Terrence Malick’s 2011 film “The Tree of Life” is largely a reflection on the Book of Job. The film begins with this quotation:
“Where were you when I laid the foundations of the Earth?… When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?” ~ Job 38:4
In the face of suffering, such as the story of Job recounts, one is left but to question God,
God’s response [above] seems enigmatic. But a meditation on our smallness in space and time can be definitive.
The enormous hyperbole of time and space, when acknowledged, removes all pretensions of any other identity other than our identity in God. If not, we are cosmically nothing. Indeed, without God, our questions, our suffering mean nothing. Job, stripped of all identity, had a few choices. He could turn from God to ‘nature and cosmic solitude‘ or towards God to earn favour by ritual and rite. Instead, he chose a third path, he asked God personally for a legal arbitration. He asked for grace.
So why does Malick in his film, draw an association with the motif of “The Tree of Life“? It is Genesis 1-2, not the Book of Job, which tells us of the separation between humanity and God and the loss of the Tree of Life. The creation narrative tells of how humanity, by turning away from relationship with God, chose the way of nature, and so became subject to the created order and its perils. Humans become mortal.
Forever, since then humanity has searched for the “Tree of Life,” the power source of eternal being. The story of Job connects to this narrative by posing the the temptation presented by Job’s friends to reach out for the Tree of Life.
“Pray! Pay penance and be restored.”
Earn favour, gain life.
Job refuses his wife’s urging to “curse God and die”. He chooses the third path. He chooses to address God directly. The Book of Job then poses a few mysteries. Firstly, it examines how mysteriously, God’s gift to humanity is suffering. Suffering pulled Job from his relationships to his wealth, his health and even his loved ones. It cut through his ties and relationships to the natural world leaving him boldly facing God and asking for grace. Suffering reoriented him to his truest relationship.
The second mystery, is that Job looked past the wisdom of his friends and appealed personally to God for grace. He resisted the temptation to reach for the “Tree of Life” to find life, but in doing so, evade the person who gives life – God.
The grace that Job looked to, the grace he could not see fully, was for God to stand on earth, a redeemer, and speak for humanity, to arbitrate for us, we who are unable to earn access to life eternal. What Job rejects is the way of nature or “nihilism” and the way of “wisdom” but turns instead, with a personal appeal to God. In the midst of Job’s suffering, he turns to face God and he asks for God to personally intervene. God honours his request, standing on the earth as a redeemer for a humanity adrift. This person-God, stands as a suffering servant, and is hung on a tree, the Tree of Life. It is only in this act of grace, that restores humanity to relationship with God, and to life eternal.