Does God Act Chaotically? : Job 32 – 37

Elihu: The Young Jerk

“Why do you complain to him
    that he responds to no one’s words?
For God does speak—now one way, now another—
    though no one perceives it.”

Job 33:13-14 (NIV)

A previously unmentioned man descends onto the scene after Job’s final defense – Elihu, son of Barakel the Buzite, from the family of Ram. You don’t recognize that name or pedigree? Well neither did I, and a quick Bible search yielded absolutely nothing – for Elihu or his father Barakel, or the Buzites in general, or families with the name Ram. All we know about this mysterious listener (and now orator) is that he is younger than the others, so out of respect, he held his tongue up until this point. And what is the basis of his advice for Job?

More of the same, honestly, although a bit more pointed in it delivery. Elihu presents himself as a wise man who Job can trust to tell him the truth; so wise is he that Elihu spends two chapters chastising the ineffectiveness of the others and imploring Job to listen well. Then, he declares simply:

“Be assured that my words are not false;
    one who has perfect knowledge is with you.”

Job 36:4 (NIV)

Okay Elihu. We’re all ears.

God speaks to us in all kinds of ways, posits Elihu, and one of the major ways is through punishments. He does this so the sinner can repent and then tell others to repent similarly. Using this logic, Job’s horrible circumstances must be justice, which leads Elihu to rhetorically ask, Can someone who hates justice govern” (34:17)?

He sums this up with a simple conclusion: “He does not keep the wicked alive” (36:6).

Elihu’s dissertation draws a clear line between Job’s view of God and the others’. Elihu and his older counterparts all believe in a simple God, one who rewards and punishes justly, eye for eye. Job understands the Almighty as a chaotic God, a being so powerful that simple psychics cannot possibly explain His actions. He doles out circumstances and refuses to explain Himself. And when a bad lot comes across us, all we can do is complain and beg for mercy.

This disagreement is the cornerstone of my philosophical problem with the Bible thus far. How does one faithfully follow a chaotic God? (Do not misunderstand “chaotic” to mean “random.” I say it to mean “endlessly complex” and beyond any sort of rational understanding) So according to this book, morality and mortality do not go hand-in-hand. Righteous men may die young and evildoers may live to three hundred years, but how would I – as Job – come to that conclusion knowing what I know about the stories thus far?

Adam and Eve sinned. Then, they were banished from Paradise.
Cain killed Abel. Then, God cursed him to wander.
Men built the Tower of Babel in arrogance. Then, God confused their language.
Men ate animals and grew in violence. Then, God destroyed them with a flood.

So, according to the Bible, God does directly punish those who sin. Why is it so crazy then for Job’s companions to assume he sinned when such radical punishment came upon him? Job does not simply fall under a spell of bad luck – his fortune, his health, even his children are ripped from him in rapid fashion. Why is it sinful to think hey, maybe this is punishment?

We don’t know why, and that is the whole point of the Book of Job. Did you know that when God finally does appear to Job to congratulate him for his faith and chastise the others, He makes no mention of why? God tells Job that He is all-powerful and that Job was an admirable servant, but He does not clue Job into the fact that his suffering was the product of a divine warfare, a bet between Him and Satan. Job never finds that out. Why? Because that is the whole point of his suffering. That his pain came as the result of nothing – that he lost all that he had for no reason.

That when crap happens, it may very well be God’s fault, but that does not mean that you can disown Him, or even blame Him.

All you can do is bite your lip, tear your clothes, and cry until it all goes away.

Does God Think of Us as Worms? : Job 25 – 31

Bildad: Humans Suck.
Job: God’s Creation Is at His Mercy.
The Final Word: Here Is How God Treats the Wicked.
Interlude: Where Is Wisdom Found?

The Final Defense: What Have I Done Wrong? 

The last run-up:

Bildad (Chapter 25)

“…A human being, who is only a worm!” (25:6)

The final argument against Job, which comes from Bildad – the second of Job’s three commentators – is contained to a concise six verses. His message is simple – humans aren’t that great, so God has tons of reasons to punish us. Time to move on Job.

Job (Chapter 26)

“Who then can understand the thunder of his power?” (26:14)

The debate ends with anger. Job, seemingly exasperated by the “help” of his friends, lets loose all of his feelings towards their advice. Their words are “without wisdom” and do him no good (26:3). God is limitless, and there is really no more discussion to be had.

The Final Word (Chapter 27)

“I will teach you about the power of God;
    the ways of the Almighty I will not conceal.” (27:11)

After everything, Job settles up the core of his argument – he makes clear to his detractors the nature of God.

