This calendar year, I’m reading through the Bible and taking informal notes on the readings. Since we so often read verses and passages of the Bible without appreciating context, I’m especially focusing on the overall narrative and connections among passages.
This week I’ve been studying Job. I’ve almost dreaded revisiting Job, because it’s such a heavy, challenging book. Once I led a church Bible study group on Job, and we had a hard time getting through it!
As the Jewish Study Bible commentators point out, “the book makes three main points, which are interrelated. The first, most obvious point is that human suffering is not necessarily deserved… This point is one that Job argues most forcibly against his friends. Those friends, who are concerned to safeguard the goodness of the Lord (seen as the cause of all things, good or bad), argue the contrary view… This lead to the second point. The claim that all suffering is deserved will inevitably persuade those who hold that view to falsify either the character of the sufferer or the character of God. Thus, Job’s friends argue that Job is a sinner, deserving of his punishment, while Job claims that the Lord has acted unfairly and is indifferent to human suffering. The third point, however, is the most theologically difficult and gives the good its sense of profundity and at the same time its inconclusive conclusion: there is no way of understanding the meaning of suffering. That is, in the Lord’s argument, the reasons for suffering—-if there are any—-are simply beyond human comprehension” (pp. 1499-1500).
Job believes in God and has always sought to lead a righteous life. But he suffers horribly—out of proportion to any sins he committed. Because he believes in God, the punishment (or the abandonment) of God is another source of terrible pain to him. His friends Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar come to help him, but they recite traditional theologies about suffering that we still hear from well-intended folk: God is not unjust, God may send suffering in order to discipline us, God does punish sin and so Job must’ve sinned but he just can’t admit it (or he’s lying about some hidden sin).
Job is not only suffering: he’s angry at God. The words of his friends make him all the more angry. Job doesn’t understand why God has sent these sufferings (or allowed these sufferings), and God won’t provide him with an answer. Job repeatedly wishes and demands that God respond to his pain.
The book invites all kinds of questions:
* Recalling the compassionate omniscience of God in Psalm 139, we wonder God allows Satan to mess with him. The idea of God sending Satan to destroy a good person is, needless to say, troubling.
* Why does God on occasion go silent? It's a question in Job, but also in the Bible and throughout history. Where was God when the Holocaust was happening? When the Israelites were 400 years in Egyptian slavery? When our world today has over 60 million refugees? When some other horror (take your pick) is happening? When Job was imploring God for a response?
* Does God want us to be angry at him, full of questions when we suffer, as Job was—-especially since God says to his friends, “you have not spoken the truth about me, as my servant Job has” (42:7)?
* What happens to Satan at the end of the story? It’s well known that Satan in Job is not the “satanic” force of the New Testament but a (no pun intended) devil’s advocate with God. In Job, he is a character in the prologue but does not appear thereafter.
* Since we affirm that God is close to and compassionate toward people in their suffering (see the Beatitudes, for instance), why isn't God a little kinder to Job when God does respond (chapters 38-41). God talks about the many and vast wonders of creation and rhetorically asks if Job can make and do all the things God can accomplish. Job wasn't trying to take God's place, but rather to gain an answer to his own suffering.
* Of course, Job cannot do all the things God can do, and he repents (42:6). But does he? Commentators have noted that the grammar of Job 42:6 (“therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes”) is ambiguous. Depending on how one translates Job 42:1-6, Job may be repenting of his complaints and resigns himself to God’s will. Or, it may mean that Job repents of his faulty theology about God that sees God in terms of simple rewards and retributions. Or, Job may be speaking ironically—responding to God with sarcasm.
In any case, by the end of the book Job can no longer complain and has entered into a new relationship with God. Perhaps that is a major "moral" of the book! After all, suffering transforms us not only as individuals but also in our relationship with God, and for many of us, we will have deeper insight into and a deeper faith in God once the chaos of our situation has passed (Brueggemann and Linafelt, An Introduction to the Old Testament [WJK Press, 2012], 332-334).
The epilogue of the book makes things all the more complex. Job’s friends have been trying to defend God---to honor the ways of God---while Job has complained bitterly of God. But in the end, God scolds the friends for not speaking rightly and orders them to make sacrifices, while God commends Job for his words! Apparently God does not want to hear shallow and unhelpful theology any more than Job did.
