Foundations: No.74 Spring 2018

The Book of Job as a Theology of Isolation

Suffering is an inescapable part of life. As Christians it is difficult to comprehend that a God who is both omnipotent and benevolent could allow his people to endure such agony. This raises the issue of how Christians should respond to suffering. To answer the question this paper will firstly reflect on the aspects of isolation caused by suffering in the book of Job, paying particular attention to chapers 2, 3, 29, 30 and 31. Secondly, it will consider Job’s response to isolation caused by suffering, with particular attention to his lament and Job 42:7-17, and use this as a paradigm of how Christians should respond to God, our own thoughts and emotions, and others during times of suffering.

Introduction

In many ways, the book of Job reads as a theological reflection on the problem of isolation caused by suffering. The issue of suffering is challenging for the Christian as it is difficult to comprehend that God, who is both omnipotent and benevolent, can allow his people to endure the agony caused by such things as poverty, cancer or persecution – but life experience suggests that he does.[1] The unpleasant, often horrendous, circumstances faced in daily life can lead the believer to feel isolated from family, friends, society and God as one struggles, like Job, to maintain theological integrity whilst seeking answers to the most difficult “why” questions in life.

In order to explore this in more detail, the paper has been divided into two sections: The first will examine isolation in the book of Job, and the second contemplates Job’s response and how Christians may respond to suffering. The study will conclude that reading the book of Job as a theology of isolation can assist Christians in understanding how to communicate with God, respond to their own thoughts, and support others during times of suffering.

1) Isolation in the Book of Job

Job is internationally renowned and surrounded by family, servants and wealth; he enjoys a blessed life which is attributed to his “exemplary response to God through his piety and his moral conduct”.[2] However, when the question “Does Job fear God for nothing?” is raised in the heavenly realm, it becomes apparent that Job’s world is about to change. The question sees Job removed from a place of safety, and plunged into immense suffering and confusion, testing his pious integrity and transporting him to the depths of total isolation.[3]

The intensity of Job’s isolation develops throughout the story, beginning with his wife and friends, and moving to his relationship with God, culminating in a sense of inner turmoil, as the gap between Job and the framework of his existence widens (chapters 29, 30 and 31).

Job’s Wife

Job’s wife is an equivocal character, and much scholarly debate exists in relation to whether she is an advocate of the Satan, or an ally for God and Job.[4] Whilst both are plausible, I propose her role is an amalgamation of the two; on one hand, her words “curse God and die” were not merely uttered to occasion an outward display of anger on Job’s part – rather, they are used to drive Job away from God by urging him to commit blasphemy as a means of escape from his current situation. [5] Such an outburst would have been seen as an act of rebellion against God, one that would result in death, and thus as Habel argues, “was a form of self-destruction”.[6] On the other hand, her words prompt Job to seek the theological truth behind his suffering.[7] Whilst Job is not a Hebrew, the basis of his inner conflict lies in a theological understanding similar to the Deuteronomic Covenant code (Deut 27 & 28).[8] Thus, he envisaged a certain amount of correlation between a person’s actions and the receipt of divine blessing or punishment.[9] Whilst he seems to fully accept God’s sovereignty, acknowledging that both blessing and curse are gifted by him (1:21), the omission of the gifting terminology in his rebuke (2:10) is noteworthy, as it may imply that Job is beginning to doubt his beliefs. As Seow proposes, the move between the two verses is “indicative of a deviation in Job’s attitude or in his pious confidence”.[10] In essence the rebuke provides a glimpse of the unseen conflict which manifests as Job comes to terms with the fact his theology is no longer reflected in his life experience.[11] In short, Job comes close to doing what he rebuked his wife for. As Pardes contends, “[Job’s] wife dares to say something which is on the verge of bursting through his own mouth.”[12]

Irrespective of the intention of the conversation, the exchange highlights disharmony within their marital relationship due to theological differences.[13] The support which one would expect from a spouse, is not forthcoming and Job’s isolation has begun.

