Justice or Wisdom? (RJS)

Justice or Wisdom? (RJS) November 2, 2012

John Walton and Tremper Longman III have slightly different takes on the book of Job as outlined in the introductions to their  new commentaries (Job (The NIV Application Commentary)) and Job (Baker Commentary on the Old Testament Wisdom and Psalms)). Both the areas of agreement and the areas of disagreement are informative. This is not a simple book with a single straightforward interpretation.

Longman emphasizes the fact that Job is wisdom literature. He concludes that the book of Job as wisdom literature serves primarily to allow a discussion of the source of wisdom. “The main question addressed by the book of Job, is who is wise?” The answer according to Longman is that wisdom is found only with God and that the only appropriate human response is fear of the Lord.

The book of Job also tells us something about suffering, although this is not the purpose of the book, at least in Longman’s view. Perhaps most importantly it serves as an important warning not to proof-text an argument for retribution theology from the bible.  While the Old Testament can be used to make a case that connects prosperity and blessings with righteousness while failure to obey brings divine retribution, the book of Job throws something of a monkey wrench into this theme and causes us to approach it with a level of caution.

Thus one of the important contributions of the book of Job (as well as Ecclesiastes) is to undermine the idea that retribution theology works absolutely and mechanically. Sometimes  sin does lead to negative consequences, but not always. Similarly, sometimes proper behavior leads to positive outcomes, but not always. …

But Job himself never receives an answer to the question of why he has suffered. At the end of the book, after hearing and seeing God, he submits to the power of God’s great wisdom. The book of Job reminds us that we will not always, or even perhaps typically, be able to explain our suffering or the suffering of our loved ones. It remains a mystery to us. (p, 67 – Longman)

Walton sees things differently on a couple of different levels. First he does see the purpose of the book of Job as addressing the question of suffering in the world. But that doesn’t change the fact that it is still a wisdom book, wisdom and the role of wisdom shapes the understanding of suffering.

The book shifts our attention from the idea that God’s justice (represented in the RP) is foundational to the operation of the world to the alternative that God’s wisdom is the more appropriate foundation. It does not offer a reason for suffering and does not try to defend God’s justice. … instead we are to trust God’s wisdom … (p. 22 – Walton)

As far as I can tell Walton does not see the primary question of Job as “who is wise?” but does see the primary conclusion as the need to trust in the wisdom of God.

Walton discusses the theme of retribution in more detail, but unlike Longman he separates the idea of the retribution principle (RP) as theology and retribution principle as theodicy. Here Walton is using theodicy not as a philosophical argument for or against the existence of God (the definition I get when I look up the term), but as an effort to reconcile God and Justice with the facts of real life in the real world. A theodicy is a defense of God as just and good.  The retribution principle is found in forms throughout Scripture, but we need to look at these passages carefully in order to properly understand what they teach about the nature of God and his action in the world.

The affirmations of the RP in the text are intended to be theological in nature, and they serve well in this capacity. By this I mean they offer a picture of God’s nature: He delights in bringing blessing to his faithful ones and takes seriously the need to punish the sinful. In contrast, the Israelites were inclined to wield that theology in service of a theodicy, a role for which it was singularly unsuitable. That is, they wanted to apply it to their experiences in life, and in the process understand God’s justice and the reasons behind suffering. The role of the book of Job is to perform the radical surgery that separates theology from theodicy, contending that in the end Yahweh’s justice must be accepted on faith rather than worked out philosophically. He does not need to be defended, he wants to be trusted. (p. 41 – Walton)

And he returns to the idea of wisdom:

The book of Job in effect takes a contra-theodicy position (i.e., refuses to offer a theodicy) by defending God’s wisdom rather than his justice. Though the book is not a theodicy, it is interested in the RP and its legitimacy. The RP is finally rejected as a foundation for divine activity in the human realm (i.e., as a theodicy) but it is reclaimed on the proverbial and anecdotal level as representing the character of the deity (i.e., as a theology). (p. 45 – Walton)

Whether suffering is or is not the central theme of the book of Job, and on this Longman and Walton see things slightly differently, both see the central conclusion to the book as a need to trust in the wisdom of God.

Is the retribution principle a part of Christian theology?

Where does it sneak into either our understanding of God or the nature of the questions we ask about the world?

Scot had an interesting post on Monday, Evolution and Evil/Morality. Many Christians will dismiss evolution as inconsistent with the nature of God because of the pointless suffering of countless creatures throughout the deep stretches of time. I think one of the things that Job teaches us is that such logic is, for the Christian, misguided. Justice, benevolence, righteousness, and suffering are not so easily disentangled. Evolutionary creation has to stand or fall on other grounds. God is just and good, but God’s wisdom is the foundation through which we understand the world. This will come up again when we get to God’s tour of creation in the final chapters of Job.

