Worshiping God because he is God: some thoughts on Job by Choon-Leong Seow

I recently asked Dr. Choon-Leong Seow, Henry Snyder Gehman Professor of Old Testament Language and Literature at Princeton Theological Seminary, if he would answer a few questions about his most recent commentary, Job 1-21: Interpretation and Commentary. He’s just getting started, you know, so I thought I’d try to give hime some exposure and help him along.

If you’re not laughing, you don’t know who Seow is. And you’ll want to remedy that ASAP. Seow is one of my favorite Old Testament commentators because he has an uncommon ability to synthesize ancient Near Eastern background, linguistics, history of interpretation, and theology.

He has also guest lectured for me in the past, and my students always walked away changed in their outlook in some significant way and wondering how they got stuck with me and why I couldn’t be as smart. I failed the lot of them, of course, but I digress.

I have not yet read this first part of Seow’s commentary, but it is arriving in the mail shortly. I look forward to reading, if anything, the introduction. Getting a sense of what the book as a whole is “doing” has been a point of contention for as long as there has been a book of Job.  Is it about suffering, as many think? Seow suggest below what the overall point is, and I am eager to see him flesh it out in writing.

Seow’s other publications include commentaries on Daniel and Ecclesiastes, and A Grammar for Biblical Hebrew. He is currently editing the massive multi-volume Encyclopedia of the Bible and Its Reception.

What sets your commentary on Job apart from others? 
I wanted to write a commentary that is fresh and rigorous enough to serve as a reference work and yet is accessible, even enjoyable to read. I do so with a keen sense that Job belongs to the best in world literature. So I keep in mind people of various backgrounds, with or without religious convictions, coming to the commentary it to seek help in appreciating its literary beauty, especially its sublime poetry.

At the same time, Job has had a long history of interpretation and reception among Jews, Christians , Muslims, and people who hold no confessional positions, and they do so not just in commentaries and theological works, but also in poems, fiction, drama, polemical works, music, the visual arts, music, film, and even dance. So I try and bring all these perspectives into conversation. This is what is unique about the commentary.

Do you have a favorite passage or section of the Job?
That’s a tough one because I have so many favorites. I love chapters 3 and 14 for their sheer poetic beauty. I love all the speeches of Job for the pathos and unrelenting honesty.

What are one or two common misunderstandings of the book of Job and how do you handle them differently?
The book is commonly thought to be about why people suffer, and that it is a theodicy. If it is either of these, it is not very successful. In the end there is no answer to the question of why there is innocent suffering. And the book is as much antitheodic (decrying the lack of divine justice) as it is theodicy (defending divine justice).

The liberation theologian Gustavo Gutierrez is right that it is not about these issues. Rather, to Gutierrez, it is about “God talk”—how we talk about God in the face of inexplicable human suffering. Yet the book is more that “God talk.” It is “God thought”—human interiority, what is in the human heart and unexpressed when we face a God who contradicts all our expectations.

The book asks, in effect, if human beings worship God because God is good (what we expect and demand God to be), or if we worship God because God is God—utterly sovereign, utterly free.

What was for you the most difficult aspect of writing this commentary?
The greatest challenge for any commentator of Job is the sheer amount of interpretation through the centuries. I wanted to be respectful of all contributions, but I did not want to exhaust the reader and user of the commentary with too many perspectives.

I did not want to “let a thousand flowers bloom,” and give the readers so many options that they are lost. Rather, I wanted to be responsible in representing different views, but I also want to be clear on how I read the text. I write to invite readers to explore the text with me as their guide.

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  • mark

    In Death and Immortality I attempt to place the dilemma faced by Job within the larger experience of man in history. Which is to say that, eloquent as is its expression, Job’s viewpoint is far from unique and is best understood as falling within the common range of human responses to misfortune in historical existence. The barest of summaries:

    The mythic and ritual orders of traditional man–from which Israelite religious thought arose–saw the meaning of human existence as conformity through the rites to the divinely instituted order of the cosmos (we can see this understanding of Torah, for example, in the Wisdom literature). The problem that the inevitable misfortunes of existence pose is: what meaning can this have, if the good suffer in spite of their adherence to the divine order while the wicked prosper? And in any event, all must die.

