Author Archives: W C

Learning from the reception history of Job in Archibald MacLeish’s “J.B.”

Is suffering a theodicy to be solved? Is there justice from God? Is human love the only island of meaning during COVID and crisis?

Here’s one of my final year essays, peer-reviewed and polished up as part of the latest COVID-19 themed issue of Laidlaw College’s Stimulus Journal. Come on an adventure through Broadway and the Bible, and see how the book of Job offers better responses to suffering worth reintroducing into the public conversation. I’m indebted to Kirk Patston for the original impetus and encouragement into the world of Hebrew exegesis and Old Testament reception history, and to Geoff Harper for reading an earlier draft of this paper.

Here’s the abstract:

How can Christians respond faithfully to the disease and suffering our world is currently experiencing? Amidst the chaos of a global pandemic, the creative arts offer a fruitful outlet for us to voice our sorrows, and grapple with different schemas to respond faithfully to God amidst pain and pandemic. In 1956, American poet Archibald MacLeish explored the vexing dilemma of theodicy in J.B., a play written in order to address “questions too large for you which, nevertheless, will not leave you alone.” Following a survey of the plot and background of J.B., I briefly explore how MacLeish’s portrayal – particularly the “death of God” ending – coheres and contrasts with the book of Job itself, then suggest some reflections and responses in light of our uncertain and painful times.

You can also read the full article on Academia.

Lockdown thoughts from Job 18

If you were to describe the place where wicked people go, how would you describe it? Bildad has a go — unfortunately, it’s not really what his friend Job needed to hear.

Previously:
1:1-5 | 1:6-12 | 1:13-22 | 2:1-6 | 2:7-13 | 3:1-10 | 3:11-26 | 4 | 5:1-7 | 5:8-27 | 6 | 7 | 8:1-7 | 8:8-22 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12 | 13:1-16 | 13:17-14:22 | 15 | 16 | 17 |

Translation:

18:1 Then Bildad the Shuhite answered, saying:

2 “Until when will you (pl.) hunt (lit: set a snare) for words?
Consider, and then we speak.
3 Why are we counted like cattle?
Why are we stupid in your eyes?

4 One who tears his soul in his anger – for your sake will the earth be forsaken?
And the rock removed from its place?

  • Verse 2 begins as Bildad accuses Job and any supporting his argument (the you is plural) of playing games with words (using the imagery of hunting as sport)
  • Verse 3 could be retranslated: “Are we as dumb as cows?”
  • Essentially, Bildad is accusing Job of challenging the foundations of the world by his protests of innocence.
  • Instead of disrupting the “place” (Hb: makom) of the earth, Bildad instead invites Job into the place where wicked men live (in his neat moral universe) – cue verses 5-21
  • Christopher Ash (Wisdom of the Cross, 201) has a good analogy, following the idea of “place”: “Bildad is the moral equivalent of the very house-proud person… Job, they think, is like a rude guest who comes in and wants to trash the place.”

5 “Moreover, the light of wicked men is put out;
And it does not shine, the fire of his flame.

6 The light darkens in his tent;
And his lamp above him is put out.

  • Firstly, Bildad preaches that wicked men have not even a hint of light when they die. It is put out, or extinguished (v5, v6)
  • Bildad, having heard Job wish to “make his bed in the darkness” (17:13), asserts only wicked people go there — “Job, you must be wicked.”

7 “His strong steps are restricted;
His counsel casts him down.

8 For he is cast into a net at his feet;
And he wanders over netting.

9 It seizes by the heel – a trap;
It grips him – a snare.
10 Hidden in the ground in his rope,
And his trap [is] upon the path.

  • In these verses the key idea is the trap (“net” in v8, “snare” in v9, “rope” in v10). The wicked one struts around strongly, but he is caught. He cannot escape.

11 “Terrors all around scare him,
And chase him at his feet.
12 His strength is famished;
And calamity ready for his stumbling.
13 It consumes layers (lit: limbs) of his skin;
It consumes his limbs – the firstborn of death.
14 He will be torn from the tent of his confidence;
And brought to the king of terrors.
15 It dwells in his tent, [they] that are not his(?);
Scattered upon his dwelling [is] sulphur.
16 From beneath, his roots dry up;
From above it withers, his branches.

