What can Job tell us about our current situation?

A reflection on Harvey Cox’s chapter on Job in his book, “How to read the Bible”.

Introduction

The date, author, intended audience and historicity of the Book of Job are not of primary importance. The Book of Job deals with the mystery of human suffering – especially the suffering of the innocent.

Job articulates a response to this question, though not an answer, different to anything else we read in the Bible.

The Book of Job is pure fiction. Mitchell’s translation, which Cox holds in high regard opens not with, “There was once a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job” as the NRSV does, but with the kind of opening that all good children’s stories begin with, “Once upon a time, in the land of Uz, there was a man named Job.”

So we can relax and recognize that God speaks to us through legends, myths and stories.

The Book of Job begins and ends with sections of prose, but the vast majority is poetry. Cox tells us that Hebrew scholars rate this as the finest poetry in the whole Bible, such soaring poetry that its lyricism can be felt even in translation. Cox points out that the debate about the literal accuracy of one translation over another is not important. Whats matters is which translation best captures the energy and the emotion of the original.

The Plot

Job is a blameless and upright man who feared God and turned away from evil.

He is an exemplary family man with seven sons and three daughters, whom he treats generously and brings up to fear God.

Job is very wealthy, he has a large retinue of slaves, he gets up early in the morning to pray and offer sacrifices to God.

One day the heavenly beings met and Satan came along too. Cox points out that this is not Satan as we think of him today, that Satan came along much later. Cox prefers to call him the Accuser or the Adversary. He points out that in Hebrew he is called ha-satan. This Satan is not an independent source of evil. 

God boasts of his exemplary servant Job, and Satan replies that of course Job is a good servant, because he has  such a wonderful life. Satan goes on to say that if Job were to lose much of his wealth and comfort he might show a different side of himself. Thus God permits Satan to take away all that Job has – just so long as Job himself is not harmed. Satan is ferocious in his duties and strips Job of his livestock and then of his children. Job goes into mourning and sits in a dust heap. But Job does not turn away from God. From this part of the story of Job we have one of the most famous passages of scripture often heard at funerals, “The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away: blessed be the name of the Lord” (1:21). God’s pride in Job is vindicated.

Satan tells God that Job has remained faithful because his body has not been touched. So God grants Satan permission to afflict Job’s body – just so long as he doesn’t kill him. Job is covered with boils and sits on his dust heap scraping himself with a fragment of broken pottery. His wife chides him for continuing to claim his innocence. Job replies, “We have accepted good fortune from God, surely we can accept bad fortune too”.

At this point three of Job’s friends hear about his misfortune and come and sit in silence with him for seven days and seven nights. Cox is keen to point out that neither Job not any of his friends have Hebrew names. He opines that it is not even clear if the original writer is Jewish, thus the Book of Job is only Jewish because of its adoption into the Hebrew scriptures.

After the seven silent days Job speaks and curses the day on which he was born. Cox’s preferred translation by Mitchell really goes to town with Job’s cursing:

God damn the day I was born

and the night that forced me from the womb.

This is much more colourful language than the NRSV translation:

Let the day perish on which I was born,

and the night that said, “A man-child has been born”.

SO the poem continues with statements by Job interspersed with counter-statements from his friends and culminates with the voice of God booming out of a whirlwind. The debate between Job and his companions starts relatively calmly and escalates chapter by chapter until the interlocutors seem to be screaming at one another.

Job continues to protest his innocence and the others continue to trot out the same ideas about suffering that occur throughout the Old Testament and some of the New. They rehearse ideas on the subject that we still hear today – Job must have sinned in order for God to punish him like this. The argument continues and both sides get more cutting and sarcastic. 

Job asks God to accuse him and the story continues almost like a courtroom drama – Job wants to know of what he stands accused so that he can give his defence.

Eventually God answers out of the whirlwind and, in Cox’s translation, says:

Who is this speck of dust who is making so much noise, going on and on as though he knows something about the great mystery that surrounds us? Where were you, my little man, when the primal nebulae exploded into being? Have you ridden one of your puny space rockets the thirteen billion light-years to the edge of that part of the universe that you can observe? Do you know what lies beyond the edge? Do you? Where were you more recently when the pterodactyl and the tyrannosaurus rex roamed the steamy earth? You actually think that nature is there for your comfort and use, to dig up and shovel around, to drain and gobble up! Think again. Why does the rain fall and the sun shine to nourish land where no humans live? You may think you are in charge here, or may be an indispensable caretaker. But nature and the cosmos are older and bigger, took care of themselves for a long time without you, and could do so again, maybe even better without you around to mess things up.

