(The) Blaspheming God: 
Deconstructing the Shibboleths of Belief, a Radical Theology Exegesis of Job 42:1-6

Mark Tansey, Doubting Thomas, 1985

Mark Tansey, Doubting Thomas, 1985

Then Job answered the Lord: 

‘I know that you can do all things,

   and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted. 

“Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?”

Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand,

   things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. 

“Hear, and I will speak;

   I will question you, and you declare to me.” 

I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear,

   but now my eye sees you; 

therefore I despise myself,

   and repent in dust and ashes.’ (Job 42:1-6)

The Lord said to Satan, ‘Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man who fears God and turns away from evil. He still persists in his integrity, although you incited me against him, to destroy him for no reason.’ (Job 2:3)

Introduction

The Book of Job is composed of a wisdom dialogue bracketed by a folk tale that introduces and concludes the book. The folk tale tells of a wager between Satan and God: is Job only righteous because he has received God’s blessing? God allows Satan to kill Job’s children and take his possessions, and destroy his health, barring Satan only from taking Job’s life. The wisdom dialogue then breaks in and relates the conversation Job has with his three friends. After they argue for a few rounds, God breaks into the argument and calls Job into direct dialogue. Job’s final response to God is quoted above. The dialogues end after Job’s dialogue with God, and the folk tale returns to conclude the story, affirming Job’s righteousness, condemning his friends, and restoring to Job health, wealth, and family.

The Book of Job is full of theological problems, which has contributed to its lasting appeal. In this exegesis I focus on the question of “the last word”: what are we to make of this story, what are we to make of God’s declarations from the whirlwind, and what are we to make of Job’s final response in Job 42:1-6? Who has the last word, and what is the last word? To work through this, I first look at how others have tried to make sense of this passage. I then follow Carol Newsom in using the Bakhtinian notions of monologic and dialogic to critique these attempts, and finally offer my own “last word”, requiring a return to a “first word”, found in Job 2:3.

Pious Lies?

With others, John Collins has argued that the central question in Job is that of “why the righteous suffer and the wicked prosper”. For Collins, and many others, the main concern is that of justice – God’s justice. Job’s complaints are clearly understood as protests of innocence of wrongdoing, an innocence to which both the narrator (2) and God (3) attest. The main concern in this framework is how to make sense of Job’s suffering in light of God’s justice.

“[Job’s] honesty, however, is not tantamount to wisdom. He has to live with the fact that the universe does not revolve around humanity, let alone around Job. The justice of God, if that be the proper term, cannot be measured by human standards.” (1)

While Collins does not offer a thorough account of how Job’s suffering comports with God’s justice apart from indicating that God’s justice is not focussed on human suffering, Kathryn Schifferdecker lays out an argument based on her understanding of creation in Out of the Whirlwind. She claims that,

“Job’s own world has descended into turmoil or chaos, and he attempts to inflict that chaos on creation itself; first by cursing creation, then by ascribing chaotic tendencies to God. Job’s challenge to God’s order cannot go unanswered. In the divine speeches, the creation is, as it were, re-created. More accurately, God reaffirms the order already established in creation from the beginning, an order Job had tried to negate.” (4)

Schifferdecker frames the question of justice in terms of chaos and order, and insists that despite Job’s experience of chaos, the universe remains a place of order, and that this is the point YHWH  makes in the rebuttal from the whirlwind. The “last word” for Schifferdecker is that the cosmos is not ultimately chaotic, despite her acknowledgment of Job’s personal experience of chaos. So although Job’s world has fallen apart, he should not be misled into believing that the world does not hold together, that God’s creation is not whole.