  • Is this place Hell? We need to be careful not to import New Testament terminology anachronistically. But it’s certainly a description of a grim post-mortem reality for the wicked. Bildad is channelling Jonathan Edward’s “Sinners at the Hands of an Angry God” here.

17 “His memory perishes from the earth;
And he has no name in public (lit: upon the face of outside).
18 They will thrust him from light to darkness;
And from the world they will banish him.
19 There is no offspring for him and no posterity among his people;
No survivor in the places he sojourned.
20 Over his days, those of the west are appalled;
And those of the east are gripped [with] horror.
21 Surely this is the dwelling place of an unjust one,
And [those in] this place does not know God.

  • The point of Bildad’s lengthy description of these terrors is that he assumes Job’s feelings of despair is proof he belongs in this terrifying place.
  • But Bildad is wrong that Job deserves to go there – we are told repeatedly that he is “blameless and upright, fearing God and turning away from evil” (1:1). His neat and tidy logic is a bit housebound, and does not fit in the real world out there.
  • There is a danger too in our lives when we take theoretical truths and make them the lens that we judge another person’s attitudes and actions. Once I told a friend who was under a heavy weight of despair, “I think you’re suffering because you love money too much.” Needless to say, it didn’t go down well. It’s certainly true people can suffer from loving money too much. But it wasn’t right for me to use that logic and misapply it on a friend whose circumstances and heart attitudes weren’t fully known to me.

Lockdown thoughts from Job 17

Apologies for missing the last few days. Our country moved into Lockdown-lite (or, Lockdown with KFC); we welcomed a new child into our family (she’s gorgeous!); life’s been busier. I’m still keen to triapse through Job in Hebrew. Job continues to stare into the grave as he responds to his miserable comforters.

Previously: 1:1-5 | 1:6-12 | 1:13-22 | 2:1-6 | 2:7-13 | 3:1-10 | 3:11-26 | 4:1-21 | 5:1-7 | 5:8-27 | 6:1-30 | 7:1-21 | 8:1-7 | 8:8-22 | 9:1-35 | 10:1-22 | 11:1-20 | 12:1-25 | 13:1-16 | 13:17-14:22 | 15:1-35 | 16 |

Translation:

17:1 My spirit is ruined, my days are extinguished;
[There are] graves for me.

  • Chapter 16 ended with Job predicting his journey to a “way from which I shall not return” (v22). Here he continues his realisation that his spirit is broken, his days are gone, and the graveyard is his next destination.

2 Surely there is mockery with me;
And in their hostility my eyes dwell.
3 Set it down: pledge me with You;
Who is he that to my hand will strike?
4 Because their hearts You have closed from understanding;
So You will not let [them] be exalted.

5 When for a portion he tells [off] friends,
then the eyes of his children will be finished.

  • Job’s friends seem to him as “mockery” (v2). High praise for the wisest of the wise huh.
  • The Hebrew for verse 3 is a bit unclear, but it seems like Job wants God to pledge him — in other words, to guarantee his wellbeing. Back in chapter 2, God has already guaranteed Job life in his wager against the Satan (2:6). But Job doesn’t get to learn this.

6 He has made me a proverb for people,
And spittle to the face I have become.
7 Dimmed with angst are my eyes,
My members are like a shadow, all of them.

  • If there was a list of sayings about suffering, Job’s name would be all over it (v6). His name is synonymous with suffering even today.
  • It’s haunting to consider verse 7 – Job has become a shadow of himself. How many people have you met who have suffered so much, that they are no longer quite their former self?

8 Righteous men are appalled by this;
The innocent one, concerning the godless, is stirred up.
9 And the righteous one holds his way,
and the clean of hands increases strength.

