Wisdom and Biblical Understanding Part 3

JOB: Another View

You know the story: Job is rich and righteous, but Satan talks God into making a bet on how steadfast Job will be if he’s subjected to pointless and unjust suffering.

So Job’s family is killed and he ends up covered with boils and sitting on a manure pile. And as if that’s not bad enough, Job is then subjected to a series of sermons from four well-meaning friends, who harangue him endlessly with the Proverbs notions about the good always winning out and punishment inevitably falling on the evil.

But Job, to his credit, will have none of this; and in Chapter 13, he denounces, not only these false comforters, but the very “revelation” they are so devotedly, if mindlessly, reiterating (here we’re quoting from the Today’s English Version [TEV]:

“Everything you say, I have heard before. I understand it all; I know as much as you do….But my dispute is with God, not you….You cover up your ignorance with lies; you are like doctors who can’t heal anyone. Say nothing, and someone may think you are wise!”’ (13:1,3,4-5)

In Chapter 21, Job again lays it on the line. Again it is in the TEV that his pungency really comes through:

“My quarrel is not with mortal men….Why does God let evil men live, let them grow old and prosper?…God does not bring disaster on their homes; they never have to live in terror….On the day God is angry and punishes, it is the wicked man who is always spared.” (Job 21:4,7,9,30)

So here, as in Ecclesiastes, we find the comforting Wisdom of Proverbs, not merely questioned, but fiercely– and I think, very effectively–under attack. And this confrontation is the second feature of the biblical Wisdom material that I want to highlight.

One reason to lift up this challenge is that, gloomy as these parts of the Wisdom writings may seem to some, I find them tremendously refreshing, even uplifting.

In fact, I’m not sure I could believe that the Bible was really a special, “revealing” book, if Ecclesiastes and Job weren’t in it.

After all the miracles and mythology in other books, it’s like the bumper sticker that Senator Tom Harkin’s presidential campaign was giving out in 1992, the one that read, “No More Bushlit.” While extraordinary or miraculous events may happen now and then, I live most of the time in the ordinary and everyday. And it is these biblical voices we’re now hearing, rooted in the everyday, that speak most clearly and often to my condition. I may try to expect a miracle, but Wisdom is what I depend on day in and day out–if I can find any.

Yet I am also uplifted — inspired would be a better word — by the process that seems to be at work here. This is the third crucial aspect of these texts I want to highlight: the fact that in them this dialectic, this “heresy,” this challenge to traditional understandings of revelation — this subversion of the original version of Conventional Wisdom — all this is affirmed by the body of revelation itself.

Again, take Job. At the end of his trials, after he has rejected his friends’ rationalizations and demanded an accounting from God of what has happened to him, God finally speaks to him out of the whirlwind.

But God doesn’t give the answers to his fate that Job seeks. Instead, God does something else that is very remarkable. God rebukes Job’s comforters, those who upheld and repeated the conventional Wisdom, and instead commends Job, the challenger: ‘I am angry with you [the four “comforters”] . . . because you did not speak the truth about me, the way my servant Job did.” (Job 42:7) This commendation of Job’s angry truth-speaking is repeated in verse 9.

Thus this entire dialectical process, going from the good advice and assurance of success we find in Proverbs, to the sharp challenge presented by Ecclesiastes and Job, All is included in what biblical tradition tells us is a deposit of divine self-disclosure, or revelation. It’s part of it–many scholars say a central part of it, and I’m convinced they’re right.

We’ll talk a bit more about the religious implications of this study in the final segment.

Note: the views expressed here are solely my own. Copyright © 1996 by C. Fager. All rights reserved; fair use OK.

Leave a comment