Job – touching the void

This item was posted a while ago, on 21 July 2014.

David Rowe considers how we can continue to engage in faith and in dialogue, including lament, even when things go wrong.

Philip Roth’s tragic novel, American Pastoral follows the exploits of someone who lives the American Dream through high school and college and into adult life. He becomes a star athlete, marries Miss New Jersey, takes over his father’s business, and settles in Old Rimrock, New Jersey. But his American Dream turns into a nightmare. His daughter unexpectedly leaves home and joins a terrorist group. She commits an act of terrorism which leaves one person dead and then becomes a fugitive. Much of the novel tracks the father’s desperate search for the daughter he loves and his hopeless attempt at trying to make any sense of what has happened. ‘He had learned the worst lesson that life can teach — that it makes no sense. And when that happens the happiness is never spontaneous again.’

The book of Job Philip Roth’s book is in many ways a modern day version of the story of Job. Job passes from a cosy and comfortable environment, the domesticated vision in the early chapters, into his own nightmare. The best way to describe the Job story is that you are standing in a beautiful church with a stunningly arranged and ordered stained glass window. Moments later the window implodes and there are fragments of glass everywhere. You are standing in the middle of an inexplicable tragedy.

The story is stylised and feels much more like a play or script rather than history. The narrative starts with a heavenly council debating the underpinning principles of the moral structure of the universe. Job is highlighted as a model example of goodness. The question is raised: ‘Suppose Job only believes because he has a sheltered life; because God is protecting him?’ That protection is removed. Job’s life becomes like shattered fragments around him. Job’s three friends show up and for a while they do the right thing. They keep their mouths shut. Eventually, they venture to offer advice. Although Job’s friends try to help, they effectively become Job’s adversaries accusing him of misdemeanours that would provoke God’s anger towards him. Job finds himself alienated from his friends. Suffering is made all the worse for being alone. The turbulence in the dialogue seems to go on for ever and doesn’t always make sense to us … perhaps because we find ourselves sometimes agreeing with Job’s friends?

The story addresses big questions that are underpinning and foundational. Will Job continue to believe – even when things go wrong? Is this a cosy, neatly fitting universe with comfortable moral formulas? Perhaps one of the purposes of the book is to challenge, at deep levels, our assumed mindset. It may be that the book of Job is trying to make sense of the Exile – perhaps it has been reinterpreted to do so. The Israelites were trying to come to terms with the destruction of everything that they held dear; the disintegration of their society, their families, and their faith story. Job offers a counter narrative to five neatly packaged formulas, or mindsets about the world. They can be summed up as follows:

‘God’s arena for work is in the religious section of life – and particularly in the Temple.’ In Israel’s life there was an evident dependency on religious props. Being the chosen nation, having the promised land, the sacred city, and the Holy Temple – housing God’s presence – meant that they were secure. How could Israel ever fall? But she did fall and the people were exiled. How can they retain any faith in God when all those props are destroyed. Does this mean that God does not exist – or that he has rejected them? In Job 38:4-7 Temple imagery is used (foundation, cornerstone, measurements, and a choir). That language is relocated to God’s dealings in the universe. The walls are pushed out! One is reminded of Ezekiel’s great vision of God by the River Chebar, in a foreign land – indicating that God can be encountered anywhere. In Job’s creation account – the arena in which God’s power and glory are revealed is in the cosmos rather than restricted to a ‘holy building.’ We are being encouraged to see God at work throughout his creation and not just in ‘religious’ places.

‘Do what is right and you will be blessed and rewarded – behave badly and things will go wrong for you.’ The Prophets address the problem of Israel’s exile by pointing out that Israel was not fulfilling her part of the covenant. There was too much presumption and not enough obedience and faithfulness to that covenant. But there is a difference between a neglecting and unfaithful nation or individual, and a person that is seriously trying to follow God’s ways and yet somehow encounters silence.

We as Christians can often paralyse ourselves with guilt, especially as we often hear the ‘sin formula’ preached in our churches … It can become too neat a formula and a difficult and paralysing mindset to break. Job’s three friends are stuck in this mindset. Eliphaz even believes he has had a vision about it. Bildad has it packaged in doctrinal orthodoxy.

(We find a New Testament illustration of this mindset in John 9:2 when the disciples are trying to work out why a man is blind). Job begins to challenge that view because of his own pain, and his own conviction that he has not done anything wrong. We know that Job is not suffering because of sin but because of the debate in the Council. Job is commended by God at the start and at the end of the story. Just because someone is having a tough time does not mean they have done anything wrong!

l ‘God controls everything down to the last detail and you are safe!’ The devastating consequences of this assumption are that if things go wrong then God must have specifically intended it. So, from the Book of Job, how can we best understand God’s dealings with humans and with his creation?

There is a fascinating use of the Hebrew term ‘yasek’ meaning ‘Fenced in’ which is used three times in Job. First, it is used by ‘the accuser/prosecutor’ who asks ‘Could it be that you have “fenced” Job in so no harm can come to him and therefore he believes?’ (Job 1:10) meaning that if you take the protective wall from around him he will no longer trust you.

