In this episode of The Bible for Normal People Podcast, Pete shares his thoughts on the book of Job as he explores the following questions:
- What is the take-away from the book of Job?
- How does the New Testament interpret Job?
- What genre is the book of Job?
- What are some troubling questions the book of Job brings up?
- Was Job written all at one time or different times?
- How should we understand Job’s friends?
- What is the meaning of ha-satan?
- How does Job connect with Isaiah 40?
- What does Job teach us about theology?
- What does Job have to do with the Babylonian exile?
- Are there multiple ways to read Job?
- What is challenging about the book of Job?
Pithy, shareable, less-than-280-character statements from Pete you can share.
- “Remember that Job is not a historical book. It’s a story that a writer or editor uses to say something about God or the people of God, Israel.” @peteenns
- “Job’s friends are actually… operating from a position of theological orthodoxy.” @peteenns
- “Job’s defense throughout is that [his friends’] theology, their transactional God, does not match his experience. And he refuses to accept their argument regardless of how much this is a part of their tradition.” @peteenns
- “Any assessment of what the book of Job is about, what its point is, what its theology is, what its message is, needs to have a good handle on how the book begins and how it ends.” @peteenns
- “There are words in chapter 27 that are labeled as Job’s words that many scholars think Job simply would not say.” @peteenns
- “Rather than caving in, Job might actually be holding his ground.” @peteenns
Mentioned in This Episode
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Pete: You’re listening to The Bible for Normal People. The only God-ordained podcast on the internet. I’m Pete Enns.
Jared: And I’m Jared Byas.
[Jaunty Intro Music]
Pete: Hello normal people, welcome to another episode of The Bible for Normal People. And a, just a heads up, I’m home alone, which is dangerous normally, but, you know, here I am. I’m surrounded with animals with my cat Marmalade, my idiot dog Staci, and my aged dog, what’s her name again? Oh yeah, Miley. You may hear an occasional grunt or jump on a desk or something like that, but hey, it’s COVID-19 man, it’s a pandemic, you gotta make due. So anyway, you may hear them jumping up and down on the desk or something, I don’t know, but I’m fine with it if you are. You know, I wrote my dissertation with my daughter crawling on my back, so I can handle animals and I’m sure you can too. But this is sort of my personal Job experience I think, these animals, I don’t know. I shouldn’t complain, speaking of which, let’s get to Job, shall we?
Alright, Job is pretty cool. The story of Job is one that many people are familiar with and you know, like with other well-known stories of the Old Testament, you know the Garden of Eden or the Exodus, things like that, Job has had a place in literature and films and so if I say to most people, “I’m suffering like Job,” more people will know what you’re talking about than, you know, I feel like Ahaz contending with the Rezin and Pekah. Exactly. But, in a way the familiarity we have with Job, well, that can be a hindrance to understanding this amazing and theologically risky and rich book of the Bible. Job is not, let me just start with what I think Job isn’t, okay? Job is not a story about why people suffer, it’s not even about why Job is suffering. We know why from the opening scene, which we’ll get to. And it’s not about how we should be patient in suffering like Job, because Job, frankly, isn’t patient.
Now, just if you’re thinking of the New Testament, let me just jump ahead here for a second. James 5:11 does refer to the endurance of Job, which is not exactly the same thing as patience. You can endure something without being patient. But even if James means something like Job waited patiently for God to be merciful, and it does seem to be what James is saying, that still doesn’t capture what the book of Job is about. Job endures while giving God a piece of his mind. James is interpreting Job and applying this character creatively as the New Testament writers are prone to do and interpreting this character creatively to a different context. See, for James, it’s the context of persecution by forces hostile to the Gospel. The source of Job’s suffering is, as we’ll see, God. Very different kind of context.
So, you know, we’re not going to go down that path with the New Testament, there’s just no need to do that. But answering the question of why people suffer or seeing Job essentially as a model of patient suffering, those are common ways of thinking about Job as sort of summarizing what the book is about, and I don’t think that the story itself can support that. So, this podcast is about what I think Job is about and I hope it goes without saying that I’m not winging it, but I’m channeling others I’ve learned from including people I might disagree with. And by the way, disagreement among interpreters of Job is something you’ll have to get used to if you dig into this book. But as I see it, rather than being about why they’re suffering or being a pep talk for being patient in suffering, I think Job is about something else altogether, and I don’t know how to do this apart from just walking through the book section by section.
