Suffering Explained

About the Document
Among the early Near Eastern peoples were the Babylonians and the Hebrews. The Babylonian kingdom reached its height between 2000 and 1600 B.C.E., borrowing heavily (as all contemporary societies in this region did) from the Sumerians, who had dominated before them. The Babylonians became the ancient world's most accomplished mathematicians, and government scribes worked diligently to preserve earlier learning and scholarship. Conversely, the Hebrews developed little in the way of art, military achievement, or science, but created a monotheistic religion based on ethics and morality. Hebrew law was also a direct offshoot of their religion.

Despite the fact that the Babylonians were polytheists with a religion that placed much less emphasis on morality and ethical behavior, and the fact that the Hebrews were strict believers in one god, the assorted religious beliefs in the region influenced one another. No matter what the religious beliefs, the basic human concerns remain the same. Both of the following documents address the issue of human suffering. The first is a Babylonian tale, the "Poem of the Righteous Sufferer," written from the point of view of a worshiper. The poem is similar to an earlier Sumerian version, but dates from the high point of Babylonian influence. The second selection is the Old Testament story of Job, thought to have been written around 700 B.C.E. Each document attempts to confront the issue of human suffering in its own way.

The Document

From "Poem of the Righteous Sufferer"


My god has forsaken me and disappeared,
My goddess has failed me and keeps at a distance.
The benevolent angel who walked beside me has departed,
My protecting spirit has taken to flight, and is seeking someone else.
My strength is gone; my appearance has become gloomy;
My dignity has flown away, my protection made off. . . .
The king, the flesh of the gods, the sun of his peoples,
His heart is enraged with me, and cannot be appeased.
The courtiers plot hostile action against me,
They assemble themselves and give utterance to impious words. . . .
They combine against me in slander and lies.
My lordly mouth have they held as with reins,
So that I, whose lips used to prate, have become like a mute.
My sonorous shout is reduced to silence,
My lofty head is bowed down to the ground,
Dread has enfeebled my robust heart. . . .
If I walk the street, ears are pricked;
If I enter the palace, eyes blink.
My city frowns on me as an enemy;
Indeed my land is savage and hostile.
My friend has become foe,
My companion has become a wretch and a devil. . . .
As I turn round, it is terrible, it is terrible;
My ill luck has increased, and I do not find the right.
I called to my god, but he did not show his face,
I prayed to my goddess, but she did not raise her head.
The diviner with his inspection has not got to the root of the matter,
Nor has the dream priest with his libation elucidated my case.
I sought the favour of the zaqiqu-spirit, but he did not enlighten me;
And the incantation priest with his ritual did not appease the divine wrath against me.
What strange conditions everywhere!
When I look behind, there is persecution, trouble.


Like one who has not made libations to his god,
Nor invoked his goddess at table,
Does not engage in prostration, nor takes cognizance of bowing down;
From whose mouth supplication and prayer is lacking,
Who has done nothing on holy days, and despised sabbaths,
Who in his negligence has despised the gods' rites,
Has not taught his people reverence and worship,
But has eaten his food without invoking his god,
And abandoned his goddess by not bringing a flour offering,
Like one who has grown torpid and forgotten his lord,
Has frivolously sworn a solemn oath by his god, like such an one do I appear.
For myself, I gave attention to supplication and prayer:
To me prayer was discretion, sacrifice my rule.
The day for reverencing the god was a joy to my heart;
The day of the goddess's procession was profit and gain to me.
The king's prayer -- that was my joy,
And the accompanying music became a delight for me.
I instructed my land to keep the god's rites,
And provoked my people to value the goddess's name.
I made praise for the king like a god's,
And taught the populace reverence for the palace.
I wish I knew that these things were pleasing to one's god!


What is proper to oneself is an offence to one's god,
What in one's own heart seems despicable is proper to one's god.
Who knows the will of the gods in heaven?
Who understands the plans of the underworld gods?
Where have mortals learnt the way of a god?
He who was alive yesterday is dead today.
For a minute he was dejected, suddenly he is exuberant.
One moment people are singing in exaltation,
Another they groan like professional mourners.
Their condition changes like opening and shutting the legs.
When starving they become like corpses,
When replete they vie with the gods.
In prosperity they speak of scaling heaven,
Under adversity they complain of going down to hell.
I am appalled at these things; I do not understand their significance. . . .

The Lord took hold of me,
The Lord set me on my feet,
The Lord gave me life,
He rescued me from the pit,
He summoned me from destruction,
[. . .] he pulled me from the Hubur river,
[. . .] he took my hand. . . .
Marduk, he restored me. . . .
The Babylonians saw how Marduk restores to life,
And all quarters extolled his greatness: . . .
Mortals, as many as there are, give praise to Marduk!

