Lecture 20. Responses to Suffering and Evil: Lamentations and Wisdom Literature

Professor Christine
Hayes: When Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon burned the temple and
destroyed Jerusalem, the initial reaction was one of
overwhelming grief and sadness, and that’s represented
primarily in the Book of Lamentations.
It’s a very short book of dirges that laments the loss of
Jerusalem as the death of a beloved person.
And it’s traditionally attributed to Jeremiah.
The Bible itself doesn’t make
this claim; it’s an old tradition.
It may have arisen,
however, because of all of the prophets, Jeremiah is the one
who reveals the most to us about his personal suffering and
grief, and because he was present as
an eyewitness at the destruction.
There’s no real logical development of ideas in
Lamentations primarily because it’s structured by an artificial
device. There are five chapters and
four of the chapters are acrostic poems.
This means that each verse, or sometimes a series of
verses, begins with a letter of the alphabet in sequence.
So in chapter 3 you have three
verses per letter of the alphabet.
But this kind of acrostic poetic formation gives the poem
a kind of formal unity, at the same time that it has no
logical unity or logical flow. And it’s been pointed out that
that form is particularly appropriate for an expression of
grief that is too profound or too all encompassing to be
logical. The Lamentations over Jerusalem
resemble very much David’s lamentations over Saul.
The mourner spends time
contrasting the former splendor of the beloved to his or her
present state. And we have lots of Ancient
Near Eastern prototypes for this kind of
lamentation–lamentations over destroyed cities which are
understood as the result of the deity’s decision to abandon the
city. In Lamentations we’re given a
very detailed picture of the great suffering that accompanied
the final collapse. Lamentations 1:1:
“Alas! Lonely sits the city
Once great with people! She that was great among nations
Is become like a widow; The princess among states
Is become a thrall.” Chapter 4:
Alas! The gold is dulled,
Debased the finest gold, The sacred gems are spilled a
At every street corner. The precious children of Zion;
Once valued as gold– Alas, they are accounted as
earthen pots, Work of a potter’s hands!
Even jackals offer the breast
And suckle their young; But my poor people has turned
cruel, Like ostriches of the desert.
The tongue of the suckling
cleaves To its palate for thirst.
Little children beg for bread;
None give them a morsel. Those who feasted on dainties
Lie famished in the streets; Those who were reared in purple
Have embraced refuse heaps. The guilt of my poor people
Exceeded the iniquity of Sodom, Which was overthrown in a
moment, Without a hand striking it.
Her elect were purer then snow,
Whiter then milk; Their limbs were ruddier then
coral, Their bodies were like sapphire.
Again, the description of the
physical beauty of the beloved, Now their faces are blacker
then soot, They are not recognized in the
streets; Their skin has shriveled on
their bones, It has become dry as wood.
Better off were the slain of
the sword Than those slain by famine,
Who pined away, [as though]
wounded, For lack of the fruits of the
field. With their own hands,
tenderhearted women Have cooked their children;
Such became their fare, In the disaster of my poor
people. The poet here,
though, does adopt the standard Deuteronomistic interpretation
of events which infers sin from suffering,
and therefore, harps on the sin and the
uncleanness of Jerusalem that brought on this calamity.
Their guilt exceeded the
iniquity of Sodom in the passage we just read,
and this is a strategy that of course justifies God.
The poet singles out the
corrupt priests, the corrupt prophets for blame.
He attacks the popular ideology
of the inviolability of Zion. Israel’s many sins are what
caused Yahweh to pour out his wrath and destroy Jerusalem
utterly. The descriptions of Yahweh’s
wrath, anger, his consuming rage,
these are some of the most powerful and most violent poetry
in the Hebrew Bible. They tend to divert attention,
in fact, from the people’s guilt and focus attention on
their suffering. Children crying for bread,
children starving to death, women raped,
men abused. In chapter 3,
the poet switches into the first person so Jerusalem is
speaking like one who is pursued and abused,
beaten by an angry and violent master.
Chapter 3: I am the man who has
known affliction Under the rod of His wrath;
Me he drove on and on In unrelieved darkness;
On none but me He brings down His hand
Again and again, without cease. He has worn away my flesh and
skin; He has shattered my bones.
All around me He has built
Misery and hardship; He has made me dwell in
darkness, Like those long dead.
He has walled me in and I
cannot break out; He has weighed me down with
chains. And when I cry and plead,
He shuts out my prayer; He has walled in my ways with
hewn blocks, He has made my paths a maze.
He is a lurking bear to me,
A lion in hiding; He has forced me off my way and
mangled me, He has left me numb.
A remarkably violent passage. And in another remarkable
passage, the poet describes God as refusing to hear the prayers
of Israel. He no longer can forgive.
He simply has to punish.
This is in chapter 3 as well,
verses 42 to 45. We have transgressed and
rebelled, And You have not forgiven.
You have clothed Yourself in
anger and pursued us, You have slain without pity.
You have screened Yourself off
with a cloud That no prayer may pass through.
You have made us filth and
refuse In the midst of the
peoples. So God is simply refusing to
even hear Israel’s prayer. This is an emphasis not so much
on Israel’s guilt, but on Israel’s tremendous
suffering, God’s hardheartedness.
