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Tradition and Experience Prove Inadequate

It should not surprise us to realize that what we claim to know about God may very well turn out to be wrong. Coming to terms with the realization that our images of God may not be at all accurate marks the achievement of some spiritual and theological maturity. I give credit to the Book of Job for teaching me this lesson. The way in which its authors frame the story of Job tells us that they have come a long way thinking about and coming to some conclusions concerning God.

On the surface, it would appear that the book is about the problem of the suffering of the innocent or, stated differently, whether God is just. The problem of the suffering of the innocent became crucial once human beings ceased to identify themselves within their tribe and began to establish individual identities. It no longer made sense to understand one’s suffering as due to the sins of an ancestor (21:19). The authors of the Book of Job also make clear that they have rejected the apocalyptic solution to the problem of the present unjust suffering of individuals by postponing the revelation of God’s retributive justice to a life after death in the Age to Come. The introduction presents Satan as a respectable member of the council of the sons of God, not as a rebellious angel who has been ejected from heaven and has become the “god of this world,” thus limiting God’s control over the world. In this story God has control over Satan. Besides, the text denies that there is a resurrection, a presupposition of apocalypticism. In Job, human beings are thought to have only this one life. Job insists that his vindication must happen before his death (10: 20-21; 14: 12, 19-20; 16: 22; 17: 13-16). The introduction describes Job as a just, blameless, and upright man (1: 1, 22; 2: 10, cf. 12:4) who suffers great personal, financial, and emotional losses. The establishment of Job’s blameless condition is required for the following drama to be credible. If readers had not been told this, they would be inclined to think that Job is a pompous hypocrite when he proclaims his innocence (9:15; 10: 7) and challenges God to bring out any evidence against him (6: 24; 13:20-23). So, it is true that the book deals with the question of the suffering of the innocent, but its function is to provide the context for a consideration of God’s identity. 

Anyone who has read the Book of Job knows that Job is sinless but impatient. The proverbial patience of Job is not found in the book. It is based on an ancient patriarchal legend referred to in Ez. 14: 14, 20. According to it, on account of Job’s faithfulness under suffering, God rewarded him by making him many times richer than he had been previously (42: 12 – 13). The authors of the Book of Job added the account of the council of the sons of God in heaven, the dialogue of Job with his visitors, and the dialogue of Job with God. Besides, it is apparent that some digressive poems were also added in antiquity which means that what we have now is the work of editors in an oral culture.

The plot of the story is quite simple. Job is obviously under tremendous suffering. The three visitors who come to accompany him insist that his diagnosis is obvious: God’s retributive justice is at work; Job’s suffering is the just punishment for his sins. Their advice is “despise not the chastening of the Almighty” (5:17). Job should confess his sins, ask forgiveness, and repent. If he does this, God will assuredly reward him with health and wellbeing. Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar say this in a number of ways, only affirming what had become the traditional understanding of God’s justice as retributive, best expressed in Deuteronomy. A late visitor, Elihu, agrees with what the others have said but admits that “God is clothed with terrible majesty. The Almighty – we cannot find him; he is great in power and justice” (37: 23-24). Thus, he opens the door for a deus absconditus, but he still prescribes the same medicine. Job’s analysis of the situation is quite different. He claims innocence of any sin. He has nothing to repent from and for which to ask forgiveness. His experience proves that God is unjust.

The plot is quite on the surface. We may explore the options available in this way: 1) in a world without God, anything is possible, and suffering is meaningless. The universe is ruled by chance. 2) In a polytheistic universe, Zeus/Jupiter sets the fates for everyone. To change one’s fate, appeals must be made to the goddess Fortuna. She may make misfortunes not to come one’s way; 3) in a monotheistic universe, there are two possibilities: God is either all-powerful but unjust (or not loving), or God is just but not all-powerful. All the protagonists in the story ofJob explicitly agree that God is all-powerful. The four visitors insist that God is all-powerful and just; in Job’s case God’s retributive justice is at work. According to Job, however, God is all-powerful but unjust. His experience tells him that retributive justice does not work. As an aside, it may be noted that most Christians today would opt for the second of the two options available within a monotheistic universe: God is just and loving but at the moment not all-powerful. This view is part of the apocalyptic solution to the problem.

