Mitchell’s Book of Job

I bought this book on the strength of the excerpts in Bill McKibben’s Comforting Whirlwind: God, Job and the Scale of Creation. The translation was such a rich, vivid rendering of the poetry that I wanted an extended experience of it.

Turns out that Mitchell’s interpretive introduction was equally rewarding. Mitchell considers the work on literary terms, in the context of similar writings in other faiths and cultures. It seems to me that this gives his approach to the book the daring to confront some things I’d noticed, but that I haven’t seen addressed in commentaries on the book as a theodicy. (Not that I’ve seen many commentaries, so my experience doesn’t say much about the norm.)

For instance, what about the viscerally indignant response I have to God in the opening chapters, where he accepts the challenge from the accuser? Mitchell quotes Carl Jung, suggesting that the God of the opening pages is morally inferior to Job, and seemingly plagued by insecurity. He warns us not to take it too seriously though, since these pages are just a prologue to a tale that never revisits either the accuser or the court of heaven — a court that resembles that of “some ancient King of Kings, complete with annual meetings of the royal council and a Satan.”

And what about the difference between that opening picture of God, and the far more resplendent and terrifying one of the whirlwind later in the book? Mitchell suggests that there are two different realities at work, and the shift from one to the other is signalled by the shift from narrative to poetry. The prologue sketches out the Job of ancient legend, a legend that was probably in existence (says Mitchell) for centuries before this version was written. This is the Job James speaks of in the New Testament when he says, “You have heard of the patience of Job.” It bears little resemblance to the ranting, risking, “ferociously impatient” Job of the poetry. It’s as though the writer lays out the framework of the ancient legend, but then explores it in the entirely different and more searching mode of the poem, returning in the last chapter to the narrative to bring us back to earth.

I’ve said Mitchell’s approach is literary. Under that heading, he seems to approach the text through a mixture of psychoanalytical and archetypal criticism. For instance, he speaks at times in terms of ego and superego, suggesting that at the beginning of the book Job is full of anxiety, and his righteousness is motivated by fear. His “superego is riding high,” in Mitchell’s words. Similarly, different components of the story are viewed as externalized subjective states. The accuser, for instance, is seen as an embodiment of God’s doubts about Job. The whirlwind is seen not as an objective tornado, but a “cloud of unknowing,” a symbol of Job’s release of all he thinks he knows about God. (Elsewhere I’ve read an interpretation of the whirlwind as the bluster of the preceding arguments between Job and company.) Under the category of myth criticism is Mitchell’s reading of the book’s themes and imagery in terms of other myths. For instance, the descriptions given out of the whirlwind of the beast and the serpent Mitchell reads as “central figures in ancient near-eastern eschatology, the embodiments of evil that the sky-god battles and conquers at the end of time, just as he conquered the sea and the forces of chaos in creating the world at the beginning of time.” Another example would be his view of Job as a version of an ancient legend, such as one that existed in Sumer as early as 2000 BC. Beneath these ideas is a notion of a set of common archetypes underlying all myths.

I don’t have a problem with seeing this book in those terms… Its writer may very well have used artistic materials already in existence for a long time, but as scholars with far more authority than I have determined, he uses them in an inspired way to give inspired insight.

I could go on and on about the introduction. (Maybe I have already!) I love the discussion of Job’s friends, of their fear of contact with Job’s suffering, of their awareness that the dogmas they wield like an exoskeleton protect an inner lack of any real depth of understanding or experience. I love the discussion of the ending, and of the way the feminine figures so prominently in the form of Job’s daughters. But the most penetrating discussion has to do with the voice from the whirlwind, and Job’s response. Mitchell suggests that the vision of nature offers a worldview that

stands, of course, in direct opposition to the Genesis myth in which man is given dominion over all creatures. It is a God’s-eye view of creation before man, beyond good and evil, marked by the innocence of a mind that has stepped outside the circle of human values… What the Voice means is that paradise isn’t situated in the past or future, and doesn’t require a world tamed or edited by the moral sense. It is our world, when we perceive it clearly, without eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.