Okay, so let’s begin with the really big picture first. Job is 42 chapters long. Most of it is poetry except for the first two chapters and the last eleven verses, that’s chapter 42:7-17, the last eleven verses that’s prose or narrative just like the first two chapters are. And the beginning and end are crucial to understanding the book of Job as we have it, and I say it that way because, you know, biblical scholars see in Job’s signs that this book, like so much of the Old Testament, wasn’t written at one time by one person, it’s a story that seems to have been added to over time. And these narrative sections that I just mentioned, are often considered to have been added at the end of this long process. And I’m not going to make a big deal of this here, mainly because we just don’t have the time, and tracing this, let’s call it layered history, is the kind of thing that you really need a, like a slide rule and a decoder ring with bibles open in order to see it.
So, for the most part, I’m not focusing on that at all, but on the book as we have it in front of us, the book we all read when we open up our Bibles, all 42 chapters, which is a lot of poetry sandwiched between a narrative beginning and end. And this narrative frame, as it’s called, you know, it frames the whole book beginning and end, that frame is central for understanding what the book of Job is doing.
Okay, so let’s just start with chapter one, okay? Job is introduced in chapter one with two characteristics. He’s described in two ways, and both are central to understanding the meaning of the book. Don’t skip over this. Job is first someone of great wealth and reputation, you might say he is greatly blessed, he’s got, you know, ten kids who are just perfect. You know, all bound for the Ivy League or something. He’s got cattle, he’s got wealth, in fact, verse three tells us he’s the greatest of all the people of the East. The East, because that’s where wise men come from. So, Job is like a very wise character who is blessed. And the other characteristic is that Job is pious, or as he is described here, he’s blameless and upright. Now, in his day, Job’s piety is shown by his faithfulness in offering sacrifices, and we read here in verse five that he even offered sacrifices for his ten children in case they sinned and privately cursed God, as the text tells us. And here’s what might some of us call a super successful Christian, you know, who doesn’t want his kids to be any less so.
See, already here, we’re just in verse five folks, we’re confronted by this central question of the book of Job, we just don’t know it yet. We have to keep reading, but I’m telling you. And the question is this: are Job’s blessings tied to his piety? Right? Let me put that in other words. Are the blessings of Job, are they God’s reward for being so pious? And is that why he feels he needs to cover for his kids, because their well-being is also tied to piety? See, this link between blessing and piety is the focus of what happens next in this story. And this is a pretty famous part of Job. See, as the story goes, one day, while in sort of like a heavenly board meeting of the gods, that’s usually called the divine council, but you know, the gods are all up there having a meeting of some sort, and Yahweh, that’s the God of Israel, who is like, the chairmen of the board, and they’re all there. And for some reason, Yahweh starts bragging about Job’s piety to a figure called ha-satan. Slight pause here. This is an important element too of this book to understand what’s happening, ha-satan. This is usually translated in English as Satan, the evil one. You know, the ruler of the underworld, etc, but that figure is not present here, nor frankly anywhere in the Old Testament. Satan is a name and that figure is known to us much later in Judaism. Ha-satan, however, is a title. I pronounce is that way to remind us of something very important. You know, to be a “satan”, which is, by the way, where we get the name Satan from. But to be a “satan” means to be an adversary or an accuser of some sort, and ha-satan literally means the adversary or the accuser. See, this isn’t Satan who just like, waltzes up to heaven and has a casual conversation with Yahweh.
In fact, just side note here, in Numbers 22, remember the story of Balaam and the donkey? There the angel of the Lord is a “satan”. He is an adversary to Balaam, and you know, if you remember the story, he runs this donkey off the road after Balaam and the donkey have this sort of casual conversation. It’s sort of an odd story. But even God can be a “satan”, so, it’s not, this is not the figure of evil, think of ha-satan as maybe something like a prosecuting attorney. God makes a case, he makes a claim, and ha-satan is going to argue against him. And here’s what happens. You know the story; this is really familiar. God practically dares ha-satan to find fault with Job. Not once, but twice in these two chapters. You know, “hey, have you considered my servant Job? Isn’t he awesome? Look how pious he is!” It’s like, bragging on your kid, right? He gets all amazed or something like that. So again, this happens twice in chapter one and chapter two. The first time, ha-satan tells God that the only reason Job is so pious is because he has a cushy life. So, take it all away and you’ll see what he’s made of. He’ll curse you to your face. Job’s piety is superficial. Job is pious, ha-satan claims, because of what he’s getting out of the deal. Right? God’s a helicopter parent making sure everything is okay with him because he’s rewarding him for worshipping God, right? But ha-satan says he’s not worshipping you because you’re God, just because of that, but because you are rewarding him. And so, God says, well, we’ll see about that, and he allows ha-satan to do what he wants to Job, only, you know, don’t touch him personally. And so, in short order, Job loses everything in one catastrophe after another, and all his possessions as well as his ten children, all gone.
