The Book of Job: An Interpretation by Walter BrueggemannAugust 26, 2010
What is the price of Experience do men buy it for a song
Or wisdom for a dance in the street? No it is bought with the price
Of all that a man hath his house his wife his children
Wisdom is sold in the desolate market where none come to buy
And in the witherd field where the farmer plows for bread in vain
The Genre Of The Book Of Job
The book of Job lives — rhetorically and theologically — at the edge of the Old Testament. Rhetorically the book takes up older genres and patterns of speech, and fashions them into the most artistic and urbane statement of faith in the Old Testament. Theologically the book takes up old covenantal and sapiential presuppositions, challenges basic premises of Israel’s faith, and refuses any easy resolution of the most difficult theological questions that appear on the horizon of Israel’s faith. It is, moreover, appropriate that the book of Job should follow the book of Psalms in the canonical order, for the book of Job takes up the primary genres of the book of Psalms, especially lament and hymn, weaves them into a new coherent dialogue, and pushes both lament and hymn to an emotional, artistic, and theological extremity. Concerning the genre of the book of Job, Westermann has suggested
that the basic material is that of lament that characteristically engages three parties, the speaker, YHWH, and the adversary;
that the lament has been arranged in the book of Job as a dialogic disputation, a disputation that stands “within the lament”; and
that the dialogic dispute (expressed in forensic language) amounts to a drama wherein we are offered “a dramatizing of the lament”
(Westermann 1981, 11).
Such an analysis of genre indicates that we are dealing with an immensely sophisticated artistic work that is removed from any particular historical context or crisis, and that it stands on its own as a daring explication of the most difficult questions of faith. The book of Job is not for “everyday use” among the faithful, but is an artistic extremity that is peculiarly matched to the extreme crises of life lived in faith. In this artistic achievement, it is clear that the “dramatist” who produced the book of Job did not start from scratch, but was informed by and drew upon already well-established cultural reservoirs of Job-like materials from elsewhere in the ancient Near East.
The centerpiece of the book of Job is the long poetic work of chapters 3:1-42:6, a dispute in two parts that are connected by an extended soliloquy in chapters 29-31. In the dispute in two parts, the several speeches of disputation engage the most unbearable questions of faith While it is commonly said that the poem of Job deals with the “problem of evil,” or the “problem oil theodicy,” it is important at the outset to recognize that the issues taken upç here are not speculative or cerebral, but in fact concern the most intense and~ immediate existential issues of faith, mora1ity and fidelity that grow out of Israel’s older traditions of Torah (as in the book of Deuteronomy) and wisdom (as in the book of Proverbs)
The first part of the dialogic dispute concerns Job’s engagement with his three friends, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar, who are representatives of older settled, traditional faith The literature of chapters 3-27 is not in fact a “discussion,” but rather a series of speeches — alternating between Job and friends — that deal with the same issues but do not directly engage each other. In chapters 3-27, the pattern is to have Job’s utterances alternate with speech by his three friends
Job 3 Eliphaz 4-5
Job 6-7 Bildad 8
Job 9-10 Zophar 11
This series of speeches constitutes one “cycle” of exchange, and the process is repeated two more times, though in the third cycle of speeches, the pattern is left incomplete.
Characteristics of Speech: Job and His Friends
In this exchange, it is the case that Job and his friends in fact talk past each other. Job speaks existentially of his dismay and despair due to the unquestioned reality of his obedience to God’s requirements and yet he suffers unbelievably without being able to understand why. His passionate articulation concerns the unbearable interface between obedience and suffering, an interface that ought not to occur according to conventional categories of Israel’s faith. Partly, Job is adamant to state his innocence, more precisely, he wants to kill the reason for his suffering for he, like his friends, can only imagine that suffering is rooted in guilt.
Whereas Job speaks with existential passion, albeit in measured artistic cadences, his friends do not in fact engage him, but simply reiterate the primary claims of Israel’s covenantal-sapiential tradition that the world governed by God is morally reliable, wherein obedience yields prosperity as disobedience yields adversity. The impeccable logic of his friends leads inescapably to the conclusion that Job suffers, and his suffering can only be grounded in disobedience. .Job, for the most part, accepts this premise himself, but then insists that he is entitled to know the charges of disobedience made against him.
