Virginia Woolf, in a letter to Lady Robert Cecil- dated 12 November 1922 – wrote: “I read the book of Job last night. I don’t think God comes through well out of it.”
Was she right? Did God goof?
We all know about Job, who is, perhaps, the Bible’s best known character, after Jesus. He is famous for his afflictions and his patience, a man fabulously rich, who suddenly lost all his wealth, his children and in a violent argument with his wife was told to curse God and die.
We may also remember how three men, come from afar, visited him in his misery, joined later by a younger visitor and how these fellows made long speeches, to which Job replied. How finally God spoke up, vindicated Job, rebuked the four friends and Job received twice as much wealth back as well as his family.
For some reason Job is a favorite with poets and philosophers but not with preachers. Although I am neither, it’s also my bible book of choice.
I don’t know why Virginia Woolf got turned off by God in this book. Perhaps it had something to do with his encounter with that mysterious figure called the Satan, who, out of the blue, appears in heaven and when God asks him, “what are you doing here?” says, “Oh, I was going out for a stroll, saw the door open and decided to say hello.” And then curiously, as if it were a commonday matter, the Lord says, somewhat flippingly may be, to the Satan, “Say, you get around. In your wanderings have you noticed Job out there in the land of Uz? I tell you, no better person anywhere in the whole world.”
“No wonder,” replies the Satan: “look, you have given him special protection and have favoured him above everyone else. I bet you that if somebody were to ruin him financially and kill off his immediate family, he’ll curse you to the face.”
The Lord says, ” Allright. It’s a deal. He is in your power. Don’t touch his body, though.”
And so it happens. Job loses everything and has no clue about the wager God made with the Accuser. Now, what is at play here?
I’ll offer two complementary options. Let me begin with the more literally explanation, the more conventional, and a look at Job’s religious background, the ruling philosophy of his day.
Job believed, with all people then and many today, that being rich in possessions was a sign of piety. And evidently the Satan is of that same opinion because he figures that, as soon as Job would lose his personal and material treasures, he would deny God.
However, even though Job is reduced to utter poverty, his faith remains steadfast, evident from his famous words: “Naked came I from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return thither. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.”
Quite the statement. Just imagine that we, you, I, in one day, see our immediate family killed in a car accident, a drunken driver being the cause; then lightning strikes, our house burns up and we have forgotten to renew the insurance; next, due to a market crash, our portfolio is wiped out, our job disappears, and all we have left are the clothes on our body. What would our reaction be? Like Job? Not likely.
And that is only the beginning. Again a mysterious Satan visit. Again God gives him permission, this time to affect his health. So Job becomes an AIDS sufferer, quarantined, placed in isolation, somewhere in nowhere. There his wife approaches him and angrily shouts, “Do you still cling to your pious ways? They are no use to you now. Curse God, if he exists and then die like a man!” But Job remains unperturbed: “Shall we accept the good from associating with the God, and the evil not accept?”
Job manly refutes her words, but the real agony starts when his close friends arrive.
Of course the big news about Job’s misfortune had spread rapidly through the land ( imagine Bill Gates gone broke!), and three friends from far away heard it too and made ready to pay him a visit. Weeks must have passed for this to happen. They often had been Job’s guests at his lavish banquets where they had enjoyed vigourous but agreeable discussions ranging far afield. When they see Job in the distance, sitting on a small hill, they stop, sit down and look at him for 7 days and 7 nights, without saying a single word.
Job too remains quiet, even though his mind is in overdrive. Somehow their body language reveals to him their thinking before they even utter one word. And as they sit there and he sits there, he gets madder and madder, because he is utterly at a loss. Job tries to fathom why he is suffering so much. Somehow he could bear it as long as nobody sees him. But now he has become a public spectacle. Continuously his mind revolves around the basic question: “God is doing this to me. No, God can’t do this to me. Yes, it is God. No, it isn’t.” He is going crazy. His mind, already weakened by his sickness, cannot think straight anymore.
