August 15, 2018

Is the Book of Job a parable? What is the message of Job? Does Job believe in life everlasting or prolongation of days  in one’s descendants?

Matt Levering, in his new book called Dying and the Virtues. examines the Book of Job and intersects it with the longing for life everlasting because of love. If God loves us, then God can’t annihilate us. That’s a major theme for Levering for the Book of Job.

Life everlasting and love. They are not tied together enough, but for the one who truly loves another facing death is facing not loving, and that’s where fear and terror and doubts occur. It is missing the other, it is being alone. The questions “What about me? Will I live eternally?” are not as important, and can be signs of narcissism, as the question “Will the one I love, will the Divine Lover, be there on the other side? Will those I have loved be on the other side?”

Hence, Levering opens up on the right note.

Joseph Ratzinger has argued that “man’s longing for survival” arises from “the experience of love,” in which “love wills eternity for the beloved and therefore for itself.” Love makes us yearn for everlasting communion with the beloved. But as we are dying, can we be sure of God’s enduring love for us? Across the chasm of death, does love lead to everlasting divine-human ‘networks of relationship and love,” or is love something that we experience now, but that God will take away from us forever, so that human love is ultimately destroyed by death?

Jon Levenson stands for many: Israelites did not long for eternal life but for a name carried on by way of descendants.

Levenson admits that the evidence of the Psalms shows that individual Israelites did indeed experience existential terror in the face of death, but he contends that in Genesis and throughout the Hebrew Bible, “the great enemy” is “death in the twin forms of barrenness and loss of children,” not the death of the individual person (120). I recognize that the book of Job ends on a happy note by having Job die in old age with a prosperous family surrounding him. Nonetheless, I think that the book of Job actually confronts head-on, with real terror and agony, the problem of personal death understood as annihilation. My contention is that Job challenges God precisely on the grounds that it would be unloving and unjust for God to annihilate (or to permit to be annihilated) a human being such as Job, who obeys God and who yearns for an ongoing relationship with God. At stake in the book of Job is whether God truly loves Job, and whether Job’s love for God (and neighbor) ultimately means anything at all. [my emphases here and throughout]

Thus I do not think that Job’s main concern is either the sudden death of his “seven sons and three daughters” (Job 1:2), leaving him temporarily without heirs, or even simply the fact that he suffers terribly. It is mortal suffering and its seeming consequence—annihilation—that most bother Job.

[Sketching the wrestling of Jacob and God, he says] Likewise, Job wrestles with God until God makes clear that God can be trusted not to abandon Job everlastingly.

Job contends God would be unloving and unjust to toss humans under the bus and move on to other lovers.

Job is right that if God only loved his human lovers for a short time and then obliterated them, then God’s goodness and real love for us would be radically thrown into question, and the basis of our love for God would be undermined. In the book of Job, then, we find the deepest problem that confronts dying persons: in the midst of the terror and darkness of mortal suffering, can and should we love our Creator God.

Thus, his argument: if God loves, and if we love God, then annihilation is unloving.

Levering states his view that Job is a parable, not least from “One there was a man from Uz” and the exaggerated numbers and stereotyped disasters and God and Satan arguing… his view is typical of many scholars today. Job is a parable, almost like a staged play — a very serious one, that’s for sure.

Some in the Augustinian tradition contend Job is self-righteous and unmasked by the God of the book. Levering contends in this parable that Job is good and that goodness is needed for the Book of Job to stand on its own.

Is Job proud? What is the fundamental basis of his lament? Since God eventually intervenes and condemns Job’s friends, I think that we can take Job’s innocence for granted, as the story’s way of bracketing the fact that suffering and death are a punishment of human sin. Having removed this justification for suffering and death, the book of Job can probe the deeper issue, namely whether annihilation is fitting or just for a rational creature who loves God and who has been made by and for divine love.

He sketches the whole book adequately and comes to these conclusions:

Why, however, does Job conclude that God has made a sufficient answer to the charge of unjustly annihilating humans? I have suggested above that God’s response to Job indicates that God, as the all-powerful Giver of life, can be counted upon to order things in such a way that brings forth the joy of those who love him. Proclaiming his power to create and sustain all things, God implies that he should be trusted to sustain Job’s life after death rather than annihilating Job; but Job will have to take this on trust or faith. This amount of hope seems to be enough for Job, especially since God has personally responded to his entreaties. God does not unveil the mystery of human death, but God gives Job enough hope to reassure him that death does not negate love.

Back to the unloving unjust theme of annihilation.

The injustice of flowering into consciousness and communion only to face everlasting death and nothingness stretching out endlessly consists in the fact that humans, while mortal, are created for a communion of love with the infinite God. The book of Job suggests that God ensures that annihilation is not what happens to his human creatures.

Job’s experience is ours in the face of death.

Humans face death in such a way that it feels like an annihilation, like standing on the brink of oblivion and then stepping into everlasting darkness and nothingness from which there will never be an escape.

Death urges us to love deeply.

In the encounter with God that is mortal suffering, therefore, we must love ever more urgently, and—in the space of silence before eternity that dying opens up—seek to receive what God has willed from creation to give us: his divine love. As he does to Job, the all-loving God will respond.