The poem ends with a plea of reconciliation in 5:19-22.
But You,
O Lord, are enthroned forever, Your throne endures through the
ages. Why have you forgotten us
utterly, Forsaken us for all time?
Take us back,
O Lord, to Yourself, And let us come back;
Renew our days as of old! For truly, You have rejected us,
Bitterly raged against us. Take us back,
O Lord, to Yourself, And let us come back;
Renew our days as of old! Lamentations represents one
response to the fall of Jerusalem.
It’s an overwhelming sense of loss, grief, misery,
a sense of shock too at God’s treatment.
And also a longing to return, a longing for renewal and
reconciliation. The 200 years following the
destruction would prove to be a time, a very critical time,
of transition. And Israelite literature in
this period reflects the Israelites’ struggle with the
philosophical and religious challenge of the destruction.
How could the disastrous events
be explained? We’ve already seen the response
of the Deuteronomistic School. Israel was collectively
punished for idolatry. We’ve seen that history simply
reflects justice on a national and international level in this
view. We’ve also seen the response of
Ezekiel. He promoted the idea of a
continued relationship with God in exile and was awaiting a
fantastic restoration, a redesign of human nature.
We’ve seen the response of
Second Isaiah which emphasizes the universal significance of
Israel’s suffering, a universal mission for Israel.
For both Ezekiel and the author
of Second Isaiah, Israel’s suffering is serving a
purpose in the divine plan. It’s necessary.
Israel needs purification and redemption and that will prepare
her for a new role in world history.
But there are other responses as well and they’re found in the
material that’s collected in the third section of the Hebrew
Bible. That’s the section referred to
really as Ketuvim, which in Hebrew simply means
writings, written things. It’s sort of a miscellany,
a catch-all phrase. And the final portion of the
course is going to be devoted now to that third section.
So Torah, Neviim or
prophets, and Ketuvim, or writings.
Next time I’m going to discuss the problem of dating many of
the works that are in this third section, the Writings.
For now it’ll suffice to say
that while some of the books in this third section of the Bible
may have pre-dated the exile, they became canonical,
they became authoritative for the community in the post-exilic
period and therefore served as a prism through which to view and
come to grips with Israel’s history.
So we’re going to turn today, first of all,
to an examination of the three books that represent the Wisdom
tradition, what’s referred to as the
Wisdom literature, or Wisdom tradition in ancient
Israel. The Wisdom books of the Hebrew
Bible are Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes.
Israelite Wisdom literature
belongs to a much wider and broad Wisdom legacy or tradition
in the Ancient Near East. There’s very little in biblical
Wisdom literature apart from its monotheism that lacks a parallel
in the Wisdom literature of Egypt or Mesopotamia.
So Ancient Near Eastern Wisdom
literature is literature that’s characterized by a praise of
human intelligence, applied to understanding the
ways of the world, the ways of society.
It tends to contain traditional
advice–advice that’s been found to be tried and true.
It tends to be very
individually oriented, but at the same time,
quite universal and humanistic in its orientation as well.
In keeping with this style,
Israelite Wisdom literature doesn’t really speak to the
particular historical condition of Israel.
It speaks to the general human condition.
It makes no claim to having been divinely revealed–no
special claim to having been conveyed by a prophet or by
Moses. It’s simply observational
wisdom; advice and counsel that can be
weighed or confirmed or disputed by experience.
Again, if you were simply to open up the Book of Proverbs and
read something in there, unless it had the word Yahweh,
you wouldn’t know that it didn’t come from some Egyptian
Wisdom literature, or Mesopotamian Wisdom
literature. There are various types of
Wisdom material. Scholars have classified the
Wisdom material into three main categories.
The Hebrew word for wisdom–which is the word
hokhmah–literally means skill and probably refers to the
skill of living well or living properly.
The three types of Wisdom literature that we find are what
we could call (1) clan or family wisdom.
These materials tend to be common sense aphorisms and
observations, the kinds of things that are
common to all cultures. They’re scattered around the
Hebrew Bible, but most of them are contained
in the Book of Proverbs. So, for example,
Proverbs 15:17, “Better a meal of vegetables
where there is love / Then a fattened ox where there is
hate.” It’s the kind of thing you can
imagine your grandmother saying. Chapter 20:14:
“‘Bad, bad,’ says the buyer, / But having moved off,
he congratulates himself.” Or 26:14: “The door turns on
its hinge, / And the lazy man on his bed,” and neither of them
really gets anywhere. 25:25: “Like cold water to a
parched throat / Is good news from a distant land.”
Many of the Proverbs we
classify as clan or family wisdom are parental.
They tend to sound as if
they’re being said to a son, not so much a daughter,
but to a son. The second category of Wisdom
literature is what we call court wisdom, and we have a lot of
this from Egypt. A great deal of court wisdom
came from Egypt to serve the needs of the court.
It tends to be bureaucratic
advice, administrative advice, career advice,
instruction on manners or tact, how to be diplomatic,
how to live well and prosper–practical wisdom.
