Category Archives: Reading

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.

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 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 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.