Stoicism and Christianity, Part 3: An Experimental Reading of the Book of Job

The book of Job is perplexing. And I have no illusions that I can make a dent in it as it has stumped the deepest theological minds for millennia. Further, I'm not equipped to deal with the textual and historical issues surrounding the book. As a result, the questions I put to the book of Job and the answers I demand from the book are likely to violate the integrity of the book.

That said (to signal my epistemic humility to any biblical scholars reading this post), I've had a few thoughts about the book of Job that I'd like to share. The thrust of this reading of Job goes to issues of apatheia and the person-hood of God I noted in my first post in this series.

To start, we can make the following observations about the book of Job:

1. Job's basic argument is that he is being treated unfairly, that he is innocent and does not deserve what has happened to him.

2. Job's friends argue that God must have his reasons and that Job must not be as innocent as he thinks.

3. God does show up but God doesn't directly answer Job's questions. Rather, God appears to take offense that Job should question him. God mainly speaks to his transcendence and power in a move to over-awe Job.

4. God rebukes Job's friends for speaking wrongly of him.

5. God states that what Job has said of God is right.

6. Job's friends are asked to repent.

7. Job repents.

The puzzling issues are #1, #3, #5, #7. That is, Job says he is treated unfairly. God says that Job what right in this claim. Yet God offers no explanation or apology to Job. In the end, it is Job, rather than God, who repents.

The whole outcome seems morally backwards.

What exactly is Job repenting of?

If what Job said is correct and true--if Job is representing the situation accurately (and he is)--then why the repentance?

A common interpretation is that Job is expressing humility before the power of God. That Job is repenting of speaking of things--how God runs the the cosmos--about which Job knows nothing.

I think that this reading has a grain of truth, but I want to float a different reading. I don't know if this reading is new to me, and I think I remember George hinting at something like it awhile back. So, this might not be new, but here is my thought balloon on reading Job.

The only way I can see to reconcile #1-#7 is that the "sin" of Job and his friends has nothing to do with the accuracy of their speeches. Job's friends were "wrong" and they must repent. Job, apparently, was "right" yet he repents as well. So it seems that the truth or falsity of their pronouncements are not the problem.

So what is the problem?

Well, perhaps the problem is that they shouldn't have started speaking at all. The proper move would have been to remain silent.

Now, so far this reading looks a lot like the folk reading (i.e., common readings in the pew). The point of Job is one of humility. That we should not speak of things beyond our ken.

I want to float the idea that the problem with the speeches in Job was not that they were speeches but that they expressed certain expectations that were problematic. And is was these expectations that God tried to quash in his response to Job.

My thought is that the speeches in Job express the assumption that the God/Human relationship is, well, a relationship. Thus, there is embedded in this formulation a sense that we can critique God on how God is "treating" us. Job's main complaint is that God isn't treating him well or fairly. In this assessment Job is correct. The problem, as I'm reading it, is that Job is trying to view his interactions with God in relational terms, using notions of personal "treatment." Job's repentance, therefore, is not for being "correct"--God IS treating him in a shabby fashion--but for expecting that God could be criticized on relational grounds. My take on Job is that God is rejecting those categories outright.

Evidence for this reading comes from looking at God's respond to Job. On the folk reading, God is mainly demonstrating his Power and Transcendence. Basically saying to Job, "I'm too big for your questions." In my reading, the issue isn't God's transcendence but rather his impersonality. That is, God's self-portriat isn't a relational portrait. God doesn't describe himself as being the caretaker of humankind. A God who answers prayers, demands worship, is angered over moral infractions, or is seeking the salvation of sinners. Rather, the God in Job looks similar to Einstein's or Spinoza's view of God. Deus sive Natura.

That may be stated too strongly, but the point of this reading is that Job's problem was that he misunderstood the nature of God/Human relations. Job saw the situation in relational terms. God rejects those terms. God basically says in his speech to Job that relationality isn't in the offing.