Characteristics Of The Dispute
And of course his friends do not answer, because they do not know. Thus the dispute concerns an unbearable mismatch between lived reality and traditional explanations that proceed by their own logic without reference to lived reality. For his part, Job’s integrity is such that he will not deny his own lived reality in order to preserve the tradition of “orthodoxy” or to maintain the reputation of God (See 4 6, 27 5, 31 6 ). Job’s integrity requires truth-telling about his own lived experience, even if that truth-telling clashes with settled traditional explanations and exposes such explanations as inadequate if not fraudulent.
Canonical Job protested against such theologies of explanation which claimed that, starting with a theological premise, one might explain everything in terms of that premise regardless of experience. Israel’s experience was one of suffering, and these theologies failed to demonstrate an adequate grasp of that reality, either minimizing or denying it. By recourse to history; these theologians claimed that every terrible thing that happened to Israel had an explanation, and that this explanation relieved God of responsibility. They preserved God’s reputation by removing him from the human sphere, replacing him with a strict law of retribution The final form of the book of Job embodies a reaction against the historical interpretations of the author’s contemporaries
(Penchansky 1990, 33-34)
This exchange between Job and his friends ends, of course, without resolution, for the drama intends to make clear that there is no way in which to accommodate settled orthodoxy to the wretchedness of Job’s life. The friends finish their speech without yielding to Job’s anguish, Job finishes unpersuaded by the heavy-handed insistence of his friends:
Far be it from me to say that you are right;
until I die I will not put away my integrity from me
I hold fast my righteousness, and will not let it go;
my heart does not reproach me for any of my days
(Job 27 5-6)
The Interlude In Chapters 28-31
At the end of this dispute with “the friends,” the book of Job provides an interlude in chapters 28-31. Chapter 28 is a quite distinctive text. This poem is a meditation on the reality that human wisdom — that is, the wisdom of both Job and his friends — cannot penetrate the mystery of creation that only God knows:
The line of thought in the poem is, rather, this Wisdom, the order given to the world by God, is the most precious thing of all. But while man has eventually found a way to all precious things, he does not find the way to the mystery of creation. Only God knows its place, for he has already been concerned with it at creation If man cannot determine this mystery of creation, it means, of course—this consequence is already envisaged in the poem — that it is out of his arbitrary reach. He never gets it into his power as he does the other precious things. The world never reveals the mystery of its order. One can scarcely go further than this in the interpretation.
(von Rad 1972, 148)
The line of thought in the poem is, rather, this Wisdom, the order given to the world by God, is the most precious thing of all. But while man has eventually found a way to all precious things, he does not find the way to the mystery of creation. Only God knows its place, for he has already bcen concerned with it at creation. If man cannot determine this mystery of creation, it means, of course — this consequence is already envisaged in the poem — that it is out of his arbitrary reach. He never gets it into his power as he does the other precious things.The world never reveals the mystery of its order. One can scarcely go further than this in the interpretation.
(von Rad 1972, 148)
While the poem may have been an independent one, its function and effect in its present location is to make the dispute of chapters 3-27 quite penultimate, indicating that neither Job nor his friends can reach to the bottom of the issue they are discussing In this placement, chapter 28 functions as a harbinger of the conclusion that is to be drawn in 38 1-42:6, namely, that God’s intentionality is beyond human explanation or challenge. Consequently, chapter 28, for all of its elegance, ends in verse 28 — perhaps we should say ends notoriously — with a conventional summons to accept traditional teaching and avoid evil, a summons that is perhaps partially in agreement with the argument of the friends and; against Job, even if the verse does not grant the premises of the friends:
Truly, the fear of the LORD, that is wisdom,
and to depart from evil is understanding.