The notion that an overall order is maintained is challenged by God’s statement in Job 2:3, an admission that God has brought suffering on Job “for no reason.”  Yet Job is not initially aware that his suffering is “for no reason” – thus his insistence that his suffering be explained. Yet right at the beginning of the story, God lets the cat out of the bag, and the reader knows that what Job seeks is not to be found. What are we to make of this disturbing knowledge? Adele Berlin addresses this concern:

“The reader is given knowledge which [Job] does not have – the knowledge that God is testing [him]. Obviously, it would not be a valid test if Job knew about it. The question is: why is the reader told from the outset. The answer is that this allows him [sic] to perceive the events differently from the way that Job does. For Job, the question is: what does God want of me and why is he doing this to me? For the reader, the question is: will Job pass the test? Our knowledge that it is a test lets us accept actions on the part of God that are contrary to our picture of him [sic]. Without this knowledge we would be puzzled and/ or incensed, much as Job is; with this knowledge we accept God’s actions, knowing that he [sic] does not really intend for them to be carried out.” (5)

For Berlin, being “let in” on God’s dirty little secret is what allows us to accept God’s abuse of Job. The knowledge that God is testing Job allows us to accept the injustice of Job’s suffering. There is a reason, after all: to prove that Job will be righteous “for no reason,” he has to suffer “for no reason.”  As James Crenshaw notes:
“God reminded the Adversary that Job has held securely to his integrity, “although you incited me against him, to destroy him for no reason.” This allusion to the absence of any reason for destroying Job’s “hedge” recalls the Adversary’s initial question, “Does Job fear God for nought [that is, without cause]?” and amounts to a triumphant shout.” (6)

Apparently, if we follow Berlin, the knowledge of what God is up to allows us to set aside our obvious concerns about God’s allowance of Job’s unmerited suffering. I cannot make sense of Berlin’s claim that God “does not really intend for them to be carried out.” In the narrative, Job’s suffering is linked directly to God’s releasing Satan to do his worst. God does intend Job’s suffering, quite explicitly. Being let in on the secret does not relieve us of the problems this presents.

Throughout his encounter with his friends, Job has pleaded his innocence. When God responds as the voice in the whirlwind, no mention is made of Job’s actions: he is neither condemned nor vindicated. Instead, Job is confronted with the “seemingly magnificent irrelevance of much of the content of the divine speeches,” (7) as God demonstrates his might and challenges Job to respond in kind (although God does not respond to Job in kind).

And yet, after this massive display that consistently ignores Job’s pleas, Job responds in 42:1-6  with claims of ignorance and acts of repentance. Crenshaw asks,
“Earlier, he had spoken things which he did not fully understand, for which Job despises himself and repents in dust and ashes. No reading of this final speech by Job removes the perplexing features nor explains why he feels obliged to repent over incomplete knowledge. Where has Job’s integrity gone?” (8)

Also complicating our understanding of the close of the story is the restoration of Job’s health, wealth, and family following this act of repentance. As Martin Pope notes, “the Epilogue upholds the discredited doctrine of exact retribution.”(9)

These “explanations” seem wanting: framing the concerns of Job in terms of justice has led to Schifferdecker’s claim that there is (non-obvious) order despite (obvious) chaos, and that our concern should be with the former rather than the latter. Whereas Schifferdecker seems to ignore the plain claim that God has acted without reason, Berlin takes this acknowledgement as reassuring, yet she does not make clear how our knowledge of God’s secret sheds light on Job’s actual suffering in ignorance. And Crenshaw seems to join the friends in turning on Job and accusing him of abandoning his integrity!

What are we to make of these approaches? The key, I believe, is to turn to Collins’ other insight:  “[Job’s] near-blasphemous candor is preferred to the piety of those who would lie for God.”(10)  And yet even near-blasphemy may not be nearly enough.

Job the Blasphemer?

Job is affirmed time and again as a righteous man who tells the truth. Throughout his dialogue with his friends, he expresses his outrage at his unmerited suffering. He bears no false witness against God – God has indeed allowed Job’s suffering to happen apart from any act of Job’s. In fact, it is precisely Job’s righteousness that has made him a target – in a sense, it is his righteousness that has caused his suffering. He has earned his punishment by living a righteous life.