Of one thing he is sure: he already knows what these three are going to tell him. A long time ago – at least it seemed a long time ago – when they talked, often till deep in the night, they agreed, God’s favour is reflected in a multitude of offspring and material blessings. And, of course, the opposite is true as well: personal calamity spells sin: the greater the punishment, the more serious the crime against God.
Then he had thought like them. Not anymore. What is happening to him has not happened because he has sinned. No. No. With all his power in his weakened body he now denies this theory. And yet, he still does not know the alternative, he just can’t grasp why God is treating him this way.
As his friends sit there for what seemed like an eternity, silently and disapprovingly staring at him, it dawns on Job that they are his friends no longer, because people who do not understand your deep-seated anguish, are friends no more.
Suddenly his mind snaps, his patience gone. Who ever said that Job was long-suffering, had it all wrong. He burst out in a fit of total anger: anger at himself, anger at his own uncertainty, anger at his friends for their cold orthodoxy, their Calvinistic certainty, anger at God for whatever. And he burst out:
“God curse the day I was born and the night that forced me from the womb”
The entire third chapter is one long condemnation. Job: “Why couldn’t I have died as they pulled me out of the dark. Now I would be at rest, I would be sound asleep.”
His outburst opens a flood. First Eliphaz. Not a word of pity. Only more hammerblows: “These words will perhaps upset you” so he starts optimistically. “Once you brought relief to the comfortless, but now, when disaster comes to you, you rebel. Tell me, whoever perished, being innocent?”
That’s how the first friend starts: Pious words. Cruel words. Conventional words. This fellow knows exactly what God thinks or does.
But Job does not buy his line. No longer. In Chapter 7 he challenges God and demands an impartial judgement. Job knows that in his particular case, even though God has caused him all this misery, only God can be the true judge. So it is no wonder that Job screams at God, “Why have you made me your target? How come that I am in this miserable condition?” Here Job plays an dangerous game. He thinks, correctly in my opinion, that he can honour God only through fighting with God. That’s a new angle: Praise God through battling with him. Arguing with God about what has happened to us. Not just meekly say: “OK God, I take what you give me.” No, Job is different.
And then comes the next speaker: Bildad. Of the same stripe as Eliphaz, only more so. Even less honourable. He makes a snotty remark how Job’s kids were spoiled brats. Says he “Your children must have been evil: he punished them for their crimes.” In his further remarks he shows that he actually is afraid that whatever happened to Job might happen to him as well. His insecurity is best portrayed by his vision of God. He tells Job: “listen, this is what God wants, because God never betrays the innocent.” To Bildad too God is an open book. For him no reserve, no real fear of the hidden God. To Job God is a mystery. God is THE mystery. That is His essence. After all, a god we can understand is no god. Virginia Woolf may say that God goofed it in Job’s case, but that may have been too hasty a verdict.
An essential point of the book of Job is the relationship between God’s revelation on the one hand and God’s hiddenness on the other. The paradox Christians and agnostics alike face is how God can reveal Himself when He is Hidden, when He is the Totally Incomprehensible One, Mystery Incorporated. Job, before his ordeal, had a clear picture of God: if he behaved properly, God would bless him. Simple. An article in TIME on the Mormons said unashamedly that “material achievement in the USA remains the earthly manifestation of virtue.” To Job that idea has been shattered. His earlier notions about God have been found wanting. With Bildad and his companions their concepts about God have become their God. For them there are no divine secrets and no sudden surprises, no mysteries. They know exactly what God has in mind for Job and so their awe for God has disappeared and their socalled piety has become a form of godlessness.