The Friends

From a Western perspective the silence between Job and his friends is unusual as we would expect a cursory greeting. However, the grief experienced upon seeing Job’s appearance, which had changed so drastically since they last saw him (2:12), meant all they could do was sit quietly (2:13). As Janzen points out, “[t]heirs is a condolence so deeply felt as to be inarticulate”.[14] The friends’ actions (2:12) mirror those of Job (1:20) and convey a sense of solidarity.[15] The customary nature of their act may lead us to view their compassion as superficial, but even deeds carried out as part of the social norm can be both expected and sincere; for example, the sending of a condolence card. As Andersen suggests, the friends’ actions “need be no less heartfelt because they followed etiquette”.[16]

Janzen suggests the silence demonstrated by the friends (2:13) indicates their desire to help Job find a way out of his bereft state.[17] Although it is difficult to make this claim with any degree of certainty, the silence does stand in sharp contrast to Job’s soliloquy (Job 3).[18] Thus, one possible conclusion would be to view the silence as a container in which Job’s resentment and rage have festered, and will soon erupt.[19] As Habel contends, “[t]he silence sets the stage for the violent verbal outburst of Job which follows”.[20]

The Soliloquy

Silent suffering cannot persist; it requires an outlet and for Job this comes in the form of a “curse”, not directed at God, but at “the day of [his] birth” (3:1). The soliloquy echoes Genesis 1, but is given a greater depth of meaning when considered in relation to this text and the prologue (Job 1 & 2).

God created man “in his own image” (Gen 1:27) and declared the world “very good” as a result, suggesting man was the pinnacle of creation, “his real counterpart with whom he will speak and have communion”.[21] God’s statement as to Job’s character implies he is also the pinnacle of humanity: “there is no-one on earth like him” (1:8; 2:3). Unfortunately, Job is not privy to this information, and from a human perspective it would seem that by cursing his birth he almost rejects this honour.[22] As Andersen states, Job “threatens to cancel his belief in the goodness of God in making him man”.[23] Furthermore, if, as Seow indicates, the Hebrew term geber is more often associated with a grown man than a male infant, Job’s words are amplified, implying that he moves from cursing his own birth, to cursing the creation of man in general.[24]

Seow’s argument is probably warranted, particularly when we consider that Job’s desire for the “darkness” to consume the “day” of his birth (3:4ff) is reminiscent of the “let there be light” and “evening and morning” statements of Genesis 1. It would appear, as Janzen proposes, that Job is attempting to “reverse the primal creative word”.[25] His theological belief system is undermined to the point where he begins to question God’s goodness in creation. He is searching for the “why” and in doing so comes close to believing that whilst God exists, he is “an arbitrary God who overturns justice”.[26] The sense of inner turmoil is immense, and forcefully conveyed in 3:26 with the use of the synonyms peace, quietness and rest. It is little wonder that Job “long[s] for death” (3:21).

However, Job’s cry appears unanswered; his suffering is unrelenting and death has not come. It seems hopeless. However, it is God’s silence and the inevitable sense of isolation that Job experiences as a result, that forces him to question his theology.[27] Or, as Janzen suggests, Job awakens “from the ‘dogmatic slumber’ in which he had formerly lived in creatural piety”.[28] Therefore, as Hester argues, the soliloquy should not be viewed in terms of Job giving up on life; he is asking questions; he wants to understand. In short, he “clings to life”.[29] But God’s response is slow to arrive, and Job’s search for meaning and desire to maintain his integrity will put him increasingly at odds with his friends and his sense of isolation grows.

Fall from Grace (Job 29-31)

Whilst chapters 29-31 deal with separate issues, beginning with Job’s memories of better days when he prospered under God’s protection (Job 29), his intense protest against his current state (Job 30) and his final defence (Job 31), the three chapters are intrinsically linked.[30] They form a response to various passages throughout the speech cycles, and reveal the enormity of the battle raging within his being.[31] He is trapped by the desire to reconcile with God, his friends and society whilst “maintaining [his] righteousness” (27:6), a point made by Thomson when he writes that “Job wants to affirm both his faith in God and his own integrity. But in the context of his alienation, the attempt to affirm both is blocked.”[32] Job’s realisation that retributive justice is incompatible with his current situation (27:2-7), and his suffering confirms that he is, in fact, speaking truthfully. As Ticciati affirms, “[Job’s] experience of wretchedness becomes at its deepest point the very certainty of his integrity”.[33] This insight moves Job from simply questioning God, to building his defence (Job 29-30) and vehemently confronting him by means of a negative confession (Job 31).[34]

Chapters 29-30 reveal that Job understood his personal worship and sacrifices were necessary, but lacking if his piety was not demonstrated by his social conduct. Andersen agrees:

[F]or [Job], right conduct is almost entirely social; his private duty to himself as a man is not discussed, his duty to God in the cult is touched on only in the matter of idolatry (31:26f).[35]