So, for example,
Proverbs 24:27, “Put your external affairs in
order, / Get ready what you have in the field,
/ Then build yourself a home.” Or 21:23: “He who guards his
mouth and tongue / Guards himself from trouble,” tact;
11:14, “For want of strategy an army falls, / But victory comes
with much planning,” or 12:1, “He who loves discipline loves
knowledge; / He who spurns reproof is a
brutish man.” Then the third category of
Wisdom literature is what we might call more free-wheeling
existential reflection or probing–a reflective probing
into the critical problems of human existence,
and I’m going to talk about that in much more detail as we
get to the Book of Job. Now as I mentioned before,
all of these types of Wisdom literature tend to be very
universalistic, humanistic, ahistorical.
There’s nothing particularly
Israelite about them. There’s no mention of the
exodus, there’s no mention of Sinai or Moses or covenant or
any of the early narratives of the nation.
And they are paralleled in great abundance in the writings
of other Ancient Near Eastern cultures.
Sometimes there’s an attempt to connect wisdom specifically with
belief in Yahweh. But biblical Wisdom like
Ancient Near Eastern Wisdom generally grounds morality on
non-specific notions of prudence and God-fearing in a sort of
non-specific way, rather then on the historical
covenant with Yahweh. So let’s look at the Book of
Proverbs in a little more detail.
Proverbs is the classic book of Wisdom.
It contains some material of great antiquity.
Even though the book probably reached its final form only in
post-exilic times, surely a great deal of it is
much older. There are many affinities
between Proverbs and Egyptian and Canaanite Wisdom literature,
so that suggests that Israel assimilated Wisdom material from
the wider environment. The chief aim of Proverbs seems
to be the inculcation of wisdom as the means to social
tranquility and a happy life. Young people should learn to
master their impulses. They should lead productive and
sensible lives. Many of the maxims are intended
to educate sons, there’s no mention of daughters
here, and a good deal of the first
nine chapters is formally pedagogical, clearly
pedagogical, and can be compared quite
productively with some Egyptian writings that we have from the
third millennium–the Egyptian teaching of Amenemopet,
or the Babylonian Counsels of Wisdom;
tremendous parallels among these works.
But these first nine chapters warn against the seductions of
foreign women and they urge young men to pursue wisdom.
And wisdom here is
figured–almost hypostasized, an attribute or a
characteristic that’s almost put into a concrete human form,
wisdom is figured as a virtuous woman who promises insight and
counsel. This woman was created before
all other created things. And wisdom again,
figured as a woman, assisted Yahweh in the
creation–in the ordering, I should say,
the ordering of the universe. Wisdom was with God at that
time. Proverbs values hard work and
diligence, and warns against excessive sleep and sex,
and wine. Proverbs recommends honesty in
your business affairs and kindness, and loyalty,
impartiality, sobriety, and humility,
restraint, and sincerity. Wealth is very nice,
but it’s not to be desired at the cost of calmness and peace.
The Wisdom sayings that appear
in Proverbs are usually these short two-line sentences in
which the second line runs parallel in some way to the
first. Some scholars have classified
the different kinds of parallelism you find in the book
of Proverbs and I’ve written the three main forms up here.
An example of synonymous
parallelism, where the second line is essentially synonymous
with the first–that’s found in Proverbs 22:1.
It’s a classic feature of biblical poetry in general.
We’ll see it in the Psalms.
For an example,
“A good name is to be chosen rather then great riches / And
favor,” parallel to a good name,
“is better then silver and gold,” parallel to great riches
. So the two lines are somewhat
synonymous. In antithetic parallelism the
two lines form a balanced pair of opposites,
so in Proverbs 10:1, “A wise son makes a glad father
/ But a foolish son is a sorrow to his mother”.
When the second line seems to complete the thought of the
first, it’s called ascending parallelism.
We find that in Proverbs 11:22, “Like a gold ring in the snout
of a pig / Is a beautiful woman bereft of sense.”
Another feature of Proverbs is
that wisdom itself is established as a religious
concept. It seems to have some religious
value. Proverbs tries to link wisdom
with reverence for God and obedience to God.
In Proverbs 1:7,
“The fear of the Lord” or reverence, “the fear of the Lord
is the beginning of wisdom. Fools despise wisdom and
discipline,” or chapter 3:5-8, “Trust in the Lord with all
your heart, / And do not rely on your own understanding.”
Wisdom guards one from evil,
the wise person accepts the sufferings with which God is
disciplining him. So in Proverbs 3:12,
“For Yahweh reproves,” or disciplines, “him whom he loves
/ As a father, the son in whom he delights”.
Keep that in mind as we turn to
Job, because 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”. 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. Job is going to attack the
optimistic conventional piety that is typified in the Book of
Proverbs. He’s going to challenge the
assumption that there is a moral world order.
The issues that are raised in this book are twofold:
first, why God permits blatant injustice and undeserved
suffering and evil to exist in the world,
and second of all, whether people will be virtuous
when they are afflicted and suffering.
In other words, are people righteous only
because God will reward them for it,
or are they righteous because of the intrinsic and inherent
value of righteousness? Those are the two issues.
