Job 38:1-7, 34-41
October 18, 2015
The written reflection on the speeches of God in the book of Job is nothing short of astonishing. Entire forests have been denuded, barrels of ink have been emptied, and multiple computers have no doubt crashed in the vain attempt to keep up with the thinking about these complex poems. In one article I can hardly do justice to all that; I direct your attention to the many commentaries, some weighty tomes indeed, that have addressed the many ways readers of Job through the ages have attempted to come to terms with just what these speeches may mean. I especially like and have learned much from the following readers: Norman Habel and David Clines from the weighty tome department, and Bill McKibben in a far smaller book, The Comforting Whirlwind. I commend them to you.
Yet, much can be said here by way of clearing the decks from too simple readings and offering something more substantive to tease the minds of eager learners, many of whom I sincerely hope you are. First, some basic ground rules. The speeches of YHWH, both of them, are a constitutive and necessary part of the book of Job. We gain nothing from speculation about which or what of them are "original" and which "secondary." We have no translation of Job that excludes either of them from its reading, hence we need to wrestle with them as genuine parts of the whole. They are, as strange as it sounds to some readers, real answers to Job. Verse 38:1 reads, "Then YHWH answered Job from the storm." The author intends this speech to answer Job somehow, and thus I intend to try to understand just what sort of answer to Job this may be. And along the way, I hope to probe the author's representation of YHWH in the speech. To understand something of just who this God is may help us understand just what sort of an answer this is.
YHWH's initial address to Job is very important. "Who is this who obscures design with words devoid of knowledge?" (Job 38:2) Those readers who claim that the chief intent of the speech of YHWH is to "put Job in his place" or "to shut Job up" or to "make it clear to Job that he is not God" (all paraphrases of a vast collection of commentary on the speeches), are not wrong but are only partially right. There can be no doubt that God is God and Job is not God, but that in my mind is not the central point of the speech. Surely, if the author had merely wanted YHWH to "shut Job up," the author could have said that in far fewer verses and in much plainer poetry than in the very long and quite magnificent poetry that we are given. How long does it take to say, "Shut up, you little twit?"
In fact, YHWH accuses Job right off the bat of two things. First, Job has "obscured (literally "darkened") design." The usual translation of the Hebrew word used here is "counsel," and that certainly is not impossible. But I think the word in this context is more comprehensive, more encompassing. What YHWH accuses Job of is obscuring the very design of YHWH's universe. And he has done that using "words devoid of knowledge." In other words he has been talking through his hat, speaking of things he knows naught of. This charge, of course, also skewers the friends, since they believe what Job believes about the simple reward-punishment nexus to be found in the world of God. Immediately, YHWH makes clear that all of the participants in this acrimonious debate are thoroughly mistaken about the design of the world in which they live and no increasing mountains of words spoken at peak volume will change that fact. That might be enough to close the discussion, if all YHWH had in mind was to silence those who are fools, claiming to know more than they ever could.
But there is more to the speech, much more. YHWH wants answers now, and bids Job get ready for a genuine discussion. "Gird your loins like a warrior: I will question you, and you will answer me" (Job 38:3). Job, says YHWH, you have had your say for quite a time, and now it is time for you to listen for a while. No, I do not want you only to shut up; I want some answers from you after I have shown you a few things you need to know.
And what YHWH proceeds to show Job are two facets of YHWH's care of the universe. First, YHWH, the meteorologist, offers Job glimpses of a world of weather events, all of which YHWH has something to do with. This includes ice, snow, wind, etc. Well, you may ask, as many have, how is this weather report an answer to Job? Job wants God to tell him about the travesty of injustice that he has undergone, and YHWH responds with talk of ice? There is answer here, but it is not obvious; Job surely misses the answer, as we will see. That subtle answer may be partially found at 38:25-27. "Who cuts a channel for the rain, makes a way for the thunderbolt to bring rain on a land where no one lives, on a desert, empty of human life, in order to satisfy the wasted land and to force the ground to sprout grass?" I read that section of the speech hundreds of times before it dawned on me what was being said.