Main Body

Chapter 8: The Land of UZ

     We find many literary genres in the biblical texts: legend, poem, letters, legal documents, short story, song, prayer – but nowhere do we find real philosophical argument. The texts with the most philosophical themes are the so-called Wisdom Literature texts that include Job and Ecclesiastes. A number of presuppositions, beliefs, claims and judgments rest just below the surface of the stories however, and these are never explicitly stated but are assumed as common ground. Through the stories we see a structure of implicit claims about the world and our experience of it: Yahweh exists; birth and death are a part of a mysterious external plan; time and chance exist but appear to be subject to Yahweh’s control; life’s meaning comes from outside, from an external source or authority; human fulfillment comes from being a part of a collective of people who comply with the commands of a supreme suzerain, who, in return for fealty promises land and protection. The single theme that ties together all of the Old Testament stories is the theme of the covenant between Yahweh and his chosen people. Once we see this theme as the focal point of the stories we can begin to see order and meaning to the structural sprawl. The Mount Sinai experience is the dramatic climax to the covenant announcements in Genesis. At that moment in the story the external force announces and records the suzerainty treaty, an act that constitutes the people of Israel. The Ten Commandments become the first constitution. “Have no other gods before me and I, the god who took you out of slavery in Egypt, promise you land and life.”


Yahweh’s promise to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is fulfilled through the prophet-mediator, Moses, in the desert after the daring escape from Egypt.


`How do you know that Yahweh appeared to Moses?’ `Because it says so in Exodus. `How do you know that Yahweh spoke to the patriarchs?’ `Because it says so in Genesis.’ Saying so does not necessarily make it so, unless of course one has already accepted that the stories are true because they were “written” by an infallible being. `How do you know that God exists?’ `Because the Bible tells me so,’ is an exchange that is fatally flawed in its logic. As we have seen, the writers of the stories in the Bible are not arguing a position, but are proclaiming the truth of their narrative, claiming it has a special place in the area of human knowledge, a place that secures it from attack from skeptics and those who claim a different revealed truth. But how can one believe without evidence? How can one exercise a rational approach to all other areas of knowledge and then suddenly throw reason away in the arena of religion? Easily, it seems. By requiring less of religious claims than we do of any other knowledge claims we are able to insulate our deeply felt beliefs from any rational analysis – some people really want these claims to be true and then confuse the passion of the belief with the truth value of the claim. But, passionately believing that you have turned off the coffee pot before you left for work is not a sufficient condition for it being turned off, no more than a passionate belief that you have won the big lottery is either necessary or sufficient for your having done so.


Contemporary philosophical discussions of truth insist that truth is a property of statements. We say, for example, that the statement: `It is raining’ is true just when it is raining. That is, a sentence is true when the statement made by the sentence corresponds to a state of affairs in the non-linguistic world. `I have a headache’ is true if and only if I do in fact have a headache. If I utter the sentence but do not have a headache then the statement expressed by the sentence is false. There are of course other possibilities based upon the usage of the sentence. I could have an arrangement with you that the sentence `I have a headache’ will be used by us to mean something else, say, a code for a message like `the enemy has landed on our shores.’ Or, the sentence could be a line in a play, uttered by an actor in a particular scene. In that kind of example we do not talk about the sentence being true or false. In general in literary texts we suspend these epistemic concerns as soon as we hear or read a signal like `once upon a time’, or `long time ago’, or `in the beginning’ which indicate we are in a fictional world where truth value functions in a quite different way than in much of everyday discourse. Literature provides us with possible worlds to reflect upon and to respond to, gives us a point of view to consider, and breathes “life” into characters just as surely as the creator-god of Genesis does.


Biblical writers are best read as poets not as philosophers. And as poets they do not have this correspondence theory of truth in mind. Those who claim that the Bible is “True”, if by that claim they mean that every statement in the Bible is literally true, fail to respond to the fictional signals provided by the writers. What are these signals? More than just the introductory mode indicators are at work in these texts; for example, the narrator(s) often steps out of the story to say something directly to the audience: “There came a famine in the land – not the earlier famine in Abraham’s time – and Isaac went to Abimelech the Philistine king at Gerar.” (Gen. 26.1); “He named that place Beth-El, but the earlier name of the city was Luz.” (Gen. 28.19); “(An omer is one tenth of an ephah.)” (Exodus 16.36); “In days gone by in Israel, when a man wished to consult God, he would say, `Let us go to the seer.’ For what is nowadays called a prophet used to be called a seer.” (1 Sam. 9.9) Breaking the frame in this way shows us the frame, and from time to time we are reminded of the fact that we are reading a story, reminded of intention and voice and other literary components at work in the narrative.


