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3. How the Book of Job Destabilizes Us
Pain destabilizes our life. The Book of Job takes seriously the fact of that distress and destabilization in four ways.
The first destabilization we confront in the Book of Job will be that of language. Words are used in the Book of Job in confusing ways. Sometimes we just don’t know what is being said at all. Yet, this destabilization of language will happen in the context of a rather clear structure to the book as a whole. Sometimes we are confused by the way language is used, such as when “bless” is deliberately used for “curse” several times in Job 1-2. Dozens of other examples are given in the course of this commentary. When we study Job, it is almost as if we are on the listening end of a phone conversation where the reception isn’t always of good quality. Sometimes we think we know what is being said, but other times we are completely in the dark. Yet the overall tone of the conversation is clear.
The second destabilization will be in the mental categories or ideas of the Book of Job. Most readers who approach the Book of Job tend to come at it with the understanding that there is one God who has created and watches over the world, and that there are humans who try to make the best they can of this life either by honoring or ignoring this God. Some may believe in intermediaries between God and humans, such as angelic visitors, yet many don’t go down this path. Yet, few are ready for the appearance of a figure called “The Satan” in Chapter 1, who seems to be either welcome (some commentators) or unwelcome (some commentators) in the heavenly realm. The book of Job will also posit other intermediary creatures, such as an umpire or a witness or a Redeemer, but it isn’t clear what the relation of these possible figures is to God. This is only one example of the way the Book of Job will gently urge us to re-examine some of our own seemingly cherished beliefs as the book unfolds.
The third destabilization is in the whole concept of Wisdom itself. Ever since there have been readers of the Bible, there has been a category of Biblical writings called “the Wisdom literature.” The three books generally so-called in the Bible are Proverbs, Job and Ecclesiastes. The central affirmation of the Wisdom tradition, made in Proverbs and explored in Job and Ecclesiastes, is that there is a direct and measurable relationship between honoring God and realizing prosperity and success in life. Each of these three books will explore this important principle at some length, with Proverbs seemingly affirming it, Job questioning it but affirming it in the end, and Ecclesiastes doing the same. Yet, as I will argue below, the Book of Job actually undercuts the very tradition it is said to affirm. It especially does so in Job 32-37. Elihu, the young man and prolix speaker in Job 32-37, is the one who suggests a way out of Job’s wrenching dilemma. The Wisdom tradition believed that it was old men who spoke tersely that had the answers to life’s most complex riddles. But we will be surprised that the most profound and helpful wisdom advice to Job comes from a young man (Elihu), who speaks volubly, and not tersely, on the authority of “spirit” and not “tradition.” By the end of Job 37, then, we don’t know what Wisdom truly is.
The final destabilization is in the area of religious faith. I will argue below that rather than affirming the traditional faith of Israel in Job 42, the Book of Job actually undermines the neat categories of that faith. I will argue that the ultimate message of the Book of Job in the explosive first several verses of Job 42 is that Job abandons faith and God, and that abandonment is a reasonable thing to do for Job in his situation. The final word of the Book of Job then is a testament to the destabilizing power of pain and its relationship to trusting in a good God.