According to Job, God is unjust on several counts. In the first place, God is unjust by causing an innocent person to suffer. In the second place, God is unjust because he refuses to attend to Job’s pleas for release from his unmerited sufferings (9: 32; 13: 3, 18; 23: 17). In the third place, God is unjust because God is a bully who is taking advantage of a weaker being, using him for target practice with arrows and laughing while having fun with him (6: 14; 9:23; 10: 16; 16: 2). In the fourth place, God is unjust because God has been depriving Job of his good reputation in the community (2: 9; 10:15). In the fifth place, God is unjust by refusing to allow a referee, a third party, to adjudicate between God and Job; grievances should not have to be presented to the abuser (9: 15, 33; 19: 6-7; 24: 1; 31: 35). As the story unfolds, Job insists that he will not cease accusing God with injustice until he is vindicated. His visitors insist that he is a sinner and must repent. He insists that he is innocent and that he must be vindicated before his death (6: 4; 13: 18; 27: 5-6). Job imagines that at his burial, his nearest of kin (his Goel, the redeemer according to Hebrew custom) will stand at the grave site and everyone present will only have something good to say about him (19: 25). The eulogies presented at his grave, however, will not undo the damage done by the charges being made by his visitors while he is alive. Whatever is said at his grave will be empty words thrown at the wind.

Job’s predicament is akin to the one portrayed by the Norwegian artist Edvard Munch in “The Scream.” It consists of the anguish and frustration felt by the one asking the ultimate “Why?” Facing human incomprehension and divine silence, Job feels totally alienated. It is important to note in this connection, however, that while Job accuses God of being unjust, offers the pertinent evidence for his charges, and feels cosmically abandoned, he does not despair. He appeals for a day in court, and he is sure that at court he will win his case. In other words, Job finds himself in an awful predicament, but he has not given up on the universe in which he lives. He trusts the divine court that will vindicate his innocence. This is what gives him the strength to stand up against God and saves him from cynicism and despair. He exhibits faith and hope under the most terrible circumstances.

Finally, the God of the whirlwind breaks the cosmic silence and demolishes Job’s self-assurance. Instead of bringing comfort and consolation to suffering Job or explaining to him the reason for his lamentable situation, God totally bypasses all of Job’s complaints and accuses the three visitors of not having “spoken of me [God] what is right” (42: 7). (Job had accused them of offering worthless lies [13: 4, 12; 21: 34]. That is his evaluation of traditional Hebrew orthodoxy). Instead, God asks Job some pointed questions: “Shall a faultfinder contend with the Almighty?” (40: 2). “Will you even put me in the wrong? Will you condemn me that you may be justified?” (40: 8). Most significantly, Job is confronted with a long series of questions about the way in which God had gone about creating the world and still keeps all creatures alive and well (38: 4 – 39; 40: 10 – 41: 24). God’s questions have a clear agenda. They demonstrate Job’s absolute ignorance of and impotence in the natural world, one which in this telling includes Leviathan, the “creature without fear . . . the king of all the sons of pride” (31: 33-34). Given that Job is absolutely out of his depths in the realm of nature, what makes him think that he knows all there is to know in the realm of history where justice is operative? Of course, to state it in this way is demanded by the fact that we live in a world informed by Western Academia. In the world of Job, nature and history are not separate realms. For the ancient Hebrews, reality is one. As a book that took shape within the Wisdom School in Israel, Job ties humanity to God in creation rather than in a covenant. That is why God’s questions are an overwhelming demonstration of the all-powerful Creator whose ways of acting are not to be found out by human beings. In passing we may note that the Psalmists tied Israel to God in both creation (nature) and the exodus (history).

God’s full rebuke of Eliphaz and his two friends states, “You have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has” (42: 8). This is an unexpected evaluation of the views expressed by the protagonists. Does it refer to the words Job has just spoken, “I had heard of thee by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees thee; therefore, I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes” (42: 5-6)? These words establish that humans attempt to know God either by the hearing of the ear or by the seeing of the eye, that is, from the tradition and from experience. The distinction makes clear that the first option is inadequate and the second is better. Confronted by the Creator God in a vision, Job realizes that his understanding of God was just as inadequate as that of his visitors; it had enabled him to accuse God of being unjust. Is this what Job has said right? It seems more likely that God’s words refer to what Job has said in his argument with his visitors because God contrasts Job’s words with those of Eliphaz and his friends. As I have analyzed their dialogue, Job has been giving a very detailed list of God’s activities that reveals a sophisticated understanding of justice. It is on the basis of it that Job charges God with being unjust. But, as already said, Job insists that he wishes to bring God before a court of justice. He is confident that at court he will be vindicated. This means that in the final analysis Job thinks he lives in a just universe; therefore, he is alive with hope. On the basis of this fact, it would seem that God is saying that the three visitors who only spouted traditional orthodoxy did not speak right of God but that Job who, even though he charged God with injustice, understood that he lived in a righteous universe where justice would prevail spoke well. This does not say, however, that his understanding of God based on experience was accurate.

