Oldřich Kulhánek, Job No. 1. Lithograph (2002)
This post was published first on 14 September 2010. It seems appropriate for today, Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of the Christian season of Lent.
The Old Testament books of Wisdom are among my favorites in the Christian canon (they are also present in the Hebrew Scriptures). They don’t get heavy into theology like Paul’s letters and they don’t feature a hundred brilliant stories like Exodus. The Wisdom books are three: Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes.
I had a phenomenal Old Testament professor a couple of years ago who explained the books of Wisdom in the clearest possible way: mathematically. Here’s how it plays out:
1. Proverbs: if A, then A. This is very simple. If you do good, you will get good. God will grant you a large family, much land, and large herds of livestock if you follow God’s commands. And after all this you’ll end up in Sheol. If you don’t follow God’s commands, then you won’t get any of this stuff and nobody will like you. So when you die that’s it; you’ll still end up in Sheol, but with a bad name and no decent progeny up here on the surface. This is, pushed too far and aside from the Sheol part, prosperity religion. But as it is, it is good old conventional wisdom of the commencement-speech, buck-up-little-engine, God-helps-those-who-help-themselves, Jeffersonian-democracy variety. See for example, 1.33-34:
Waywardness kills the simple, and the complacency of fools destroys them; but those who listen to [the Lord] will be secure and will live at ease, without dread of disaster.
Not very convincing, is it?
2. Job: if A, then -A. Also simple, but with a dark twist. If you do good, if you are blameless in God’s sight, if you are morally irreproachable, then God will kill your family, burn down your house, obliterate your livestock, and kick your sorry ass up and down the stairs. OK, maybe not God exactly, but God will at least sit around and watch hasatan, the Accuser, kill your family, burn down your house, obliterate your livestock, and kick your sorry ass up and down the stairs. How this is different than God doing it, you ask? We’re not sure. We’re not even sure it is different. But here’s a sample text that shows the A/-A relationship nicely. Job:
Though I am innocent, my own mouth would condemn me; though I am blameless, [the Lord] would prove me perverse. I am blameless; I do not know myself; I loathe my life. It is all one; therefore I say, he destroys both the blameless and the wicked. When disaster brings sudden death, he mocks at the calamity of the innocent (9.20-23).
3. Ecclesiastes: if A, then Q? or -W? or who the hell knows? Can we get an Amen here? Now this is life as we know it! Too often, things seem to be disconnected from one another; things fall apart, nothing works. What befalls us and those we love seems random, maybe is random. Okay, it is random. Sometimes — lots of times? — things just happen. So let’s not try to find sense where there is no sense to be found. And if you think you know something, think again. Your greatest wisdom is folly. Qoheleth, the author of Ecclesiastes, writes,
So I turned to consider wisdom and madness and folly; for what can the one do who comes after the king? Only what has already been done. Then I saw that wisdom excels folly as light excels darkness. The wise have eyes in their head, but fools walk in darkness. Yet I perceived that the same fate befalls all of them. Then I said to myself, ‘What happens to the fool will happen to me also; why then have I been so very wise?’ And I said to myself that this also is vanity. For there is no enduring remembrance of the wise or of fools, seeing that in the days to come all will have been long forgotten. How can the wise die just like fools? So I hated life, because what is done under the sun was grievous to me; for all is vanity and a chasing after wind (5.12-17).
So there you have it: Biblical wisdom in three easy steps. Proverbs has some nice stuff in it, but it’s too conventional for our taste. Job and Ecclesiastes, however, are sui generis. These two books can really shock us because they seem to go against so much of what the Bible is trying to say, both in the Old and New Testaments. Yet — and this is important — Job and Ecclesiastes are canon, and they were made so by people who knew what they were doing. The folks who set the canon — of both the Hebrew and Christian Bibles — apparently insisted on the presence of clear theological tensions produced by contradictory voices. There is a point here; it is not a mistake.
Now, do you remember those old Trident commercials that claimed, Four out of five dentists recommend sugarless gum for their patients who chew gum? Well, we always wondered: What about that other dentist, you know, the fifth one? What kind of dentist wouldn’t recommend sugarless gum? Also, what does this dentist recommend, sugar cubes? We never got to hear about that.