Secondly, it is used by Job who accuses God of ‘fencing him in’ in such a way that he cannot be free or do anything meaningful – God restricts him to a chaotic life. (Job 3:23). However, God also uses the term pointing out that, ‘The only thing I have “fenced in” is the sea.’ (Job 38:8). The sea is an ancient symbol of chaos, yet it is given a place in God’s creation as is Leviathan – but limitations are set. The forces of chaos are not allowed free course over the world. These boundaries, however, do not exclude all things wild and dangerous. ‘Images of wildness and strangeness are present, including the wild seas, wild animals, wild weather (rain, hail, ice, snow, lightning), the uncertainties of the night, and Behemoth and Leviathan … For all the worlds order and coherence, it doesn’t run like a machine; a certain randomness, ambiguity, unpredictability, and play characterise its complex life.’ (Terence Fretheim). In this view of creation, the world is not a ‘safe’ place for human beings, but it is not out of control. It reminds me of that great conversation between the children and the beavers in C.S.Lewis’ ‘The Lion the Witch and The Wardrobe’ where the children ask, after hearing that Aslan is a lion, ‘Is he safe?’ The beavers snort ‘Safe? … Who said anything about safe? ’Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good.’ Is creation tame? Is life tame? Not according to Job 38–39 where we see light and darkness, snow and hail, planets and constellations, wild goats, cliffs, crags, hawks, stormy weather, and the sea! But it does have outer limits … it is fenced in … God says ‘Thus far you may go and no further.’

l ‘If you are spiritual you ought to be able to see God at work – even in the midst of suffering’. Elihu is young and close to the truth perhaps, but he is often interpreted as arrogant and bombastic … ‘God meant it to be this way!’ … hardly helpful. There is much that is good in Elihu’s speeches that follow Job’s three ‘comforters’ (nevertheless God does have to take over!) Elihu seems to think that if you are spiritual enough you will (always?) see God’s hand in anything, even your suffering.

Yet God remains hidden to Job whom God has, and will, commend. In Job 9:11, Job says ‘Look, he passes by me, and I do not see him; he moves on, but I do not perceive him.’ Job cannot see God, cannot perceive him and does not know what God is doing. Job asks two things of God, that God would withhold his terror and remove his oppressive hand; but God does not answer, prompting Job to cry out: ‘Why do you hide your face, and count me as your enemy?’ In chapter 21, Job asks why the wicked prosper and get away with things. And then says ‘How then will you comfort me with nothings?’ In chapter 23, with a play on Psalm 139, he maintains that God still remains hidden to him and wherever he turns God is not there. ‘He hides, and I cannot see him.’ v9. There are times when nothing seems clear in our journey and that is not unusual or abnormal.

l ‘Humans are “nothing” compared to God so you might as well just accept it and surrender.’ In chapter 25, Bildad points out that humans are nothing more than a ‘maggot’ or a ‘worm’. Job also seems to believe this when he states in 30:19 that he has become ‘dust and ashes’. Most of us have a similar mindset and we find ourselves embarrassed by Job’s outbursts and his challenges and his affront to God. Surely Job’s aggressive language to and about God is inappropriate towards the creator and king of the universe! When we get to chapter 38 God shows up, seems to confirm this view, and then Job repents in 42:1–6.

But is this really what happens? Whenever we read text it is so hard to gain a sense of meaning without the tone of voice or the body language. We start to impose our own interpretation onto the dialogue. There are a number of things that challenge the traditional interpretation of God’s visit and Job’s response. We know that God commends Job at the start and at the end of the story. We know that God visits Job in the whirlwind. Is this because God is fed up with Job and needs to teach him a lesson, or is it because God values Job and wants to stand alongside him? I am reminded of Revelation 4 when the angel visits with John on Patmos and he is given a heavenly vision.

Finally, does Job repent of dust and ashes? I am told the Hebrew collocation ‘nihamti al’ is more properly translated “repent concerning dust and ashes’. A more precise translation would also replace ‘repent’ for ‘change my mind’. The phrase for ‘dust and ashes’, ‘apar waeper’ occurs only three times in the Old Testament. (Gen 18:27; Job 30:19; and in this text in Job 42:6). Could it be that in 30:19 Job believes that he is nothing but dust and ashes, but by 42:6 he has changed his mind? Certainly, taking a much broader view of God’s attitude to humans, particularly in the light of the incarnation and the cross, we see God valuing humans with God’s own life.

Perhaps the theologian Jurgen Moltman is right when he says, ‘The temptation today is not so much that human beings want to play God. It is much more that they no longer have confidence in the humanity which God expects of them.’

Whatever we remember about the Book of Job, the abiding image is of God and Job standing together reflecting on the wildness and greatness of God’s creation and God asking Job to pray for the comforters who got things so wrong. There are still many unanswered questions, but perhaps that is the way of things. The challenge is to continue to engage with God in faith and in dialogue (including lament) even when things go wrong. Never give in … never! David Rowe