“I will never admit you are right,” says Job (27:5).
“I will maintain my innocence and never let it go,” says Job (27:6).
“Here is the fate God allots to the wicked…” Job takes a breath and begins (27:13).

Dead children.
Fallen wealth.
Constant terror.
Ragged clothes.

Job’s closing argument is that God gives punishments evil men that are exactly the same as the ones he is experiencing himself.

Huh. Doesn’t that discredit his entire point thus far – that God acts as He does without aligning morality with mortality?

Huh.

Interlude (Chapter 28)

“It is said, ‘God stores up the punishment of the wicked for their children.’
    Let him repay the wicked, so that they themselves will experience it!” (21:19)

Job (the Book) takes an odd respite from its structure in the form of an “interlude.” The narrator (and thus author) is unknown, but it speaks to the central issue at hand throughout the entire book – where can a human being find wisdom? The poem discusses our obsession with fine minerals and treasures, and how we will go to great depths and lengths in order to obtain them. However, no such journey will yield the fruits of wisdom and knowledge. So where can we find it?

In the end, the author concludes: The fear of the Lord—that is wisdom” (28:28).

The Final Defense (Chapter 29 – 31)

Job’s apology ends with three parts: a list of his life before tragedy (splendor), a description of his current status (ruin), and a final plea to God (to hear his words). The most interesting piece of this is the final section, as we finally hear Job defend his specific actions before this wretched test began. He was helpful to the poor, kind to servants, rich yet generous, successful yet humble. Above all, he requests God to speak and tell him if his self-estimations are off. But still, from the heavens – only silence.

Huh.

Job wraps up with a declaration that “The words of Job are ended (31:40).” I’ll end my words as well.

Tomorrow, some words from a special visitor… and then some.

Does God Mess with Us? : Job 18 – 24

Bildad: Maybe… You Are Wicked?
Job: It’s Some Other Reason!
Zophar: Good People Do Not Suffer!
Job: But I Am Good, and I Suffer!
Eliphaz: Eh… You’re Not So Good…
Job: I Will Prove It.

Round and round we go:

Bildad (Chapter 18)

“When will you end these speeches?” (18:2)

The constant back and forth takes its toll on our poets, as Bildad launches a full-on rebuke of Job’s words and behavior. First, he takes special resentment against the condescending language Job has used against them. We are not stupid, Bildad concludes. Then, he lists all the possible fates for a wicked man – weakened vigor, devoured limbs, faded legacy. By stating these, he seems to be implying Job’s culpability. Any of this sound familiar, Job?

Job (Chapter 19)

“Why do you pursue me as God does?
    Will you never get enough of my flesh?” (19:22)

No. No. No. No. No. Job (basically) says. He continues to assert that he has done nothing wrong, and that God punishes him for some other reason. And the punishments are much more personal than superficial – in addition to losing his children, now he is alienated from all other people, wife and friends included. A worry comes across Job at this point, that he will one day look upon the face of God, and – he does not know what will occur. And for that reason, he feverishly warns his companions: “You should fear the sword yourselves” (19:29).

Zophar (Chapter 20)

“…The mirth of the wicked is brief.” (20:5)

Zophar cannot take this nonsense anymore, and his “troubled thoughts” force him to reply to Job’s words (20:5).

It’s simple. Wicked people perish. Why all this discussion?

Those who enjoy evil are insatiable, often feeding off their desires in a frenzied state. Any happiness dissolves immediate; “his prosperity will not endure” (20:21).

Is this new commentary? Not really, Zophar is just hammering home the point of the rest. Good people do not suffer!

Job (Chapter 21)

“It is said, ‘God stores up the punishment of the wicked for their children.’
       Let him repay the wicked, so that they themselves will experience it!” (21:19)

Why do good people suffer? Why do assholes live forever?

Preach Job! Aren’t we all wondering that as well?

Job brings to the forefront the real issue here. We all know that Job has done nothing wrong here and that he experiences extreme pain as a martyr for God – as a symbol of resilience against Satan. Job’s realization here is potent. We can unknowingly be pawns in a game of spiritual chess, and when this happens, all we can do is wring our hands and request a reason. And most times, no reason will be given.

Eliphaz (Chapter 22)

“Can a man be of benefit to God?
    Can even a wise person benefit him?” (22:2)

Eliphaz begins his round with the above questions, and his answer to both is a resounding “no.” Because Job, and all men, are meaningless to God – or so Eliphaz would have us believe. Then, he reminds Job of his unrighteousness, claiming that he has “stripped people of their clothing,” given “no water to the weary,” and “sent widows away empty-handed.” Those are steep accusations, but – innocent until proven guilty – we do not know if they are true.

Eliphaz’s solution? Job must admit fault, and God will spare him.

