The Book of Job.
If that’s your summary of the book of Job, then you’re looking only at the first two chapters, and the last chapter. The book of Job has 42 chapters, and most people only remember the first two and the last one. What about the 39 chapters in between?
The outside frame – the little bit at the beginning and the little bit at the end, give us an image of a mechanically moral universe. Virtue is rewarded (eventually) and wickedness punished. Goodness in, reward out; evil in, punishment out.
If you look inside the Book of Job – in between the first two chapters and the last chapter – if you look at those middle 39 chapters – you find that the notion of a mechanically moral universe is explored and ultimately debunked.
Let’s look at what happens in the middle 93 percent of the story. Job has three friends, Eliphaz, Bildad, Zophar, who come visit him. The three sit with him in silence, at first.
“They sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great.” (Job 2:13)At length, Eliphaz ventures to speak.
“Think now, who that was innocent ever perished? Or where were the upright cut off?” (Job 4:7)Then Bildad, then Zophar – all in the same vein.
"You must have done something wrong, Job," they say. "God, the universe, wouldn’t punish you if you didn’t deserve it."
“We are moved by the three silent friends, but the moment they begin to speak they disappoint.” (Elie Wiesel)When they speak, they give these speeches insisting that the universe is mechanically moral. They say, "Well, Job, you must have done something bad. You’re being punished for something." Faced with standing for and with “their beaten and defeated friend” -- or adhering to their own concepts of a mechanically moral universe -- “They made the wrong choice.” (Elie Wiesel 225)
“Why do I suffer?” cries Job. After Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar have offered their trite moral simplifications, Job is still left crying, "Why do I suffer?"
Finally, God Godself appears in a whirlwind to answer the charge that Job’s suffering is unfair and without basis. It’s not clear, however, that what God proceeds to say can be accurately called an “answer.” God unleashes four chapters of rhetorical questions that invoke the wonders and grandeur of creation. Here’s a sampling from chapters 38 and 39.
“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?... Or who shut in the sea,... made the clouds its garment... Have you commanded the morning since your days began, and caused the dawn to know its place... Have you comprehended the expanse of the earth?... Has the rain a father, or who has begotten the drops of dew?... Can you bind the chains of the Pleiades or loose the cords of Orion?... Do you know when the mountain goats give birth?...Do you give the horse its might?... Is it by your wisdom that the hawk soars, and spreads its wings toward the south? Is it at your command that the eagle mounts up and makes its nest on high?”Does this answer Job’s question? Does this explain why Job suffers? No. It does not. What it does is confront Job with the transcendent wonder of his world. In that confrontation with transcendence, Job’s complaint is stilled. Job says,
"I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. . . . therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.” (Job 42:3, 6)Humbled and speechless, Job abandons his plea, for he grasps that the mystery of the cosmos is so much deeper than principles of justice. Job’s expectation that the universe is a moral agent that should be accountable for its unfairness is countered at last by seeing it, instead, in its transcendent wonder.
Perhaps Job was comforted by seeing his afflictions as small in the grand scale of things. Perhaps he was affirmed and succored by feeling his calls on behalf of justice placed within a context of the fullness of a life within such beauty and majesty.
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This is part 2 of 3 of "Job and Transcendence"
Part 1: "Mechanically Moral Universe?"
Part 3: "Savor the World and Save the World"