by Herold Weiss
Parents can be quite surprised when they find out that a child of theirs did some horrendous thing. They had constant personal, objective interactions with their child, but one day out of the blue, as they see it, they discover that they did not know at all who this child of theirs is. On the other hand, it often happens that a child who had an intimate relationship with his father throughout his adolescence and youth and thought at the time that his father was a dumb old foggy totally out of touch with reality when he becomes a young adult and mentally reconstructs the history of his relationship with his father realizes that his father has actually been all along a very wise human being who desires the best for him.
In my last column, I said that my understanding of God and that of the author of Psalm 137 were totally different. By that I did not mean to say that mine was better than that of the Psalmist. I was just stating that our understandings were different. His God may have had some qualities that I would very much admire, but I do not know about them. Mine may be actually quite different from that of most of my contemporaries, besides being different from that of many biblical authors. Now, if parents can be totally surprised when they find out who their son really is, and young men can radically revise their understanding of their father, even though they have daily physical contact with him, how much more everyone will be quite surprised when we all find out who God really is, given that human beings can have contact with God only in their imagination.
This is a most important lesson we must learn, and learning it means having achieved some spiritual maturity. I give credit to the Book of Job for teaching me this lesson. Because it was written precisely to teach this lesson, I consider it to be the best theological book of the Old Testament. The way in which the author frames the story of Job tells us that he has come a long way thinking about and coming to some conclusions concerning the question of God.
On the surface it would appear that the concern of the book is with the problem of the suffering of the innocent or, stated differently, whether God is just. The problem of the suffering of the innocent became crucial once human beings ceased identifying themselves within their tribe and sought individual identity. It no longer made sense to understand one’s suffering as due to the sin of an ancestor (21:19). The author of the Book of Job also makes clear that he has rejected the apocalyptic solution to the problem of the unjust suffering of the righteous. The introduction presents Satan as a respectable member of the council of the sons of God, and not as a rebellious fallen angel who has been ejected from heaven and has become the “god of this world” who is free to cause evil. In this story, God has not lost control over Satan. Besides, the text denies that there is a resurrection (10: 20-21; 14: 12, 19-20; 16: 22; 17: 13-16). The introduction also makes clear that actually Job is a just, blameless and upright man (1: 1, 22; 2: 10, cf. 12:4). If the reader had not been told this repeatedly, one would be inclined to think that Job is a hypocrite when he proclaims his innocence (9:15; 10: 7), and challenges God to bring out any evidence against him (6: 24; 13:20-23). Given what is said about Job in the introduction, the reader knows that Job’s protestations are justified.
Anyone who has read the Book of Job knows that Job is sinless but impatient. The proverbial patience of Job is not found in the book. It comes from the ancient legend of Job, referred to in Ezekiel 14: 14, 20. According to the Book of Job, a rich patriarch suffered great losses both of wealth and of loved ones. His wife then advised him to curse God and die, but he answered her saying that that those who receive great blessings from God should also happily receive hardships from God (2: 9 -10). On account of Job’s faithfulness, God rewarded him by making him many times richer than he had been previously (42: 12 – 13). The author of the Book of Job added the account of the council of the sons of God in heaven, the dialogue of Job with his visitors, the dialogue of Job with God, and the amazing fact that his daughters inherited from his great wealth. It is also apparent that some digressive poems were likewise added in antiquity.
The plot of the story is quite simple. Job is obviously under tremendous suffering. The three visitors who come to accompany him insist that his situation is obvious: retributive justice works and God is punishing Job for his sins. Their advice is “despise not the chastening of the Almighty” (5:17). According to them, the solution to Job’s predicament is for him to confess his sins, ask forgiveness and repent. God will assuredly reward him with health and well-being. Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar say this in a number of ways, only affirming what had become the orthodox understanding of God’s justice best expressed in Deuteronomy. A late visitor, Elihu, also affirms it, but admits that “God is clothed with terrible majesty—the Almighty—we cannot find him; he is great in power and justice” (37: 23-24). Job’s analysis of the situation is quite different. He is innocent of any sin. He has nothing to repent from and for which to ask forgiveness. This means that God is unjust.
The author of the book has done an excellent job in setting up the situation. We may explore the options available to him in this way: 1) in a world without God, anything is possible and no reasons are to be sought for the suffering of the righteous; 2) in a polytheistic universe, everyone must keep in good graces with the goddess Fortuna; 3) in a monotheistic universe, there are two possibilities: God is either all-powerful and unjust (or not loving), or God is not all-powerful and just (or loving). All the protagonists in the Book of Job agree that God is all-powerful. The four visitors insist that God is all-powerful and just. According to Job, however, God is all-powerful and unjust. As an aside, it may be noted that most Christians today would opt for the first alternative: God is just and loving but has limitations.
