September 25, 2008

Some Comments About Job

As odd as it sounds, I'm rather a fan of the book of Job. There are many people who cannot stomach the book, and even more that reduce it to the detriment of its point.

In any case, it is the most misunderstood book of the entire Bible. Its very premise angers us, and its conclusions deny us our sense of control, and challenge our very notions of justice. It is a hard book to digest, but I believe the primary reason is that we do not treat it as a whole: focusing on the beginning narrative, and skipping the vast majority of the book which constitutes dialogue. If we are to understand Job, we must first recognize that the meat of the book is in the dialogue, and not in the story.

The Purpose of the Narrative

The purpose of the narrative intro is not to tell the moral of the story, though it certainly anticipates it. The purpose is the same as any other kind of intro, to set the context of the book. First of all, the subject: theodicy, or more specifically in this case, why do good people suffer. This is a complex question, and the book doesn't actually set out the answer it, as we will see.

But the narrative sets up many different things. First of all, it rules out a possibility which is very important. Job does not suffer because of anything wrong with Job. Job is completely righteous. If you don't get this down, you miss everything.

Indeed, in most interpretations I hear of the book, people keep trying to get around this initial fact. However, to try and find out why Job needed to go through this trial, or why he deserved it, is to contradict the entire premise that the book is founded upon: Job is righteous, and does not deserve what he receives in any fashion.

Second of all, we see why Job does suffer. There is a wager between God and Satan. This is something else we tend to try and get around, saying that God wasn't really wagering with Satan, but simply manipulating him to accomplish His goals for Job. However this contradicts the plain sense of the text. According to the text, the wager happens because of God's faith in Job. I repeat, God had faith in Job. He trusted Job to come through. Mind you, He has the advantage of omniscience, yes, but that doesn't change the fact that the reason why Satan wishes to attack Job is because God has faith in him.

This cannot be extrapolated into supposing this is why all good people suffer. The text doesn't lend itself to that. Indeed, Job is treated as a special case. Therefore we must conclude that this is simply the context for Job. We must also recognize that God is right, and Job does not betray Him. Even in Job's strongest laments and deepest anger, he does not loose faith in God, but merely seeks God for an answer.

The Dialogue

If we are to consider the dialogue the thrust of the book, what is its message? There are three opinions that are basically stated: the friends/Elihu, Job, and God. Job is insisting on his innocence, demanding an audience with God to settle the matter. Job's friends and Elihu are criticizing Job for this claim, and telling him to admit that he is a sinner and repent.

But what is most interesting is God's opinion. God doesn't stake a claim on the issue at all. He merely rebukes Job's criticisms of His character, but punishes Job's friends for their horrendous theology.

Then what can we conclude is the message?

Answer

I would say that the book as a whole is a rebuke of a popular theology, namely the one expressed by Job's friends. There is a truth that says that God blesses the righteous, and brings the sinner to ruin (Proverbs 11:21). However, what many do is flip this truth around and conclude that those who are blessed are therefore righteous, and those who are in ruin are sinners. This causes one to praise the rich and powerful and look up to them, while condemning the poor and disenfranchised. (Remember when the disciples thought that the blind man was a sinner, or when they were shocked that it was difficult for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven?)

The book of Job stands in strong contrast to this theodicy. Indeed, the entire context of the story is a righteous man in ruin! When have that in our minds as we read, we see how terrible the comments of Job's friends really are, as they attack the man they are supposed to be comforting.
Also, Job maintains his goodness. Though he criticizes God many times, he never curses God, but instead seeks an audience with Him. He demands that God answer his questions, much like some of the laments in the book of Psalms. Though God never answers these questions, He comes to Job personally, and demonstrates His power. What's more, Job submits! He is satisfied that God is in control, and he need not worry.

Conclusion

One of the greatest mistakes that we make is to try and figure out why this needed to happen to Job. Sometimes we conclude that there was a hint of pride in him. Other times we conclude that God provided this as a means of Job becoming closer to Him. I think both of these undermine the premise of the book. The first is to side with Job's friends, the very ones that God condemns at the end of the book. The second flies in the face of the prologue.

