by Tom Stuckey.
The happy life Job had once enjoyed was gone. His business empire had been shattered. His resources of capital and wealth destroyed. His sons and daughters killed in a natural disaster. Although bereaved and in shock more trouble was to come. A loathsome disease began to eat into his flesh so that we find him, in chapter 2, scraping his soars. The scene is set for an exploration of disaster, prayer and the nature of theology.
Job’s friends – Eliphaz, Bildad, Zophar and Elihu – provide explanations. Theirs is a cold theology of the head and God is angry with them (42.7). According to Karl Barth, ‘Truth comes from an incarnate God who reveals himself in the tensions and struggles of individuals in specific times and places’. Job’s troubles are contextual and specific. They are also so traumatic that theological explanations fail to satisfy. After 25 chapters Job is exhausted. The theological debate has crumbled. A radical shift is necessary. An interval of waiting and meditation is required.
Job’s comforters offer answers instead of remaining silent. When God finally speaks no answers are given; instead Job is bombarded with questions – over forty of them. The first group are cosmological as God tests out his knowledge of the heavens, the stars and the earth (38.4-38). In the second group God examines him on what he knows about animals, birds and reptiles (38.39 – 40.24). Linked with these questions is the implicit instruction to observe, look and investigate. This avalanche of relentless interrogation sweeps away Job’s agenda. Indeed, halfway through, God wants Job to say something but he cannot find the words (40.3). Yahweh, who is clearly exasperated by Job’s refusal to engage, shouts out of the whirlwind, ‘Gird up your loins like a man; I will question you’. Job must speak.
The ordering of God’s questions take us back to the opening chapters of Genesis: the darkness and light (v.9 & 12), the sea and the firmament (v.8-1), the earth and the stars (v.26 & 31) and finally the animals (v.39f). We are reminded that creation and planetary life must be the context out of which we do our theology (particularly so today). Job has become another Adam tempted by Satan. Adam disobeyed and paradise was lost. Job, tested to the point of destruction, regains what was lost. God’s cross-examination centres on two fundamental questions: ‘Who are you?’ and ‘Where are you?’(Gen.3.9). Job’s response to the identity question is, ‘I am of small account’ (40.3). But is he? The Psalmist tells us that although humans are ‘a little lower than the divine beings’, we are above creation. We are not of small account!’ Job has lost this realization and moans, ‘what are human beings that you make so much of them?’ (7.17-21). God confronts this grovelling attitude to give us – according to Jonathan Sacks – the key message of the Old Testament that whether or not we have faith in God, God has faith in us.
When Job, in chapter 42, eventually speaks his words take the form of a confession. Yahweh has accused him of darkening counsel by words ‘without knowledge’ (38.2). Job takes this and plays it back thus transcending human language. The insertion of the Yahweh words ‘I will question you, and you declare to me’, previously addressed to a tongue-tied Job in 40.7 again tells us that divine speech must be truly absorbed so as to inhabit human language if revelation is to be apprehended. When this happens, language creates a new ‘seeing’.
Job confesses ‘I despise (loathe) myself’. The word ‘myself’ is not in the Hebrew text. It is suggested that the interpretation could be ‘I loathe my words’. This affects the final sentence about ‘in dust and ashes’. The word ‘ashes’ is present in the book’s opening demonstration of mourning (2.8, 12). The only other Biblical reference to ‘dust and ashes’ is in the story of Abraham beseeching God to save the city of Sodom (Gen 18.27). Job is not engaging here in an act of self-abasement by repenting ‘in’ dust and ashes but of being a man a faith like Abraham.
The usual interpretation of this confession is that God’s dramatic appearance is so awesome and majestic that Job is squashed. In fact the opposite is true. Job is rather repenting of a grovelling ‘dust and ashes’ mentality. This is Job’s righteousness. He stands before God not as a victim but as a victor. His friends, mouthing traditional theology, may be giving satisfying answers to the ‘why’ question but they are wrong because they do not confront God! Job is the new Abraham whose relentless bargaining prayers over Sodom made God ‘change his mind’. This is why Job, in the Epilogue, can intercede for his friends and save them from being punished for their folly (v.8-9). Yahweh’s rebuke of Eliphaz in chapter 22 verses 26-30 is a wonderful piece of irony. He told Job that if he sought to be reconciled to God, he would become an ‘intercessor’. Job did the opposite. He refused to submit and instead challenges the very nature of God’s providence. The message of Job is that we are made in the image of God and set within his creation as stewards to observe, understand and act responsibly. This is our vocation. It is an outworking of God’s faith in us. In the presence of injustice, catastrophe and destruction we must never be passive or remain silent. As divine intercessors we are to argue with God and with anyone who adopts a victim mentality or fatefully accepts that disaster, injustice and ruin are ‘the normal’. Above all our prayers must hold God to account!
 Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics. IV3a, T&T Clark. 1961, p.453.
 J.Sacks, Judaism’s Life-Changing Ideas, Maggid Books,2020, p.7.
 J.G.Janzen, Interpretation:Job, WJK 1985, p252.
 Six Bible Studies found in Tom Stuckey, In and Out of Lockdown, Amazon 2022, p43-85.
12 thoughts on “Job: Theologian and Intercessor”
Reading Job brings up more questions than answers for me. In the first creation narrative Genesis 1-2:4, we hear about Elohim. The god who relates to humanity with unconditional love and sees creation as good – very good!. He walks with man in the Garden. Elohim does not judge humanity as sinners that need to earn His/Her favour. Does not condemn humanity as evil and needing a flood to wipe them out! As with the God revealed by Jesus, in the parables and the Sermon on the Mount, Elohim relates to humanity with unconditional, inclusive and non-judgmental love – a love that we try to emulate. We are encouraged to be partners with Christ/Elohim in the creation of a world of justice and fairness. Yahweh, in the second creation narrative, was a rather vindictive, unforgiving, judgmental “god” whose love, if we can call it that, was conditional on making a deal where we become acceptable to Him if we repent of our supposed sinful nature, give Him endless praise and live a life of individualistic piety and “righteousness”.
I agree that Job is questioning, arguing with Yahweh, and “challenging the very nature of God’s providence”, but I search in vain for any mention of the unconditional love of Elohim within which we live, move and have our being. A love that brings us forgiveness for our past, courage to face our present circumstances and hope for the future. Why argue with the kenotic God who has given us this world. It is up to us to “provide” a world of justice and fairness. Why “hold God to account” for our failings! Why not identify the human kindliness that manifests the amazing unconditional love of God/Elohim?
I may want to have my cake and eat it, but I would like to think we can take the positives of the ideas of covenant without having to accept the negatives you (in my view, rightly) observe. The covenant(s) between Yahweh/God and the people (all of the created order?) can be seen as relational rather transactional.
I am familiar with the idea of different sources and the different names/words used of God, although I would not claim much knowledge still less understanding about them, but I think I follow something of the point you are trying to make.
Clearly much of the comment in the Bible itself and about the Bible (today’s ‘a word in time bible study’ may be a case in point) does come across as this negative bargaining view of “conditional on making a deal where we become acceptable to Him if we repent of our supposed sinful nature, give Him endless praise and live a life of individualistic piety and “righteousness”” as you put it. However, I wonder if this article actually helps us in getting away from that.
The book of Job rejects the notion that individual suffering is the direct result of the individual’s sinfulness, let alone that it is a punishment. If we think we know the nature of God (be that Yahweh, Elohim, the Trinity or whatever) we are sorely mistaken. However, Job (and Abraham) show that having acknowledged that we can (and perhaps Tom is even suggesting should) actually ‘argue’ with God; that God should act in accord with the loving nature we dare say is the fundamental nature of God. Here even ‘bargaining’ takes on a positive form, not making a deal for our own ‘salvation’ but interceding for others based on the very nature of God.
God makes it clear that Job doesn’t know how the universe operates, but can’t communicate the “why” of his suffering. Maybe God doesn’t give Job answers, because there just aren’t any good answers to the kind of suffering Job experienced.
If we are to have an authentic relationship with God, we have not only to praise him and thank him for the things we are pleased about and to ask him for help with our concerns and our hopes. We also have to be honest with him about our doubts, our regrets, our disappointments and our hurts.
But it is important that we also listen to his answers. Those answers may come in a variety of ways – in something you hear; something you read; something you see; something you experience. But you will get an answer.
We have so many things in our lives that can come between us and you, if we let them – events that we’re ashamed of, issues that we’re angry about, wounds that haven’t yet healed, struggles with faith. We ask that you will give us the confidence in you to share our concerns with you. Help us to find peace in our relationship with you. Amen
Tim. Surely a covenant is a transactional agreement: It carries legalistic connotations – if you do this then I will do that! Theologically it makes the love of God for each of us conditional, and if we accept that it makes a nonsense of the inclusive and non-judgmental love shown by Jesus. Not sure I can go along with the argument that since God is a mystery we have to accept the covenantal nature of His love.
Perhaps the key difference is in how we understand the providence of God. Job, quite rightly in my opinion, thinks of providence not as something that God does for us, but that our vocation is to be “divine intercessors”, taking responsibility for others, trying to bring relief from suffering, disaster, injustice and ruin. In fact loving and caring for all that we meet.
