Tensions in Job

I have been thinking about the book of Job over the past few weeks, since we discussed it in my Psalms and Wisdom Literature class. One of the things I like about Job is the tensions the book confronts us with, especially in the way each of the major characters (or group of characters) is presented. I don’t think the tensions are un-resolvable, but I do think they highlight some of the book’s subtlety and profundity.

(1) The first character in which I see tension is Job himself. Is Job right or wrong? In what ways is he right, and in what ways is he wrong? On the one hand, Job is presented throughout the book as an utterly blameless and righteous man. He is introduced in this way (1:1); the Lord describes him in this way to Satan (1:9); he is presented in this way in his response to his suffering (1:20-22, 2:10); and the Lord again establishes this verdict at the end of the book (42:7). Its obvious that, at the most basic level, Job is an innocent and righteous man.

On the other hand, why does the Lord’s reply to Job appear more of a rebuke than a vindication? Why does God claim that Job’s words “(darken) counsel by words without knowledge” (38:2)? Why does the narrator report in 32:1 that Job is “righteous in his own eyes?” And finally, why is Job’s ultimate response to despise himself and repent in dust and ashes (42:6)? To me, this exposes a tension and prompts the question: if Job is truly righteous, why is he rebuked, what is he repenting of?

(2) Secondly, I see tension in the presentation of Job’s friends, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar. Job’s friends often get a tough rap, but there must be some kind of truth and authority in the words, for I Corinthians 3:19 quotes Job 5:13 approvingly, and the same with Job 5:17 in Hebrews 12:5. Moreover, it is obvious that they have a genuine care about Job and do some things well, like weeping with him (2:12) and being silent with him (2:13).

On the other hand, their continual appeal for Job to simply repent of whatever evil he has done is an obvious misdiagnosis, in light of the prologue (chapters 1-2). In the end, Job’s friends anger God with their words and require Job’s intercession (42:7-9). So how can the New Testament can quote Job’s friends approvingly, when they misrepresent the truth and anger God? There is tension here.

(3) The third character in whom I see tension is Elihu (chapters 32-37). Elihu adds some complexity to the book. In my opinion, he cannot be neatly lumped in with Job’s other friends, for three reasons: (1) indignation at the words of Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar is part of the motivation for his speech (32:12); (2) the content of his speech differs significantly from that of his friends; and (3) he is not included in the Lord’s rebuke or Job’s intercession for these friends in 42:7-9. On the other hand, (1) the Lord may not judge him along with Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar, but neither does he validate his words with those of Job (42:7) – they are simply not commented on; and (2) Elihu can have some pretty harsh words for Job as well (e.g., 35:16), which establishes some continuity between Elihu and Job’s other friends.

What is the function of Elihu in the book of Job? Kidner suggests that he delays, and therefore builds anticipation for, the Lord’s response in chapter 38 (The Wisdom of Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes, IVP 1985, 70). I think this is helpful, but beyond this, I am uncertain how to interpret Elihu, although I am inclined to be more sympathetic than unsympathetic. Unless we seriously violate the text by taking the higher-critical view that Elihu must be a later redaction, there is tension here.

4) The final tension that I see in the book is with the Lord himself, and his final response to Job. It is so unlike what one might expect! Several notes:

1. God speaks to Job “out of the whirlwind” (38:1). He is on the offensive, unapologetic, masculine, direct. He does not explain, comfort (yet), or encourage.

2. God completely changes the subject. Rather than defending himself from Job’s questions, he simply ignores them. Kidner: “the inference could hardly be plainer that Job and his friends have not only found the wrong answers; they have been asking the wrong questions (70).

3. The essence of the Lord’s speech seems to be a reminder of the Creator-Creature distinction. He is saying, “Job, I’m God, and you’re not. Do you want my job?” Kidner: God’s speech “cuts us down to size, treating us not as philosophers but as children – limited in mind, puny in body – whose first and fundamental grasp of truth must be to know the difference between our place and God’s, and to accept it” (72).

While some might see it as harsh, or a non-answer, I find it beautiful that God does not apologize to Job. This, combined with the humility and joy reflected in Job’s response, reminds me that simply seeing God face, though not the answer we usually ask God for in the midst of confusion and suffering, is nevertheless the answer we most often really need. Like Orual discovers in C.S. Lewis’ Till We Have Faces, there is a kind of joy that is far better than what we think we want.

2 Comments

  1. Gav – One thing I have found really helpful in following the mystery of Job is to remember that Leviathan is a symbol of evil (see Ps 74, Isa 27); in speaking of fighting with Lev., God is implying (1) Job really has suffered under an evil so great he cannot fully comprehend it (2) God will someday defeat that evil, but hasn’t yet.

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  2. Gavin Ortlund

    Thanks Eric, thats helpful, and potentially makes God’s response to Job a bit more theologically explanatory, rather than just putting Job in his place.

    Like

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