    Various explanations were advanced in history to address this problem. Memory of the dead, elaborate schemes of reincarnation, etc. Even the Protestant scheme of salvation by faith can be seen from this standpoint to be an attempt to evade the uncertainties and misfortunes that are an inevitable part of human existence–strikingly similar to Buddhist thought. All these schemes amount to whistling in the dark and do not rise to the level of faith, understood as reasonable belief.

    Having reviewed some of this history, I turn to Israelite religion:

    Ezekiel clearly had either no idea of life after death or only the sketchiest ideas. For the Israelites, as indeed for many archaic peoples, survival was bound up with the survival of a nation that could remember its individual members and which continued the ritual practices that bound it to universal order. Ezekiel expounded the standard Deuteronomic ideology, by which God’s judgment is manifested on earth: prosperity is the reward of the good and death and misfortune the lot of the evil. Not only does this apply to individuals, but to nations as well. Misfortune is a proof of sin. The Deuteronomic response to misfortune, therefore, was closer adherence to the rites/traditions of the nation in the hope that this would lead to a divine intervention in history to restore the fortunes of the nation. This “theoretical” framework has held up to the present day, despite serious challenges to its fundamental justice and proportion, such as the Holocaust.

    Centuries later the Book of Job formulated the classic response to the obvious difficulty—that the innocent often suffer both undeservedly and, when deservedly, beyond all proportion to their actual sins. What sense does life make—life which comes to an end, anyway—if God so mistreats the blameless? In the end, Job’s only answer is that God’s ways are not to be measured by man; man cannot attain to a wisdom that is sufficient to encompass God’s idea of justice. Resignation appears to be the only possible human response to misfortune in life and in history. Qoheleth (Ecclesiastes) offers, if anything, an even bleaker outlook than Job. According to Qoheleth, all in life is vanity, and then life comes to an end. His counsel is to enjoy what we can of life, following conventional wisdom but without illusions that man can understand life.

    This is not the end of the story, of course. …

    I then discuss further developments.

  • Tony Springer

    Great quote: “The book asks, in effect, if human beings worship God because God is good (what we expect and demand God to be), or if we worship God because God is God—utterly sovereign, utterly free.” Thanks Prof. Enns for the interview of Prof. Soew

  • mark

    At the risk of oversimplifying somewhat, I would say that “human beings worship God because God is good” is the Christian response, whereas “we worship God because God is God—utterly sovereign, utterly free” is the Protestant and Muslim response. In this respect Christianity follows archaic ontology–the beliefs of traditional societies, including that of Israel. Benedict XVI addresses the dichotomy of a God who is reason itself and a God who is “utterly sovereign, utterly free” in his famous (and famously misunderstood) address at the University of Regensburg.

    I address these issues in a much wider context than Benedict chooses to do in Benedict at Regensburg.

    • mark

      I should add that from a philosophical perspective the Christian conception of God is as Pure Being. The transcendental properties of being are: one, true, good, beautiful. God is, of course, utterly free, but in the Christian conception there is no contradiction between God’s goodness–which we understand by the analogy of being–and freedom. In this conception “freedom” doesn’t mean “able to do anything at all.” It means able to act in accordance with being. For humans, that has to be being as understood through our rational intellect, but for God who is infinite being His understanding of his being (and that of creatures) is also infinite. He is thus infinitely free, but also infinitely just and good. All this stuff about “the land,” kicking the Palestinians out in favor of Jews–just because–is incompatible with Christianity. God doesn’t act like that BECAUSE his freedom and his goodness are all part of his infinite being.

      • mark

        Nor do I wish to minimize the problem of pain/evil/suffering–reconciling this with God’s goodness is at best a mystery.

    • Adam

      Mark, could you clarify your differentiation between Christian and Protestant? I come from a protestant background, yet still consider myself Christian. I don’t wish to draw any erroneous conclusions about your comments, nor try to debate your choice of vocabulary. I simply wish to understand your meaning.