The resolution of the large question of the chapter seeks to situate human persons appropriately vis-à-vis the majesty of the Creator, in a role of obedience of the most practical kind, without access to the mystery that lies behind the tasks of daily life
The other material in this interlude is found in Job’s wondrous soliloquy in chapters 29-31. In chapters 29 and 30, Job contrasts his wondrous past when he was socially significant and socially responsible (29) with his present state of powerlessness and social humiliation (30). These two chapters form a basis for the magnificent chapter 31, in which Job articulates in sweeping fashion his own innocence as a man who has singularly acted according to the best ethical norms. In making this case of innocence for himself, Job moves to refute decisively the traditional assumption of his friends that his suffering is rooted in guilt. Job’s bold self-assertion is a denial of guilt and an insistence on his right. This remarkable self-declaration is a “high point of Old Testament ethics” (Fohrer 1974, 14) The statement culminates, moreover, in Job’s defiant insistence in verses 35-37 that he be given particular charges of guilt that are, as his friends allege, the cause of his suffering:
Oh, that I had one to hear me!
(Here is my signature! let the Almighty answer me!)
Oh, that I had the indictment written by my adversary! Surely I would carry it on my shoulder;
I would hind it on me like a crown;
I would give him an account of all my steps; like a prince I would approach him.
It is clear in this remarkable challenge to the God of heaven that Job still operates on the moral assumption of his friends that guilt follows disobedience. Job has made his most vigorous case inside the rhetoric of the courtroom. In what follows, it will be clear that according to the larger drama of the book, Job has missed the point as radically as have his friends. It is for that reason that Fohrer after full appreciation of Job’s “oath of purity;” can also critique Job’s hubris as voiced in this text:
On the one hand, Job is the righteous, pure, and perfect man who can maintain that he is without sin. On the other hand, he appears as a Promethean and Titanic man from whom God had torn away prosperity and happiness, who confronts God boldly with the conviction that he is perfect in order to triumph over Him, and who wants to force Him to acknowledge his innocence by means of his undisputed righteousness. The fact that he undertakes this with the appearance of and under the cloak of the law only increases the impression of a conflict in this chapter. In this way the formal element of the legal oath of purity in the main part of Job 31 and the legal statements in Job 31:35-37 take effect. They make it possible for Job to act like a conquering hero who is certain that he will win a legally plain and indisputable victory over God, while in reality he adopts a heretical position and on the basis of this subjective good conscience contrasts the false teaching of his friends with a view that is just as false… By means of the structure of the oath of purity and of the role which is played in Job’s appearance before God, the Joban poet calls in question the “pure” righteous conduct and the ethically perfect man, since not without further ado he must also be the trusting man, but he can also be Promethean, Titanic, and heretical.
(Fohrer 1974, 19—20, 21)
In chapters 32-37, there is a continuation of the first cycle of disputes in ; chapters 3-2 7, this time with a fourth friend, Elihu, now introduced for the first time. It is a consensus judgment of scholars that this material is something a disruptive intrusion into the work, so that in an earlier version of the Poetry the concluding formula of 31:40, “The words of Job are ended,” may been followed immediately by the utterance of YHWH in 38:1. In any ease, in 38:1 the second dispute begins, this time between Job and YHWH, a dispute that is continued through the poetry until 42:6. (it is worth noting that in 38:1, the God who speaks is termed YHWH, a name for God that has been used in the initial prose of chapters 1-2, but withheld in the poetry of chapters 3-37. The reintroduction of the name YHWH suggests that the dramatist now wants to call attention to the claim that the God with whom Job struggles — the God of Israel — is no ordinary God of “religion” but is the true God, Creator of heaven and earth, known in all inscrutable mystery in the faith of Israel.)
The Second Dispute
In this second dispute, YHWH speaks twice (38:1-39;30; 40:6-41:34). The times YHWH addresses Job in an invitation, perhaps a taunting invitation, to engage the dispute (38:2-3;40(l-2). In response Job also speaks twice (40:3-4; 42:1-6). It is evident that YHWH’s utterance is completely disproportionate to that of Job, for YHWH completely dominates the dispute. Conversely, it is evident that before the power, mystery; and eloquence of YHWH, Job has very little to say. That is, Job’s capacity to speak in the first dispute with his three friends is now contrasted with his inability to defend his case before the ultimate disputant.