March 21, 2018

From Kenan Malik: [HT: JS]

Nearly half a century later came the Browne inquiry into the funding of universities, commissioned by the Labour government in 2009 and published the following year at the start of the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition. “Higher education matters,” it argued, “because it … helps produce economic growth, which in turn contributes to national prosperity.” The value of education, in other words, is economic; universities are good because they are profitable for the individual, for corporations and for the nation. The difference in the two reports sums up the transformation of higher education which is rooted in three trends: the growing view of universities as businesses, of students as consumers and of knowledge as a commodity. But there is a fundamental difference between being a student and being a consumer, and between acquiring knowledge and buying a commodity.

Education is not a product but a relationship between student and teacher, and a process by which knowledge transforms the individual. When someone buys a car or an insurance policy, he or she is purchasing a prepackaged, ready-made commodity to satisfy a specific need. Education is about creating critical thinkers whose skill is precisely the ability to challenge ideas that are prepackaged or ready-made.

Once students become consumers, they come to look upon ideas, not as ways of understanding the world, but as possessions they can trade for a better job or greater social prestige. Hence Pok Wong’s court case. Whether or not Anglia Ruskin University provides a good education, I don’t know. But whether it does or not cannot be measured simply in terms of whether its students end up in a good job.

What a student-as-a-consumer will not want are all the things that truly define a good education – difficult questions, deep reflection or challenging lecturers. These will be seen not as means to greater understanding but as obstacles to attaining a good degree.

It is a process that afflicts not just universities. Too many schools now think that their purpose is not to impart knowledge and encourage thinking but to show children how to pass exams. I know too many children whose curiosity and love of learning has been expunged by a system whose sole aim is to teach how to wheedle that extra mark at GCSEs.

The idea that there is more to education than value for money, or that “self-betterment” can be understood in more than monetary terms, may seem hopelessly romantic in our rigidly utilitarian age. Not every social gain, however, can be measured in terms of numbers or cash.

Any decent society needs to encourage critical thinking about ideas, beliefs and values, thinking upon which no price tag can be placed. A society that will only think when it is profitable to do so is one that has lost its mind.

October 19, 2017

689px-The_Lord_Answering_Job_Out_of_the_Whirlwind_Butts_setI have become convinced that the book of Job is one of the most significant books of the Bible. As wisdom literature, this is a book designed to get the reader, whether in ancient Israel or today, to think deeply about God, about God’s sovereignty and rule over the world. God designed and rules the world in accord to his wisdom and in relationship with his creation. Since making this discovery I have come to realize that I am far from the first scientist to realize the importance. Tom McLeish leans heavily on Job in his book Wisdom in Faith & Science – and we will dig into it in the next post on the book.

As I was preparing for an evening discussion group on science and faith at my local church I came across another example. In this video clip Bill Newsome, professor of neurobiology at Stanford University and, oh yeah, Director of the Stanford Neurosciences Institute, elected to the National Academy of Science, reflects on Job and its influence on his thinking. He reads a paraphrase of Job 38 written by an Australian biologist Charles Birch.

I transcribe some of the paraphrase of Job here:

Who is this obscuring my designs with his mechanistic models of the universe so that there is no room for either purpose, mind or consciousness. Brace yourself like a fighter, for now it is my turn to ask you questions and yours to inform me.

Where were you at the big bang? How is it that out of a universe of pure hydrogen you have come into existence? Did life begin when the first cell came into existence or do elements of life exist in the foundations of the universe? How can you be so sure that all is contrivance?

How can mind grow from no mind? How can life grow from the nonliving? Do people grow from blind mechanism? Is not a universe that grows humans as much a human or humanizing universe as a tree which grows apples is an apple tree? Or do you think that figs grow on thistles and grapes on thorns?  …(skipping a part that seems to step away from Job)…

Because there are accidents and chance in the world why do you think there is therefore no room for purpose? Can you not have both? And when you have analyzed life down to its molecular blocks in DNA why do you think you have discovered the secret of life when you have not yet discovered the source of love and all feeling?

And why do you want to make of me either an all powerful engineer or an impotent nonentity when I am neither.

To all of which we can only reply as Job replied, I have been holding forth on matters I cannot understand, on matters beyond me and my knowledge. I knew you then only by hearsay but now having seen you with my own eyes I retract all that I have said and in dust and ashes I repent.

Job and his friends expected that God ruled the world on a retribution principle grounded in prosperity for the righteous and punishment for the wicked. In some sense the rug was pulled from under Job when he suffered because he had done nothing to deserve it. He was confident in this and the reader is allowed no room for doubt. God himself affirms it in the prologue. In essence God brings Job to the realization that he did not have the perspective to understand God’s governance of creation, grounded in his wisdom. Job could not do a better job than Yahweh, the creator of all.

We also are in no position to suggest that we know better than God how to run the world, or that we know how it should be done. All we can do is to rest in the assurance that God, in his wisdom, does what is best.

What do you see in God’s response to Job in 38-40?

How would you paraphrase God’s speech?

How should we respond today?

If you wish to contact me directly, you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net

If interested you can subscribe to a full text feed of my posts at Musings on Science and Theology.