"From The Book of Job"


Let the day perish wherein I was born, and the night in which it was said, There is a man child conceived. Let that day be darkness; let not God regard it from above, neither let the light shine upon it. . . .

Why died I not from the womb? why did I not give up the ghost when I came out of the belly? . . . For now should I have laid still and been quiet, I should have slept; then had I been at rest; There the wicked cease from troubling; and there the weary be at rest. . . .

Wherefore is light given to him that is in misery, and life unto the bitter in soul; Which long for death, but it cometh not; and dig for it more than for hid treasures; Which rejoice exceedingly, and are glad, when they can find the grave? Why is light given to a man whose way is hid, and whom God hath hedged in? . . .


My soul is weary of my life; I will leave my complaint upon myself; I will speak in the bitterness of my soul. . . .

If I be wicked, woe unto me; and if I be righteous, yet will I not lift up my head. I am full of confusion; therefore see thou mine affliction; For it increaseth. Thou huntest me as a fierce lion: and again thou showest thyself marvelous upon me. . . .

Are not my days few? cease then, and let me alone, that I may take comfort a little, Before I go whence I shall not return, even to the land of darkness and the shadow of death, without any order, and where the light is darkness. . . .

Man that is born of a woman is of few days, and full of trouble. He cometh forth like a flower, and is cut down: he fleeth also as a shadow, and continueth not. . . .

For there is hope of a tree, if it be cut down, that it will sprout again, and that the tender branch thereof will not cease. . . . But man dieth, and wasteth away: yea, man giveth up the ghost, and where is he? As the waters fail from the sea, and the flood decayeth and drieth up; So man lieth down, and riseth not: till the heavens be no more, they shall not awake, nor be raised out of their sleep.

If a man die, shall he live again? all the days of my appointed time will I wait, till my change come. . . . The waters wear the stones: thou washest away the things which grow out of the dust of the earth; and thou destroyest the hope of man.


Even today is my complaint bitter: my stroke is heavier than my groaning. Oh that I knew where I might find him! that I might come even to his seat! I would order my cause before him, and fill my mouth with my arguments. . . .

Behold, I go forward, but he is not there; and backward, but I cannot perceive him: On the left hand, where he doth work, but I cannot behold him: he hideth on the right hand, that I cannot see him. . . .

Why, seeing times are not hidden from the Almighty, do they that know him not see his days? Some remove the landmarks; they violently take away flocks, and feed thereof. They drive away the ass of the fatherless, they take the widow's ox for a pledge. They turn the needy out of the way: the poor of the earth hide themselves together. . . .

Men groan from out of the city, and the soul of the wounded crieth out: yet God layeth not folly to them. They are of those that rebel against the light; they know not the ways thereof, nor abide in the paths thereof. . . . And if it be not so now, who will make me a liar, and make my speech nothing worth? . . .


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 hath stretched the line upon it? Whereupon are the foundations thereof fastened? or who laid the corner stone thereof; when the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy? . . .

Hast thou entered into the springs of the sea? or hast thou walked in the search of the depth? Have the gates of death been opened unto thee? or hast thou seen the doors of the shadow of death? Hast thou perceived the breadth of the earth? declare if thou knowest it all. . . .

Shall he that contendeth with the Almighty instruct him? he that reproveth God, let him answer it. . . .


Then Job answered the Lord, and said, I know thou canst do every thing, and that no thought can be hidden from thee. Who is he that hideth counsel without knowledge? therefore have I uttered that I understood not; things too wonderful for me, which I knew not. . . . I have heard of thee by the hearing of the ear; but now mine eye seeth thee; Wherefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes. . . . So the Lord blessed the latter end of Job more than his beginning: for he had fourteen thousand sheep, and six thousand camels, and a thousand yoke of oxen, and a thousand she asses. He had also seven sons and three daughters. . . . And in all the land were no women found so fair as the daughters of Job: and their father gave them inheritance among their brethren. After this lived Job a hundred and forty years, and saw his sons, and his sons' sons, even four generations. So Job died, being old and full of days.

Source: Nels Bailkey, ed., Readings in Ancient History: From Gilgamesh to Diocletion (Lexington, MA: D.C. Heath and Company, 1976), pp. 21-23, 97-98.



The patron god of Babylon

Analysis Questions

  1. Does Marduk eventually help the worshiper in the "Poem of the Righteous Sufferer"?
  2. Is Job finally helped by God?
  3. List some similarities between the two selections.
  4. Why do you think these two selections are so similar?
  5. Would you say that the worshiper in the first selection is pious and dedicated to his religion?

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