As Christians, we should not be shocked by the book of Job. Doesn't Jesus promise that we will suffer for His name? Doesn't He promise persecution? Then why are we shocked that things don't go wonderfully for Job? Why are we shocked that Satan attacks him? A Christian should instead recognize in Job a similar situation that we are called to be in.

16 comments:

bethyada said...

Good post. My pastor has been preaching suffering as the path of Christianity for the last 20+ years.

The book of Job does address suffering. It reminds us that the righteous suffer. But is it possible that God used Satan's ploy for his own agenda, that is bringing Job's friends into right relationship with himself?

After the LORD had spoken these words to Job, the LORD said to Eliphaz the Temanite: "My anger burns against you and against your two friends, for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has. Now therefore take seven bulls and seven rams and go to my servant Job and offer up a burnt offering for yourselves. And my servant Job shall pray for you, for I will accept his prayer not to deal with you according to your folly. For you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has." So Eliphaz the Temanite and Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Naamathite went and did what the LORD had told them, and the LORD accepted Job’s prayer. (Job 42)

The suffering of Job meant that Job's friends could also come to know God. Just a thought (not original with me).

TrueHope said...

bethyada,

I think God's main agenda is to show the angels and the readers of this book that there are people who, in Satan's own words, "fear God for nothing".

I think Job's three friends and Elihu were already followers of God and thus were already saved. They just had a serious misunderstanding of God and how He operates. A modern example would be Christians with seriously flawed theology.

JC_Freak,

I'm a fan of Job too. I haven't read any commentaries on this book, but I'm shocked to hear that most interpretations sided with Job's friends instead of Job. Who are some of the theologians you heard of that tried to get around the fact that "he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil"? There can be no higher endorsement than from the very words of God Himself!

Jc_Freak: said...

I dont know any theologians or exegetes who have (though I know some liberal ones have), but there I mostly talking about popular Christianity. I've heard it in sermons and when people tell the story of Job.

I would also add that these people often are unaware that they are siding with Job's friends. They only know the narrative, and are trying to solve the theological tensions they find there, without reflecting on the dialogue.

David B. Ellis said...

God has such confidence in Job's commitment to him that he makes a bet with Satan and kills off Job's kids to break him down (or allows Satan to, it makes little difference).

Forgive me for such stark criticism of your religious convictions but the God depicted in the Book of Job seems to me to be a monster, pure and simple. In fact, I am reminded of nothing so much as the serial killer Jigsaw from the movie SAW---I've always suspected that that movie might have been intended as a symbolic criticism of efforts at theodicy. Or perhaps I read too much into it.

The God depicted in these OT stories. Ordering a man to murder his son as a sacrifice to him, ordering the slaughter of entire cities down to the last child. It honestly sickens me to see the mental gymnastics that people will go through to defend the indefensible when it comes to religion.

Why is it religion has this ability to make otherwise decent people condone the blatantly evil?

David B. Ellis said...


Job is righteous, and does not deserve what he receives in any fashion.


To address the issue from a different perspective, that of a believer in christianity:

Is not Job a sinner, as are all humans other than Jesus?

And as a sinner does he not deserve God's judgement and wrath?

Jc_Freak: said...

David,you make to very good points.

Starting with your second point, yes, to some degree Job would be considered a sinner. However, for the purpose of the story being told within the book, he is a righteous man. Within the context of a systematic theology, we would therefore consider that all of Job's sins have been atoned for.

Onto your first point about God being wicked or a monster. I of course disagree with you. Considering the complexity of the topic, I will focus my response on the book of Job.

First of all, God does not kill off Job's kids. Satan does. Now it is true that Job's servants reported that it was God who did so, but within the conversation between God and Satan, it is clear that it is Satan that is attacking Job, not God. Thus, Job's servants reported incorrectly.

Second, you say that this makes little difference. I strongly disagree there. It makes a world of difference.

A: God did not command Satan to. God protected Job. The deaths of Job's children means that they were not under God's protection. It was Satan who targetted them.

B: Within the Christian world view, Satan acts as an independant agent. There is nothing in the text that says Satan would not have acted if the conversation he had with God had not occured. The conversation merely shows that Satan is trying to prove something. Therefore, I dont really see how this incriminates God.