It is Job’s righteous, honest protest that moves God to speak. As Catherine Keller writes,

“It is to Job’s angry uncertainty rather than to the pious shibboleths of his counselors, that YHWH responds. For all his wounded rage, Job is honored with the single largest divine speech in the Bible. … The drama of Job stages a shocking theological honesty: here is a truthfulness deconstructing the shibboleths of belief.” (11)

Job has held steadfast to his search for the truth, whereas his friends have lied, as Collins observes, to protect their (beliefs about) God. This is crucial: God responds not to Job’s questions themselves, but to Job’s honesty, to his willingness to interrogate his (beliefs about) God.

In responding from the whirlwind, God reveals that although he is pursuing the truth, Job has accepted a framework that is at odds with the truth. Job has been right to ask questions, but he has been demanding answers of the wrong person.

“The whirling wisdom takes no responsibility for the ills that befell Job. … Job presumes belief in a heavenly Sovereignty using the catastrophes of history and nature to punish the wicked. The divine mystery revealed in the whirlwind, in other words, seems to have nothing to do with [Job’s] anthropomorphic and anthropocentric projections. … [T]he divine voice claims responsibility for the broad sweep of the universe … but not for any specific events in the lives of people.” (12)

Job and his friends share the same theological framework: this frame remains unquestioned by Job.  God’s disruptive/disjunctive response rejects this framework. Seeking a “God’s-eye” perspective will not do. If Job is to grow in wisdom, it will not come in the form of divine revelation.

To understand the shift in framework, it is helpful to employ Bakhtin’s notions of monologic and dialogic, which Carol Newsom has applied to the Joban narrative. (13)

Monologic approaches truth as a unified system, and treats an author as the “ultimate voice” who determines the “message” of a story. (14) Monologic takes the form of propositional truth. Monologic assumes that truth is straight-forward and can be mastered/understood by the individual in a finalized form.

In contrast, dialogic truth emerges “at the point of intersection of several unmerged voices”, in conversation – a conversation that can’t be “summed up” into a monologue. Dialogic truth is embodied, personal, and “persons, not propositions, are the participants”. Dialogic truth has unity, but it is the “unity not of a system but of an event”: it is unfinalizable. “In a dialogic text, the author gives up control – and the author’s voice is just one voice, not the ‘real’ voice. And in a dialogical story, the most difficult task is the (unfinalizable) ending!” (15) Dialogic speaks of that about which we can say nothing (final), and yet about which we must (finally) speak.

Newsom quotes Bakhtin:

“Truth is not born nor is it to be found inside the head of an individual person, it is born between people collectively searching for truth.” (16)

So the Book of Job presents us with the form, if not the content, of truth. Dialogue is how truth that is uncontainable by the individual must be pursued. In dialogue, new possibilities emerge, assumptions are revealed and challenged, and truth can begin to emerge between individuals.

Yet Newsom is emphatic that dialogue is not to be confused with dialectic, because dialectic (and here she seems to be thinking in Hegelian terms) arrives at synthesis, an essentially monological resolution. I agree with this concern, although I believe Job can be faithfully read from a Left Hegelian perspective where the antagonism between thesis and antithesis is named and left unresolved – there is no Aufhebung of the fundamental antagonism. The crisis remains subject of conversation, subject of dialogue. A Left Hegelian reading comports well with Newsom’s claim that “wisdom dialogue … privileges argument over resolution.”(17) In many ways, the beginning coincides with the end, “the dialogue begins … with the bitter complaint of a righteous sufferer.” (18)  This is to say that the conversation begins and ends with truth. As Adorno notes, “The need to let suffering speak is a condition of all truth,” (19) and we find this affirmed throughout the dialogues of Job.

This affirmation comes first at the opening of Job’s dialogue with his friends. Whereas Job responds to the loss of his children and wealth with pious acceptance, and responds to his bodily afflictions in the same manner, he does not piously accept his friends’ “wisdom.” If Job were to follow the pattern, then “we [would] expect Job to make a third remarkable word of unconditional acceptance in response to friends.” (20) But he does not. Instead, Job enters into dialogue.