So, how does Job repent? Well, he accepts this fate and in famous words, these are some of the, probably the best known words in the book of Job and familiar to I think a lot of people. This is where Job says, “naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return there. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken way; blessed be the name of the Lord.” So, he blesses God rather than curses God. Yay Job, ha-satan is wrong. So far, so good. Job’s passed the test, but now we move around to ha-satan is back. And God, who, should just leave well-enough alone if you ask me, brags about Job once again and ha-satan says, well, you see, Job is hanging in there because he himself hasn’t been harmed. Harm him personally, then we’ll see where things stand. So, God again tells ha-satan to have at it, only he’s got to spare his life. And the next thing we know, Job is covered with boils from head to toe, but here too he seems to accept his fate. He tells his wife, for example, “shall we receive the good at the hand of God and not receive bad,” that’s chapter 2:12, and then the narrator tells us that Job did not sin with his lips, which is really interesting and maybe a detail we shouldn’t pass over too quickly. See, he didn’t sin with his lips. With his lips, but frankly, we’re left wondering what Job was thinking in his mind and that’s gonna come out soon enough. He’s hanging in there, but very quickly he just loses it. But first, Job’s friends hear about it and they come and sit down with him in silence for seven days and, you know, they were respecting his pain. This is, by the way, where the practice of shitting Shiva in Judaism comes from. Shiva means seven. The point to emphasize here is Job’s friends are, they’re really good friends. They’re here to help him, not attack him. And, table that thought for a moment. We’ll come back to it enough, trust me. Job’s friends, whether they’re attacking him or not.
Okay, so after seven days, Job opens his mouth. He gives his first speech in the book. This is chapter three. And he basically wishes he were never born, and he calls for all of creation to essentially fall back in on itself. Okay? He’s clearly not doing well. Anyway, if you read this chapter, you’ll see that Job is hardly patient. He’s not trusting God to work it all out. He’s accusing God of doing something he does not deserve. God has, as Job puts it in 3:23, he says, “God has fenced him in.” See, let’s call this lack of faith that Job has in God’s goodness and God directing all things sovereignly and justly for everybody, this lack of faith is exactly what Job’s friends are worried about and what they zero in on.
Now, okay, that’s how the book is set up in the first three chapters. The bulk of the book, chapters four going all the way through 37, is for the most part Job’s debate with his three friends named Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar. And then later in chapter 32, they’re joined by a rather mysterious young and apparently quite full of himself character named Elihu, who reams Job out for six chapters. Elihu is a complicated figure, and we’ll come back to him later, but we’re not going to spend a ton of time on him because, you know, we don’t like four-hour podcasts. But anyway, you can’t do everything, right? You can’t do everything, it’s the Bible, do what we can.
Okay, so, here we go. The argument of Job’s three friends that takes up so much of this book, basically runs like this: Job, you look like a wreck and you’re clearly suffering mightily. And, you know, as your friends, we hate to ask, but we need to ask, in fact we’re all wondering: what did you do? You must have done something. God wouldn’t do this to you for no reason. And Job’s response, pretty much throughout, is, yeah, well, I’ve been asking myself that same question, and the fact is I didn’t do anything. And his friends respond, yes, you did. Job answers, no, I didn’t. I didn’t do anything. And so, back and forth it goes, this part at least, goes through chapter 27. Now, at first blush, right, you read this, and you might think that Job’s friends are sort of out of their element, you know, claiming to know that Job’s sufferings are punishment from God for Job’s sins. And again, you know, we happen to know that Job is not suffering for that reason, right? His suffering is not God’s punishment for sin, he’s actually suffering for far worse reason that none of them know about nor will they ever know about in this book. Job is suffering because he’s too good. He’s suffering because God wants to prove to ha-satan that Job is really worshipping him out of true piety and not because his life is cushy.
So, we get to this section and we might find ourselves rooting for Job against the false accusations of his friends, but here’s the thing. And this is one of those keys to the book, and a very important moment here: biblically speaking, the friends and what they say, what did you do to deserve this, they are well within their, let’s call it, theological right to assume that Job is suffering as punishment from God for his sin. See, that portrayal of God is all over the Old Testament. It’s typically called a transactional view of God, which, I’m sure is familiar to anyone who has skimmed the Bible, right? If you obey, you will be blessed and rewarded. If you disobey, you will be cursed, punished, plagued. Something like that. See, there is a transaction happening and that’s called a transactional view of God. See, Job’s friends, think about it from their point of view. They have seen Job move from an obedient worshipper with a great life, to someone who has lost everything and is covered by boils. That doesn’t just happen. Job must have done something. There must be, as I hear Christians say too often, there must be sin in his life to yield a consequence like this. Hmm.
