The 1982 science-fiction classic Blade Runner ends not in fiery catharsis, but in a moment of haunting reflection. At the film’s climax, Los Angeles bounty hunter Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) is seconds away from recapturing and killing the rogue “replicant”—artificial humanoid—Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer). With success in sight at last, Deckard abruptly stumbles on a slick urban rooftop and finds himself mere seconds from plunging to his death.
And then, unexpectedly, it is Batty who rescues Deckard, hoisting him back up as nighttime darkness closes in around them and Batty’s brief technological lifespan draws to its end. The hour grows late, but Batty still finds the strength for one last meditation: “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.” And with that, Batty perishes.
The monologue is eerie and otherworldly, and director Ridley Scott mercifully resists any temptation to explain further. Batty’s final statement remains an iconic moment of sci-fi cinema to this day. But beyond that, Batty’s words have always struck me as an uncanny echo of a far older speech—one not uttered atop a shadowy building of the far future, but out of the heart of a desert whirlwind.
Canst thou bind the sweet influences of Pleiades, or loose the bands of Orion?
Canst thou bring forth Mazzaroth in his season? or canst thou guide Arcturus with his sons? Knowest thou the ordinances of heaven? canst thou set the dominion thereof in the earth?
Job 38:31–33 (KJV)
2020 was a profoundly dark year. Hundreds of thousands lie dead of a seemingly uncontrollable disease, and totalizing social transformations tear at the seams of an already well-worn social fabric. In the face of tragedy on this scale, the Book of Job, which may constitute the Bible’s lengthiest engagement with the question of suffering, assumes a fierce and renewed poignancy. Where does one look for hope in the midst of unfathomable despair?
The Book of Job comes nearest to offering an “answer” when the sorrowful musings of Job and his friends are finally interrupted by the Lord’s thundering self-disclosure:
Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind, and said,
Who is this that darkeneth counsel by words without knowledge?
Gird up now thy loins like a man; for I will demand of thee, and answer thou me.
Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? declare, if thou hast understanding.
Who hath laid the measures thereof if thou knowest? or who laid the corner stone thereof;
When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?
Job 38:1–7 (KJV)
The Lord’s own monologue does not begin with an attempt at explanation or self-justification, but a self-identification in functional terms. He who addresses Job out of the whirlwind is no cosmological bit player, but the wellspring and craftsman of all things. And so the Lord goes on to probe the limitations of Job’s knowledge of the depths of the divine given-ness of things.
How—or whether—this answers Job’s complaints is far from obvious. Some readers have seen, in this climactic theophany that contains the book’s most mesmerizing passages, simply a manifestation of arbitrary divine power that answers to nothing but itself. As Carl Jung put it in his own volume Answer to Job, in His reply to the stricken Job, “God does not want to be just; he merely flaunts might over right.”
Crucially, Jung’s critique of the Lord’s actions in the Job story does not stop there. For Jung, the story of Job discloses that the Lord cannot be spoken of as summum bonum, the highest good, but rather stands “beyond good and evil”: any properly transcendent unity is a unity that contains evil, darkness, and hatred within itself. Or, as the Persian poet Rumi put it rather more memorably, “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.” In Jungian psychoanalytical terms, God has a shadow side. How else could God “trampl[e] on human life and happiness without regard”?
This disclosure of the divine shadow, Jung contends, is the esoteric truth of the Job story—which Job himself, in the midst of suffering the unwarranted wrath of God, comes at last to apprehend. “Without Yahweh’s knowledge and contrary to his intentions, the tormented though guiltless Job had secretly been lifted up to a superior knowledge of God which God himself did not possess.” The story of Job, for Jung, is a story of the Lord’s coming to terms with his own moral deficiency compared to Job himself.
But must one follow Jung’s reading? After all, it would appear that the Lord never authorizes or deputizes the Accuser to strike at Job in the first place. Rather, in the early pages of Job, the Lord plainly refuses the Accuser’s demand that the Lord “put forth thine hand now, and touch all that he hath,” including “[Job’s] bone and his flesh.” Instead, the Lord merely states to the Accuser what seems to be an already-existent truth—that “all that he hath is in thy power” and that “he is in thine hand.” Descriptively speaking, the Accuser certainly does have power to cause harm—but what he does, he does with no divine mandate.