The whirlwind speeches of YHWH portray YHWH with massive power as sovereign Creator and with an artistic appreciation for the beauty and wonder of the special creatures whom God has created. The self-praise implied in these speeches is an assertion of the immense power of YHWH the Creator that lies well beyond the capacity of job .it is to be noticed that YHWH, in these lyrical utterances, pays no attention toJob~c defiant demands and exhibits no interest in job~ troubles. indeed, Job is, in fact, a profound irrelevance in the large vista of YHWH’s rule. It is not at all clear how this second dispute — a dispute between completely incommensurate parties — is related to the earlier dispute that Job has with his friends. Between the dispute of 3:1-27:23 (plus chs. 32-37) and the dispute of 38:1-42:6, there is a dramatic “disconnect.” It seems plausible, moreover, that this dramatic “disconnect” is exactly the point of the sequence of speeches.
Creature And Creator
From the perspective of the Creator God in the whirlwind, the earlier dispute is about nothing important, so that a quibble about suffering and guilt or innocence is of no significance to the inscrutable mystery of life with God that enwraps the entire human endeavor. God’s self-attestation of “How Great Thou Art” serves to resituate Job and his troubles at the margin of religious seriousness. It is as though the dramatist means to say that the characteristic calculations of covenant and sapiential traditions in Israel’s faith finally count for nothing when the world is ruled by this awesome Creator. Job’s response to the speeches of YHWH are terse and apparently submissive. The first response is one of deference to YHWH, as though job concedes the main point of YHWH’s inscrutable magnificence (40:3-5).
The second response of Job is more enigmatic (42:1-6). With particular reference to verse 6, conventional interpretation has concluded that Job submits to YHWH, and so by implication retracts his earlier defiance and settles for life as YHWH’s trusting Creature:
According to the rnajority of commentators, the general meaning of the passage seems clear: Job stands now as a creature before his God, as a child before his Father. His complaints and protests had in flict never outweighed his hope and trust. He does not now withdraw his claim of innocence, for his conviction on this count is as great as his faith in Cod. Nor does he have to withdraw it, for Yahweh has not repeated the accusations of the three friends. Neither does Job accept with resignation something lie regards as unjust. God, however, has now made known to job a plan and the meaning of a justice that cannot be contained in the straitjacket of the doctrine of retribution. Job, for his part, has come to see that his language had perhaps been disrespectful. He therefore repents and humbly proposes to do penance in dust and ashes.
(Gutiérrez 1987, 86)
But Gutiérrez himself qualifies this conventional reading:
The text in Job thus means: “I repudiate and abandon (change my mind a bout) dust and ashes.”
The phrase “dust and ashes” is an image for groaning and lamentation; in other words, it is an image befitting the situation of Job as described before the dialogues began (see 2:8-12). This, then, is the object of the retraction and change of mind of which this key verse speaks. Job is rejecting the attitude of lamentation that has been his until now. The speeches of Cod have shown him that this attitude is not justified. He does not retract or repent of what he has hitherto said, but he now sees clearly that he cannot go on complaining his means that in his final reply what Job is expressing is not contrition but a renunciation of his lamentation and dejected outlook. Certain emphases in his protest had been due to the doctrine of retribution, which despite everything had continued to be his point of reference. Now that the Lord has overthrown that doctrine by revealing the key to the divine plan, job realizes that he has been speaking of God in a way that implied that Cod was a prisoner of a particular way of understanding justice. It is this whole outlook that job says he is now abandoning Job’s answer, of which the new translation just expounded gives a better understanding, represents a high point in contemplative speech about God. Job has arrived only gradually at this way of talking about God. At one point he had even felt God to be distant and unconnected with his life; he had then confronted this God in a hitter lawsuit. Nosi~ however, he surrenders to Yahweh with renewed trust.
(Gutiérrez 1987, 86—87)
It is generally recognized, however, that 42:6 is immensely problematic, perhaps loaded with irony, and likely intentionally ambiguous. Several words in the statement of Job admit of more than one nuance, and the grammar is elusive. As a consequence, it is possible that job’s final statement is no concession to YHWH at all, but an act of defiance that concedes nothing, but only acknowledges tile greater power of the Creator. It is possible, even likely, that the dramatist intends no clear resolution; but he offers only the disputation about insoluble matters with the inescapable Dialogue Partner as the ultimate practice of faith. Jack Miles offers “a thorough and suggestive review of the problem of 42:6 that perhaps culminates only in “a final perseverance.” Miles concludes:
What is primary is whether or not God succeeds in forcing Job’s attention away from God and back upon Job himself. If God can force Job somehow to stop blaming God and start blaming himself, God wins. If God cannot do that, God loses. In contemporary political language, the question is whether God can make his opponent the issue. Despite spectacular effort, God, in my judgment, fails in his attempt to do this, and Job becomes as a result the turning point in the life of God, reading that life as a movement from self-ignorance to self-knowledge.