Job (Chapters 23 – 24)

“…I am not silenced by the darkness.” (23:17)

But where is God? Job asks.
Can I make my case to Him?
If I do, He will find me blameless.
But still, He will punish the holy, and let the evil go by.
But why? Why?
All will die. We will all be equal.
Why? Why?

The flow of this Book increases to raging. The longing is more desperate, more existential. The level of pain is no longer discussed. Instead, the nature of pain is brought to the forefront.

God, I love this Book.

Does God Allow the Innocent to Suffer? : Job 11 – 17

Zophar: You Are Free from Fault.
Job: God Definitely Did This.
Eliphaz: Only the Wicked Suffer.
Job: Is Hanging Out with You Three Part of the Torture?

Let’s jump to it:

Zophar (Chapter 11)

“If you put away the sin that is in your hand
…then, free of fault, you will lift up your face.” (11:14-15)

Zophar wastes no time jumping onto the side of his fellow comforters – namely in trying to get Job to admit to some sort of wrongdoing. What can you fear if you’ve done no wrong? He posits, and since Job’s suffering is obvious, then logically he must be at fault for something. Asking God directly is one strategy, but Zophar is not confident that it will work. “Can you probe the limits of the Almighty,” he asks with the answer hanging obviously overhead (11:7). Job should just stop questioning, repent, and get on with his life.

Job (Chapter 12 – 14)

“Which of all these does not know
    that the hand of the Lord has done this?” (12:9)

This advice rubs Job the wrong way, even insulting him. He acknowledges God’s power, saying that even the most innane of all animals realizes His limitless omnipotence.

Up until this point, it is difficult to differentiate Job’s arguments from his detractors. Aren’t they all just saying over and over again that no one really knows what causes the suffering, and that God is God, so He can do what He wants?

Job finally draws the juxtaposition. To the friends, only two possible scenarios exist: either he sinned, thus causing his suffering, or he remained holy, which makes the suffering not of God. But to Job, it is possible that he is both blameless and the aim of God’s arrow. Nowhere does the Lord claim to protect His followers from all unpleasantness.

Basically: nothing is random, you idiots.

Okay, Job does not use the term “idiots,” but instead opts for the much more biblical “worthless physicians.” Same effect.

Eliphaz (Chapter 15)

“All his days the wicked man suffers torment…” (15:20)

Eliphaz takes offense to this description and throws it right back at Job. Why are you telling us that we are fools? He asks, We’re just as smart and as wise as you.

He launches into a description of the “wicked man,” who is godless and destitute, wandering from city to city with nothing to claim as his own. Does this sound familiar, Job, hmmm?

Job (Chapter 16 – 17)

“Surely mockers surround me;
    my eyes must dwell on their hostility.” (17:2)

The negativity begins to affect our protagonist, as he questions whether these “comforters” are actually part of his punishment. All these guys have done is accuse him of wrongdoing, trying to convince him that he must have committed some grievous sin, for nothing else could explain this away.

But Job is not through with them yet. He begs them to keep trying to help him. “But come on, all of you, try again!” He begs to them, before further lamenting his own pain (17:10). Maybe the next round of advice will yield something more fruitful?

Nah, it won’t. We know that. But it will sure be fun to watch them try.

Does God Withhold Knowledge? : Job 4 – 10

Eliphaz: We Know Nothing.
Job: Tell Me Something that Helps!
Bildad: Tell God that You’re Blameless.
Job: God Punishes the Blameless as well as the Evil.

We must approach reading Job with a certain amount of dramatic irony since we know how it ends. Job laments his situation and receives advice from three of his friends: Elphaz, Bildad, and Zophar. In the end, God rejects the words of his visitors and pronounces that, You have not spoken the truth about me, as my servant Job has” (42:8b). So while reading this, it is important to remember that Job speaks the truth about God while Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar do not.

Here we go:

Eliphaz (Chapters 4 – 5)

“Should not your piety be your confidence
    and your blameless ways your hope?” (4:6)

Eliphaz opens the argument on a simple premise: if you are good, then why do you fret? He lists off all of Job’s good qualities – encouraging, helpful, intelligent. Surely God must know that, so all of this hardship must be either a mistake or unrelated; He does not punish the good. All Job can do is appeal to God and remind him that he has done nothing wrong.

In the middle of his monologue, Eliphaz recalls a weird interaction he had with a ghost. He tells us that “a spirit glided” in front of him, and in fear, he immediately began asking it questions (3:15). Can a creation ever become greater than its Creator? Does God damn us to a life with a lack of understanding about how things work? The spirit does not respond. It is like a joke – a man asks a supernatural being if he will ever gain knowledge about God, and the spirit ignores him and vanishes. I guess that’s the answer… Nope, you don’t get to know anything.

