Reading Job in September 2005, Part II

It’s interesting to note that the book of Job never really wrestles with the question of evil. Think about it—take a hard look—and you’ll notice that evil is never really addressed. The thing that trips up many Christians is the presence of a certain character in the prose frame especially at the beginning: Satan. More properly, however, this character is ha-satan, which is Hebrew for “the adversary.” This fellow is a member of God’s court and acts something like God’s DA; he’s the prosecutor for the State and brings people up on charges—they then have to defend themselves. This is not the devil of the Christian tradition and of the Christian Bible. He is not in opposition to God but instead works for God. He may be in opposition to humanity, but he works for God. That’s not to say, however, that there are not forces arrayed against God portrayed within this book. This gets a little complicated, but bear with me…

Genesis 1 is often considered the creation story. It’s not. It’s a creation story. There’s another one that follows right after it, Gen 2-3, that wrestles with different questions from a different perspective. There’s another one tucked into Proverbs that’s heavy on architectural motifs (Prov 8:22-30). Note that phrases recalling it pop up in odd places elsewhere in Scripture (like the “pillars of the earth” notion found in 1 Sam 2: 8 [the Song of Hannah], Job 9:6; 26:10-11, and Psalm 75:3). Well, there’s yet another creation story in the Hebrew Bible which is most clearly laid out in Ps 74:12-17. It has parallels in other Ancient Near Eastern cultures, especially those that had a direct bearing on the Hebrew peoples, the Canaanites and the Babylonians. Essentially, in these stories a storm god in a more or less human shape battles another god who is dragon-shaped who is or who represents the waters of chaos. The anthropomorphic god kills the other and rends its body apart to create the world as we know it: order is created out of chaos. [Necessary note: this version depends more heavily on the Babylonian version, the Marduk-Tiamat struggle. The Canaanite version between Ba’al-Lotan is heavily fragmentary—we cannot be sure that a creation event happened in this version—and some versions suggest that Anat, Ba’al’s sister/wife/some sort of female relation either fights with him or perhaps in place of him. As I said, it’s fragmentary…]

I bring this up because the book of Job has a high count of references to dragon-esque beings [another necessary note: references to dragons in the KJV are actually mistranslations, though; read instead “jackal” which is really close], Leviathan, and a critter called Rahab which is another name for Leviathan. Notably, Job begins the poetry section of the book with an invocation to those who invoke Leviathan (Job 3:8) that they should…invoke him. In plain English, Job is asking them to summon up a great chaos-beast to undue the part of creation in which he was born. That is to say, good and evil are not the primary dualities in the rhetoric of Job but instead order and chaos. Here, Job takes the side of chaos—Leviathan—against God who brings order. The tension between order and chaos permeates the book but nowhere as heavily as in the whirlwind speech. The most memorable images from the whirlwind speech are the characterizations of Behemoth (40:15-24) and Leviathan (41:1-9). Some interpreters suggest that these are actually a hippo and a crocodile. They would be wrong. Yes, the aforementioned critters may be based on such animals, both kinds of which inhabited the Nile and would have been known to the Ancient Near East, but they are not natural beings. Instead they are chaos beasts—chaos personified as two great mythological beasts. It is in this identification that the rest of the whirlwind speech makes sense and builds up to these two beings.

Before I totally launch into this, I must give credit where it’s due—the insights on the whirlwind speech presented here are drawn from the work of Carol Newsom, a tremendous OT scholar, a great teacher for the church, and a heck of a nice person. Did I mention she’s an Anglican? Of course, this is my faulty appropriation of her work etc.

Although Job 40-41 get the most press (because they’re cool), the speech actually starts back in chapter 38. It starts with an overview of the architectural version of creation and questions whether Job has knowledge of these things (Job 38). Then it moves into a relatively odd section on animals and moves through the lion, raven, mountain goat, wild ass, wild ox, ostrich, horse, and hawk (Job 39). There is a significance to the choice of these animals; they are animals of the waste places. Check out Isa 34:8-18, one of the classic destruction oracles. Here Edom is laid waste and the sign of that is desert/wasteland creatures moving back into the ruins of the desolate city including the hawk, raven, and ostrich. The creatures described in Job 39 are essentially natural chaos beasts that lead up to the crescendo which is the presentation of the supernatural chaos beasts in 40 and 41.

The point, then, is this. God asks Job if he knows how creation happened and how things were done. He doesn’t. Then, God asks him if he knows all about and comprehends the place, nature, and role of various natural chaos beasts. He doesn’t. Then, God asks him if he is powerful enough to restrain—not necessarily destroy but restrain and domesticate—the great mythological chaos beasts. He can’t. According to this reading the point that God is making is that chaos is an inherent part of the created order. That is, even the duality between chaos and order that Job tries to set up in Job 3:8ff is a flawed one based on incomplete data. All of Job’s theological models are but flawed constructs in the face of the Living God. Not because of his evil—because narratively-speaking he’s sinless—but because of his created limitations and through his limited yet overly certain theological understandings Job has erred. He properly repents of these things not because of any fault but because he cannot, in fact, comprehend these things.

So—to recap again, what’s the author of Job suggesting with all of this? What’s the answer to why natural disasters and such occur? Because chaos is a part of creation; it’s built into the system. Is that an entirely satisfying answer? Well…no. But also notice what else it’s saying. It’s saying that natural events are not necessarily God “zapping” people. [Does God ever use natural events to zap people? Um…I’ll get back to you on that but I lean toward no…] Bad things don’t happen because somebody’s rules said they should nor do terrible circumstances indicate personal or social guilt. I think that it’s more important what is not being said here than what is being said.

So where does this leave us at the end of the day? Well, it leads us back to Luke. Yep—Luke 13:1-5. This is where the question is specifically put to Jesus—do bad things happen to bad people. His answer? Yes—bad things happen. But these should not be occasions for pointing fingers at the victims but to carefully consider the state of our own lives. Repentance is the appropriate response in the face of tragic human sin and natural/impersonal disasters alike. Did our sin cause them? No, not necessarily—but they still serve as great opportunities, as reminders, to repent. To our nation’s shame, the TV cameras have been doing a good job of keeping death daily before our eyes (RB 4.47). Our appropriate response should not be to blame God for letting such things happen but to repent of our sins, of our inaction, of our racism, of our classism, and of all other things that we do to sow hatred. Life is uncertain; death is inevitable. Let us do what we may do while the light of day yet shines upon us that, when night falls, we may be brought to the unceasing brilliance of the light eternal that shall never dim nor fade.

4 thoughts on “Reading Job in September 2005, Part II

  1. Caelius

    Because chaos is a part of creation; it’s built into the system.

    It is for this reason that Job speaks so much to the scientist in my heart. Because it gives a fair picture of the paradox at the center of the natural order and still proclaims that God is involved somewhere.

  2. *Christopher

    Simply grand, derek. Sr. Laura Swan, OSB writes of the Rule of St. Benedict as a way of providing a way in the midst of a Creation in which chaos and order are both part of the mix. It’s similar to how the Jews actually deal with the Teaching, which I’ve always found amazingly more flexible and compassionate than Christians’ own applications of the Law.

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