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  • Great thoughts, RJS. If I can clear out some time for a new area of reading, I plan to work through Walton’s new volume on Job. I took him for Wisdom Literature back in 1990. I’m interested to see how he may have changed over the years in explaining the mystery that is Job.

    Confusing a general truth (good things happen to righteous people, generally) with absolute truth (as if justice is the actual way the world works) still seems a popular mode in religion.

  • NateW

    It seems important to me to remember that God described in Job is highly anthropomorphized. It is a description of the ways of God from the perspective of a (very wise) human being who did not have gods revelation in Christ to interpret the world around him. Viewed through the lens of Christ, God’s seemingly petty dispute with satan and the purposeless suffering of Job fall into place, if we are willing to read the text as a wise and godly man’s attempt to make sense of the seeminly arbitrary nature of suffering and not as word for word description of the way we should think of god as interacting with creation.

    Christ reveals God’s wisdom to be bound up in righteousness, crucifixion, and resurrection, and I think we see all of those themes clearly in job, though interpreted by the writer without the benefit of Christ. The author is reflecting on mans experience of gods absence, Holy Saturday, that exists in the wake of God’s eternal crucifixion for our sake (interpreted in job as God giving up his power over Jobs life on earth). We see Job’s righteousness leading to senseless crucifixion, and we often forget just how very senseless and cruel God’s will that Christ be crucified is. They both share in the felt forsakeness of God. We then see restoration and reconciliation, which the author sees in light of his culture and material wealth, but which Christ reveals to be a resurrection into love and life in a spiritual/eternal way.

  • NateW

    Anyway, I think that they’re both right to see job as being about the wisdom of God, but to stop at saying that gods wisdom is unsearchable falls short if we do take into account Christ’s ultimate revelation of God as eternally crucified. Job’s author can’t help but conceive wisdom as power and reward as affluence because he has not seen Christ, who demonstrates gods wisdom is weakness, and reward is the peace of unity with God and men in grace and humility.

  • scotmcknight

    The old “this is wisdom literature” can be evasive for some to avoid asking the still serious question. But, as so many good wisdom literature scholars observe, wisdom in Israel was about induction and observation and not “revelation” and “torah” and “prophecy.”

    Job for me has been a serious and important inner-canonical challenge to a facile reification of the principle of Deut 28 that obedience means blessing and disobedience means curse, and it works both ways. Job cuts into that with some “wait a minute folks, it’s not that mechanical.” I love Job, though I admit the speeches get lost in themselves. Maybe that’s a literary art.

  • RJS

    It will probably come as a relief to everyone that I have no intention of going verse by verse or even speech by speech through the book of Job. Both Walton and Longman admit that they get rather … ah, … tedious. Repetition seems to be a feature of OT literature.

    I think that Job is a serious inner-canonical challenge to a number of ideas that are believed to be “common sense” in the church (and in Israel).

  • Tim Atwater

    Thanks for this posting RJS and Scot,
    (I’ve gone back over RJS’s Oct 25 entry, good background.)

    The two best books I’ve read on Job are not commentaries — but (perhaps in the spirit of Job?) are discourse in dialogue with God…

    Gustavo Gutierrez’ Job is a brilliant reading of Job as God in defense of the innocent poor who suffer — over and against a facile (mis-reading) of Deuteronomy 28 etc…

    Bill McKibben’s The Comforting Whirlwind is a beautiful meditation on God’s speech starting in Job 38 in defense of creation…

    Justice for the poor and the beauty and awe of creation as good start to a longer fuller answer to Job’s fully legitimate questions…. are affirmed by both McKibben and Gutierrez. They hear God’s speech? (sermon? prose poem?) from out of the whirlwind as a true affirmation of Job’s cries, complaints and general take on life, over and against his clueless if small o orthodox friends…

    I don’t have a problem with Job as Wisdom Literature, except to say that should not be cause for over-classification or over-categorization. The wisdom of God in Job is more akin to that of Jesus on the cross as in First Corinthians (in my view) than to the wisdom of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes.

    But that can wait… By all means read Gutierrez and McKibben… both of whom have probably experienced more of the God of the whirlwind… than most bible commentary writers… (though only God knows for sure… so if i’m being a friend of Job here, do as God says at the end, and pray for me… )

    thanks again.
    Look forward to more posts.

