Tracking in Mud: A Reflection on the Book of Job

dirty-feetIt would be helpful to place the Book of Job within its cultural and historical context and to understand the motivation of the authors. Attempting to interpret its message within a political or historical epoch, though academically and theologically helpful, does not enhance its universal and human narrative. In the forward to J. Gerald Janzen’s excellent work on Job, “At the Scent of Water: The Ground of Hope in the Book of Job” Patrick Miller, professor emeritus of Old Testament theology at Princeton Theological Seminary, states, “… Job’s attraction rests finally on its insistent and uncompromising attempt to speak to the most fundamental issues of human life: goodness, justice, human suffering, and the reality of God.”[i]

Job tells a story of a righteous man caught up in the seemingly capricious behavior of God and one of his “heavenly beings”.[ii] It is unique among the wisdom books in that it tells a story of an innocent man who experience a great injustice. Author Richard J. Clifford, states, “Perhaps the most important assumption for the proper interpretation of Job is that the book is a narrative, a drama with a beginning, middle, and end, with characters, tensions, and resolutions.[iii] The author is not teaching or giving advice, rather he is framing it in a narrative which all people can connect with. The author conveys its wisdom as a fable whose message goes beyond a time and place and teaches an enduring lesson of man’s relationship with God and God’s relationship with the world. It is what makes Job a transcendent literary work.

Though he is unaware that God, through Satan, caused his anguish and turmoil, Job seeks God’s intervention, asking for resolution which only God can provide. “Let the day perish in which I was born, and the night that said, ‘A man-child is conceived.”[iv] The author illustrates our incomplete knowledge of God’s works and our innate impulse to ask God for a solution of our choosing rather than His, yet one only He can achieve.

There is a long set of dialogue between Job and his three friends who argue with Job concerning God’s justification in punishing him. The other wisdom books offer sage advice to “do this” or “not do that”. The Book of Job personifies these views in the friends who make legitimate arguments for a real life situation. They represent the human interpretation that justifies their behavior within the culture and society they live. Job counters with an anthropocentric demand for justice. He insists on an advocate or a face to face encounter with God. This is a universal reaction in which all those who experience hardship demand justice on a human scale from a god who exists beyond the human experience.

From Genesis to Revelations the scriptures attempt to bridge that chasm between the human experience and God’s mandate. It is often antagonistic and adversarial. There is a tension between human control and God’s sovereignty that the various books of the Bible seek to resolve through patriarchs, prophets, kings, miracles, conquests, disciples and even a messianic figurehead. Much of it is human centered seeking resolution through man-made actions such as war, social justice, political intrigue and religious internal strife. God intervenes by empowering, or in some cases impeding, humans to engage in these actions.

In the wisdom literature this tension is addressed on a deeper more intimate level.

According to Richard Clifford, “Wisdom literature is personal, reflective, and didactic. It is about personal rather than national affairs; it ponders problems and quandaries; it hands on its reflections to others.”[v] Unlike the panoramic narrative of the history, law or prophetic books, wisdom literature allows each person to explore a personal path toward God, applying these teachings to building a relationship with the Almighty.

As a narrative, the author of Job reduces this relationship to a single person in a situation that most people can relate to. It has as much in common with the stories of Ruth or Esther as it does with the wisdom literature. Job is told as a fairy tale in a period “long ago and far away” and is intentionally separated from contemporary politics, geography or cultural issues. Retired Professor of Old Testament at the Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis J. Gerald Janzen states, “The words that open the book of job, in distancing the action from us, serve a different purpose. The tale they introduce is all too familiar to us, unfolding within a world very much like our own, a world in which grave calamities can befall us without warning or apparent reason or purpose.”[vi] In its isolation it becomes a universal story of the struggle between a man and an unjust world. And at its core is the human plea to God for mercy and justice, echoing the words of Jesus on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”[vii]

After all the speech from Job’s friends, the speech of the mysterious Elihu character, the Wisdom Poem and Job’s persistent and adamant rejoinder to all of them, the author allows God to speak. God’s answer to Job is enigmatic, confusing and elusive, referencing Behemoth and Leviathans. Though Job’s wealth, status and health is restored, the fundamental question of why God allowed this to happen is unanswered or at least theologically disputed.

The other Wisdom books conclude by inviting the readers to seek God and obey His words. Through faith and trust we are called to accept God’s sovereignty and mercy. As stated in Ecclesiastes, “The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God, and keep his commandments; for that is the whole duty of everyone. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every secret thing, whether good or evil.”[viii]

In a sense, the author of Job concludes the same thing. The difference is that Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Sirach take a systematic and logical path toward this conclusion. Job is muddled and haphazard with God’s retort sounding like what every insistent child hears from their parents, “Because I said so!”

Perhaps that is what makes Job different from the other Wisdom literature. Life itself is muddled and confusing with no precise or logical answers. It cannot be analyzed categorically or taught systematically nor expressed in quaint and witty proverbial scripts. Wisdom is messy; it tracks mud into the house and piles up like old mail on the kitchen table. We struggle to make sense of wisdom and use it to bring order and control into our lives. In the end we give up, echoing Job’s own words, “Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.”[ix]

[i] J. Gerald Janzen. At the Scent of Water: The Ground of Hope in the Book of Job (Kindle Locations 12-13). Kindle Edition.

[ii] Harper Bibles. NRSV Bible with the Apocrypha (Kindle Location 20008). Harper Collins, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

[iii] Clifford, Richard J. The Wisdom Literature: Interpreting Biblical Texts Series (p. 74). Abingdon Press. Kindle Edition.

[iv] Harper Bibles. NRSV Bible with the Apocrypha, Jobs 3:3 (Kindle Locations 20059-20060). Harper Collins, Inc. Kindle Edition.

[v] Clifford, Richard J. The Wisdom Literature: Interpreting Biblical Texts Series (p. 69). Abingdon Press. Kindle Edition.

[vi]J. Gerald Janzen. At the Scent of Water: The Ground of Hope in the Book of Job (Kindle Locations 79-80). Kindle Edition.

[vii] Harper Bibles. NRSV Bible with the Apocrypha, Mark 15:34, (Kindle Location 60386). Harper Collins, Inc. Kindle Edition.

[viii] Harper Bibles. NRSV Bible with the Apocrypha Ecclesiastes 12: 13-14, (Kindle Locations 30217-30219). Harper Collins, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

[ix] Harper Bibles. NRSV Bible with the Apocrypha, Job 42:3 (Kindle Locations 21969-21970). Harper Collins, Inc. Kindle Edition.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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