However, despite the fact Job was meticulous in practising moral justice towards others (29:7-17), even those rejected by society, God continues to subject him to a life of extreme suffering and he has become a social outcast (30:1-14). Job, a man once admired by society and renowned internationally, is now the “brother of jackals and a companion of ostriches” (30:29).[36] Job’s sense of isolation has become all-encompassing and consequently, in his mind, the God who once defended the blameless has become “cruel and unjust”.[37]

In chapter 31 Job attempts to call God into action with numerous statements which proclaim that he is blameless, having lived his life in accordance with God’s commands.[38] His grievances in relation to the unsubstantiated accusations made by his friends (particularly Eliphaz in 22:5-11), and the unfair treatment he has received from God are derived from his “reap what you sow” theology.[39] In other words, Job lived with the expectation that if he treated others well, he would receive like treatment from them and from God; likewise, if he was guilty of wrongdoing a similar fate would befall him (e.g. 31:9-10).

Job has been rejected by society, treated with contempt by his friends and his theological framework has been destroyed. Ticciati illustrates this well when commenting that a person in a similar situation to Job would,

no longer be able to find any coherence in the world, which will consequently cease to be for [him] a habitable place. Rather, its ultimate non-sense will overcome [him] and prevent [him] from finding [his] bearings among the mass of fragments the world has become.[40]

In short, Job has become completely isolated by the chaos of his experience.

2) How the Christian should respond

God’s decision to reward Job for his appropriate response to suffering and isolation, but severely punish the friends (although they are not punished in the end but sternly rebuked), is one of the most perplexing elements of the entire story.[41] As Hester affirms, “the friends are the ones who seem steadfastly defenders of God, while Job’s aggressive argument with God borders on blasphemous”.[42] This section will assess Job’s response to isolation by examining the epilogue (42:7-11) and the divine response to lament in more detail.

The Epilogue (42:7-17)

The structure of the epilogue serves as a reminder that isolation caused by suffering involves both vertical and horizontal relationships. As Ngwa suggests, vv. 7-9 deal, in most part, with God’s relationship with humanity, whilst the general emphasis of vv. 11-17 is “on the human-human dimension”.[43]

(i) The Vertical Relationship

The epilogue is vital in understanding that God is always present, even when we do not sense him. That is to say, God’s declaration in 42:7 contradicts Job’s statement in 9:11 by implying that he was aware of every word uttered by Job and his friends throughout the story.[44] Therefore, as Hester contends, “every speech… is indirectly directed to God”.[45] If this is correct, it indicates that whilst Job felt isolated from God, God was never, at any time, far removed from Job. This concept serves to further develop the theory that Job’s perception of theological isolation stemmed from his understanding of retributive justice which led to a negative view of God’s character. As Hulme affirms, “Job’s doubt is not about God’s existence, but about God’s character.”[46]

God’s chastisement of the friends in 42:7 provides a hermeneutical key not only for the epilogue but the entire story, stressing that whilst the friends made an attempt to defend God’s character, this defence was flawed by their resolute understanding of retributive justice.[47] Whilst holding onto one’s belief is often commendable, in this case, their theological “correctness” meant they erected unassailable dogmatic barriers between Job and themselves. As Ngwa states, “the rebuke calls attention to what the friends did not say; they have not articulated a theological response that adequately addresses Job’s situation”.[48] This occurs because, unlike Job, they do not allow themselves the freedom to embrace new understanding.[49] That is to say, when Job responded to his plight by challenging God with the most difficult “why” questions in life, instead of repenting, he began to break down the theological barriers that caused him to feel isolated from God. This concept gains warrant when we consider God’s action in 42:8-9.

Job had been searching for an advocate, someone to act as “a kinsman redeemer” who could reconcile him with God (6:14; 9:33; 16:20ff: 19:5-22), but his search was in vain.[50] However, in the epilogue Job steps into this role on behalf of his friends, successfully praying that God would “not deal with [them] according to [their] folly” (42:8-9). Job was only in a position to do this because he accepted and understood God’s sovereignty (42:1-6).[51] As Habel contends, Job’s open-mindedness means “God is not bound by a moral code of retribution; Job is free to move God to deliver the friends from death.”[52] Thus by the end of the story, both he and his friends are reconciled to God.