Now literarily,
the book contains two primary elements.
First, we have a prose story and that provides a framework
for the book, that’s chapters 1 and 2 and
then it returns in chapter 42 at the end of the book.
Into this prose framework a
large poetic section of dialogue and speeches has been inserted.
So there are two main literary
components. Now the prose framework
concerning a scrupulously righteous man named Job,
afflicted by horrendous calamity,
was probably a standard Ancient Near Eastern folktale of great
antiquity. The story isn’t set in Israel;
it’s not about an Israelite. It’s set in Edom.
Job is an eastern magnate who
dwells in the country of Uz, not an Israelite.
But the Israelite author has
used this older Ancient Near Eastern legend about a man named
Job for his own purposes. The name Job,
which in Hebrew is pronounced, iyyov,
is bivalent in meaning. It can mean “enemy” in Hebrew,
by changing vowels around; but it’s the root for enemy,
oyev, or, if we take it in Aramaic,
it can mean “one who repents,” “a repentant one.”
And as we’re going to see,
the name will be appropriate in both senses as the story
progresses. There’s a handout on the side
of the room. I’m not sure everyone took one
when they came in. I’m wondering if it could be
distributed please. I’m sorry.
It’s going to help you chart what goes on in Job.
But this handout contains an
outline of the book’s structure on one side–so it’s mapped out
on one side. On the other side,
it has some important verses and terms.
But we’ll see from the outline of the structure,
chapters 1 and 2 have this prose prologue about the pious
and prosperous Job and his devastation,
which is the result of a challenge which is put to God.
At the end of that prologue,
at the end of chapter 2, he has three friends who come
to sit with him in silence for seven days.
The silence doesn’t last very long because we move then into
the large poetic section and that extends from chapter 3 all
the way to chapter 42, verse 7.
So you’ll see that structure on the handout.
There are many ways to map the structure of the Book of Job.
Your handout charts,
I think, one of the more common and clearer representations.
Looking now specifically at the
poetic section: First, you have a dialogue
between Job and his three friends that goes from chapter 3
to chapter 31, verse40.
And it can be divided into three cycles of speeches.
Job opens each cycle–so the
first speech in each cycle is by Job–and then his friends speak
in a regular pattern. First, Eliphaz with Job
responding and then Bildad with Job responding and then Zophar;
and you have this pattern of six speeches.
It occurs three times but in fact the third time the reply by
Zophar is omitted and that deviation ensures that Job has
the first and the last word. He has a summation speech in
chapters 29 to 31. At first, the friends seek to
comfort Job and to explain his suffering but they become
increasingly harsh, ultimately bearing a callous
contempt for Job’s condition. Now this section closes with
the long speech by Job, as I said: 29 to 31.
He’s lamenting the loss of his
past, pleasant life. He protests his innocence,
he calls on God to answer. But then Elihu,
this previously unannounced fourth friend appears.
He gives four speeches from
chapters32 to 37. He admonishes Job;
he defends God’s justice, and then this is followed by a
poetic discourse between God who poses a series of rhetorical
questions and Job who appears contrite.
And that section also falls into four parts rather like
Elihu’s speech. You have two long speeches by
Yahweh, two short ones by Job. Finally, there’s a concluding
prose epilogue that vindicates Job.
God criticizes Job’s friends, and then in a rather unexpected
happy ending, we have Job restored to his
fortunes and finally experiencing a peaceful death.
So let’s look at the contents
in greater deal now that we’ve reviewed the structure.
The story opens by introducing
us to Job. He’s said to be a blameless and
upright man. He fears God and he shuns evil,
that is chapter 1, verse 1.
So the moral virtue and innocence of Job is established
in the opening line as a narrative fact,
a non-negotiable narrative fact.
And yet this Job is to become the victim of a challenge issued
by “the satan” in the heavenly counsel.
I say “the satan” deliberately.
The satan.
The satan is certainly not the
devil. There’s no such notion in the
Hebrew Bible. The phrase, “the satan,” occurs
four times in the Hebrew Bible, here and in Numbers 22 and in
Zechariah3. “The satan” is simply a
member of the divine counsel–one of God’s minions
whose function it is to investigate affairs on earth and
to act as a kind of prosecuting attorney.
He has to bring evildoers to justice.
And it’s only in later Jewish, and especially Christian
thought, that the term loses the definite article–from “the
satan” which means “the prosecutor” essentially,
the prosecuting attorney–and becomes a proper name,
Satan, for an enemy or opponent of God.
This later concept of Satan develops as a means of
explaining evil without attributing it to God,
but that isn’t the function of the satan here.
He works for God and when
Yahweh boasts of his pious servant Job, the prosecuting
angel wonders, as his portfolio requires him
to do, whether Job’s piety is sincere.
Perhaps he’s motivated by self-interest.
Since he’s been blessed with such good fortune and prosperity
he’s naturally enough pious and righteous,
but would his piety survive affliction and suffering?
