Job 42.13

Oklahoma tornado, 3 May 1999. Photo by Daphne Zaras, VORTEX-99, National Severe Storms Laboratory, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Click on photo for further info.

I mentioned this poem last week, if not by name.

Job 42.13

She also heard the voice — the whirlwind’s bellow,
the blast of noise and air that collapsed my knees.
Proud like a prince I stood to accuse the Unnameable,
but the wind threw me down to lie again in dust.
It pushed her, and she lay fallen beside me.

The storm rumbled and thundered.  The wind tore at my clothing
and took my breath.  I could not stand or speak,
and she had not the breath to make a curse.
Here was the justice of the Unnameable!
We would be smitten by that self-same howling wind
that had poured from the desert like a band of outlaws
to destroy my sons and murder my daughters.

And then was stillness, as death, a steep silence.
And look! we raised our eyes to the maelstrom’s clouded throat,
dizzied.  Spinning vapors formed and broke away and blew;
lightning flashed in the turbulent dark belly of the wind.
I was dust to be blown by that wind  but was not blown.
I stood under the very eye of the Unnameable.  And within me grew a stillness.

There are tears now in her eyes as she watches them play —
yes, seven sons, three daughters — as before.
I rejoice in them, but also grieve for our windlost children —
the only love I gave them was to make burnt offerings
against sins I feared lay hidden in their unknown hearts.

But listen! they laugh! she laughs!  And I laugh, too.

[January 26, 1995]

About this poem

In the biblical book of Job, Job, a good an righteous man, loses almost everything, including all his (adult) children who are killed by a whirlwind from the desert. The main body of the book is a masterful poem in which Job’s “comforters” insist he must have committed a grave sin for such evil to befall him — an accusation he denies.  Bad things do, after all, happen to good people, regardless of the conventional wisdom his “friends” assert. Job confronts, & is confronted by, the unnameable god itself in the form of the Voice from the Whirlwind, who ultimately vindicates him and returns to him (and his wife) all that had been lost — including children in the same numbers as before: “He also had seven sons and three daughters” (Job 42.13 KJV).

With this poem I wanted to counter the notion that his new children were merely “replacement units” for those children he & his wife had lost.

Midway through writing the poem, searching for language to describe his experience, I consulted a discarded textbook I had scavenged, Essentials of Meteorology, & there came across the account of a Kansas farmer named Will Keller who had seen the inside of a tornado.  His account was taken down by Alonzo A. Justice of the Weather Bureau Office (now the National Weather Service) in Dodge City, Kansas:

On the afternoon of June 22, 1928, I was out in my field with my family looking over the ruins of our wheat crop which had just been completely destroyed by a hailstorm. I noticed an umbrella-shaped cloud in the west and southwest and from its appearance suspected that there was a tornado in it. The air had that peculiar oppressiveness which nearly always precedes a tornado.

I saw at once that my suspicions were correct, for hanging from the greenish-black base of the cloud were three tornadoes.  One was perilously near and apparently heading for my place. I lost no time hurrying my family to our cyclone cellar. The family had entered the cellar and I was in the doorway just about to enter and close the door when I decided to take a last look at the approaching twister. I have seen a number of these, so I did not lose my head, although the approaching tornado was an impressive sight. The surrounding country is level and there was nothing to obstruct the view. There was little or no rain falling from the cloud. Two of the tornadoes were some distance away and looked like great ropes dangling from the parent cloud, but the one nearest was shaped more like a funnel, with ragged clouds surrounding it. It appeared much larger and more energetic than the others and occupied the central position of the cloud, with a massive cumulus dome being directly over it.

Steadily the tornado came on, the end gradually rising above the ground. I probably stood there only a few seconds, but was so impressed with the sight that it seemed like a long time. At last the great shaggy end of the funnel hung directly overhead.  Everything was as still as death. There was a strong, gassy odor and it seemed as though I could not breathe. There was a screaming, hissing sound coming directly from the end of the funnel. I looked up and, to my astonishment I saw right into the heart of the tornado. There was a circular spinning in the center of the tornado, about 50 to 100 feet in diameter, which extended straight up for a distance of at least one-half mile, as best I could judge under the circumstances. The walls of this opening were rotating clouds and the whole was brilliantly lighted with constant flashes of lightning which zigzagged from side to side. Had it not been for the lightning I could not have seen the opening, or any distance into it.

Around the lower rim of the great vortex, small tornadoes were constantly forming and breaking away. These looked like tails as they writhed their way around the end of the funnel. It was these that made the hissing sound. I noticed that the direction of rotation of the great whirl was counterclockwise, but some of the smaller tornadoes rotated clockwise. The opening was entirely hollow, except for something I could not exactly make out — perhaps a detached wind cloud — that kept moving up and down. The tornado was not traveling at a great speed so I had plenty of time to get a good view of the whole thing, inside and out.

Will Keller
Kansas farmer

Will Keller’s account became a major source for the poem.

I posted a copy of the first draft to a discussion list I was on.  One listmember gave me this feedback:

I really like this because it deals with something I keep running across when I teach the Book of Job in one of my humanities classes — Mrs. Job loses all HER property and children too, and ALSO has to put up with Job kvetching all the time, and furthermore has to make coffee for his no-good friends every day, and she doesn’t even get a book named after her.  All she gets, in fact, depending on which of the rabbinic legends about her you believe, is the chance to have ten MORE children just when she probably figured she could be through with all that, or a premature death from “bitterness”, as the rabbis say.  So thank you very much for this poem.  I would appreciate your permission to use it in class.

I couldn’t have been happier. (And I said yes.)

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