If God defeats Job, in short, job ceases to be a serious event in the life of God, and God can forget about his garrulous upstart. But if Job defeats God, God can never forget Job, and neither can we. The creature having taken this much of a hand in creating his creator, the two are, henceforth, permanently linked.
(Miles 1995, 429-30)
In the end Job and YHWH, creature and Creator are “permanently linked” in an unequal relationship. YHWH is preoccupied with Job’s own grandeur, Job with his own troubles. And there they are … endlessly.
The Poem Of 3: 1-42:6 And The Prose Narrative Of 42 :7-17
The poem of 3: 1-42:6 is, of course, framed by the prose narrative of 1:1-2:13 and 42:7-17. It may be that these verses are an older folk tale into which the disputatious poetry has been inserted; or it may be that the prose material is a late literary construction designed to “contain” the poetic dispute. Either way, chapters 1-2 as a literary frame present a man who is “blameless (that is, with integrity) and upright,” who is indeed “framed” in the collusion between YHWH and YHWH’s disputatious agent, Satan (1:1, 8; 2:3). The power of this narrative mounting of the drama is, of course, found in the fact that the Job of the poetry is completely unaware of the collusion of YHWH and Satan.
The corresponding prose narrative of 42 :7-17 provides a resolution of the trouble whereby YHWH “restored the fortunes” of Job in 42:10; that verse employs a technical phrase much used in exilic literature to bespeak YHWH’s radical inversion of historical circumstance (see Jeremiah 29:14; 30:18; 32:44; 33:7, 11, 26). It is to be noted that Job is affirmed by YHWH as the one, in contrast to his “orthodox” friends, who has spoken “what is right” (42:7-8). This divine verd let may refer to job’s alleged capitulation in 42:6; or it may refer to Job’s larger defiant discourse, suggesting that this disputatious God delights in disputatious human dialogue. Either wa Job the disputer receives divine approbation.
The narrative suggests full restoration for Job by YHWH, the Creator God:
The LORD blessed the latter days of Job more than his beginning; and he had fourteen thousand sheep, six thousand camels, a thousand yoke of oxen, and a thousand donkeys. He also had seven sons and three daughters. He named the first Jemimah, the second Keziah, and third Keren-happuch. In all the land there were no women so beautiful as Job’s daughters; and their father gave them an inheritance along with their brothers. After this Job lived one hundred and forty years, and saw his children, and his children’s children, four generations. And Job died, old and full of days.
The matter seems perfectly symmetrical, so that the final state of Job is fully commensurate with the beginning state of this blessed man. It is as though the long poetic disruption of his life were as nothing and Job experiences a return to normalcy. Except a dissent must be filed (to continue forensic categories) as is done by Emil Faekenheim. Fackenheim comments on Jeremiah 31:15 and Rachel who “refuses to be comforted” for her lost children. Fackenheim proposes that among the lost children of Job are six million at “Auschwitz and Ravenbruck.” And then Fackenheim, following A. S. Peake, comments that “no lost child can be replaced”:
Our “annoyance” with and “outrage” at the text — the stern refusal of Rachel to be comforted –is focused, then, on one single fact. This fact haunts, or ought to haunt, the religious consciousness of Jews and Christians alike. To Job sons and daughters are restored; but they are not the same sons and daughters. Children of Rachel have returned from exile; hut they are not the same children.
(Fackenheim 1980, 202)
Job received new children; but he never received back what he had lost. That much is true in the text itself, a truth immensely heightened by Faekenheim’s link of the tribulations of job to the Shoah and all the children lost there and never regained. Thus the restitution of 42:7-17 is crucial for the whole of the narrative; the new well-being, however, should not he overstated, because the last state is not exactly the first state recovered. The last state of restoration is marked by durable loss and Job, like mother Rachel, may do well not to he excessively comforted, even by his brothers and sisters (42:11) who apparently do better with comfort than the three friends at the outset (see 2:11-13; see also Jeremiah 31:15).