Given that providence is our vocation I am not sure what Tom and Job actually mean by arguing with God – since God is Love, how can we argue with love?
Perhaps the first thing to say is that all theological language is metaphor. That is why I speak of having my cake and eating it. I want to take the positive metaphors (as I see them) and distance my self from the negative (too literal interpretations, again as I see them).
Marriage may be a useful comparison here. It is a covenant. Some wonder for example why same sex couples want to enter into to such a transactional institution. Also of course divorce is needed if this transactional legal arrangement needs to be ended. However, many still hold an idealistic view of marriage as a freely entered into relational agreement. The vast majority of people (consciously or not) will have a more pragmatic view than the idealistic but a less cynical view than the purely legal transactional view. [There are those who see marriage as a divinely ordained, patriarchal mechanism for bring children into the world (a caricature?); and many other views.]
On realising that it is possible to have a relationship with God perhaps the language of covenants committing to that loving relationship is not entirely surprising. Add to that the tendency for people (particularly religious people possibly) to start interpreting love in their own interests (and perhaps it therefore no longer being love) it is not surprising either that thoughts turn to a broken covenant. That then gets written back into the covenant language as more of a transaction. That is over simplistic and a not very good attempt to explain away the cake I don’t like and eat the cake I do (tortured metaphor!), but might there be something in it?
As to arguing with God, that of course is metaphor. If we are right in our assumptions (revelations?) that God is love (the very nature of God is unconditional love) and God is relational and not dictatorial, then arguing (in the sense of working through an argument, metaphorically seen as an argument with a person) I would ‘argue’ is actually a very natural metaphor. Job and Abraham (possibly to a lesser extent) have gone past the place of punishment of the wrong doer to God showing love.
You say, “how can we argue with love” but one might say to you, “What is the point of intercession, if God is unconditional love?” What we are asking for may not be inline with ultimate love, so we shouldn’t ask, but if it is in line then God would do it anyway, so why do we need to ask for it? There seems to be a sense that God wants us to be involved in divine love and may be the metaphor of arguing (along side many others) is not a bad way to see our involvement.
As is very apparent my views are far from logically clear let alone consistent, but increasingly I feel that is a more honest place to be than rubbishing others views and thinking I have it all sewn up.
I am sorry if I come over as “rubbishing others views and thinking I have it all sewn up”, but at some point I cease to prevaricate and identify some things as universal, absolute and consistent. My thoughts about covenantal as opposed to relation agreements is that the former can be a purely legal agreement that does not actually arise through a loving, caring relationship. Also, I know in my heart that God loves me, though I can’t understand why! So, for me, God does not have to prove He loves me by entering into a covenantal agreement: And if I follow Jesus in trying to live a life of love I surely do not have to prove I love God by entering into a covenantal agreement!
Implicit in the idea of a covenant is God’s providence – we enter into a covenant and God then will act providentially. Meister Eckhart (1260 – 1328), “rubbished” this idea of the providential nature of covenant with the statement – “Some people love God the way they love a cow,: for its milk”.
God is Love means that it is not just the case that God loves us, but that God is implicit in the relationship when people relate to each other with loving kindness. God is not “out there’ deciding whether to love us or not, but here, now, with us in a very real sense. With this in mind making a covenant with God and intercession for that matter are asking God to intervene and show that He loves us when we should be doing the intervening, and the loving.
Robert, sorry I in no way meant to suggest you were “rubbishing others’ views and thinking [that you were implying] I have it all sewn up”; that was aimed at me. It was acknowledging the dreadfully illogical arguments I was making and I was hoping that what I was doing was not seen as rubbishing your views (with which I am very sympathetic) or the views of others (who may not share or view of the ‘negatives’) but rather trying to offer something different.
I am in deed very sympathetic to your view; it is just that I think there may be something to hold on to in the ideas of covenant without having to accept all the ‘negatives’. Might not one love a Cow for the milk and also just love? Perhaps the cow analogy breaks down, but I think you get the point. A lover may speak of why they love in terms of getting breakfast in bed but that does not mean they do not just love and would go on loving even if breakfast were not provided.
I think our views on a non-interfering God might be quite similar, but I would express it in almost the opposite way to you. It seems to me there is something about God ‘being implicit in relationship’ and
that ‘we should be intervening’ as you put it, that actually puts our intercessions at the heart of intervention. Somehow (and I confess I have absolutely no idea what sort of mechanism might be at work -any model I conceive breaks before it is even fully conceived) we are involved in God’s love in our intercessions.
