taking the Book of Job seriously

Gustave Dore's 'Job and His Friends'From Introduction to the Old Testament (Hebrew Bible), Lecture 20, November 15, 2006, “Responses to Suffering and Evil…” (available in MP3):

Professor Christine Hayes:

… I think the most important thing about the Book of Proverbs is its almost smug certainty that the righteous and the wicked of the world receive what they deserve in this life. There’s a complacency here, an optimism. God’s just providence and a moral world order, are presuppositions that it just doesn’t seem to question. The wise person’s deeds are good and will bring him happiness and success. The foolish person’s deeds are evil and they are going to lead to failure and ruin. The key idea is that a truly wise person knows that the world is essentially coherent. It’s ethically ordered. There are clear laws of reward and punishment that exist in the world.

Proverbs 26:27: “He who digs a pit will fall into it / and a stone will come back upon him who starts it rolling” [RSV translation]. Or 13:6: “Righteousness protects him whose way is blameless; Wickedness subverts the sinner.” If the righteous suffer then they are being chastised or chastened by God just as a son is disciplined by his father. He shouldn’t reject this reproof, he should welcome it.

This insistence, on the basic justice of the world, and the power of wisdom or fear of the Lord to guarantee success and security was one strand of ancient Israelite thought. It reaches crystallization in the Book of Proverbs. It was available as a response to or an explanation of the catastrophes that had befallen the nation. We’ve seen it at work in the Deuteronomistic school, unwilling to relinquish the idea of a moral God in control of history and preferring to infer the nation’s sinfulness from its suffering and calamity. Better to blame the sufferer Israel and so keep God and the system of divine retributive justice intact.

But it’s precisely this formulaic and conventional piety that is challenged by two other remarkable Wisdom books in the Bible: the Book of Job and the Book of Ecclesiastes. In Job we find the idea that suffering is not always punitive. It is not always a sign of wickedness. It’s not always explicable. And this is the first of several subversions of fundamental biblical principles that we encounter in the Book of Job.

The Book of Job — we really don’t know its date. It’s probably no earlier then the sixth century BCE, but scholars disagree and there are portions of it that seem to reflect a very old and very ancient tradition. It’s one of the hardest books of the Bible for moderns to read, and I think that’s because its conclusions — to the degree that we can agree on what the conclusions might be — its conclusions seem to fly in the face of some basic religious convictions.

You have to allow yourself, I think, to be surprised, to open your mind, to allow yourself to take Job’s charges against God seriously. After all, the narrator makes it clear that God does take them seriously. God nowhere denies Job’s charges and, in fact, at one point the narrator has God say that Job has spoken truly. So no matter how uncomfortable Job may make you feel, you need to understand his claims and not condemn him.

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2 Responses to taking the Book of Job seriously

  1. You might be interested in this online commentary “Putting God on Trial: The Biblical Book of Job” (http://www.bookofjob.org) as supplementary or background material for the Book of Job. It is not a sin to question God, to demand answers from God. There is a time and a place for such things. It is written by a Canadian criminal defense lawyer, now a Crown prosecutor, and it explores the legal and moral dynamics of the Book of Job with particular emphasis on the distinction between causal responsibility and moral blameworthiness embedded in Job’s Oath of Innocence. It is highly praised by Job scholars (Clines, Janzen, Habel) and the Review of Biblical Literature, all of whose reviews are on the website. It is also taught in 262 US high schools in 40 states through Chapter 17 in The Bible and Its Influence. The author is an evangelical Christian, denominationally Anglican. He is also the Canadian Director for the Mortimer J. Adler Centre for the Study of the Great Ideas, a Chicago-based think tank.

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