

yet his heart replied, “Nor have they done me any good.”

 

Today he meets the likes of a new prisoner,

an Arab money-changer from Yathrib,

who’s operated in the arcades without a license,

and awaits his brother from Tyre to pay his fine.

The man is tall and equine and old as sand.

He speaks a practiced, unadorned Greek

he found in the merchant-ports of Chios and Samos.

Bar-Rabbouni the Israelites call him.

They promenade the long room end to end,

taking wine in the walled courtyard

among music of splitters and chisels.

They’re both wise, their souls slip easily from prison

and regard Nature and Man from great heights.

They barter stories and haggle over their worth.

The Arab mentions the story of Job,

of the man who brought a lawsuit against God,

and the Greek is curious to hear it.

 

“The man from Uz,” says the Arab,

“was blameless and upright, and feared Elah.

His house was the greatest in the kingdom of Edom.

He had ten sons and five daughters,

ten thousand sheep, and three thousand camel,

and five hundred oxen and asses.

The number of his servants was great,

and he was beloved by all the peoples of the east.

One day Elah was admiring the burnt offerings of Job,

and thought to Himself, ‘I will test Job’s love for Me,

and put forth Mine hand and touch all that he hath,

and I will see if he curses Me.’ And Elah did so.

The fire of Shaddai fell from heaven

consuming the sheep and camel.

The Chaldeans and tribes of Sheba

fell upon the oxen and asses and slaughtered their hosts.

The great haboob carried away the roofs of his children

and the walls fell upon them and they died.

Nor was the bone and flesh of Job untouched,

for Shaddai caused a pestilence of loathsome sores

everywhere upon Job’s skin, and made him to itch

and scrape away the rotting with a potsherd.

Among the ruins of his house Job wept

and tore his clothes, and tore the hairs from his head.”

“Yet Job’s wife escapes unharmed,” Socrates observes,

to which the Arab replies with expert timing,

“This, too, Elah does to test Job.”

“So are ours full of mischief. But your one God is jealous,

like a newlywed, that He must possess Man body and soul.

I wonder if this is because there’s only one of Him.”

 

The Arab continues,  “Job cursed his day.

Why did he not die in his mother’s womb

and his mother give pains to birth a ghost?

Why is life given at all to him born of woman,

if he must suffer the days of his life, and long for death?

Now Job’s friends came and told him to repent,

for they thought Elah must be punishing Job,

or why would such misfortunes beset a good man?”

At this the Greek is suddenly delivered,

the rigid brow furrowed, dogfish eyes uncertain,

considering himself and his own troubles

as one often does with stories that must make sense,

which are, most of all, the ones about ourselves.

“How does Job answer?” Socrates asks.

The Arab raises a finger to the ceiling.

“‘What’re these, my friends?’ Job complains.

‘Surely now Elah has worn me out.’

But Job is in possession of his heart.

He knows how he is blameless and upright.

‘Behold, He takes away, who can hinder Him?

Who will say unto Him, “What are You doing?”

And if Elah does not withdraw his power,

how the proud helpers do stoop under him.

If Elah would draw back His hand, and let not His fear terrify me,

then I would speak, for I know I’m not what I am thought to be.’

Job desires to argue his case with Elah.

He says Shaddai has put him in the wrong,

and tallies the marks against himself thusly:

‘Elah hath destroyed me on every side, and I am gone.

He hath removed my hope like a tree from the earth.

He hath put my family far from me,

and they whom I loved are turned against me.

I cry out of wrong, but am heard not.

I cry aloud, and there is no justice.'”

“Is there?” Socrates asks. “Does your one God

answer the suits men bring against Him?”

“Well,” the Arab shrugs. “There are always exceptions.

In this case, Elah did shew himself to Job.

From the awesome and splendor of a whirlwind

Elah reproved Job, taunting him

like boys taunt one another at the gym.

‘Gird up thy loins like a man,’ said Elah,

and asked Job many unknowable questions.

Who gave birth to the rain, and who begat the dew?

Where comes the path of light, and so too darkness?

What makes horses mighty, and locusts leap,

and how many clouds are in the sky, and what

causes the bud of the tender herb to spring forth?

What need of Elah to justify Himself to Man

who knows so little, who knows nothing.

Man’s very speech is darkness, it darkens counsel.

So Job sues for justice. What is justice to Elah?