Pavel. I wanted to thank you for putting up the prayer about finding peace in our relationship with God. Made me think, perhaps even brought me some peace! Sometimes events that have wounded us are difficult, if not impossible, to forget and forgive. A girl I knew was abused by her father, she went to the Minister for help and was told she must forgive her father! A short time later, desperately unhappy, she committed suicide. I will never forget this event. I struggle to understand the attitude of the Minister, asking myself what sort of Christianity is this, what sort of God is this that justifies such loveless judgmentalism. It happened 60 years ago, yet there is no way I could forget that event. Not even sure that I should forget that event – for me that would be inauthentic behaviour. There is no way I can forgive that man in the same way in which I cannot “forgive” Hitler or Putin. And the memory gives me no peace. In what sense does having an authentic relationship with God lead to inner peace in this situation?
Tim. Sorry I got the wrong end of the stick! It never crossed my mind that your arguments were illogical – since we are talking about love I am not sure that logic comes into this anyway! Regarding the cow: I worked on farms where cows eventually aged and “dried up”. For the farmer economic necessity meant contacting the slaughter house, however much he might “love“ the cow. I still bring my wife breakfast in bed each morning: pretty sure she would still love me if I didn’t! In the same way if God ceased to provide for us would we turn atheist? Eckharts’ point is that the love of God is actually nothing to do with economics, providence, good fortune etc. It is unconditional and, as I keep saying, I find that fact amazing!
Had to think about your third paragraph. I take your point that there is something about the divine, about God, that arises within relationships when we think of interceding or intervening. It is as though we are subject to a demand that we intercede or intervene; to help bring about justice and fairness in the situation before us. What do you think of the idea that every meaningful ethical relationship invariably involves three “persons” – Me, the other person and God? This ties in nicely with my “gut feeling” that God arises in the context of our ethical concern for others. This way of looking at things certainly puts our intercessions at the heart of intervention.
I’m not sure “the love of God is actually nothing to do with economics, providence, good fortune etc.”; that is ‘nothing to do with …’ jars a bit. I suspect I’m being too literal or placing the wrong emphasis on ‘nothing’. It is not about those things and certainly the apparent lack of what is conventionally seen as ‘good’ in those contexts (e.g. great wealth, high regard, influence etc.) is no evidence for the absence of God’s love (nor the presence of such things being evidence of a special abundance of God’s love) but the one who is loved (and recognises that love) will feel the richness, consider life providential and what greater ‘good fortune’ is there than “Life to the uttermost”? My mother used to reflect “it’s not fair, I don’t deserve that!” Not that life had dealt her a bad hand, but exactly the opposite, she did not deserve God’s love. To me that is to do with providence.
Also love that is devoid of practical outwork may not be true love at all in the same way James questions the reality of faith where, ‘If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?’
Actually, yet again, I suspect we are making similar points but coming at things from slightly different directions.
You ask what I make of “every meaningful ethical relationship invariably involves three “persons” – Me, the other person and God?” and you mention again your view, “that God [‘only’ I think you have said in the past] arises in the context of our ethical concern for others.” My initial reaction is sympathy with the view(s). However, I am not really sure what it/they might mean -I have no ‘gut reaction’. For that reason I think I may not have responded when you previously asked me about these things.
Perhaps I can make some response. Certainly for me a deist view of God (god(s)) that is not involved dose not fit my understanding of revelation, reason or experience. Likewise with an ‘interfering’ theist view of God. I think I sympathise with your expressions then because it gets away from either of those extremes but it is possibly too limiting (particularly with the ‘only’) for me -but like I say I’m not really sure what it means (very definitely a comment on me and my understanding and not you).
This is interesting Tim! I often feel grateful that I have a home, food and warmth, along with a sense of guilt that others have nothing. Not sure I can see any connection with providence in this, since it is not God’s fault that others have nothing. The three persons theory comes from Levinas and when I eventually understood what he actually meant, I found the idea deeply meaningful. In my inner life, such as it is, God, theology, in fact just about everything comes down to ethics. God is Love implies ethics – not in just affirming that God loves me/us or that we should love our neighbour, but that when we love and care for each other God is there between us. Perhaps I should say Godliness is there between us; it is the love in which we live and move and have our being. For me this is God’s involvement in that it is a demand that we take ultimate responsibility for all we meet. Sometimes I find this somewhat austere yet, as I say, in responding, I/we find forgiveness for our past, courage to face the present and hope for the future. Increasingly I find that for me God “only” comes to mind in the context of this ethical concern for others.
Many thanks for helping me clarify my views. I admire the way you think through these difficult matters and certainly do not think you lack “understanding”.