See, in other words, and try this on for size, Job’s friends are actually, they’re operating from a position of theological orthodoxy. Nothing they say, really nothing they say in all their speeches that go on for twenty-something chapters, nothing they say is heretical. You can back up a transactional God with chapter and verse in plenty of places in the Bible, not just here. In fact, you know, I’ve heard preachers preach the same kind of transactional God that we see in these dialogues. God is, you know, cursing our country because we voted wrong on something, you know, that kind of thing. This is a very, very common way. Or, you know, you’re suffering because God is trying to get your attention because you have some sin that has to be cleared up. Very, very common. Maybe the easiest example is maybe TV preachers? But again, not just the, it’s part of the biblical fabric, this transactional God. And so, I don’t look at these friends as saying something that’s absurd. It makes perfect sense. And Job’s defense throughout, and again, this is a very important thing to get a handle on, Job’s defense throughout is that their theology, their transactional God, does not match his experience. And he refuses to accept their argument regardless of how much this is a part of their tradition. We might say today, regardless of how often see this in the Bible.
Now, that’s a lot, I know. Let’s get to the really big point here, and that’s at the end of the book. That narrative section at the end of 42:7-17 how the book ends. Here, Yahweh finally enters the discussion and he appears to Job and his friends, and God says in no uncertain terms, think about this, right? In no uncertain terms, he says that he is on Job’s side in this long debate. He turns to Eliphaz, God turns to Eliphaz and he said, the first of the three friends, and you know, the first one mentioned so maybe he, like, represents all of them. So, he tells Eliphaz, this is 42:7, “my wrath is kindled against you and against your two friends, for you have not spoken of me what is right as my servant Job has.” Hmm.
Now, we need to hit a few more parts of the book before we feel the full force of this, sort of, divine announcement here, but for me, it is the most stunning passage in Job and one of the more thought provoking passages in the entire Old Testament. God is siding with Job. He is the one who spoke of God what is “right.” Job does not accept transactional theology, what we find in ample supply in, say, for starters, Deuteronomy through 2 Kings. See, any assessment of what the book of Job is about, what its point is, what its theology is, what its message is, needs to have a good handle on how the book begins and how it ends.
Okay. Let’s circle back. A few brief comments about this long, poetic dialogue section between Job and his three friends, which runs through chapter twenty-seven. Each friend makes his case to Job three times, and each time Job responds. Those dialogues, they may seem, actually, to go on forever. But, you know, those dialogues do have a structure to them. The only thing, and this is more of a side note for you abnormal people out there, maybe you’re interested, I don’t know. Just give me fifteen seconds here. And a good study Bible will point this out, but, at the end of this section in chapters 25 through 27, it’s a bit of a mess. Friend number two, Bildad, his third speech seems to be cut off and Zophar, who’s friend number three, his third speech is entirely missing, and you know, normally each speaker is clearly announced when they begin speaking, but that’s missing here with Zophar. But the thing that has really interested careful readers of Job is that there are words in chapter 27 that are labeled as Job’s words that many scholars think Job simply would not say. And so, they suggest that maybe Bildad and Zophar’s speeches somehow got mixed in with Job’s in this third cycle. I mean, who knows, and none of this affects the point of the book. I’m just throwing it in there to alert you that Job can be tricky to decipher in places. It’s not an easy book.
There are a few minefields like this in Job, and maybe that’s what happens when a book has such a long history of layers being added to it. And, you know, while we’re on the subject, Job is also difficult to understand because the Hebrew has a lot of words in it that occur only once or twice, and again, good study Bibles will point out some of that. And it’s also very hard for several reasons, to assign a specific period when the book was written. Usually scholars can take a pretty good stab at, you know, within a couple centuries or something, but you know, Job’s difficult. Some say it’s from the seventh century BCE, like, way before the exile. Some say five hundred years later, second century. And some others say, you know, say sometime in between. So, this book is a head scratcher. Though I do believe that the basic thrust of the book isn’t really affected, but it’s a book that is worthy of our adult attention and one that we really need to pay attention to if we’re serious about studying it. It’s not an easy book to read.
