Shuck and Jive

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Job v. Yahweh

The Book of Job is the theme for today's sermon.

Who Is This That Darkens Counsel?
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee
May 4th, 2008

The Book of Job is in my view, one of the finest examples of literature in the Bible. Literary critic, Harold Bloom, calls Job “the greatest aesthetic triumph of the Hebrew Bible. (1) Bloom writes that Job is “one of the world’s great poems, though complex and ambivalent.”

Job is not what we might expect or what common wisdom says it is. Bloom points out that the cliché, “the patience of Job” does not apply to this Job. According to Bloom, Job is about as patient as King Lear, and neither King Lear or Job provide much of a justification for the gods or for YHWH.

The Book of Job can be divided into five sections. The prologue is set in the heavens in which YHWH boasts about his servant Job to Satan or the Adversary. Satan is not the evil fallen angel but more of a prosecuting attorney. He goes to and fro on the earth to determine who is naughty and nice.

In response to YHWH’s boast about the righteousness of Job, Satan tells YHWH that Job wouldn’t be so faithful if he experienced trouble. YHWH’s blessing of Job is what makes Job faithful, suggests Satan. Take away the blessing, you take away the devotion. YHWH takes the bait and makes the bet.

YHWH said to Satan,* ‘Very well, all that he has is in your power; only do not stretch out your hand against him!’ So Satan* went out from the presence of the Lord. Job 1:12

YHWH is as Bloom points out an unsympathetic character in the extreme. Bloom writes: “Yahweh’s motivation appears to be either His usual bad temper, or merely a CEO’s skepticism concerning his most faithful employee.” (2) There can be no justification of this God.

The second section of the book, chapters 3-31, contains dialogues between Job and his three comforters, who offer no comfort, just nonsense. Their nonsense is the driving theology of the Deuteronomic covenant. You are suffering as punishment for your disobedience. We--as readers, and Job--as character, both know that is not true. Job knows from experience and the readers know what neither Job nor his comforters know: Job suffers because YHWH is bored and is playing with Job as a cruel child plucks the wings from a fly.

Job in this second section is neither patient nor repentant. He is defiant. He wishes he were dead and curses the day of his birth. Hardly patience.

O that I might have my request,
and that God would grant my desire;
9that it would please God to crush me,
that he would let loose his hand and cut me off!
10This would be my consolation;
I would even exult* in unrelenting pain;
for I have not denied the words of the Holy One.
11What is my strength, that I should wait?
And what is my end, that I should be patient?
12Is my strength the strength of stones,
or is my flesh bronze?
13In truth I have no help in me,
and any resource is driven from me. Job 6:8-13

Job is certainly not repentant. He speaks of YHWH:

If it is a contest of strength, he is the strong one!
If it is a matter of justice, who can summon him?*
Though I am innocent, my own mouth would condemn me;
though I am blameless, he would prove me perverse.
I am blameless; I do not know myself;
I loathe my life.
It is all one; therefore I say,
he destroys both the blameless and the wicked.
When disaster brings sudden death,
he mocks at the calamity* of the innocent.
The earth is given into the hand of the wicked;
he covers the eyes of its judges—
if it is not he, who then is it? Job 9:19-24

In the third section of the Book of Job, Elihu speaks.

So these three men ceased to answer Job, because he was righteous in his own eyes. 2Then Elihu son of Barachel the Buzite, of the family of Ram, became angry. He was angry at Job because he justified himself rather than God; 3he was angry also at Job’s three friends because they had found no answer, though they had declared Job to be in the wrong. Job 32:1-3

Elihu harangues Job for three chapters. Elihu defends God’s majesty and justice and says of Job:

Job opens his mouth in empty talk,
he multiplies words without knowledge.’ Job 35:16

Job does not get to respond to Elihu, because finally in the fourth section, YHWH appears in the whirlwind and speaks to Job:

3Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind:
2‘Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?
3Gird up your loins like a man,
I will question you, and you shall declare to me. Job 38:1-3

Finally, Job is going to get an answer. Finally, we the readers will expect YHWH to come clean. We expect, because we must think of YHWH as truth and justice, to say something like this:

Hey, Job, buddy. It is kind of funny really. Old Satan and I had a little wager going. I was bragging about you and Satan thought that if he took away everything, you would cease your devotion to me. I told him to let you have it, because you are my man. And hey, you are. Sorry for the trouble. Tell you what. I will give you back everything and more. And those children who all died? No problem, I’ll make you some new ones, even better looking than the last. Still friends, Job, old buddy?

