Today I gave my first undergraduate lecture, to a RELS 101 class of about 120 students. It was 9am so it took them a while to wake up, but by the end (especially after the movie clip) they were asking some excellent questions, and I acutally had to cut them off because time was running out. After the break I’ll post my lecture notes. I didn’t read them, but this is more or less what I said, so all you Hebrew Bible scholars out there can feel free to blast me for my ignorance, and I will surely “repent in dust and ashes”:
An Introduction to Job
According to Old Testament scholar Tod Linafelt, the Book of Job is:
An adventure of theological subversion and theological dialogue, a crack in biblical discourse where life wells up and death infiltrates, a faultline in religious language that runs to the very character of God.1
On the surface, the book seems fairly simple: Job is a good man; God “tests” him with various tragedies; Job passes the test and God restores him. On this reading, Job offers a classic answer to “the Problem of Evil”: Why do bad things happen to good people? Because God is testing us. But under the surface Job is full of tension and ambiguity; much more interested in asking questions than answering them. In fact, the book doesn’t explain suffering at all; it asks what the fact that good people suffer says about God and our relation to him; and Job offers no easy answers to those questions.
To see this, let’s start by looking at the Prologue. It introduces Job as the ideal righteous man. He is so “blameless and upright” that even God brags about his piety. According to traditional theology, he should therefore be blessed for his goodness. As Deuteronomy 28 puts it: “If you fully obey the LORD your God… you will be blessed in the city and blessed in the country. The fruit of your womb will be blessed, and the crops of your land and the young of your livestock” (28:1, 3-4). And so it is with Job, he has many children and great wealth, thousands of sheep, camels, oxen and donkeys—everything the covenant promised.
According to traditional theology, that should be the end of the story, but it is just at this point that “the Satan” asks one of the key questions of the book: “Does Job fear God for no reason?” (1:9; החנם) In other words, if being good earns Job blessing, does he really fear God because he loves God or simply for what he gets out of the bargain? This question is less about Job as an individual, whether one particular man has pure motives, as it is about the way God orders the world. Does the system of retributive justice—blessing for obedience, cursing for disobedience—itself keep us from loving God for his own sake? Do people in general only “fear God” because we think we get something out of the deal? Is it possible to love God “for no reason”?
Those are the questions, but does the book answer them? First, Job loses his children and everything he owns, and how does he respond: “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will return. The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away, blessed be the name of the LORD” (1:21). How does that sound to you? Just like the “patient” Job we’ve always heard about, right? But doesn’t it sound a little too patient, a little cliché, like the kind of thing Job might have memorized in Sunday School? Notice how the narrator evaluates this reaction: “In all this, Job did not sin by charging God with wrongdoing” (1:22). That’s pretty faint praise, all about what Job didn’t do, nothing about his great faith or patience. And what about the second “test,” when God allows the Satan to afflict Job with a terrible disease on top of everything else? This time Job simply asks a question: “Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?” (2:10). Well, shall we or shall we not? Job doesn’t say, and this time the narrator even more ambiguous in his evaluation: “In all this, Job did not sin with his lips” (2:10). So Job didn’t say anything against God, but perhaps he wanted to?2
Now turn to Job 3: After seven days of mourning in silence in the company of three friends, Job finally speaks his mind, and systematically dismantles his own initial reaction. Before he said: “Naked I came from my mother’s womb”; now he “cursed the day of his birth” (3:1). Before he said: “The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away”; now he says: “why is light given to those in misery?” (3:20). Before he said: “Blessed be the name of the LORD,” but would he still say the same now? In other words, it is still an open question whether “Job fears God for no reason,” and the rest of the book will explore this question in various ways.
Job’s three friends—Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar—it turns out, are not at all impressed with Job’s response, and like countless religious folks since then, they jump to defend God and their traditional theology. As Eliphaz puts it: “Who, being innocent, has ever perished? Where were the upright ever destroyed?… We have examined this, and it is true, so hear it and apply it to yourself” (4:7; 5:27). To put that in contemporary terms: “The Bible says it; that settles it. Now repent and believe!” But Job knows he is innocent and has been destroyed anyway, so he instead of repenting, he begins to lose hope: “I do not believe [God] would give me a hearing. He would crush me with a storm and multiply my wounds for no reason (חנם). He would not let me regain my breath, but would overwhelm me with misery… It is all the same, that is why I say: ‘He destroys both the blameless and the wicked” (9:16-17, 22).
