George Bernard Shaw
In this essay I will outline some of the interpretive challenges of the Book of Job in general, and God’s speeches in particular. In order to understand God’s speeches, it is necessary first to describe Job’s complaint to which God responds. I will discuss the two speeches and how the second adds impact to the first, before considering the meaning of Job’s repentance. Finally, I will examine the potential in seeing Job as theodicy.
The Interpretive Challenges of the Book of Job
The Book of Job is undoubtedly one of the most intriguing and enigmatic books in the OT. Scholarship is divided on its interpretation at almost every turn, even on its overall purpose and meaning. Is it, as many presume, a theodicy?If so, to many it fails to deliver a satisfactory answer for suffering.Others argue that it is instead about true righteousness.The wager made by ‘the satan’ was, after all, about whether Job was righteous because of the benefits it brought him, and that taking these away would turn him from God (Job 1:9-11; 2:4,5). How one should rightly address God has also been suggested as an important sub-theme of the book.David Lambert proposes that the key to understanding Job is as ritual mourning,and Walter Brueggemann that it is rooted in the social dimension of justice.David Wolfers argues that the entire book is a veiled allegory - finally revealed in God’s second speech (Job 40-41) - of the political situation faced by Israel/Judah.At least eight different interpretations have been proposed for God’s speeches alone.Kenneth Ngwa argues that one’s starting presumptions determine the final exegesis.This demonstrates the complexities of Joban studies.
From Job’s final reply to God (42:1-6) we see that God has completely satisfied all of his concerns. How he achieved this is the burden of our interpretative endeavours. It seems quite surprising at first sight, since God does not seem to answer why Job is suffering.George Bernard Shaw mocks God’s answer, calling it a “noble irrelevance.”Others think that God is humiliating,intimidating,belittling or bullying Job.God’s answer has been described as “a display of… shock and awe.”In order to respond to these points, it is important first to understand what Job’s concerns were.
A progression arises in Job’s responses to his situation.Initially Job shows submission to God (1:21; 2:10), but later accuses God of injustice (19:7).Eventually, he lists all of the possible sins he could have committed to justify his suffering at God’s hands (Job 31), and challenges God, “Let the Almighty answer me!”-to pronounce the indictment against him (31:35). The implication is that if God remains silent and does not pronounce the indictment, then Job is vindicated. Effectively, Job has sought to put God on trial.
Job’s complaint sits within the backdrop of a widely held ancient view of divine justice - that God rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked – often called the divine ‘retribution theory’.This can be seen in terms of God’s covenantal relationship with Israel (e.g. Deut. 6:1-3,16-19).It becomes more personalised in the Psalms and wisdom literature (e.g. Psalm 1).Given the limited notions of an after-life in this period, justice would be realised materially within the person’s lifetime.
John Walton and Tremper Longman III describe a “triangle of tensions” between God’s justice, the retribution principle, and Job’s righteousness, which underlies Job.The different characters in the debate decide which corner to sacrifice in order to maintain coherence: the ‘comforters’ hold that God’s justice and the retribution principle must apply, therefore Job’s righteousness is suspect; Job doggedly defends his righteousness, but accepts the retribution principle, so calls God’s justice into question.Similarly, Wesley Morriston describes four “mutually inconsistent propositions:” God causes Job’s suffering; causing the innocent to suffer is unjust; God is just; and Job is innocent. The friends question Job’s innocence and Job questions God’s justice.
However, the corollary to the retribution principle also seems presumed in Job: if you were blessed in life it was a reward for righteousness, but if you suffered, it must be punishment for sin.This converse of the retribution principle drives the debate in Job, but is not a given in scripture.Furthermore, the wisdom literature expresses the retribution theory as a generalisation, and not “an absolute and mechanical promise that wise behavior will be rewarded and wicked behavior punished.”Hence the debates in Job rage around a mistaken understanding of retribution.
God’s Speeches to Job
During the debate between Job and his friends (Job 3-37), God remains silent.Then God speaks and Job is silenced (40:4,5). God’s appearance to Job is dramatic, in the form of a storm (38:1; 40:6). Earlier, Job had feared that God would crush him with a storm (9:16,17),yet Job is not crushed. Instead he is instructed by God.“Teach me, and I will be silent,” Job had previously said (6:24), and so he is.
What does God teach Job? God never directly answers why Job is suffering, because he cannot. The wager of the adversary is that Job is only righteous because of the benefits it brings - he does not “fear God for nothing” (1:9). If he were to understand the reason for his suffering, he would no longer be righteous for nothing,and receiving a privileged understanding not granted to other innocent sufferers.He must therefore continue in ignorance.
In his first speech, God takes Job on a tour of creation, not from Job’s perspective as an observer (26:7-14), but from God’s as creator. In a series of rhetorical questions God shows him the complexity of his physical creation and how Job cannot hope to understand it, let alone control it, yet God has all of these things under his dominion (38:4-38). He goes on to show Job creatures that either humans cannot control - lions, mountain goats, wild donkeys, wild oxen, ostriches, eagles and hawks – (38:39-39:18; 39:26-30), or the war horse, which retains some wild ferocity even after human taming (39:19-25).There is wonder in the physical universe and wildness among the animals, where we see “Nature, red in tooth and claw.”And yet God speaks of it with fondness, because it is his creation and it is good (Gen. 1:4,10,12,18,21,25,31).
After God’s first discourse, Job is silenced. To put God on trial, he must at least be his equal, but he is not. God has not humiliated Job as some argue,but he has humbled him.However, his and his friends’ simplistic notions of retribution have been demolished by the magnificence of God’s creation.
