Theodicy and the Book of Job
Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies · March 6, 2012
Dr. Christine Mangala Frost has lectured widely on comparative religion and is a published novelist with two books to her name exploring the consequences of religious belief for human action. She is currently working on a study comparing and contrasting Hindu and the Christian Orthodox beliefs. Here she presents a reflection on the theme of theodicy in relation to the Book of Job.
Professor David Frost: Ladies and gentlemen, it falls to me to introduce the speaker whom, as some of you know, I happen to be married to. It reminds me of a saying of my mother’s. It’s my mother’s birthday today, and my mother always used to say, “Well, dear, what you do on your birthday, you do all the year round.” I don’t know whether you’re familiar with that warning. It was intended to make us behave ourselves, but whether she wants to lecture all the year round, I’ll introduce her very briefly. She came to England to study in the University of Cambridge, having been the first woman to win the Nehru Scholarship, and she there did a thesis entitled, “The Problem of Evil in Jacobean Drama,” which is, funnily enough, what problem she is talking on today. A dedication; it says: “To my husband, without whom my knowledge of this problem of evil would be much more limited.”
She’s going to talk in the first session on the theodicy of the Book of Job. She has lectured in comparative religion in several universities. She has interestingly written four novels, or is writing a fourth and has published [three] novels, which deal with the question of religious belief as it affects actual life. She once wrote for an Oxford journal an account of her writings which was entitled, “Fleshing the Bones.” The bones are the doctrines; the flesh is what suffers if you believe it. Suffers or benefits. So she has both theoretical and practical understanding of the subject. I’ll leave it to you.
Dr. Christine Mangala Frost: Thank you. I hope you all have a copy of the Bible there. I hope from time to time I’ll stop and we’ll read some sections. Will that make things difficult for you, Kostas?
Kostas: No problem.
Dr. Frost: Okay. In the first lecture, I chose the Book of Job, partly because it’s one of the most marvelous books of the Old Testament, as you know. Are you familiar with it, any of you? Any of you who doesn’t know it? You’re all familiar. Good. It’s not historical. It’s part of what is called the Wisdom Literature. It’s a point of composition. It raises, more than any other book in the Bible, all sorts of questions about it, so I thought it would be a good way to approach the subject, by looking at the Book of Job and seeing what we can learn from it.
The title of this lecture is “Theodicy and the Book of Job.” What is theodicy and why is it a problem? The English word “theodicy” derives from two Greek words: theos and dikē, which mean “God” and “justice.” So theodicy is an argument that tries to maintain God’s righteousness in the face of an overwhelming experience of evil and suffering in our world.
When we talk about God’s righteousness, what do we mean by that? Righteousness implies God’s goodness and justice put together. It also has, in Hebrew, connotations of integrity. When someone’s called righteous, it means they are a person of great integrity. We have to bear this in mind when we are referring to God’s righteousness, that it has these implications.
Theodicy is only a problem for theists, that is, people who believe in God. Strictly speaking, there is no one to put questions to if you are an atheist. There’s not somebody you can address and say, “Hey, you’re good.” There isn’t a person to address to, so if you’re an atheist, theodicy is not a problem. For instance, the Buddha, who is not a theist, gives a psychological explanation; not a theological answer, but a psychological answer, saying that the human psyche is like this, like that, therefore we suffer. No reference to God or anything else. The Hindus place their trust in karma, which means your actions produce other actions, results. It’s kind of a chain reaction or law that pursues you through several lives. What you do in one life affects the next life. What that does is to simply keep God out of the whole question of suffering and evil. It’s strictly a human problem.
Despite all this, even the most hardened atheists or a Hindu or an agnostic, when something really goes wrong in their lives or in the lives around them, they start asking, “Why? Why is this happening?” and especially, “Why me?” when something happens. “What have I done?” or “What have they done?” This kind of question, to find the cause, to pin the blame somewhere, seems to be very inherent in the human personality.