(ii) The Horizontal Relationships

In 42:11 Job has left the ash heap and returned home where he partakes in a celebratory meal with his family “and everyone who had known him” before his plight began. This is a pivotal moment for Job, marking the end of his isolation and a “return to the normal social routines of life”.[53]

Teaching in relation to “reward and punishment” is endorsed throughout Scripture (for example, Lev 26; Deut 28; Gal 6:7). However, the friends’ view of retribution linked sin and punishment to the extreme. This, as Waters states, “limited God to predetermined actions…”. This was the mitigating factor in their treatment of Job right from the very beginning, prior to any proclamation of his innocence.[54] In short, the friends were immediately stunned by the severity of Job’s suffering. As Ngwa states,

the disproportionate nature of Job’s pain renders the friends (and potentially their theological view) deficient. Job’s experience is not a normal one; it is beyond the norm and the friends recognise that.[55]

This highlights that feeling uncertain of what to say in this type of situation is perfectly normal. As van Wolde contends, “[w]hat more can you do in such a situation? Words fall short in suffering, real suffering… Any talk disguises the unfathomable depth of sorrow.”[56] However, whilst the incomprehensibility of the situation alerted Job to the fact that his initial theological response was not fitting to his current situation, his friends remained ignorant.[57] Furthermore, when their attempts to frighten Job into repentance failed, Eliphaz decided to openly indict Job of serious social misconduct (Job 22).[58] As such, God’s anger in the epilogue is not the result of the friends’ mismanagement of an ordinary situation in terms of retributive justice, rather it relates to the “limiting framework” the friends used to address Job’s extreme situation, which only served to increase Job’s agony.[59] As Phillips states, whilst the doctrine of “reward and punishment” may exist,

… the friends inhabited a “flat deistic universe” and they failed to perceive and/or acknowledge the vast complexity of the powers and principalities in the heavenly court.[60]

Thus, if the friends had better understood God’s sovereignty, they may have been more flexible in their approach, they may have dealt with Job’s problem in a more empathetic manner, and consequently reduced the isolation Job felt. In other words, empathy would have enabled them to enter the gap of isolation, and perhaps they would have reconciled with Job sooner, and supported him in a more appropriate manner. As Janzen states, when we offer support “we attempt to cross the chasm somehow through sympathetic, perhaps symbolic, identification, hoping to draw the other back with us into the familiar world.”[61]

In short, the epilogue encourages the Christian to consider the type of response God truly desires when experiencing isolation caused by suffering.[62]

The Divine Response

Job’s suffering and subsequent sense of isolation changed his entire world and everything he knew and loved was gone. As death was not forthcoming (3:20-21; 7:15-16), Job had to find a way to live in the “now” of his current situation. Consequently, silent suffering was not an option as he had to express his loss, anger, and desperation (7:11ff), in order to break through the barriers of isolation. In effect, deprived of all else, one thing remained – his voice, which he used as an outlet for his pain in the hope that God (and his friends) would hear and respond. As Byrne points out, once he is “[s]tripped of everything – family, friends, health, status, and a sense of God’s support and comfort – Job is left with only one thing, his lament”.[63] But, why was Job’s lament so pleasing to God?

Job had first-hand knowledge of what it was like to live a purposeful life intimately connected to God, through the blessings that this relationship had brought upon him (1:1-5). But, contrary to Eliphaz’s belief that this relationship could be maintained solely through human action (5:8), Job understood that this connection was a gift from God, and as such could only be sustained by him. As Andersen contends, “[o]nly God can maintain, as only God can give, that relationship”.[64] It is his growing isolation and sense of total abandonment at God’s hand that drives Job to lament.

Job’s lament stemmed from recognising that his reality stood in direct contradiction with his theology, and the only logical conclusion was that God intentionally brought suffering upon him, consequently God cannot be the faithful benevolent God in whom he once believed.[65] As Boulton suggests, the heart of lament lies in the accusation that “…God’s trustworthiness to deliver, and thus God’s praiseworthiness – has been discredited”.[66] However, this accusatory tone should not be confused with blasphemy; rather it serves as an attempt to provoke God into a response by basically stating, “God, this is what I believe, it’s up to you to prove me wrong!” As Siedlecki affirms, “Job is, in effect, taking God to court.”[67] For many Christians, speaking to God in this manner is troublesome, and they chose to adopt Elihu’s theology whereby the omnipotent God has the authority to act freely, and believers should accept this without question (34:17-30).[68] But, is a blind affirmation of faith really the response God expects from his people? His commendation of Job’s response in 42:7, would suggest otherwise.

