Faith when the world makes no sense – the book of Job

Five readings from Job crop up in the Revised Common Lectionary’s continuous set of Sunday readings;1 one of these also occurs in the shared set of related readings. Most people will therefore only hear the one reading, part of God’s speech towards the end of the book. Either way it is not a lot of exposure to a long and provocative book, which wrestles with the perennial question of why there is evil in the world.

The Patient Job, by Gerard Seghers (17th century) courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

As it stands, after various editors have finished with it, the book consists of three long poetic sections, topped and tailed by a prose narrative. The prose sections both set up the story behind the scenes in the heavenly court, and tie the story up in a neat package at the end. Most readers end up feeling the opening and closing sections offer an explanation of Job’s sufferings which is far tidier and more simplistic than the poetry sections they sandwich. It’s all a test, and Job may lose his animals, his health and all ten of his children, but after the testing is over, God gives him double the number of animals, and another ten children to make up for it all.

By contrast the three poetic sections reject tidy explanations of suffering completely. In the first section Job has three friends who try to help him see that he needs to learn what God is teaching him: such punishments are not without reason. In the second, a bright young thing, called Elihu, thinks he can do better than these friends to justify God’s ways to humanity. It is, however, essentially a reprise: since God can never do wrong, Job must deserve what is inflicted on him.

Despite the saying: “the patience of Job”, he is much more an example of persistent faith, trying to hold doggedly to a belief in God through horrendous suffering, while refusing any easy answers to “the problem of pain”. Job holds questioning, righteous anger, self-pity and faith together, and wants a better answer to his predicament than anyone is offering. What he gets, instead of a philosophical answer, is an encounter with God.

The third section is where the reading used in the main lectionary comes from; God finally speaks, answering Job from a towering storm. And God is exceedingly sarcastic about it, taking up one thread of thought from the earlier speeches, and hammering the point home: who is Job to question God, the creature to quiz his creator? Without going over the top, anyone reading this passage does need to let that note of sarcasm into their tone.

The difference isn’t in the argument God offers, it is in the relationship. God addresses Job directly. The divine name is almost completely absent from the end of the prologue to this point; it is emphasised at the beginning of God’s speech. It is YHWH who gives Job the credit of needing a personal answer.2 That “answer” isn’t a philosophical solution to the problem of evil. It is instead a promise and assurance that God is God, and moreover, God is Job’s God despite all the suffering.

The reality of a personal relationship in place of a theory of religion is captured neatly in the New Jerusalem Bible’s rendering: “Before, I knew you only by hearsay but now, having seen you with my own eyes, I retract what I have said.” (Job 42:5-6 NJB) God answers Job, he doesn’t answer Job’s arguments.

There is, in the end, no sufficient or satisfactory theological or philosophical answer, in Job or anywhere else in the scriptures, to what is sometimes called “the problem of evil”. There is only the assurance that God is God, and particularly that God is God-with-people, even when the world doesn’t make sense. For Christians, this promise that God is God with us when the world makes no sense, is most plainly seen at Golgotha (Mk 15:34), when Jesus articulates in prayer to God the sense that God is absent. He speaks the universal lament of the victim of injustice, even as he completes a life of faithful obedience, obedience even to death on the cross (Phil 2:8).


Notes

  1. The continuous readings are Propers 21-25 in Year B. The related reading shared by all strands is for Year B, Proper 7, 12th Sunday in Ordinary Time. Anglicans also have a reading from Job on what the Common Worship calendar calls the Third Sunday before Advent (Year C), and an alternative Old Testament reading from Job on the feast of St Barnabas.
  2. This absence of the name YHWH (for more on this name, see this post) from the poetic sections, and its literary force in the concluding part where the Lord speaks seems so deliberate that it is tempting to think that the one exception, a mention of the name in 12:9, is an editorial mistake. Certainly, some old manuscript copyists, and the editor of the New Jerusalem Bible think so. In those versions, the divine name appears for the first time in the poetry sections at the beginning of chapter 38.

2 thoughts on “Faith when the world makes no sense – the book of Job

  1. Pingback: Biblical Studies Carnival #166: November 2019 – Theology Pathfinder

  2. Job figures extensively in my oratorio Unleashing Leviathan which I wrote this year based on the trope inferred by Suzanne Haïk-Vantoura.

    Have you read Susannah Ticciati on Job and the disruption of identity? I think her emphasis on the ‘referree’ has some explanatory power, if indeed explanation is sufficient.

    Liked by 1 person

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