Theodicy is part and parcel of the Judeo-Christian traditions, that is Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. We all believe in a righteous God, and therefore we ask him the questions not just us. “Why have you done this? Why is this world like this?” And try to answer them. Islam has an answer, and simply says, “God wills,” but most of us, probably, are like the eighteenth-century philosopher David Hume, who speaks for many when he asks of God, “Is he [meaning God] willing to prevent evil but not able? Then he is impotent. If he is able and not willing, then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Whence, then, is evil?” This is sort of a brief summary of what he asks.
These are the kind of questions that come up, one way or another, in the Book of Job. Just a very brief introduction to the background of the Book of Job. As I said, it belongs to what is called Wisdom Literature. The dating has been, as usually, subject to much debate, but generally scholars agree that it belongs to the patriarchal times. It’s clearly based on some kind of a folktale of a man who was extremely patient in the face of suffering. So the patience of Job is often mentioned, even in the New Testament; in one of the letters, the patience of Job is mentioned. Except when you look at the Book of Job, he’s anything but patient when you read it. So this patient Job probably refers to the character in the folktales and the character in the preamble and the end part of Job.
It’s got a very clear structure. I hope you can relate to what I’m saying; I’m not assuming you’re familiar with it. There’s a preamble, there’s a section in prose, there’s a story where God is in a kind of assembly and calls people, and Satan, who is simply known as the Accuser, is kind of security or intelligence inspector kind of figure who goes around the country, wandering around, checking up on people. God asks, “What have you been up to?” and he says, “I’ve been going back and forth, to and fro, wandering around. He actually worked for God is the implication; we don’t know about all that. But basically, the wager: he states this question. God says, “Have you seen my servant Job? He is such a man of righteousness, of integrity.” That is when Satan starts asking, “Will he really be faithful, believing, righteous person if things go wrong with him?”
So this is a kind of challenge between God and Satan which we have in the preamble, and the prose narrative is at the beginning and at the end. Somebody has compared it to an altarpiece; you have the middle with the poetic core, and on either side, you have this framework. There’s been a lot of debate about this. Is it really compatible with what goes on in the middle, or is it just part of the old folktale hanging around? What do we make of it?
Also, some critics and some readers find it difficult to accept this wager, because they say, “It’s a cruel game to play on anybody. You’ll hide behind the scenes and you’ll agree on something, and you’ll play a nasty trick on someone.” They don’t find it very acceptable. On the other hand, many scholars and many readers and many theologians accept that the prose narrative is absolutely essential to the framework of the whole book, and it’s also essential to unraveling the significance of what goes on in the middle. I personally tend to take that view, that the prose narrative is quite an artful construction; it’s not a naive retelling of the folktale.
This particular poet has several voices. In fact, so convincing is he that when people read the last passages where Yahweh speaks, they really believe Yahweh is speaking. They forget that it is a part of the poetic creation. This is the way he sees God; this is how he is inspired to present him. They start attacking him for what Yahweh does, as if he knows he is God. He is not; he is trying to communicate something of God in this.
I believe the prose narrative does one or two important jobs. First of all, it says very clearly and unequivocally that Job is righteous, that God supports and asserts Job’s integrity. He doesn’t question it. This is very important to bear in mind when we read what his friends are saying later. We have to take this narrative seriously, so that what we know what we are hearing and seeing is something you can’t simply explain away as the friends like to do.
So it does that important task of establishing Job’s integrity, and secondly it also shows us clearly that, though God is in control, he allows Satan a certain amount of power to inflict pain. He says, “Don’t touch him. Don’t touch his life.” Satan is in fact subject to him; he’s not a free-wheeling force. In other words, there’s no place for dualism in this, in the sense that, in some religions, you have God and an evil of equal power. There is no such thing here. He is actually subject to God.
Job suffers. As you know, he loses in the first part all his fortunes, his children, and, most dramatically, poignantly, he’s stripped one by one of his belongings, his relationships, his position, of everything, and is pretty philosophical about it. Even with the amount he loses, he’s pretty philosophical. He even blesses God. “Bless the Lord.” This is very much in the Jewish tradition, right up to this day, the notion of blessing: baraka. We had the Beatitudes this morning in the Liturgy. It’s an incredibly important aspect of the Judeo-Christian tradition that you bless God for everything. Especially in the Jewish tradition; whether it’s good or bad, you always offer blessing to God. In this way, the poet is communicating that his faith is firm, and he’s blessing God in spite of everything that happens.
