Summary of the Book, When Leaving God is a Good Choice, Re-reading the Book of Job, Inkwater, 2020, pp xiii-xvii.
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Summary of This Book’s Argument
The Book of Job opens and closes with a prose narrative, but then uses the form of dialogue and poetry to present an extended reflection on the issue of human pain. Its special focus is on the relationship of pain to a belief in a good God. Pain, like death and taxes, comes to all of us. It comes to us in all kinds of forms, physical and emotional. Sometimes we know the reason for it. For example, I may feel a pain in my foot because I got up from bed in the dark and inadvertently kicked the door. I nurse the hurt, sorrowfully rubbing the toes until the pain has subsided, and then vow not to do that again. Pain over.
Yet, often our pain doesn’t leave us immediately. It persists. And persists. And, it can destabilize our life. Like an unwelcome guest who will not leave, or the din of unappreciated music that will not stop, pain can become not simply a throbbing reminder of our mortality but of our vulnerability to sources we cannot control. We try to do all we can to minimize it, but somehow it continues to find us, bind us, blind us.
The Book of Job explores pain attendant on great loss. It includes the loss of all Job’s goods, his ten children and his health. The pain in the Book of Job is both emotional and physical, but those two sources of pain aren’t easily disentangled in the book. The resultant anguish drives him to speak, fall silent, argue with the friends, demand to speak with God, and confidently assemble his legal case against God. As mentioned, the Book of Job explores the issue of how pain affects a reflective person of religious faith. Job not only seeks the source of his own pain, but also whether there is any meaning in it or convincing explanation for it.
Contents of the Book of Job
The long poetic dialogue of the Book of Job (Chapters 3-41) is surrounded by a prologue (Chapters 1-2) and epilogue (Chapter 42). The prologue presents the problem of the Book of Job. God is in heaven along with various angelic figures when He strikes up a conversation with one whose name means “The Adversary” (the Satan in Hebrew). God is proud of His wealthy servant Job, who is described as “blameless and upright,” but the Satan is wily enough to suggest that Job’s fidelity to God is not disinterested—i.e., Job’s faithfulness to God may be motivated by the blessings that have come his way. The Satan suggests that a way to test this hypothesis is to strip Job of all his earthly possessions, as well as his ten children, and then cause painful sores to break out on his body. Then, all will see if Job then worships God with the same kind of faithful devotion.
God goes along with the Satan’s suggestion, allowing the Satan to wreak havoc in Job’s life. In a series of devastating losses over a short period of time, Job loses his property and wealth, his children, and his health. He withdraws to the ash heap to scrape himself in his misery. Three friends come to visit him, but they don’t say anything for a week because of the stunning transformation that has overcome Job. Perhaps, we think ruefully, they are at their best when they don’t say a word.
There follows a profound and detailed dialogue between Job and three friends (Chapters 3-31), a monologue by a younger person who has been holding his tongue while listening to the debate (Elihu; Chapters 32-37), and a monologue by God which serves as a catalyst for resolving the problem of the book (Chapters 38-41).
More specifically, the dialogue between Job and the three friends consists of three cycles of alternating speeches (First Cycle is in Chapters 3-11; Second Cycle is Chapters 12-20; Third Cycle is Chapters 21-27). Each of the three cycles begins with a speech by Job, followed by one by the first friend, Eliphaz, then a speech by Job, followed by a speech by the second friend, Bildad, then a third speech by Job, and then one by the third friend, Zophar. After the three cycles are completed, the author inserts the searching and ruminative hymn to wisdom in Job 28 before Job concludes with his eloquent peroration in Job 29-31. Most scholars argue that the Third Cycle is incomplete—perhaps indicating that communication has fully broken down between Job and the friends.
Even though the Book of Job can be outlined fairly neatly, it is far from easy to read or understand. It consists of 1062 verses, and many more than 100 of these verses are either impossible to translate or seemingly relate not at all to what has preceded or follows. Though continuous meaning can sometimes be established, we often run into difficulty in making sense of what is going on. Almost every speech, in fact, presents some insuperable difficulties to translators and interpreters.
As a result, the Book of Job is almost impossible to read as one might read a play of Shakespeare or a few books of Homer’s Odyssey. Almost no one is able to read it from beginning to end without the mind wandering and, before long, abandoning the task. Yet, there are enough signals throughout the Book of Job that the speakers not only understand the profound issues relating to faith and pain, but present them with an eloquence and understanding that is still breathtaking.
Issues in the Book of Job
Job experiences the painful loss of almost everything of value to him in Job 1-2. Only his wife remains, but she speaks just one verse in the Book of Job (2:9), and she plays no role in the dialogue. One of the ways to try to capture the flow of the argument is to identify certain emotions of the heart and issues of the mind that arise in each successive cycle.