Deprived of his wealth wouldn’t
he curse God to his face? You have to notice as you’re
reading the euphemistic use of “bless God” instead of “curse
God.” The ancient writers did not
want to write down “curse God” so they wrote “bless God,”
but we need to understand that’s a euphemistic way of
avoiding writing “curse God.” So wouldn’t he curse God to his
face? God is quite confident that
Job’s piety is not superficial, it’s not driven by the desire
for reward, and so he permits the
satan to put Job to the test.
Job’s children are killed, his cattle are destroyed,
his property is destroyed, but Job’s response in chapter
1:21 is, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb and naked I shall
return; God gives and God takes away,
may the name of the Lord be blessed.
The narrator then adds in verse 22, “In all this–,” and if you
flip over I’ve got some of these key verses on the back of your
handout to help you keep track, “In all this Job did not sin or
impute anything unsavory to God.”
And God again praises Job to the satan,
saying, “And still he holds on to his integrity,
so you incited me to destroy him for nothing.”
That’s chapter 2:3.
So the satan proposes
increasing the suffering, and God agrees on the condition
that Job’s life be preserved. So the satan strikes
Job’s body with these terrible painful sores,
trying to crush his spirit and Job’s wife rages,
“Do you still hold on to your integrity?
Bless God,” curse God “and die,” chapter 2:9.
But still Job will not sin,
he will not curse God, he insists on remaining
virtuous and he responds, “Shall we receive good at the
hand of God and shall we not receive evil?”
So at first glance it would appear that Job accepts his
bitter fate. But note: after the first round
of suffering, the narrator observed that “in
all this Job did not sin with his lips or impute anything
unsavory to God,” but now he merely observes,
“in all this Job did not sin with his lips.”
Not with his lips perhaps, but in his heart did he impute
unsavory things to God? If we were to move directly to
the conclusion of the folktale in chapter 42,
if we jump from this point just to the conclusion,
in 42:7 is where the conclusion begins,
we would find that Job is rewarded fully for his patience
and steadfast loyalty and his household and his belongings are
restored to him twice over. The folktale standing alone
could be read as the story of an innocent man tested,
who accepts his fate. He retains his faith,
and he’s rewarded. Standing alone,
the tale appears to reflect the values and the conventional
piety of the Wisdom literature and of the Deuteronomistic
school. But the folktale doesn’t stand
alone. The anonymous author of Job
uses this earlier legend concerning the righteous man Job
as a frame for his own purposes, and the hint at the end of the
prologue that Job perhaps is beginning to impute unsavory
things to God points forward to this extensive poetic dialogue
that’s following. Here are Job’s unsavory
accusations against God. Here we have a most impatient
and furious Job who will charge God with gross mismanagement of
the world and eventually deny the existence of a moral order
altogether. So reading the Book of Job is a
fascinating exercise because the two types of material in the
book, the prose frame and the poetic
dialogue in the middle, they appear to be in tension.
And yet interwoven,
as they are now, they work together and the one
shapes our reading of the other. Our reception of the
accusations of Job’s friends in the poetic dialogue–our
reception of those words is determined by the prose
framework’s assertion that Job is innocent.
That’s a non-negotiable narrative fact and because of
the fact of Job’s righteousness, we know Job’s friends are lying
when they say Job must be suffering for some hidden sin.
And we know that Job’s
self-defense, that he hasn’t deserved the
suffering is correct. We’re going to rehearse some of
the arguments that are advanced in the central core,
the poetic core of the book, and here I think a helpful
guide through the arguments–there are lots of
commentaries on the Book of Job, but one commentary that I think
is helpful in just sort of working through some of the
arguments of the interlocutors is the analysis of Edwin Good.
Although Job doesn’t exactly
curse God in his first speech, he does curse the day of his
birth. And in a passage that alludes
repeatedly to creation, Job essentially curses all that
God has accomplished as creator of the cosmos.
He wishes he were dead, and at this point he doesn’t
even ask why this has happened to him, he only asks why he
should be alive when he prefers death.
Eliphaz’s reply is long and elaborate.
He seems to offer comfort. He seems to offer
comfort, until he injects a new element in the discussion and
that’s the element of justice. Job hasn’t mentioned the issue
of justice up to this point, but Eliphaz says,
“Think now, what innocent man ever perished?
/ Where have the upright been destroyed?
/ As I have seen, those who plow evil / And sow
mischief reap them,” chapter 4:7-8.
So Eliphaz is handing Job the standard line of biblical Wisdom
literature as exemplified by something like the book of
Proverbs, belief in a system of divine
retributive justice–that retribution is just.
By definition there can be no
undeserved suffering. The implication is that Job has
deserved this suffering–a thought that apparently hadn’t
occurred to Job–and the question of undeserved suffering
is now going to dominate the rest of the discussion.
Job’s second speech is very
disorderly. It’s full of wildly
contradictory images that may reflect the shock and the pain
and the rage that now overwhelm him.
He seems to be haunted by Eliphaz’s connection of his
suffering with some sin and so he turns to address God
directly. He admits he’s not perfect but
surely, he objects, he doesn’t deserve such
affliction. In chapter 8 we have Bildad’s
speech and it’s tactless and unkind.
He says, “Will God pervert the right?
/ Will the Almighty pervert justice?