  • In his despair, Job holds out hope that truly righteous people are out there who will see his suffering and be appalled (v8), not applaud it

10 But turn, all of you (Hb: them), and come;
For I do not find among you a wise man.
11 My days have passed, my plans are torn apart; the desires of my heart.
12 Night into day, these men change;
[Making] Light [seem] near from the face of darkness.
13 If I hope for Sheol as my home;
In darkness I spread out my bed,
14 To the pit I have called: “You are my father!”;
“My mother” and “my sister” to the worm.

  • Job issues another challenge to his unsympathetic friends – “I do not find among you a wise man!” (v10)
  • Job has gone from one who used to make plans (v11) to one who sleeps in darkness and hopes for the grave (v13-14) – watch the repetition of the word hope (Hb: qavah).

15 So where then is my hope?
And my hope who will see?
16 To the bars of Sheol [will] I go down?
Or together into the dust [will] we descend?

  • Verse 1 started with the graveyard awaiting Job; the chapter ends with Job saying Sheol (i.e. death, the underworld) is all he has to look forward to.
  • Yet we should be encouraged that Job keeps asking “where is my hope?” (v15) This is a sign that he hasn’t totally given up. Likewise, don’t quench your suffering brother or sister’s cries of despair. By their cries, they unwittingly reveal a desire to keep going that’s worth encouraging.
  • A global pandemic, a dashed relationship, an ongoing struggle with sin — these too are situations that prompt us to ask, “where is my hope?” Although Job’s hope was never fully realised amidst his dark days, in Christ believers know a hope that will not put them to shame (Romans 5:5)
  • Though the Christian is not immune to staring into the pit or facing the bars of grave, we can walk in Job’s footsteps with hope that is realised in Jesus.

Lockdown thoughts from Job 16

Day 28 of lockdown (I think?). Some good stuff in this chapter as Job shoots back at Eliphaz’s accusations.

Previously: 1:1-5 | 1:6-12 | 1:13-22 | 2:1-6 | 2:7-13 | 3:1-10 | 3:11-26 | 4:1-21 | 5:1-7 | 5:8-27 | 6:1-30 | 7:1-21 | 8:1-7 | 8:8-22 | 9:1-35 | 10:1-22 | 11:1-20 | 12:1-25 | 13:1-16 | 13:17-14:22 | 15:1-35

Translation:

16:1 Then Job answered, saying:

2 “I have heard many things like these,
Comforters of trouble [are] all of you (pl.)!
3 Is it the end to blustery words?
Or what provokes you to that you answer?
4 I too am like you, let me speak:
if only it was your life instead of mine,
Let me wax lyrical over you with words;
And let me wag at you (pl.) with my head!
5 Let me strengthen you with my mouth, and the quivering of my lips will soothe [you].

  • Job utters his famous “miserable comforters” line to his friends (v2). They were meant to comfort him (2:11), but all they’ve succeeding in doing is to upset him.
  • In response to Eliphaz’s accusation that Job has “blustery knowledge” (15:2), Job turns the insult back and wonders when their “blustery words” will end (v3). From verses 2-5 it’s all addressed at his friends (you plural, or “ye” in Old English).
  • To “wag” his head at his friends (v4) is to express mocking and contempt (see Psalm 22:7, where all who see the sufferer “mocks” and “wag their heads” at him)
  • Job seeks leave to wax lyrical (literally to bind, but here it could mean beautifying speech) about his sorrows (v4), despite his quivering speech (v5), Watch out for the frequent pronoun changes (You/ye/Him/me), it gets a bit messy.

6 “[Yet] if I speak, my pain is not soothed,
And if I refrain, what from me goes away?
7 Surely now He/it has wearied me,
[God] You (sg.) have devastated all my assembly.
8 You (sg.) have seized me, it has become a witness,
My slanderer/leanness stands up at me,
And testifies to my face.”

  • Job turns to address God directly for a few verses, recounting the devastation upon his household (v7). Righteous Job does not let God off the hook for what He is sovereign over.
  • The word to “slanderer” in verse 8 usually means lie or deceit, but it’s translated as “weak” based on Psalm 109:25 (“My body has become weak”). Either Job is referring to his own frail body, or he is referring to some accuser – it’s hard to say.