March 16, 2017

Screen Shot 2017-02-02 at 6.45.26 PMAt some point we all face suffering. At some point we all face unjust suffering, the suffering of the innocent, the suffering of pain that takes us to a place where we ask “Why?” So Krish Kandiah, in his new book Paradoxology:

Whether we are forced to watch the suffering of others, or experiencing suffering in our own lives, we desperately want to know ‘Why?’ Why does God stand passively by when there is so much suffering going on all the time? Why does he criticize our tendency to walk on by on the other side of the road when we see people in need, when he himself sees all suffering and yet chooses to do nothing? Does God not care? Does God not understand? Or perhaps he is, after all, incapable of stepping in? God’s deliberate policy of not fixing things when we are suffering highlights one of those universal paradoxes – we believe that God is active and powerful, so if he does not intervene, we are forced to conclude that this God is actively choosing to be passive (86).

Surely this is one of our faith’s biggest challenges and surely also one of the deepest questions to answer. This paradox is also quite true, as I remember Elie Wiesel questioning God’s existence because of the Holocaust and the Rebbe telling Elie Wiesel that the reason to believe is because of the Holocaust. Here is Kandiah’s formulation:

The problem of suffering is one of the most enduring questions humanity has to grapple with, and from an anthropological point of view it is one of the main reasons humans have sought to explain the world we live in by reference to a God or gods. At the same time, in our culture particularly, it has become perhaps the main reason raised in objection against belief in God (86).

Every religion deals with unjust suffering: is it, as in Hinduism, karma? is it, as in Buddhism, wrong desire? is it, as with atheism, bad luck? “Unlike atheists, we believe that the inevitable question ‘Why?’ is in fact crucial evidence that we intrinsically believe things don’t happen by chance, that someone is in control and that things don’t have to be this way” (94).

He turns to Job:

Naked I came from my mother’s womb,
and naked I will depart.
The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away;
may the name of the Lord be praised (Job 1:20-21).

Job’s confession reveals a commitment to continue trusting God despite his circumstances. Job’s perspective is that life itself is a gift, and so is everything that comes with it, and he will continue to love God for who he is, not for what he has given to Job (95).

But then that torturous dialogue. What do we learn?

First, we are clearly told that God is in control.
Second, we learn that not all suffering is deserved.
Third, we see God specifically allowing suffering to happen to an innocent person. Satan is permitted to disrupt Job’s life, which throws us back to the classic paradox: does suffering continue because God is not all-powerful, or because God is not all-loving? The book of Job clearly states that God is all-powerful; Satan can do nothing to Job without God’s permission. So the question becomes whether God is all-loving. Can we truly continue to believe in a loving God when he allows such extreme suffering simply to win what appears to be nothing more than a divine wager? As the story unfolds, however, we will see that there is more at stake than a cruel test.

What of the free will defense? “God desires genuine relationships with us as human beings, something which is only possible when there is free choice” (99). “God is still in control, but as he has given us space for us to exercise our freedom, so we have to reap some of its consequences, and live in a world that is not as God originally intended, nor how it will eventually end up” (99).

He wants to present his case before God, but when he gets there God interrogates him.

In fact, the constant barrage of questions from God is not designed to silence and belittle Job, but rather to help him to see something of the wonder of the world as God sees it – to experience a sense of awe. Job doesn’t learn about God’s perspective on his own suffering, but he does learn about God’s perspective on the whole world. Job finds himself knowing God better: ‘My ears had heard of you, but now my eyes have seen you.’ Job finds himself trusting God better: T know that you can do all things; no purpose of yours can be thwarted.’

The only answer to the problem of suffering we will find in Job is the example of reflecting on the universe to observe the power, skill and wisdom of God demonstrated in nature. This is evidence enough to prove beyond question that if God is able to create and order the universe, then he is more than capable of overseeing the details of our lives. If God is powerful enough to create the constellations and yet is attentive enough to watch while ‘the doe bears her fawn’, then he is capable enough to work out the complexities of our lives.

The free-will defence of suffering puts God’s desire for genuine human relationships at its centre. So, in the end, does the book of Job. Will anyone still choose to trust God even if they lose everything? The book of Job answers, yes. The pain of Job’s tragedy and the steadfastness of his faith despite it proves that God’s creation project has not been a waste of time. Job’s story encourages us that when life is hard and perhaps God feels distant and passive, we can get through this with our faith intact.

January 5, 2017

How to Read Job (2)What does the book of Job mean for us today?  What is the message and application? John Walton and Tremper Longman III conclude their book How to Read Job by addressing these questions.

The book of Job provides answers – important for us today as they were for the original audience. Christians often turn to Job, and Pastors recommend Job, in times of suffering. Here, we think, we may find both the answer to suffering and the recipe for endurance. This is not really the case. We do gain some insight into suffering – but no real explanations.

We cannot dismiss all suffering as the just desert of sin.  “We know that inherent sinfulness is not the answer the book promulgates because the text makes it clear throughout that Job is considered righteous. … No one is without sin, but we cannot just pull out that theological trump card when we try to understand our human plight.” (p. 163)

We will not always find an answer to the why of suffering, and we need not ask. Some will claim that God is inscrutable (impossible to understand or interpret) and this is true, but he is not inconsistent and capricious. “We may agree that God is inscrutable in the sense that he cannot be fully known, but in the book of Job it is God’s reasons that are beyond are knowing and beyond our ability to infer. … The argument against inscrutability is that we need not seek answers that will justify Job’s or our experiences; we know enough to believe that God is wise.” (p. 164)

But, you say, God’s ways are above our ways, certainly there must be a purpose to suffering.  The book of Job does not address the question of purpose. “When we look to the past, we are seeking reasons. When we look to the future, we are seeking purposes. The former attempt should be abandoned and the latter held loosely.”  We can, sometimes, find tragedy serving a purpose in our lives … but not always, not (for example)  for the one who suffers a tragic death. God has a purpose for his world, and the unfolding of the world is according to his purposes – but that doesn’t necessarily give us a sense of purpose in every event.

