Probably not as strange as it may initially seem, but comedians are the actors who most frequently play the part of God: George Burns, John Cleese, Morgan Freeman, Whoopi Goldberg, Jim Parsons, and, in a sense, Jim Carrey, have all played the part of God. In the movie “Bruce Almighty,” God (Morgan Freeman) allows Bruce Nolan (Jim Carrey), a down-on-his-luck TV reporter, to exercise his divine powers for one week. At first Nolan wastes the powers on frivolous and selfish whimsies. In the end, however, he finds the role so complicated and difficult that he is more than happy to hand it back to God.
Is that the point God is making in his response to Job out of the whirlwind? That the act of creating the world (“where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? [38:4]; “Do you know the ordinances of the heavens?” “Can you establish their rule on the earth?” [v. 33]) and the task of running it are extremely difficult, even for God. This is the opinion of Rabbi Harold Kushner which he bases on Job 40:11–14.[i] He takes this passage to mean “if you think that it is so easy to keep the world straight and true, to keep unfair things from happening to people, you try it .... It is too difficult even for God to keep cruelty and chaos from claiming their innocent victims. But could man, without God, do it better?”[ii]
Kushner’s understanding becomes clearer when he states the three propositions that Job and his friends (and most readers) assume to be true:
1. God is all-powerful and causes everything that happens in the world. Nothing happens without His willing it.
2. God is just and fair, and He stands for people getting what they deserve so that the good prosper and the wicked are punished.
3. Job is a good person.[iii]
These three propositions were defensible until the dreadful calamities that reduced Job to poverty, pain, and despair. After that, as Kushner observes, any two could be affirmed but not all three at the same time. Job’s friends abandon the third option; Job doubts the truth of number two, but Kushner, more radically, suggests that the author of Job gave up on the validity of number one.[iv]Jesus himself seems to qualify proposal one by giving us the Disciples’ Prayer: “Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt 6:10). This seems a rather pointless prayer if nothing happens in the world “without His willing it.”
Philip Yancey makes a compelling point when he observes that “no other part of the Bible,” compared with “God’s ‘self-defense’” in Job 38–42, “conveys God’s power so impressively.” Which means that Kushner’s interpretation of Job 40:10–14 should be questioned. It does not mean that in reminding Job of his inability to understand the mysteries of nature that God was confessing any failure on his own part. Since Job is unable to understand earthly phenomena, how much more difficult it would be for him to grasp the cosmic view that God possesses.[v]Job is frankly out of his depth, so the inadequacy is his and not God’s. Perhaps this is the point of the conversation between God and the Adversary, namely, that there are forces at play beyond our neat cause-and-effect earthly realm.
At least Kushner’s third proposition is true; God himself declares that Job is blameless (1:8; 2:3; 42:7–8), a description applied to many others in both Testaments: Noah (Gen 6:9), Daniel (Dan 6:22), Paul (Phil 3:6), and Christians (Phil 2:15). So Job had some warrant in claiming to be innocent, which he does rather frequently (6:30; 9:15; 12:4; 23:7, 10–12; 27:6; 29:12–16). His innocence was not just the passive absence of evil but the practical presence of good.
I delivered the poor who cried,
and the orphan who had no helper.
The blessing of the wretched came upon me,
and I caused the widow’s heart to sing for joy.
I put on righteousness, and it clothed me;
my justice was like a robe and a turban.
I was eyes to the blind,
and feet to the lame.
I was a father to the needy,
and I championed the cause of the stranger
(Job 29:12–16. Cf. 30: 24–26; 31:5–7, 16–21, 32).
But is the innocence of the best of us absolute?[vi]Was Job’s? Eliphaz certainly does not think Job is entirely faultless (15:14–15). The three friends tire of Job’s insistence on his purity and abandon the dialogue “because he was righteous in his own eyes” (32:1), and Elihu became vexed with Job “because he justified himself rather than God” (32:2). Yet is the fact that all humans are flawed relevant to Job’s case? There are sheep and goats, works of the flesh and fruit of the Spirit, good fish and bad, and a broad and narrow way. The whole “experiment” (not a wager or bet) is whether the universe’s moral principle is based merely on personal gain.[vii]Job’s concern is that God seems to treat the innocent no differently from the wicked, and he rightly rejects that any fault he may have explains his treatment at the hand of God.