But no. Neither Job nor we get a straight answer. What we get from the whirlwind is YHWH’s resume. All we and Job receive, in beautiful poetic language, is the sarcastic taunt of absolute power:

‘Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell me, if you have understanding.
5Who determined its measurements—surely you know!
Or who stretched the line upon it?
6On what were its bases sunk,
or who laid its cornerstone
7when the morning stars sang together
and all the heavenly beings* shouted for joy? Job 38:4-7

And YHWH challenges Job even further. YHWH reminds me of President Nixon: “I am not a crook” when clearly he is.

And the Lord said to Job:
2‘Shall a fault-finder contend with the Almighty?*
Anyone who argues with God must respond.’

Job responds with no response, kind of like Jesus before Pilate:

3Then Job answered the Lord:
4‘See, I am of small account; what shall I answer you?
I lay my hand on my mouth.
5I have spoken once, and I will not answer;
twice, but will proceed no further.’

6 Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind:
7‘Gird up your loins like a man;
I will question you, and you declare to me.
8Will you even put me in the wrong?
Will you condemn me that you may be justified?
9Have you an arm like God,
and can you thunder with a voice like his? Job 40:1-9

YHWH taunts Job further:

‘Can you draw out Leviathan* with a fish-hook,
or press down its tongue with a cord?
2Can you put a rope in its nose,
or pierce its jaw with a hook?
3Will it make many supplications to you?
Will it speak soft words to you?
4Will it make a covenant with you
to be taken as your servant for ever? Job 41:1-4

Of course, no, Job cannot. But that isn’t the point is it? Or maybe it is the point. YHWH is not just. YHWH is power. Then Job answers. The traditional translation of Job’s answer is that Job repents. Here is that translation:

Then Job answered the Lord:
2‘I know that you can do all things,
and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.
3“Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?”
Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand,
things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.
4“Hear, and I will speak;
I will question you, and you declare to me.”
5I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear,
but now my eye sees you;
6therefore I despise myself,
and repent in dust and ashes.’ Job 42:1-6

There is a problem with that answer. Job has no reason to repent. Job as we the readers know, and as he himself knows from experience, is right. This translation is a translation choice based on theology not grammar, nor context. These six verses are confusing and ambiguous in the Hebrew, especially verse six where Job is supposedly repentant.

Another literary critic, Jack Miles, pointed this out in his fine book, God: A Biography. I won’t go into the complexities of the translation problems here. I will offer Jack Miles’ translation of these six verses:

Then Job answered the Lord:
“You know you can do anything.
Nothing can stop you.
You ask, “Who is this ignorant muddler?”
Well, I said more than I knew, wonders quite beyond me.
‘You listen, and I’ll talk,’ you say,
‘I’ll question you, and you tell me.’
Word of you had reached my ears,
But now that my eyes have seen you,
I shudder with sorrow for mortal clay.”

To paraphrase Job:

I know that you, YHWH, are absolute power, and you will do what you want. You ask “Who is this who darkens counsel without knowledge?” I spoke more than I knew. You said, “Listen and I will speak. I will question you and you declare to me.” I heard you and now I know by seeing, and I mourn for humanity in dust and ashes.”

That is a very different reading. A reading, I think, consistent with the text. Job acknowledges the absolute power of YHWH. He can do no other. But he will not be sorry for what he has spoken which was the truth. YHWH is not just. Job has not changed his mind.

Job never questioned YHWH’s power, he questioned YHWH’s justice. YHWH’s speech gives him no reason to think otherwise.

The Book of Job I think is a critique of absolute power and of blind obedience to authority. Jesus before Pilate acted like Job. He acknowledged that Pilate held the cards. Pilate had the power to take his life. But Jesus in stubborn silence retained his dignity.

That act of defiance is what gives humanity its dignity. Throughout history, the Church, or the State, or the paterfamilias has held power and authority. But that did not mean that these authorities held justice or truth. There were a few courageous souls who stood up to them, took their lumps, and inspired future generations.

Job won this battle with YHWH. In the fifth and final section of the book, YHWH concedes defeat by restoring Job’s fortune, giving Job twice as much as he had before. It is a pretty sappy ending. But Job did end up with some beautiful daughters, more lovely than the first ones, I suppose.

After this encounter, neither Job, YHWH, nor the honest reader will remain the same. No longer will any of us including YHWH be able to get away with confusing power with goodness. YHWH learns that there is more to being a god than simply being able to put a fishhook in Leviathan’s nostril. Job learns the dark side of divinity, that what he most feared is correct. God may be God, but it doesn’t mean he is good.

We, through Job’s defiance, will learn that human dignity is far more noble than the tyranny of the gods, whether those gods are incarnated in Church or in State or in our own imaginations. The virtue lies not in obedience but in defiance to that which is unjust no matter how holy it may mask itself.