The stories in the Bible assume a certain official line and present the character of God through actions, images, and dramatic situations. From the beginning of story telling we have been seeking a way of expressing the inexpressible, of linguistically presenting the extra-linguistic. How do you talk about God? Through the Word. The New Testament belief in “the Word” or “Logos which becomes flesh” comes directly from the Greek notion of Logos and provides the basic concept in terms of which the doctrine of the Incarnation was to be understood. The concept of Logos came directly from the Stoics, for whom it originally meant an immanent World Soul. It was later fused with the Platonic idea of nous and so was conceived as acting in accordance with archetypal patterns. The basic problem was: how is it possible to have knowledge of a strictly transcendent being. A suggested solution came in terms of an intermediary, in this case logos, which was posited to solve the question of knowledge. Throughout the early Christian centuries what we find is not philosophy of religion but theological writings employing various philosophical concepts. Revealing the character and plan of God to limited and finite human beings is a difficult problem solved by establishing a canon based on an authority of the highest order. Hence, for a very long time it was believed that Moses was the author of the first five books. Books like Ecclesiastes and The Song of Songs were included in the canon on the authority of Solomon. No serious biblical scholar any longer believes that Moses and Solomon wrote these books.


Philo, the gifted Jewish philosopher of the first century, was largely responsible for the idea of logos or “the Word” entering into Christian thought. Many theologians, then as now, resented the intrusion of philosophy into the domain of faith (the most outstanding was Tertullian who said, “I believe because it is absurd.”) Early Christianity also flirted with mysticism, which was another Greek contribution. The so-called Neoplatonists reverted to a profound sense of the Oneness or Unity of Universe in a way, which put particulars and plurality in jeopardy, as they had been to some extent in the philosophy of Plato. In order to account for particulars the difficult notion of emanation was developed. God is the ultimate unity and He/She transcends all forms of thought, but finite beings exist as a falling away from the original perfection.[1] The problem here is that it is very hard to make sense of the notion of emanation without calling in question the all-embracing nature of the one ultimate reality. The insistence on the latter did influence mystic thought and the influence produces Oriental mysticism with its attempt to draw away altogether from our present existence, with its limitations and evil, and to pass beyond into a union with the ineffable Being. One way of turning the ineffable into the “effable” is through story.


In strong contrast to the Eastern belief that evil is illusory and particulars are mere shadows stands the Hebrew-Christian doctrine of creation. The Old Testament, as we have seen, is full of stories that express the elusive and transcendent nature of their god. The Hebrews believed that a true discernment of God’s transcendence required the recognition of our own distinctness as beings independent of God. This in turn sharpened the question of how such limited and finite beings could in anyway come to know God. The Hebrew answer was in terms of God’s disclosure of Himself in history and experience, and this was deepened and extended in specifically Christian claims about the works and words of the man-god, Jesus Christ.


One of the central problems within the Judeo-Christian theological story centers on epistemology: how can we finite and limited creatures have knowledge of this infinite and all-powerful transcendent being? The question is not merely philosophical or to be dismissed as an academic puzzle. The search for authority is a real human search and includes passion and desire, fear and need. When we humans seek the divine we are looking for an experience not an argument. And yet it is our experience that makes the search so difficult. How do we – how can we – understand a god-sponsored world in which little children suffer and die? Evil may be a worm in man’s heart but it also eats away at comfortable belief. Evil has always been a problem for theologians because its existence brings into doubt either the nature of God or the existence of God. Bluntly put, the problem is: If God is all-powerful, all knowing, and all good, then why does evil exist in the world? If God cannot eliminate evil then God is not all-powerful. If God can but does not then God is not all-good.


One answer is to claim that evil is appearance only and not reality, but this hardly matches up with our experience. Another is to posit a dualism of good and evil locked in perpetual battle and equally matched in power. But this makes god a half-owner of the universe with limited powers. Some argue that evil is the responsibility and result of human free will – that because we are free to choose, and we are limited in knowledge, we sometimes choose wrong. Others, of course, argue that there is no god, and that cause and effect are all we need to explain natural catastrophes and human actions. The biblical stories that treat these questions are in the collection called Wisdom Literature. Can we know the nature of Yahweh? How would an existing divine force reveal itself? The continuing popularity of the book of Job shows that these problems are important. Job questions God’s nature, his connection to morality and justice, and the relationship between the creator and his creation. A reading of the book of Job shows the way the Hebrew writers presented these philosophical problems in literary form. It will also suggest answers to the fundamental epistemological and moral questions. The Book of Job also serves as a transition between the Old and New Testaments. Many Christian writers have seen in Job the foreshadowing of Christ, and have argued that the answer to Job’s questions is to be found in the man-god, Jesus.


