On Proverbs, Job, and Why Victim Blaming is Next to Blasphemy

On Proverbs, Job, and Why Victim Blaming is Next to Blasphemy June 26, 2014

I’ve been taking a class on the Psalms and Wisdom Literature, and reading both the books of Job and the books of Proverbs, which seem to take a drastically different approach to the topic of blaming victims.

Proverbs is filled with statements about the way the world supposedly works:

People who despise advice will find themselves in trouble; those who respect it will succeed (13:13)

Poor is he who works with a negligent hand, But the hand of the diligent makes rich. (10:4)

Commit your work to the LORD, and your plans will be established. (16:3)

This book heavily relies on a belief–still prevalent today–that Gustavo Gutiérrez calls the doctrine of temporal retribution [1]. This is the idea that faithfulness to God and hard-work will lead to success and prosperity. Other circles might refer to this mindset as the myth of meritocracy: the idea that you get what you deserve, and you deserve what you get.

For this reason, Proverbs seems to be a favorite among folks like Christian financial advisor Dave Ramsey, who makes a fortune blaming poverty on laziness and stupidity, and promising people that if they only do this thing and buy that book, they can be rich.

Read Dave Ramsey’s Twitter feed. Take a shot every time he tweets a verse from Proverbs about how prosperous the righteous are, or how lazy poor people are.

…On second thought, don’t. You will die. I don’t want to be responsible for that.

Interestingly, for those folks who seem to believe that the Biblical authors were all of one mind and that the Bible doesn’t contradict itself, the book of Job takes a radically different approach.

Image from William Blake’s Illustrations of the Book of Job (via wikipedia commons)
[Job in anguish, being comforted by his three friends and his wife]

In fact, Job is a passionate critique of this theme of meritocracy that we see over and over again, not just in Proverbs, but throughout the rest of scripture. The book of Job is an important example of how the Bible is often “self-critiquing,” and an important call for us to treat scripture how Job’s author(s?) did: weighing it against our experience, judging whether or not it’s message is just and loving toward people, testing everything, holding fast to the good.

Job, a godly, faithful, hard-working, justice-seeking rich man falls on impossibly hard times. Though the audience knows that the tragedies Job faces are the result of God trying to win a bet against The Satan (…what the hell, God?), Job, who has held to the doctrine of temporal retribution his entire life, finds those beliefs completely shattered. He looks around as wicked people prosper, while he, a righteous man, suffers:

How often do we see the light of the wicked put out,

or disaster overtake him,

or the retribution of God destroy his possessions? (21:17)

Job’s infamous friends, who do not share Job’s experience of suffering, continue to hold fast to the doctrine of retribution. They insist that Job must have sinned, he must have blasphemed or ignored the cries of the poor. His friends “rich-splain” to Job through most of the book.

God, however, has some words for Job’s friends:

After the Lord had spoken these words to Job, the Lord said to Eliphaz the Temanite: “My wrath is kindled against you and against your two friends; for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has. Now therefore take seven bulls and seven rams, and go to my servant Job, and offer up for yourselves a burnt offering; and my servant Job shall pray for you, for I will accept his prayer not to deal with you according to your folly; for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has done.” (42:7-8)

It’s important to note that God doesn’t just condemn Job’s friends for failing to speak correctly about Job. God isn’t just saying, “Hey guys, you’re wrong. Job is an awesome dude.”

No, God tells Job’s friends, “you have not spoken of me what is right.” 

It’s also important to note that the book of Job isn’t really just about Job. Gutiérrez points out in his book, On Job that throughout his interactions with his “sorry comforters,” Job begins to see his situation as one in solidarity with all those who, like him, are suffering from poverty and injustice. This isn’t just a fun story about a guy who got hazed by God on a frat boy dare, and then rewarded for it.

The author(s) of Job is wrestling with universal questions about suffering, God, and all of humankind. 

Job’s friends promote the myth of meritocracy/doctrine of retribution. They spend verse after verse insisting that people get what they deserve and deserve what they get, and what does God have to say about that? Let’s look back at verse 8…

“I will accept his prayer not to deal with you according to your folly.” 

God calls Job’s friends foolish for taking a position that blames victims of injustice. In fact, Gutiérrez points out in On Job that the Hebrew word used is nebalah, a word that has “overtones of ‘blasphemy.'” (pg. 12)

According to God hirself, Job’s victim blaming friends are foolish, even blasphemous.

Job’s not an easy book. It leaves us with a lot of tough questions that we have to wrestle with. The doctrine of retribution can be a blanket of comfort sometimes, whether we are trying insist that we don’t have privilege–we have earned everything we’ve got!–or whether we are trying to gain control over a difficult life situation by blaming ourselves.

Without this doctrine, how can we understand the world? How can we understand God?

Yet, we see all too often the horror and injustice that this doctrine produces:

  • The rape victims at BJU who were told their rape must have resulted from a “root sin” in their own lives, to
  • Trayvon Martin, who was put on trial by the media after he was murdered.
  • The people without homes who are told, “Get a job, you bum,” as neighborhoods install spikes on their side walks.
  • The folks who avoid getting the medical help they need, because their pastors told them that their depression would go away if they’d just cast their care on Jesus.

I could go on and on and on.

It’s time to get rid of the comfort blanket of meritocracy. It’s time to wrestle with who God is, without that blanket. It may not be an easy task, but it is essential if we are to fight injustice in the world.

We can start here, with the suffering Job, and the God who spoke out of a whirlwind to tell us how much ze hates victim blaming.


[1] Gustavo Gutiérrez, On Job: God-Talk and the Suffering of the Innocent

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