Another reception history article on Job

In the second COVID-19 volume from the Stimulus journal, there’s another interesting article on Job and reception history. Nicholas List (postgrad student at Otago and intern at Grace Bible Church in Dunedin) dives into early church writers’ extracanonical interpretations of the book of Job for some insights on how to grapple with suffering in our present moment. I appreciated Nick’s point that reception history is an intimately pastoral endeavour. The “Job the wrestler” that early Christians pondered on is fascinating too. The more I think about all the back-and-forth between Job and his friends, the more it sounds like a couple of wrestlers duking it out in the ring! Some snippets below.

On Job the wrestler:

“Viewed in a different light, there is a sense in which Job’s athletic endurance can be seen as the struggle against the temptation to curse God in the face of tragedy.”

Should we approach our suffering in martial terms? According to early church writers,

“To see Job’s rent garments as both an expression of grief and preparation for combat is one way to faithfully negotiate the tensions of blessing the good Creator while living within a fallen creation.”

Reflecting on early writers’ embellishments on Job hoping for a resurrection:

COVID-19 has no regard for the gods of our society. Like Elihu in the Testament of Job, we may be tempted to mourn for the faded glory of these earthly thrones. Yet the early church reminds us that Job’s hope did not rest in the re-establishment of earthly thrones, but the inauguration of a heavenly one. Job’s hope in the resurrection reminds us that the true God has called us in Christ out of destruction to re-creation.

And an encouragement to look back to look forward:

“By reflecting on the pastoral applications and innovations of Job in the early church, we are better placed to reread scripture ourselves, continuing the deeply biblical practice of meeting the pressing issues of the present with insight from the past.”

I do wonder why these early church writers felt the need to play down the raw honesty of Job’s protests and to reimagine him as God’s defender against Satan (he’s plainly lamenting and protesting to God in the Hebrew text). Nick suggests it’s because these writers wanted to “mitigate the role of divine agency in probation” (i.e. let God off the hook for causing caused Job’s suffering). Job is not easy reading, and our tendency is to want to water it down or skip over it.

Anyways, it’s an interesting read. Go check it out! You can also read my own attempt at Job’s reception history here. I think there’s definitely more gold to be gleaned from this kind of study.

Some thoughts on Level 2, citizenship and freedom

In New Zealand there’s been lots of debate about moving down to Alert Level 2, but the government restricting social gatherings to a maximum of 10 people — including church services and weddings (funerals just got a boost to 50 people, but you have to sign a form and submit it to the Health Department). Friends are upset about the double-standards compared to cinemas and malls and bars, and there’s questions about how all this might be enforced (with new legislation allowing police to enter your house without a warrant to break up gatherings).

For what it’s worth, here are some thoughts:

  1. Friends, we don’t live in a Christian country. Sorry to burst your bubble. Our roots and origins are a complex mix of good and bad influences in Christ’s name, but all that’s a bygone era. (Even our glorified NZ anthem was written by a Deist, not a Christian). Like most other Western countries, the fallout from the Enlightenment means that “the candles in the churches are out” (as MacLeish puts it) and we’ve grown up in a secular, pluralistic age.
  2. So there’s not much point protesting that the government’s classed religious services as “social”, not “essential” – how else would they think? In a country with universal health, generous welfare system and lots of secular social support, I think we lost the essential tag in wider society years ago. But that’s OK, perhaps like the early Christians we can speak more courageously about the essential Jesus from the margins.
  3. We really have been given the gift of life, safety and security in New Zealand. I think sometimes that blinds us to the really difficult choices and trade-offs that our health officials and leaders have to make. Paul reminds us to pray for our leaders (1 Tim 2:1-3). Let’s match every protest we utter on Facebook with a heartfelt prayer that God grants wisdom to our leaders. Our earliest brothers and sisters could still do that while living under Roman occupation where they had far less civil rights than we do or don’t have.
  4. Yet I’m sad when Christians who want to gather safely in a country currently with less than 100 active COVID cases and no strong evidence for community transmission are being treated (by other Christians, no less!) like agitators, public enemies, conspiracy theorists. Sure, some might have unhelpful agendas. But many just don’t want to give up meeting together (Heb 10:28). Not churching together hurts too — hear them out.
  5. It’s not a fair comparison to use what’s happened in churches overseas to shame churches and leaders here in New Zealand who want to meet together. Those examples are of churches in pre-lockdown, uncontrolled virus situations. Even I was pretty wary about the wisdom of physically gathering on our final Sunday service before lockdown. Obviously there’s still unknowns and things could change quickly, but if we’re going back to work and restaurants are opening up, I think by God’s grace we’re in a better situation than before.
  6. I’m hearing lots of Christians who are defending not meeting together by emphasising that the church scattered is still church. On one had, I agree: this is an even more obvious reality in countries with severe persecution such as the Middle East and in parts of Asia. But I’ve had the privilege of meeting some of our persecuted brothers and sisters — and they really, really, really want to meet together again. For years, they’ve risked their lives to do so. Why? Because meeting together is essential.
  7. That’s why I find it puzzling that many of my friends are in no hurry to meet together physically (with safety precautions of course). And it’s odd when I hear Kiwi church leaders speak of resuming worship services as a nice to have (or even an annoyance – all the H&S requirements etc!). I wonder there if our consumerism is starting to take over? I mean, if all I’m looking for in church (familiar faces, an inspiring talk, some worship music) is adequately fulfilled in an hour-long broadcast I can enjoy in my pyjamas with the fast-forward button at the ready, how will we fare when church meetings become more costly and inconvenient again? When we need to get out of bed early, and give up our preferences for each other again? For all its difficulties and risks, every Lord’s day we can’t meet physically, we are missing out on fully proclaiming the Lord’s death till He comes. Let’s not forget that.