To begin let us look briefly at a paper by Paul Weiss.[2] In this paper Weiss distinguishes ten different kinds of evil: sin, bad intention, wickedness, guilt, vice, physical suffering, psychological suffering, natural evil, and metaphysical evil. The first two are most characteristically human for they are privately inflicted. The ten are defined as follows:


1. Sin – he sins who is disloyal to a primary value accepted on faith.

Blasphemy is one form of sin and treason another. He sins who

denies his people just as surely as does he who violates the fiats of

his/her god. Job shows us that it is not necessary that a man sin. Job

is righteous. Job is not a sinner. Since he suffers, suffering and the

multiple evils of the world ought not to be attributed to man’s

failure to avoid sin.


2.   Bad intent – ethical evil, like setting oneself to break an ethical

command. Like sin this is privately achieved. It is concerned with

the good as open to reason. The man of bad intent fails internally

to live up to what reason commands. (Steals, kills , lies). Evil

intent and suffering do not necessarily go together.


3. Wickedness – the evil of carrying out evil intentions. Job is right

in insisting that he was not wicked. He who is wicked does not

necessarily incur the wrath of God. Nor does he necessarily suffer.


4. Guilt – We ought to love, help, cherish everyone, but since we are

finite and have finite interest, funds and energy we can not. Each

thus fails to fulfill an obligation to realize the good completely. We

are hence necessarily guilty. We fail to do all that ought to be done.

Eliphaz charges Job with the neglect of hosts of the needy, but we

are all guilty in that respect.


5. Vice – The habit of doing what injures others; vice is produced by

men and not by God, and need not entail suffering.


6. Social.


7. Physical.


8. Psychological.

Job suffers in all (6,7,8) these ways: torn in his body, by his mind,

and from his fellows, Job has no rest.


9. Natural evil – an evil embodied in the wild, destructive forces of

nature, as manifest in earthquakes, tidal waves, hurricanes, etc.

These do not arise because there is something bad in man/woman.

To suppose that nature is geared to the goodness and badness of

men and women is to suppose either a mysterious harmony

between ethics and physics, or that spirits really move mountains.

God is responsible for “natural evil” says the Book of Job.


10. Metaphysical evil – As Weiss puts it: “What could not be

avoided by the things in any universe whatsoever is the tenth kind

of evil, metaphysical evil, the evil of being one among many, of

possessing only a fragment of reality, of lacking the reality and thus

the power and good possessed by all the others. Any universe

whatsoever, created or uncreated, is one in which each part is less

than perfect precisely because it is other than the rest, and is

deprived therefore of the reality the rest contain.”



Consider this list as a map for reading Job. But notice also that it is not an objective map. It too contains a certain story about ethics; and is not completely clear and separate from its official line. `Sin’ is a religious not a moral term. It is a sin to wear a head covering in some contexts, a sin not to wear a head covering in other contexts. To be disloyal may be a moral failing, but surely it depends upon what one is disloyal to. Disloyalty to an authority urging immoral acts is certainly not a moral failing. You have to make a moral judgment about which god is worthy of respect and worship. `Bad intent’ and `wickedness’ are moral terms and it is just here that Job is innocent – he has neither bad intent nor wickedness – the story makes that clear. `Guilt’ may be a moral term; that is, one may feel guilty if one has done something wrong, but to feel guilt in a general sense is a pathological, not a logical phenomenon. “But you should not feel guilt for that” is a perfectly reasonable and healthy cor- rective to the guilt ridden innocent. Weiss’s fourth category seems to include the notion that ought implies can – one can not be held morally responsible for things beyond one’s control. `Metaphysical guilt’ as described by Weiss is hard to understand. What sense does it make to hold a person responsible for not being all of reality?[3] Can one rationally blame one’s dog for not being a camel? A human being? This concept would have evil built into the very fabric of the universe, a notion as puzzling as its counterpart of having good built into the fabric of the universe. Religious doctrine may assert such a position, but it is not clear precisely what would count as evidence for such a position. As Job discovers in the story, good and evil are the province of men and women, and have nothing to do with God. The universe is not good or evil – it is. For Weiss Job is guilty because he is a man and all men are guilty. But the Book of Job tells us that Job is innocent, and yet he suffers. What does this story tell us about the nature of the god it depicts as a major character?