9 His anger has torn [me] and he has hated me,
he has gnashed me with his teeth,
My adversary sharpens his eyes at me.
10 They (3p) have opened their mouths at me,
With reproach they have struck my cheek;
They pile up together over me.
11 God delivers (lit. shuts) me to unrighteous men,
And into the hands of wicked men He casts me.

  • Job abruptly switches from addressing God in the 1st person to the 3rd person. You can almost picture suffering Job in an ash heap, turning his speech to and fro, to sky and to ground, from face to face.
  • How comfortable are we with righteous Job (v17) saying “God hates me”? Either he’s crossed the Rubicon at this point and sinned, or he’s less impugning His character, more expressing his raw and painful feelings. In his suffering, it’s as if God hates him.

12 “I was at ease, then He has shattered me,
He has seized [me] at the neck,
dashed me [to pieces];
He stands me up as a target.
13 His archers surround me,
Pierces my kidneys without pity;
He pours (impf.) out my gall on the ground.
14 He breaks through, breach upon breach;
He runs against me like a warrior.
15 Sackcloth I have sewed upon my skin;
And I bury [it] in the dust, my strength (lit: horn).
16 My face has reddened from weeping;
Upon my eyelids [is] deep darkness.
17 Though no violence is in my hand;
And my prayer is pure.”

  • Oh, Job.

18 Earth, do not cover my blood;
Let there not be a place for my outcry.
19 Even now look in heaven – my witness;
And my advocate is on high.

20 My scorners are my friends;
To God my eyes pour out.
21 Oh that he would argue for man with God;
As a son of Adam [does] for his friend.

22 For the years of number will lie ahead; and the road I cannot return [from], I will walk.

  • Job doesn’t want his outcry to be dealt with amidst the brokenness of earth (v18), but in the court of heaven (19). The word advocate here (Heb: shahar) continues the legal language Job has been using up to this point.
  • I think translating v21 as the jussive rather than a simple imperfect is important here (“Oh that he would…” rather than “He will…”) — I think Job hopes for an advocate to represent his case before God, rather than has one definitively. We need to be careful not to “Christ”-alise Job’s hopes here beyond what he knows in his time and place.
  • Yet the wonder and hope of the Christian faith is that what Job longed for, an advocate on high like a son of man (lit: ben-Adam) to plead for his sins and sorrows before God, has come to us in Jesus Christ. In our Lord we have One who was called the Son of Man (Daniel 7:13-14), is exalted on High, yet not only argued for His friends but was glad to lay down His life for them (John 15:13).
  • If this Advocate is for us, then who can be against us? (Rom 8:32) With Christ, whatever falls upon us in number of years lie ahead (v22), we can walk the path of no return, safe and secure.

Lockdown thoughts from Job 15

Day 24. Six more days of full lockdown here in New Zealand. Cheryl’s due date is tomorrow, but no sign of baby yet.

Eliphaz makes a chapter-long reprise today.

Previously: 1:1-5 | 1:6-12 | 1:13-22 | 2:1-6 | 2:7-13 | 3:1-10 | 3:11-26 | 4:1-21 | 5:1-7 | 5:8-27 | 6:1-30 | 7:1-21 | 8:1-7 | 8:8-22 | 9:1-35 | 10:1-22 | 11:1-20 | 12:1-25 | 13:1-16 | 13:17-14:22 |

Translation:

15:1 Then Eliphaz the Temanite answered, saying:

2 “Does a man answer with blustery knowledge (lit: wind-knowledge),
Or fill his belly with the east [wind]?
3 Arguing with useless speech,
With words that do not have value in them?
4 Indeed, you break off reverence,
And you diminish meditation before the face of God,

5 Because your iniquity teaches your mouth,
And you choose the tongue of the crafty.
6 Your mouth condemns you, and not me;
Your lips answer [back] at you.”

