Job as God's angry man

THE FIRST DISSIDENT: THE BOOK OF JOB IN TODAY'S POLITICS. By William Safire. 304 pages. Illustrated. Random House. $23.

JAMES B. Stockdale, the ex-prisoner of war who was Ross Perot's running mate, was quoted during the campaign as saying that he used to teach the biblical Book of Job to his students at the Naval War College. He summed up its message thusly: "You have to be a man, as Job was asked to be a man by his Lord, and stand up like a man when you are faced with undeserved hardship."


After seven years in a Hanoi prison, Mr. Stockdale certainly knows about undeserved hardship, but William Safire must have winced when he read that encapsulation of Job.

Mr. Safire strenuously objects to the standard view of Job as a nobly suffering, essentially passive figure onto whose name the adjective "patient" has been grafted like a flying buttress. His Job is an angry man whose most notable act was his initial daring direct questioning of God, not his later apology and submission to God's will.


Although Mr. Safire doesn't mention Mr. Stockdale, he does at one point explicitly reject the idea that all prisoners and hostages have Job-like qualities; for him, only people "in jail for political beliefs" qualify.

The Book of Job has obviously been on Mr. Safire's mind for a long time, nagging to be written about in the way that unlikely subjects often do for writers. He has the kind of intense, almost obsessive familiarity with it that can only have come from years of repeated readings, and he has also kept up with the scholarly literature on Job.

What entrances Mr. Safire about the book is partly the beauty of the writing and partly the theme, which, involving as it does great questions about the exercise of power, would appear to be directly relevant to the higher concerns of a New York Times political columnist.

Mr. Safire proposes to accomplish two missions here: first, to make an airtight case that Job was a rebel engaged in an unprecedented challenge of God, not a receptacle of misfortune; and second, to demonstrate that the Book of Job has echoed through American culture and history and has specific political applicability today. Mission 1 is successful; Mission 2, less so.

To demonstrate the length of the Book of Job's shadow, Mr. Safire has assembled a distinguished list of latter-day fans, ranging from Martin Luther and John Calvin to William Blake and Soren Kierkegaard. He makes an intriguing case that our greatest president, Lincoln, and our great novel, "Moby Dick," repeatedly -- though obliquely -- alluded to Job.

When Mr. Safire turns to the difficult task of projecting the Book of Job into the present, he is much less intellectually formidable. His central message, which is that man will never get perfect justice from God and so ought always to be in respectful conflict with him and with other authorities, doesn't seem to have risen inexorably from his reading of the Book of Job, but rather to be something he already believed and sought biblical support for.

In his conclusion Mr. Safire admits, with disarming candor, that this book turned out differently from what he had intended: In effect, he thought he would be completely on Job's side but found himself surprisingly sympathetic to God. Perhaps the reason is that Washington is fundamentally about working things out, rather than fiery dissent; it's no accident that nearly all of Mr. Safire's contemporary nominees for Job status are rebels against foreign dictatorships. It might have been more difficult than it appeared to tease out lessons about a democracy from a story about the most complete denial of due process of all time.

Nicholas Lemann is a national correspondent for The Atlantic.