David B. Ellis said...

You are demonstrating exactly the sort of mental gymnastics I referred to earlier.


Then Satan answered the LORD and said, "Does Job fear God for no reason? Have you not put a hedge around him and his house and all that he has, on every side? You have blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land. But stretch out your hand and touch all that he has, and he will curse you to your face." And the LORD said to Satan, "Behold, all that he has is in your hand. Only against him do not stretch out your hand." So Satan went out from the presence of the LORD.



God wagers that Job would not lose his loyalty no matter what suffering he undergoes and gives Satan carte blanche to do whatever he likes to make Job suffer short of killing him---and claim God bears no responsibility when Satan immediately goes out and does one of the most obvious things to cause a parent suffering---killing their children.

Please.

David B. Ellis said...

Also note:


"Have you not put a hedge around him and his house and all that he has, on every side?"


Which contradicts your claim that Satan would have been able to do as he liked to Job's children had the conversation not occurred. It was only after God granted Satan permission to do what he would short of killing Job himself that Satan was able to harm Job's children.

Wesley Wong said...

Hi, Martin,
Insightful post.
However I prefer this reading - What is Job About? in which though Job is the main character, Elihu is the main hero.

Wesley

bethyada said...

I'll try to avoid gymnastics david.

Getting down to fundamentals you are taking the moral high ground against God but this is intrinsically inconsistent. Without a standard, "morals" are really just preferences. A valid external standard is required for morality to mean anything. So we must start with God.

Further, some acts of God are allowable by him and not by us due to the nature of our beings and relationship. It is wrong for you to come into my house and eat my food (of your own volition), it is not wrong for me to do so. It is wrong for us to take the life of a man without permission because we are made in the image of God and God perceives that as an unwarranted defacement of his image (for want of a better description). But as our owner it is not wrong for God to take our life, it is not even wrong for him to ask us to take the life of another (eg. capital punishment).

Second, one needs to think of the entire effect an action will have, not just the immediate one. The passage says that Satan did this, though God allowed it. Your response is God can prevent it and not doing so is wrong. But that claim means that God would act to prevent every wrong action. If so, while we may retain free thought, we won't retain free action. If free action is what is required to love, and love is what God desires he cannot act to prevent every negative event. So we have the situation that some bad is going to happen in this world. God acts to stop some bad, but you claim it is not enough. If this is the case, we again have you taking the moral high ground against God as to when he should and should not act.

But here is the clincher. Job has hardship and complains about his predicament. Then Job meets God. And despite having no explanation other than God revealing his majesty, Job is satisfied.

You only see what happens to Job and complain about the unfairness. You do not get what Job got. And yet you don't accept Job's acceptance of the outcome. Surely if the defendant sees the judge's rightness then what is there for the court attendees to say?

David B. Ellis said...


Getting down to fundamentals you are taking the moral high ground against God but this is intrinsically inconsistent. Without a standard, "morals" are really just preferences. A valid external standard is required for morality to mean anything. So we must start with God.


Ah, yes. Your stories depict God as being a monster and your response: God is the basis for morality.

Two problems with that:

1. you have only claimed there can be no moral truths if God doesn't exist. You have presented no argument to establish this claim (and have said nothing to address the classic unsolved problem for this claim---the euthyphro dilemma---which is particularly problematic for a defense of the barbaric OT God).

2. even if one accepts the claim that there must be a theistic basis for morality, this does nothing to address the problem being raised. One can stipulate for the sake of argument that God exists and he is the basis of morality but that the OT does not accurately depict his nature (this was the position of many Deists who were strongly critical of the Bible---like Thomas Paine in his THE AGE OF REASON).


But as our owner it is not wrong for God to take our life, it is not even wrong for him to ask us to take the life of another (eg. capital punishment).


Got it. Its perfectly moral for God to murder and invite someone to torture us since he's our "owner".

Another demonstration of how people committed to seeing a rather barbaric text as God's Word will defend the monstrous rather than give up a religious doctrine (the divine origin of the Bible....or the Koran.....or the Book of Mormon. Whatever religion they happen to practice).


The passage says that Satan did this, though God allowed it. Your response is God can prevent it and not doing so is wrong.