Okay, anyway. These three cycles are now over, and Job stubbornly maintains his innocence, and a very long monologue that begins, you know, perhaps in chapter 27, you know, unless Bildad and Zophar’s speeches are buried in there, you know, like we said. And it goes through chapter 31, or, you know, so it seems. Not only is chapter 27 a mess, but chapter 28, again, this is one of these moments in the book of Job, this has confounded scholars for some time. It’s a wonderful chapter on the mystery of wisdom. Namely, that no one knows where wisdom comes from, and this is chapter 28, and that wisdom is out of human reach. And this, as the story is laid out in front of us, this seems to be placed on Job’s lips, but it’s just not the kind of thing Job would say. It’s almost a confession of guilt, like, I have no business questioning you, oh Lord, and that’s not where Job is here. And for that reason, and this makes a lot of sense to me, scholars typically chalk this up to, again, an editor inserting something to make Job sound more, let’s say, orthodox. But then, you go to 21 to 31 and this is Job’s last speech, and he’s back to defending his innocence, just, tooth and nail. Now, I’ll tell you, this idea that the book of Job is layered over time, you know, it makes a good bit of sense to me. And if that’s true, this is a very important lesson for us, it just sort of rises to the surface.
[Producers group endorsement]
You see, the shape of the book of Job as a whole, the book that we have in our Bibles, is itself a product of ancient Jewish debate over time. The book of Job grew over time, and we see within its pages evidence of different points of view, which, means we need to be very careful about what parts of Job we take to be, let’s say, absolute truth. Maybe for us as for the ancient Jews who produced this book, the point is in the dialogue, the debate, and maybe not the final answer we can stuff in our back pocket.
By the way, I just noticed these birds. I don’t know if you notice them, but I don’t know. Where I live here, I don’t live like, in the woods or something folks, I’m just here hanging out. I’ve got my dogs, and the ones that are making the most noise are these birds because my wife puts bird feeders all over the place, so, anyway. All part of God’s creation, which we’ll get to in Job too, that’s a big deal later on. Anyway.
Okay. Chapter 31 ends, and this is how it ends. It says, “the words of Job are finished.” Only they’re not. He responds twice to Yahweh, which we’re getting to. First, just, you know, a quick word or two of Elihu, I mentioned him before. He enters a fray from chapters 32 through 37, six chapters. And he’s younger and supremely confident in knowing the ways of God. Right? That first-year college student who has it all figured out and wants to put the professor in his place, not that that’s ever happened to me, but it’s sort of like that. Elihu gives Job a tongue lashing for six chapters. His beef with Job is that Job “justified himself rather than God.” In other words, he defended himself instead of accepting a transactional God, a transactional theology. And his beef with the three friends, who he basically agrees with theologically, his beef with the three friends is that they don’t have the chops to refute Job. So, Elihu takes over and adopts a rather mocking, sarcastic, condescending tone toward all of them and ends with a rather stirring speech about God’s unsearchable mystery. Which, ironically, he apparently seems to have a good handle on.
Anyway, Elihu is often given a free pass as someone who utters the truths of God against Job’s arrogance and faithlessness, but see, here too, maybe especially here, we need to remember that God fully vindicates Job at the end. You know, the book as a whole doesn’t give us the option of simply accepting Elihu’s chastisement of Job as the final word. God gives the final word to Job. Well, that’s a rather unsettling thought. Let’s keep going here, let’s see where this goes. Okay. Here, now, with the end of Elihu’s long speech, we are now at a crucial point of the book where God finally speaks to Job, and Job answers him. And this starts in 38:1, and it goes into chapter 42. But the first six verses, because the next part, starting in 42:7, sorry, a lot of math here. But, starting in 42:7, that’s that narrative ending to the book, all right? So, the rest of this, the rest of the poetic stuff is Yahweh and Job. Now, with this section, just fair warning, I’m going to interpret this section a little differently than you might be used to. Again, if you’ve gone over this book of Job, this might sound a little bit odd to some. See, normally God’s words here are seen as a clear, you know, slam dunk rebuke and correction of Job. In other words, and see, and think about this, God seems to be taking the side of Job’s friends. Job, you don’t know what you’re talking about. Be quiet, all right? Which again, that’s very tough to square with 42:7 where God declares Job to be in the right, and his orthodox friends to be in the wrong. You know, reading God’s words here, which basically amount to how dare you question me, and reading that as the last word about Job just creates huge tensions with how the book itself concludes. Yes, okay, God is finally speaking, but the debate isn’t over, and that’s how I read this section. Job does not acquiesce; Job does not submit as many interpreters have said. Or, at least, it’s very ambiguous.