But then, when he is struck the second time, he’s barely able to speak, and that’s when you get all the turmoil that’s going on inside him come out. I just have done a very brief summary of this, but when you look at it, Job suffers physically, socially, mentally—because he’s asking a lot of questions and not getting any answers—psychologically—because he’s struggling to hold his own sense of integrity against what his friends tell him. They directly imply he must have done something wrong, and therefore he’s being punished.
So psychologically he’s struggling, and even more so, spiritually struggling, because spiritually he feels cut off from God. Where is he? He even uses an image somewhere—I can’t find the location now—where he talks about, like Moses, “God used to pass me by. He hedges me about.” What’s happened? He’s gone. He’s disappeared. This experience of the disappearance or the absence of God is beautifully described in a phrase used by [Buber]. I think he has a whole book entitled, The Eclipse of God. It’s like the moon or sun eclipsed: he’s there, but you no longer see him. And that is the most appalling experience for a believer, because you think you believe in a God, you live by him, suddenly your whole experience suggests maybe you’re wrong: maybe he’s not there at all. This kind of challenge is spiritually very disturbing. So he suffers in all these ways.
The most simple and traditional and very strongly maintained answer to this question is: suffering is punishment for sin, wrongdoing. Throughout the Old Testament, you have this running through like a thread: you sin, you suffer. You are punished. No doubt about this. But this isn’t enough for Job. He says, “I’ve done everything right.” He’s not boasting; he just can’t understand. He’s lived by the expectations of his faith, he’s done everything right; he’s baffled.
Despite the fact that we know the answer beforehand—as readers, we know why he’s suffering, because we’ve read the first narrative—when you read the first book, we are swept along by Job’s sufferings and his account of it and his questionings. We, as readers, sympathize with him; we’re on his side, because he’s asking a lot of questions which people, anybody, I think everybody who has suffered, will ask: Why this? Why me? In fact, he has this phrase, that we are all like Job, “reason-hungry mortals.” We demand reasons. We have this inbred, innate drive to find answers, to ask questions.
Robert Frost wrote two masques that are not that well-known. One is called “A Masque of Reason,” and it’s based on the Book of Job, some modern version of it, and “A Masque of Mercy,” which is based on the Book of Jonah. They sort of balance each other. The first one is not that good, but the second one is really good, where he has his own way of answering these questions. The answer to Job’s questions is not direct, but the answer lies in another baffling aspect of God, which is his mercy. That’s the way he answers it: if you cannot get reasons out of God for the evil in the world, nor can we get any reasons for his goodness either. There’s a kind of a negative balance on both sides, as it were. That’s the way he works.
Job doesn’t find this particular equation of sin and punishment very satisfying, but his friends, the comforters, they go on and on about how the wicked may prosper but in the end, they’ll come to no good. This is saying he’s going, or rather, he’s done the right things and is suffering; they don’t say anything to him directly, but instead they go on and on and on and on, speech after speech, about the plight of the good and the plight of the evil ones, the plight of the wicked, and how, beautifully and convincingly put, they all come to a bad end in the end. In fact, the argument doesn’t hold very well, because sooner or later, Job will point out that this isn’t necessarily the case. If it is the case, why wouldn’t we see more of it? In fact, God allows the wicked to prosper quite a lot. As for the bad end, well, I don’t know; it doesn’t always happen. The good also suffer; the righteous suffer, and they carry on, suffering, and there is no answer.
The genius of the poet, if you like, is to expose the inadequacy of this particular, simplistic, very moralistic, almost mathematical equation of sin and punishment. It’s kind of a traditional wisdom which they have learned, a moralistic wisdom, which they pass on. What’s wrong with moralistic wisdom? What is wrong with it? Any idea? Why does it strike as inadequate, apart from the fact that the innocent suffer and so on? Wisdom is without love? Yes, you’re in the right direction. It’s sort of standing outside the person suffering, a lack of empathy with the person suffering. That is its major problem. The other thing is: it’s in fact, the person giving it out kind of sounds smug. There’s a kind of smugness about it which is very unpleasant, particularly for the person suffering.
