The Book of Job might be the most difficult and unsettling in all of the Bible. It doesn’t contain the angry God or violent wars of conquest of Judea that we find in parts of the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible. Nor does it have the difficult, sensuous imagery of the Song of Songs. What makes the story of Job both so generative and so vexing is that terrible things happen to Job even though he is “blameless and upright.” Hence, he is almost always referred to in Armenian as “Job the Righteous,” Յոբ Արդար/Hop Artar. This disconnect leads to the question of theodicy, the theological question about how evil exists when God is good, and the perennial question of “why bad things happen to good people.”
Most of us are probably familiar with the outlines of the story of Job the Righteous: Satan, talking with God, insists that Job’s righteousness is due simply to the success of life. Anyone, Satan suggests, who has been blessed with good things will praise God. Take those away, Satan says to God, and Job will “curse you to your face.” A series of calamities befalls Job, who nonetheless refuses to blame God, saying, “Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?” Most of the Book of Job consists of speeches by three of Job’s friends, Elpihaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite. They try to explain Job’s suffering through Jewish theological thinking of the day. Job responds, never cursing God, but nonetheless expressing an amount of self-righteousness, essentially suggesting that God must have something wrong. Another of Job’s companions, Elihu, offers a rebuke not only to the thinking of Job’s three friends, but to Job’s self-righteousness. Beginning from Chapter 38, God responds directly to Job, poetically asserting that He is the source of justice and righteousness, and that God’s will is often beyond the ken of humans. Ultimately, God restores all of Job’s belongings.
Many elements in the story are confusing: while apocryphal literature has dramatic encounters between Satan and God, the beginning of the Book of Job is rather surprising among canonical books: “One day the heavenly beings came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came among them.” Yet beyond these strange narrative devices and the disturbing scenes where at first glance God appears to cause Job to suffer simply to win a bet with Satan, it is the final response of God that is most important and most difficult theologically. “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” God asks Job at the beginning of Chapter 38. This response is similar to the one given Moses from the burning bush: “I AM WHO I AM.” God and His will are ultimately ineffable, beyond full human comprehension. The Book of Job seems to suggest that the proper human comportment to God is a kind of humble awe and acceptance of the will of God.
Luckily we are in good company, as the interpretation or exegesis of the Book of Job has vexed writers—Armenian and otherwise—for millennia. Armenian theologians have been drawn to the Book of Job, often focusing on the final section where God responds to Job. Some of the greatest Armenian thinkers have been exegetes of the Book of Job. The Eastern Diocese’s own Arpi Nakashian is currently working on a dissertation exploring some of these Armenian responses. Armenian exegetical commentaries on the Book of Job have been penned by Eghishe, Gregory of Narek, and Hamam, among other luminaries. Like other Jewish and Christian thinkers, Armenians find in the Book of Job a productive source of thinking about ethics, the field of inquiry related to right conduct.
|The Old Testament in Light of the Ancient East||Mentioned in reference to prophets last week, this book, based on archaeological evidence, offers clues to the kind of world in which Job lived: he was a successful agriculturalist in the ancient Near East!|
|Adamgirk||“The Adam Book” of Arakel of Siunik, a poetic expansion of the tales of the creation and fall in the Book of Genesis has been called “the Armenian Paradise Lost.” Other than the Book of Genesis, the Book of Job is one of the only places in the Bible where God and Satan speak directly (and even in Genesis God speaks with “the serpent”).|
|Matenagirkʿ Hayotsʿ||This is an invaluable resource published by The Great House of Cilicia in Antelias. The multi-volume work contains hundreds of classical Armenian texts, some difficult to find published elsewhere. Eghishe, Gregory of Narek, and Hamam’s Commentaries on the Book of Job can all be found here. In Classical Armenian.|
Ethics, at its core, is about the question of how to live our lives. As a philosophical inquiry, some of the most important names in the history of philosophy have tackled the problem. Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, with its definition of virtue as the mean between two excesses, was the first text in the Western canon explicitly to name ethics as a separate field of inquiry. Other ancient traditions also produced important reflections on ethics, though the fusion of classical thinking with Christianity—a not uncontroversial exercise defended in different ways by thinkers like Origen and Gregory Nazianzus—meant that Aristotle and Plato held pride of place in much subsequent Western thinking. Many Aristotelean texts were translated into Armenian, although the Nicomachean Ethics was not part of this flurry of translation and did not form a central part of Armenian learning or the Armenian monastic curriculum. His On Virtues and Vices was translated, though this work on ethics is considered by many later scholars not to be an actual work by Aristotle. Rather, it was Aristotle’s works on logic and David the Invincible Philosopher’s commentaries on those works of Aristotle which were the most important to Armenian thinkers.
While classical Aristotelean ethics might not have taken hold as strongly in Armenia as it did elsewhere, Armenian vartabeds and scholars certainly thought about ethical questions. Ethics is already a highly practical subject. Since it is concerned with the way we should live our lives, any reflection on this question could be considered an ethical inquiry. From that perspective, the vast corpus of Armenian sermons, catechisms such as The Teaching of St. Gregory, and exegetical works on the Gospels could all be considered foundational sources for Armenian Orthodox Christian ethics. Commentaries on the Book of Job, with its deep ethical considerations, certainly form an integral part of this corpus.
Explicit grappling with the field of ethics is more recent. That is to say, Armenian writers who understand themselves to be contributing to a delineated field of inquiry called “ethics” is a much more recent phenomenon. Foremost among not only Armenian thinkers, but Orthodox theologians broadly, is Dr. Vigen Guroian. Not only does Dr. Guroian explicitly grapple with the philosophical and theological field of ethics from an Orthodox Christian perspective, he does so with an eye to how we should act in today’s world. He recognizes that contemporary American life presents ethical questions for the professed Christian that might not have been the same for a medieval Armenian in a monastery. Of course, these medieval, ancient, and Biblical sources—like the Book of Job—are integral to Dr. Guroian’s work and to any attempt to think about ethical Christian living today. As with any good theology, the sources from the living tradition should inform the unique conundrums we face in our current lives. For ethics, the question of wrestling with how we are to live, this encounter between Biblical sources and contemporary living is particularly pronounced. In the end, while the specifics of our lives might look quite different, the questions vexing Job and his companions are still very much with us!
|K’nnut’iwnk’ grots’ Dawt’i Anyaght’i kam T’argmanut’eants’ Aristotēli||From the pen of one of the great early Armenian studies scholars of the modern era, Frederick Conybeare, a study of the translations and commentaries of Aristotle’s works by David the Invincible Philosopher. Translated into Armenian. Conybeare also prepared published versions of the Armenian translations of Aristotle, including On Virtues and Vices.|
|Baroyagitut‘iwn||Collected writings of Patriarch of Jerusalem Eghishe Tourian, under the title of Ethics. The Armenian title derives from the word that shares roots with “virtue” and virtuous. Many of the essays fall into the field of ethics. In Armenian.|
|The Orthodox Reality: Culture, Theology, and Ethics in the Modern World||The most recent book by the prominent Armenian and Orthodox theologian Vigen Guroian. Ethics and the specificity of Orthodox Christian ethics has been a central concern of Dr. Guroian’s work. This new book tackles questions of how to live an ethical life as an Orthodox Christian in the contemporary world.|
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