Notice first that it is a piece of literature, a story of a particular kind. It is a play. It has a framing device. It has long boring speeches and little action. It is repetitive. The key images have to do with knowledge, wisdom and under- standing. These are to be gained in a court room setting with God as judge and accuser, Job as wrongly accused defendant who aches for his day in court to prove his innocence. Job is a radical protestor, struggling against a system that strikes him as unfair and unjust. He is not patient, and he is not Jewish, though many think of him as the paradigm of Jewish patience. The existence of God is assumed; it is his nature that is in question. Suffering does not imply wrongdoing; the bad do sometimes prosper. There is no necessary connection between morality and the size of one’s portfolio. The Book of Job is like some massive chunk of marble that has within it a beautiful sculpture that has not yet been completed: rich, extensive, suggestive, but incomplete. It has been praised as a great work:


Not only its value as a work of art, displayed by the power of its

language, by the depth of its feeling, by the grandeur of its

structure, but also the subject with which it deals, the daring titanic

struggle with the immemorial, yet ever new, questioning of man-

kind concerning the meaning of suffering, places this composition

as regards its general significance beside Dante’s Divina

Commedia and Goethe’s Faust.[4]


The book consists of two distinct parts. The bulk of the work, and by far the more important, is the long poetic section which is framed by the brief prose narrative which relates the legend of the righteous man’s travails, beginning in heavenly council, and the happy ending when the suffering man has everything restored to better than ever status. Biblical scholars[5] tell us that the framing device, written in an archaic style, bears all of the marks of an ancient and popular folk tale, while the dramatic interchange in poetic form is from a much later, probably post-exilic time. In any case, it is easy to see the difference between the two, even in translation, for the simplicity of the frame is even more obvious when set off against the complex and philosophical poetic debate between Job and his “comforters”. An editor has molded the two parts together to form one literary whole, and as readers we must judge how successful the whole has been completed and how the two parts function to- gether.


Look at the frame: we are told immediately that Job is “a man of blameless and upright life” who fears God and has his face set against wrongdoing. He is given as perhaps a bit too much of a good man; that is, he seems to approach the good life like an accountant, offering sacrifices for possible wrongs on the part of his children because he thinks “that they might somehow have sinned against God.” William Blake in his illustrated edition of Job has the family at the beginning of the story reading the book to be sure that they are following all of the commands of God, but appearing to have a fairly bleak and stiff time of it. The musical instruments are not being used, there is no joy in this family life before the experience of the whirlwind. Blake’s story is visually projected, and he gives us three characters: God, Satan, and Job,   all of whom look alike. In Blake’s vision God and Satan are forces in us, psychological parts of us. Suddenly in the prologue we hear of the members of the court of heaven who gather in the presence of the Lord, and this sudden shift from earth to heaven is presented with no transition and with no hesi- tation. In this heavenly court Satan challenges God to a contest to test Job. God will allow Satan to torment Job in order to see if he is steadfast. Satan takes his task seriously and destroys Job’s flocks, his servants, and his children. Job’s children are killed by a whirlwind sweeping across the desert, which knocks their house down and crushes them. We will see a whirlwind again before this tale is over. “Throughout all this Job did not sin; he did not charge God with unreason.” Satan tries further tortures, with God’s approval, and attacks Job’s body and mind. His three friends arrive and “for seven days and seven nights they sat beside him on the ground, and none of them said a word to him.” So far a cracking good fairy tale: powerful forces are at work above who will interfere with events in the human world either to pass the time or to test a man to see what kind of torture he can take before breaking. These are the forces of some child-like, cruel and sadistic place, imaged in monsters and presented as powerful but without moral sense. A god who will break his own commandments against killing is not worthy of worship. What do we learn from the frame outside the frame? After seven days of silence Job breaks silence and curses the day of his birth, for “there is no peace of mind nor quiet for me; I chafe in torment and have no rest.”


Job at this point seems to believe that there is a correlation between being good and being rewarded with the goods of the world. Follow the rules, be careful, take a few extra steps of precaution by sacrificing even if you do not need to and all will be well. His attitude seems to be one of an overly strict, rule-bound worrier, completely uptight about righteousness but forgetting about the joy of life itself. Yes, Job is righteous, and no, he has not sinned against the laws in the book of righteousness, but he has forgotten to enjoy life in all its bountiful glory. He is not really straight with life. He snaps at his wife, worries about his children’s obedience to the book of rules.


It is one of the ironies of literature that the phrase “patience of Job” is now part of our linguistic heritage. Job is, in fact, not at all patient, but wants his problem dealt with now, right now – wants to face God and argue his case, not sit patiently awaiting resolution. This rebellious demand for a chance to plead his case can be seen in the   complex of images that revolve around the key motifs of justice, balance, and scales of justice. Until he is able to do so the world and everything in it is flat and without taste. Notice the images in the following passages from the King James translation:


But Job answered and said,

2. Oh that my grief were throughly

weighed, and my calamity laid in the balance


3. For now it would be heavier than the sand of

the sea: therefore my words are swallowed up.

4. For the arrows of the Almighty are within

me, the poison whereof drinketh up my spirit:

the terrors of God do set themselves in array

against me.