/ If your sons sinned against Him, / He dispatched them for
their transgressions,” 8:3-4. In other words,
God is perfectly just and ultimately all get what they
deserve. Indeed, your children,
Job, must have died because they sinned, so just search for
God and ask for mercy. The friends’ speeches lead Job
to the conclusion that God must be indifferent to moral status.
God doesn’t follow the rules
that he demands of human beings. This is chapter 9:22,
“He finishes off both perfect and wicked.”
When Job complains, “He wounds me much for
nothing,” chapter 9:17, he’s echoing God’s own words to
the satan in the prologue.
Remember when God says to the satan you have “incited
me to destroy him for nothing,” and we suspect by this verbal
coincidence that Job is right. Legal terms dominate,
as Job calls for the charges against him to be published,
and then he hurls countercharges in a suit against
God. Charges of unworthy conduct,
of spurning his creatures while smiling on the wicked,
on scrutinizing Job even though he knows Job to be innocent,
and this too is a subversion of a common prophetic literary
genre that we’ve seen: the riv or the covenant
lawsuit in which God through his prophets charges Israel with
flagrant violation of the terms of the covenant and warns of
inevitable punishment. Here, in Job,
it’s a man who arraigns God and yet, Job asserts,
since God is God and not a human adversary,
there’s really no fair way for the lawsuit between them to be
tried or arbitrated. “Man cannot win a suit against
God,” chapter 9:2. Job is powerless in the face of
this injustice. These ideas all find expression
in Job 10:1-7: I am disgusted with life;
I will give rein to my complaint,
Speak in the bitterness of my soul.
I say to God, “Do not condemn men;
Let me know what You charge me with.
Does it benefit You to defraud, To despise the toil of Your
hands, While smiling on the counsel of
the wicked? Do You have the eyes of flesh?
Is Your vision that of mere men?
Are Your days the days of a
mortal? Are Your years the years of a
man, That You seek my inequity
And search out my sin? You know that I am not guilty,
And that there is none to deliver from Your hand…
Job repeats his wish to die, this time less because of his
suffering and more because his worldview has collapsed.
He sees that divine power is
utterly divorced from justice and that’s a second fundamental
biblical assumption subverted. But Job’s words only seem to
egg his interlocutors on. Eliphaz had implied that Job
was a sinner. Bildad had baldly asserted that
his sons had died for their sins and now Zophar’s going to claim
that actually Job is suffering less then he deserves.
And Job isn’t persuaded.
He isn’t persuaded that he has
sinned or more precisely, that he has sinned in
proportion to the punishment he is now suffering.
God is simply unjust.
The Job of this poetic dialogue
portion of the book is hardly patient or pious.
He is angry,
he is violent, he argues, he complains and
vehemently insists upon his innocence.
In the fourth speech by Job–now this is the speech that
opens the second cycle of speeches–Job appeals to
creation. God’s controlling power is
arbitrary and unprincipled. He interferes with the natural
order, he interferes with the human order, and this is itself
a subversion of the Genesis portrait of creation as a
process whose goal and crown is humankind.
Again, Job demands a trial. He demands a trial in the
widely quoted and mistranslated verse–this is Job 13:15:
“He may well slay me. I may have no hope– but I must
argue my case before Him.” In other words,
Job knows that he can’t win but he still wants his day in court.
He wants to make his accusation
of God’s mismanagement. He wants to voice his protest
even though he knows it will gain him nothing.
In a pun on his name,
Iyyov, Job asks God,
“Why do You hide Your face, / And treat me like an enemy?”
,treat me like an oyev,
13:28. In his second speech Job fully
expects to be murdered, not executed,
but murdered by God and hopes only that the evidence of his
murder will not be concealed he says in 16:18,
“Earth, do not cover my blood” . Job’s third speech reiterates
this desire, the desire that the wrong against him not be
forgotten. “Would that my words were
written, would that they were engraved in an inscription,
with an iron stylus and lead, forever in rock they were
incised,” 19:23-24. Job’s three speeches in the
second cycle become increasingly emotional and for their part the
speeches of his friends in this cycle become increasingly cruel.
Their insistence that suffering
is always a sure sign of sin seems to justify hostility
towards and contempt for Job. He’s now depicted as
universally mocked and humiliated and despised and
abused. One cannot help but see in this
characterization of Job’s so-called friends,
an incisive commentary on the callous human propensity to
blame the victim, and to do so lest our tidy and
comfortable picture of a moral universe in which the righteous
do not suffer, should come apart at the seams
as Job’s has. Job opens the third cycle of
speeches urging his friends to look, to really see his
situation, because if they did they would be appalled.
Job’s situation looked at
honestly requires the admission that God has done this for no
reason and that the friends’ understanding of the world is a
lie. Job asserts baldly:
there is no distributive justice, there’s no coherent or
orderly system of morality in this life or any other.
There is no principle of
afterlife, after all, in the Hebrew Bible.
Chapter 21:7-26:
Why do the wicked live on, Prosper and grow wealthy?
Their children are with them
always, And they see their children’s
children. Their homes are secure,
without fear; They do not feel the rod of God.
…their children skip about.