This vision, Mitchell argues, has a transformational impact on Job. Rejecting the translation of Job’s response as groveling in the dust, he argues that when Job sees this vision, he doesn’t merely capitulate to God’s anger, or submit; he surrenders, and Mitchell’s translation of Job’s response reflects the difference. His discussion of the moral issues involved in his view of God’s response is challenging.

I come to the book with a different worldview and spiritual framework, but I felt that Mitchell gave me fresh insight. He is able to honestly wrestle with the text on its own terms because he has perhaps less of a stake in it; it seems he isn’t out to defend a pre-existing view of God — or at least, his set of pre-existing assumptions is different than mine. This book provides provocative analysis that serves as a good counterpoint to other commentaries, and a translation that seems to scrape all the varnish of the ages off this amazing, explosive poetry. (I should give some examples, but this post is too long already! You can see some excerpts of the poetry, and the intro in entirety, here at Mr. Mitchell’s site, along with reviews by more qualified writers.) Though I’m not ready to agree with the commentary on every point, it’s challenging and confrontational, and it explores aspects of the text that I haven’t seen addressed elsewhere. It’s well worth a read.

Job Journal V: Toward some answers

It wouldn’t be fair to blog about my raw reading responses, then not come back and revise my initial impressions as I learn more about the book. This’ll probably be my last entry on Job for awhile, though there’s plenty I haven’t touched yet (Elihu, for instance). Here are some discoveries so far, followed by my reading list:

1.) I asked if the story sanctioned questioning, or discouraged it. Despite the tone of God’s answer in the story, the fact that Job gets an answer at all suggests that God honors the seeking heart. His respect for his creation extends to Job. What’s more, he speaks as to an equal: “Gird yourself up, and I will question you!” He is as honest with Job as Job is with him, allowing his anger to be apparent — but not to annihilate Job.

2.) Related to this was my complaint that Job’s prayer isn’t answered – that God used a kind of misdirection or non sequitur. I see a parallel between the way God answers Job without addressing his specific question of “Why?” and Jesus’ method of being asked one question, and answering another — puzzling to us, but not to those interacting with him. Here, Job’s question has been viewed as a legal complaint against God for his treatment. God’s answer is to justify himself by saying, basically, “My dealings with you are interwoven with the rest of what I’ve made. See how large and complex it is? See how many other questions are tied in with yours? Do you really want me to try to explain my creative process to you?” Job replies, “No. I see that it’s too big for me.” God’s answer isn’t evasive so much as impossible to reduce to Job’s terms.

Edited to add: Lewis’s chapter on divine omnipotence in The Problem of Pain is relevant here too: “With every advance in our thought the unity of the creative act, and the impossibility of tinkering with the creation as though this or that element of it could have been removed, will become more apparent. Perhaps this is not the ‘best of all possible’ universes, but the only possible one.” A creation spawned from a single, unified creative act means God can’t respond to Job’s question separately from a discussion of the rest of creation.

3.) I pointed out the wisdom of Job’s friends. Yup, they have some rudimentary wisdom, but its purpose in the story is to reveal its utter failure to account for what’s happening to Job. We know from the opening scene that this is a test, permitted by God, and their explanations nowhere acknowledge this as a possibility. Their conception of God allows him no room for free and independent action. This is what displeases God, and why Job’s point of view is superior to theirs.

4.) I suggested that Job matures. Maybe so, a bit. But this isn’t a bildungsroman. I think my overall sense that his righteousness is never in question tips the scales toward viewing him mostly as a static character. He gets a bit more daring, perhaps, but doesn’t substantially change. This is consistent with the type of literature this is: I’ve seen it referred to as myth, legend, parable, and wisdom literature, all of which lean toward the symbolic. As we know right away when we find ourselves witnessing a scene in Heaven, it’s not a record of actual events (except perhaps at a core that’s been varnished with many layers of fictional embellishment and poetry).

