Monday, June 27, 2011

The Book of Job and Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life

Tree of Life begins with a quote from the Book of Job: “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the Earth...When the morning stars sang together?” It’s God speaking to Job at the end of the story after God has allowed Satan to test Job’s faithfulness. Satan begins by destroying all of Job’s many possessions and children. After this first assault, Job reacts faithfully—if mechanically—and says, “Naked came I out of my mother's womb, and naked shall I return thither: the LORD gave, and the LORD hath taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD.” So Job does not curse God, and Satan loses the first round. With God’s permission, Satan then curses Job with a terrible skin disease, Job’s wife tells him to “curse God and die,” and Job’s friends arrive. Instead of comforting Job, Bildad, Zophar, and Eliphaz lecture their friend and tell him to repent, for he must have done something wrong, something to really anger God. After all, they believe, we are only punished when we do evil. God rules a just and orderly universe.

William Blake, Book of Job

Most of the Book of Job consists of a series of dialogues between Job and his friends. Job defends himself vehemently, even arrogantly. Indeed, the cliché about Job being patient is clearly not true. As early as Chapter 3, he curses the day of his birth and wishes he was dead. Later he insults his friends, questions God, challenges God to face him in a legal battle, and whines—probably justifiably—about once being respected where now people spit at him and sings songs about how pathetic he is (I’m not making this up.). When God finally appears in Chapter 38, he arrives in the form of a whirlwind, probably a painful reminder to Job that God is the powerful force that took his family away. Instead of answering Job’s question (why is this happening to me?), God asks Job a series of questions like the one above. The point of the questions is obviously to show Job that he is small and insignificant when compared with God. Job is nothing, so he repents in “dust and ashes” to show his nothingness and to remind us where we will all someday return. For this, Job gets a new wife and family and possessions and lives a really long time. One hundred and forty years, to be exact.
So, why does Malick begin his film with the Book of Job quote? I think part of the answer has to do with themes both works share. Both deal with a seemingly random and meaningless tragedy, both explore the nature of human suffering, both show the mysteries of the universe and the decidedly human quest to find answers to life’s questions, and finally, both highlight the power of God and, conversely, the smallness and insignificance of humankind. Now, I don’t really think Malick believes in God, per say, for him God is nature, the universe itself. He’s clearly a neo-Romantic influenced by Wordsworth, who also found God in nature—at least in his early works like “Tintern Abbey.” But for Malick the universe has both positive and negative connotations: it is paradoxically beautiful and ugly, peaceful and violent, serene and frenzied, rejuvenating and destructive—or any number of dichotomies. The Sean Penn character is also a kind of Job figure, a man searching for justice in what seems to be an unjust world. Possibly one interpretation of Jack’s work as an architect is that, like Job, Jack is also trying to reach the heavens and confront God. Maybe Jack creates buildings and structures that remove him further away from God (nature) because he does not want to be close to the force that killed his brother. Maybe the buildings are emblems of Jack’s attempt to create order in a chaotic world.

One of many striking images from Tree of Life.

Neither Job nor Jack gets his answer to the question of why (this isn’t ever directly asked in Tree of Life, but it is implied). But I think the answer is pretty clear: for no reason at all. Terrible things happen to good people, and auspicious things happen to bad people. There is no justice. What Jack might learn is what fundamentally makes us human. We are weighed down with suffering, tragedy, guilt, and shame.  But we shoulder these burdens and move on. That’s the miracle. Think about Oedipus. He doesn’t kill himself as most people would expect. After he discovers that the prophecy has already been fulfilled despite his futile attempts to circumvent fate, he stabs himself in the eyes and becomes a wanderer. I’ve always thought he does this to show the gods that they can’t control everything. We can determine our final ends, not the gods. So Oedipus, Job, and Tree of Life are all saying that we are nothing next to God, but there is a kind of nobility in our insignificant mortality. We experience something the gods cannot. We live.


  1. Malick is Catholic and I think he believes in God, if not organized religion. Also, Wordsworth was not the one who pioneered finding God in nature. That honor goes to David:

    Psalm 19

    For the director of music. A psalm of David.
    1 The heavens declare the glory of God;
    the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
    2 Day after day they pour forth speech;
    night after night they reveal knowledge.
    3 They have no speech, they use no words;
    no sound is heard from them.
    4 Yet their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world.

  2. But David meant something other than what early Wordsworth believed--about God anyway. Also, Isn't Akhenaton's Hymn to Aton much older that the Psalms? I believe Hymn to Aton was composed somewhere around 1300 BC.

  3. For a retelling of the biblical Job story, I much prefer Archibald Macleish's drama "JB". I suppose one could also view the Sean Penn's occupation of building skyscrapers as a metaphorical Tower of Babel in that he's seeking to construct both a way to get closer to God and meaning from a life that seemingly is often devoid of meaning. Still, I just didn't care much for Malick's latest film.

  4. Nobility in our mortality? In human suffering? Sounds like Camus' absurd hero, Sisyphus. Job hardly seems to view what happened to him or his own reaction to it as noble or heroic.

  5. That's because Job doesn't have the knowledge that the audience has. The audience knows how cruel and unfair his situation is. True, Job whines about it quite a bit, but can you blame him? The guy lost everything and was stricken with a terrible skin disease. Job may not see himself as a noble hero, but I think the Job author does.