We see this a lot in orthodox religion, where the law is more important than love. The friends are the typical, judgemental orthodox believers, be they Christians, Muslims or Jews who sense exactly why Job is in this state: it is God’s punishment. Period. True, when Job was rich and healthy, his friends valued his opinion, but not anymore. Now something has changed and it is not they. It’s Job. His suffering has made him a different person. Now the God Job relies on is a totally different God. Who is right? Job honoring a mysterious, unknowable God or his companions who revere a God about whom they know everything? Eliphaz bluntly tells Job in Chapter 15: “Job, you are undermining religion and crippling faith in God.” Buddy Bildad dooms him to hell in Chapter 18: “Brimstone will be strewn on your household.” But Job stubbornly clings to his faith when he says in Chapter 19:25: “I know that my Redeemer is alive and that in the end He will stand upon the earth. He will plead for me in God’s court; he would stand up and vindicate my name.”
Amazing words. Unbelievable what suffering can do to people. It can totally change them. The Satan had not counted on this sort of conversion, a conversion brought about by the suffering God inflicted upon Job. He had figured that Job’s theology would be stagnant, a theology teaching that religion never is for nothing. I once heard a radio preacher say that the road to prosperity is simple: “start everyday with prayer, go to church, tithe, of course give to his radio or television program and read the bible.”
The Satan wanted to score a fast one with God, and prove once and for all that Job would deny God as soon as he had become a welfare bum. But he failed in Job, because this sort of tit for tat is the theology of the devil.
Job’s story tells us that there are no immediate rewards to religion, and by this I don’t mean that being religious does not benefit people now. It does. Religion, any living and evolving religion, gives people, in general, a moral focus, stability, security and a purpose in life.
Suffering teaches us wisdom. Faith finds expression in wisdom and in Chapter 28 we see the continuation of Job’s conversion, because conversion is always a slow process, just as acquiring wisdom is. Here Job confesses his basic ignorance. He, who once was a real very rich, now confesses that being well-off can hinder the development of wisdom, something we, prosperous Westerners, forget at our peril. In his suffering Job’s conclusion is wonderful: “Behold, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom, and to shun evil, that is understanding.”
After all these torrents of words, silence. “What next?” these former friends wonder.
Then the Lord spoke to Job out of a whirlwind. God Himself answers Job personally. The Hidden One remains hidden, but not completely. God addresses Himself to the one person who has asked constantly “Why”. The other four men knew the answers, gave the pious platitudes, were comfortable, and avoided the touchy issues. Job, who had suffered, and wondered why, to him God directed himself.
The curious thing about the Lord’s sayings is that they all come as questions. “Where were you when I founded the earth? Who determined its measurements – if you know? Do you know the seasons of the mountain-goats? Have you marked the calving of the deer? “Do you give the horse its strength” Do you cloth his neck with thunder? Do you understand the sea and can you grasp from where all these waters come and what purpose they serve? Have the portals of Death been rolled back for you?”
Now it dawns on Job that his suffering, which he had made the central point of the universe, is nothing compared to God’s greatness, to his over-arching wisdom. While God hurls these questions at Job, a strange peace descends on him. He starts to realize that part of the secret of salvation is that God does things just for the sake of doing things. He now starts to see that all of life is a miracle which needs neither a reason nor a cause but no other ground than God’s creative act, no other purpose than His own glorification, in which salvation is included.
His suffering has sharpened his thinking and he discovers to his amazement that in and above all other useful, moral, beautiful goals, rises the one great given that God be known , be lived, be confessed, and believed as the only Godly being. His Essence is nothing else but to live and to give life. Period.
God’s aim for humans is to have all people participate in His fullness. We, humans, are not the only focal point. We are not the totality of creation, although we often think so. John 3:16 explicitly says: God so loved the world, the cosmos that He sent His son. In the world we ask for reasons, but when ask for a reason for the world there is only one answer: the answer is that the pivot of life is God and God alone. We may think that we are powerful with our tools and brains. We are not. Says one of the greatest brains in science, John Wheeler of Princeton, in a book called The End of Science: “As the tiny island of our knowledge grows, so does the great shore of our ignorance.” We, at the height of our scientific powers, are discovering that the more we know, the more we discover we don’t know. The real Answer, the key to the Universe is now as elusive as ever and more and more scientists are admitting that. What God wants Job to understand is that God is infinite in His creative powers, Infinite in the beauty of creation, Infinite in the design of His work of Art. God wants Job to marvel at His ingenuity. He wants Job to be astounded by the revival of nature in the spring, by the multitude of flowers which adorn the landscape, by the erratic flight of the swallows, the steaming heat of the summer, the almost plaintive sounds of autumn, the stark dignity of the winter landscape. He wants Job to affirm that his first duty in life is the enjoy God forever, and this pleasant duty starts with marvelling at his creation.