5.) I complained that the God of Job isn’t consistent with the covenant God of the rest of scripture. Well, no; its writing was probably pre-Mosaic, and Job’s cultural background wasn’t Hebraic. The book’s purpose seems to be as a “What if?” story… “What if we strip away the trappings of culture and reduce this conflict to the bare, primal bones: man, creator, evil.” Though there’s no “covenant” applicable to this relationship between God and Job, it’s still clear that this is a relational God; he enters into dialogue with Job.

6.) I questioned whether unconditional love for God is possible. Sad to say, I’m seeing that this is basically Satan’s question in the story. Perhaps “unconditional” isn’t the best word, but he (and the story as a whole) asks, “Is there a love for God that survives suffering, loss of his blessings, and deprivation of his justice?” Is God worthy of love if he doesn’t meet the conditions of our rational framework of justice? The answer of the story is yes. I think it’s what keeps Job petitioning God until the answer comes, and it’s what pleases God in the end.

Here are some resources (in no particular order) I’m exploring, and finding helpful, as I experience this book:

  • Bill McKibben’s The Comforting Whirlwind: God, Job and the Scale of Creation offers the vision of creation God proudly sets forth from the whirlwind as a still-relevant paradigm.
  • Stephen Mitchell’s translation of Job was Bill McKibben’s chosen text, and I’ve ordered a copy of my own. Though Mitchell’s decisions about what to include and what not to include are controversial (he leaves out Elihu’s speech entirely), the power of the language is a delight.
  • Putting God on Trial is an online commentary by Robert Sutherland that offers philosophical, literary and legal analysis of Job.
  • William Blake’s Book of Job contains his own provocative illustrations. Without endorsing his theology, I think his pictures reflect some real insight.
  • Jerry Gladson’s “Job,” in A Complete Literary Guide to the Bible, provides a run-down of the literary techniques and structural issues of Job.
  • G.K. Chesterton’s Introduction to the Book of Job gives a theological overview.
  • Beyond Suffering: Discovering the Message of Job by Layton Talbert is recommended by Barbara of Stray Thoughts. I look forward to getting ahold of a copy.
  • David Malik’s Introduction to the Book of Job supplies an overview including information about authorship, genre, and historical context.

Job Journal IV: Struggles

I’m trying to get my struggles with Job into words. I’m coming at the book from a perspective of faith, but there are some snarls that I haven’t untangled yet. It gets to the question of trust. I have faith that God is, and that he is good. But the effect of this book is to expose all the vulnerabilities in the link between belief, and trust.

1. Covenant God. I understand that God wants to be loved, not treated like a vending machine that can be accessed with good-performance tokens. But throughout scripture he identifies himself as a God of covenants. As early as Genesis, he defines some transactional terms of relationship: you can dwell in my paradise if you do not eat of the fruit of the tree. He imposes a condition on us from the start, and he abides by the terms he has set, and ejects humanity from the garden.

Other covenants with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and with David, follow a similar pattern. He sets up terms of relationship and promises to abide by them. He imposes conditions on himself. And in the New Testament, the “new covenant” establishes new terms: trust in the blood of the Son and receive new life.

How do we reconcile this God with the God of Job, who seems to say, “You cannot expect anything from me. I cannot be predicted. I cannot be boxed. I cannot be trusted to protect you from false accusers.” There must have been some definable expectation that led Job to express his devotion in the way he did: sacrifices, prayer, uprightness. Wasn’t he following terms God had set? Why didn’t that obligate God to hold up his end of the bargain?

2. Unconditional love. Is there even such a thing, biblically, as human love for God that’s pure? That seems to be what he wants from Job: to be loved and trusted even though he offers no assurance that any of Job’s righteousness has mattered at all as an expression of his love.