In fact, if you notice, if you turn to the gospels just for a moment, you’ll remember the story of the blind man who was blind from birth and who was healed by Jesus. What happens to him? The Jews came to ask him—they think they know the answer already, as usual, but they ask him: “Who do you think sinned? This man or his parents or ancestors?” In other words, it must be either a personal guilt or an ancestral guilt, the sins of the fathers being visited upon the children—and even that is misinterpreted. So they want to know, and what does Jesus say to them? Does he answer them?
A1: No, he says neither. He says what God…
Dr. Frost: To manifest or to show God’s glory. It’s very interesting why he doesn’t answer it, because (a) it’s a very simplistic answer and (b) it will definitely confirm the questioners in their own smugness, to feel that somehow they know the answer and now we know what the problem is; it’s all sorted. Instead, he takes them to another dimension, which is the way of God, which is not predictable, which is not to be explained away in this manner. In fact, when he cures the sick, in many cases it’s spoken of as casting out demons, literally. What happens in the case of these exorcisms is very interesting. It’s almost as though the sin or evil is taken out of the people, and whatever is ruining them as a person is taken out. It’s very interesting for us to look on this. We learn that we must hate the sin but love the sinner. So you can, in fact, discern, if you have the discernment of the Spirit, where the evil is and isolate it, if you like, but still love the person.
So Jesus certainly is concerned with restoring the humanity of these people, restoring the image of these people, and not saying, “You sinned and therefore you are punishment.” The word “punishment” hardly ever occurs in terms of the individuals he deals with. It doesn’t mean he doesn’t think that sin leads to evil things; he does say that, but it’s not the way he talks at all.
I’m afraid often, even in the Church, this simplistic, moralistic approach that suffering is punishment is current, especially there’s a kind of religiosity where the poor and the suffering and the afflicted, and even, I would say, the third world countries, there’s a kind of assumption: “Well, they’re there because that’s the way they are. They’ve done something wrong, they’ve got it all wrong.” Not only is it unsympathetic to the plight of the poor and the suffering, but it also creates a very harsh image of God. It creates a God who is cruel, deliberately crushing these people who have really done nothing wrong, and it’s another way of blaspheming God to present him like this.
The so-called comforters comfort. They again and again revolve round this particular axis of sin, retribution, punishment. They don’t go beyond that, at least in the first few speeches. One theologian talks about it like a wheel spinning in the air: it’s going round and round, but they don’t go anywhere. The same writer goes on to say, “The friends believe in their theology rather than the God of their theology.” That’s a nice way of putting it. They’ve got a nicely constructed theology. They have faith in it, and they propagate it, but in fact there is very little experience of God himself feeding that theology. It’s cut off from him.
That same suffering as a punishment for sin is one common view which continues to be at work in popular wisdom. The second one is suffering as correction. Crudely put, this is the one that says, “It’s good for you.” This is a therapeutic view of suffering: God chastens those whom he loves. This view is a bit more attractive, because it offers hope. It seems to sustain the relationship between God and man. He is doing this to you because he cares about you. But it still doesn’t get away from the fact that suffering is sent by God. This is the point about it, that it’s deliberately sent by God.
A comforter says to Job very early on, “Do not reject Shaddai’s, God’s, correction. He may give pain, but he binds the wound. He strikes, but his hands bring healing.” This is comfort of sorts. Maybe from outside it’s comfort of sorts. I’m not at all sure that it’s comfort for the person like Job in his deep anguish and bewilderment and suffering. The problem with this way of approaching suffering is what I call the correction theology, suffering as correction, is that it can also become moralistic. You tell someone else, “Your suffering is for your correction.”
And I must make this point. I hope this comes through, and we’ll talk about this more in the next lecture. It’s one thing to tell somebody that suffering for your correction; it’s another thing for the person suffering to change his view of what’s happening to him or her, internally speaking. If something is going wrong and you’re in intense pain, there are two things you can do: you can protest or complain about it, but you can also say, “I am at the bottom of my pit. What can I do now?” and turn it into something else: make it into creative suffering. We’ll talk about it in the second lecture.