We cannot out-God God.” (p. 166) God’s first speech from the storm makes this point. Neither Job nor we could do a better job of organizing the cosmos than God has done and continues to do.

We learn that trust is the only possible response – and that God’s wisdom will prevail. We can’t treat the relationship as a contract … behavior for (earthly) reward.

701px-Every_Man_Also_Gave_Him_a_Piece_of_Money_Butts_setThe book of Job does not provide comfort! Don’t recommend the book of Job to someone in the midst of suffering. The book does not provide comfort in this situation. The dialogues and discourses are interminable, God’s speeches won’t help much, and restoration isn’t guaranteed.

Study the book of Job when all is going well, preach from it, teach it.  “The message of the book is more suited to training for crises than to performing in a crisis.” (p. 170)

Some of us would like results but are not willing to put in the hard work necessary to achieve those results. The book of Job provides the opportunity for training our minds to maintain spiritual flexibility and to act instinctively when the need arises. We shouldn’t start learning scales the day of the performance, and we should not think that we can sight read a challenging score once the concert has begun. The lessons of Job should be learned in preparation for crises, not turned to for comfort after life has gone desperately wrong. (p. 170)

Walton and Longman suggest that rather than finding comfort in Job we will find help in other ways – we will find guidance toward acceptance. We need to accept that God’s control of the world is not defined by micromanagement.

If we can accept this view of God’s role in the world, our expectations of him can be revised and we can accept the circumstances that come upon us with more resolve. If we really believe that God is wise and we are not,   then we can relinquish control to him in spite of our lack of understanding. … Such acceptance can be discussed in terms of rest, shalom, and coherence. (p. 171-172)

Here they turn to the New Testament. Rest is found in Christ …  “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” And in Christian community.   Rather than casting out, turning away from, or accusing the sufferer, Christian community should support and sustain those who are in need. Job’s friends accused him, a mistake too often repeated. “The Christian way is different. We should rally around the person who is suffering. When that happens people can find rest even in their suffering as they find support and security in stable community.” (p. 174)

The book of Job should also set us on a path toward shalom, peace. This is a path that finds its end in Christ. “Jesus has given us a focus for our trust – far more focus than Job had. In this way the book of Job starts us on a journey of trust and hope that finds its completion in Christ.” (p. 177)

Finally, coherence. Coherence doesn’t require a comprehensive understanding of any situation or subject. “Coherence indicates that we have achieved an optimum level of understanding.” (p. 177) Longman and Walton find no evidence that Job himself finds coherence (although I think perhaps his last response indicates such an understanding), we can gain understanding from the book that leads to coherence, away from fear and confusion. “The book of Job can help us find coherence through understanding, and it can help us find peace through trust.” (p. 178)  Rest is found in Christ and in Christian community – when (if?) the community rallies around the one who is suffering.

Post script. Walton and Longman, in their full commentaries, but even more in this short book, have cast the book of Job in a whole new light. From being enigmatic, troubling, and boring, it has become one of my favorite books of the Old Testament. This book will make an excellent resource for small groups and adult education classes. I used it in a short study last fall with excellent response and hope to dig in deeper in a future class. It is one of my “2016 books of the year.” It isn’t theologically deep, profound, or academic. It is written for a general lay Christian audience. It isn’t shallow though, and it will open eyes to reading Scripture with a whole new depth of understanding. How to Read Job will serve the church well … use it.

How should we use the book of Job in the church?

What does it mean to prepare for the trials of life? How can the church help?

Is acceptance better than comfort?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net

If interested you can subscribe to a full text feed of my posts at Musings on Science and Theology.

December 27, 2016

How to Read Job (2)We’ve been looking at How to Read Job by John Walton and Tremper Longman III. The first three sections of the book focus on Job in its ancient Near Eastern audience. As Old Testament scholars, both Longman and Walton agree that a meaning detached from the ancient context will necessarily go awry. As Christians, however, we believe that there is more to the text than the ancient audience realized.

After all, now Job appears in a broader context – the canon – and we need to read the book in light of the whole canon, including the New Testament. The New Testament gives us an inspired continuation of the story of redemption that goes back to Genesis; thus we can look back on the earlier story in the context of its continuation. (p. 148)

This is something like reading a novel, especially a good mystery novel or watching a movie or TV show.. The clues present in the early part of the story make more sense when the outcome is known. Jesus is the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets (i.e. the Old Testament). Luke 24, along with other passages in Paul and the Gospel’s make this point. Thus, for Christians it is important to consider the Old Testament in the context of this fulfillment. Walton and Longman give some guidelines. (These are paraphrased from p. 150-151.)