But what about scripture’s emphasis on God as the initiator: “We love him because he first loved us.” That’s a causal statement that relegates all conceivable possibilities for human love to the status of response. Isn’t a “response” always conditional? Dependent on the condition that what we’re responding to exists?

3. Prayer. How do we reconcile the Bible’s view of prayer with this one? The New Testament says,

  • Ask and you shall receive
  • You have not because you ask not
  • In all things by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving present your requests to God
  • If anyone lacks wisdom let him ask for it
  • Persist (parable of the landlord who answers the door because of persistent knocking); ask, seek, knock and the door shall be opened
  • “Woman, my time has not yet come” — yet Mary doesn’t take no for an answer, and Jesus turns water to wine in the first of his signs
  • Numerous examples in the Old Testament show kings (Hezekiah) and prophets (Elijah) petitioning God to good purpose

But the action of Job seems to say,

  • Ask, persist, knock, and you shall be rebuked
  • Make your requests known to God and you shall receive no answer (Job’s queries about justice)

At the opposite extreme is the popular view of Jesus the insipid, the gentle pal who sits on the swing with me in the meadow, keenly interested in all the blather of my tiny world. That’s not who I’m expecting God to be! But I am needing coherence. Long ago in college, my philosophy professor once quoted Lewis as saying something like, “If God’s circle is our square, then we have no basis on which to relate.” That he is bigger, stronger, wiser, more glorious, more holy — all of this I resoundingly affirm. But if he is simply Other in ways that can never be understood… Well, I’m trusting that he’s not that. But it’s a trust that’s being challenged by my admittedly very unfinished understanding of this book.

Last thought (for now): God’s answer was good enough for Job. Surely there’s something I’m missing if it’s not good enough for me, sitting here without boils or dead relatives or lost fortunes.

The Comforting Whirlwind: God, Job, and the Scale of Creation

It’s partly a theology book. Partly a personal meditation. Partly a Jeremiad. Partly prophetic.

That’s a lot of categories for a book just 95 pages long. Crisply written, provocatively presented, and compellingly argued, The Comforting Whirlwind by Bill McKibben offers an analogy between Job facing down the religious orthodoxy of his day, and modern-day western culture’s need to confront a similarly bankrupt orthodoxy.

For Job, the status quo is that “God is just, and therefore Job suffers because he is guilty.” The only problem with this simple calculus is that Job isn’t guilty. Yet “this pious orthodoxy is the baseline for the entire story,” writes McKibben. “It is the seemingly sturdy and immense castle that Job and God will totally demolish with the explosive force of their encounter at the end of the book.”

So what’s the orthodoxy McKibben is concerned about in the present-day? An orientation based on two assumptions: more is better, and growth is good. In the same way the formula of Job’s friends is inadequate to explain the facts of his situation, these modern tenets are called into question by the facts of our growing impact on nature. Structured simply in three chapters, The Comforting Whirlwind explicates both orthodoxies, then discusses their human-centeredness, then details the ways in which our impact on the planet might put us in a position to make different answers to some of God’s questions to Job — to our detriment.

Though Christianity has been accused by some (notably Lynn White) of encouraging environmental exploitation, McKibben emphasizes the biblical theme of God’s pleasure and love for all of his creation. (This reminded me of another more pointed discussion, Wendell Berry’s”Christianity and the Survival of the Creation.” It’s one of the essays in this book.) A main thrust of God’s response to Job is that the earth was not made for man. Most of the natural wonders he calls to Job’s attention have nothing to do with human life. Rather than answering Job’s questions, he calls him into a larger view of the world, one in which creation doesn’t exist for man’s pleasure or use, but for its own, and its creator’s, delight. This is a far cry from the anthropocentrism and conquesting attitude the Bible has been accused of having.

At its heart, though, this book is neither a theology book nor a defense of Christianity. It’s a celebration of the vision of the earth God puts forth from the whirlwind when he speaks to Job. McKibben suggests that this new paradigm is not just for Job and his friends, but for us. Central to God’s view, he writes, are two callings: a call to humility, and a call to delight. The book spells out ways we can fulfill both of these callings.