5. Doth the wild ass bray when he hath grass?

or loweth the ox over his fodder?

6. Can that which is unsavoury be eaten with-

out salt? or is there any taste in the white of

an egg? (Job 6.2-6)


Even though Job is filled with grief and racked with pain he continues to cry out for justice. His is a just cause and he wants to be heard in the court of the Almighty, where he believes Justice resides.


11. Therefore I will not refrain my mouth;I

will speak in the anguish of my spirit; I will

complain in the bitterness of my soul. (7.11)


Lo, mine eye hath seen all this, mine ear hath

heard and understood it.

2. What ye know, the same do I know also: I

am not inferior to you.

3. Surely I would speak to the Almighty, and I

desire to reason with God.

4. But ye are forgers of lies, ye are all physi-

cians of no value. (13.1-4)


Job is not a coward; he faces his torment with a desperate strength fed with moral outrage. One can almost see his inner conflict at work in the play; the drama in this work is indeed in the mind of the protaganist.


15. Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him:

but I will maintain mine own ways before him.

16. He also shall be my salvation: for an hypo-

crite shall not come before him.

17. Hear diligently my speech, and my declara-

tion with your ears.

18. Behold now, I have ordered my cause; I

know that I shall be justified. (13.15-18)


Awash in tears, afraid of the threat of death, but constant in his assertion of innocence, Job cries out to earth and to heaven to allow him his day in court.


16. My face is foul with weeping, and on my

eyelids is the shadow of death;

17. Not for any injustice in mine hands: also

my prayer is pure.

18. O earth, cover not thou my blood, and let

my cry have no place.

19. Also now, behold, my witness is in heaven,

and my record is on high.

20. My friends scorn me: but mine eye poureth

out tears unto God.

21. O that one might plead for a man with God,

as a man pleadeth for his neighbour! (16.16-21)


Lack of understanding, of comprehension, is the real cause of Job’s torment – he wants desperately to know what is going on in his presumed moral universe. Where is the moral centre of the universe to be found? How is it that the innocent suffer?


Then Job answered and said,

2. Even to day is my complaint bitter: my

stroke is heavier than my groaning.

3. Oh that I knew where I might find him! that

I might come even to his seat!

4. I would order my cause before him, and fill

my mouth with arguments.

5. I would know the words which he would

answer me, and understand what he would say

unto me. (23.1-5)


6. Let me be weighed in an even balance, that God

may know mine integrity. (31.6)


We cannot miss this recurring imagery pattern, and it supports the idea that Job feels he is a righteous sufferer who wants justice, who wants to argue his case before he who is (apparently) judging him. He continues to believe that there must be a moral connection between behaviour and benefits. Thus, his cry to be heard, to present his argument: if God is the final arbiter and is reasonable and comes to know the facts then he can not possibly continue to torment Job. In his balance ledger understanding, good should bring good and bad should bring bad. I can hear my German Lutheran step-father every time I read Job. I hear him crying out to his Lutheran God from the wheat fields in Colorado after a hail storm had just wiped out the entire crop: “Why are you punishing me? What have I done wrong? Why not the Renzelmens across the road? Why me?” There was, of course, never an answer. Otto, like Job, demanded to know the relationship between suffering and action, between deed and resulting reward or punishment. Job’s friends, like my Lutheran pastor on those childhood Sundays, offer him old arguments about how there must be a correspondence between the way we live and the rewards we get. They offer the old notion of rewards for the good and suffering for the bad. See a man’s condition and you can read off his spiritual status. But Job (and Otto) knew he was not guilty and feels outraged to be a citizen in a system of justice that seems to have gone crazy. We know what Job does not: that God has agreed to let the devil use Job in a test of loyalty. This ironic situation reveals a God who seems not interested in justice in particular or in morality in general. In the prologue God/Satan flagrantly violates at least three of the commandments he gave out on Mount Sinai.


And what do we discover when God, as the voice out of the whirlwind, speaks to Job in the dramatic conclusion of the “justice-scales” theme? Job, who has suffered in mind and in body, who has lost his children, his flocks, his health, has cried out to be heard by his tormentor. And when the answer comes what does God have to say about the nature of justice? What does he offer in explanation of the relationship between crime and punishment? What insights does God offer about the nature of good and evil? What does God say to Job about the reasons for his suffering? Absolutely nothing. Job, who wanted to reason with God, who wanted to argue his case in court, who wanted to understand the relationship between acts and rewards, has no chance for ar- gument. Expecting a wise judge to debate his case with, he gets a God of power, sheer power. All of the long speeches of Job and his friends in which arguments were presented and analyzed, in which causes and effects are posited, are set against the voice from the whirlwind. And this voice does not present argument, does not offer explanation, provides no thesis on cause and effect; no, this voice does not speak as a rational first cause, but instead says:


Then the Lord answered Job out of the

whirlwind, and said,

2. Who is this that darkeneth counsel by

words without knowledge?