      • mark

        Adam, certainly, and I can identify with your desire. As a Catholic I’ve become used to having sincere Protestants tell me that, not only am I not a Christian, but that I’m actually a “pagan,” or something like that.

        First of all, let me be clear that I’m speaking on an experiential level. There are certainly many Protestants whose view of reality is not based on what I would call a “Protestant” experience of reality, and OTOH there are certainly many Catholics who emphatically do share that “Protestant” experience. The reason for this puzzling situation has to do with the overwhelming influence of Augustinian thought in the West and the convoluted nature of that influence. For example, many Protestants might suppose that Catholic theologians are mostly followers of Aquinas, whereas in fact Augustine’s influence has been preeminent throughout the Church’s history, up to the present day (long, long story). This is fact, even though Catholic theology has been preoccupied for centuries with mitigating what I consider Augustine’s baneful influence–mitigating the influence of a Father and Doctor and Saint of the Church who for many centuries was the ultimate authority in theology (and for more than a few still is) is a tricky business, as Leszek Kolakowski describes in God Owes Us Nothing.

        OTOH, many historians and thinkers, both Protestant and Catholic, have increasingly been pointing out that the theological fons et origo of Protestant thought is basically late Medieval Augustinian thought, especially in its Nominalist form–the Reformers, paradoxically doubled down on the worst of Augustinianism that they inherited from the Medieval past, while the Church woke up and began backpedaling. What I characterize as the Protestant experience is ably summarized by Luther’s famous dictum, that the world is an inn and the devil is the innkeeper. I would point out that this view is not only fundamentally Augustinian, but also has much in common with the Buddhist fourfold truths/sorrows–all is suffering, etc.–as well as with Augustine’s own background in Gnosticism in its Manichean form. For that reason on another thread I quoted Eric Voegelin’s perspective:

        Also, for the record, I agree with Eric Voegelin’s (a Lutheran) characterization of Protestantism as marking “the successful invasion of Western institutions by Gnostic movements (The New Science of Politics, p. 134). However, I would qualify that characterization by noting that the ground had long been prepared by platonizing and gnostic influences within the Church, especially as mediated by Augustinian thought (regarding which, generally, cf. McCullough’s The Reformation and more technically Gilson’s The Unity of Philosophical Experience).

        That’s the end of a somewhat lengthy comment at (Shut Up, Already, and) Listen to the Desert.

        So, for historical reasons I distinguish between Christianity and Protestantism in its experiential essence. Key to the Protestant experience is a radical transformation of the whole Christian understanding of faith. Whereas in Christianity “faith” refers to a conviction based on reasonable belief, in Protestantism it becomes (as with Luther) an essentially subjective conviction. Again, there are many Catholics who, whether they think about it much or not, share the Protestant view–and no doubt many Protestants reject it. Moreover, as a matter of historical fact, these tendencies had long been percolating in Catholic thought before the Protestant Revolt. Still, from an historical standpoint I believe the distinction stands up, and it’s what’s behind Voegelin’s (a lifelong Lutheran) comparison of Protestantism to Gnosticism.

        I hope this will give you some idea of where I’m coming from. If you want to find out more, you can start with the Benedict in Regensburg link in my comment that you replied to. You’ll see that I have very decided views on the influence of Augustinianism in the West, although actually my focus is more on matters within the Church than among Protestants. It just happens that oftentimes Protestants seem more aware of some of these issues (not general, usually not from any historical or philosophical perspective) than Catholics. Many Catholics can be quite oblivious to all this, or in denial.

        • mark

          Oh, so why do I use terminology that is probably bound to be misunderstood? To shake up long held presuppositions, to try to get others to think outside their boxes–it took me many years to do that. I have different tactics when dealing with Catholics, but I presume most people here are Protestant.

  • mark

    Let me give an example of the continuing Augustinian influence in “Christianity.”

    Many of you will recall that just a few years ago Benedict XVI issued some document or other saying that, hey, “Limbo” is optional. Believe it if you want, but could we please get away from this idea that God sends unbaptized infants to eternal torment?

