“A Serious Man” & Biblical Wisdom

I had a molar the size of a Volkswagen pulled last week.  Wanting to fully lean into the pain, I watched a few Coen Bros. films, including “A Serious Man,” a work of pure genius.

The first few times I saw the film, I was pretty convinced that it was a contemporary retelling of the Book of Job.  I’m not so sure of that now, but the parallels are striking.

Larry Gopnik’s life is coming apart.  He’s being harassed by the Columbia Record Company to pay for records he hasn’t ordered, his wife wants a divorce, his kids are a mess, and his off-kilter brother with an oozing cyst has just been arrested for very creepy behavior.

Larry is increasingly frustrated at his inability to get to the bottom of why things are going so badly when he hasn’t done anything.  At the same time, he’s very committed to the pretensions of polite society and hesitates to subject simplistic religious answers to thoroughgoing scrutiny.

These internally competing impulses come to a head in my favorite scene.

Larry finishes a lecture on the uncertainy principle with the uncharacteristically honest comment that “you can never really know what’s going on.”  As the class dismisses, he exclaims cynically, “but you will be responsible for it on the mid-term!”

He then conducts a fantastical conversation with Sy Ableman, who died earlier in the film, about whether Larry’s mechanisms for grasping the true character of reality are all that effective.

It’s a brilliant interchange, and there’s a sense in which the Coens press their vision of life more forcefully here than anywhere else.  Are there mechanisms available in this world to figure out the larger mysteries of life?

Here’s at least one place where the film resonates with the Book of Job.  True wisdom is all about responding well to life’s challenges rather than finding all the answers to life’s mysteries.  God rebukes Job’s “friends” for simplistically applying a kind of biblical logic to Job’s troubles, thinking they’ve got God and life all figured out.  In the same way, Larry encounters a series of explanations from religious authorities that are increasingly unsatisfying.

“A Serious Man” is a wonderful entrée into biblical wisdom, reminding us of our humble station and to resist the impulse to try to figure out what God is doing when good or bad things happen to us.

Ecclesiastes 5:2: “God is in heaven and you are on earth, so let your words be few.”

6 thoughts on ““A Serious Man” & Biblical Wisdom

  1. Marcus

    After reading this post I decided to watch the movie and I do think there is some resonance with the story of Job (though it’s hardly nice and neat), especially with the open-ended ending. If the movie were to continue you would expect him to blame his troubles on his wrongdoing and perhaps look backward and explain his previous trials that way.

    However, the movie seemed to be at pains to show that that line of thinking was wrong. The strongest biblical parallel is with David. Larry doesn’t have sex with his (sun)bathing neighbor whom he sees from his roof. He’s better than one of the Bible’s “good guys.” Sometimes you’re just cursed (I think there’s a sense in which we could say that of Job).

    1. timgombis

      Very interesting, Marcus. That’s true, but what’s interesting is that just prior to the storm arriving, Larry decides to accept the bribe from Clive to change the grade and then immediately receives the bad health news and the storm arrives. It just might be the case, then, that they’re not working in any singular figure. Again, what’s paramount for the Coens is their own worldview and they’re adapting stories they find in order to tell their own.

      1. Marcus

        Hi Tim, I hope you had a good Christmas.

        I agree that they are adapting stories to tell their own, both Job and David. The reason why I find the Job story to be important is that I think that the interpretive key to the movie is the very opening scene (the black and white one set, I believe, in Eastern Europe). I assume that that meeting of the older Jewish family and the devilish character is the explanation for Larry’s suffering. Either he’s just cursed in a parallel manner and he doesn’t know it, or perhaps those were his ancestors. If that’s the case I think it alters the way we watch the rest of the movie.

  2. Marcus

    I hadn’t seen that before. Thanks for sending it along, it’s an interesting take and I think that the movie is stressing perspective for sure. However, there are some things that I think are clearer than that review allows (for example his neighbors are racists – they just have a hierarchy and Jew is better than Asian in their view because they’re still white). I think that Larry’s nightmares show that he’s afraid that his troubles are caused (or future troubles will be caused) by having done wrong and that’s one approach to the problem of suffering that the movie is trying to distance itself from.

    1. timgombis

      I’m largely with you, Marcus, especially since that fits the larger project of the Coens’s. It’s the interpretation that fits best, but there are some nagging details with every interpretation of that film that resist any final interpretation.

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