Since Job seems mollified, what is the point of God’s second speech? George Bernard Shaw calls it a “noble irrelevance.”However, others claim the second speech “torques” the revelations of the first.Once again we face a multiplicity of interpretations, primarily around the identification of Behemoth and Leviathan. The closest resemblance to living creatures is generally thought to be the hippopotamus and crocodile.If seen this way, this speech merely adds two further fearsome beasts and little else. However, the hippopotamus’s tail hardly resembles cedars (Job 40:17) and crocodiles do not breathe fire (41:19-21). If they do represent living creatures, then the descriptions are poetic hyperbole.
Most interpreters, however, consider these beasts symbolic in some way. Some see them as representations of evil and the Adversary of the prologue.Leviathan is known in Ugaritic mythology as a sea monster representing chaos, as well as elsewhere in scripture (Ps. 74:13–14; 104:25-26; Isa. 27:1; cf. Job 3:8), so many commentators interpret both creatures as having mythological significance here.Walton and Longman see Behemoth representing chaos within the wilderness, and Leviathan the sea.They state, “They are not morally evil, but they can do serious harm. They are not enemies of God, but they can wreak havoc among humans.”It is here that their significance lies. If the first speech revels in the magnificence of creation which humans cannot comprehend or control, the second flaunts the chaotic forces of nature which humans fear, but which God lovingly utilises within his good creation. So, the implicit - but never explicit – reason for the suffering of innocents, is not God’s injustice, but the deep wisdom of a creative order which requires a degree of chaos, under God’s sovereignty, to function. Job has seen enough to realise that he had not understood God’s wisdom in creation, but now, having seen God, is prepared to surrender to his purposes (42:2-6).
Much has been made of the observation that humanity is absent from God’s lessons.However, humans are present - though in a very different way from the other elements of creation - represented by Job through his dialogue with God.And human pride is referenced in God’s second discourse, as that which Job cannot hope to subdue (40:10-14). Such mention of human sinfulness is absent from God’s first speech.
Job finally repents (42:6). But what does he repent of? Yet again, opinions vary widely. Some argue that Job was righteous prior to his sufferings, but accuse him subsequently of self-righteousness,arrogance,or simply using ignorant words.But what then do we make of God’s words that Job has “spoken of me what is right” (42:7)? Walton and Longman argue that this only refers to Job’s final reply to God in 42:1-6, and not to all of Job’s speeches.However, if he has sinned, then he is not truly righteous for nothing (his suffering has led him to sin), the wager is lost, and the whole premise of the book collapses. Much debate has focused on the translation of this verse, especially due to the ambiguity of the preposition על, (Job repents in dust and ashes). Several alternative translations have been proposed, to the effect that Job repents of dust and ashes,supporting Lambert’s ritualistic interpretation of Job – that here he finally ends his commitment to die mourning (7:16).He argues that “YHWH never accuses Job of sin, nor does Job confess it.”The same word for ‘repent’ is used widely in the OT for God changing his mind, challenging the idea that this relates to sin.For these reasons I consider Lambert’s ritualistic understanding of Job to present a good exegetical framework, whatever other interpretive lines are taken.
This understanding of Job’s ‘repentance’ also impacts on another question: what are the boundaries of lament in OT thinking?Job has pulled no punches in his complaints, yet God has not condemned him for sin, but critiqued his lack of understanding (38:2). Job’s wisdom is far inferior even to the wisdom within non-human creation, let alone God’s. But that does not mean that he has no right to raise his questions to God. Of all of creation, only humans can ask such difficult questions.Job teaches us that, even when God seems silent, he is never deaf to the most desperate cries of the heart from his people.
Towards a Theodicy of Job
Whilst Job undoubtedly has a major theme of the meaning of righteousness, I do not think it right to sideline suffering as incidental.To do so misses out on an opportunity it gives to reconfigure our thinking about suffering. God’s speeches to Job describe a creation which contains chaos and disorder, such as is observed in nature at its most destructive. In his documentary, Tsunami: Where was God?, Mark Dowd grapples with religious responses to the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami. At the end he comes to understand from a scientific perspective that a planet bearing sentient life cannot exist without powerful forces which sometimes cause destruction.Richard Deem argues cogently that ‘natural evil’ must exist, in all its forms, for intelligent life to be possible.Jonathan Clarke synthesises these ideas with Leviathan in Job, when he states, “The lesson of Leviathan… is still vital today. Earthquakes, volcanoes, floods and other calamities are not forces outside God’s control… They are God’s creation and, properly understood, phenomena that should excite awe and wonder and worship of [God].”Job can thus lead us toward a theological underpinning of a theodicy derived from contemporary science.
The book of Job is a majestic piece of literature, applying subtlety and craft to complex and difficult questions.Despite the multiplicity of interpretations of this book, when viewed as a coherent whole it facilitates our understanding of key questions:
(1) What is true righteousness? Are we only righteous for what we gain from it? This raises the question of why we follow Christ. Is it because of the promise of eternal life, or because he deserves to be followed? Which we choose has immense implications for how we will follow him.
(2) How do we come to terms with suffering, particularly ‘undeserved’ suffering? It is wrong to say that God never answers Job’s questions about his suffering. He answers them, however, in a completely different dimension from how Job, or we, expect. He is infinitely wise, and his creation has wisdom embedded within it which transcends our anthropocentric view.We can rightly stand in awe of creation in all its power and majesty, leading us to worship its Creator.
(3) How can we rightly address God in times of lament? Job spreads the boundaries wide to our expression of what is on our hearts. God receives our honest outpourings of grief and loss with patience and understanding.