    Well, of course, “Limbo” was no more than a theological “construct,” the obvious purpose of which was to evade the clear implications of the classic Augustinian doctrine of Original Sin. As pope and as a fan of Augustine himself, B16 wasn’t about to say that a Saint, Father and Doctor of the Church was a wack job–at least for these purposes–but as a relatively normal human being he clearly thought it was time for the Church to move on from that kind of insanity.

    The thing is, this example illustrates the overwhelming influence of Augustine throughout the history of the West. Can anyone doubt that his doctrine of Original Sin has been front and center in re Christian thinking on such central issues as Nature and Grace, Predestination and Freedom, Justification and Salvation, etc.?

    Close to 1600 years of Christian thought have been dominated by the Augustinian heritage–for better and for worse. Think about it.

    • Dean

      I do find it odd that Christians take it for granted to the extent that
      they do, I have only begun to understand a lot of the problems with the “traditional” doctrine of Original Sin, not just because of science, but the logical and moral implications as well. I just read a couple of your posts on Original Sin, I’m curious what you think. How do you explain the creation being damaged and how do you explain how the atonement actually works absent this doctrine? I can understand the attachment to it, because without it, I do see some theological holes. Obviously, I find the Augustinian notion of original sin being transmitted by semen to be ridiculous, but when I read the “revised” theory, the federal headship theory, it wreaks of Christian sophistry. I read RC Sproul’s explanation, and no doubt he’s a smart dude, but he sounded so desperate for it to make sense it was a little sad.

      Dr. Enns’ unfortunately book didn’t give much of an answer, but at least he is honest about the limitations of the Genesis story and I think at the end of the day, he’s basically saying that the Bible doesn’t really give you the answer to these types of questions.

      • mark

        Dean, I think we’re probably on pretty much the same page, especially re “the logical and moral implications.” I’ll freely confess, it took me a long time to tumble to this, and I appreciate your perceptive comments.

        My view is that creation isn’t damaged–how could a creature truly damage God’s creation in the deeper sense? Can man change his human nature? No–he can act like an animal, but he remains a man acting like an animal, not some new type of being.

        OTOH, man by his very nature is a finite, limited being, i.e., he is imperfect. And where he differs from animals is precisely where it makes a huge difference: the (limited) ability to make reasoned decisions. A common Catholic interpretation of “original” sin now is that this involves the (humanly speaking inevitable wrong decision making feeding on itself, individuals and new generations being born into the consequences of those decisions and so on.

        This, I think, is where we get to Paul’s theology. As I’ve written here before, being “righteoused” for Paul means, IMO, entering into a new relationship with God, “in Christ,” as Paul never tires of saying. This is salvation and reconciliation: God in Jesus entering historical existence to offer man the hand of brotherhood, a co-heir “in Christ.” A new relationship that we enter through faith–not a mere subjective certitude like gnostic myths of redeemers but a reasonable belief based on testimony and evidence. The history of man is the preparation for that moment, which occurred in Israel, developing out of the archaic ontology of traditional thought to the point that one corner of the world was ready for some really “good news”: God has come to help us live our humanity to the full, “in Christ.” Of course, the language in which all that is framed is Paul “theologizing,” trying to make sense of the “Jesus event” that changed his life and, in his view, all history. But, IMO, properly understood, Paul’s theologizing is deeply congruent with the good news that Jesus proclaimed, as preserved in the gospels and the early Church.

        I don’t think any of that requires an Augustinian style doctrine of original sin, yet it fits with everything I’ve learned about Jesus. Moreover, as you know, I don’t think that such a doctrine can be found in either the Israelite or Christian scriptures.

        I share your disappointment that Pete’s book doesn’t really tackle these issues. No, “the Bible” doesn’t answer these types of questions but, then, it doesn’t ask the type of questions that would require answers like Augustine gave. When you compare his doctrine of OS to some of the Gnostic speculation, the resemblance is striking. IMO, Pete is focusing on narrower issues, like “inspiration,” rather than the big issue that’s behind most of what he’s talking about: what does it mean when we talk about “revelation?” As you know, to come to grips with that means coming to grips with man in history. I believe that the Catholic Catechism approaches that with its recognition that revelation is Jesus, not a book or a collection of books, and the “scripture” is part of the written tradition of the Church. It has a ways to go yet, but there seems to be progress.