In this light, Job’s sustained complaint is the twist – the third resignation is absent, at least until God speaks – and even then we must ask if this is proper resignation. (And one is tempted to ask: is there not a (missing) third encounter with Satan? If in the first two encounters, Satan asks whether Job will maintain his righteousness in the absence of wealth and health, might this third encounter have Satan ask whether Job will maintain his righteousness in the absence of meaning?)

What is essential here is the move into dialogue. Newsom observes that the monologic folk tale is interrupted by the wisdom dialogue, and yet the monological folk tale returns at the end. Does monologic, then, have “the last word”? Newsom argues against this reading, because the structure of the book itself puts the two modes (monological folk tale and dialogical wisdom) into dialogue. (21) And yet there is irony in the fact that the monological folk tale is the source of meaninglessness – the fundamental antagonism- it is the folk tale that reveals God’s (lack of) motive. (22) Newsom claims that this rupture between the tale and the dialogue “produces a character who has made a decisive break with a previous worldview and a previous identity within that worldview.” (23)

Is this really the case? Is Job not still very much within the original worldview, albeit in a mode of protest? It would appear that Job’s honesty has yet to draw him into the blasphemy necessary to fully confront his situation and take responsibility in the face of it. Despite his dialogical question-asking, Job has not gone far enough – he has not followed his wife’s wise advice to  hold fast to his integrity, curse God, and die. (24) And so God must blaspheme on Job’s behalf.

(The) Blaspheming God

Newsom is vexed that with the arrival of God in the dialogue, the divine “last word” will destroy any vestige of dialogic, bringing the entire book to a monological conclusion. She notes that through the wisdom dialogue, there is a “movement from dialogic to monologic as the voices are progressively shown to be inadequate.” (25)  This move is finished in in Job 42:1-6, which Newsom reads as Job’s capitulation.

“The reader is thus apparently encouraged to embrace the vision of the divine speeches with their non-anthropocentric representation of the world in which the chaotic, although contained within the reliable structures of creation, is nevertheless an irreducible element in existence.” (26)

Further, she points out that, although God “officially condemns Job’s friends, they “are vindicated – Job bows to God and is restored.” (27) Has the divine voice destroyed dialogue? Newsom’s solution is to suggest that the double-ending – Job’s alleged capitulation in 42:1-6 and the folk tale epilogue – produce tensions (are the friends vindicated? etc.) such that this ending is “gesturing toward closure while signaling that the issues raised are far from settled.”(28)

While I share Newsom’s concern that the divine voice not collapse dialogue, I do not find the contradictions in the close of the story sufficient to keep dialogue alive. It seems too easy to describe these concerns as “too wonderful for me,” and drop them.  While Newsom seeks to avoid the monological approaches, the “pious lies” discussed in the first section above, her argument here is not convincing.

There is an old Jewish tale that is helpful here:

“Two rabbis are arguing over a verse in the Torah, an argument that has gone on for over twenty years. In the parable God gets so annoyed by the endless discussion that he comes down and he tells them that he will reveal what it really means. However, right at this moment they respond by saying, ‘What right do you have to tell us what it means? You gave us the words, now leave us in peace to wrestle with them.’ “(29)

I believe that what we see happening in Job is parallel to this tale. In the tale, the rabbis rejection of God’s offered wisdom strikes one as blasphemous. Yet if we understand truth as dialogical, their blasphemy is seen as deeply faithful. In Job’s dialogue with his friends, blasphemy is judiciously avoided, and God’s goodness is appealed to in order to make sense of Job’s experience. In the Book of Job, it is God who must make the blasphemous claims in order to show Job the blasphemy of Job’s fidelity. It takes an outrageous rejection of the entire (actually blasphemous) framework Job and his friends share to shake Job loose of his misunderstanding. Keller writes,