  1. Always begin by reading the Old Testament passage in the context of its original setting before reading it from the perspective of the New Testament.
  2. Christ’s relationship to the OT is more than a handful of Messianic prophecies – but we should also be careful of seeing Christ everywhere.
  3. There must be an organic connection between the OT and its christological significance. (“Organic” needs some discussion.)
  4. The NT citations of the OT are not always based on a historical-grammatical reading of the OT. These are in keeping with first century methods of interpretation.
  5. Different books and even different parts of the same book may point to Christ in different ways.
  6. The connection can be on a thematic level – like the connection of Christ with wisdom and the importance of wisdom in Job.
  7. We must reflect intellectual humility when describing connections not clearly expressed in the NT.

762px-The_Vision_of_Christ_Butts_setI know that my redeemer lives? Well, yes … but not in connection with Job. Both Longman and Walton argue that it is not correct to identify Jesus with the redeemer desired by Job. Jesus is not an advocate arguing a case before an angry God (Job’s desire) … he is God’s Messiah to redeem the world.

An important connection between Job and Christian faith is found in the answer to the question “do we fear God for nothing?” Do we worship and follow God’s ways for the good we get or because he is God?

God never promises that those who follow Jesus will live pain-free lives. Indeed the Christian disciple is one who will follow the example of the sufferings of Jesus and be willing to “take up the cross” of sufferings in this life: “Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.” (Mt 10:38-39) The Christian life, according to Paul, is one of joy, but a joy in the midst of suffering. … Paul models proper discipleship, which is relationship with God, not for the goodies but because of his love of God. (p. 154)

Who is wise? The book of Job, in the wisdom literature of the OT, addresses this question.

Only God is truly wise, and that is his point when he confronts Job from the whirlwind in Job 38-42, a conclusion that is anticipated in Job 28 and that is recognized by Job when he sees rather than simply hears Yahweh. As a result, in the midst of suffering Job submits to the wisdom and power of Yahweh (Job 42:1-6). (P. 156)

In both the Gospels and the epistles we read of the connection of Jesus with the wisdom of God. Here we should understand a connection between the book of Job and Christian faith.

Jesus is the very epitome of God’s wisdom. Jesus is the answer to the question of where we find wisdom. When the book of Job asserts the wisdom of God, the Christian understands a that Jesus displays God’s wisdom in all its abundance. (p. 157)

Although Job is righteous and an innocent sufferer (the prologue and epilogue make this clear), the comparison with Jesus is incomplete. Jesus was righteous in everything, not in need of sacrifice and repentance. In addition, Jesus suffered voluntarily for the sins of the world. Job’s suffering was involuntary and individual.

Jesus is the ultimate answer to suffering. But this answer, other than trusting in the wisdom of God, is not expressed in the book of Job. Job teaching us that suffering can originate from sin (our own or that of others), because the world is fallen, or can simply originate from the nature of the unordered world. Suffering can have purpose – but not necessarily. We, like Job, are to persevere with the steadfast endurance of Behemoth.

The book of Job teaches us that we should not always expect easy answers; that we should not put ourselves in God’s shoes expecting to understand all of his ways. In his preeminent wisdom, God does not rule the cosmos according to his justice. The retribution principle is not some absolute law according to which the cosmos operates. Our appropriate response is to trust in God’s wisdom whether we understand or not, and to follow his ways because he is God rather than for some anticipated benefit.

What messages do we, as Christians, take from the book of Job?

How do these differ from the message understood by the original audience?

What answers should we expect from Job?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net

If interested you can subscribe to a full text feed of my posts at Musings on Science and Theology.

November 29, 2016

How to Read Job (2) The book of Job, as John Walton and Tremper Longman II point out in their recent book How to Read Job, “contains more extensive discussion of the cosmos and God’s role in it than any other book in the Bible with the possible exception of Psalms.” (p. 120)  Today we will look specifically at the discussion of the cosmos in the book of Job.

The view of the cosmos presented in Job represents an ancient cosmic geography familiar to the original audience of the book.

From the ancient reader’s perspective the discussions of cosmic geography and the operations of the cosmos do not differ from the opinions affirmed in the rest of the Bible. Furthermore, what we find in Job is basically in line with the thinking of the time throughout the ancient Near East, except with regard to the identity of the controlling deity. (p. 120)

The major distinction between the book of Job and the thinking of the general ancient Near Eastern  culture is the role of God’s justice and wisdom in the operations of the cosmos. There is no modern science hidden within the text – although metaphors are used at times “we cannot maintain that those metaphors conceal a view of the cosmos that was actually much like ours.” (p. 121) Walton and Longman go on to make an important point:

We all recognize that scientific understanding changes constantly. If God’s revelation were embedded in a particular scientific view, there would be no room for further investigation. Statements about the operation of the world cannot easily be so general as to fit the current knowledge and understanding of any generation. … After all, science is not simply a compilation of fact; it expresses society’s consensual understanding of how the world works. (p. 121)

I had not thought about the issue in quite this way before, but it is worth considering. I would put a few things a little differently. For example, scientific understanding grows constantly, building on what came before, rather than “changes.” Using the word “changes” often conveys the wrong meaning, as though the changes were random and could go in any direction. Scientific understanding changes, but these changes are not arbitrary or disconnected. Our collective understanding of what we call the natural world is moving in a well-defined direction, with occasional meanders. However, Walton and Longman make a great point. God created a world with a purpose and humans with a mission to be the image of God and to rule and subdue the earth. There is an expectation of growth and change. A once-and-for-all scientific revelation would circumvent an important part of the growth process – and was not necessary for God to reveal himself and his mission to his people.

