Introduction to the Book, When Leaving God is a Good Choice, Re-reading the Book of Job, Inkwater, 2020, pp xiii-xvii.
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Introduction to the Book
The Book of Job is one of the most profound reflections on pain and its connection to religious faith in world literature. The profundity of the book arises in the first instance because of the complexity of its themes. Why does a good person suffer? How can one be a friend to one who suffers? Why is God silent so long when the suffering is so devastating and heart-rending? What strategies does one use to explain the pain to oneself or to the suffering friend? Are suffering and pain the last words in life?
But the Book of Job’s complexity also emerges from the difficulty of the language. The argument of the book is often hard to follow. Specific verses often don’t seem to make sense or don’t fit the flow of the passage where they are found. In addition, we can’t hear anyone’s tone of voice and, as we know, tone of voice is crucial to catch the nuances of conversation and argument. At least 10% of the Book’s 1062 verses either make little sense or are subject to multiple (and contradictory) interpretations.
Despite its complexity, many people who have some acquaintance with the Book of Job have a fairly straightforward explanation of what happens in it. Job, an honorable and faithful man, is tested by divine permission, loses nearly everything, expresses his pain and anger at his resulting situation, gradually develops an understanding of a redeemer or witness who will help him (a redeemer who is none other than God), asks for an audience with God, finally gets it and is so overwhelmed by the words, presence and vision of God that he repents and gives up his complaint. God, in response, richly rewards him with double portions of the goods he lost and with ten children to replace the ten who had perished. It is thus a fairly simple and straightforward story. This picture is often buttressed by the brief mention of Job in the New Testament Book of James (5:11) as a person whose “patience” was rewarded. The purpose of the book in your hands is to take issue with that comfortable and straightforward picture of what happens in the Book of Job.
When friends heard that I was working on the Book of Job, several of them decided they would also start to read it. Perhaps they did it more out of sympathy with me than interest in Job, but before too long they all had abandoned the project. One man gave up somewhere in Chapter 6; another person reached Chapter 24. But, truth be told, he was brought up in the Midwest and had to endure Chicago winters, so he was steeled to the task. But still, he got mired in the nearly impenetrable thicket of the Third Cycle of speeches.
People give up on the Book of Job because they assume you can read the Book of Job like you might read a play of Shakespeare or even another book from the ancient world. Yet the Book of Job is no Homeric epic or even a story like the Babylonian Creation story. The difficulty of its language discourages all but the most determined reader. Yet there it is. It is a beacon that both attracts and repels; a book which diligent students of the Bible as well as those with other cultural interests think they ought to read but get bogged down in the process. As a result, people either adopt a rather simplistic view of the meaning of the Book of Job, as just described, or they abandon the project altogether. Or sometimes both.
Three Special Features of This Book
The purpose of this book is to make the Book of Job accessible to the reasonably diligent reader as well as to advance an argument about the central message of the Book of Job. I present three unique features in this book which attempt to make the flow of the Book of Job clear to you, the reader.
First, I present a several-page introductory essay in which I lay out in detail the thesis and argument of my book, derived directly from the text of Job. I stress clear exposition instead of giving multiple ways that particular verses might be read. Second, I present the flow of this book in a series of 69 rather short mini-essays. Each tries to clarify one problem, one chapter or one segment of a chapter of the Book of Job. These essays attempt to follow the flow of the argument, pausing every once and a while to survey where we have been. Once you are familiar with the contents of the Book of Job, and the difficulty in trying to figure out exactly what that content is, you have a level of freedom in understanding the Book of Job that eludes most people.
Third, though literary features of the Book of Job are important to me, my focus here is more “legal,” i.e., on the flow of the argument in the book. I take seriously that Job is presenting a legal case against God (Job 13:18), and I try to hear the nuances of the arguments that Job and others make throughout the book.
As I write I do so not only as a Biblical scholar but as a person trained in law. In addition to two decades in the study and teaching of religion, specializing in Biblical studies and allied fields, I spent an almost like amount of time studying, practicing, teaching and consulting on legal matters. Though I don’t try to hypothesize about what might have been the nature of the ancient Hebrew legal system, I try to be sensitive throughout to the nature of arguments being made, what constitutes a persuasive argument, and how a knowledge of legal strategy might inform our reading of both Job’s and God’s speeches.
As I began writing this book, it dawned on me that even this book was just scratching the surface of this classic work. Thus, I have also written a detailed commentary on each verse of the Hebrew text of the Book of Job. That commentary, more than 450,000 words (about five times the length of this book), should be available sometime in 2020 for the most intrepid readers.
Important Aspects of the Basic Argument
It should be acknowledged at the outset that the basic argument of this book—that the Book of Job is about leaving God rather than re-affirming faith in God--reflects a somewhat new direction in Joban studies. As you will see, I base my case on several factors: 1) Job’s development of the ideas of a witness in heaven (16:19) and Redeemer of his life (19:25); 2) Elihu’s suggestion of a way to interpret Job’s pain in Job 36; 3) God’s continual silence; 4) God’s brusque treatment of Job when He finally speaks in Job 38-41 and 5) A fresh reading of Job 42:6 that takes the two significant verbs in that sentence as pointing to fading away from or disengaging from God and taking comfort in the ash heap rather than the traditional “despising” of the self and “repenting” in dust and ashes. My case is laid out in miniature in the introductory summary of the book and then, in more detail, in the essays on each theme just mentioned.
I am grateful to friends who not only decided to maintain their friendship with me despite my immersion in this project and my ignoring many of their pleas to spend more time with them but who were kind enough to listen to stages of these arguments and to make suggestions about the scope and presentation of the material here. At their encouragement, I have also included the English text of most of the Book of Job as I comment on it. The text is from the New Revised Standard Version. When giving my own translation of several verses, I sometimes give two verbs or nouns to capture the meaning of the underlying Hebrew. When I do that I separate the words by a “/”. I use this device as a way to point out that the translation enterprise is as much art as science.
For the Summary of This Book's Content, click here.