Job (Chapter 6 -7)

“…my joy in unrelenting pain—
    that I had not denied the words of the Holy One.” (6:10)

Job responds negatively to this with more despair. He claims his only joy comes from the knowledge that he has not given up God in this moment – but I wonder how this disputes Eliphaz’s earlier advice to focus on the good of his life? Then, Job says that he will not keep quiet and will continue to wail in pain. In a bout of nihilism, Job asks of God to “Let me alone; my days have no meaning” (7:16). Oof, inconsolable, eh?

Bildad (Chapter 8)

“Surely God does not reject one who is blameless
    or strengthen the hands of evildoers.” (8:20)

Bildad chimes in with an echo of Eliphaz’s points. You are a good guy, Job! He exclaims, God would not punish you if you are good! Bildad’s advice? Give God a prayer to remind him of your blamelessness. Simple.

Job (Chapters 9 – 10)

    “But how can mere mortals prove their innocence before God?” (9:2)

Job directly responds to this advice with a conundrum. How can a meaningless man prove his innocence to God? A distinction is drawn here – that humans cannot even understand how they disappoint the Lord, so they cannot argue when they are punished. Ultimately, Job concludes that he cannot contend with God about his holiness but can only ask for mercy from the punishment (and thus assume fault). Why is this his only logical course of action?

Because this:

“It is all the same; that is why I say,
    ‘He destroys both the blameless and the wicked.’
When a scourge brings sudden death,
    he mocks the despair of the innocent.” (9:22-23)

Wait, God laughs at the innocent when bad things happen to them?

Interestingly enough, Job has so far made many arguments for an illogical God – at least to our understanding – while his companions propose the opposite. They say that God is a deterministic God – effect follows cause – punishment for folly, reward for loyalty. Job does not think this way, claiming that God does what He does, and only the stupid try to figure it out.

After all… he mocks the innocent. Try to figure out that behavior.

How Dare You?: Job 1 – 3, 38 – 42

The Story

Then the Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one on earth like him; he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil. And he still maintains his integrity, though you incited me against him to ruin him without any reason.” Job 2:3 (NIV)

I recall Job as a relatively simple story – one of adversity and despair followed by faithfulness and triumph. An upstanding man named Job is tested by God when Satan questions his loyalty. God strips him of everything. But in all of this, he does not curse God, thus disproving Satan’s conceptions of humanity’s obedience, and all ends up being well.

My memory proved to be generally correct, but ultimately incomplete. Yes, Satan does approach God about the holiness of his people, but it happens in two waves. First, God allows Satan to harm Job, but only in his possessions and family – sparing his health and well-being. Satan does it and does it good. Cattle – gone. Children – killed. But does Job resent God? No, he remains steadfast.

Satan calls bullshit on the whole situation. Of course he did not disown Your name, he posits, because you did not allow me to affect his person. So God volleys back by allowing Satan to touch Job, as long as he spares his life. Satan does it and does it good. Sores all over his body. Surely this will be enough to knock Job off his God-fearing pedestal. Surely he will concede to this devastation.

But he doesn’t. He laments his birth and situation for a while, begging God to finish the deed and take his life. After long, God appears before Job and lays down the law. Are you God? He says. Were you there during Creation? Do you have power over animals? Do you give or take life? God lists dozens of rhetorical questions about His own Greatness and how man can never even come close to His power. He finishes His dissertation with a symbol. Consider the Leviathan, He says. You all questioning me is like pulling in a sea monster on a fisherman’s hook or trying to wrestle with it. Basically He says, You are all fools for even wondering how I operate. He is also saying, How dare you?

But Job is blameless throughout this ordeal, so God doubles his original possessions and grants him ten spanking new children.

So… When things go wrong, don’t bring into question God’s rightness. Well, that was easy! Time to move on to Psalms.

But wait.

I just summarized the entirety of the plot of Job’s story, which spans exactly nine chapters of the Bible. But that is not the whole story of Job, which comes in at a whopping 42 chapters.

So what is all that stuff in the middle, between the prosperity-slash-hardship and the redemption-slash-new-kids? Three of Job’s friends appear on the scene before him, as he lies in torn clothes on the floor, and engage in a philosophical debate over the nature of God. They argue about how we should approach hardship from a moralistic standpoint, and holy crap this is way more interesting to me than the whole “plot” stuff. Philosophy! ‘Bout damn time!

This week, we will meet these three characters – Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar – and hear what they have to say about the nature of God. I spoiled the ending – God does not like one word of what they have to say – but let’s look at it all the same.

I am excited. Aren’t you?