You're watering down the passage. It doesn't just say God allowed it. It says he removed his protection from Job (with the exception of not allowing him, personally, to be killed) and INVITED Satan to do as he would.


But that claim means that God would act to prevent every wrong action. If so, while we may retain free thought, we won't retain free action. If free action is what is required to love, and love is what God desires he cannot act to prevent every negative event.


This topic is a particular example of the POE but it has its own unique features (not only is God allowing harm to come to someone, he's INVITING that harm for the specific purpose of proving an individual's loyalty).

But if you wish to broaden the discussion to include a defense, not just of the "God" depicted in this books treatment of Job, but also the fact that God allows, for example, infants to be born with terrible birth defects causing extreme pain and a brief life and so many other examples of ways this world serves as a torture chamber to many born into it.....by all means, go ahead. I'd love to hear a good answer to the POE.


But here is the clincher. Job has hardship and complains about his predicament. Then Job meets God. And despite having no explanation other than God revealing his majesty, Job is satisfied.


"Revealing his majesty"?

God invites someone to torture Job, kill his children and then browbeats him with a demonstration of his awesome power.

But power is not goodness.

The character of Job in this story may be depicted as being satisfied with that.

But that doesn't mean anyone should be.

Jc_Freak: said...

You said:
"God wagers that Job would not lose his loyalty no matter what suffering he undergoes and gives Satan carte blanche to do whatever he likes to make Job suffer short of killing him---and claim God bears no responsibility when Satan immediately goes out and does one of the most obvious things to cause a parent suffering---killing their children.

Please."

David, I understand your passion, and that's fine, but I would appreciate a more respectful tone. In text based discussions one often comes off as more vicisous than one intends, so I'm just saying this as a friendly reminder of that. Now on to your thoughts.

Quite frankly you make a good point. However, one thing that is very important to keep in mind is that there is a lot of information that is lacking in the story. If we accept my premise about the purpose of the narrative sections to be true, than then it is also proper for us to assume that we are only given enough data to demonstrate Job's righteousness, not God's.

I am not a relativist, but I am a situationalist. Morality varies depending on context, and there is a lot of context missing. For instance, how old are the children? You seem to be assuming fairly younger, while I assume them to be older. In either case, we have only asumption.

Also, how righteous are the children? Job is righteous, but what if the only reason what if they are incredibly wicked, and have only been protected thus far for Job's sake? I think if that were the case, than I can't see God being immoral from removing that protection. You may counter that this is merely assumption, and you are right. But so is assuming their innocence.

There may be other factors involved here that we are not aware of. Though the text raises some questions about God's morality within this context, I don't believe you have sufficient data to conclude that He is immoral, or moral. I rely on the rest of Scripture to support my assertion of God's goodness.

You also said:
"Have you not put a hedge around him and his house and all that he has, on every side?'"

Which contradicts your claim that Satan would have been able to do as he liked to Job's children had the conversation not occurred. It was only after God granted Satan permission to do what he would short of killing Job himself that Satan was able to harm Job's children."

Good point. I concede there.

Jc_Freak: said...

To Wesley:

I don't see how you can see that to be an accurate reading of Job? Elihu expresses the same exact arguements as Job's friends, which are later condemed by God.

Now I agree that the point of the book isn't that God one the bet. The bet is not the focal point of the book. My arguement is that the center point of the book is that the theodicy of Job's friends and Elihu is wrong.

Also, Job does not curse God, though, in his ignorance, he does accuse God. But how is this different than many of the Psalms? Consider Psalm 13:1-2 which accuses God of indifference. Consider the passion in Psalm 88, especially the accusations n 6-9. And yet these are considered words of worship!

The power of these psalms is in their faith in God! That despite the fact that they are scared and confused, and that they blame God for their affliction, they still turn to Him! And so does Job! Where does Job curse God? Sure he errantly blames Him, but that is not the same thing. Consider the words of Job in his final discourse before Elihu comes on the scene:

As surely as God lives, who has denied me justice, the Almightey, who has made me taste bitterness of soul, as long as I have life within me, the breath of God in my nostrils, my lips will not speak wickedness, and my tongue will utter no deceit.