Furthermore, at the end, Job has a new fortune and a new family---and his daughters are said to be beautiful. But the grief remains: his dead children cannot return. Brueggemann and Linafelt point out that God restores Job’s possessions twice over—-which is the Torah mitzvot concerning theft (Exodus 22:7). Does this imply that God stole from Job, and now must restore twofold what God stole? (pp. 335-336)
* Here's a much more lighthearted question. As a kid, I wondered why is his name pronounced "jobe" and not "jobb" ??
I don't remember if I got an answer at the time. Later, I read that his name in the original Hebrew, אִיּוֹב which is transliterated 'iyyobe, has a long O, which in turns carries over into English.
Since the theology of rewards and punishments characterize so much of the Old Testament texts—-Deutereonomistic history as well as the Chronicler and also wisdom books like Proverbs—Job seems an outlier in the Bible. As Brueggemann and Lineman write: “Theologically the book takes up old covenantally and sapiential presuppositions, challenges basic premises of Israel’s faith, and refuses any easy resolution of the most difficult theological questions that appear on the horizon of Israel’s faith. It is, moreover, appropriate that the book of Job should follow the book of Psalms in the Hebrew canonical order, for the book of Job takes up the primary genres of the Psalms, especially lament and hymn, waves them into a new coherent dialogue, and pushes both lament and hymn to an emotional, artistic, and theological extremity” (p. 327).
Here is an outline of the book.
A. Prose Prologue (1:1-2:13)
Job’s background (1:1-1:5)
Satan gains permission from God to test God, and then takes Job’s wealth and children (1:6-22)
Satan gains permission to afflict Job, and then he gives Job a severe skin disease (2:1-10).
Job’s friends Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar come on the scene, and sit with him for seven days and
B. Job and his friends discuss his situation (3:1-31:40), then Elihu speaks (chapters 32-37).
Job curses the day he was born, wonders why he didn’t die, and cries in misery (chapter 3)
1. First cycle of speeches (chapters 4-14)
Eiphaz contends that God doesn’t punish the righteous, but sinful people are published and must eventually perish. He asks Job to seek God and to be pleased at God’s chastisements (chapter 5).
Job objects that God won’t let him die, and asks his unfaithful friends for evidence that he has sinned.
He complains to God of his situation (chapters 6-7)
Bildad contends that God doesn’t pervert justice and that God will respond if Job seeks him rightfully (chapter 8).
Job complains that God, sovereign in the universe, ignores his suffering, brings calamity upon the wicked and blameless (chapters 9-10).
Zophar accuses Job of hypocrisy and assures him of restoration if he repents (chapter 11).
Job denies the accusations, defends his incenses, expresses resentment toward his friends, and beseeches God again (chapters 12-14).
2. Second cycle of speeches (chapters 15-21)
Epiphaz says that Job id deluding himself and his words condemn him (chapter 16)
Job accuses his friend of unkindness, believes God is angry at him, and appeals to God for help (chapter 17).
Bildad reproves Job for his stubbornness and contends that the wicked fall into ruin (chapter 18).
Job scolds his friends, and expresses hope in someone who’ll vindicate him (chapter 19).
Zophar believes the misery is the lot of the wicked (chapter 20).
Job replies that the wicked do prosper, and that God will give as God wills to both the wicked and the righteous (chapter 21).
3. Third Cycle of Speeches (chapters 22-37). Notice in these speeches that Zophar does not reply to Job, but young Elihu instead comes on the scene and speaks.
Eliphaz accuses Job of believing that God is unjust (chapter 22).
Job responds that he would face a (court) trial with God, and says again that the wicked do prosper, at the expense of the righteous (chapters 23-24).
Bildad (briefly) responds that no one is righteous before God (chapter 25).
Job complains again that he knows God’s greatness and that he is righteous. He mourns his former, upright position in society that has now been substituted for his suffering condition. He protests again that he is innocent of sickness and falsehood (chapters 26-31).
Elihu steps in. He contradicts Job’s three friends (32) but also tells Job that God chastises people (33). God is not unjust (34-35), but the justice of God and all God’s works are beyond human understanding; his ways are unsearchable (36-37).
C. God answers Job from the whirlwind (38:1-42:6).
God’s creation is vast (38:4-15), and humans cannot understand its mysteries and variety (38:16-39:30).
Job responds humbly (40:1-5).
God challenges Job, reminding him of the great creatures Behemoth and Leviathan (40:6-41:34).
Job responds that he did not understand and now repents (42:1-6).
D. Prose Epilogue
God scolds Job’s friends for not having spoken rightly, as Job has! He instructed the friends to offer sacrifices, and Job will pray for them (42:7-9).
God restores Job’s wealth and gives him and his wife more children (42:10-17).