One of my favorite parts was McKibben’s description of an experiment he conducted for his book The Age of Missing Information. He recorded 100 channels-worth of television for 24 hours, then spent a year watching it. His questions and conclusions about American culture are fascinating, and helped me to think more carefully about my own life. Do our technological advances make us more, or less, happy? At what cost do these things come? Have our so-called advances made any truly significant improvements in quality of life over the last 30 years?

I also liked the book’s ongoing emphasis on the importance of wildness, of having aspects of the world that are not humanly controlled. One of the most important ways we’re made in the image of God, he contends, is that we have the power of restraint. Though at times I wasn’t ready to plunge quite as far as McKibben in his speculations about the future, his urgency about our increasing ability to alter our environment, and about what we lose if we replace all aspects of wildness and mystery with humanly-engineered “nature,” certainly resonated with me.

I’ve read McKibben’s The End of Nature, and this book shares its strengths. Reading it recalled to mind other fine nature writers as well, some of whom he mentions: John Muir, Edward Abbey, Wendell Berry. His factual support is varied and interesting, his analysis is incisive, and his exact and loving description of nature makes me homesick for the hill behind the house I grew up in. This book raises awareness and introduces some ongoing questions sure to be beneficial to any of us who care about our own, or our children’s, quality of life in a consumer age.

I’ll conclude with McKibben’s own words. He’s usually identified as an environmentalist. But like other nature writers I admire, McKibben argues not for “environmentalism,” which implies an artificial separation between human life and the world we live in, but for at-one-ness with

something much larger. A planet, filled with the vast order of creation. It is a buzzing, weird, stoic, abundant, reckless, haunting, painful, perfect planet. All of it matters, all of it is glorious. And all of it can speak to us in the deepest and most satisfying ways, if only we will let it.

Journalling Job III: Big Picture

When all is said and done, this is a baffling book to me. For years I’ve settled for bits and pieces of what others have said about it, and though I’ve read it several times myself, I’ve never truly faced my bafflement. Now I’m acknowledging it.

It’s a tremendously rich book, one with many doors into it. I’ve thought of it often this year in relation to the slander my husband has had to endure, and the way his integrity isn’t being vindicated while the nitwits and liars seem to be getting what they want. Last night at a Bible study, Job came to my mind when the discussion turned to the question of how believers should go about confronting each other. Then, a few minutes later, someone else brought up Job in connection with patience. Someone else spoke of him as steadfast. Someone else spoke of the book’s forecasting of Jesus. Someone else said they weren’t quite sure what to do with God’s tone in responding at the end. All of this took place in a discussion that wasn’t even focused on the book of Job.

I’ve always thought of it as the quintessential validation of questioning God, and the most honest acknowledgment in Scripture of the way God’s justice fails to be borne out the way we may expect or want it to. Good people suffer; bad people make out like bandits. After thoroughly discrediting our idea that if we follow a sort of Ben Franklin style of righteousness — “hard work + virtue = success” — God will bless us with an easy life, the book concludes with a happy ending in which “Job the righteous” is restored to being “healthy, wealthy and wise” (to stick with the Ben Franklin chipperness).

Why?

Job’s main question throughout is, “Why am I suffering?” As a reader, I’ve been given the answer to this at the outset: God is testing Job, at Satan’s suggestion. What I wonder is, why is he restored? It looks like both the suffering and the restoration are arbitrary events with no connection to anything Job does or doesn’t do. If God doesn’t want to be seen as a cosmic gumball machine, then we can’t read the ending as Job’s reward any more than we can read the suffering as Job’s punishment. I don’t feel comforted by this.