The belief that dominates the poem is that piety brings prosperity and sin produces suffering. Job’s success and wealth seemed to confirm the causal relationship between behavior and blessing, but this connection came crashing down for Job after the swift succession of a series of destructive events. Job at first accepts the calamities as from the Lord (1:21; 2:10), but his conviction of his own innocence made it impossible for him to continue to accept the retributive-justice principle where sinners are punished and the good are rewarded. As his speeches continue in response to his friends’ admonitions—all of whom accepted the retributive-justice principle—his state becomes increasingly bewildered.
His neat world was in a state of disarray. The twin peaks (Deut 11:29) of blessing (Gerizim) and cursing (Ebal) were shifting as if they were being heaved about by some mysterious seismic force.[viii]No wonder Job wished to die; nothing he believed in was any longer making sense. The first speaker, Eliphaz, tries to restore Job’s hope by assuring him that the innocent are only briefly punished: “Is not your fear of God your confidence, and the integrity of your ways your hope (4:6)?” Sooner rather than later, since Job is righteous, God will restore him to his former blessed status. If he were truly a sinner, God’s judgment would destroy him, but who of those that are innocent has perished or been cut off (4:7)? And Job has not perished; it’s all good then! For God may reprove and even wound, but he also binds up and heals (5:17–18).[ix]However, Eliphaz’s effort to console Job simply trivializes the severity of Job’s losses as Job quickly reminds him in 6:1–2 (“O that my vexation were weighed, and all my calamity laid in the balances! For then it would be heavier than the sand of the sea”).
Bildad, the second “comforter” is also committed to the principle of retributive- justice. Job’s sinful children were justly destroyed (8:4), but “God will not reject a blameless person” (8:20). If Job is pure and upright, God will restore him to his rightful place, and his latter days will be greater than his former (8:6–7). Zophar, unlike Eliphaz and Bildad, refuses to treat Job’s pain as a temporary penalty for minor blemishes; he takes Job’s plea seriously and puts his calamities on the scales. Such a weight indicates a heavy load of sin.[x]In Zophar’s view, Job’s hidden perversity is so great that God has obviously exacted less than his “guilt deserves” (11:6b). The way out for Job is repentance, confession, and reformation (11:13–14). Then his life will shift from misery to being “brighter than the noonday” (11:16–19).
Elihu is the youthful champion of “justice.” “Of a truth, God will not do wickedly, and the Almighty will not pervert justice (Job 34:12). The Almighty—we cannot find him; He is great in power and justice, and abundant righteousness He will not violate (37:23). Hence Job’s claim to innocence is dubious (33:9; 34:5–6). Elihu, as C. S. Lewis, thinks that suffering is God’s megaphone to arouse a person’s awareness of his/her sin and to bring the person to repentance.[xi] In a debate with William Lane Craig, the enthusiastic atheist Richard Dawkins declared that “the why question is just a silly question” worthy only of a child. Even if the question “why suffering” is silly and puerile, it is a query widely asked. Yet the Book of Job does not attempt to answer it. So let us turn elsewhere for help.
C. S. Lewis’ Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold, which is obviously indebted to the Book of Job, might be helpful.[xii] In the first part (259 pages of 320) Lewis has Queen Orual of Glome write out her case against the gods:
Let them answer my charge if they can. It may well be that, instead of answering, they'll strike me mad or leprous or turn me into beast, bird, or tree. But will not all the world then know (and the gods will know it knows) that this is because they have no answer?[xiii]
Toward the end of the second part a surprising exchange between Queen Orual and her former tutor (the Fox) takes place:
Fox “The gods have been accused by you. Now’s their turn.”
Orual “I cannot hope for mercy.”
Fox “Infinite hopes – and fears – may both be yours. Be sure that, whatever else you get, you will not get justice.”
Orual “Are the gods not just?”
Fox “Oh no, child. What would become of us if they were?”[xiv]
The words “justice,” “sin,” and “righteousness” dominate in the Book of Job. And Job wants his day in court: “But I would speak to the Almighty, and I desire to argue my case with God” (13:3); “I would learn what he would answer me, and understand what he would say to me” (23:5). In contrast “mercy” is infrequent, but it is there. Zophar reduces mercy’s value to a discount on Job’s suffering, but Job seems to sense that it has greater value,“Though I am innocent, I cannot answer him; I must appeal for mercy to my accuser (9:15). It is not a plea from a real sense of need; his innocence, Job imagines, gives him the right to vindication, but God is too powerful an adversary to be defeated in court; mercy is his only hope. Reluctant as Job is, mercy is his only recourse and “mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:13).