Okay, see, way back, setting this up a little bit. Way back in chapter thirteen, Job is so confident in his innocence that he challenges God to have his day in court. Right, Job says this in 13:18, he says, “I have indeed prepared my case, I know I will be vindicated.” He wants his day in court, and now he has it. And what is happening here in 38, God is coming to his own defense after being accused. And what we need to pay attention to here are two things: what God says in defense and how Job answers him. See, this whole thing is Job, he just, he wants to understand why all of this is happening to him. What does God say about that and does Job accept that response or does Job reject it? Right, let’s get into that. God’s response begins in 38:1, speaking to Job out of a whirlwind, you know, a storm meant to unsettle him, to put him in his place, something frightening, fearful. Now, here is what many of us, including myself, would’ve liked to hear from God. God speaks out of the whirlwind, he says, yes Job, you’re a champ, you did great. Sorry about the boils, I tried to make a point to ha-satan that, well, it’s complicated, but it just got out of hand. Of course, God doesn’t say that. Instead, God spends the next 72 verses talking about how he is the creator and who is Job to question him because he didn’t create the cosmos or make it snow and rain, or control the heavenly bodies, or make the animals. God, see, he really isn’t answering Job’s question, which is why am I suffering like this? My friends tell me it’s because I sinned. And you’re doing this to me, but I didn’t sin. So, why? God’s answer reminds me, you know, if I could put it this way, of teenagers, you know, asking their Dad, you know, what in the world did they do to get grounded? They have no idea! So, they ask their Dad and their Dad answers, do you go to work every day? Do you pay the bills? Do you keep the lights on? Were you there when I married your mother when we bought our first house? See, it seems like, I hope this isn’t like, too weird a way of putting it, but it really seems like God is filibustering, avoiding the question, which, you know, really does have a simple answer that perhaps God doesn’t want to give. That’s stuff that happened in the first two chapters.
See, chapter 40, moving along now, chapter 40:2, we see God’s last words of his first speech to Job, and this is what he says: “Shall I fault find or contend with the Almighty? Anyone who argues with God must respond.” In other words, again, how dare a puny human find fault with me. Job’s response is very short, it’s only two verses before God continues with his second speech, it’s only two verses that Job responds with. And he says, now listen to the words here, these are, you know, this makes sense in the sort of the normal way of reading Job. This is what Job says to God saying, yeah, are you gonna argue with me? You better respond, you better, you know, put your money where your mouth is. And Job says, see, “I am of small account. What shall I answer you? I lay my hand on my mouth, I have spoken once and will not answer. Twice, but will proceed no further.” Now, that sounds like Job is saying, you know, you’re right. I am a puny human. I need to stop talking. But the Hebrew here is somewhat ambiguous, and I think intentionally so. See, rather than caving in, Job might actually be holding his ground. See, when he says, “I lay my hand on my mouth,” that could mean I need to shut up in the face of your great power, or I’m still waiting for you to answer my question. See, like, the teenagers with their Dad, they might have responded, oh Dad, we’re so sorry to have opened our mouths and questioned you. Or, they might have said, you know, we’re just going to stop talking now because you’re not even addressing the question. And I think readers here are meant to ponder both options and see which one we identify with, that’s my hunch anyway. We see the same kind of ambiguity in God’s second speech, and Job’s response. See, in God’s second speech, he basically, he doubles down on the I am the creator and you’re not defense for another fifty-two verses, all the way to the end of chapter 41. See, think about this. Why does God need to double down if Job already caved in? See, maybe that other reading of the previous section that we just talked about, maybe that’s telling us something. Maybe he didn’t cave in and God needs to double down here.
Now, just as an aside, before we go further, I just feel like I need to mention this, bring this up, but you might be thinking that, at this point at least, that God is looking sort of foolish at this point, and I think that’s right. God looks not very god-like here, nor did God look god-like in the opening chapters when he made his bet. And accepting, and again, this is one of these crucial things for me, accepting how God is portrayed here in the book of Job rather than explaining it away might be crucial for understanding this book. Maybe the point of this book is not to give us an accurate portrait of God, maybe the point of this book is to portray bad theology, a bad view of God. Maybe the point of this book is to argue against God as transactional or petty or who makes cosmic bets with your life in the balance, a God who’s basically touchy and wants to silence your question. It’s against this God that Job holds his ground. And it is for holding his ground that Job is vindicated at the end. See, if we look to Job for information about what God is like, and if we just touch down on verses here and there and, you know, say the words of Job’s friends, or even here in God’s speeches, and if we don’t interrogate those passages in light of the whole, we may actually come away sounding like Job’s friends, and that’s not a good place to be. That’s a problem. And yet, that’s how I often hear Job explained. “You’re a sinful worm, do not question the mysteries of the sovereign God. Accept what happens as part of God’s plan for your life.” The problem is the book of Job, taken as a whole, contradicts that idea.