Walton and Longman go on to suggest that an approach to Scripture that sees modern science in the ancient text “can undermine biblical authority because it vests the imagination of the modern reader with the right to provide new meanings.” (p. 122)

When we embrace biblical authority or even inerrancy, however, we are adopting a view that pertains to those things that the Bible affirms or, to put it another way, to those things the Bible intends to teach. That is, we are attaching authority to that which is the focus of revelation. For the sake of clear communication, God uses incidentals that are believed by his target audience in order to reveal the truths that he wants to convey. Scriptural authority resides in God’s revelatory message, not in the incidentals he uses to convey that message. Inerrancy describes the nature of revelation and our confidence that it is true. God is who he says he is. He has done what he says he has done. His motives and purposes are what the Bible proclaims them to be. (p. 123)

lucas_cranach_God_as_Creator_Luthers_BibleThere are numerous examples of ancient cosmic geography in Job, pillars of the heavens (26:11) and of earth (9:6), storehouses of snow and hail (38:22), the chamber of the tempest (37:9) and so forth. No such reference impacts the message of the book. The purpose of the book of Job is not to describe how the cosmos works, but how God works in the cosmos. Is God just? Does the ordering of the cosmos reflect God’s justice? Does his justice shape its operation?

The description of the cosmos in Job, especially God’s speech in chapters 38-39, does teach us a good deal about the world God has created and the world in which we live. There is order, non-order and disorder in creation. “In his wisdom God has decided to bring order gradually. He can impose his will at any time and in any way, but he has set up a realm where non-order remains and disorder is allowed to intrude.” (p. 127) Some of what we consider “natural evil” would be better described as non-order. There is a paragraph here worth considering in more detail:

Many of the phenomena that we term “natural disasters” on the cosmic level (e.g. hurricanes, tsunamis, earthquakes, tornadoes, droughts and famines, plagues and epidemics), all the way down to the devastating experiences at the biological level (e.g. mutations), can be identified as aspects of non-order in the world. They can have a severely negative impact, and God could potentially use them as punishment, but they are not intrinsically evil in any moral sense. They are not impervious to God’s control, but neither can they be considered instruments wielded in judgment. They are not independent of him, but we should not picture him with a remote-control device. These forces are subject to his bidding just as humans are, though we are not robots. (p. 127)

What this means is that the operations of this world are not always just. “God can use disasters or disease as acts of judgment, but we would never know whether he is doing so unless we had a prophetic voice to that effect. Those who lose their lives in a hurricane are no more wicked than those who are spared, but through these events we should all be warned (Lk 13:1-5).” (p. 128) Rather than focusing on justice we should see grace and wisdom in the operation of the world.  “When we affirm his wisdom we assert that none of us could do a better job of running the world. Job though he could, and God called his bluff (Job 40:10-14). (p. 128)

As we do not wonder why a person breaks a leg from a fall under the influence of gravity, so we should not wonder why cancer or diabetes affects this person but not that person. “God’s wisdom is founded in the world that he chose to create, not in each expression of gravity or cell division.” (p. 130)   Walton and Longman conclude the chapter:

Why did God devise the system the way that he did? This is not a question that we can answer, but we can say that he did not do it for the sake of justice. Justice is not the linchpin of the cosmos. The forces that God built into the world are not discerning, volitional or moral, and God does not micromanage. There is more to the world than justice, and we should be glad of it, because if justice were at the core of everything, we would not exist. In his wisdom God ordered the cosmos to work the way it does. He is able to interfere or even micromanage, but that is not typical. In its fallen state the world can only operate by his wisdom, not by his justice. (p. 130)

While it is clear that humanity is fallen and that this has an impact on the world introducing disorder, I don’t find it useful to put too much emphasis on the fallen state here. God created a world where, in his wisdom, there was non-order and perhaps even disorder before there was any human rebellion. The snake in the garden represents non-order at best, disorder if this is Satan. The Bible does not portray an image of perfection prior to human sin. The message of Job is that we must trust in God’s wisdom.

What does the book of Job teach us about the ordering of the cosmos?

Is the distinction between God’s wisdom and God’s justice useful in understanding the cosmos? What is the role of grace?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net

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November 1, 2016

595px-William_Blake_-_Satan_Before_the_Throne_of_GodBefore digging into the text of Job is is helpful to understand the roles played by the major characters in the book. Section two of the recent book How to Read Job by John Walton and Tremper Longman III discusses each of the players. There are chapters dedicated to God, Satan, Job, Job’s human advisors, Job’s advocate, and the use of Behemoth and Leviathan. Their discussion will undoubtedly challenge the assumptions of (almost) every reader. The most important thing to remember is that Job is wisdom literature – it is not a historical account. The characters are structured to teach a lesson. As such they are exaggerated caricatures. This includes aspects of the way that God is portrayed (probably the suggestion that will encounter the greatest push back).

The portrayal of God. The portrayal of God as one who wagers with the satan, wipes out Job’s family, and refuses to answer Job’s questions causes a great deal of consternation for many readers. Walton and Longman suggests that these features are  part of the literary construction of the book and shouldn’t be taken as a description of God.