What I’m objecting to is this theology being handed out like wisdom literature from outside to somebody and saying, “Well, your suffering is good for you,” and I don’t think we should ever do that to anybody. It may be objected to here, but I don’t think even pastorally it’s a good idea: “You should suffer; it’s good for you.”
The moralistic habit, as I call it, is very hard to shake off. I believe that it is perhaps the major function of this particular book of Job within the Old Testament is to get us to open up a new dimension to these questions of suffering and evil by getting us away from the moralistic ploys that we have to deal with people. For instance, some people say, “Oh, Job is a proud man. He keeps saying, ‘I haven’t done anything wrong.’ ” What he is struggling [to do], to my mind, is holding onto his sense of integrity, who this person is, but instead he’s being told, “You are a proud man. Your pride is being chastened.” This is quite common, even in certain Evangelical circles, to talk of Job as a proud man who was brought down. That sort of neatly solves the whole problem: we’ll push everything under the carpet. He’s proud, his pride is battered, and that’s it. Again, it misses the mark. If you extend it further, beyond Job, are you going to say that every child that suffers, in an Ethiopian famine or something, is a proud person? Are you going to say that all the poor in the world and all the victims of torture, they’re all proud people?
The correction theology has certain elements which can be developed, which is as voluntarily accepted, but not as an imposed or an external theology. Again, like the other business of the sin as punishment, it satisfies the person who is telling you this: they’ve solved the problem. On the whole, both in the Gospels and the New Testament, it is not God, but the opposite one, meaning the devil, who is held responsible for the suffering. It’s not like God is saying, “Suffering is good and that’s why I’m going to send it to you.” It doesn’t work like that at all. We find a much more nuanced approach as Christians caught up in a crossfire.
The Egyptian monk Matta the Poor has a nice image for this. He says we often take temptation and suffering and everything personally and individually, as if it’s just me and God and evil, but in fact we are in a battlefield with a kind of warfare going on. We don’t know the whole story of it. We are participants in it, but we are not the only people. Human beings are vulnerable, caught in a kind of crossfire in a spiritual warfare between good and evil. Paul also talks about that in the Ephesians passage, that there is a sense of us being part of a greater cosmic drama that we are not aware of, and therefore we suffer.
When Jesus warns Peter, on the night of his arrest, that Satan will sift him—that’s a lovely word: “sift him”; it’s an image taken from winnowing, when the grain and the chaff are separated, you sift, and the stones and the wheat and so on&mdsah;Satan will sift him—it’s a wonderful image—it’s a far more tragic rather than a moralistic situation. A tragic situation, where human beings who are weak and living in a world where sin and temptation fall, it’s not simply something to use a moralistic stick to beat with, and if you take the Lord’s Prayer—“Lead us not into temptation” or “test,” whichever word you use:“Do not put us to the test.” What is this test? Again, it’s a much more tragic, much more difficult one. In fact, St. Mark the Ascetic has an interesting comment, a reflection on this. I’d like to quote that.
Every affliction tests our will, showing whether it’s inclined toward good or evil. That is why an unforeseen affliction is called a test, because it enables a man to test his hidden desires.
This is what’s happening with Job. This affliction is a test, and it’s testing what’s really in his heart, his hidden desire: which way is it inclined? Is it inclined towards God or is it inclined toward himself or something else? This is the test. Every affliction tests our will, showing whether it’s inclined to good or evil. Remember, Jesus again talks about what’s in the heart, that passage about the things that come out of the heart. That’s what we have to watch. That’s why the Desert Fathers are always talking about watchfulness. That is why Jesus says to Peter, “Watch.” All this watchfulness is all about this test, and this test really puts you on the spot: which way am I going? Am I going to stick my neck out and continue blessing God, or give up and curse him?