Someone asked me the other day – “Are you reading anything else in the Bible? It’d be a bit depressing just to be in Job!” Relax – I’m in the New Testament too! And this morning I was really struck by Philippians 1:27 (the original reason I felt like jotting some thoughts down), where Paul says:

“Only live as citizens as worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I am coming and seeing you, or whether I am absent, I will hear the things concerning you: that you are standing firm in the Spirit, with one mind striving for the faith of the gospel, and not frightened by anything from those who oppose you.”

Philippians 1:27-28, own translation

The “live as citizens” bit in particular struck me this morning. Later in the letter Paul talks about how “our citizenship is in heaven” (3:20) – but here the specific phrase is to live as citizens worthy of the gospel of Christ. I want to attach that attitude to my speech, my conduct, my fear of those who oppose me. Why? Because the gospel of Christ is worth living for.

So for the time being (Alert Level 2), I take being a good Christian citizen in New Zealand to mean:

  • Living worthy of the gospel of Christ, standing firmly in the Spirit, so that it’s obvious to others watching that Jesus is essential, not just social
  • Praying for leaders, officials, workers who are making tough, life-saving decisions on my behalf
  • Modelling a desire and longing to share my faith — including by worshipping together physically once we can do so safely
  • Remembering that I have dual citizenship — here on earth, and there in the new heavens and earth, where our Saviour awaits us and will one day subject all things — COVID-19 included — to Himself (Phil 3:20-21).

Job 19: Is there no justice?

It’s probably not accurate to call this Lockdown Job anymore. But I’m still trying to lock down what Job has to say to us (from the Hebrew text). Bildad has just spun another hellish speech at Job. But while Job’s description of his trials has similarities, his conclusion is wildly different.

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 | 18

Translation:

19:1 Then Job answered, saying:

2 “How long will you (pl.) torment my soul;
And will you crush me with speeches?
3 These ten times you (pl.) reproach me;
Without shame you attack me.
4 And [if] indeed I have erred;
[It is] with me it remains, my error!
5 If indeed you would act loftily over me;
And plead against me my reproach.
6 Know then that God has wronged me, and has encircled me with his net.”

  • Job begins again by rebuking his friends’ too-neat theology. By now it’s clear that their speeches are actually compounding Job’s grief. He’s already bankrupt and childless and in pain. But he is most “tormented” and “crushed” (v2) that his friends “reproach” (v3) him. Their incessant, repeated (as if “ten times”, v3) diatribes are not helpful.
  • Job doesn’t claim sinless perfection (v4), but he maintains that his sufferings are not his fault (v6). This is important to remember as he continues to describe the depths of his suffering and how closely it matches the fate that does fall upon sinners elsewhere.


7 “Look – I cry out, “Violence”, but I am not answered;
I cry out for help, but there is no justice.
8 My way He has walled up so I cannot pass;
And upon my paths, darkness he has set.
9 My glory he has stripped from me;
And he has taken the crown of my head.
10 He demolishes me all around then I go;
And uprooted like a tree is my hope.
11 And it burns against me, his anger;
And He considers me as his adversary.
12 Together they advance, His troops;
They throw up their siege ramp (lit: way) against me
,
and they encamp around my tent.”

  • The word for “violence” in Hebrew is hamas (an unfortunate name choice for the Palestinian group) – the same word used in Genesis 6:11 to describe how the earth was filled with “violence”.
  • Verse 7 raises a crucial question: is Job declaring definitively that there is no justice (Heb: we-ein mishpat) from God, as many “death of God” theologians and liberals believe? Does suffering happen because we live in a world governed by a blind watchmaker? Yet here and throughout the book, Job is still appealing to God, for justice for his innocent suffering. It doesn’t seem like he’s abandoned belief that God can make things right. More to come.
  • Like the ruler of a besieged city, Job feels trapped (v8), stripped of honour (v9), demolished and warred against (v11). Imagine if you were in a coronavirus lockdown, except there was no food coming in, and the virus was slowly wreaking havoc outside, just waiting to break through into your little bubble. That’s what Job’s suffering feels like, and he wails that God is behind it.
  • Bildad in chapter 18 can wax lyrical all he likes about what hell feels like. But for Job, hell is what he is living through right now.