        • Dean

          Fascinating. I feel like I have come to the edge of some of the conclusions you have come to as well, but I haven’t had time to read any literature that might help me flesh it out more. As an Evangelical, it’s important to me that at the end of the day, theology is grounded in scripture, so I definitely want to go back and read Paul and see whether this framework really works. But I have to say, I’ve never thought it made any sense to say that the all the crap we see in the world today was the result of a bad decision that two people made in a garden to eat from a tree that God had put there himself and that they somehow wrecked God’s perfect creation and if only they hadn’t done that, we would all still be in paradise. It seems infinitely more reasonable to admit that this is the creation that God intended and that sin is simply a natural consequence of human nature. I’m not sure that answers the problem of theodicy, but it certainly makes more sense than the doctrine of OS. I think if there is one take away from Dr. Enns that I’ve gotten out of his books is precisely that we as modern people try to get the Bible to answer questions for us that the Bible simply had no intention of answering.

          I will say that Evangelicals in general, and I’m including myself in this critique, are wholly ignorant of Catholic and Orthodox teachings and even more ignorant of church history. I also totally agree that Augustine is the source of a lot of heretical teachings (whatever that means coming from a Protestant), this neo-Reformed movement in particular really annoys me. Have you always been a Catholic? What are you doing on a Evangelical blog? 😉

          • mark

            I will say that Evangelicals in general, and I’m including myself in this critique, are wholly ignorant of Catholic and Orthodox teachings and even more ignorant of church history.

            That’s a point that Stanley Hauerwas and Mark Noll (two Protestants) make to explain the peculiar nature of American religion: The end of American Protestantism:

            Protestantism in Europe always assumed and depended on the cultural habits that had been created by Catholic Christianity. America is the first place Protestantism did not have to define itself over against a previous Catholic culture. So America is the exemplification of a constructive Protestant social imagination.

            I believe – as Mark Noll rightly suggests in his book, America’s God – America is a synthesis of evangelical Protestantism, republican political ideology and commonsense moral reasoning. Americans were able to synthesize these antithetical traditions by making their faith in God indistinguishable from their loyalty to a country that insured them that they had the right to choose which god they would or would not believe in. That is why Bonhoeffer accurately characterized America Protestantism as “Protestantism without Reformation.”

            American Protestants do not have to believe in God because they believe in belief. That is why we have never been able to produce interesting atheists in America. The god most Americans say they believe in just is not interesting enough to deny.

            Have you always been a Catholic? What are you doing on a Evangelical blog? 😉

            Yes. Actually I first heard about Pete when, somehow or other, I came across this review (“Messy Revelation”) of Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament. Which led me to this site. I bounce around a lot.

  • The book asks, in effect, if human beings worship God because God is good (what we expect and demand God to be), or if we worship God because God is God—utterly sovereign, utterly free.

    This seems to be a false dichotomy. In Genesis 3, Adam and Eve evaluated the ‘goodness’ of the fruit of the Tree by shallow perception. They did the opposite of spiritual judgment: judgment by appearances. Among many places, God makes this distinction in 1 Samuel 16:7, when Samuel is caught with his pants down.

    I like to describe people as either deciding what is true or discovering what is true. The same can be said of what is good. Judging by appearances is tantamount to deciding what is good and what is true. I think that God was trying to get Job to discover what is good and true.

    Why would we worship a being who is merely utterly sovereign and free? Where in the Bible are we commanded to worship God on solely those grounds? I say that passages like the following utterly blow that idea out of the water:

    “When your son asks you in time to come, ‘What is the meaning of the testimonies and the statutes and the rules that the LORD our God has commanded you?’ then you shall say to your son, ‘We were Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt. And the LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand. And the LORD showed signs and wonders, great and grievous, against Egypt and against Pharaoh and all his household, before our eyes. And he brought us out from there, that he might bring us in and give us the land that he swore to give to our fathers. And the LORD commanded us to do all these statutes, to fear the LORD our God, for our good always, that he might preserve us alive, as we are this day. And it will be righteousness for us, if we are careful to do all this commandment before the LORD our God, as he has commanded us.’
    (Deuteronomy 6:20-25 ESV)

    Instead, I suggest that when God says “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, / so are my ways higher than your ways / and my thoughts than your thoughts.”, he means to draw our ways to his ways and our thoughts to his thoughts! This, I think, is the start to an interpetation of God’s response to Job.

