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385. Job 38-41, God Speaks, An Introduction


All commentators agree that the two long divine speeches in these chapters, comprising more than 120 verses, are among the most searching and eloquent in the entire Book of Job. Job might not have liked what had happened to him through the hand of God, but he can’t really contest God’s poetic skill. Yet scholars differ regarding the tone with which God utters them. Do they mock Job? Gently play with him? Carefully show him his limitations? We also are must consider whether the speeches actually respond to Job’s questions. Some might argue that even if Job isn’t given a point-by-point rebuttal by God to his questions or complaint, that God’s overall approach here is to show the divine glory and incomprehensibility, topics just broached by Elihu.     


The traditional approach to the divine speeches and the conclusion to the Book of Job (Job 42) says the following:


a) Through these speeches God demonstrates to Job his relative ignorance and smallness in the order of things.

b) A proper response to this reality is for Job to recognize this and confess his shortcomings.

c) Job, finally, should abandon the fruitless lawsuit that has occupied him every since he said, “I have indeed prepared my case; I know I shall be vindicated” (13:18).

d) The traditional approach would also say that Job finally “gets it” in Job 42, that he understands God in a new way and that this new knowledge leads him to self-abasement and repentance.

e) God, then, restores his fortunes by doubling Job’s blessings, which means that possessions were doubled. Only the number of Job's children remains the same (ten); some might even see some humor in that. Twenty children might be a little too much of a good thing.  


The approach taken in this commentary differs from the traditional approach. My reasons for doing this are both linguistic (reading and understanding the text of Job) as well as legal. My linguistic arguments will be most prominent in my reading of Job 42, and especially my reading of the crucial verse 42:6, but the legal argument is directly related to the form and content of the divine speeches in Job 38-41. The issue that provokes my legal reflections is that fact that God doesn’t engage Job on the basic question—‘Why did you do this to me/let this happen to me?' Job has suspected for most of the book that “the hand of the Lord has done this” (12:9); he has both patiently and impatiently arranged a case against God, detailing the violations experienced and the remedies requested. Job has posited the existence of a witness in heaven (16:19) and the Redeemer of his life (19:25) who would stand for him as he makes his case to God. One of Job’s deepest frustrations, however, is that he can’t really “find” God (Job 23) to present his case. He believes God owes him an explanation for the terrible things that have entered his life, but he is confused as to how to get God to respond.  

Elihu has tried to give Job an explanation for his distress by taking it out of the legal realm and putting it back to where he thinks it belongs—the relationship between Job and God. Elihu argues that God is trying to lure or entice Job back to God through pains suffered; this luring back is designed to lead Job to ever-growing experiences of freedom or the “wide space” (rachab, 36:16). Yet Job is obsessed with legalities; “justice and judgment grip him. . .” (36:17).


When God begins his response to Job in Job 38, we kind of expect that God would address Job’s deep question or at least a number of his individual complaints that he makes along the way. But the surprising thing about these four chapters is that God takes things in a completely different direction than anticipated. Rather than answering questions, God poses questions. Rather than positing questions which Job might be able to answer, God poses questions that demonstrate Job’s ignorance and smallness. 

What is God’s strategy, so to speak, in operating this way? In other words, what is God trying to accomplish by ignoring Job’s questions and barraging Job with other issues that demonstrate Job’s ignorance and puniness?

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