Cox expresses the view that many people, after reading Job, are left feeling dissatisfied. God does not answer Job’s questions. But maybe that is the answer? Maybe trying to find meaning in innocent suffering is a futile endeavour. Trying to find meaning in the Holocaust is an example of this. Writers such as Elie Wiesel, who spent time in Auschwitz during the Holocaust insist that trying to impose some significance on it is to trivialise it.

Cox writes about the Costa Rican poet, Elsa Tamez, who points out in her work, “A Letter to Brother Job” that the turning point for Job comes when he realises that  he is not alone in his suffering. He no longer focusses on his personal pain. Nor does he ask a general question like, “Why is there suffering in the world?” Rather, he now recalls the suffering of the broken and destitute which he now shares. Tamez sees here the reason why the hungry shanty town people whom she knows can relate to Job. She says to him:

The smell of death that is about you reaches our nostrils; we smell you everywhere. Your skeletal body goads us. Shreds of your corroding flesh hang from our flesh: you have infected us, brother Job, you have infected us, our families, our people. And your look of one who thirsts for justice and your breath that is soaked in wrath have filled us with courage, tenderness and hope.

Another Latin American, Father Gustavo Gutiérez has written about Job in a book called, “On Job: God talk and the suffering of the innocent”. Gutiérez served as a priest in the most desperate slums of Peru. His question is, “How are we, as human beings, to speak of God from the heart of human poverty, hunger and suffering?” Gutiérez calls his approach, “Theology done from the garbage heap”. He holds the view that the theme of the Book of Job is not the impenetrable human mystery of suffering, but rather how to speak of God from the rubbish pile.

Gutiérez agrees with Tamez that Job’s breakthrough comes when he realises that he is not alone in his pain. This is crucial, because suffering often turns us in on ourselves and we forget our links with other sufferers. Here Job is different. he demands from God not only a response to his own suffering , but also to the unjustified and preventable hurt that the powerful inflict on the outcast.  – Perhaps there’s something there that brings Job bang up to date with 21st century Britain? – At this point Job catalogues the continued injustices that the higher-ups perpetrate on the oppressed, Job’s language crackles (says Cox) with the strident tones of some of the prophets like Jeremiah and especially Amos:

Some move landmarks;

they seize flocks and pasture them.

They drive away the donkey of the fatherless;

they take the widow’s ox for a pledge.

They thrust the poor off the road;

the poor of the earth all hide themselves.

Behold, like wild donkeys in the desert

the poor go out to their toil, seeking game;

the wasteland yields food for their children.

They gather their fodder in the field,

and they glean the vineyard of the wicked man.

They lie all night naked, without clothing,

and have no covering in the cold.

They are wet with the rain of the mountains,

and cling to the rock for lack of shelter.

There are those who snatch the fatherless child

from the breast,

and they take a pledge against the poor.

They go about naked, without clothing;

hungry, they carry the sheaves;

among the olive rows of the wicked they make oil;

they tread the winepresses, but suffer thirst.

(24:2–11, ESV)

Job doesn’t blame God for causing such anguish. He points his finger at the humans who profit from it and flaunt their contempt for divine justice – He thinks that God shouldn’t be letting them get away with it.

Cox says that at the end of the book of Job God lashes out at the false comforters. I don’t see God as a God who lashes out at anyone. He does chastise them , he tells Eliphaz that he is angry with him and his two friends. But he instructs them to offer a burnt offering and ask Job to pray for them and God will accept Job’s prayer and not deal with them as they deserved. This sounds, to me, more like a loving and forgiving God than a God who lashes out at anyone.

God then praises Job, who’s worldview now embraces angry, impatient protest against injustice with patience for the goodness and mercy of God.

Cox opines that the Book of Job validates the language of complaint that we see in other Old Testament books. Cox holds the view that God rebukes Eliphaz because he has not complained to him.

The Hebrew words used at the end of the book are not clear and scholars struggle to interpret them accurately. Mitchell takes the view that Job is transformed by his encounter with God, whilst the translators of the King James Bible have Job taking back what he has said to God and abasing himself. Cox relates that translation to the theology at that time but dismisses it as being inaccurate.

Ultimately Job regains his fortune with interest and is given seven more sons and three daughters. He also has a new perspective on the world.

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