What I don’t understand:

Why does God say to Job’s 3 friends, “I am angry with you because you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has”? In what way has Job’s characterization of God been more “right” than his friends’? Though he’s often described as steadfast, what I see is a man who’s all over the map in his response to his condition. Sometimes he’s noble: “Though he slay me, yet will I trust him.” Sometimes he’s hopeful: “When he has tried me, I shall come forth as gold.” But in other places, he’s simply wallowing in self-pity. He’s often quite loud in proclaiming his righteousness and purity. And he sees God at some points as the most malevolent of enemies. It makes “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” look like child’s play. I wanted to reread some parts, so I listened to the audiobook of chapter 16 while I was running on the treadmill yesterday. My daughter came into the room and asked in awe, “Who is he talking about?” I’m not sure what part of this God is commending in chapter 42, unless it’s simply Job’s refusal to reduce God to the humanly conceived terms of justice.

What I do see:

Job maturing. At the start, I mentally lumped him together with the narrator of one of my all-time favorite stories, Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener, who describes himself as “an eminently safe man.” Thanks to the combination of horrible things happening to him, and friends who infuriate him into pressing far more deeply and clearly into the real nature of his complaint than he would otherwise have done, he exhibits a tenaciousness and honesty that enable him to hang in there until he has a face-to-face encounter with God. This is anything but “safe”; after all, “he’s not a tame lion.”

Argument as a good thing. I hate arguing; I hate the frustration of “If I could just say this again more clearly I KNOW you’d agree,” the anger of it not working, the tendency of argument to go off track and become personal. All of those things happen in this story. But because of this, Job is forced to articulate his complaint better than he ever would have been able to do in isolation. Presumably the discussion at the human level moves Job to the place where God can respond. This is what iron sharpening iron looks like, and God sees to it that the mess is cleaned up afterwards; he tells Job to pray for his friends, and tells them to make a sacrifice.

Nature as an invitation to delight. Several times, the beauty and awesomeness of nature are referenced in the four-way argument between Job and his friends, but God places it before them again when he finally speaks. His description of nature as evidence of his own power, and his obvious pride and delight in it, is the only answer he gives; he never addresses the questions about justice. But his description of creation attacks the foundation of Job’s complaint: a man-centric view of the universe. (I would have noticed this, but I’m indebted to Bill McKibben for helping me to understand its importance. I’m about halfway through The Comforting Whirlwind: God, Job and the Scale of Creation and will review it soon. I wanted to get through Job myself before doing any reading on it, but there was this book on my shelf, where it’s been for years, unread, and I couldn’t help myself: I picked it up and read in it last night.)

A caustic response. Job wanted to hear from God, and hear he did. Wow. The relentless sarcasm never lets up. When I got to Chapter 42, where God refers to Job as one who has spoken rightly about him, I found it confusing. The fact of God’s response indicates a level of love and respect for Job, and a divine approval of his persistence and his — audacity? — in questioning God. But the actual words make me shiver. It’s kind of like Job stuck a stick into a dark corner to flush out a woodchuck, and a roaring lion came charging out.

So now I’m back to my uncertainty. Does God like to be questioned? Or not? Was it Job’s questions that God approved of — or his repentence, and withdrawal of his questions?

Knowing when to stop. Though I’ve thought of this book as an endorsement of questioning, Job appears to be as much about knowing when to stop asking questions, and how to respond to God’s answers. One of the interesting things about Job is that though few of us endure the level of loss that he does, we share his tendency to question. Even I, sitting comfortably in my house with a healthy family and food on the table, have asked similar questions. Is this part of my sinful nature? Frankly, I’m ashamed that from such a comfortable position, I would wonder about God’s justice, or feel resentful about the way he’s doing things, or feel I deserve better. Once when I was wrestling with whether God was good and trustworthy, a wise mentor told me, “Your questions are good, and God isn’t threatened by them. He welcomes them, because they bring you closer to him. But every time you start down this road, I wonder whether you’re going to come back.” The questions Job raised, which God didn’t dignify with an answer, may be located less in the external world than in our shared humanity. The effectiveness of God’s response to Job was to raise his eyes to the external world, in fact.