This higher virtue may be in what Ghandi called non-cooperation. Any god we worship must not be a god of power but a god of goodness. I will close with Ghandi’s words:

"Non-cooperation is an attempt to awaken the masses, to a sense of their dignity and power. This can only be done by enabling them to realize that they need not fear brute force, if they would but know the soul within."

1. Harold Bloom, Where Shall Wisdom Be Found? (New York: Riverhead Books, 2004), p. 13.
2. Ibid., p. 15.


  1. You know that I loves me some good preachin'... And I also loves me some good critical thinkin'.

    This sermon delivers up both in great abundance.

    I have read the Book of Job so many times and wrestled with it mightily. I am forever attracted to it.

    Your words do much to bring me along on my path of personal study - and of healing. I thank you John Shuck.

    If you get a chance, come on by my place to see if you can make any sense of my words about good, evil and projection.

    It is not entirely unrelated to what you have posted here today.

    Pax my brother.

  2. I have to admit, sometimes your sermons are strange to me, but it seems like you are the man for the place God has put you. I also love the book of Job, though I tend to preach on it differently. Isn't it great that we can see some things differently and still be nice to each other?

    I was wondering - have you ever read J.B. by Archibald MacLeish? He's a brilliant poet and an atheist who re-dramatized the book of Job as poetic stage-play. One of the most amazing, and challenging, things I've ever read. Anyway, I recommend it, knowing that we all lack spare time.

  3. Delighted to, Fran!

    Thanks for the good words!

    Doug, thanks, bud.

    "sometimes your sermons are strange to me"

    Is that an endorsement? : )

    "Thanks for the reference, I will check that out. I am indebted in this sermon to authors I mentioned, Jack Miles and Harold Bloom.

    Miles has pointed out the God as literary character of the Hebrew Bible changes and is influenced by the difficult critters (humans) he made.

    Job, Abraham, Moses, all in their own way shame YHWH into justice. This is a strange way to view the bible especially as we have allowed theologians to read it for us. Theologians who assume immutability, all goodness, all power, all knowledge, etc. to God.

    The God of the Bible is not the theologians' God, as I see it. The literary critics and the poets help me most with both God and the Bible itself.

    But hey, I sure agree with you,

    "Isn't it great that we can see some things differently and still be nice to each other?"

    Keep preachin' that my friend!

  4. Brother Mike mentioned what hit him about the sermon: God's answer to Job could be seen in much the same way as a parent telling a child "because I said so", essentially. When we say NO to a child, it often makes no sense to them. They don't know enough of the world to know what goes into the decision, and it is often the case that they just wouldn't understand it if you tried to explain - like God and his little wager with Satan.

    Mike's other take away was this (I think): it's hard enough to be just and be treated justly by our fellow humans. Don't expect to get it anywhere else.

  5. John,

    I read Job almost in the same way. Its a test. Satan is the proctor, the administrator of the test. And Job is a prototype for Jesus, yes, but you left out the best part.

    Job is squashed like a bug. He never gets an answer to his questions. Jesus on the cross praying "my God my god why have you forsaken me" never gets an answer either.

    There is one final test. It is the passing of the final test that determines whether Job will get back the kingdom he lost in double, and whether Jesus will get back that which he lost as well.

    The key to Job is 43:7-9. He prays for the forgiveness of his tormentors. As did Jesus. The suffering servant prays for the forgiveness of his tormentors. It is a prayer that God listens to.

    "7It came about after the LORD had spoken these words to Job, that the LORD said to Eliphaz the Temanite, "My wrath is kindled against you and against your two friends, because you have not spoken of Me what is right as My servant Job has.

    8"Now therefore, take for yourselves seven bulls and seven rams, and go to My servant Job, and offer up a burnt offering for yourselves, and My servant Job will pray for you For I will accept him so that I may not do with you according to your folly, because you have not spoken of Me what is right, as My servant Job has."

    9So Eliphaz the Temanite and Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Naamathite went and did as the LORD told them; and the LORD accepted Job. "

  6. This is a tad off topic, but I was wondering what you make of the Satan character in the book. Do you believe that he is the same arch-enemy of God that shows up in the NT? Or is he a member of the heavenly court, possibly even an ally of God, as some commentators suggest?

    Also, if I can throw in some decadent capitalism, I am the author of a new book entitled "How to Get Rich as a Televangelist or Faith Healer," which takes a humorously cynical look at the world of religious con artists. Interested parties are invited to to peruse my web site at

  7. Hey Freethinker!

    Dang, I keep forgetting to plug your book. Shuck and Jive will do a review up right, I promise.

    Now as to Satan, I think that in Job, Satan is called 'the satan' and functions in YHWH's heavenly court. He is not the fallen angel of later Christian mythology.

    Some commentator, I forget who now, said he is functions as YHWH's prosecuting attorney!