Job Finally Gets It…But Do We? Reflections on Job 42:1-6, 10-17

Lectionary Reflections
Job 42:1-6, 10-17
October 25, 2015

As I have repeatedly said, I have spent a huge portion of my scholarly life wrestling with the book of Job. It began forty-five years ago in a year-long seminary class, using the Hebrew language, reading the entire book. It was an exhilarating, if at times frustrating, experience. I was exhilarated because I found the book so rich and rare and strange, one that even a year long read could not begin to exhaust. I was frustrated because too often the Hebrew text of the book was so bad, so hard to read, so garbled. And this garbling happened at some very key moments in the drama. Perhaps the most famous piece of the whole poem, Job 19:23-27, wherein we find the mysterious "redeemer" (or "vindicator" or "family attorney" or even "avenger") remains quite enigmatic, and may only be adjudicated as a part of a particular reading of the whole story. For me this "redeemer" can hardly be God, since Job has excoriated God in blasphemous ways beginning with chapter nine. It would appear quite absurd for him to turn to that same monstrous deity for succor now. But precisely what Job does have in mind is the subject for another day.

Today we come to the end of the book and the end of the lectionary's usual four Sundays assigned to Job during this one year of readings. Hence, only four Sundays out of 156 Sundays are given over to one of the Bible's great and unique books. It is enough to make a grown person cry! Well, let's do the best we can with these meager opportunities.

Job and his friends have squared off for thirty-seven chapters, and by all accounts Job has won the match. At least he is the last man standing, as one after the other Eliphaz, Bildad, Zophar, and Elihu have exited the stage. The argument among all five may be easily summarized as follows: is the universe governed by a God who rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked or not? The friends say yes, because Job is certainly living on the trash dump of Uz due to his innumerable evils. But Job says no, because he is completely unaware of any evil he has done, save a minor infraction or two, and is unwilling to allow that God would utterly destroy his life, his family, his fortune due to such trivial actions. Job demands that God show up and defend the deity's honor. Clearly, in this case God has erred, has attacked the wrong person, has chosen Job by mistake for the divine wrath, and must straighten all this out when Job and God meet. The friends are silent as YHWH in fact shows up.

As we saw last week, YHWH's long speeches are completely unexpected, both to Job and to us. Instead of answering directly the question of human justice, defined as who is right and who is wrong, and rewarding and punishing appropriately, YHWH goes on at length about wind and water, snow and ice, ravens and lions, war horses and ostriches. Many have seen these speeches as monumentally beside the point of the long discussion that has preceded them, and if one expected YHWH to speak directly to the question of reward and punishment, I suppose they are. But the divine speeches perform as answers to Job and his friends, albeit in rather subtle and indirect ways.

Job at first is furious with YHWH's tactics in the first speech and responds petulantly in 40:4-5, in effect accusing God of being a blowhard and a bully, paying no attention whatever to Job's attempts to engage the deity in argument and discussion. But YHWH's second speech, revealing to Job more of the universe's mysteries and wonders, and God's mastery over and engagement with it, convinces Job of some important realities, realities that are revealed in Job's final response to YHWH.

Job 42:1-6 has engendered a vast array of commentaries from a horde of readers over the centuries. I now will add my two cents to the discussion and hope it makes enough sense to cause you to think some more about what Job is saying in these memorable lines.

"You know that you are capable of all things, and that none of your purposes may be thwarted" (Job 42:2). The usual reading is "I know," though the written Hebrew is "you know." Either reading adds little to what Job has said several times throughout the drama; God does whatever God wants to do, and there is no human being who can stop God from acting however God wishes to act. In the long dialogue, however, Job has regularly seen these divine actions as dangerous and terrible, destroying the righteous, particularly Job, and buoying up the wicked. Would that God could be stopped, shouts Job again and again. Do we have at the end more of the same? Is Job about to excoriate God once again for mismanagement of the universe?

"You said, 'Who is this who hides my design with words without knowledge?'" (Job 42:3a) There is no "you said" in the Hebrew text, but Job must be attempting to quote YHWH here, from Job 38:2, and though he changes the divine word from "darkens" to "hides," the sentiment appears to be the same: YHWH has accused Job, and by implication the friends, of speaking of the design of the universe having exactly no knowledge of what they have been talking about. In this way, Job is about to answer this charge quite directly, and thereby will admit that his way of framing his problem has been misdirected from the beginning.