Does that surprise you? It doesn’t sound much like the “patient” Job we’ve heard of; it sounds awfully close to blasphemy, and Job’s speeches are full of these sorts of accusations. But so is much of the Hebrew Bible. Abraham, Moses, the complaint Psalms and many of the prophets all accuse God of injustice, of allowing the wicked to prosper while the good are destroyed, of repaying their faithfulness with persecution and death.3 And despite the objections of Job’s friends, these complaints are legitimate. Job is innocent–God himself admits it in the Prologue–yet he suffers terribly. Nor is he alone. Abel, the good one, is killed by his brother Cain; Abraham and Sarah were barren despite following God; Joseph went into slavery; David went into exile; the prophets were persecuted; and all Israel repeated their slavery, exile and persecution. Job’s case is not the exception but the rule, it is the pattern experienced by a thousand saints and martyrs from biblical times to the present day: often it is the most faithful who suffer the worst, not for their sins but for their faithfulness.
That is to say: The Book of Job is less about whether Job is righteous as whether God is. Look back to the Prologue again. Notice how many times the words “bless” and “curse” appear here. Those are the key terms from Deuteronomy’s theology and they are repeated in 1:5, 1:10, 1:11, 1:21, 2:5 and 2:9. But here’s what most English translation don’t tell you: every time blessing or cursing appears in Job 1-2, the author uses the same word: ברך. The strange thing is, ברך normally only means “to bless,” not “to curse,” so where your English translations have Job worrying that his children might “curse” God, a more literal translation would be that they “bless God” (1:5); where the Satan says Job will “curse you to your face,” he actually says Job will “bless you to your face” (1:11; 2:5); and where Job’s wife says “curse God and die,” she actually says “bless God and die” (2:9). This means that every time we come to the word ברך in Job, we have to ask whether it means “to bless” or “to curse,” and the answer isn’t always obvious.
When the Satan says God “blessed” Job by giving him children and animals (1:10), no English translations suggest that he means “cursed” here, but maybe they should. After all, what does the blessing of God really mean in this context? Is it not precisely God’s “blessing” that singled Job out for the Satan’s attention, precisely that “blessing” that brought so much tragedy down on him in the first place? And when Job says “blessed be the name of the LORD” does he really mean blessed? The book does not tell us, and the question of what God’s “blessing” really means will run throughout the book, beginning with God’s second conversation with the Satan in 2:1-6. Here God admits that Job “still maintains his integrity, though you incited me against him to ruin him for no reason” (2:3; חנם). There’s that key phrase again: “for no reason.” Remember that in 9:17 Job accuses God of doing precisely that: punishing him “for no reason,” and here God admits that is what happened. Thus, Job’s accusations may seem blasphemous, but they do not appear to be wrong. In fact, it is his friends who are mistaken, clinging to their orthodox theology when the proof of its failure is standing right in front of them.
In contrast to his orthodoxy friends, Job sometimes sounds a lot like a modern atheist: “Will you speak wickedly on God’s behalf? Will you lie for him?” (13:7-8), “a despairing man should have the devotion of his friends, even though he forsakes the fear of the Almighty” (6:14). But Job is no atheist; he is angry because he does believe, but refuses to lie on God’s behalf: “See, he will kill me; I have no hope; but I will defend my ways to his face” (13:15-16).
Perhaps that is why, when God finally does respond to Job’s complaints, he does not repeat the accusations of Job’s friends, nor condemn Job for blasphemy. But God does not explain his actions either. This is not about giving a “reason” for suffering; that is the old model of justice—the righteous are blessed because they are righteous, and the wicked suffer because they are wicked—but in his speeches, God completely sets aside that kind of speculation. He implies that both sides of the debate have missed the point. The world, God seems to say, does not revolve around Job and the tragedies he suffers. It is full of more grandeur and beauty than any human can comprehend, and even at its most terrifying it remains in God’s hands.
That’s not really an answer is it? It doesn’t address Job’s accusations at all, and Job’s suffering remains just as much a mystery as ever. Yet from what we learned in the Prologue, could God have answered differently? If the question the book is asking is: “Does Job fear God for no reason?” then if God gave reasons for his suffering or promised restoration, he would be conceding that it is impossible to do so. And if even Job cannot love God for God’s own sake, what hope do any of us have?