3. Gird up now thy loins like a man; for I will

demand of thee, and answer thou me.

4. Where wast thou when I laid the founda-

tion of the earth? declare, if thou hast under-


5. Who hath laid the measures thereof, if

thou knowest? or who hath stretched the line

upon it?



The voice out of the whirlwind releases a whirlwind of rhetoric, a series of creation images of sheer brutal power, but has absolutely nothing to say about the situation that Job is in. What we have waited for throughout the play finally comes and it is totally unexpected. The human questions about morality and suffering, about justice and fairness, are not resolved, are not even directly addressed. What answer does the story provide? What of all these questions of the human spirit? A transcendent God is not concerned with justice – justice is a human concept and is to be worked out by humans in this world and in this life. This powerful urge, creative and destructive, is life itself, confusing, inexplicable, powerful, unknowable in detail, and not captured in words, but only imaged in whirlwind. The images in the voice out of the whirlwind’s speech at the conclusion of the play resonate off the opening speech in Part I where Job says in the third chapter of the King James transla- tion:


After this opened Job his mouth, and cursed

his day.

2. And Job spake, and said,

3. Let the day perish wherein I was born, and

the night in which it was said, There is a man

child conceived.

4. Let that day be darkness; let not God regard

it from above, neither let the light shine upon it.

5. Let darkness and the shadow of death stain

it; let a cloud dwell upon it; let the blackness of

the day terrify it.

6. As for that night, let darkness seize upon it;

let it not be joined unto the days of the year, let

it not come into the number of the months. (3.1-6)


This lament, filled with images of darkness and death, is not so much suicidal as it is a cry for non-being. Job wants to blot out of history the night he was conceived and the day he was born. There is excess here – much like the excess piety hinted at in the prologue. To speak of changing history to blot out the day of one’s birth is still to insist upon one’s importance in the scheme of things. `I must have been important; just look at all of the worldly goods that I had before my fall.’ These are not the lines of a patient, long suffering man. Try reading them aloud with patience and quiet resolve. Notice the form of those poetic lines. They echo the opening passages of Genesis, the creation story: “Let there be light…” and “Let there be…” – a refrain for the creation of everything in that story. Job uses a similar imperative in his opening speech, but his statement is negative, black and destructive. The whirlwind will later refer to the creation also, and put Job in his place as a finite limited being because he was not present at the beginning. From the light of the creation story   to the darkness of Job’s spiritual condition is the distance from rational creativity to irrational destruction. Job’s only sin is that before the whirlwind he believes that the universe is rational and moral, attributes which he believes its first cause shares. The Book of Job shows us   a deep truth: mortals are cut off from any god-authority as the foundation for moral life. Justice, as King Lear also must discover, is not in the heavens but in men and women. And this les- son comes as part of a lesson in interpretation. Trying to read the world as a one-dimensional playground where the good boys and girls are rewarded with slices of cake and the bad boys and girls are punished is not a legitimate reading. Certainly Job learns something in the course of the play, and that lesson is about the nature of morality – morality is not founded upon God. This new knowledge   is imaged in the motifs of “knowledge” – “wisdom” – “teaching” presented in a series of images which cluster around those words: “tell the creatures that crawl to teach you”, “to give you instruction”, “there is wisdom”, and “long life brings understanding”, “uncovers mysteries” and so forth. But as far as the key experience of the play – the voice from the whirlwind – none of these cliches bears any fruit (to use another cliche). Job’s lesson comes in the form of a tempest, a powerful image of the irrational forces that the writer sees at work in life. You cannot make sense out of life any more than you can make cents out of life. “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?” questions the voice. And the answer to the question is Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar, for in the epilogue God says to Eliphaz, “My wrath is kindled against thee, and against thy two friends: for you have not spoken of me the thing that is right, as my servant Job has.”


