Friday, March 06, 2009

Job 12-21: With Friends Like Jobs'....

So last time, we got the basic story of Job in one and a half chapters, and then saw Job argue about his situation with three of his friends for the next nine and a half chapters. The next ten chapters continue this conversation, as Job's buddies -- Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar -- continue to hector him, and he continues to rail back at them. It's all dialog, this "interior poem" of the Book of Job, and I imagine most of it being shouted accusingly between our hero and his erstwhile pals.

The buddies continue to reiterate, and re-reiterate, and re-re-reiterate, their basic argument: that God punishes the unjust and evil, and therefore Job's punishment must be based on some wrongdoing. They want him to come clean, make atonement, and humble himself before God; if he honestly does this, they think, his punishment will be lifted.

For most of this section, Job continues to counter is the same way he did in the earlier chapters. He protests his innocence, and argues that the actions and motivations of God are inscrutable. In so doing, he gets in some good digs at his friends (and perhaps at all of us):

Men at ease have contempt for misfortune
as the fate of those whose feet are slipping.
Despite his insistence of the unknowableness of God's motives, however, Job is persistent in asserting that God is unfair in not communicating with him. I desire to speak to the Almighty and to argue my case with God, he asserts (13:3), frequently crying out for the same. Indeed, he seems less bothered by his misfortune -- his loss of property and standing, the death of his family, his personal afflictions -- than by God's refusal to explain any of this to him.

Only grant me these two things, O God,
and then I will not hide from you:
Withdraw your hand far from me,
and stop frightening me with your terrors.
Then Summon me and I will answer,
or let me speak, and you reply.
How many wrongs and sins have I committed?
Show me my offense and my sin.
Why do you hide you face and consider me your enemy?
Will you torment a windblown leaf?
It's interesting that, despite an almost total submission to the acts of God, that Job is all but scolding God for not communicating and explaining his actions.

Though I cry, "I've been wronged!" I get no response; though I call for help, there is no justice. (19:7)
But Who's Right?

This is not easy reading -- I continue to wrestle with it -- but its existence as an open discussion about the nature of God and God's role in the world is highly interesting. We haven't really seen anything like this before in the Bible. The closest we've been was in the books of Moses, when God was laying out the long list of laws to govern human behavior, but this is a very different sort of discussion. For one thing, it is highly ambiguous. It seems like we are supposed to think that Job is right, or at least righter than his three friends, but this is never really spelled out.

And, from everything stated in the Bible up to this point, it is hard to fault the friends. Throughout the histories, God is forever rewarding or punishing people (or whole nations) by making good things or bad things happen to them here on Earth. Writers of all the previous books of the Bible have had no problem with ascribing people's fortunes and misfortunes, even their deeds and misdeeds, to God's rendering judgment on their behaviors. By that reasonable standard, the friends are right.

Except, we know from the way the story is set up that Job is an innocent. We know that God has allowed his tremendous misfortune not as a punishment, but merely as an experiment. This certainly gives weight to Job's assertion that the ways of God are inscrutable. Whether Job is in the right in his demands for an explanation for his sufferings is an open question. I can't tell whether this is considered unseemly arrogance, or whether he is perfectly free to demand all he wants, secure in the knowledge that God has not the slightest obligation to pay his demands any attention.

Job 21: Let's Look at the Evidence

Finally, Job gets empirical with his friends. He points out something that, as much back in the day as now, must have been pretty obvious: the theory of divine retribution from evil is all fine and good, but anybody who has been around the block a few times knows it doesn't work. If things work the way you say, he points out:

7 Why do the wicked live on,
growing old and increasing in power?
8 They see their children established around them,
their offspring before their eyes.
9 Their homes are safe and free from fear;
the rod of God is not upon them.
10 Their bulls never fail to breed;
their cows calve and do not miscarry.
11 They send forth their children as a flock;
their little ones dance about.
12 They sing to the music of tambourine and harp;
they make merry to the sound of the flute.
13 They spend their years in prosperity
and go down to the grave in peace.
A little later, he implies his friends are being naive yokels for thinking like they do:

28 You say, 'Where now is the great man's house,
the tents where wicked men lived?'
29 Have you never questioned those who travel?
Have you paid no regard to their accounts-
30 that the evil man is spared from the day of calamity,
that he is delivered from the day of wrath?
Now I don't know about you, but this seems like a slam dunk of an argument to me. We'll find out what Eliphaz and his posse have to say in response next time on Michael Reads the Bible!

Next Time: What Eliphaz and his posse have to say in response!

p.s. Ever wondered about the phrase "by the skin of my teeth"? Well! In Job 19:20, Job notes that he has escaped with only the skin of my teeth, and a footnote indicates that this means his gums. In other words, he has survived, but with all of his teeth having been knocked out or having fallen out of his head.


Elaine said...

Have you ever read Harold Kushner's _When Bad Things Happen to Good People?_ ....because he addresses and discusses the Job story extensively, and of course interestingly. great book.

Michael5000 said...

@Elaine: Thank you for becoming one of a tiny, tiny handful of people to have achieved the michael5000 blog comment trifecta!

I do occasionally get suggestions on supplemental readings that would enrich my reading of one part of the Bible. That puts me at war with myself, though, because I feel the need to progress in the Bible itself! Clearly, I need 80 or 90 years to set aside for reading time.

Elaine said...

Well, I am amazed that you find time to do all of these blogs, make up quizzes, AND read good books (leaving aside watching bad movies and reading lame books.) No, but seriously... maybe you don't sleep! What version of the Bible are you reading? The last time I had the Oxford New English, which I thought was well done (good notes,) but its clarity comes at the cost of the powerfully poetic KJV language that I grew up with. Kushner is strikingly readable, so it goes case you decide on a side trip.
Oh, I found your blogs because of Rex Parker (my go-to guy when NYT puzzles do me in.) I was entertained to find someone who reads, writes, cooks (well, sort of, ha ha), and quilts! Just add gardening, and you are my long-lost twin! (Oops, nope. And I didn't give up a child for adoption, either. Oh, well, life's mysteries.)

Michael5000 said...

Oh, I garden.

I'm reading the NIV. Every once in a while I'll go to the KJB for a killer quote, but mostly it's all NIV, all the time.

Elaine said...

The New English Bible (NEB) was significantly revised and re-published in 1989 as the Revised English Bible.
I had to look up NIV... I see you will miss the Apocrypha (some damned good stories...Susannah and the Elders, wink wink, and the Maccabees...