What about Job’s final response? “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted…. Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know…. I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.” (46:1-6) Is Job here admitting that he was wrong to question God? Note that God has nowhere accused Job of sin, and even when Job says “I repent in dust and ashes” the Hebrew word translated “repent” (נחם) doesn’t necessarily mean to be sorry, it can mean simply to change one’s mind.4 Some even think Job is being sarcastic. Remember what he had said in chapter 9, that even if God gave him an audience, his own lips would lie on God’s behalf. Do you think that’s what is happening here, or has Job truly come to recognize that his complaints were short-sighted? It seems that even here it is an open question whether Job truly does “fear God for no reason.” And God seems content to leave it an open question.
In fact, it is Job’ friends that God condemns: “for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has” (42:7). It seems that God agrees with Job in his rejection of the friends’ advice, but Job’s friends were simply applying the covenant promises given in Deuteronomy. If God really is rejecting their logic, is he not implying that the covenant itself is no guarantee of God’s favor? And doesn’t the history of the Jewish people attests to this? What nation has ever suffered more greatly than the Jews have? Can all of that suffering really be a punishment for their sins?
I want to show you a clip from a movie. It’s called God on Trial, and it tells a story of a group of Jewish prisoners in the Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz. At this point in the story, the Nazis have held a selection to determine which inmates will be sent to the gas-chambers and which will be allowed to live. None of the prisoners know who has been selected or why, and while they wait to learn who will live and who will die, they follow Job’s lead and hold a trial against God, accusing him of “breaking his covenant with Israel.” The film raises a number of very difficult questions, but here is one clip that is especially relevant to Job [I played 19:03-24:20 from the DVD; that corresponds to more or less the last 3 minutes of this clip, followed by the first 2 minutes of this one].
Whose side in that debate did you find yourself identifying with? Those who insisted their suffering must be a punishment, or those who refused to let God off so easily? To me one thing seems unquestionable: the apparently unjust suffering Job experienced was no isolated case; it has been the experience of countless Jews from the Exodus to the Holocaust, and of countless non-Jews as well. If you think you can give a reason to explain that suffering, to “argue on God’s behalf” as Job’s friends attempt to do, I think you have missed the point of the Book of Job. This is the world we live in, a world both of unimaginable beauty and unimaginable evil. Sometimes the wicked do prosper, and sometimes the good are destroyed, whatever Eliphaz, Bildad, Zophar or Deuteronomy say. The question is: will we follow God anyway? Not because he blesses us for it, but even if he does not?
Then there is the conclusion to the book, where God restores double everything Job had. Some people do not like this ending—it seems like a cop-out, hiding the questions the rest of the book asked under a falsely happy ending. After all, many people suffer without relief, not least in Nazi Germany, so why should Job get everything back the way it was? But does Job get everything back? What about his children? It is all well and good to say that God gave Job new children, but the sons and daughters who died at the beginning of the book are still dead, and no “reason” can be given to explain their loss. Likewise, it is all well and good to say that God brought something good out of the Holocaust, but those who died are still dead and are not here to enjoy it.
Thus, even Job’s restoration does not answer our questions, but what it does offer is different way to ask the Satan’s question: Not just will we fear God even if we get nothing out of it, but will God give us nothing in return for our love? The end of Job, ambiguous though it is, offers hope that God’s justice will win out in the end, that those who suffer “for no reason” will not do so forever. In the end there is hope, but it is not a hope that answers all questions; it is a hope that gives us the courage to ask them, not just for the sake of Job’s children, but for the sakes of all those who continue to suffer in this world. As Old Testament theologian Walter Brueggemann puts it:
The dramatic power of the book of Job attests to the reality that faith, beyond easy convictions, is a demanding way to live that thrives on candor and requires immense courage.5
So will we fear God “for no reason”? Will we love God for God’s own sake? To do so requires not only the patience of Job, but also the honesty of Job, the courage of Job, the hope of Job.
1 Tod Linafelt, “The Undecidability of ברך in the Prologue to Job and Beyond,” Biblical Interpretation 4 (1996): 154; see also 154-171. See also Alan Cooper, “Reading and Misreading the Prologue to Job,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 46 (1990): 67-79.
5 Walter Brueggemann, An Introduction to the Old Testament: The Canon and Christian Imagination (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2003), 302. See also Brueggemann’s Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997), 359-403, especially 385-393.