Unforeseen afflictions test the heart, and it shows clearly that Job’s heart is turned Godward. I haven’t gone into the details of the development of all the accusations that take place in the book, but to recap briefly: first of all, his friends start saying to him, “The wicked are punished and you must have done something wrong,” and Job asks God, “Why have you made me your mark?” He sort of bypasses all this talk of sin and punishment, asking him, “Why have you made me [your] mark?” (This is in Job 7:31. Maybe if I finish a bit early, we’ll look at some of the passages later on and read it.) He sees it as a test: why have you picked on me? what is it? So he can see it like that.
Now we come to the last section. We have the fourth comforter, the young man, who is like he’s fresh from the seminary and he’s all full of enthusiasm, and he says, “Oh, you old people. You don’t know half of it. You don’t get it right. I am young and moved by the spirit. I am young and will give him the comfort. I will talk to you and I’m bursting to talk.” He’s full of bright ideas and full of the wisdom and fired by the wisdom. He strikes a new note in this whole book, and he is now saying to Job, “You don’t really understand. We are not meant to understand. God is wonderful,” and he describes the majesty, the power, the glory, pretty well trying to suggest to Job that he’s in front of something numinous, something mysterious, and you shouldn’t be asking questions.
This is his type of advice. Instead of saying, “You must have done something wrong. You have done something. You probably didn’t feed the poor”—in fact, his other comforters even started charging him with things he didn’t do, like saying, “You must have defrauded, and you must have done this.” He doesn’t do any of this. Instead, he says, “We can’t even barely look upon God, and we don’t know what his plans are, so don’t ask him any questions and just accept, and everything will be okay.”
Now, he definitely has a point there, but, once again, there’s a big difference between that type of wisdom and when you actually experience this, which is what the point of this last section is about, where Yahweh comes out of the tempest and his famous two speeches to Job. These two speeches of Yahweh, once again, I don’t know. Most people are so overwhelmed by it that they accept them. Do you really think that they answer Job? What is your reaction to it, to put it another way? Do you remember the speeches or shall we look at them?
Maybe read the first one. Do you want to read it? Let’s start with the first section and read about 20 verses and see what happens then.
Prof. Frost: It’s Job 38:1ff.: “And the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind.”
Dr. Frost: David, can you come here?
Prof. Frost: Yes.
And the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind: “Who is this who darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Gird up your loins like a man. I will question you and you will answer to me. Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements. Surely you know.
“Or who stretched the line upon it? On what were its bases sunk? Who laid its cornerstone when the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy? Or who shut in the sea with doors when it burst forth from the womb, when I made clouds its garment, and thick darkness its swaddling band, and prescribed bounds for it and set bars and doors and said, ‘Thus far shall you come, and no further’? And ‘Here shall your proud waves be stayed’?
“Have you commanded the morning since your days began, and caused the dawn to know its place, that it might take hold of the skirts of the earth and the wicked be shaken out of it? it is changed like lay under the sea, and it is dyed like a garment. From the wicked, their light is withheld and their uplifted arm is broken. Have you entered into the springs of the sea or walked in the recesses of the deep? Have the gates of death been revealed to you, or have you seen the gates of deep darkness? Have you comprehended the expanse of the earth? Declare, if you know all this.
“Where is the way to the dwelling of light, and where is the place of darkness, that you may take it to its territory, that you may discern the paths to its home? You know, for you were born then, and the number of your days is great. Have you entered the storehouses of the snow, or have you seen the storehouses of the hail which I have placed where light is distributed or where the east wind is scattered on the earth? Who has cast a channel for the torrents of rain or the path for the thunderbolt? To bring rain on a land where no man is, on a desert on which there is no man? To satisfy the waste and desolate land, and to make the land put forth grass? Has the rain a father, or who has begotten the drops of dew? From whose womb has the ice come forth, and who has given birth to the hoarfrost of heaven? The waters become hard like stone, and the face of the deep is frozen.
“Can you bind the chains of the Pleiades, or loose the cords of Orion? Can you lead forth the Mazzeroth in their season? Can you guide the bear with its children? Do you know the ordinances of the heavens? Can you establish their rule on earth? Can you lift up your voice to the clouds, that a flood of water will cover you? Can you send forth lightnings, that they may go and say to you, ‘Here we are’?