Obviously I need to study the book further… But the best part of my reading of it this time is that I’ve finally begun to wrestle with it myself, rather than go belly-up and accept others’ interpretations. Now that I have an authentic reading under my belt, it’s time to seek out what others have to say.

Journalling Job II: Emerging Themes

Here’s my Job journal through Chapter 20.

The inadequacy — or adequacy? — of speech: Over and over again, Job’s friends chastise him for his words. Some examples:

  • “How long will you say such things? Your words are a blustering wind.” (Bildad, 8:2)
  • “Are all these words to go unanswered? Is this talker to be vindicated?” (Zophar, 11:2)
  • “Your sin prompts your mouth; you adopt the tongue of the crafty. Your own mouth condemns you, not mine.” (Eliphaz, 15: 5, 6)

Job gives it right back, complaining bitterly that they are mere speech-makers:

  • “If only you would be silent! For you, that would be wisdom.” (13: 5)
  • “Will your long-winded speeches never end?” (16: 3)
  • “How long will you torment me and crush me with words?” (19:2)

It becomes the predictable opener for each person’s speech, and it’s so bitter I can almost imagine a few punches thrown. The frustration rises as the words increase. No one’s soliloquy is satisfying; no one’s “angle” on the problem seems to be bringing either comfort or understanding. As single speech-makers, they’re spinning their wheels.

However, the conversation as a whole is accomplishing plenty. We’ve moved from the silent agony of the opening chapters to a debate that probes ever more deeply into the real questions at stake. The book seems to be making a point about the need for dialogue. (Among the points of discussion, by the way, is the wisdom of the ancients. Several times Job’s friends tell him to read what the old books say. Reading is another form of dialogue.) God lets this discussion among the clueless go on for quite some time, and though it’s not arriving at an ultimate resting place, it’s getting somewhere.

Cut his friends some slack. Their wisdom isn’t perfect, but neither is Job’s. Theirs is no better or worse than the book of Proverbs, actually. We can’t have it both ways, extolling Proverbs and despising these verbose comforters. Their words don’t give final answers, but they do what they’re supposed to: keep Job engaged in his own search.

“I am not inferior to you.” What’s emerging to me is not the story of Job as a static good guy, but of Job’s coming of age. The temptation is to see him as an innocent victim, and to ignore the book’s opening emphasis on “testing.” But as Job endures his trials, he is changing and growing. At the beginning of the book, he is someone who’s nice, prosperous, well-liked, and who does the little extras, just in case — making sacrifices for his children, for instance, just in case they’ve sinned. He’s eminently observant and lives safely. But as the story proceeds, he moves to the margins and edges of his faith. He wants an audience with the Almighty, and will settle for nothing less. “My eyes have seen all this, my ears have heard and understood it,” Job complains to his friends. “What you know, I also know; I am not inferior to you. But I desire to speak to the Almighty, and to argue my case with God” (13:1-3). Several times he expresses doubt that God will answer (9:16, for instance), but ultimately he gets his wish. (How different my experience of the book would be if I didn’t know what was coming.)

Justice vs. mercy. I’ve keyed into this theme in my own life this year, as my husband has been under Job-like attack at work. I want to pray for justice, but something always stops me. Do we really want God to give us justice? Are any of us blameless enough? We need mercy, and we need God to credit our good intentions where we’ve sinned unknowingly. Amen to Job when he says, “How then can I dispute with him? How can I find words to argue with him? Though I were innocent, I could not answer him; I could only plead with my Judge for mercy” (9:15).

Journalling Job

I haven’t written anything about my Bible-reading for a long time, for two reasons: one, my posts didn’t say much of anything worth saying; two, my reading has been extremely dry and dutiful. But now that I’m up to Job, I want to try writing a bit to see if it revives the dialogue between me and Scripture/me and God. This book has a different character than the history books. It’s not a journalistic reporting of facts and events, but an exploration of one man’s experience of baffling suffering. I don’t want to blow past it without engaging; it’s too closely related to the struggles I have lately with understanding pain and suffering, with doubt, with God’s mysterious permissiveness and silence, and even with the unmanageable things in my own life.