    • mark

      Why would we worship a being who is merely utterly sovereign and free? Where in the Bible are we commanded to worship God on solely those grounds?

      I agree. That isn’t the God of Christianity. And yet …

      That is certainly the God of orthodox Islam. It’s also the God of so much of the Augustinian tradition (no matter Augustine’s personal views–I speak here of logical implications). As Benedict pointed out at Regensburg, this is essentially the God of the Medieval voluntarists, like Scotus, for whom good is good and evil is evil solely on God’s say-so. It’s also the God against whom the neurotic Augustinian monk, Martin Luther, rebelled, with his dictum: Love, and sin bravely.

      So, it is a God that many have “worshipped.” Or, before whom many have trembled and feared.

      • I don’t know enough about Islam to know what role ‘goodness’ plays in it. I will definitely take a look at the Regensburg speech.

        Interestingly enough, the beginning of the Decalogue attempts to combat this… ‘badness’:

        And God spoke all these words, saying,

        “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.

        “You shall have no other gods before me.

        “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.
        (Exodus 20:1-6 ESV)

        Note that ‘likeness’ “refers to the mental pattern from which the [idol] is constructed; it is a real or imagined resemblance.” (NET Bible on Ex 20:4) That God that was worshipped was an idol—or a different God. I’m not quite sure what the difference is.

  • Choon-Leong Seow

    From Job 1-21, pp. 95-96:
    “Zophar, the third friend, offers his contribution in chapter 11. Like the other friends, Zophar proffers a “theology above”—a theology that begins with God. He emphasizes a transcendent God mystery no mortal can hope to plumb (11:5-7). Whereas Job has been about his personal experience of pain, Zophar points him beyond suffering to God’s infinite power. Job seemed to have forgotten his finitude and stepped the bounds of what is appropriate theological discourse. So Zophar tries correct what he perceives to be Job’s anthropocentric, indeed, egocentric theology. Zophar is concerned with a
    theology that emphasizes not finite human beings but the infinite God. His
    approach is attested in the exemplary sufferer texts from Mesopotamia as well,
    as one reads in Ludlul Bēl Nēmeqi:
    Who knows the will of the gods in heaven?

    Who understands the plans of the underworld gods?
    Where have mortals learnt the way of a god?
    (BWL, 40-41, Tablet II, 36-38)

    It is a theology also the Babylonian Theodicy:

    The divine mind, like the centre of the heavens, is remote;
    Knowledge of it is difficult; the masses do not know it.
    (BWL, 86-87, ll. 256-257)”

  • rvs

    “…belongs to the best in world literature.” Yes! Also, what is the best theodicy book in the Bible, if Job is bad theodicy? Finally, thanks for the connection between Job and Euthyphro.

  • James

    I think Job starts out a good covenant keeping Israelite and all the indicators are on his side even when life starts falling apart. His statement of faith (1:21) resounds throughout time and eternity and places all human meaning on a vertical axis. Job has yet to experience the truth of his beliefs at a deeper level, viscerally as well as vertically, where he is eventually moved to repent in dust and ashes. When he prays for his friends his earthly blessings (reward for obedience) return multifold. Curious writing at all levels, even without considering the early appearance of that sultry interloper, na-satan!

  • “The book asks, in effect, if human beings worship God because God is good (what we expect and demand God to be), or if we worship God because God is God—utterly sovereign, utterly free.”

    The obvious problem of worshiping God because of his sheer might is that we ought to adore him even if he ordered soldiers to plunder villages and rape all women within them.

    Lothars Sohn – Lothar’s son


  • Karen Nemet-Nejat

    I afree that the literature of Job is fascinating–soe of the more interesting books of the OT are in “Writings.”