Though this is somewhat oversimplified, I would argue that Job’s root or anchor emotion in the First Cycle (Job 3-11) is anger, and the most profound issue or idea that arises is one that he quickly squelches as not realistic—that there might be a mediator to stand between him and God in resolving Job’s problem of pain (Job 9:33-34).
Job is angry because of the sudden, dramatic, inexplicably great reversal that he has experienced. As he will later say (12:9), he believes that the “hand of the Lord” has done this. His anger will be transmuted in the Second Cycle into a lawsuit against God, but in the First Cycle he just expresses the wild emotions of rage and cynicism. For a fleeting moment he expresses the hope for a mediator who would “lay his hand on both of us” (God and Job), giving Job a chance to speak and seek an explanation of his loss (Job 9:33-34). The friends, especially Eliphaz, begin with some sympathetic words to Job (Job 4), but they quickly retreat to comfortable theological categories that look for reasons to blame Job for his misfortune.
Job’s anchor emotion in the Second Cycle (Job 12-20) is grief. Though several verses capture this emotion, one of the most memorable is Job 17:11, “My days are past; my plans are broken off, the desires of my heart.” Rather than hoping for a brighter future, as his friends encourage him to do, Job will say about God, “So you destroy the hope of mortals” (14:19). His grief is numbing, overwhelming, and sometimes appears to be immobilizing.
Yet, he also begins to explore two issues of profound importance for the rest of the book in the Second Cycle. First is the idea of bringing a legal case against God. One of the things that I bring out in this book, and especially in my much longer commentary on Job, is the way that legal argument functions in the Book of Job. Job himself puts it succinctly, “I have indeed prepared my case; I know I shall be vindicated” (13:18). Most of Job’s words in the Second Cycle can be understood as serving the greater purpose of assembling an air-tight case he will present to (and against) God. The case is based on the notion that Job has done nothing remotely deserving the losses he has experienced, and that God owes Job an explanation of why God has been complicit in bringing such huge distress into Job’s life.
The second issue that emerges in the Second Cycle is the focusing of Job’s hope. He doesn’t remain in his anger of the First Cycle or even the grief of the early Second Cycle, but he gradually begins to express a hope for a heavenly figure who will help him in his lawsuit. The figure takes on more and more specificity as the Second Cycle develops. In Job 16:19 it is a “witness in heaven.” In Job 19:25 it is the Redeemer of Job’s life. One important point in my argument is that Job sees these figures as apart from or different from God. I make that argument because these figures appear in contexts where Job has just finished laying out how he feels God has mistreated him. The helper he desires will stand for him in making his case against God.
The Third Cycle (Job 21-27) presents some of the most difficult passages in the entire Book of Job. Many are the readers who enter into this Cycle but have an experience like Odysseus’ men with the whirlpool Charybdis (Odyssey, Book XII)—they never come out. Suffice it to say that the major movement or issue of this cycle is to show communication breakdown on the one hand and Job’s frustration and even despair on the other. He so much wants to bring a case against God to God, and is hopeful that he will be well-regarded by God. He is frustrated, however, because he can’t find God; he can’t find the place to deliver his complaint (Job 23).
All four participants have figuratively thrown up their hands by the end of Job 27. Just at that point the author inserts a beautiful and searching hymn to wisdom (Job 28), a hymn that speaks of the inaccessibility but value of wisdom. It serves as an intellectual and emotional break from the buildup of tension of the first 27 chapters. Finally, in Job 29-31, Job delivers his impassioned final speech in his defense. He is innocent of wrongdoing; he has been a model citizen and judge (Job 29); he has faced the most humiliating reversals in life (Job 30); now he wants his hearing. The dramatic words in 31:35, where Job says, “Here is my signature! Let the Almighty answer me!” are a fitting close to Job’s words.
Why The Book of Job is About Leaving Rather than Reaffirming Faith in God
The heart of my argument—that the Book of Job explores leaving rather than reaffirming faith in God—is based on several affirmations, derived from what has already been presented and then from Elihu’s (Job 32-37) and God’s (Job 38-41) speeches and, finally, from the Epilogue (Job 42). My case is based on the following twenty-one statements:
Job early suspects that the hand of God is behind his sufferings (12:9). He expresses his desire to be fully crushed by God (6:9), but his wish isn’t granted.
Job interprets his pain as a result or manifestation of the divine anger, an anger that really has long has motivated God’s actions (9:13).
Job knows that he is innocent and blameless (9:20), yet still he suffers unjustly.
He seeks an explanation from God for his suffering, but is afraid that God, acting out of irrationality, will continue to act in the divine anger and hurt him.
