December 3, 2009
The book of Job came from a distinct theological worldview. To oversimplify it, if one does what is right, God will bless that person. If one does what is wrong, God will inflict suffering on him. Job suffered immeasurably. Therefore, Job must have sinned horribly.
Job’s friends along with the young critic Elihu insist on this theological worldview. Job, also a product of this worldview, cannot accept it. Whatever he may have done wrong, he knows the suffering imposed mercilessly upon him is not his fault. By insisting that what everyone has known to be true isn’t true, Job stumbles into a radical paradigm shift. It seems to him that God in fact does not punish the evildoers and reward the righteous. God is arbitrary and Job is suffering needlessly.
In the end, Job is vindicated. God does not agree with the numerous accusations Job hurled heavenward. God does not affirm what Job has said. God affirms that Job’s theological orientation was correct. Job remained pointed toward God. In that he wa sin the right. Furthermore, God does crush the presumption of the theology piously voiced by Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar.
And strangely, three are never heard from the final chapter. In Job 42, we see no mention of Satan. Elihu has nothing left to say and is not even so much as an afterthought. And, Job’s wife does not reappear. Curious.
Even more unexpected is the rush of characters we have not met to this point. Is it appropriate to be introducing new people, 41½ chapters into a 42-chapter book?
“All his brothers, sisters, and former acquaintances came to his house and dined with him in his house. They offered him sympathy and comfort concerning all the adversity the LORD had brought on him. Each one gave him a qesitah, and a gold earring” (42:11).
Where were the relatives when Job’s life fell to pieces? On the one hand, they didn’t judge him theologically the way his friends and Elihu did. Moreover, they didn’t discourage him the way his wife did. Nor did they doubt him as Satan had. On the other hand, they didn’t help him until now. The financial gifts (a qesitah is a monetary unit of unknown value) would secure his future. But why didn’t this extended family provide a defense against the onslaught of theological harangues from the three and young Elihu?
I think the reason is they couldn’t. These family and friend who obviously loved Job and had no heart to accuse him even if he had turned out to be in sin weren’t ready to question the theological assumptions that ruled their world. The theology of retribution (diving rewards for righteous behavior, divine damnation for sinful behavior) was the rule of faith. The book of Job was a minority voice, an alternative theological vision for the faith community circa 5th century BCE.
The paradigm shift is artistically displayed in the final lines where we learn that Job fathers 10 more children. Already this book has stepped way outside of what had been established and accepted lines. Already this book has declared that everything we assumed about God isn’t all there is to know about Him. God exceeds our knowledge and all of us – the criminal and the saint, the scholar and the barroom brawler, the street urchin and the king are small in God’s presence. That’s understating it. We are miniscule in God’s presence.
Still, God notices us and takes interest in us. And, God loves us (though it would be stretching credulity to claim that Job asserts God’s compassionate love for us). Reading Job alongside Song of Songs, we know God is a passionate lover. Reading both books alongside Genesis 1-2, we know humankind is the apple of God’s eye. Indirectly, Job 38-41 does affirm this.
The final step out of convention’s established walls comes in Job 42:14-15. Job’s three daughters are awarded an inheritance along with his seven sons. That did not happen in the ancient world. Furthermore, of Job’s 10 children, the only ones the narrator bothered to name were the daughters. There’s no reason given for not naming the sons. The final word is a whimsical, quizzical way of reminding the reader, if the message hasn’t already gotten through, question everything. Theological rules won’t contain God. Assumed truths cannot be trusted. To know God, one must commit to holiness (virtuous living) and fallback on prayer when holiness fails. And it is more important that the prayer be embarrassingly honest than properly orthodox. It is more important that prayer from the heart than from the rule book.
I believe that is the final word in Job.