I’m only through chapter 7, so here are a few initial reactions.

I’ve read Job before, more than once. The standard line is that Job is good, his friends are bad, God is marvelous and powerful. In fact, I remember my Old Testament professor in college presenting his view that Job’s friends were legalistic, brittle, shallow counselors as if it were the renegade interpretation. But I don’t think I’ve ever heard anything different, including in the notes of my current Bible. As I’m reading this time, though, I don’t see what’s so bad about them. Or — brace yourself — with Satan’s question. Satan asks the obvious question we all ask when we look at others’ lives from the outside in: why do they have it so easy? It’s a question that’s naive, but not illegitimate. Usually when we get to know others, we see that they don’t have it as easy as we thought. But my point is, what makes Satan the bad guy is that he wants to strike Job, and the universally agreed-upon question of Job is, why does God allow it? If this is going to be an honest reading journal, I have to say that my greatest indignation as I read isn’t over Satan’s badness, but over God’s permission of it. In the story, Job’s testing is even presented as Satan’s idea that God goes along with, rather than simply a means of accomplishing a purpose God already had in mind.

Job’s friends seem like friends to me, not pompous windbags. When they first hear of Job’s suffering, they come to him and are shocked by how bad he looks. They simply sit with him in silence: “They sat on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights. No one said a word to him, because they saw how great his suffering was” (2:13). They don’t speak until Job does, and then Eliphaz responds. Isn’t this what friends do? When I’m struggling with doubts and questions, and I express them to a close friend, I welcome the corrective supplement their perspective gives. Eliphaz makes sure Job is ready, too; he asks, “If someone ventures a word with you, will you be impatient?” (4:2)

As for the content of Eliphaz’s speech, well, it’s a little naive at times. But this is because he’s trying to comfort someone who’s been an idol of sorts. “Think how you have instructed many, how you have strengthened feeble hands,” he urges Job. “Should not your piety be your confidence and your blameless ways your hope?” I find this psychologically truthful. When our idols suffer, and respond with questions, it shakes our world. I see Eliphaz as begging Job to stay perfect, and to put his confidence in his own righteousness in the same way Eliphaz has admired Job’s righteousness. Not good advice. But also not advice that comes from a brittle heart. Eliphaz is just trying to encourage someone he sees as higher than himself, and I admire him for trying.

Further, though his idealistic view of Job puts pressure on Job, his words, at least in spots, sound a lot like God’s own response at the end of the book. (I may change my mind when I get that far, but I’m going by my memory of God’s response at this point.) Eliphaz says, “I would appeal to God; I would lay my cause before him. He performs wonders that cannot be fathomed, miracles that cannot be counted” (5:8, 9). Then, “Blessed is the man whom God corrects; so do not despise the discipline of the Almighty. For he wounds, but he also binds up; he injures, but his hands also heal” (5: 17, 18). Granted, Job’s sufferings have not been presented in the story’s opening pages as God’s “discipline.” But Job’s response after God finally answers him later in the book is repentence. If I remember correctly he says “I retract; I repent in dust and ashes.” It seems some kind of discipline is certainly accomplished, as well as the healing Eliphaz predicts; Job’s wealth is ultimately restored.

Last observation: usually when I’ve heard “What is man that you make so much of him?” (7: 17) quoted, it’s been as a statement of wonder and gratitude for God’s attention to human life. But that’s not at all how Job means it here. He means something more like, “Will you just go bother someone else for awhile? Why are you wasting so much energy on me?” It makes me wonder if there’s a layer of this discomfort with being scrutinized in Psalm 139 too, where David asks, “Where can I flee from your presence?”

So much for my initial reactions. Maybe I’ll write more as I work through the book.