“Who has put wisdom in the clouds, or given understanding to the mists? Who can number the clouds by wisdom, or who can tilt the waterskins of the heavens? And when the dust runs into a mass and the clods cleave fast together, can you hunt the prey for the lion, or satisfy the appetite of the young lions, when they crouch in their dens or lie in wait in their covert? Who provides for the raven its prey when its young ones cry to God and wander about for lack of food?”
Dr. Frost: Well, I’m sorry to even interrupt that, because like you, every time I read it, it just opens you up to the absolute wonder that creation inspires in us. I don’t know whether you have been watching The Frozen Planet programs recently. It does do exactly what these questions do: leaves you with an incredible sense of wonder.
Now, of course, there are all these rhetorical questions. Job, how can he answer? He can’t. That’s not the point. What the poet is doing here is wonderful. He’s taking us away, if you look at it as a piece of literature, from the personal, the negative, the injury, the suffering, away to a world which is absolutely wonderful and beautiful and unfathomable, to a mystery of which we are a part. Now, this is the whole point. We are not sort of outside it, but we are in the thick of it. By implication, if God in fact has a plan—my stepdaughter’s very fond of saying, “Let’s make a plan.” The point is, he has a plan: a plan for human beings, a plan for what we call the economy of the entire creation. All this is implied.
Some critics say, “Oh, this is no answer. You’re just crushing him with all these questions.” Well, you could sort of take that view, but on the other hand, why does the writer do this? He doesn’t give any answers, and the rational, logical, reason-hungry mortal doesn’t get the reason he wants. Instead, he gets something else. Why? I believe St. John Chrysostom, as usual, comes up with the right answer, or rather a good answer, let’s say. St. John Chrysostom points out that the crux of the matter in Job’s predicament is that Job is angry, bitter and angry, and upbraids God, asking for an arbiter and doing all these things. It’s not because he lost his fortunes or his social standing, his wife, his children, his health.
It isn’t for any of these reasons, but because he is concerned with right belief. The God he believes in: is he as he is? Does he exist? Does he have the right belief towards, the right relationship with this God? Only the appearance of Yahweh out of the tempest will settle this issue. It’s no good other people telling him, “He exists. Oh yes, of course, he exists.” Like the fourth speaker said, “There is this wonderful God; you just have to submit.” It’s not enough to settle Job’s answers concerning the right belief. He’s standing with God; God has to come and stand with him, as it were. There is this marvelous encounter.
Encounter is the only answer to these questions. It’s when people in deep suffering encounter God in some way, they stop asking questions. I have seen people with cancer. Some react angrily and fight and ask questions; others take it quite differently. We had a lady who used to clean the house for us. She was hospitalized with the final stages of cancer. She wasn’t a particularly church-going believer, but she had basic belief in God. Her attitude to the whole of her suffering was completely different from someone else we knew. Same suffering and everything. One was raging against God and asking questions and not really getting anywhere, but this lady: I said, “What’s happening?” She said, “I’m going into hospice. Oh, it’s like a holiday for me, a final holiday. They’re being so loving; they’re being so compassionate.” Her whole attitude was a response to the love of other people, not raging at all. I must admit, I was incredibly impressed by her whole attitude. Then she had a dry sense of humor. She said, “I’ve always wanted to go overseas, and I never did, but I will be, after I’m dead.” I said, “What are you talking about?” She said, “I’m donating my body. I believe they need bodies for medical education in Fiji, and I hope they fly me out there.” She used to joke about it. All I’m saying is that not everybody’s capable of it, but there is something.
Going back to this: it’s this direct encounter which finally stops Job as it were. It somehow satisfies. I don’t think he’s somehow making mock; he’s just somehow satisfied. We don’t have time probably to go through all the speeches. How much time do we have?
Prof. Frost: About another five minutes plus question time.