13 “My brothers he has made far from me;
My acquaintances are estranged from me.
14 My near [family] have refrained [from me];
And my close friends have forgotten me.
15 The guests of my house and my maidservants consider me a stranger;
Foreign I have become in their eyes.
16 To my servant I call but he does not answer;
With my mouth I plead for compassion with him.
17 My breath is loathsome to my wife;
I am a stench to the children of my own mother.
18 Even youngsters despise me,
When I arise they speak at me.
19 They abhor me, all my closest friends;
And those I love have turned against me.
20 To my skin and flesh my bones cling;
And I am left with the skin of my teeth.”

  • Verse 13-18 describe every kind of person and how they have abandoned him. Job is completely alone. He has gone from honoured to “forgotten”; considered “strange”, “foreign”.
  • I think the ESV is a bit too tame in verse 17 – Job’s wife finds even his breath “loathsome”.
  • Verse 20 is where the common idiom “escape by the skin of my teeth” comes from (from its traditional translation “I have escaped by the skin of my teeth”, e.g. KJV). But in context, Job hasn’t really escaped from a close shave, so it’s probably better to translate אֶתְמַלְּטָ֗ה as “I have been left (alive)”. The phrase “skin of my teeth” probably means Job’s gums. It’s a stark picture of Job’s physical state – a toothless frail man who nobody dares to go near.

21 “Show mercy to me, show mercy to me, you my friends;
For the hand of God has struck me.
22 And why do you pursue me like God does?
And with my flesh are you not satisfied?
23 O that they be written, my words;
O that in a scroll they also be inscribed,
24 with a pen of iron and with lead,
Forever on a rock they be engraved.”

  • Job switches now and implores his friends: show mercy to me! (v21) He says it twice for emphasis, and it is addressed literally to “you, my friends”. The worst part of Job’s suffering is the lack of sympathy from his friends.
  • Though when he reasons that “the hand of God” has struck me, we know from chapters 1 and 2 that this isn’t quite what is going on: rather, it is the Satan who God has permitted to strike Job. For Job and his friends, there is a glaring omission of the Satan’s role in causing chaos under God’s sovereign control.
  • Job has been abandoned by all his human companions, yet he still wants to be proved right (v23, 24). From what we’ve seen so far, if Job dies, his friends would just spread the lie that he was an unrepentant sinner who got his just desserts. So he still yearns to clear his name, to have his words inscribed and recorded.

25 But I myself know that my ‘goel’ lives;
The last one, upon the earth he will stand.
26 And after this skin has been destroyed;
Yet from my flesh I will see God.
27 Whom I, I will see myself,
My eyes will see, and not a stranger.
It grows faint, my insides within me.

  • More than a yearning for a written record (v23 begins in the optative, expressing a wish), here in v25 Job moves to a confident declaration: “But I myself know.” Know what?
  • The Hebrew literally says “that my Goel lives”. It’s the same word used to describe Boaz, Ruth’s kinsman-redeemer — someone tied to you by covenant promise, who stood in your place and protected you. It could be translated Redeemer, or Vindicator, or Champion.
  • Note v26 – Job doesn’t necessarily expect vindication in his earthly life, but “after this skin has been destroyed”.
  • It’s tantalising to conclude immediately that Job is longing for Jesus. The text doesn’t say that explicitly. It certainly says that Job is longing to see God himself (v26). When all humans have abandoned him, when Job himself is wasting away, when even his words begin to fail him, this “Goel” will be the last one who stands upon the earth. The redeemer Job is longing for must be God Himself.
  • This vision of God vindicating him and showing up is so powerful for Job, that his heart (literally bowels, or kidneys, where his emotions sit in Hebrew thought) faints within him!
  • Scholars struggle with how on earth a God can “wrong” Job (v6), pursue him, yet vindicate him. But Christians know that God is not just Judge, but also Redeemer; he does not just punish us but also carries us in his arms. And so every person in Christ knows by faith that one day God will stand upon the earth, the last one, and we will see our Champion face to face.

28 “But when you say: “How will we pursue him,
and the root of the matter is found in him.”
29 Fear (imp.) the sword yourself, from the face of the sword,
For [His] wrath [is] the punishment of the sword,
That there is judgement.”

  • And so Job issues a final warning to friends, or those who laugh at the sorry state of the righteous. He warns his friends not to keep pursuing him like God does.
  • So Job is not a disbeliever in justice. Rather, he senses the absence of it in his present moment (19:7), yet still agrees “that there is judgement” (19:29) for those who falsely accuse him.
  • The more I think about this chapter, the more it reminds me that the life of faith is a paradox – we see so much that is unjust, but that ironically reminds us that there must be a God who is for me or against me, who we can appeal to for justice. And even if the pain and injustice we experience isn’t resolved in this life, we can take heart that one day, God Himself will be our Vindicator and stand on our side. In Christ, He will never be socially distant from us. That’s worth raving about.

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.