There’s no such thing to Him,

not until Job, too, can shut up the doors of the sea,

and put a fishhook in the nose of leviathan,

not until Job can teach the hawk to fly,

and yoke a unicorn.

‘Wilt thou condemn Me?’ Elah demanded,

‘that thou mayest be righteous?'”

 

Now the Greek finds himself bewildered as Job.

What can be done against outrageous adversity?

What argument at all might protect the innocent

from such injury, or grant a drop of justice,

a salve for the wounds of feckless power?

All the arguments he knew had brought him here.

“And how does Job answer his God?”

Socrates inquires, full of the same fear.

“Job,” says the Arab, “was not buying any of it.

‘What wonderful deeds,’ Job said, ‘I knew not.

For I’d heard Thee by the ear, but now I see Thee.

If truly Man cannot be just before Elah,

I retract my lawsuit against Him. What use is there?

I will look elsewhere for justice, among

the ashes and dust of His creation.'”

At this the Greek leans back to consider.

“Job has lost his case then.”

The Arab mulls this over, and reconsiders.

“Let’s say they settled out of court.

Elah restored all that Job had lost,

giving him twice as much as he had.”

The Greek indulges the thought

like savoring a meal eaten the day before.

 

A blue predawn has lifted over them.

Crowns of plane trees over the courtyard walls

are black and still as sleeping Argus.

They have talked through the night,

and sucked the wineskin dry between them.

Having embraced and said prayers

they retire to their separate beds,

and there is little difference between

their last waking thoughts

and the dreams that overtake.

So when the guard opens the door for Crito

and Socrates is stirred awake,

he has no idea how long he’s slept,

and asks his old friend the time of day,

to which Crito replies, “Dawn has broken.”

“And are you only just come?”

“No,” says Crito. “I sat here awhile

wondering at your peaceful slumbers,

because I wanted you to be out of pain.

I confess I’ve always thought you happy

because of the calmness you show in life,

yet I’ve never seen the like of the easy,

cheerful way you bear this calamity.

You lie as easy as a babe in swaddling

while I am sleepless and full of sorrow.”

Socrates sits up and pinches his snub-nose,

and hears a thought almost too familiar.

“When a man has reached my age,

he ought not to be crowing at death.”

“And yet plenty of old men find themselves

in similar misfortunes, and age

does not prevent them from crowing.”

“Have you come this early, Crito,

to tell me the ship has pulled into port,

on the arrival of which I am to die?”

The friend wrings his hands, is drawn

into the troubles of his mind.

He says they’ve seen the ship from Sounio,

and so tomorrow Socrates will die.

“If it pleases the gods,” he muses, “so be it.”

Once more Crito entreats him to escape,

to flee the city and be spared his fate.

But let him speak some darkness yet,

and let him make a case for how

the bud of a tender herb springs forth.


R. Charboneau

6 thoughts on “When Socrates Heard the Story of Job

  1. You know, despite being non-religious even I was as enchanted as Socrates listening to the story of Job and its parallels to the Greek’s fate. How dramatic and emotionally-charged his last days must have been. It’s something I hadn’t seriously pondered. The painting is beautiful too, I love Jacques-Louis David’s use of light and the disciples’ grief, unable to look at their mentor, knowing there is nothing they can do to impede his death. Well done, it’s a gem of a poem!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m not religious myself, but I do have a warm place in my heart for the story of job. And what I love even more is the idea of a story like that being passed on orally all those years, as a way of teaching and gaining knowledge about suffering and justice. It seemed right that Socrates should hear it.

      That’s one of my favorite paintings. Top five. I saw it on my very first trip to an art museum, and it’s very moving. Have you written about that one? If so, you must send me a link!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. No, I haven’t written anything about J.L. David. I tend to stick to modern art, but I’m trying to branch out… Most of the artworks before the mid 19th century were so Biblical or focused on mythology and highly repetitive in their subject matter, that I tend to tune them out. It’s also why I prefer the Dutch masters, they were keeping it real.

        Funnily enough, I was reading recently about the book of Job in a commentary on “Reptiles”, a lithograph print by M.C. Escher: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reptiles_(M._C._Escher)

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Haha, keeping it real. They do all seem to have a certain psychological aspect to their work. Especially someone like Escher. They live in their minds, while other painters, like the French, seem to live in their passions.

        Liked by 1 person

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