According to Job, God is unjust on several counts. In the first place God is unjust by causing an innocent person to suffer. In the second place, God is unjust because he refuses to attend to Job’s pleas for release from his sufferings. His pleas are totally ignored by God (9: 32; 13: 3, 18; 23: 17). In the third place, God is unjust because God is a bully who is taking advantage of a weaker being, using him for target practice with arrows, and laughing while having fun with him (6: 14; 9:23; 10: 16; 16: 2). In the fourth place, God is unjust because not only God is causing Job to suffer but has also ruined his reputation and diminished him in the sight of his fellows, including his wife (2: 9; 10:15). In the fifth place, God is unjust by refusing to allow a referee, a third party, to adjudicate between God and Job; there cannot be justice when grievances are to be presented to the abuser (9: 15, 33; 19: 6-7; 24: 1; 31: 35). As the story unfolds, Job insists that he will not cease accusing God with injustice until he is vindicated. His visitors insist that he is a sinner. He insists that he is innocent, and that he must be vindicated before his death (6: 4; 13: 18; 27: 5-6). At his burial, his nearest of kin (the Goel, his redeemer according to Hebrew custom) will stand at the grave site and everyone present will only have something good to say about him (19: 25), but that those will be empty words which he will not be able to hear. Job does not consider a posthumous vindication valid.
Finally, God appears in a whirlwind that demolishes Job’s self-assurance. Instead of bringing comfort and consolation to Job in his suffering, or explaining the reason for his lamentable situation, God totally bypasses all of Job’s complaints and accuses the three visitors of not having “spoken of me [God] what is right” (42: 7). (Job had throughout accused them of offering worthless lies [13: 4, 12; 21: 34]). For Job, who had been eager to confront God with his accusations of injustice, God has some pointed questions: “Shall a faultfinder contend with the Almighty?” (40: 2). “Will you even put me in the wrong? Will you condemn me that you may be justified?” (40: 8). Most significantly, Job is confronted with a long series of questions about the way in which God had gone about creating the world and still keeps all creatures active (38: 4 – 39; 40: 10 – 41: 24). God’s questions have a clear agenda. They demonstrate Job’s absolute ignorance and impotence in reference to the natural world, one which in this telling includes Leviathan, the “creature without fear, . . . the king of all the sons of pride” (31: 33-34). Given that Job is absolutely out of his depths in the realm of nature, what makes him think that he knows all there is to know about the realm of justice so that he can declare God unjust?
God’s rebuke of Eliphaz and his two friends is, “You have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has” (42: 8). This can be understood in two ways: It could be a reference to the words Job has just spoken, “I had heard of thee by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees thee; therefore, I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes” (42: 5-6) By these words Job establishes that there are two ways to know about God, by the hearing of the ear and by the seeing of the eye, that is, to know God from the tradition and to know God personally. The distinction makes clear that the first option is inadequate and the second is effective. Facing the Creator God Job realizes the inadequacy of the understanding of God that had enabled him to accuse God of being unjust.
What God says, however, contrasts what Eliphaz and his friends have said and what Job has said; therefore, most probably it should be taken to refer to what Job has said in his argument with his visitors. As I have analyzed their debate, Job has been giving a very detailed list of God’s activities that reveals a sophisticated understanding of justice. It is on the basis of it that Job charges God with being unjust. It must not be overlooked, however, that Job insists that he wishes to bring God before a court of justice. He is confident that at the court he will be vindicated. This means that in the final analysis Job has faith that the court will be just. On the basis of this fact, it would seem that God is saying that the three visitors who only spouted traditional orthodoxy did not speak right of God, but that Job, who gave an insightful analysis of God’s injustice according to his views of justice, spoke well because of his residual trust in the justice system that would vindicate him.
What is the author of the Book of Job doing by means of this very well constructed drama? We must not forget that according to the story Job’s traumatic experience has been brought about by God’s desire to win a bet made with Satan, something he added to the traditional legend of Job. When we are confronted with a God who wagers against Satan it is obvious that we are being told that this God is a human creation. Thus, the author is making the point that to expose the futility of our human conceptions of God he could do no better than to create a betting God. It is because of their deep awareness of their impotence that humans like to bet. It is their way of affirming that they are alive by taking chances in search of power.
Certainly one who could construct the dialogue of Job and his visitors did not think that any one should take his story as true. His whole exercise is a human attempt to explicate God’s justice by manipulating a humanly created God. In other words, the author of the Book of Job aims to tell his readers that any god that humans can use to explain God’s ways in nature and in history is a god of human creation. It is not remotely related to the God who actually created the world and keeps it operative. All our gods are too human. They are human attempts to make sense of our experiences, and as such they fail altogether to reveal the God who actually is the Creator and giver of Life. The God who is God cannot be manipulated to construct explanations of human experience. The author of the Book of Job belongs to the Wisdom School that places experience over traditions, the seeing of the eye over the hearing of the ear. His genius is to have taken an ancient legend and with a very ironic and agile mind turn it into a theological masterpiece in which he rejects the Hebraic orthodoxy that God’s retributive justice is at work now, the apocalyptic view that God’s retributive justice will be at work at the resurrection of the dead, and any other sophisticated explanation of God’s justice or injustice. Those constructs are only human conceptions of retribution, not at all God’s way of acting.
His insight that human pictures of God are easily manipulated human creations is demonstrated by his explanation that Job’s sufferings are actually caused by God’s need to win a bet. This is obviously a most ridiculous way of manipulating God. To explain God’s just ways by means of a story about God wagering on Job is a contradiction that introduces chance into God’s universe. This obviously sets up an ironic, upside down universe. The Book of Job is a tour de force on an ancient legend to tell everyone that their God is too human. As any oriental storyteller will tell you, the good storyteller is the one who takes a well-known story and expands it to teach a new lesson. He knows, however, that his audience will not accept a different ending. So, the ending of this version of the legend of the patriarch Job tells the very humanly conceived way in which Job is rewarded for trusting in God. All is well that ends well, thus making the story fit human visions of what ought to be.