Job would like a mediator or umpire to help, to lay his hand on both parties (Job and God), but he knows that will not happen (9:33-34).
Job’s anger matures into a case or lawsuit he would like to bring against God. He assembles his case—his innocence, his unwarranted suffering, God’s culpability—and expresses confidence that he will be vindicated (13:18).
God is silent. The long silence of God, which may be literarily effective, is theologically problematic in Job. God is silent from Job 3-Job 38. That God’s silence is theologically problematic is best illustrated from the relationship of parents and children. If children are left unattended too long, bad things not only may but probably will happen. In the case of Job, it might lead to his ’wandering’ right away from God. God cannot fully be exculpated if this happens.
Without God’s intervention, Job also has time to think. He not only puts together his case but he also imagines heavenly figures, different from God, who will rise and speak or witness on his behalf. These are the witness in heaven (16:19) and the Redeemer of his life (19:25).
Job still affirms all the “right” or “traditional” beliefs about God, even until the end of his final speech, but he finally signs his complaint (31:35) and puts it in God’s court.
10. Before God intervenes, another person, a young man Elihu, speaks (Job 32-37). After seemingly blustering his way ineffectively for a few chapters, Elihu gives Job a precious nugget to help him understand his distress.
11.That nugget is in Job 36:15-17, where Elihu says that God is using Job’s distress to lure or entice him into a broader place of freedom. But Job would rather fight than be free, would rather have the justice and judgment a lawsuit provides rather than the broad spaces into which God is alluring him.
12. By the time Elihu finishes his speeches, Job has three things: his case, with witnesses lined up to support him; an alternative explanation from Elihu of what is happening through his pain; and a theological system that remains intact. Yet Job is skeptical by the time Elihu finishes regarding whether God really will ‘show up’ or ‘fess up’ or give Job an explanation for the pain that he suffers. Elihu has told Job that God is gently luring him into freedom.
13.When God appears, Job’s worst nightmare is repeated. Not only does God not treat Job with any dignity, but God makes it seem that Job is the impertinent one by raising the questions that he has. Rather than dealing with any of Job’s questions, God points out in four eloquent chapters how small Job is and how ignorant Job is about the world.
14.Scholars have long scratched their heads to try to understand what God is doing in so responding to Job. No one argues that God directly answers Job’s questions. I advance a thesis in the book, derived from my experience as an attorney and expert witness in a multiple-homicide case, that explains God’s method of operation in Job 38-41.
15.In a word, God tries to divert the attention from Job’s good questions by pointing out Job’s insignificance and ignorance of the cosmos and the animal worlds. God hopes that by showing Job’s ignorance, the ‘jury’ (i.e., the reader) would forget about Job’s pertinent, but ignored, questions.
16. God’s two speeches in Job 38-41 are somewhat beside the point. Though they contain some beautiful and stunning poetry, their main purpose is to cow Job into submission rather than to honor his questions.
17. Job’s response to God in Job 42 is, at first glance, one of submission but in fact is one of defiance. The crucial verse to understand Job’s defiance is Job 42:6, and the two crucial verbs are masas/maas and nacham. The scholarly world is gradually coming to the conclusion that rather than “despising” himself, Job just “fades away.” There is no object after the verb maas/masas, which would be necessary for Job to “despise him/myself.”
18. Job’s “fading away” is a dramatic moment because it shows that Job was not overcome by the divine pyrotechnics of Job 38-41. Job will “fade away” and “take his comfort” (nacham) on the dust and ashes. Job has turned away from faith.
19. This explanation is the only satisfactory way to understand God’s response in 42:7-17. God acts like guilty parents who have mistreated a child, come to themselves and want to make amends. By stating that Job had spoken of God what was right (42:7), a statement that rings a bit hollow if we look at what Job has actually said about God throughout the book, God demonstrates the parental behavior that says, ‘Take the car AND credit card and have fun and stay out all night…but PLEASE don’t leave me!’
20. But it is too late. God has left Job alone too long. Job has developed an alternative explanation for his distress, has not been honored by God, and has developed the sense of independence to learn how to find joy in distress. He doesn’t need God anymore.
21. God tries to make amends by giving him a substitute family and twice his possessions. But God doesn’t give the principal thing that might have made Job willing to reconsider his decision. God gives no “rainbow.” God gives no assurance that this will never happen again. In ten years a wily antagonist may approach God again and say, ‘See that Job who serves you. . . ?’ Job will have no more to do with a God who destroys his life, gives no explanation when reasonable questions are posed, and then pulls rank rather than honoring the reasonable queries of the creature. That is why leaving faith is a reasonable and even good choice for Job.