Job and Ecclesiastes, taken together, are the canon’s fifth dentist. Most of the Old Testament (indeed, much of the Bible itself) says one thing — obey the commands, love your neighbor, pray without ceasing, and you will be blessed — but these books contradiction this, and do so overtly. They say do all of this, great, but in the end you’ll get stomped by God, or in the end you will be dead, and therefore no better off than the fools and even the animals; who really knows what meaning there is to life?
Of these two “fifth dentists,” Job and Ecclesiastes, Job seems to me to be the strangest. This is because we all have some experience with the meaninglessness that Qoheleth writes about in Ecclesiastes. That’s just life, and we don’t need to look too far to confirm this. But what’s up with Job?
I really have no idea. But I’ll tell you some of my thoughts (surprise). I am taking a course on Søren Kierkegaard at Emory, and it’s been great so far. I am about halfway through the first volume of Either/Or. A couple of days ago we read through the section entitled The Unhappiest One, in which Job is mentioned, and I ran across this golden sentence:
[Job] lost everything, for what he kept is of no interest to us.
I’m not entirely sure what old Søren was thinking when he wrote this. But it hit me hard, because it pointed out something to me I had never seen: As he sat there on the ash heap, scraping his boils with shards of pottery, Job had not lost everything. He kept something, or maybe even gained something, something that is of “no interest to us.” What is it?
We have debated this here at psnt.net and have come up with a modest proposal: He kept his vision. And vision is something we usually prefer to do without (as we will see — harhar — below). Job kept his ability to see. His ash heap was special: It was an ash heap with a view. What did he see when he looked up from his place of sorrow? We propose that he saw three things.
1. Job saw God. Chapter 38 opens with the words of God, words seemingly straight out of Middle-Earth: Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind: ‘Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?’ So with the appearance of the whirlwind, God has shown up. Which God is this? This is precisely the God who shows up at the ash heap. The same God that had mercy on Adam and Eve and gave them the gift of clothing, the same God that was present in the wounded Christ, the same God that spoke truth to the divided King David through Nathan. Such a visit is a gift.
Notice too that God blessed Job with a visit despite — and perhaps because of — Job’s honesty with God. If you are ever really angry at God, don’t hold back. Give God hell. And if you’d like a little help getting started with this, you could do worse than to remember these words of Job to God:
Why did you bring me forth from the womb? Would that I had died before any eye had seen me, and were as though I had not been, carried from the womb to the grave. Are not the days of my life few? Let me alone, that I may find a little comfort before I go, never to return, to the land of gloom and deep darkness, the land of gloom and chaos, where light is like darkness (10.18-22).
2. Job saw creation. God says to Job,
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. Can you bind the chains of the Pleiades, or loose the cords of Orion? Can you lead forth the Mazzaroth in their season, or can you guide the Bear with its children? Do you know the ordinances of the heavens? Can you establish their rule on the earth? (38.16-18, 31-33)
Not all of Christianity is about peace and justice. It is also about seeing God. To see God clearly is to see all created things clearly. It is even suggested that peace and justice may begin with seeing God (see, e.g., Isaiah 6).
3. Job saw himself. In the midst of his vision of the created order, Job considers himself in relation to it and to God.
Then Job answered the Lord: ‘See, I am of small account; what shall I answer you? I lay my hand on my mouth. I have spoken once, and I will not answer; twice, but will proceed no further.’ (40.3-5)
Job’s vision of God and creation is too much for him. One is reminded of the Israelites at the foot of Mt. Sinai. God appears to them in an earthquake and in lightning. After about five seconds of this the people have had enough. So they say to Moses, Hey, Moses. Why don’t you do this for us? You go on up there and talk to God, okay? We’ll just stay down here. When you get back you can tell us what God says, okay? A little God is plenty. Job is undone. He now knows firsthand of God, and therefore of his own nothingness. Which may be the beginning of real wisdom.
We’re not trying to solve the problem of evil here. We don’t understand Job. We’re just making a few suggestions about what it may mean, that God appears to Job as he mourns his losses on the ash heap, and not at times and places Job may have preferred God show up; about what it may mean that God’s gift of clear sight is something that is, most days, of no interest to us; and about what it may mean that all of us — poor beleaguered Job included — prefer false comforts to clear vision.
Thanks go out to Prof. Brent Strawn for inspiring this post.