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Monday, October 19, 2009

The Whirlwind

In a recent discussion group, we all agreed that the book of Job is “thick.” I think by this we mean that there is deep theology, deeper than it first appears. The theology in Job is layered. What most casual Bible readers remember about the book is that Satan is permitted to do horrible things to Job (take Job’s property and wealth, kill Job’s children, and then destroy Job’s health). God permit’s Satan to do these things in order to show that Job will remain faithful. Then, in the end of the book Job is vindicated and the three friends who accused him of sinning are condemned and they are only forgiven when Job prays for them. This is the snapshot that most people I talk have of Job.

At a slightly deeper level, but still near the surface, people who have suffered greatly read Job as a source of hope and rationality. They see in Job an innocent sufferer and they hope his perspective on his unexplained woes will give them perspective. They hear Job say in 1:21: “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return there; the Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” Then in chapter’s 3-31, they hear Job wish for death, accuse God, hope for a redeemer, hint at the hope of resurrection, and mournfully lament what once was.

As readers of Job move beyond the clichéd “patience of Job” and deal with all the emotions of the dialogues, and as readers consider the theology of Job’s friends, and as readers consider the theology of the young man, Elihu, who speaks in chapters 32-37, it becomes clear why a discussion group would describe Job as “thick.” The layers of ideas seem unending. Tracing one thread of thought unearths a dozen more. Choose your theme – resurrection, justice, theophany, suffering, retributive theology, nonconformist theology, substitutionary redemption – it’s all in Job. And what makes it even more dense is our tendency (appropriate, I think) to read Job influenced by our own experiences of suffering and justice and conformist and nonconformist theologies. So, we aren’t just dealing with Satan and God, Job and his friends, and wisdom and Elihu. We’re also dealing with what our own experiences tell us about the issues raised by Job, God, and the rest.

One could read Job for years and not get to all the ideas and discussions this brilliant piece of literature has birthed. That said, I recommend reading Job in anticipation that you will actually hear God speak. It has been hard for me to do this because I have been blogging on Job, leading small groups on Job, and writing newsletters columns on Job. What helped was doing my daily Bible reading and reflective journaling through Job, one chapter at a time. I was unprepared for what hit me.

On the 38th day of this practice, I turned to Job 38 and read “Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind: Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?” The crescendo blew me away! I instantly realized that I was not hearing the empty platitudes of the three friends or the puffed up arrogance of young Elihu. This was not the bitterness of Job’s wife, or the sinister deception of the Satan. This was not the schizophrenic rambling of the chaos of Job’s agony, nor the glimpses of hope inside of Job fighting to keep him sane. This was not even Sophia, the simple but unshakable wisdom of Job 28. This was whirlwind – something wholly other.

I thought, OK, it’s time to do my daily Bible reading. For me though, there was nothing routine about it. God asks Job, “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me if you have understanding” (38:4b). From that point, I feel a sense of who God is. Reading in this way is not a critical, scholarly approach and does not account for the questions raised by good critical scholarship. Those questions are helpful and necessary, but they are secondary. This sense of the God of creation shows that all human wisdom is secondary. The density of the dialogues and ideas that flow without end but with much repetition throughout Job are important, but also are secondary. At the heart of the matter, God matters.

It is beneficial to study in depth the specifics of the whirlwind speeches, but at the outset, it is sufficient to note that God’s answer to Job “out of the whirlwind” puts the rest of the book of Job in perspective. God has noticed Job and heard Job, but God is still God. God notices you and me and God loves us, but God is wholly other, supreme beyond measure, and worthy of worship. That’s what we see in the whirlwind speeches and we see it right from the start in Job 38.

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