When God is finished, all Job can do is exclaim in utter surrender in Chapter 40: “How can I reply to you? I lay my hand on my mouth. Once I have spoken, but I cannot answer; even twice , but I can no more.” His conversion is affirmed when he confesses in chapter 42:
“I know you can do all things and nothing you wish is impossible.
Who is this whose ignorant words cover my designs with darkness?
I have spoken of the unspeakable and tried to grasp the infinite.
Listen and I will speak. I will question you: please, instruct me.
I heard of you with my ears; but now my eyes have seen you.
Therefore I will be quiet, comforted that I am dust.”
Job did not find a solution for his questions, but he did find deliverance from his questions. Job never saw God but his new-found comfort was that God saw him, because Job came to Him with questions: “Why did you do this, Lord? Why did that happen to me, Lord?”
The meaning of the book of Job is not that Job could solve the problem of his suffering in his life or that we can solve the pain and injustice in our lives. One of the basic truths of the book of Job is that we must not take generally accepted truths for granted but that the most basic ideas about God and religion have to be probed and questioned without ceasing. We never arrive; we never can say: we know enough. As long as we live we have to keep up our search for Truth, and we joyfully must accept this. As long as we live we must, relaxed and at ease, probe for wisdom.
The three socalled friends, later joined by a fourth, fanatically believe in the North American dogma that God helps those materially who show respect for God’s law. Throughout the book they stubbornly stick to this party line, and are later soundly chastised. Before his suffering Job too had adhered to this orthodox teaching which he had held as gospel thruth. However, after his bout with unexpected mishaps, Job changed his mind: “No”, he defiantly tells God, ” No, I have not sinned. No, God, you are making a grave mistake.” And so the book of Job eases us into a revolutionary prospect that we can argue with God against God, that this is our god-given duty. The book does this in both a beautifully written but also in a somewhat mysterious manner.
So, Virginia Woolf, if you could read this, would you still think that God goofed?
Not convinced? Suppose this book – and here I come to my second option -is interpreted allegorically, as a sort of parable? It is quite well possible, almost certain, that Job never lived, so why is this book in the Bible?
There are a number of reasons.
(1) The reason could be that Job actually represents not only the people of Israel, but the entire world. There is no real Jewish connection evident in the book of Job at all. In other words, God is saying that Israel, as a nation, is no longer an exclusive people, but that everybody in the world is included in his plan for salvation.
That would be a drastic change. Thus the writer of the book of Job points to a new relationship between humans and God, one based not simply on obeying God’s laws as outlined in the books of Moses, the Torah, but much more on a living, all-inclusive lifestyle, expressing a deep appreciation for creation, and thus living so that its wellbeing is constantly considered.
Thus God wants all people, not only Jews, to be saved, a thought that met with a lot of denial and resistance in the pre-Christian church, so much so that 700 years later, when Jesus appeared on the scene, his disciples still had not fully absorbed these new emphases and still thought that he would make Israel a world power again.
(2) And then there is this Satan figure. Where does this creature fit into a metaphorical interpretation?
Here I have to fast forward some 700 years again, to the New Testament time of Jesus at the start of his ministry as related in Matthew 4. There the Satan showed Jesus all the glories of the world, the Greek Parthenon, the splendor of Rome, the Inca institutions, the marvelous temples in Indonesia and Asia, and offered the entire world and its glories to Jesus, on the condition that Jesus bow down and worship the Satan.
Jesus does not dispute that Satan is the ruling power of the globe: on the contrary, he later calls him ‘The Prince of the World.’ Yes, the Satan, now more than ever, is in control here, witness the Holocaust, Rwanda, AIDS, Global warming, the Bush regime, the religious Right.
