Job and Despair

This reflection began as a response to an event at which three of my colleagues presented three different perspectives on the topic of despair. My colleague in religion, Chad Bauman, made a wonderful presentation about the four noble truths of Buddhism as well as the book of Job and the issues of despair and inexplicable suffering in a monotheistic context. Another colleague of ours mentioned during the question time afterwards that he has always found the book of Job problematic, since it seems to offer a ‘management perspective’ and to counsel human beings to keep quiet and not ask questions.

On the one hand, it will inevitably be the case that Biblical literature reflects a ‘management perspective’ in the sense that it was the educated, literate elite that produced literature, and thus we have no record of what anyone who was genuinely ordinary and typical thought about anything in either ancient Israel or the early Church. But the phrase could also mean that the book reflects a perspective of what we might call the ‘Manager Most High’, i.e. the perspective of God on these matters.

It is at this point that I think we find the key to unlocking the irony of the book of Job. For it is typically the case that Wisdom literature eschews claims to divine revelation and speaks about God in terms of what is universally accessible – what is sometimes called ‘natural theology’. How is it, then, that this particular example of Wisdom literature depicts a heavenly scene at the beginning and ends with a theophany? I would like to suggest that these elements in the book may not intended to be taken at face value, but are somewhat tongue in cheek. In Job 4:12-21, in fact, we have something of a parody of claims to supernatural revelation: Eliphaz offers a grandiose build-up, describing an experience that made his hair stand on end, only to follow it with a trite observation that reflects what others claim to know on the basis of observation and common sense. In light of this typical Wisdom perspective on claims to supernatural revelation, how might this shed light on the opening and closing sections of the book?

It certainly might be the case that the beginning and ending are later additions – after all, they refer to God as Yahweh, while the rest of the book does not. Nevertheless, it is at least possible to make sense of these parts of the book from the skeptical wisdom perspective. The opening chapters, in depicting the heavenly court, depict things that are never revealed to Job in the book. It thus seems unlikely that the book is suggesting that what goes on in the heavenly court explains human suffering, because then we would have expected God to say something about it at the end of the book. “You see, Job, I made a wager and thanks to you I won!” But the book doesn’t go in that direction. The depiction of the heavenly court scenes, from a Wisdom perspective, are probably intended simply to indicate that there is more to what is going on in the universe and human suffering than we can tell from our human perspective. The message is presumably that we should avoid attempting to interpret human suffering, and in particular assuming that suffering results from blameworthy actions, as Job’s “friends” assume.

My views on the final theophany have been influenced by Norman Habel’s commentary on Job. Many have felt that the divine speech is somewhat disappointing, and at best largely irrelevant to Job’s suffering. What, after all, do laying the foundations of the earth or feeding lion cubs have to do with anything? Isn’t this all, as my colleague suggested, merely a red herring? Perhaps. But it should be noted once again that a claim to a genuine theophany in a book that truly represents the Wisdom tradition would be remarkable, and thus here too we should perhaps not take this at face value. In fact, the so-called theophany doesn’t reveal anything that is not accessible to natural theology and a Wisdom perspective. The manifestation is a whirlwind, and the things mentioned are what we would call ‘natural phenomena’ today. The point of highlighting these things is not to provide a genuine divine revelation, but to emphasize the need for humility and awareness of the limitations of our human perspective in attempting to make sense of the world around us. This, after all, is the problem with Job’s friends: they claim to have God, the world, Job, suffering and everything else wrapped up in a nice, neat theological package. The ‘theophany’ thus shows from nature that our claims to understand it all (including the sufferings of any given human individual) are arrogant and misguided. The desire to understand is a positive thing, but the belief that we have already understood (as all educators know) is a hindrance to learning. What sets Job apart is his willingness to revise his theology in light of his experience. This gets the seal of divine approval at the end of the book.

So why does the ‘theophany’ mention the things it does? On the one hand, it seems to represent a challenge to human beings with regard to complaints that this is not only not the ‘best of all possible worlds’ but is not even a particularly good one. The message of the first part of the ‘theophany’ could be summarized as follows: “If you think you can organize a world better than I have, go ahead!” In that sense, it strikes me that one could view the movie Bruce Almighty as the sequel to Job: in the movie, the person who complains about how God governs the world gets a chance to try to do it better (at least in the vicinity of Buffalo, New York). Job, on the other hand, who throughout the book used language that suggested he wanted to “take God to court” drops the case when the defendant finally “takes the stand”.

The mention of mountain goats and the feeding of young lions also shows the problematic data of natural theology: what is from the perspective of lions divine provision would presumably seem to the goats instances of undeserved suffering! The book of Job is perplexing and intriguing in many ways, and I hope I have not given the impression that (in direct opposition to the spirit of the book) I can tie up all the loose ends and resolve all the problems. Nevertheless, I do think that contextualizing the book as a piece of ancient Wisdom literature that can be expected to view claims to divine revelation with suspicion, one can make positive sense of the book’s message in a way that remains thought-provoking today.

(The above post originally appeared on my old blog, and was followed up with an ongoing exchange of e-mails between myself and the two other colleagues mentioned above. Those interested can find the continuation of the discussion there).

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  • Mike

    Dr. McGrath, I took a class on Job once, and I must say it offered me a perspective on the theophany problem which has helped me very much. In essence, my professor (Perry Yoder, who until he retired a couple years ago taught at the Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, IN) taught that the lesson of the divine speech and of the strength of Leviathan and Behemoth is something along these lines:God is teaching Job (and us) that our ideas of what is right for God are very much revolving around our sense of what is right for us! The existence of suffering in the world is not because God doesn’t have a sense of justice, or because the world is fallen, but because humans are neither the height nor the center of creation. Sure God created us and loves us, and has blessed us with the ability to love our neighbor (and our enemy) and do justice to all, but God has also created Behemoth and Leviathan who are mightier than us and have the characteristics of chaos and destruction. And God also has created and watches over (in like fashion) those parts of creation which humans have never seen and maybe never will — and certainly cannot find any way to exploit, except to exterminate…My studies of Job and the counter-tradition that book represents in the Bible are fundamental in many ways to my own commitments to the God of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Thank you for reminding me again of these humbling and beautiful meditations!

  • BSM

    My job always causes me despair. But I digress…Bobby P.