The book of Job in its three parts of narrative-poetry-narrative is a daring, majestic fugue that renders theological trouble and submissiveness in all of its immense complexity. The whole of the drama is to be fully appreciated in its inexhaustible artistry, and not interpreted so that it is made to conform to any of our ready-made theological packages. A conventional reading of the book brings the crisis of Job to a full restoration, a resolution likely reflected in Ezekiel 14:14, 20 and James 5:11. A more likely reading of the book of Job, however, suggests no such easy resolution, it being, rather, a witness to the enigmatic dimension of faith whereby Job — the man of faith — is endlessly in a relationship with God the Creator that admits of no ready fix. The dramatic power of the book of Job attests to the reality that faith, beyond easy convictions, is a demanding way to live that thrives on candor and requires immense courage. Faith of this kind that pushes deeply beyond covenantal quid pro quos or sapiential consequences that follow from deeds is no enterprise for wimps or sissies.
If we consider the dramatic flow from narrative (1:1-2:13) to poetry (3:1-42:6) to narrative (42:7-17), it is possible to see here a pattern that we have already suggested for the book of Psalms, a pattern of orientation, disorientation, and new orientation:
1:1-2:13 a fully oriented life of faith that is moving toward disorientation;
3:1-42:6 a practice of dispute that is fully marked by disorientation; and
42:7-17 a new orientation that is wrought by YHWH that has within it persistent traces of loss.
Thus the book of Job is a large, imaginative drama of life with God that is inescapable for those who live life in full awareness and voice it with candor, for the savage reality of loss eventually spares none.
Because the book of Job is an artistic construction by artists who know the tradition of Israel and who move beyond the tradition in an enormous act of imagination, it is not possible to suggest any “historical” context for the book. There are linguistic clues to possible datings, but they are only suggestive. It is possible, for a variety of reasons, to suggest that the book of Job is a meditation upon the defining crisis of the exile in ancient Israel, so that the refutation of easy explanations of suffering as a consequence of guilt is a response to the easy “explanations” for the exile in the conventional faith of Israel, most especially on the horizon of the Deuteronomists. The connection between Job and the exile is a suggestive one, but it should not he pressed too far, for the book of Job resists any simplistic “historical” placement.
Gutiérrez’ Way For Job
It is better to say that the book of Job in an artistic way is endlessly contemporary because the inability to reduce raw life to explanation is a perennial human reality. At the outset of the twenty-first century, as things become unglued on a large scale, the artistry of the book of Job invites faith to face the dangers of a connection to a Creator God who is immense in glory but who offers no easy comfort. Such a practice of faith, if honest, may anticipate comforts and settlements here and there; mostly, however, life and faith in a disputatious mode do not shrink from truth-telling that offends friends who comfort and defies the God who self-congratulates. Gutiérrez suggests, out of his mystical sensibility, a way for Job beyond every scheme of retribution:
Inspired by the experience of his own innocence, Job bitterly criticized the theology of temporal retribution as maintained in his day and expounded by his friends. And he was right to do so. But his challenge stopped halfway and, as a result, except at moments when his deep faith and trust in God broke through, he could not escape the dilemma so cogently presented by his friends: if he was innocent, then God was guilty. God subsequently rebuked Job for remaining prisoner of this either-or mentality (see 40:R). What he should have done was to leap the fence set up around him by this sclerotic theology that is so dangerously close to idolatry, run free in the fields of God’s love, and breathe an unrestricted air like the animals described in God’s argument — animals that humans cannot domesticate. The world outside the fence is the world of gratuitousness; it is there that God dwells and there that God’s friends find a joyous welcome.
The world of retribution — and not of temporal retribution only — is not where God dwells; at most God visits it. The Lord is not prisoner of the “give to me and I will give to you” mentality. Nothing, no human work however valuable, merits grace, for if it did, grace would cease to be grace. This is the heart of the message of the book of Job.
(Gutiérrez 1987, 88—89)