“How does the creator’s delight in the complexity of the nonhuman creation answer the question of unjust human suffering? Certainly not in … a reassuring sense … So to Job’s impassioned challenge of God’s goodness the answer is: [Leviathan], the monster of chaos!” (30)

There is no divinely ordained and maintained order that will account for Job’s experience. Job is right to be in dialogue with his friends, but wrong to expect God to provide him with meaning. It is in Job’s honest recognition of this that he comes to repentance – his repentance is not a compromise, but an admission that he has “uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.” Job held a blasphemous understanding of God, and it took God’s total rejection of Job’s questions to reveal this to Job. In response, Job repents of his sin of faithfulness – realizing now he had been repeating the shibboleths of belief right along with his friends, even though he thought he was in dispute with them.

Now we return to “the first word”. Contra the claims of Collins and others that the problem the book addresses is that of the suffering righteous and the prospering wicked, this problem is merely the question that draws Job into confrontation with God. God’s response puts Job in confrontation with himself, and his own understanding. The narrator reinforces this in Job 1 by declaring Job’s innocence and the causelessness of God’s act. We know from the start there will be no monological truth coming from God. Job’s “last word” acknowledges there will be no “last word” from God. The end of this dialogue does not end dialogue. As the history of the reading of the Book of Job attests, this is where the conversation really gets started, and truth begins to emerge among those in the conversation.

It is now that Job has encountered God, that he can embrace the folk tale’s “last word” in the midst of his life. God restores Job, not because of Job’s merit, but because it is in the midst of Job’s life that he can continue to live in the event of the “last word”.

“[E]ven for one as hurt as Job, new life can take place, … because he has refused to suppress piously the turbulent truth of his own experience, but has grieved and raged and confronted the meaning of life. Ex profundis”. (31)

Endnotes

1 John J. Collins, Introduction to the Hebrew Bible (Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 2004), p 505

2 Job 1:1

3 Job 1:8, 2:3

4 Kathryn Schifferdecker, Out of the Whirlwind (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2008), 67-8

5 Adele Berlin, Poetics and Interpretation of Biblical Narrative (Sheffield, The Almond Press, 1983), p 54

6 Crenshaw, 102

7 Marvin H. Pope, The Anchor Bible, Job (New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1973), LXXXI

8 James Crenshaw, Old Testament Wisdom, an Introduction (Louisville, Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), p 108

9 Marvin H. Pope, The Anchor Bible, Job (New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1973), LXXXI

10 John J. Collins, Introduction to the Hebrew Bible (Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 2004) p 517

11 Catherine Keller, On the Mystery (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008), 39.

12 Catherine Keller, On the Mystery (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008), 75.

13 Carol A. Newsom,  The Book of Job as Polyphonic Text, Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, no 97 Mr 2002, p 87-108

14 Ibid, 97

15 Ibid, 98

16 Ibid, 99

17 Ibid, 102

18 Ibid, 102

19 Theodor Adorno, Negative Dialectics (London: Routledge, 1990), p 17-18

20 Carol A. Newsom,  The Book of Job as Polyphonic Text, Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, no 97 Mr 2002, p 103

21 Carol A. Newsom,  The Book of Job as Polyphonic Text, Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, no 97 Mr 2002, p 104

22 Of course, it can be argued that God’s motive is to win a wager and demonstrate Job’s righteousness to Satan, although this remains an empty and therefore meaningless motive.

23 Ibid.

24 Job 2:9. Newsom makes the connection between Job’s integrity and cursing God (and therefore revealing the wisdom of Job’s wife) in The Women’s Bible Commentary (Louisville, Westminster John Know Press, 1998)

25 Carol A. Newsom,  The Book of Job as Polyphonic Text, Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, no 97 Mr 2002, p 105

26 Ibid, 106

27 Ibid, 107

28 Ibid, 107

29 Peter Rollins, How (Not) to Speak of God (Brewster, Paraclete Press, 2006)

30 Catherine Keller, On the Mystery (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008), 76.

31 Ibid.

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