Dr. Frost: The second half of this speech, the second part, God stops these rather overwhelming reminders of the cosmos, the stars and the clouds, the rains, or if you like the seasonal side of it, and comes down to the creatures he’s created. And if you look at the creatures he describes, some of them are semi-mythical creatures, like the behemoth and the leviathan and so on, but others are the wild donkey, the wild horse, the hawk that flies; all of them are images of freedom. He’s saying, “Did you manage to domesticate the donkey?” He relishes the freedom of these breakaways. There’s something wild about all these creatures, and Yahweh loves it. There is a sense in which that sense of freedom—of the hawk that soars, the donkey that bolts, and the horse that roams free—all these images build up a kind of energy, zest of life which is also given to human beings. We are not confined; we confine ourselves a lot of the time. But there is the sense of the enjoyment of the freedom, and I think that by these kinds of images the poet—maybe we have a small amount of it?
Prof. Frost: We could go from chapter 40 on. I was going to interrupt, and I’ll warn you before I try and read this that I probably can’t do it without bursting into tears. You don’t need to justify anything like that. Job 41:1ff.
Can you draw out Leviathan with a fishhook or press down his tongue with a cord? Can you put a rope in his nose or pierce his jaw with a hook? Will he make many supplications to you? Will he speak to you soft words? Will he make a covenant with you to make him your servant forever? Will you play with him as with a bird, or will you put him on a leash for your maidens? Will traders bargain over him; will they divide him up among the merchants? Can you fill his skin with harpoons or his head with fishing spears? Lay hands on him. Think of the battle! You will not do it again.
Behold, the hope of a man is disappointed. He is laid low even at the sight of him. No one is so fierce if he dares to stir him up. Who then is he that can stand before me? Who has given to me that I should repay him? Whatever is under the whole heaven is mine. I will not keep silence concerning his limbs or his mighty strength or his goodly frame. Who can strip off his outer garment? Who can penetrate his suit of mail? Who can open the doors of his face? Round about his teeth is terror. His back is made of rows of shields, shut up closely as with a seal. One is so near to another that no air can come between them. They are joined one to another; they clasp each other and cannot be separated.
His sneezings flash forth light, and his eyes are like the eyelids of the dawn. Out his mouth grow flaming torches; sparks of fire leap forth. Out of his nostrils comes forth smoke as from a boiling pot and burning rushes. His breath kindles coals, and a flame comes forth from his mouth. In his neck abides strength, and terror dances before him. The folds of his flesh cleave together, firmly cast upon him and unmovable. His head is hard as a stone, hard as a millstone. When he raises himself up, the mighty are afraid. At the crashing, they are beside themselves.
Though the sword reaches him, it does not avail, nor the spear, the dart, or the javelin. He counts iron as straw, and bronze as rotten wood. The arrow cannot make him flee. For him, slingstones are turned to stubble. Clubs are counted as stubble. He laughs at the rattle of javelins. His underparts are like sharp potsherds. He spreads himself like a threshing sledge upon the mire. He makes the deep boil like a pit. He makes the sea like a pot of ointment. Beside him, he leaves a shining wake. One would think the deep to be hoary. Upon earth there is not his like, a creature without fear. He beholds everything that is high. He is king over all the sons of pride.
And Job answered the Lord, “I know that thou canst do all things and that no purpose of thine can be thwarted. Who is this who 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 when you declare to me. I had heard of thee by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees thee, and therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.”
Dr. Frost: Thank you. Well, to sum up, only the appearance of Yahweh and his direct vindication of Job—of course, he tells the comforters often that they didn’t get it right—only this will settle the issue. So in other words, it’s the mystery, in the real sense, of things that invoke wonder and astonishment in us as well as things hidden—that’s the real, full dimension of the word “mystery”: things that evoke wonder and awe and the need to know more and experience more because we don’t know all of it.
The God of the Jews and Christians is the God of this mystery, but, strangely enough, this mystery is concealed but revealed. So that’s the paradox. Revelation, not logic, is what we are left with, what we are given. So my conclusion with this question is: this whole book reminds us that human life is hedged in on both ends of the spectrum of good and evil, and we have a mystery at the core of it, but the mystery is also hidden, also revealed, and it is this we need to keep our senses alert to. To conclude and to sum up in a very limited way, this book takes the questions of evil and suffering beyond the strictly moralistic, beyond the strictly logical, and even beyond good wisdom, and it takes you to that God of revelation, of whom we’ll see more in the next lecture.