I don't know if this reading is doing violation to the book of Job. Or how it is affecting you. Again, this is just an experimental line of thinking. And it goes back to issues of how relational notions of God may interfere with the development of equanimity in the face of life circumstance. To summarize, this reading of Job suggests that we cannot read life events in relational terms. As symptoms of God's "treatment" of us.

Food for thought.

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9 thoughts on “Stoicism and Christianity, Part 3: An Experimental Reading of the Book of Job”

  1. The puzzling issues are #1, #3, #5, #7. That is, Job says he is treated unfairly. God says that Job what right in this claim. Yet God offers no explanation or apology to Job. In the end, it is Job, rather than God, who repents.

    The whole outcome seems morally backwards.


    I don't know if you've been following or not, but, coincidentally, I've been dealing with this "problem" in the last couple of posts over on my blog.

    I haven't proposed an answer to suffering or to why Job would "repent" - but I've observed that the the bible's persistence that God is good, despite all the "evidence" to the contrary, itself lends credence to the claims that the biblical witnesses had an authentic encounter with a living God.

  2. Meh. I'm not really buying it, either as an interpretation of what Job was supposed to say in its original premodern context, or as an attempt at constructing a new message for our current context. For me, it's just too much of a stretch to get from the text to that interpretation.

    In my opinion, a good present-day interpretation of Job would involve noticing the obvious seams in the text, explicitly rejecting "God's" ridiculous justifications, and recognizing Job, not "God", as the voice providing moral guidance in the book.

  3. My experimental line of thinking is that it is because God is a personal God but gives us free will, and that is why he said the things he said to Job. Again, since this blog is a place of experimental thinking I too am just thinking out loud and learning at the same the time....(which is why I enjoy this blog :0))

    I believe that God was proud of Job because look how God was boasting of him to Satan. I think the whole idea of the book of Job is that God does care how we behave and how we think of him. How could he in love create us and not care what we think about him? It's true enough that he can be angry and chastise us but that only proves that it matters to him what we think about him! Revelation 3:19 says he chastises us because he loves us! One of the awful lies Job’s friend Eliphaz told was this: “It doesn’t matter to God how you behave or think. It doesn’t affect him one way or another.” (See Job 22:2-3.) As the NIV renders it Eliphaz says, “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?” Eliphaz means well. He wants to exalt God far above all the puniness of humanity but in the process he bears false witness against God because the whole book of Job is built on the fact that God is proud of Job (see 1:8 and 2:3 and 42:7-8). What pleasure does God get out of us? He loves it when we say no to the God-denying look of the world. It gives him pleasure to see us struggle against great odds, continually lose specific battles and still get back up and into the war. And we do battle against great odds. We’ve been shaped in wickedness, we’ve come to love ease and take great pleasure in feathering our present and post-mortem nests. We’ve been dominated by patterns of behaviour for many years and there’s enough evil in the world to continue to feed those patterns that makes them hard to break. Poverty and war, social evils and paramilitaries, entrenched corruption in government, ill-health and depression come at us, wave after wave. Now and then we sense the awful power of the Sin that has the world by the throat and it’s then we see the cross for what it is. All these awful evils that we can see and sense remind us that there is something deeper, more awful than these visible horrors; they’re the tip of the iceberg. So when you stand up, when you shut your mouth to vile speech, when you open your hand in generosity, when you open your heart in forgiveness, when you dismiss the temptation to isolate yourself from the church and the needy world, it matters to God. It pleases him! More than that, it advances his cosmic purposes. You are fighting God's battle for him against all the forces of gloom and cynicism in the world. One day you will see the glory of what you have done! Believe it: it matters to God.