  • Eliphaz is less conciliatory this time round after hearing Job complain about his suffering. The first time round (chapter 5) he encouraged Job to view his plight as discipline from above. Here he scolds Job for his “useless speech” (v3)
  • In Eliphaz’s worldview, he fears that lamenting and complain will discourage people from fearing God (v4); therefore Job’s continued howlings and calls for God to answer threatens the spiritual health of others. But is that actually true? Is there no such thing as lament and complaint from faithful people (e.g., the Psalms?)

7 “Were you the first man born?
Or before hills were you brought forth?
8 The secret counsel of God – have you heard it?
Have you restricted to yourself wisdom?
9 What do you know that we don’t know?
[What] do you understand – that is not with us?
10 The grey-haired too, the aged too, [are] with us,
Mighter than your father of days.
11 Are they too slight for you, the consolations of God?
Or a word in gentleness to you?
12 Why has it carried you away – your heart?
And why do your eyes flash?
13 Because you turn your breath against God,
And you have caused words to proceed from your mouth.
14 What is man, that he be pure;
Or that he be righteous, the one born of woman?
15 Look, in His holy ones He does not trust,
and the heavens are not pure in His sight.
16 Indeed, how disgusting and corrupt,
A man who drinks in evil like water.”

  • TL;DR: “You’re not like God in wisdom Job, you sinful evil person” says Eliphaz
  • But seriously, the way Eliphaz waxes lyrical here is remarkable poetry, yet poor remedy for someone who just needed sympathy, not speechy slander
  • Verse 9 isn’t a bad question: “What do you know that we don’t know?” However, Eliphaz should ask this of himself too! If he had, perhaps he would be more careful to charge Job of evil, iniquity and so on.

17 “Let me tell you, listen to me.
And this I have seen and I shall relate it:
18 What wise men declare,
That they have not hidden,
[that is] from their fathers.
19 To them alone the land was given,
And no stranger has passed through their midst.
20 All his days the wicked one – he writhes,
According to the number of years hidden for the ruthless one.
21 Everything of dread [is] in his ears,
In a time of peace a plunderer comes upon him.
22 He does not have confidence to return from darkness,
And he is marked for the sword.
23 He wanders about for food – where is it?
He knows that it is at hand, the day of darkness.
24 It terrifies him, distress and anguish;
They overpower him like a king ready for battle.”

  • Eliphaz continues with a description of the wicked one’s days. His world is black and white, filled only with either good or bad people.
  • According to the wisdom he relies upon, God’s justice is retributive — if you are wicked, then you suffer.
  • He even gives examples (v21, see also 34) similar to the calamities that fell upon Job in chapter 1.

25 “For he stretches out against God his hand,
And is arrogant against the Almighty.
26 running against him with the neck,
With the thickness of the embossings of his shield.
27 Though he has covered his face with his fat,
And made blubber over his loins,
28 He has lived in cities, desolated places,
[and] houses no one dwells in,
Which they are made ready for heaps.
29 He will not become rich,
And his wealth will not stand,
And it will not spread over the land – his possessions.
30 He will depart from the darkness, a flame will wither his shoots,
And he will depart by the breath of his mouth.
31 Let him not trust in emptiness — being deceived,
For emptiness is his due (lit: exchange).
32 Before his time he will be filled,
And his branches will not be green.
33 He will wrong his sour grapes like a vine,
He will shed off, like an olive tree, his blossom(s).
34 For the company of the godless is barren,
And fire consumes the tents of bribery.
35 They conceive trouble, and beget iniquity, their belly prepares deception.”

  • Verses 25-27 give an unusual image of a fierce warrior assaulting God with his shield, who’s actually a blubbery man smeared with fat (food) on his face. Eliphaz thinks that Job’s protests against God come across as a man ill-prepared for battle, or as an Emperor without clothes.
  • The long tirade against “evil people like Job” starts and ends with the idea of a belly — first filled with the east wind (v1), now preparing deception (v35).
  • There’s not much to like about Eliphaz’s epithets right now. I’m thankful for friends who sympathise, pray, talk, give us reasons to smile instead of point out what’s wrong. In time, God will reveal this to Job. Eliphaz would do better to sit and sympathise with his friend.