Perhaps it is the case that a free creation, being capable of containing creatures genuinely arrested by the presence of the beautiful within the mundane, always carries within it the logical possibility of tragedy. And so in turn, perhaps the opening chapters of Job do not recount a kind of cosmic wager, as Jung posits, but rather an effort by the Accuser to bait the Lord into acting against His nature. That effort fails, and so too in the end does the Accuser’s effort to turn Job from the Lord by raining down suffering upon his head.
Instead, at the moment of greatest peril, the Lord calls Job to hearken back to what, at some level, he has always known. The voice from the whirlwind is a divine reminder that this is the wonder of creation as such, the miracle that you inhabit every second of every day. And this reminder comes coupled with the disclosure that this silently sustained gift is always, at its core, oriented toward the ultimate good of creatures.
Who hath divided a watercourse for the overflowing of waters, or a way for the lightning of thunder;
To cause it to rain on the earth, where no man is; on the wilderness, wherein there is no man;
To satisfy the desolate and waste ground; and to cause the bud of the tender herb to spring forth?
Hath the rain a father? or who hath begotten the drops of dew?
Job 38:25–28 (KJV)
As Robert Alter, a Hebrew Bible scholar and translator, puts it, Job provides “a comprehensive overview of the nature of reality that exposes the limits of Job’s human perspective, anchored as it is in the restricted compass of human knowledge and the inevitable egoism of suffering.” From a cosmos-spanning perspective, grace flickers forth even in the world’s darkest and most remote places—even, maybe, off the shoulder of Orion and on the edge of the Tannhäuser Gate. And this grace, in the end, is worth the suffering that goes along with finite life.
In the final moments of Blade Runner, Batty does not turn on Deckard in rage, accusing his human creators of persecuting him or consigning him to an all-too-short lifespan. He does not, as it were, “curse God, and die.” Quite the opposite: Batty’s final words are shot through with simply sadness that the possibility of experiencing further awe is coming to a close. Indeed, the monologue is a kind of argument for Batty’s own full humanity: I, like you, have seen the beauty of creation. And so I, like you, mourn when my existence draws to a close. Batty’s memories may be lost in the end, but that does not mean his life was not worth living; on the contrary, the possibility of experiencing wonder—even in the face of impending tragedy—was what made life precious in the first place. One might even say, perhaps, that Batty has glimpsed the edge of what the Lord discloses to Job in the whirlwind: the world shot through with glory. It is, as Jean-Luc Marion might say, a “saturated phenomenon” that resists capture in ordinary concepts.
Job’s own story goes further, culminating in the revelation that the gift of creation is also a gift that culminates in recreation. We read that “the Lord turned the captivity of Job, when he prayed for his friends: also the Lord gave Job twice as much as he had before” (Job 42:10 KJV). The Lord’s actions, that is to say, are asymmetric: he does not work those things that are evil, but does work those things that are good. Evil enters by way of the Accuser, but where the healing of harms is concerned, the Lord proactively blesses. And so, contra Jung, the Lord may well and truly be called the summum bonum, for it is His nature as creator that gives rise to the utterly unmerited gift of restoration. The light that gives and illuminates creation is the same light that is also, in the end, transforming creation.
It is that light which allows Job—and Batty—to understand the fundamental goodness of being-in-the-world, the unique Being of humans Martin Heidegger calls Dasein, even in the midst of profound tragedy. Though it may be almost impossible to glimpse that light when the darkness rushes in on all sides, or to conceive the beauty of being here at all, a sternly challenging voice nonetheless still issues forth from the whirlwind: Who is this that darkeneth counsel by words without knowledge?
Or, as Batty might put it, there are still things to see that you people wouldn’t believe.
Featured image: Photo by Radvilas Seputis on Unsplash
John Ehrett is an attorney and writer in Washington, D.C. He is a graduate of Yale Law School and Patrick Henry College.