    Sometimes we do get treated unfairly. But in your last post, who is to say what is fair and what is not fair? But does that mean we should not question God? I don't think so. I think we should question Him. We should wonder why the wicked prosper while the poor die. He does have the power to change our circumstances and then when he doesn't, we should get angry. Why does one person get cured from cancer while others are not? Is God really working hard to make sure I get a good parking spot at the grocery store? I believe that God is very personal and that is why some people get it harder than others. He knew Job would endure, maybe not perfectly, but he did, and He knew Job would. God only gives us what we can handle, but that doesn't mean we should sit complacently twiddling our thumbs. I think it is healthy to question God and to even get angry at Him, but not to the point of loosing our relationship with Him. God wants us to be faithful to Him. Job did that.

    Again, I really don't want to sound like I have the answers, but I do know that God loves us, and sometimes that is the only truth I need to get through the day. Blessings...

  4. Now that I think about it, I guess that one might also come at a present-day interpretation of Job with the assumption that it is not so much about God as about how people have experienced God ... and in that case, regardless of the "seams" I mentioned, some of the things you might learn from Job are that the concept of a personal, good God is psychologically difficult to maintain, pastorally useless, and philosophically, just a hair short of self-contradictory.

  5. Wow! Really interesting reflections.

    This is the first I've heard of Job as a sin-repentance story. The usual 'lenses' I'm habituated to for Job are
    1.) the move from a quid-pro-quo magical God who gives you good things if you do good things, to a transcendent God who might take away your material stuff for no fathomable reason but will always be looking after you and after the whole marvelous creation
    2.) question: "why do bad things happen to good people?" answer: "we don't know, but
    2a.) it's okay to complain and we should, because if we're lucky we will poke God into responding
    2b.) just be obedient, who knows, God might be using you to prove something to Satan.

    You're right that there's "repentance" (42.6). It's hard for me to see this as a story of someone repenting of a sin, though, because as you say Job is the protagonist precisely because he's innocent! I guess we could say that Job is an example of the brokenness of even the most righteous person, because when he's tested he gets angry at God etc... but that still requires viewing his questioning of God as a sin, and that's hard for me to swallow, mostly because it's Job's questioning that prompts God to speak to him. Indeed, I almost wonder whether God is actually trying to get Job to ask these angry questions, because the questions lead to the direct conversation.

    You could even look at it as an 'excess' sort of obedience--when deprived of every good gift Job still doesn't commit sinful actions--the worst it gets is him saying angry words to God--and isn't that what we're supposed to do when we're angry or tempted, take it to God?

    This is a stretch, maybe too far of a stretch, but: What if Job's repentance is less like a sinner saying "I'm sorry" and more like a prophet saying "Yikes" when God (or an angel) first appears to him? Less of a moralistic repentance, and more of the creature's sense of being overwhelmed by the Creator.

  6. Matthew,
    This reading isn't my preferred take on Job. I personally like Jack Miles's take on Job in God: A Biography where Job's "repentance" is to be read as an ironic retort.

    You make a good point that God is pleased with Job before, during, and after Job's ordeal. But God is irritated with Job in his speech. And Job does repent. The mystery of the book is why the irritation of God's part if Job spoke truthfully? And what does Job repent of?

    Hi Heather,
    I might have wrongly suggested that that Job's "repentance" was due to "sin." So, stating it more blandly, Job is backing down from something and uses the word “despise” (most translations say Job despises himself, but from what I understand the object of the despising is unspecified). Given this weaker formulation, I guess I’d ask the question of the post this way: Is Job simply expressing humility or is he really backing away from (and despising) something in his actions? True, the plain reading of the text might just see Job being humbled. But humbled from what? What did he do that was full of pride? The answer seems to be presumption in questioning God. But if Job spoke truthfully where is the presumption? So, my reading in this post is to suggest that Job is backing away, not from presumption, but from an assumption. Specifically, an assumption about God/Human relationality.

  7. Richard,

    "Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?" Just having fun! (I've always wanted to say that.)

    Let's try a relational spin on Job.

