Job and Spiritual Formation IX
Bill Long 6/8/05
16. If any character in the Book of Job is problematic, it is God. The motivations and actions of the other characters are easier to explain. Job, for example, is the way he is because of his loss. The three friends respond to him because they have adopted the wisdom theology without question and want him to maintain his loyalty to that tradition. Elihu is explicable as a young man who is more flexible in his thinking than his elders. Even the Satan is understandable--a heavenly figure who surveys human conduct on the earth. But God is a mystery; a cipher; an enigma. Three things about God are hard, at first, to explain: (1) The "deal" with the Satan; (2) God's silence throughout the Book of Job (1-37); (3) God's words when he actually begins to speak in ch. 38. Let's turn to each briefly.
(1) God boasts to the Satan about his model servant Job. The Satan hypothesizes that there is a reason for it. Wouldn't anyone be faithful to this God if God showered such blessings on him/her? So, God permits the Satan to bring disasters into Job's life in order to test Job's fidelity. The disasters follow in 1-2, and Job's reflection on his great distress commences in ch. 3. Why would God permit this? On the one hand, we can discard the question easily--as just a kind of literary device to enable the action of the book to continue. Without a disaster there is no Book of Job. That God has permitted or even engineered it adds a theological bite to the book. On the other hand, some might claim that God permits it because he knows that Job can handle it or, stated less baldly, that he trusts Job with distress. Though this argument has some plausibility, I think most people would react as follows: 'I wish God had seen me as weak, so that he wouldn't have 'tested' me so." In any case, this is the first hurdle to get over in interepreting God in the Book of Job.
(2) God is silent for almost the entirety of the Book of Job; silent when his voice is seemingly most needed. Job asks for an explanation for his distress beginning in ch. 7, and repeats this request seemingly every time he speaks. He suspects that something is "up," and that God has a hand in the distress he is experiencing, but he wants God to come and explain himself. That is the purpose of Job's lawsuit--to compel God, as it were, to show up and explain himself. Indeed, the silence of God is a theological problem beyond the Book of Job. The Holocaust of WWII made the silence of God a problem for Jew and Gentile alike. But I do not think this problem is insurmountable.
We can best understand God's silence from the perspective of human psychology. Before a person (such as Job) can listen to us and our diagnosis of his/her situation, that person must be "talked out." One reason that the conversation between Job and the friends fails in 3-27 is that Job is in no mood to listen. He still has more to say. He keeps erupting with volcanic words. I think God's silence may be sufficiently explained by the fact that he only speaks when Job is ready to listen. How do we know that Job is so prepared? The little verse, often ignored, at the end of ch. 31 says it all: "The words of Job are ended" (31:40). Job is finally ready and able to listen.
(3) Most problematic is probably the way God chooses to speak when he finally speaks. Job has asked God to show up and answer his complaint. His biggest worry is that God will just appear and blow him away (Job 9; 13). This is why Job wants a nice, controlled legal encounter. A judge would not permit one of the parties (i.e., God) to enter in and cow Job into silence. But when God appears and speaks, he does so in a manner that Job greatly feared. God seems to ridicule Job, taking delight in his knowledge limitations, poking fun at Job because he is so impotent. How relevant is the following question, for example, to Job's complaint: "Do you know when the mountain goats give birth? Do you observe the calving of the deer" (39:1)? Examples of this kind of interrogation could be multiplied. Why does God answer the way he does? On the one hand, you might argue that this further lowers God in your estimation. Job gave God a simple and reasonable request--'when you appear just talk to me like I am talking to you. Have a conversation with me. Explain to me why this great distress has overtaken me. Even if my words have been rash at times, they have been that way because of the pain I suffered. Overlook that and just speak honestly to me.'
But you can look at God's words in at least two other ways. You might also argue that this response shows to Job that Job is a comparatively minor actor in the divine scheme of things, and that Job's comparative insignificance is just a fact of life. God is worried with lots of things; to expect him to be "personally involved" in every little detail of Job's life is too much to expect.
But this mode of explanation doesn't satisfy. Evangelicals don't like it because it tends to erode a sense of God's being "personally involved" in a believer's life. But, apart from that, I think the text doesn't support such a reading. God IS, in fact, involved intimately in Job's life, as can be seen by the discussion between God and the Satan in ch.1. God knows Job intimately and still decides to let the Satan ravage his life.
Another explanation may been suggested. God is trying to show Job his limitations as a method of drawing Job away from obsessive concentration on the self. Pain has a way of limiting our vision, even if it sometimes provides us deep insights into our own life and into the nature of human response to loss. In order for Job to be able to get out of his exclusive focus on self, he needs to see things and hear things differently. Elihu's role has been to help Job "hear" life differently--by seeing his pain as God's way of leading him to freedom. God then enters and tries to help Job "see" things in a different way. By focusing on what Job doesn't know and can't do, God wants to draw Job away from the heart curved in on itself. Maybe we can begin to see the wonders of the world around us only if someone forces us to focus our attention on these wonders. The "1-2" combination of Elihu and God in chs. 32-41 is the means by which Job is able to listen differently to life.
Even though God's character can be explained, sometimes with difficulty, in the Book of Job, there is one verse that has stymied me. I go into it in more specifically in various "Conversations with Job." It is God's remark in 41:5--"Will you play with it (Leviathan) as a bird, or will you put it on leash for your girls?" My first and second readings of this verse tend to confirm that this is an expression of the divine insensitivity at best or cruely, at worst. Thus, God remains sort of an enigma in the Book of Job, even though he has flashes of admirable action and speech.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long