This explains also why this book is not popular with the theologians: it is simply too controversial. Increasingly organized religion is in trouble. Where it still flourishes, it has become stagnant, judgemental and uncaring, condemning rather than exploring and adverse to any innovation.
(3) When finally God speaks to Job, he opens Job’s mind to some radical new thinking. The book tells us that we are never able to rest on past achievements, that there simply is no retirement for us ever.
Already the word “the land of Uz” gives an indication of this new meaning. Dr David Wolfers, the author of Deep Things out of Darkness, a 550 page book dealing exclusively with Job, translates the word “Uz”, ( the physical location where Job supposedly lived) as “the Land of Council.” He thinks that the book asks us to look at the Bible with a critical eye, to weigh its ideas carefully and consider them to see whether it expresses the right view. In other words, he recommends that churches, mosques and synagogues everywhere, must meet to discuss, probe, investigate and discover what the gospel means for us in this millennium. No longer are matters clearcut: we have changed, circumstances have changed, the world has changed.
(4) And then there are the four friends. Dr Wolfers, himself a Jew who devoted 20 years of his life to the study of Job, thinks that they may stand for three or four ethnic minorities within the Jewish nation, with their different types of worship, all centering on a faulty view of God. Transposing the scene to the religious world-wide spectre today I believe it could well be that the first three friends, in our time, represent the three major orthodox religions: Judaism, based on the Old Testament only, hierarchical Roman Catholicism- insisting on papal infallibity and male dominance- and Islam, later joined by the fourth in the form of conservative orthodox Protestantism, the socalled Christian Right, all based on the false doctrine of either good works or a stagnant view of God.
Although Job replies to the first three speakers, he wisely does not enter into dialogue with the orthodox Christian Right, which, he thinks correctly, is a waste of breath.
The most liberating element about the entire book of Job is that here is a human being who is not a good and patient and pious God-fearer, but a person who fights God with all the passion he can muster. The New Testament speaks of such a person as one who is blessed because he or she hungers and thirsts for righteousness and is willing to die for that ideal.
Job is suffering because God wants to teach Job something. God wants to teach Job that he must let go of some of the ideas he has about God, taught by previous generations, true for them in their time, perhaps, but not true for Job now.
Only when God had personnally spoken to Job, only then did he understand for the first time in his life- and his suffering was the turning point- that God was different than he first had imagined. He expressed this when he said : “I have heard of you with my ears, but now my eyes have seen you.” Job’s idea of God was based on the oral traditions: what his ancestors had told him. But now something different is forming in his mind, some new thoughts, some new ideas. The eye of his mind is seeing a new God and also, looking inward, is seeing a new Job.
And what is it that Job starts to see?
Well here we come to the central point of the book, which makes it one of the most profound sources of contemporary spirituality. The accusing Angel believed that Job was only obedient to God because God had made him rich and prosperous, and so the Satan thinks that Job will curse God if his blessings are taken away. However, there the Satan miscalculated. True, Job was initially very much concerned about himself and his family. He figured that, because he was so rich and so blessed with possessions, he was the centre of the universe.
Job’s sin, the sin of Israel and our sin, is Anthropocentrism, the arrogant and deluded belief that the earth and the universe were designed for our benefit and control. Something the current Washington administration believes with a passion. When God talks to Job He says: “Job, I’ve got a few questions for you. Where were you when I planned the earth? Tell me if you are so wise. Were you there when I stopped the waters as they issued gushing from the womb?”
For verse after verse the voice in the whirlwind rages on, outlining all the interdependent elements of creation- the winds, clouds, thunderstorms, the lightning, lions, antelopes, oxen, ostriches, horses, hawks, vultures, bulls, serpents. The voice lashes out at Job’s and our narrow self-centredness, admonishing that he can never understand the complexity and the functioning of the planet and cosmos. “Have you been to the edge of the universe? Speak up, if you have such knowledge.” A remark very applicable today when the Hubble spacecraft probes ever deeper into the universe and the pictures become ever more baffling. Or when Mars is being explored and the questions multiply.