Okay, two more things I’d like to cover. One is Job’s final response. This is five verses long, and this is in 42:2-6. This closes out this whole poetic section right before the last narrative section. And then the second thing I want to just talk about briefly is the conclusion of the book, that narrative portion that may actually turn the whole book upside down. Fascinating ending as far as I’m concerned.
Okay, first, Job’s response to God here sounds, again, like he’s caving in. And when I say here, I mean in 42:2-6, his last words. It sounds like he’s caving in, like, he’s settling for God’s, like, non-answer, his filibuster answer. But see, here, just as in his last response, Job’s words are delightfully, I really think intentionally, ambiguous. You know, he begins, this is the first thing he says, he begins by saying “I know that you can do all things and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.” And readers who are tracking with the book of Job up to this point, you’re left asking yourself a question: is this a declaration of submission to God, or is it a little bit sarcastic, right? Is he saying,
[Pete using respectful, serious tone]
“I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted,” or is he saying,
[Pete using sarcastic tone]
“I knowww that you can do all things, that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.” “I knowww you go to work every day and pay the bills. I get that. But now, back to my question.”
Is he submissive or exasperated? Now, the next two verses, this is verses three and four, are Job repeating back to God the words that God and Elihu had earlier used to chide him. Now, the NRSV, and I’m sure other versions do this too, but they alert us that Job is quoting earlier parts of the book, and they do that by placing quotation marks around them. In other words, Job, by quoting these previous words back to God is saying, “here’s what I’ve been hearing from you.” Okay, well, why is he doing that? You know, why is he repeating back what God and Elihu said to him? And that brings us to the last two verses, verses five and six. Okay, verse five, here’s what it says: “I have heard of you by the hearing of the ear.” And that probably means I have heard of you by what my friends and Elihu have said, by their speeches. “I have heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you.” Right, this is God answering out of a whirlwind, he is in God’s immediate presence and he knows it, right? I’ve heard of you from others, but now I’m getting it straight from you. And again, that sounds like, boy, this clarifies everything, but maybe not, right? Verse six, “therefore, I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.” And this, again, I keep saying this, but it’s true, this is a tricky bit of Hebrew, wonderfully ambiguous. And see, here’s an alternate reading of verse six, not “therefore I despise myself,” but therefore I am disgusted. In other words, this is worse than I thought. You know, what a raw deal. And rather than “I repent in dust and ashes”, we could read that last part, I take pity on wretched humanity. Folks, hang with me here. Okay, this is, you know, we’re getting to the end here and there’s a lot of heady stuff going on. Just know that I’m not making any of this up. I’m inspired here, actually, by the study notes in what is one of my favorite study Bibles, the Jewish study Bible, where they’re not afraid to engage this text in this way instead of giving the same old, same old. See, the big question here at the end is whether Job is submitting to God’s mysterious sovereignty, right? Therefore, I despise myself and I repent in dust and ashes. Or, whether he is holding his ground and is exasperated with God. I have heard what you said, I have heard of you from my friends, and now I see you for myself. And you know what? I’m disgusted, and I take pity on wretched humanity. See, that changes the book doesn’t it? Job is holding his ground, he is not acquiescing, and that is why he is right as God says in 42:7.
Okay, let’s finish this up here. The prose narrative, this is the second thing I wanted to talk about, the prose narrative ending, it really raises all sorts of questions that I hear again and again from alert readers, and the big question has to do with how God restores Job. That’s the word that’s used, how God restores Job. And Job gets back, this is at least what is restored, Job gets back double his possessions and a fresh set of ten children. Now, side issue here, I never met a parent who has said, yeah, great ending. Everyone said, I really want the original ones back, I don’t want ten replacement kids, that’s not really justice. But, let me just suggest a way past all that and not to get fixated and stuck on that.
Remember that Job is not a historical book. It’s a story that a writer or editor uses to say something about God or the people of God, Israel. And, we can even think of Job as a parable, something not intended ever to be taken literally. Now, here’s where I’m going with this, years ago, a friend of mine, and a former colleague pointed out to me something just so interesting about verse ten specifically, never noticed this on my own. That verse reads, “the Lord,” Yahweh, “the Lord restored the fortunes of Job.” That Hebrew phrase literally means the Lord restored the fortunes of Job, the Lord “turned the captivity of Job.” I’ll let that sit there for a second, right? That means nothing. The Lord turned the captivity of Job. That means nothing until we see that the phrase is used elsewhere in the Bible, only, here we go, of the restoration of the people coming back from Babylonian exile. That’s, you can see this in Deuteronomy 30, the first couple of verses, and a few places in Jeremiah. Okay, so, hold that thought, the Lord turned the captivity of Job is like return from exile language.