They sing to the music of
timbrel and lute, And revel to the tune of the
pipe; They spend their days in
happiness, And go down to Sheol in peace.
…How seldom does the lamp of
the wicked fail, Does the calamity they deserve
befall them? …[You say,]
“God is reserving his punishment for his sons”;
Let it be paid back to Him that He may feel it,
…One man dies in robust health,
All tranquil and untroubled; His pails are full of milk;
The marrow of his bones is juicy.
Another dies embittered, Never having tasted happiness.
They both lie in the dust
And are covered with worms.
But the friends can’t look honestly at Job;
they can’t allow that, indeed, a righteous man suffers
horribly. By the end of the third cycle
Job is ready and eager for his trial, but he can’t find God.
Job’s final speech in the third
cycle focuses on this theme of divine absence.
God is irresponsibly absent from the world and the result is
human wickedness. So from the idea that God is
morally neutral or indifferent, Job has moved to the implicit
charge that God is responsible for wickedness.
He rewards wickedness; he causes wickedness by his
absence, his failure to govern properly.
He is both corrupt and a corrupter of others.
“If it is not so,
he says, who will prove me a liar and bring my words to
nought.” Yet, even in the depths of his
anguish, and even though he is now convinced that God does not
enforce a moral law in the universe,
Job clings to one value: righteousness is a virtue in
and of itself, and even if it brings no reward
Job will not give up his righteousness.
Face to face with the shocking insight that good and evil are
met with indifference by God, that righteousness brings no
reward and wickedness no punishment, Job although bitter,
refuses to succumb to a moral nihilism.
Chapter 27:2-6: By God who has deprived
me of justice! By Shaddai who has embittered
my life! As long as there is life in me,
And God’s breath is in my nostrils,
My lips will speak no wrong, Nor my tongue utter deceit.
Far be it for me to say that
you are right; Until I die I will maintain my
integrity. I persist in my righteousness
and will not yield; I shall be free of reproach as
long as I live. These last lines recall the
words of God and the satan in the prelude.
The satan had said that
a man will not hold on to virtue or to righteousness in the face
of suffering. He’ll give everything away for
his life. So this narrative set-up guides
or influences our interpretation of Job’s statement here.
Although he is losing his life,
Job says he will not give anything away but he holds onto,
he maintains his integrity just as God had scolded the
satan in chapter 2:3 which reads,
“Still he holds onto his integrity.
You have incited me to destroy him for nothing.”
So in his darkest,
most bitter hour with all hope of reward gone,
Job clings to the one thing he has–his own righteousness.
In fact, when all hope of just
reward is gone then righteousness becomes an
intrinsic value. Yehezkel Kaufman writes of this
moment, “the poet raises Job to the bleak summit of
righteousness bereft of hope, bereft of faith in divine
justice”. Or in the words of another
scholar, Moshe Greenberg, we see here
..the sheer heroism of a naked man, forsaken by his God
and his friends and bereft of a clue to understand his
suffering, still maintaining faith in the
value of his virtue and in the absolute duty of man to be
virtuous. The universe has turned its
back on him. We may add he believes God has
turned his back on him–yet Job persists in the affirmation of
his own worth and the transcendent worth of unrewarded
good [Greenberg 1987,285]. So in a way then,
for all their differences in style and manner,
the patient Job of the legend and the raging Job of the poetic
dialogue, are basically the same man.
Each ultimately remains firm in
his moral character, clinging to righteousness
because of its intrinsic value and not because it will be
rewarded. Indeed, Job knows bitterly that
it will not. At the end of his outburst,
Job sues God. He issues Him a summons and he
demands that God reveal to him the reason for his suffering.
Job pronounces a series of
curses to clear himself from the accusations against him,
specifying the sins he has not committed and ending,
as he began, in chapter 3,
with a curse on the day of his birth.
We expect to hear from God now but instead we hear from an
unannounced stranger, Elihu.
I’m going to have to give Elihu short shrift.
He’s the only one of the four interlocutors to refer to Job by
name, address Job by name. He repeats many of the trite
assertions of Job’s friends. He does hint,
however, that not all suffering is punitive.
He also hints that contemplation of nature’s
elements can open the mind to a new awareness of God and in
these two respects, Elihu’s speech moves us towards
God’s answer from the storm. So in the climatic moment,
God answers Job in an extraordinary theophany,
or self-manifestation. In chapter 38 God speaks out of
the tempest or whirlwind, “Who is this who darkens
counsel, speaking without knowledge,” is
he referring to Job, to Elihu, the three friends,
all of them? God has heard enough,
it’s his turn to ask questions, the answers to which are
clearly implied; these are rhetorical questions.
Where were you when I
laid the earth’s foundations? Speak if you have understanding.
Do you know who fixed its
dimensions Or who measured it with a line?”
You did, God.
…Have you ever commanded the day to break,
Assigned the dawn its place, …Have you penetrated to the
sources of the sea, Or walked in the recesses of
the deep? No, no human has.
And God continues with these
rhetorical questions, questions regarding the
animals, their various powers and
attributes, but one wonders what the purpose of all these
questions is. One senses that they are
irrelevant. Job has posed some very
specific challenges to God. Why am I suffering?