The author of Job, Job himself, and even his friends have no answer, and in chapters 38–42 God provides none. Though Job in places gets perilously close to shifting the blame for evil home to God (and God takes his share in 2:3), his complaint seems to be more concerned with God’s inactivity toward evil rather than trying to explain its origin.[xv] God is a Deliverer who does not deliver, a Protector who does not protect, and a Judge who does not judge. The wicked control the earth, and the innocent suffer plagues and disasters along with the wicked, and God does nothing about it (9:22–24). If he is not behind it, “who then is it” (v. 24b)? Job and his friends argue from a strict monotheism. They have neither the moderate dualism of the Christian Satan nor any clear view of an afterlife. No wonder the poem has the dramatis personae groping in the dark.
Yet Queen Orual found an answer, and so did Job: Lewis concludes the tale with her confession: “I ended my first book with the words No answer. I know now, Lord, why you utter no answer. You are yourself the answer .… What other answer would suffice? Only words, words; to be led out to battle against other words.”[xvi]
I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear,
but now my eye sees you;
therefore I despise myself,
and repent in dust and ashes (Job 42.5–6 italics added).
In the end God Himself is indeed the answer. We worship God because he is God and not because such devotion excludes us from all the vicissitudes of life. We either endure them with Him or without Him, but endure them we all do. In his later life, the famous Swiss theologian Karl Barth was in the habit of preaching to the inmates of the Basel city prison. One of his most famous sermons preached there was titled “All!” It was based on Romans 11:32, and Barth emphasized the adjective “all” in both clauses: “For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all,” (italics added). Job’s need of mercy was greater than his plea for justice; Coram Deo (before God), that is true of us all.[xvii]
[i] Pour out the overflowings of your anger,
and look on all who are proud, and abase them.
Look on all who are proud, and bring them low;
tread down the wicked where they stand.
Hide them all in the dust together;
bind their faces in the world below.
Then I will also acknowledge to you
that your own right hand can give you victory.
(texts are from the NRSV).
[ii]Rabbi Harold S. Kushner, When Bad Things Happen to Good People (London: Pan, 1982 ) 51.
[iv]Of course, it is questionable whether Job 38–41 is God’s attempt to justify his actions or (pace Yancey) to defend himself.
[v]Norman C. Habel, The Book of Job: A Commentary (London: SCM, 1985) 564.
[vi]See the lesson for Monday (14/11) and Tuesday (15/11) and Rom 3:9, 18, 23.
[vii]The term “experiment” is D. J. A. Clines’ (Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 17, Job 1–20 [Dallas, TX: Word, 1989] 42).
“But it was of the essence of the trial
You shouldn’t understand it at the time.
It had to seem unmeaning to have meaning.
And it came out all right. I have no doubt
You realize by now the part you played
To stultify the Deuteronomist.”
[ix]By the time Eliphaz delivers his third speech his moderate tone has become strident; Job is no longer guilty of some modest fault but is now condemned as the greatest of sinners: “Is not your wickedness great? There is no end to your iniquities” (22:5). And against Job’s own claim (29:12–16), Eliphaz accuses him of being ruthless towards the poor, the widow, and the orphan (vv. 6–9).
[x]One is reminded of Anselm’s response to his fellow monk, Boso, in the Cur Deus Homo (Why The God-Man?), “You have not as yet estimated the great burden of sin” (Chapter 21).
[xi]“God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pain: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world” (The Problem of Pain [Glasgow: Collins/Fount, 1990/ Bles, 1940] 74).
[xii]London: Geoffrey Bles, 1956. For the influence of Job see Peter J. Schakel, Reason and Imagination in C. S. Lewis: A Study of Till We Have Faces (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1984) 17, 86.
[xiii]Ibid, 259, italics supplied.
[xv] The atheist Robin Craig crosses the line that Job resists trangressing when he argues that “theists would claim that men have no right to judge God—an argument God himself is credited with when justifying his appalling treatment of Job (Job 38–41),” see “Good without God,” in Warren Bonett (ed.), The Australian Book of Atheism (Carlton, Victoria: Scribe, 2010) 360.
[xvii]“Joy is born when you submit to both God’s mercy and God’s imprisoning without resistance.” See Karl Barth, Deliverance to the Captives (New York: Harper & Row, 1961) 92 (Preached on 22 September 1957).