Will the Real God Please Stand Up? Reflections on Job 38:1-7

Lectionary Reflections
Job 38:1-7
October 21, 2012

If you are as old as I am . . . and I am, according to my children, slightly older than dirt . . . you will recognize the title of this piece from an ancient television show called "To Tell the Truth." Three guests were asked a series of questions by a blindfolded panel in the attempt to figure out which of the three was in fact the famous or semi-famous guest. After the "experts" removed their blindfolds, the sought-after celebrity was asked, "Will the real (fill in the blank) please stand up?" It was a quiet and relatively harmless bit of half-hour, black-and-white fun, forgettable almost as soon as the weekly edition was over.

The astonishing two speeches of YHWH that comprise Job 38-41 are a kind of "To Tell the Truth" moment. The friends of Job, all four of them, are convinced that they already have the truth about the "real God." That God always rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked, they have said in about as many ways as it can be said. And because they believe that Job is by definition a wretched sinner who richly deserves his spot on the trash dump of Uz, they are ill prepared to hear any different ideas either from Job or even from God.

As for Job, he has again and again asked for God to show up and talk to him about the state of the universe that, according to Job, has gone completely insane. He, an obviously righteous and faithful person, has not received the heavenly reward he imagines he should be receiving, but instead has seen his life reduced to tatters and terror. Unlike the friends, he needs a visitation from on high, indeed has begged for it, even though he has also assumed that if the furious divinity ever would show up that God would pay no real attention to his plight. In effect, all five of the human characters in the drama have their blindfolds firmly in place, though none of the five imagines that they are in any way blind about God. The friends just know that God rewards and punishes—Job is proof enough of that—while Job just knows that God has become his enemy and is battering him for no discernible reason.

So, it could be said that the YHWH speeches are an answer to the question, "Will the Real God Please Stand Up?" If it is an answer to the question of the identity of YHWH, the multiple ways the answer has been construed by readers through the centuries is little short of confounding. Just what are we to make of this God of chapter 38? The opening words of YHWH sound decidedly short-tempered; something or someone has made YHWH furious and the divine one is not afraid to express anger.

"YHWH answered Job from the storm wind: Who in hell is darkening design with empty-headed words?" (38:1-2). I have translated somewhat loosely to provide something of the sharp tone that is being expressed. The tiny particle zeh can certainly mean "this," as the common readings have it, but my first teacher in Hebrew always insisted that when this word was used at this place in a sentence it was intended to convey deep emotion rather than merely pointing to the one who was being addressed. For example, when YHWH reacts to Cain's murder of his brother, God says, "What in hell [many translations avoid the word in the sentence altogether] have you done?" (Gen. 4:10). There, YHWH is deeply grieved; here in Job, YHWH is clearly deeply angry.

And YHWH's anger is a result of two observations. First, YHWH's "design" has been "darkened" or obscured. The very structure of things has been called into question by Job, and by his friends as well; all of the participants in the long and agonizing debate of the previous chapters have missed something essential and basic as they have crossed their verbal swords. And second, they have obscured this basic design with "words without knowledge," or as I have read "empty-headed words." Not only have they spoken of very deep things about YHWH and YHWH's world, but they have done so out of profound ignorance. It could well be said that YHWH's opening gambit announces to all the characters that their lengthy and clever and sometimes cruel jibes and thrusts are thoroughly beside the real point of the design of things. Not only have they spoken about things beyond them, they have done so without any knowledge at all. One way to summarize verse 2 is, "Shut up, you twits! You are dabbling in things far above your pay grade. And because you have no knowledge of what you are babbling about, it is high time you buttoned it up!"

Well, YHWH could certainly be heard like that, and many readers have. The long speeches of God, all 124 verses of them, have often been summarized just like that: "Shut up, little man (men)!" And who am I to doubt that that is part of what YHWH has in mind. After all, listening to the bumptious and bilious verbiage of the preceding thirty-five chapters would be enough to enrage any self-respecting deity, especially if that deity felt that the debate was completely wrong in every way. And 38:2 says clearly that YHWH is plainly disgusted with the arrogant Job and his equally arrogant friends.

10/14/2012 4:00:00 AM
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    About John Holbert
    John C. Holbert is the Lois Craddock Perkins Professor Emeritus of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, TX.