    Kierkegaard uses the fairytale of the Fisher King to help make sense of why God had to come in the form of a servant: "For love is exultant when it unites equals, but it triumphant when it makes that which was unequal equal in love." (Philosophical Fragments) As the fairytale king had to give up his kingly position in order to love a humble maiden as an equal, so God had to give up the form of God to love us as equals--or so argues Kierkegaard.

    I don't know how persuasive I think Kierkegaard is on that point, but it seems to parallel the Job story: "...Satan answered the Lord, 'Does Job fear God for nothing? Have you not put a fence around him and his house...on every side? ...but stretch out your hand now, and [take] all he has...and he will curse you to your face.'"

    As I read it, the point is that Satan argues that it is God the giver that Job loves, not God as a personal friend (albeit, one who inspires fear).

    Job is a hero in the story because he complains to God as though he were a friend who needs to be brought back into line. Job's "friends," by contrast, hide behind theologisms that mask honest dialogue.

    In other words, I see Job as almost entirely relational--God is testing Job to see whether he's really on his side, really a friend of God.

    Job passes the test, and his "friends" do not, precisely because Job spoke to God relationally--and honestly in anger--whereas the "friends" put up totem pole theological points where honest dialogue should be.

    But I like your non-relational apathetic view too--as long as it's not an either/or: the infinite sea of being can also be the source of infinite love...

    There is a line out of Job that always gets me: (40:8) "Will you condemn me that you may be justified?" There's some food for thought.


  8. I agree with you Richard that your interpretation is valid. It agrees with other spiritual traditions that promote apatheia. Job and his friends, although disagreeing, are saying the same thing only from different angles. Both operate from the notion that God blesses the righteous and punishes the wicked. Job just thinks that since this is true, he must be faithful to wait for the blessing since he is righteous. God is the rhetorical voice that teaches us that this is all a construct of our thinking but that it doesn’t represent reality. Those beliefs interfere with the true understanding that we are a part of creation and life happens to everyone and everything. We may label things good or bad, but that isn’t reality, only an interpretation of it. This erroneous thinking leads to condemnation of others, as in Job’s friends, or as the Testament of Job states, the suicide of Job’s wife from despair. She cursed God and died.
    The repentance portion of the book reminds me of Paul’s teaching that all things are lawful but some are condemned by the law. This I take to mean that those who believe the law are judged by it and there are others who don’t believe or follow the law who are free to act out of love despite what the law says. Kind of like Jesus healing on the Sabbath. Job’s friends had to repent because they were wrong according to what they believed but Job may have realized that he was conceptually wrong and had to relent to a new understanding of his place in the world as one of many of God’s creations and not one upon whom God dotes constantly.
    The ending might be tacked on to make everything work out like a happy ending, as some have speculated, but it just confuses things based on what God says to Job and friends. God does not bless or punish so his blessing at the end just negates what was previously debunked. Or, it could mean that stuff happens, some good and some bad, deal with it.

    Tracy, I wrote this before your comment but I have to mention that your last line relates to the attitude and set of beiliefs of Job and his friends as I see it. They would rather have a nice tidy belief system that made sense to them rather than accepting the real world in all it's untidiness. Job would rather condemn in order to maintain his belief of how the world works. Maybe we all have it way too figured out for our own good. That's why I like the questions raised in this blog.

    Rick T

  9. Tracy & Rick,
    Thanks for the comments. I don't necessarily want to rule out relational notions in Job. The post is just one possible way to read Job that occurred to me awhile back. The book is such a puzzler. I guess that is the genius of the book.

    Again, I like Jack Miles's take on Job. Miles sees Job (standing in for humanity) arguing God to a standstill. Job repents in the end before Power, but God himself noted that Job was correct in his accusations. That is, God wins via Power in Job. But Job gets the better of God on moral grounds. The point is that with Job the story of God reaches a fork in the road. Will God be a Transcendent Being of Power? Or will God be an Empathic Moral Being? That fact that God attempts to remedy Job's losses suggest that God chooses, in the end, to be a Moral Being. And I believe Christianity continues this notion.

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