There are many more interesting aspects to the book.
* I agree with the Harper’s Bible Commentary: “Job’s wife deserves better than she receives in this book. Not only does she seem mainly a machine for producing babies [she had ten grown children who died, and then had ten more], but one of Job’s curses on himself turned her in prospect into at the slave and sexual toy of other men (31:9-10)” (p. 432). Furthermore, the daughters are all praised for their beauty, and are named, while Mrs. Job is a faceless and nameless character with just a "walk on." She suffered horribly in her own right. The book of Job doesn’t advance us beyond the patriarchy that we do find throughout the Bible.
* We should always remember that chapters 2-41 are poetry--and poetry is supposed to be ambiguous and filled with implied meaning. Difficult as the book is, we'd be rewarded with repeated readings with a good commentary.
* When I took a course in Biblical Hebrew years ago, I learned that the book has many difficulties of word meaning, grammatical challenges, and copyists’ problems. Also, the book has an interesting structure that invites scholarly debate. Formally, there are two cycles of speeches with the patterns Eliphaz-Job, Bildad-Job, and Zophar-Job. But in the third cycle, Bildad’s speech is very short, and there is none for Zophar. This has led to speculation that the speeches have been confused, especially since Job’s final speech is longer than his others (chapters 26-31). Perhaps portions of Bildad’s and Zophar’s third speeches became attributed to Job—-or, perhaps, this is the intention of the texts, and the arguments of the friends can go no further and must break off. (My Jewish Study Bible gives a variety of options about how the speeches could be rearranged for a more symmetrical flow: pp. 1500-1502.)
Another issue: Job’s speeches in 27:2-28:28 has Job more “patient,” refusing to curse God, and more confident in justice, compared to his earlier speeches. From this viewpoint, Job’s words would have been more easily been followed by God’s response in chapter 42. On the other hand, the canonical form of the text (in the absence of any other variations of the book’s form) emphases Job’s faith beneath his suffering (Jewish Study Bible, 1504).
* Does Job feel entitled to blessing? If so, he is in good company: none of us feel like we deserve to suffer, all of us have some “why me?” feelings when things go wrong.
Suffering turns us inward in a destructive way. Our pain, after all, is all we can feel. When I had a cancer scare a few years ago, I wasn’t thinking about cancer as a world-wide medical problem (emotionally, anyway), I was concerned about my own health. My Renovare Spiritual Formation Bible puts it well. “Anger boils to the surface of Job’s complaint. it is manifest in bitterness, cutting sarcasm, flagrant overreaction against the friends, and cynicism toward God. Job’s grief immobilizes him, distorts his view of time, gives him sleepless nights and painful days, and saps all his energy. By searching Job’s grief we understand the world and our lives as never before” (p. 722).
My mother was an invalid whom my dad looked after. When my dad died in 1999, I lived five hours away from her but of course promised to handle all her affairs for her and to visit her as often as possible (which I did for thirteen years). Mom said one day, “There isn’t anyone who is in a worse situation than I am.” She wouldn’t believe me when I tried to tell her otherwise, and continued to feel that way when I obtained regular help to come to her home and had all her mail forward to my home to handle. A tragic side effect of grief and suffering is an understandable self-centeredness--and feelings of helplessness and hopelessness---that afflicts many or most of us until something can console us and regain for us a bigger picture.
For Job, God’s theophany, stern and rhetorical as it is, did help Job see that the universe was more vast and intricate and cared-for than he in his misery could see. Sometimes that’s what we need, too—to gain a new sense that we are part of the cycles of birth and decay and death as other creatures, and that God cares for them (us) all. We are guaranteed nothing for our physical lives except our eventual, physical death—but God gives us God’s life so that we will live with God forever.
* I had not thought about Job as a companion to the Psalms, as Brueggeman and Linafelt point out. Of course, it precedes Psalms in the Old Testament and succeeds Psalms in the Jewish Bible. But both books have honest language about God, shockingly so at times, and they made good canonical companions. If God commends Job at the end, God must want all of us to seek God and to seek answers with our own honestly and passion.
*It’s worth remembering that some famous expressions come from Job:
He said, "Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return there; the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord" (1:21)
...human beings are born to trouble
just as [as surely as] sparks fly upward (Job 5:7)
I have escaped by the skin of my teeth (19:20b)
For I know that my Redeemer lives,
and that at the last he will stand upon the earth;
and after my skin has been thus destroyed,
then in my flesh I shall see God (19:25-26).
What a beautiful way Handel set those two verses to music in Messiah!