    Grace and peace…

  • What’s funny is I just started reading Longman’s Proverbs commentary and dealt with John Walton’s stuff with Genesis. Both commentaries look great. I think Walton’s distinction between retribution in theology and retribution in theodicy is a helpful way of putting things. We need to affirm that God is just and yet, we are finite and not able to know exactly what his judgments are until the final assize. Also, I find the break in retribution theology to be helpful exactly in the place that it breaks down the earlier C.H. Dodd-type attempts to reduce God’s personal judgment to simple cause and effect. God sometimes refrains and sometimes acts in judgment. Judgment is not merely the mechanical outworking of nature that God had nothing to do with.

    Dang it. Now I want to buy both.

  • Patrick

    Wouldn’t it be fair to say that obedience and/or rebellion always do result in blessing or judgment eventually?

    For example, while Job suffers and can’t understand why and while Paul suffered and did understand why, don’t we all believe that both are fully compensated beyond their wildest imaginations for their loyalty? Or, wouldn’t we agree King Saul will not be thrilled at his evaluation and suffer loss that Job won’t eternally whatever loss is in eternity?

    It’s here on earth in this “evil age” that we at times cannot figure out why the evil prosper and good people suffer.

    BTW, I love both these authors. Great servants of The Lord, IMO, and both may be right, there probably are multiple lessons to be learned in Job.

  • I did a study of the book of Job a while back covering only the first 3 chapters and God’s response at the end. In doing it, I came to see that most readings of Job are really shallow. They are trying to look from 30,000 feet to see what it means rather than digging into the details of the work. When I did my study, I was really very surprised at what I found. If I were to describe God’s words to Job, it would be God telling Job that he really underestimates what humans are capable of. God’s message isn’t “be reverantly afraid of me because I’m too great for you to understand.” Rather God seems to be saying that the proper response to suffering is to draw from the well of human genius to resist and fight back against the one who would attack us. http://theupsidedownworld.com/hot-topics/book-of-job-study/

  • Cal


    I think all 3 are to lead to the cross, albeit in different manners.

    Ecclesiastes is one of my favorite books of Scripture because it takes a hatchet to the things the world will turn to, time and time again (look at Greek philosophies!), in order to find shalom/wholeness. Some think the ending is added because of its abruptness. No I think it leaves only the Cross as a solution, the revelation of the judgment of God.

  • Tim Atwater

    Cal, thanks for the good word on Ecclesiastes. I think you are right (even if all i remember most of the time is the Pete Seeger version… )

    When i was doing campus ministry a few years ago Job was the surprise choice of students to read. We read it all aloud, over the course of about five or six sessions, with some very good discussions. It had a very post modern feel reading in a corner of the student lounge at SUNY Plattsburgh… Not even a little bit out of date… (didn’t hurt that some of our students were lit and drama majors…)

    Grace and peace.

  • What does it mean for our view of the OT as Scripture if we see Job as “a serious and important inner-canonical challenge to a facile reification of the principle of Deut 28 that obedience means blessing and disobedience means curse”? Does not the “Deuteronomic History” itself show how the principle of retribution worked out in Israel’s story?

    Are we saying that there is a conversation made up of debating theologies in the OT?

  • Patrick


    IF the view is accurate that the bible debates itself we would say that. I don’t think that’s a valid conclusion myself. Deuteronomy 28 is an ironclad promise with the highest moral standard set to meet it.

    IMO, only Christ ever did that. He fulfilled the torah and because of Him, we get to have all those eschatological blessings and avoid all those curses. There is NO chance that passage could be fulfilled by anyone except Christ. It says if you will do all I ask. No normal human could achieve that and receive said blessings.

    Job is entirely a separate subject, IMO.

  • Just tonight I led our interdenominational small group’s final discussion on the book of Job using Walton’s commentary as our guide. I recommend it highly as making excellent, historically/culturally cogent sense of Job as a piece of expertly crafted ancient wisdom literature, as opposed to a corrupt and bizarre text whose parts don’t seem to connect. Re: the original post, I might distinguish between the “purpose” (the characters obviously raise the question of suffering) and the “message” of Job (the book doesn’t really provide an answer to suffering other than to suggest that the ‘question of suffering’ isn’t the most important, or ultimate, question). Walton’s approach, while obviously geeked-out on ANE backgrounds in its research and preparation, rings extremely relevant for our day. If you think that the Retribution Principle or the Great Symbiosis are dead philosophies, listen more carefully to popular teachings on spirituality, how to be happy, how to fulfill your purpose in life, what it means to be a good person–the list goes on.