Here Job believes that he is being punished though he is righteous, and that God has turned His back on him. What is Job's response? To continue to do good! To uphold God's law! Job goes on:

For what hope has the godless when he is cut off, when God takes away his life? Does God listen to his cry when distress come upon him? Will he find delight in the Almighty? Wil he call upon God at all times?

Here Job has the full expectation that in the end God will still act righteously. That He will judge the wicked, which implies that He will bless the righteous. How are these words of cursing? They sound far more like words of faith to me.

David B. Ellis said...


For instance, how old are the children? You seem to be assuming fairly younger, while I assume them to be older. In either case, we have only asumption.


Actually, I'm making no assumption whatsoever on the matter. To invite someone to murder a man's children to test his loyalty to you is an evil act whether the children be 2 or 15 or 45.


Also, how righteous are the children?


A valid question. I grant that we don't know that within the context of the story---though if the writer doesn't wish his depiction of God to sound monstrous it would be pretty important to mention it if they were.

Not that I think Job's children were actual historical figures. I think the story was probably written as a parable---not history. Which isn't saying it isn't divinely inspired (though, of course, as an nontheist, I don't personally think it is whichever it was intended to be understood as).

Either way, it probably doesn't have that much bearing on the interpretation of the story.


I rely on the rest of Scripture to support my assertion of God's goodness.


Scripture is replete with stories of God acting in a horrific manner.

Like the similar story in which God ordered a man to demonstrate his willingness to murder his son as a test of loyalty---to mention just one of many.


That's why I find the belief in the divine inspiration of ancient religious documents such a pernicious idea---it corrupts the conscience. It forces otherwise decent people to defend and endorse that which no person of conscience should.

Jc_Freak: said...

"Also, how righteous are the children?

A valid question. I grant that we don't know that within the context of the story---though if the writer doesn't wish his depiction of God to sound monstrous it would be pretty important to mention it if they were."

Well, if we consider my theory about the book to be correct, we could see why the author may not have been concerned about that issue. We cannot expect the authors to consider our personal questions and sensitivities when writing the text. Historical context is just as important as textual context.

In my theory, the point of the book is a polemic against the theodicy that bad things only happen to bad people. If this is the case, then the purpose of the narrative is to establish Job as a good person who has bad things happen to him. Any thing other than this basic message is unnecessary, and therefore not concluded. Quite frankly, at those times in the Middle East they wouldn't have considered even the worse case scenario of this to be monsterous. Remember, many of them sacrificed their own children to God (something that God very consistantly condemns, I'll discuss your example later). Therefore, it is very reasonable that the author just wasn't concerned enough about your concern to cover it in the text.

"Not that I think Job's children were actual historical figures. I think the story was probably written as a parable---not history. Which isn't saying it isn't divinely inspired (though, of course, as an nontheist, I don't personally think it is whichever it was intended to be understood as).

Either way, it probably doesn't have that much bearing on the interpretation of the story.
"

I, too, have played around with the idea of the book of Job being a parable, though I do believe Job really existed. I see it simular to the play "Pippen", a parable based around an historical figure. After all, Job is part of the poetic books, not the historical.

"Scripture is replete with stories of God acting in a horrific manner.

Like the similar story in which God ordered a man to demonstrate his willingness to murder his son as a test of loyalty---to mention just one of many.

That's why I find the belief in the divine inspiration of ancient religious documents such a pernicious idea---it corrupts the conscience. It forces otherwise decent people to defend and endorse that which no person of conscience should."

You raise some good questions. First of all, I dont see why people use the story of Abraham. I dont see how you can argue God is monsterous for not making Abraham do something. Mean? Maybe, but not monsterous.

Second, Christianly is, traditionally, a contemplative faith. We construct from Scripture, and especially the gospel, a world view. Then, with that world view, we return to Scripture, to edify ourselves, and to check that world view. The very recent blind adherance to the letter of one's favorite translation is a rather recent phenomonon, which, I believe, reflects our culture more than it reflects the nature of Christianity.

Pizza Man said...

Good post on a difficult passage.

David, I'm curious what is the basis for your morality? For example: why do you say it is evil to destroy a city or murder children. What makes such acts evil?