What we see here is the very opposite of a universe built for us to manipulate as we will. Instead of being given dominion over plants and animals, or a license to subdue creation, Job is told- and we with him- to bow down and be humble. He and we are required to understand absolute humility before the face of God and thus Job says in the end: “I have heard of you with my ears (heard the Torah, heard hundreds of sermons) but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore I will be quiet, comforted that I am dust.”
The Hebrew word for ‘dust’ here is exactly the same word used in Genesis 2, out of which God fashioned Adam, whose name actually means ‘dust’. So the rebirth of Job is akin to becoming Adam. He is the prototype of the New Humanity. As a parable Job represents the New Adam, the New Humanity, fully at ease being human, being of the earth. Dust we are; ‘Adam’ we are and to dust, to ‘Adam’, the New Adam we shall return.
His ultimate surrender is not the sort of mindless obedience often required by orthodox religion. It is the kind of surrender that is “the whole-hearted giving of oneself.” A surrender to God’s creation, His Universe, arising from a humility that leads to wisdom instead of self-centred pride. Job is born again, converted from an ego-centred person to an eco-centred consciousness based on awe for God and His great creation. That is the basic message of the book of Job. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the great German Theologian killed by the Hitler crowd in April 1945, just before the end of World War II, says in Schoepfung und Fall (Creation and Fall) : “God, brother and sister, and the earth belong together.” That is the real Trinity. We are not here to maximize personal consumption and to glorify individual greed, the basic message of the gods of our age. As citizens of the world we must, following Job’s message, progress from being ego-centered to becoming eco-centered.
We know what happened to Job. The story is wellknown how he received double his capital as well as his family back.
So, Virgina Woolf, you still might not think that God comes well out of this ‘Job’ eposode. but consider the following: the most curious detail in the epilogue is the mention of Job’s daughters. In his new world in which Job now lives and which is humanity’s future, these fair women are not inferior to the brothers and do not have to go to their brothers’ houses for the annual celebration. Indeed, they are given the same honour by receiving a share of Job’s wealth as their inheritance. Each is named, while the seven sons of Job remain anonymous. The names themselves- Dove, Cinnamon and Eye-shadow- symbolize peace, abundance and a specifically female kind of grace. The story’s centre of gravity has shifted from righteousness to beauty and the focus is now the manifestation of inner peace. Virgina, you with your mental problems, would have liked that! And something else:
“And in all the world there were no women as beautiful as Job’s daughters.” There is something enormously satisfying about the prominence of women at the end of Job. Here they are especially included. The lesson here is that Job, and in Job, all people, have learned to surrender not only their erroneous ideas about God but also their male compulsion to control. The daughters have almost the last word. I think that even though now women are still secondary in many cultures, especially in religious institutions, in the new world they will be more than equal. And in all the world there were no women as beautiful as Job’s daughters. What this parable also tells us is that in the world to come there will be great appreciation for beauty, including female beauty. Did God goof up in Job? No Virginia Woolf. No. No. Organized Religion has lost the Gospel of the Earth. No wonder it has stagnated. Those who want to find this ‘gospel of the earth’ need look no further than the Book of Job.
The Book of Job, Stephen Mitchel, North Point Press
The Comforting Whirlwind, God, Job and the scale of Creation,
Bill McKibben, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company
Deep Things out of Darkness, David Wolfers, Pharos & Eerdmans
The Lost Gospel of the Earth, Tom Hayden, Sierra Book Club
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, A Testament to Freedom, Harper San Fransisco
The End of Science, John Horgan, Helix Books
Antwoord uit he Onweer ( A ‘Thunder’ Reply ) Dr K.H. Miscotte
Job, Challenging a silent God, Nick Overduin, CRC Publications.
The Hidden Face of God, Richard Elliott Friedman, Harpers
Time Magazine, August 4 1997