Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Job the Pious

What is going on in the Book of Job? In a recent article (Zeitschrift fur die Alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 117 [2005]) the distinguished exegete Michael V. Fox suggests that its teaching is “essentially pietistic, which is to say, it makes faith the prime virtue. It teaches the need for humble acquiescence to God’s inscrutable will and a firm conviction in his justice even in defiance of one’s own experience, in the belief that one’s suffering ultimately has meaning.” We discover this when we realize that there are no less than “two dimensions of reality in the book of Job”: the world of Job and another world above the narration where the author communicates directly to the reader.

We will first look at the world of Job. From this world, we learn about God’s power, justice, wisdom, and approval. To be sure, Job realized God’s power, but he feared that “With a tempest he might overwhelm me, and multiply my wounds without cause” (Job 9:17). Instead, Job becomes “privy to the counsels of God” (Job 15:8), a possibility that Eliphaz had thought was ridiculous. God reveals that he cares for his creatures; his theophany confirms the declaration of the psalmist, “How varied are your works, Lord! In wisdom you have wrought them all; the earth is full of your creatures” (Ps 104:24). God’s power is not amoral, even if Job is not at its center – after all, God does act “to bring rain to no man's land, the unpeopled wilderness” (Job 38:26), even if no human being can enjoy this act.

Job also learns that God is just. God asks Job, “Would you refuse to acknowledge my right?” (Job 40:8). God says, “From the wicked the light is withheld, and the arm of pride is shattered” (Job 38:15). God implies that he “tears down the wicked and shatters them” (Job 40:12). There is justice in the world, even if it only seems to ensure the punishment of the wicked, not reward for the righteous Job. God also asserts and exalts his wisdom. But this comes as a reprimand to Job, who is revealed as ignorant. Job repents: “I have dealt with great things that I do not understand; things too wonderful for me, which I cannot know” (Job 42:3).

Intriguingly, Professor Fox suggests that the Book of Job’s fascination with language also shows the failure of human wisdom before the divine wisdom that founded the earth and fixed its measurements. Fox writes, “It is as if everyone believes that the terrible problems of existence can be wrestled to the ground by talk, lots of it.” This is simply Kafkaesque – Fox quotes Margarete Susman on Kafka’s (and Job’s) world:

Just because people no longer have a world in common, because the loneliness has become so hopeless, they engage each other in constant discourse. They cannot find each other, they cannot recognize or understand each other – and for precisely this reason they are compelled to search incessantly for this understanding. They talk to each other without stopping, without ceasing – and without comprehension.

Thus, Job’s friends. And, so, what God ultimately desires is not speech but humility. Job’s confession is neither cynical nor ironic: “Therefore I disown what I have said, and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 43:6). God accepts this confession.

But all of this might be deeply unsatisfying. God is revealed as moral, just, and wise, but Job’s sufferings are never explained. As Professor Fox writes, “Job never does learn what it was all about, why he had to go through hell in order to be reconciled with a God with whom he never was in conflict. Job must live in ignorance like everyone else.” And, so, we must remember that there is another dimension of reality in the Book of Job: the other world above the narration where the author communicates directly to the reader. I do not mean to assert here that the same author composed both the prologue and the dialogues (that seems unlikely). But the narrative frame is there for a reason. It gives us another perspective on “what is was all about.”

For instance, regarding God’s justice, we learn that God usually does govern the world justly. But sometimes God overrides justice for other goals – here he ruins Job “without cause” (Job 2:3) for a wager. Then, as we know, Job lets God down. Job does “curse” God, for there is no other way of interpreting his angry disparagements (e.g., he accuses God of complete injustice, “Both the innocent and the wicked he destroys” [Job 9:22]). The Adversary wins the bet. This sounds rather horrible, but, from this perspective, God’s theophany is an “act of grace to a man who failed him.” Professor Fox continues, “Unwarranted mercy, no less than unwarranted suffering, disrupts the equation of strict justice, for it means that someone has not received the punishment he deserves.” We might remember some of Job’s moving words, “I know that my Redeemer lives and that he will at last stand forth upon the dust” (Job 19:25). This does come to pass for the undeserving Job, despite the lost wager. Here I also remember some of Pope Benedict’s words about God’s love, “It is so great that it turns God against himself, his love against his justice.” We see some of this from the narrative frame.

The narrative frame, the second dimension of reality in Job, also highlights the sheer disjunction between human and divine wisdom. As much as the friends talk, the further they are from God. The only truth that we are left with is: “Behold, the fear of the Lord is wisdom; and avoiding evil is understanding” (Job 28:28). Our stance, it is reiterated, must be one of piety and humility.

Lastly, the narrative frame tells us something about what God wants. From the time when God asks Satan whether he has noticed “my servant Job, and that there is no one on earth like him, blameless and upright, fearing God and avoiding evil” (Job 1:8), it is evident that God cares deeply about the stance of human beings towards him. “Yahweh, like any ruler, naturally wants his subjects’ loyalty, but only the reader learns just how important it is to him. He needs it. He takes pride in it. He wagers on it. He breaches his own justice to make it possible.” While Job is right to piously state, “Behold, I am of little account” (Job 40:4), God cares deeply about his relationship with Job.

Perhaps we have felt like Job. The first dimension of the Book of Job reminds us to trust God and to abandon our attempts to rationalize divine providence or reduce wisdom to the narrowness of a human perspective. We must trust in God and avoid sin. This might seem to leave us swinging wildly from fideism to skepticism. But, as we have seen, the narrative framework goes further and tells us to keep faith in suffering, because, despite all appearances, our loyalty is valuable to the Redeemer who, in his mercy, “will at last stand forth upon the dust.” The believing victim, in the midst of her pain and failure, has a role of cosmic importance and retains a sign of honor. Professor Fox quotes Nietzsche, “He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how.”

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