By Fr. Bud Grant
I’ve never liked the Book of Job. I admire its intricate structure and theatrics, but its theology…? Job is pawned between God and the devil to determine whether Job’s devotion is genuine or merely hinged to his rather impressive wealth. As a test, the devil is permitted to do anything but kill Job. His flocks are taken by Bedouins, crops wiped out by pestilence. Job’s children and grandchildren are killed in a collapsing house. Mostly ignored, incidentally, are the herdsmen (butchered), townsfolk (famine victims) and servants (crushed). Job is disfigured by painful boils. Not afraid to assert his innocence or detail his suffering, Job doesn’t, quite, accuse God.
Job’s three friends each get three speeches with which to defend God’s ways (and Elihu one more). They all boil down to a few (standard) tropes: you must deserve it, though your guilt is not readily apparent (4:17); just ask and God will restore you (8:5); God’s ways are a mystery, who are you to question him? (11:7); your claim of innocence is sinful (15:4); it is temporary, learn from it (22:21); no one is just but God (35:2). Job’s friends desperately try to justify the ways of God to the innocent victim: “Surely God cannot act wickedly, the Almighty cannot violate justice” (34:12); “There are still words to be spoken on God’s behalf” (36:2). Any god who needs such pious defenses is pretty shady, anyway.
Job doggedly rebuts his friends, even speaking directly to God. Then, in a breathtaking crescendo of raw power, God blasts onto the scene, not with answers, but only bullying bluster: “Where were you when I founded the earth (38: 4)? Have you ever in your life commanded the morning (38:14)? Can you raise your voice among the clouds (38.34)? And so on. “Let he who would correct God give answer” (40:2)! S-i-t d-o-w-n.
In the midst of this manic tirade is a cascade of exquisite natural images … the birth of mountain goats, deer crouching to bear their young (39:1-3); the ostrich’s speed (39:18); the quivering, snorting steed with arched neck and pawing hoof (my personal favorite) (39:19-25); the soaring hawk, the eaglets drinking blood (39: 26-30); and spectacularly, the marvels of the hippopotamus laying in the shade of the lotus (40:15) and the armor-plated and fire-breathing crocodile (40:25-41:26). I take this section as constitutive of the story’s true value.
As a theodicy (explaining why God allows suffering), the Book of Job is a failure, though theologians still attempt to “defend” Job’s God, often with Augustine’s “no one is worthy of God’s mercy so if you don’t get it, don’t complain.” This is both obscene and misdirected: God does not inflict suffering on anyone, ever, for any purpose. Human sin is sufficient explanation for most of that, unless…
Unless we understand this very ancient fable (parts of which may pre-date the Hebrew version by centuries) as a rich soliloquy by the God who created nature as a self-sustaining system, prior to any concern for human happiness or sorrow. To be sure, this is a desperately incomplete image of God, whom we also know as the source of human flourishing and eternal life, but it is an accurate — and the Bible’s most epic — account of the Creator.
The lesson is necessarily partial, but important: God’s creation is designed and maintained as a global ecosystem which thrives as a whole, but with little regard for the individual organism or even whole species. To experience God as justice and salvation we have the rest of the Bible. Here, in Job, we have the starkest take on God as the Force of Nature and it is sublime in its poetic appreciation of Creation. For what it is, Job is a masterpiece.
(Father Bud Grant is a professor of theology at St. Ambrose University in Davenport.)