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Job–Part 3

November 14, 2016

In chapters 38-41 God answers Job “out of the whirlwind.” Then comes Job’s response in 42:1-6. This is the climax of the book. But what does Job’s response mean?

In 42:2 Job acknowledges the power and sovereignty of God. In the preceding chapters God has presented the wonders of creation–all created, cared for, and overseen by God. Job goes beyond an intellectual acceptance of who God is to an existential experience of who God is. In verse 3 he then acknowledges that his protest against God’s justice was based on too limited of a perspective. He now sees that the mysteries of existence, and the wonderfulness of all God oversees, is far more than he ever realized.

Verse 5 can be translated and understood two different ways. The NRSV translates it as: “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you.” The NRSV understands Job to be contrasting hearing about God with seeing God. There is an essential difference between learning about God from others, and having our own experience of God. Hearing about God is a didactic, second-hand experience; but “seeing” God is an intuitive, relational experience. Hearing about God makes God into an object we learn about; but seeing God means we experience God’s love and feel gratitude for the gift of existence.

But it may be that verse 5 is not meant to be a contrast between hearing and seeing. Another way to translate the verse is without the “but.” It may be that Job’s “hearing” God’s speech leads Job to “seeing” God. Hearing becomes seeing. After all, Job does not literally “see” God; rather, he hears the Word of God, and through this he experiences an immediacy and relationship with God that is a kind of seeing. This is also what happens with each of us. None of us is ever going to see God during our lifetimes; but by encountering God’s Word (through the Bible, through the worshiping community, through intuition, through the Spirit) we may indeed have an experience or relationship that is like “seeing” God.

Verse 6 is even harder to translate and understand. English translations make it seem clear, but the original Hebrew is highly ambiguous–probably purposely so. Verse 6 could be translated in the following ways: 1) “therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes”; 2) “therefore I retract my words and repent in dust and ashes”; 3) “therefore I retract my words and change my mind about sitting in dust and ashes” [in other words, I will stop protesting and grieving]; 4) “therefore I retract my words and accept dust and ashes” [in other words, I accept the human condition of suffering]; 5) “therefore I despise and reject dust and ashes” [in other words, I reject standard religion].

I think #2 or #3 are the most likely meanings intended by the author. Job is either fully repenting and humbling himself, or he is letting go of his anger and grief.

But the most important question is: why? What has changed Job’s mind or spirit? What is it that God said in that speech that has made such an impression on Job? We don’t know. The story does not say. Each of us is meant to read God’s speech and find our own acceptance of the human condition. God does not answer the question of why there is innocent suffering or how it can be justified; rather, God assures Job that a nurturing God is behind all of reality–even the chaos. It cannot be explained or justified in human terms; it just is.

Beginning in 42:7 the story now makes a giant shift. We are back in the prose story of chapters 2 and 3. The storyteller now wants to tie up all the loose ends and give us a happy ending. Verse 7 is particularly jolting since God asserts that Job’s friends have not spoken what is right–but Job has! How could Job have “spoken of me what is right” when God blasted Job in 38:2 with the words: “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?” How can Job’s words be both ignorant and right?

Many commentators see an impossible contradiction here based on poor editing by the author. I don’t think so; I think the author knew exactly what he was doing. The story wants to assert that Job’s protest against God is both ignorant and right at the same time! Job rightly cares about justice and demands that God be just. We see exactly this same concern in Genesis 18 where Abraham argues with God about what is just. In that story, as well as here in this story, we are being told that justice is an essential quality of God, and when humans pursue justice and demand justice they are “speaking of God what is right.” Job may not be able to see the big picture, but his claim of innocence and concern for God doing what is just are perfectly correct.

And so in an ironic twist in verse 8, it is Job’s prayers that will bring forgiveness to his supposedly pious friends. “Pat” religion is rejected; questioning faith is exalted as the only true faith.

In the conclusion of the story, God restores the fortunes of Job with even greater wealth and a larger family and a longer life. Many readers do not like this ending. It is too pat; too happy; and it falsely assumes that the death of one’s children can be made up for with new children. But I would suggest that the story’s ending is not meant to be taken as a literal restoration of fortune; rather, it is a metaphor for our ultimate wholeness and healing in God’s ultimate reign. In other words, the last paragraph is the coming of the kingdom of God.

Job does what Cain did not do–hold on to the grace of God even in the face of life’s unfairness. Job ultimately worships God rather than lashing out with murder. Job is also a Christ-figure. He suffers unjustly. But he sees God and ultimately puts his trust in God. The result is that death and tragedy and meaninglessness are not the end; the result is resurrection, a re-creation, the fulfillment of God’s creation.

Those who reject the last paragraph are, in a sense, rejecting the hope of the Bible. The ending will be greater than we can imagine. Trust in God’s goodness despite anything that happens. Love God, even if it seems to be “for nothing.” Indeed, our love for God must be for nothing or it is not love. It is only when we lose our lives for God’s sake that we gain our lives.

[This blog will resume on Monday, November 28th, 2016]

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