How to read the book of Job

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November 27, 2012 by mattwilcoxen

I have always found the book of Job to be nearly impenetrable. Revisiting the text recently, I realized that I’ve never really given it the focused attention it deserves. It is an incredibly complex theological treatise, and after reading it over this week, I get the impression that it is probably one of the most Christological books in the Old Testament. I will be living in this book for the next few weeks at least, so don’t be surprised to see more posts on Job.

In beginning to look at Job more closely, I found David J.A. Clines’ little “Orientation to the Book of Job” very helpful. (You can find this in the first volume of his Word Biblical Commentary on Job.) Here are the broad contours of that introduction.

The shape and structure of Job: The narrative at the beginning (1:1-2:13) and the end (42:7-17) form a sort of “naive” frame for the real core of the work–the poetry. The poetic material is composed, as I’m sure we all know, of a series of back-and-forths between the innocent, suffering Job, his three friends, a sort of random young interloper, and YHWH himself.

Job initiates the discussion with a lament (3:1-26). Eliphaz attempts to answer first (4:1-5:27), Job gives a rebuttal (6:1-7:21) which in turn occasions an attempted answer by Bildad (8:1-22). Job’s response to Bildad (9:1-10:22) in turn occasions Zophar’s attempt to provide an answer (11:1-20). This cycle repeats itself a second time (12:1-20:29). The cycle begins yet a third time (21:1-25:6), but it doesn’t quite terminate. The impression given is that Job’s friends have become weary contending with him, and that the discussion could go on forever.

At the end of the third cycle, Job gives his longest set of laments (26:1-31:40). He is summoning God to show up in court so that Job can plead his cause face to face. When the words of Job end, a rather frustrated young man, Elihu, pipes up to tell all parties how they have got things wrong. He gives a long speech that is seemingly ignored by Job, Job’s friends, God, and the narrator (32:1-37:24). When Elihu has finished, YHWH abruptly enters the scene, and commands Job to stand before him. YHWH launches a series of interrogations to which Job can only be silent (38:1-41:34). The poetic climax of the book is Job’s answer to God’s questioning: “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eyes see you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes” (42:1-6, esp. 5-6).

The argument of Job:

The problem of suffering is obviously present in the book. However, the somewhat stereotypical question of “Why suffering at all?” does not seem to be foremost here. If these are the questions we bring to the book, they will likely not be answered. A more pertinent question has to do with why an individual suffers. One of the things that the book of Job does is to muddy the waters of any theology that maintains a cut-and-dried correlation between guilt and punishment. The innocent do suffer. Most central to the book is a third question about the way one should respond to suffering. Clines says: “Viewed as an answer to the problem of suffering, then, the argument of the Book of Job is: By all means let Job the patient be your model so long as that is possible for you; but when equanimity fails, let the grief and anger of Job the impatient direct itself and yourself toward God, for only in encounter with him will be the tension of suffering be resolved”.

Another way to approach the argument of the book is to look at it in terms of the moral order it sets out. Is there any rule whereby goodness is rewarded and wickedness punished? The whole book turns on this question about retribution, and each figure in the story has a different standpoint on the question.

  • The Narrator: The whole story is founded upon the principle of retribution. Job is the most pious man in the world, and he is the most wealthy man in the world. These are not coincidental. Job, it seems, has taken this principle of retribution for granted, but then the suffering begins.

Job’s friends: Each of the three friends take the principle for granted as well, and they ultimately interpret Job’s predicament in light of the principle of retribution, despite the fact that they have known him to be entirely righteous.

  • Eliphaz: Job is relatively innocent, and his suffering will therefore be relatively short-lived. In other words, Eliphaz nuances the concepts of innocence and guilt, allowing for gradations.
  • Bildad: Sees Job’s children as living proof of the principle of retribution. The fact that Job has been spared is evidence that he was not as wicked as his children.
  • Zophar: Does not contextualize Job’s sin as the other two friends do. Rather, he takes the most cynical route, assuming that Job is a sinner–a secret sinner–and that he deserves the calamity that has befallen him. The good news, according to Zophar, is that God is not punishing Job as much as he deserves. Job is the recipient of divine mercy, and he should plead for more.
  • Elihu: This young man says that everyone has missed the point. Suffering is not ultimately about getting the proportion of retribution just right, rather retribution is about divine communication. Clines: “The purpose of such suffering is…to lead to confession by the sinner, one’s restoration by God, and one’s public praise of God (33:27).” Clines says that Elihu does not deny retribution; he affirms it, but he encourages everyone to look toward the bigger picture.
  • Job: In contrast to his cocksure friends, “Job’s mind is confused, flexible, and experimental” with respect to the question of retribution. In each of his orations, he takes a different tack both in terms of psychology and theology. Here are some of the things his speeches do:
  1. Accept what God has done to him, even blessing God for calamity (cf. 2:10).
  2. Loathe his life, and ask God to kill him (3:6; 6:8).
  3. Assume that God is hostile to Job and indeed all of creation (9:8, 13, 19).
  4. Determination to present the case of his innocence before God–he wants to bring a lawsuit before God, accusing God of being unjust (chaps. 12-14).
  5. Expression of waiting for God to show up and answer his challenge (chaps 16-17).
  6. Continued assertion of innocence, and declaration that God is his enemy (cf. 19:25).
  7. Reexamination of his life to see if he is indeed blameworthy, with the conclusion that he is (chaps 29-31).
  8. An oath of righteousness and continued willingness to encounter God (31:35-37).

As Clines says of Job’s case against God: “Job’s impressive and convincing protestation of innocence poses a desperate problem for the moral order of the universe…if Job is innocent, the doctrine of retribution is false. And there is no other principle available to replace it.”

  • Finally we come to God: God shows up to answer Job’s lawsuit. But God does not give any word on the retributive principle–none at all. This means that the principle is not so central as all the characters have thought, but that it is not entirely wrong, either. What God does is ask questions. God does not  browbeat Job by the dizzying array of cosmological questions, but he draws Job’s attention to the utterly complex world that God has created. Just as there are innumerable features of the world that humans can give no account of their reason, so too are God’s ways with humans beyond the grasp of bare reason. Divine wisdom cannot be reduced to some principle of retribution, however nuanced it may be. True knowledge about God is not the knowledge of this principle, however valid it may be in general cases. True knowledge of God depends upon the inscrutable God showing himself in revelation, and the human response of faith and trust. This is why Job ends the poetic section by saying: “I had heard about you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.”

Conclusion: So much more could be said to nuance the views of Job, his friends, the narrator, Elihu, and even God. However, this is more than enough to get me going as far as my reading of the book of Job goes. I hope it gets you thinking, and thinking about responsible Christological interpretations especially.


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© Matthew A. Wilcoxen and Canon and Creed, 2012-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Matthew A. Wilcoxen and Canon and Creed with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.
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