Now, medieval Jewish interpreters also noticed that the book of Job describes Job using a lot of phrases that also appear in Isaiah 40 and following, which is that portion of Isaiah that is all about the, wait for it, return from exile. Hold that thought.
Also, Job is afflicted with boils, as we read, from the sole of his foot to the top of his head. In Deuteronomy 28, and this is a long list of curses against Israel that clearly culminates in the exile, if you want to see that you can see 28:47-57. There we read, this is in verse 35, we read, “the Lord will strike you, Israel, on the knees and on the legs with grievous boils of which you cannot be healed, from the sole of your foot to the crown of your head.” Hold that thought. Last one you’ve gotta hold here. We’re going to get four balls juggling up into the air here at the same time.
Last point: Job receives back double. That’s what we read in the narrative portion, Job receives back double, which sounds similar to Isaiah 40 where the promise of return from exile is announced. And if you know Handel’s Messiah, you might be familiar with this, but the exiled Jews have now served their penalty, their time of punishment is over, and we read there in Isaiah 40 that they have received from the Lord’s hand double for their sins. The exile was like, super punishment, they’ve gotten double what they deserve. The exile was punishment, twice what they deserved and Job, I can’t help but notice, gets back twice what he lost. Hmm.
Well, where is all this heading? Well, on at least one level, the book of Job may be a parable of something that does not come to mind right away when we read the book of Job, but it could be a parable of Israel in exile. Hmm. Job represents the people in exile, again, sort of like a parable, right? Job represents the people in exile, suffering, right, but who are restored at the end. Hmm. And the fact that Job is called God’s servant in a few places in Job might tie into the servant in Isaiah, again, this is starting in chapter 40 and following, but the servant in Isaiah, who likewise suffers the punishment of exile. And I’m thinking here particularly of the last time the servant figure is mentioned, this is in the end of chapter 52, chapter 53. This suffering servant, as he’s called in Isaiah, is not, I’m pretty convinced, although there is discussion about this just to be fair, but the servant in Isaiah who suffers is not a person, but a way of talking about the people in exile. Job tells that tale in the form of a story, right, that’s, Job is about the problem of exile and the return from exile on the double blessing. Job tells that tale in the form of the story. And just as the Israelites question God’s justice for exiling them to Babylon, like, Psalm 89 if you want to read that. Was that really necessary or fair to do that? Just like Israel questioned God about the exile, Job questions God throughout whether all this suffering was really justified.
Now, I find reading Job as a parable very inviting. It makes a lot of sense. Now, to be clear, I don’t think that’s the only way to read it. In fact, I think there’s more than one legitimate way to read the book of Job, it’s just this rich, diverse text. But seeing it as a parable of Israel in exile, I think changes entirely the question that the book is addressing. Again, not personal suffering, but perhaps national suffering. You know, I say this a lot, and I’ll say it here again, you know, we’re just scratching the surface here in the book of Job but I hope this has been helpful, if anything, to get you thinking about Job maybe a bit differently. And it’s definitely a literary and theological masterpiece that leaves few of us completely comfortable.
Pete: All right folks, well listen, thanks for listening, and I could go on, but I won’t. But before we go, just a shout out to our amazing team. I just want to mention them because, you know, without them none of this is possible. It’s Megan Cammack, our producer and also our community manager at Patreon; Dave Gerhart, our audio engineer who turns my mumbles into somewhat audible words; Reed Lively, who takes care of marketing and does tremendous administrative support; Tessa Stultz, our creative director; and Stephanie Speight, who is our faithful transcriber. Again, without them, none of this is possible. Folks, see ya next time, and thanks for listening.
Jared: Hey everyone, this is Jared and this is me shamelessly plugging and asking for your help as my first book comes out called Love Matters More, and it’s a message that I’m excited to share right now, especially. It’s about learning to love people well, even when we disagree about what’s true. It’s about loving more fully without worrying so much about whether or not we are believing the right things or believing the same things. It’s an exploration of my struggles with telling the truth in love and how I came to the conclusion at the end of the day, love matters more. So, go to https://www.jaredbyas.com/book/ and pick up a copy for pre-order. You can get a chapter of the book for free, as well as some other freebies. Again, https://www.jaredbyas.com/book/, thanks a bunch.
Pete: We see the same kind of ab-iguity. Gosh. Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers. Okay, let’s do this again.
Pete: A few brief, oh gosh. I’m getting tired, Dave. It’s been a long week. Okay, I’ll start again.
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