We conclude that we would not use any of these story elements to provide sound theological teaching about the nature of God. God is a character in the book of Job, and it is important to examine what the author does with the character rather than what the character does. To extract that teaching, we look to the message of the book.

… In the message of the book, points are being made about God’s justice, God’s wisdom and God’s policies. (p. 47)

According to Walton and Longman, God’s wisdom is key to understanding the message, while God’s policies, particularly his policy of blessing the righteous (and to a lesser extent his policy of allowing the righteous to suffer), serve as the main focus. “The book promotes the conclusion that the way God operates the world is more complicated than people can imagine and that, therefore, God’s way cannot be reduced to a simple equation.” (p. 48)  … “In his wisdom he has created the world as he deemed appropriate, and we trust that wisdom.” (p. 49)

The challenger is not Satan. I discussed this in a post several years ago, The accuser is not Satan based on the full commentaries by Walton and Longman. The challenger in the divine council is not the being referred to in the New Testament as Satan. “Job 1:6 would lead us to understand that a certain celestial being whose precise identity is unimportant and who has the current and perhaps temporary status of challenger is being introduced into the narrative.” (p. 52)  The satan, or the challenger, questions God’s policy of blessing the righteous. He does not tempt, corrupt, deprave, or posses … he is not rebuked, rather he is answered. And this sets up the scenario of the book. “The satan, this challenger in Job, however, is not an independent agent opportunistically fulfilling his nature. Whatever he does he does through the power of God; all events of the book are understood as God’s actions.” (p. 55)  It goes further than this though … “The challenger comes among the sons of God, who are members of the heavenly council (not mere angels, who are messengers for the council). This standing gives him legitimate status and identifies him as one whom God has delegated to perform certain tasks.” (p. 55) He plays no role in the book beyond questioning God’s policy and thus setting up the scenario.

700px-Job_Rebuked_by_His_Friends_Butts_setJob is righteous. The book of Job is not about Job, it is about God’s policies and God’s wisdom. In a way, Job is “the star witness for the defense of that system.” (p. 56) In the book Job is righteous  – a concept that seems to give Walton and Longman the most trouble. (This was true in their full commentaries as well.) Job is not perfect, but he is a righteous man. If he has a flaw in the book, it may be his self-righteous defense before the challenges of his three friends. Job’s righteousness is “motivated by the belief that righteousness is the appropriate life response to such a God, regardless of the expectations of society or the anticipation of gain.” (p. 59)  In the book Job has integrity, he demonstrates that he does not serve God only for the blessings it brings him on earth. He is not correct in all he says in his various speeches – he questions the policy of allowing the righteous to suffer and demands justice. This provides another sub-theme for the book. But he doesn’t “curse God and die” when his blessings are removed.

Job’s Friends. Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar all defend the retribution principle. Because Job suffers, he must have done something to deserve it.  In the first cycle his friends advise him to repent and admit his sin, the second cycle focuses on the fate of the wicked. In the final cycle Eliphaz and Bildad ramp up the accusation and exhort Job to repent. According to Walton and Longman “we see that the friends are interested in helping Job appease a god who is angry (in their minds undoubtedly and justifiably so) in order that he might be restored to favor and prosperity.” (p. 69)

After the dialogue between Job and these three, a fourth, Elihu, makes a speech.  He suggests that God is testing and refining Job. “Elihu claims that Job’s responses to suffering mark him as lacking the humility that characterizes true righteousness.” (p. 71)  This is a variation on the retribution principle – and one that would justify Job’s suffering. But this too is refuted by the message of the book.

Job’s Advocate. Although it is popular in Christian circles to see Job’s plea for a redeemer or advocate as a foreshadowing of Christ. This doesn’t fit with the form and message of the book. (See more details in the earlier post: I Know That My Redeemer Lives.)

567px-Behemoth_and_Leviathan_Butts_setBehemoth and Leviathan. These are not creatures we should try to identify. They are legendary creatures, perhaps chaos creatures. It makes no sense to think of hippopotamuses or crocodiles (the most common speculation).  According to Walton and Longman, Job is instructed to emulate Behemoth and think about God like he thinks about Leviathan.

Behemoth cannot be moved and Leviathan cannot be challenged. … These two creatures are used as illustrations from which humans should learn some important lessons. Humans should respond to raging rivers with security and trust (as Behemoth does) should not think that they can domesticate or challenge God (since they cannot challenge or domesticate Leviathan, who is inferior to God). (83)

In the end, “Job needs to find stability in rough waters, and he needs to have more respect for Yaweh.” (p. 85) His second response to God (42:1-6) shows that Job understands – and so should the reader.

Which of these descriptions challenge your views?

Where would you disagree with Walton and Longman (and why)?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net

If interested you can subscribe to a full text feed of my posts at Musings on Science and Theology.

October 18, 2016

How to Read JobI am preparing to lead a short Bible study on the book of Job using the recent book How to Read Job by John Walton and Tremper Longman III as a guide. The book of Job provides an excellent forum for discussing the nature of Scripture as the word of God, God as creator, and God’s rule of creation. All of these are issues we must deal with in an consideration of science and Christian faith or the relevance of Christian faith in the 21st century. The questions we ask today are not enormously different than those asked by the original audience of Job, but the baggage we bring to the text of Scripture seems to have grown. We need to learn to read the Bible on its own terms, not according to our human (western, modern, …) rules.