What, then, is the Book of Job about? To begin with, we must not overlook that according to the story Job’s traumatic experience has been brought about by God’s desire to win a bet made with Satan. When we are confronted with a God who wagers against Satan, it is obvious that we are being told that this God is a humanly conceived mannequin. To expose the futility of our human conceptions of God, the author could do no better than to use a betting God. Betting is a way of claiming power by those who wish to escape their impotence. To have the whole story hang on a bet between Almighty God and a member of the heavenly council is to put the story in the realm of the unreal.

The drama of Job, as it stands in the text, is a magnificent exposé of all attempts to explicate God’s justice by manipulating a humanly created god. Besides, the legend at the base of the drama tells of a kind of human being that does not exist. As the rest of the Bible insists, there is no such thing as a blameless, sinless human being. In other words, the Book of Job aims to tell its readers that any god that humans can use to explain God’s ways in nature and in history is a god of human creation. It is not remotely related to the God who actually created the world and keeps it operative. All our gods are too human. They are human attempts to make sense of our experiences or the experiences of the originators of the tradition. All of them fail altogether to reveal the God who actually is the Creator and giver of life. The God who is God is not encapsulated in a tradition and cannot be manipulated to construct explanations of human experience. The Book of Job belongs to the Wisdom School that places experience over traditions, the seeing of the eye over the hearing of the ear, but it is also quite aware that both come short of the goal they seek to achieve. The genius of the editors is to have taken an ancient legend and, with a very ironic and agile mind, turn it into a theological masterpiece in which they reject both the Hebraic orthodoxy that God’s retributive justice is at work in human history now and the apocalyptic view that God’s retributive justice will be at work at the resurrection of the dead. In the process, they also discredit any other sophisticated explanation of God’s justice or injustice. Those constructs utilize human conceptions of retribution, not at all God’s way of acting. In other words, as the Preacher writes, “God is in heaven, and you upon earth; therefore, let your worlds be few” (Ec. 5: 2)

That pictures of God are man-made creations is demonstrated by the explanation that Job’s sufferings are the result of God’s need to win a bet. This is obviously a most ridiculous way of manipulating God. To explain God’s just ways by means of a story about God’s complicity in the injustices Job is suffering because God is wagering on Job is a blatant contradiction to the affirmation of a just and all-powerful God. Chance is not operative in a universe where God is conceived as all-powerful. Meaningless suffering is an option only in a world without God. The Book of Job offers an ironic, upside down universe. It is a tour de force on an ancient legend to tell everyone that their god is too human.  It is imperative to recognize that this is a lesson found within the Bible. Moses’ vision of the burning bush, Elisha’s vision of a still small voice, the two from Emmaus’ vision of a stranger breaking bread, Paul’s vision on the road to Damascus, and Job’s vision of the God of the whirlwind, all these visions were experiences of a different order, and as such even they do not give a picture of God’s activity. They only gave their recipients a new understanding of themselves and their vocation. 

Finally, as any oriental storyteller will tell you, the good storyteller is the one who takes a well-known story and expands it to teach a new lesson. He knows, however, that his audience will not accept a different ending. So, the ending of this version of the legend of the patriarch Job tells the very humanly conceived way in which Job is rewarded for ultimately trusting that the universe in which he lived was just. All is well that ends well. The reason why God can declare that only Job has spoken well of him is that only Job demonstrated trust in the heavenly court of justice even while exposing his limited understanding of what justice demands. Job could insist on his innocence because of his ultimate faith. Faced by the God who is God, not the god construed by humans who either declare Job to be a just, blameless, and upright man who has not committed a single sin or a sinner in need of confession and repentance, Job can do no better than to cover himself in dust and ashes (42: 6). The authors of the Book of Job do not tell us that all our concepts of God are human imaginings and, therefore, we should cease having faith in God because, like “The Screamer,” we live in a cosmic vacuum. Rather they tell us that as we engage in our boisterous dialogues, trying to explain God’s ways in nature and history, we should be aware that God is beyond our imaginings, and that is why God is worthy of out humble worshipping. They may even be warning us that idolatry is not confined to material images. Mental images are just as able to spark idolatry, and, in the Bible, idolatry is the most besetting sin.

Herold Weiss is professor emeritus of Religious Studies at Saint Mary's College, University of Notre Dame, Indiana.

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