The Lord admits here that Job has been right, but right about what? His “comforters” are given a light punishment for saying that which is not right, but what were they wrong about? Clearly, on one level, Job is right because he did not follow his wife’s advice and “renounce God and die’. He continued to have faith beyond all reason, continued to believe in a just universe based upon some rational principles of fair play. His friends claim to know these principles, and in that must lie their sin. Time after time they tell Job that the righteous never suffer, only the evil suffer, and that therefore since he is suffering he must be evil, and that to stop the suffering he must correct his ways.[6] Job can not and will not accept this simple-minded “stimulus-response” theory of justice because he has seen too often that, in fact, innocents suffer and the corrupt prosper. He wants to know why the innocent suffer, but he does not claim to have the answer. He wants to plead his case in front of God in order to gain that knowledge and to understand how it is that God has arranged the moral world. As we have seen Job is to be disappointed for he never gets to have the kind of discussion that he hopes will untangle forever the problems of moral philosophy. Instead when God finally does appear to him as a voice out of the whirlwind[7] Job learns of God’s power but not of justice as fairness or as the relationship between punishment and crime. Job is rewarded, finally, for his blind loyalty and for having faith beyond reason – and the point is: that is exactly what the official line of the book of Job proclaims, blind faith is re- warded by revelation. Eliphaz errs by claiming to understand the ways of God, as if mere and puny humans could possibly understand the mysteries of this creator god. Dogmatic explanation is punished; skepticism is rewarded. One can not read the condition of man in the outward manifestations of wealth and property. What does this experience mean? How can I read it? The meaning is in the revelation of the master story teller.


Read the clever little masque called “A Masque of Reason” by Robert Frost[8] for an interesting take on the story of the relationship between Job and God, and “Mrs. Job”. For a more serious modern rendition read the play JB by Archibald McLeish. Artists throughout the world and at various times have found the Book of Job a rich source of inspiration with its deep and problem- atic questions and its powerful figures of God, Satan and their plaything Job, or everyman. It is hard not to respond to the searing passages in the play, for the human conditon is oten found to be just like it is portrayed here: irrational, unjust, and lying above or beyond the reach of the human mind.


Why do the innocent suffer? Why do time and chance function as they do? Why me? Where is order? Who is running this show anyway? Why does evil exist? Where has the promised innocence of the garden of Eden gone?


We can not fault the Hebrew writer for not being able to sort out the problems of evil in the world. Several centuries later we are still discussing these same problems. As philosophers and theologians have known for thou- sands of years, it is extremely difficult to explain the existence of evil in a world created by a God who is both infinitely good and infinitely powerful. Various attempts have been made: evil has been traced to the fall of Adam, or God permits unmerited suffering as a means of purifying the soul for eternal life. Some have tried to relieve God of the apparent responsibility for evil by sup- posing he is finite in knowledge or power or both. The god as revealed in the Book of Job simply asserts all of these propositions as being true together:


1. I am.

2. Suffering is.

3. So what.


A god who reveals himself in time is a part of many of the stories of the Old Testament. In the beginning we learn of him through his revelation to the patriarchs and to Moses. There is no way to tell when and if he will reveal himself to any particular character, for his ways are mysterious and the signs he provides are ambiguous. What is his intent? What does it all mean?   These questions are asked of all texts; it is no different here. For the Christian the answer to Job comes in the story of the man-god Jesus, another comes from Koheleth, in the book called Ecclesiastes.





In the Hebrew Bible Ecclesiastes stands alone in theology and in style. It probably never would have been included in the canon except that it was believed to have been written by King Solomon, and that authority was sufficient to assure it a place in the collection of “revealed” books. It is the most footnoted of books in the collection. On occasions the “footnotes” have become a part of the text as the redactor added a line here and there to try to force the story into the official line. For example, as the headnote to the book in the New English Bible puts it: “Glosses which relieve the gloom (and, indeed, the impiety) of the book seem to have been added in later times….” It has often been read as a gloomy and impious book because it departs from the official line in such a basic way. Right after the Speaker says “I saw under the sun that, where justice ought to be, there was wickedness, and where righteousness ought to be, there was wickedness,” a gloss (at 3.17) is added which states that God’s purpose is to test men “to see what they truly are.” Or again at 7.18 after the Speaker suggests a balanced approach as the best psychology to pursue (“Do not be over-righteous and do not be over-wise”) the “Explainer” adds, “for a man who fears God will succeed both ways.” And at 8.12-13, after the Speaker has stated that wickedness is not punished, and goodness not rewarded the Explainer adds, “A sinner may do wrong and live to an old age, yet I know that it will be well with those who fear God…” and the “yet I know” rings false in the overall story of skepticism that it presented in the text. The dramatic question in both Job and Ecclesiastes arises precisely because the human characters do not and cannot know what, if any, plan surrounds and defines their lives. In the Speaker’s response to this question we see it makes no difference whether there is a plan or not; it is not knowable in any case. “True, the living know that they will die; but the dead know nothing.”


Once in an evening class I had the students listen to a recording of Ecclesiastes as read by Jame Mason and asked them to jot down responses as they were listening.. I too kept notes of what came into my mind while listening to the Mason interpretation of the text. My “reader’s response” notes follow:


The opening passage with its circular images of cyclical activity

without purpose: eyes not satisfied with seeing, appetite not filled,

rivers that flow to the sea but the sea is never filled – all accurately

describe a mental state of despair and weariness.


