Sunday, March 15, 2009

Job 22-31: They Keep Arguing

So when we lost saw Job, he had just made a rather powerful observation. His friends, you'll remember, have been giving him what-for because his misfortunes are, to their eyes, clear evidence that he is being punished by God for something. They want him to 'fess up, so that he can be forgiven by God and put an end to his run of bad luck.

After asserting his innocence all this time, Job argued in Chapter 21 that this whole theory of divine retribution is undermined by an obvious observation: a lot of time, the wicked do really well in this life. If God was really handing out rewards for good and bad behavior, you would expect to see fewer happy evildoers.

I was curious to see how this would affect the subsequent argument, and am disappointed to find that.... it doesn't. They just continue as before. Eliphaz makes responds by directly accusing Job of some hidden wickedness -- he must have done something wrong to merit his punishment, after all -- with no response to what the man has just said.

As for Job, he just continues to complain that he has no way of making his case directly to God. His problem is not the loss of his family, fortune, and health, he claims; it is the remoteness of God from his creation. You can imagine many of his statements having been underlined in the Bibles of many an Existentialist in the 1950s and 1960s:

...if I go to the east, he is not there;
if I go to the west, I do not find him.
When he is at work in the north, I do not see him;
when he turns to the south, I catch no glimpse of him.
(23:8-9) faint the whisper we hear of him!
Who then can understand the thunder of his power?

In Chapter 24, he seems to brush again on the problem of unpunished evil in a long passage about pain and suffering in the world, which starts with something like a procedural complaint:

Why does the Almighty not set times for judgment?
Why must those who know him look in vain for such days?

But then, in the second half of Job 27, he seems to be making exactly the same arguments his friends have been making against him. He describes at some length how the evil will be punished by God -- in this life! This baffles me. If this was just a record of a long, rambling conversation, we wouldn't necessarily expect the participants to cling to a consistent point of view all the way through. But this is the Bible, and presumably there is supposed to be some kind of theological lesson at the heart of this conversation. Up until now, I thought the point was that divine reward and punishment should not be expected to happen in our reality, or in "real time" as it were. But now Job has argued both sides of the issue, and I'm confused.

Could it be that the book of Job just isn't intellectually consistent? And if so, is that an intentional ambiguity that's supposed to mean something, or is it just, perhaps, a flawed or confused piece of writing? The later seems unlikely, as you'd expect someone to have noticed incoherence sometime in the Bible-assembling process. Maybe all will become clear later.

As an aside, Job's friend Eliphaz asks a very interesting set of questions at the outset of today's reading, questions that cut to the heart of the relationship between God and humanity.

Can a man be of benefit to God?
Can even a wise man benefit him?
What pleasure would it give the Almighty if you were righteous?
What would he gain if your ways were blameless? (22: 2-3)

Here, again, is the prevailing theme of Job: that God is so remote, so different, so unlike us that any attempt at understanding him -- or perhaps even of pleasing him through rightous and obedient behavior -- is doomed to futility. Interesting and provocative, but Eliphaz does not seem to grasp the implications of what he has said, and the idea is not developed any further.

Next: I continue to wade through Job.

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