Part One of How to Read Job addresses the question of reading Job as literature. The book of Job is not history and it is not, actually, about Job. Both Walton and Longman agree that the book of Job is about God and the way God runs the world. Two major questions drive the book. First: Is it good policy for God to bless the righteous? Blessing the righteous just buys pseudo-loyalty doesn’t it? And second, Is it it just when God allows righteous people to suffer?

These two challenges set up the focus of the book as it pertains to God’s policies in the world: it is not good policy for righteous people to prosper (for that undermines the development of true righteousness by providing an ulterior motive). In tension with that, it is not good policy for righteous people to suffer (they are good people, the ones who are on God’s side). So what is God to do? (p. 15)

I think we can take these questions and pose some additional questions that encompass all of Scripture. Why did God create humans capable of sin? Why was the snake in the garden? Why do the wicked prosper? Why does God show mercy? Why are there tsunamis, earthquakes, hurricanes and tornadoes? Why did God apparently (assuming evolution is correct) use years of death to shape the world, from the origin of an oxygen environment down to the present day? Why is the death of Jesus important? Why are hell and judgment important biblical concepts? Why are Christians sometimes horribly persecuted? All of these bear on the larger question of how God runs the world. It isn’t always clear from a human perspective.

What big questions do you see in Scripture?

What is on trial in the book of Job?

I have heard a number of Christians claim that evolutionary creation runs counter to the nature of God. And, apparently ignoring the serpent in the garden, that the introduction of sin and evil must be laid at the feet of humans to preserve God’s integrity and justice.  But is this what the Bible teaches?  Perhaps Job will help us as we look for answers.

522px-William_Blake_-_Satan_Going_Forth_from_the_Presence_of_the_LordThe book of Job is a work of theological literature. Both Longman and Walton see it as a sophisticated and carefully constructed work. The book consists of a prologue and opening lament (ch. 1-3), a cycle of dialogue between Job and his three friends (ch. 4-27), a wisdom hymn (28), a discourse by Job (ch. 29-31), a discourse by Elihu (ch. 32-37), a discourse by God (ch. 38-41) and an closing and epilogue (ch. 42). (The drawings are by William Blake – available on Wikipedia.)

Though many modern interpreters have found the book lacking in cohesiveness, we would contend that each of these components of the book plays a significant role in the development of the book’s purpose. The various styles of literature used by the book include dialogue, discourse, narrative, hymn, and lament. All of these are woven together into a poignant piece of wisdom literature. None of these parts can be easily written off as later additions or as redundant once we understand the role that each plays in the book. (p. 20)

While the book of Job fits into the larger world of ancient Near Eastern literature, it is distinctly different in the way it portrays Job and God. Job thinks like an Israelite. God alone is wise. The book doesn’t mirror the surrounding views – in a sense it responds to them. “It is remarkable that some could still suggest that the book of Job borrows from the ancient Near Eastern exemplars. … A more defensible model sees the mentality of ancient Near Eastern literature as a foil for the book of Job. Job’s friends are the representatives of the ancient Near Eastern perspective, and their views are soundly rejected.” (p. 32)  Walton and Longman point out out several ways the text responds to the culture, including the following: (1) There is no “great symbiosis” because God does not have needs for humans to satisfy. (2) The text is interested in the justice of God, while just gods are not a concern in the ancient Near East. (3) The text is concerned with righteousness as an abstract concept, and one that goes beyond the ancient world. (4) No ritual offenses are considered (contrary to the literary parallels). (5) Divine wisdom is a major theme.

The book of Job is not history. The character of Job may or may not be based on a real person known to the original author and audience – by reputation at least. It doesn’t matter. Longman and Walton don’t mince words here: “this book is manifestly and unarguably in the genre category of wisdom literature rather than historical literature.” (p. 35) And a little later on the same page, “We would be mistaken to think that the author seeks to unfold a series of historical events.” (p. 35) They run through some of the reasons for this conclusion (for example, no stenographer recording heavenly prologue or the dialogues). The excessive extremes that frame the story. Job is exceedingly wealthy, he is undeniably righteous, no space is left for easy outs. The reader must grapple with the central question.

We therefore adopt the position that, though Job himself may have been a real person who actually lived, the rest of the book is a literary work of art providing a wisdom discussion that is framed by extremes. … This allows us to consider the extreme and artificial scenario the author has constructed so that we can engage in a deep investigation of an important philosophical issue without having to continually cope with the muddied waters of the normal ambiguities of people and their circumstances. Whether we label it a thought experiment or simply a hypothetical scenario built around extremes, we can encounter the God-given message of the text undistracted from incidental curiosities and without the angst that comes with wondering why God killed Job’s children. (p. 39)

I suppose that we could argue that God should not have allowed (or inspired) the original author to include such troubling elements as the wager with the challenger and the killing of Job’s children. However, this may well be imposing modern sensibilities on an ancient text.  We find these to be distractors, but they need to be taken for their literary intent as extremes not as moral statements.

How would you describe the genre of Job?

How does this influence the way you interpret the book?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net

If interested you can subscribe to a full text feed of my posts at Musings on Science and Theology.

May 16, 2016

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