THOUGHTS ON THE BOOK OF JOB
Perhaps the greatest philosophical and emotional challenge we encounter in our lives is that of misfortune.
We are affected by the death of a loved one. We are moved by the tribulations of others – a drought, a flood, a tsunami, a murder, a war.
Preachers and their followers attribute good fortune to the kind provision of God. God is not blamed for what goes wrong. It may be attributed to the evil doings of human beings. It may be connected with climate change.
A grave misfortune challenges the beliefs of the believer. Where is God in all this, one is inclined to ask. Some people lose their faith in the face of a disaster – God should not allow it to happen, they think.
The Book of Job in the Old Testament is probably one of the oldest writings that has come down to us which addresses this issue, and it does so very poignantly.
The story is well-known, and I do not wish to repeat it here.
The account has a prologue (Chapters 1 and 2) and an epilogue (Chapter 42:7-17). These may be additions. The prologue provides a cause for Job’s misfortunes: the Satan (the adversary) sets out to test Job’s faith, by destroying his goods, killing his children and inflicting disease upon him. The epilogue provides for the restoration of Job to something like his former state.
Moreover, there may be further additions: Chapter 28 is a self-contained poem about the value of wisdom, above all else, and where it is to be found; in Chapter 32 a fourth friend, Elihu, appears, without introduction.
It is clear that Job does not deserve his misfortunes. It is also clear that the three “comforters” are misguided insofar as they tell him that he must have done something wrong. Job does not accept this. In the face of his adversity, he does not turn away from God, but he does give expression to his distress, his feelings of separation from God, his rejection by his friends and relatives, and his search for an explanation.
At the end, God speaks to Job. He does not give him a simple explanation. God gives Job an awesome account of his powers and his responsibilities. He is very much God as Creator. God tells Job that he does not understand His purposes. Job humbly accepts that God possesses a much greater store of knowledge than he himself does.
The poetry of the book is magnificent – especially the speeches of God at the end. It repays reading at length; short extracts do not do justice to it.
Job says (30:29-31):
“The wolf is now my brother,
The desert-owls have become my companions.
My blackened skin peels off,
And my body is scorched by the heat.
My lyre has been tuned for a dirge,
My flute to the sound of weeping.”
[Revised English Bible]
God says to Job (38:2-7):
“Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundations?
Tell me, if you know and understand.
Who fixed its dimensions? Surely you know!
Who stretched his measuring-line over it?
On what do its supporting pillars rest?
Who set its corner-stone in place,
While the morning stars sang in chorus
And the sons of God all shouted for joy?”
Job’s final speech of acceptance of God’s will (42:2-6) is short, indeed perfunctory:
“I know that you can do all things
And that no purpose is beyond you.
But I have spoken of things which I have not understood,
Things too wonderful for me to know….
I knew of you then only by report,
But now I see you with my own eyes.
Therefore I yield, repenting in dust and ashes.”
The problem of sudden, undeserved misfortune is posed, rather than solved. Moreover, God remains a stern, remote figure, with whom it is difficult to communicate: this is not a comfortable concept.
Perhaps we should accept that the story is a tragedy. It is moving. It reflects real life situations. In our age we shall probably not expect God to intervene and to avert or ameliorate tragedies. (Perhaps this is our own task.)
This does not fit in with a simple form of religion that thanks God for the good but diverts blame away from Him for the bad.
Job has features in common with Greek philosophy and Greek tragedy. It portrays real problems. It does not supply easy answers.
One of the aspects of tragedy is that it is not consistent with an easy-going, optimistic outlook on the position of ‘man’ in the world.
Traditional Christianity offers the doctrines of the incarnation, the atonement, salvation, and the prospect of an after-life.
Tragedy takes us away from this. Comedy tends to do so too. There are ambiguities in drama. Ambiguity, humour and irony are not consistent with religious beliefs that supply all the “answers” and do not admit doubt.
Over the centuries, we have discovered that we still need drama; and we have to face up to tragedy both in real life and in fiction, where it is crystallised.