Is there a pattern to existence?
Is God’s refusal to answer
these challenges a way of saying there is no answer?
Or is it God’s way of saying
that justice is beyond human understanding?
Or is this theophany of God in nature and the focus on
creation, an implicit assault on the fundamental tenant of
Israelite religion that God is known and made manifest through
his interactions with humans, his rewards and punishments in
historical time. You’ll recall that the
monotheistic revolution is generally understood to have
effected a break from mythological conceptions of the
gods as indistinguishable from various natural forces,
limited by meta-divine powers and forces of the cosmos.
The biblical God wasn’t another
Ancient Near Eastern or Canaanite nature God ultimately,
but a wholly transcendent power–He was figured this way
in many parts of the Bible–known not through the
involuntary and recurring cycles of nature but through His freely
willed and non-repeating actions in historical time.
Such a view of God underwrites
the whole system of divine retributive justice.
Only an essentially good God
who transcends and is unconstrained by mechanistic
natural forces can establish and administer a system of
retributive justice, dealing out punishment and
reward in response to the actions of humans in time.
Is the author of Job suggesting
that history and the events that befall the just and the unjust
are not the medium of revelation?
Is God a god of nature after all, encountered in the
repeating cycles of the natural world and not in the
unpredictable and incoherent arena of human history and
action? If so, then this is a third
fundamental biblical assumption that has been radically
subverted. So we’ll turn now to God’s
direct speech to Job in 40:8,40, verse 8, excuse me.
“Would you impugn my justice?
/ Would you condemn Me that you
be right?” God, I think,
is now getting at the heart of the matter: your friends Job
were wrong, they condemned you. They attributed sin to you,
so that they might be right. But you, too,
have been wrong condemning Me, attributing wickedness to Me so
that you might be right. Job’s friends erred because
they assumed that there’s a system of retributive justice at
work in the world and that assumption led them to infer
that all who suffer are sinful, and that’s a blatant falsehood.
But Job also errs;
if he assumes that although there isn’t a system of
retributive justice, there really ought to be one.
It’s that assumption that leads
him to infer that suffering is a sign of an indifferent or wicked
God, and that is equally a falsehood.
Job needs to move beyond the anthropocentrism that
characterizes the rest of Scripture and the Genesis 1
account of creation, according to which humankind is
the goal of the entire process of creation.
God’s creation, the Book of Job seems to
suggest, defies such teleological and rational
categories. In a nutshell,
God refuses to be seen as a moral accountant.
The idea of God as a moral
accountant is responsible for two major errors:
the interpretation of suffering as an indicator of sin,
or the ascription of injustice to God.
In his final speech, Job confesses to a new
firsthand knowledge of God that he lacked before,
and as a result of this knowledge Job repents,
“Therefore, I recant and relent,
/ Being but dust and ashes,” 42:6.
Here we see the other meaning of Job’s name,
“one who repents,” suddenly leap to the fore.
What is he repenting of?
Certainly not of sin;
God has not upheld the accusations against Job.
Indeed he states explicitly in
a moment that the friends were wrong to say he had sinned.
But he has indicated that guilt
and innocence, reward and punishment are not
what the game is all about, and while Job had long been
disabused of the notion that the wicked and the righteous
actually get what they deserve, he nevertheless had clung to
the idea that ideally they should.
And it’s that mistaken idea–the idea that led him to
ascribe wickedness to God–that Job now recants.
With this new understanding of God, Job is liberated from what
he would now see as a false expectation raised by the
Deuteronomistic notion of a covenant relationship between
God and humankind, enforced by a system of divine
justice. At the end of the story Job is
fully restored to his fortunes. God asserts he did no evil and
the conventional, impeccably Deuteronomistic view
of the three friends is clearly denounced by God.
He says of them,
“They have not spoken of Me what is right as my servant Job
has,” 42:7. For some, the happy ending
seems anticlimactic, a capitulation to the demand
for a happy ending of just desserts that runs counter to
the whole thrust of the book, and yet in a way I think the
ending is superbly fitting. It’s the last in a series of
reversals that subverts our expectations.
Suffering comes inexplicably, so does restoration;
blessed be the name of the Lord. God doesn’t attempt to justify
or explain Job’s suffering and yet somehow by the end of the
book, our grumbling, embittered, raging Job is
satisfied. Perhaps he’s realized that an
automatic principle of reward and punishment would make it
impossible for humans to do the good for purely disinterested
motives. It’s precisely when
righteousness is seen to be absurd and meaningless that the
choice to be righteous paradoxically becomes
meaningful. God and Job,
however we are to interpret their speeches,
are reconciled. The suffering and injustice
that characterize the world have baffled humankind for millennia.
And the Book of Job provides no
answer in the sense of an explanation or a justification
of suffering and injustice, but what it does offer is a
stern warning to avoid the Scylla of blaspheming against
the victims by assuming their wickedness,
and the Charybdis of blaspheming against God by
assuming his. Nor is moral nihilism an
option, as our hero, yearning for,
but ultimately renouncing divine order and justice,
clings to his integrity and chooses virtue for nothing.

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