Obviously the speaker is a middle aged man who has attempted to

live his life with some ideas and beliefs that have proved to be false.

The path he has followed has been a long one with many attempts

to make life meaningful by aiming at particular external goals. He

has tried wisdom, madness, folly, pleasure, great works, money,

sex, mirth, and found them all to be empty, because always was the

reality of his own mortality.


The text is like a huge symphony with separate and identifiable

movements. It opens with an emptiness of spirit that is palpable to

the   senses, but then it starts to move to a different level of ac-

ceptance and resignation and finally to an amazing finale of

optimism, acceptance and joy. (Herb is asleep now; his head

leaning further and further toward Cathy. He may be faking it just

to lay his sleeping head on her shoulder. He wakes and looks at

me, ah, did the instructor see me sleeping? Emptiness, all is

emptiness.) Is it boring? Well, yes I suppose the beginning parts

are boring to a twenty year old who still believes he is immortal.

(How many people will drop off to sleep? The room is hot, the

reading accurate but monotonous – oh, how right Mason is to read

it just that way – David’s book falls off his lap as he too drops off.

What difference does it make? “One event happeneth to all.” No

one will remember or care tomorrow what happened today.)


The poem which The Byrds stole to make “Turn, turn, turn” is the

first move towards life and acceptance. There is a time for every-

thing has a comforting sound to it. There is a time to sleep and a

time to study. I think again of the large number of literary texts that

are rooted in Ecclesiastes: The Sun Also Rises, King

Lear, Waiting for Godot (“two are better than one”- see

Beckett’s clowns acting out that cosmic connection that holds

people together; we need someone to help us up when we fall

down. “He couldn’t remember where his home is. But he wanted to

go there anyway.”) “So I hated life.” Why? Because it didn’t yield to

my hopes and plans; it went on not paying attention to me, not

caring about me. What is missing? Why this despair and hatred of

life? An entire inventory of goals is given and none have produced

the feeling of life, of value. Are there more goals that haven’t been

considered? Will it become clearer when I am older? Will Herb

wake up? What is missing? Why is everything stale and flat?


And finally – and finally an answer:


“The light of day is sweet, and pleasant to the eye is the sight of the

sun; if a man lives for many years, he should rejoice in all of them.”




Everyone should write her own response to this book. Read it; listen to it; write about it. It suggests to me these themes: Get rid of goals and life begins to flow, have goals and you get tied up in knots. This does not mean that you should not save for a rainy day. These are life-goals that the Speaker talks about. If you set out to find wisdom, labor, pleasure as ends in them- selves, and expect these ends to deliver results as an investment might, then you are doomed to emptiness, for happiness is always a by-product of doing something and not a thing to be sought out like a coin lost on the floor. Life, says the Speaker, is an attitude not a program, a scene and not a plot. With divine justice in human affairs an illusion, and truth unattainable, the Speaker is left with little upon which to build. All that is certain for man\woman is that there is a desire for happiness. Thus, the basic theme of the book is an insistence upon the enjoyment of life, of all the things in this world since it is the only world we can know.   Live capriciously, do not calculate like Job did; joy is our categorical imperative and we must taste of life’s joys without self-deception. The Speaker reminds us that the realities of life do not correspond to the yearnings of the heart. Often our deepest desires are thwarted by the hard facts of experience, and our timeless yearnings are frustrated by our time-restricted days.


The Speaker answers Job. The Speaker says: “Do not be over-righteous and do not be over-wise. And above all do not try to be God.”



[1] John Milton’s Paradise Lost has this notion embedded in th efall of Satan from grace. Dante’s Divine Comedy is the literary high point of mystical Christianity.

[2] Paul Weiss, “God, Job, and Evil,” Commentary, Volume VI, (1948).

[3] This understanding of metaphysical evil and its logical problems comes from Dale Beyerstein.

[4] Arthur Weiser, The Old Testament: Its Formation and Development, D. M. Bartn, tr. New York: Association Press, 1961, page 288.

[5] See, for example, James King West, Introduction to the Old Testament, pages 391ff, The MacMillan Company, New York, 1971.

[6] Often one runs into this argument:

1.       If we are evil then we will suffer.

2.       We are suffering.

3.       Therefore we are evil.

But this is not a valid argument. It would make the following parallel argument valid, which it clearly is not:

4.       If I am Superman then I am a man.

5.       I am a man.

6.       Therefore I am Superman.

The fallacy here is called “affirming the consequent.”

[7] Consider the image of the whirlwind: a whirlwind is capricious, powerful, inarticulate, a natural force.

[8] The poem can be found in The Poetry of Robert Frost, op.cit., page 484, 485.


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Reading the Bible: Intention, Text, Interpretation Copyright © 2018 by Robert D. Lane is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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