Job directly accuses God on numerous occasions throughout the story, however chapter 16 is a particularly vicious indictment of God’s cruelty.[69] Here Job not only provides a graphic image of God’s wrath (vv. 9-12), but also suggests his actions were callous and deliberate (vv. 12-14).[70] Job’s lament is permeated with a sense of hopelessness in relation to the suffering and isolation he has experienced at God’s hand, stating that he is “worn out… shattered… crushed… weeping… [and] broken” (16:7-17:1). This is further developed in chapter 19, as he states he feels humiliated, “…wronged… alienated… loathsome” and ridiculed. In short, Job does not hold anything back; he is brutally honest with God in relation to his true feelings – he feels angry, betrayed, bitter and defeated. As Brueggemann points out, lament is far removed from the “…denial, cover-up, and pretence, which sanctions social control”.[71]

However, whilst his language may convey hopelessness, in terms of isolation, the very fact that his lament is addressed to God keeps Job connected to him, even in divine silence. Consequently, out of the darkness of his isolation, hope arises. As Byrne affirms,

[l]ament is a prayer of paradox, a cry to a silent or seemingly absent God, an attempt to connect with the disenfranchising community, an effort to define one’s experience in a world where all structures have collapsed… It is the haunting howl of alienation and despair spoken from a place where hope paradoxically emerges.[72]

In his lament Job accuses God, but at the same time he lives in hope that either God himself will answer, or another being in the heavenly court will advocate on his behalf (16:18-22). He remains steadfast in his integrity throughout the lament; in his eyes he is blameless and it is this, combined with his brutal honesty, that “finally provokes an appearance from the Almighty” (38:1).[73] The honesty of his lament reveals Job’s growing isolation, as it stands in such sharp contrast to the behaviour of the friends – that is to say, when out of respect for the God of their theology, they concluded that Job had to be guilty of sin. Rather than supporting him, they were in essence attempting to transform Job’s suffering into something they knew how to deal with, namely guilt. As Brueggemann contends, “there is a terrible temptation to change pain into guilt… In deference to the God who is perfect, we have assumed that if something is wrong, it must be our fault.”[74] By tackling the issues in this manner, all they had to do was convince Job to repent and everything should return to normal. Their inability to be honest and admit to God that they did not understand Job’s plight and seek his guidance, ironically left them in a position where they, too, were isolated from God.[75] As Phillips points out,

… speaking correctly meant speaking to him… Job did so; the friends did not, suggesting that, in addition to their limited view of the situation, they completely lacked the relationship [with God] that infused Job’s every utterance.[76]

However, despite Job’s honesty, God does not explicitly answer any of his questions, nor does he reprimanded Job for his accusatory comments. Rather, the divine reproach focuses on the fact he “spoke words without knowledge” (38:2), deeming Job ignorant.[77] This raises an exegetical issue, as Job’s ignorance in 38:2 seems incompatible with his correctness in 42:7. However, ignorant speech is not necessarily wrong, as Andersen affirms, “[t]he Bible does not consider ignorance to be either sin, or the root of sin”.[78] This concept is given further warrant when we consider the two statements together, which seem to imply that God was judging Job’s response to isolation, not so much on the theological “correctness” of what he said, but on the reason why he said it. Job’s lament was not simply a means of accusing God; it was a method of expressing confusion in relation to his theology. As Ngwa states, by concentrating “on the direct address to God alone is to miss an important aspect of the book, namely, the human struggle to articulate a theology in the midst of one’s own suffering”.[79] In other words, lament freed Job to embrace a new understanding of God’s sovereignty (42:3) that went far beyond the doctrine of retribution held by his friends.[80] Therefore, whilst his lament accused God of being unjust it also served a useful purpose and consequently, God is able to judge Job as being both “ignorant and correct”.[81]

How Christians should respond

In terms of isolation, what Job’s response imparts to today’s Christian is the recognition that doubt is a perfectly acceptable reaction to suffering. However, it is clear that Job never questions his belief in God; rather his concern lies in the legitimacy of his actions.[82] As Job dealt with his doubt by asking the most difficult “why” questions in life and venting his frustrations with brutal honesty, Christians can respond in a like manner in the knowledge that their actions are biblical.[83]

When involved in pastoral care this insight is particularly useful as it helps to establish empathy with the sufferer. In Job we see an inner conflict between the man who vehemently declared that accepting both good and bad from God was simply part of life (2:10), and the one who fervently argued that God was unjust. As Hulme states,

Spiritual counsellors are wise to assume a Jobian protest within the hearts of the sufferers to whom they minister. Even though the sufferer’s lips sound like Job in the prologue, they may have their shadow sides of doubt, resentment, and despair, like Job in the poetic section.[84]

Furthermore, what we see in Job’s honest response to isolation is the freedom to breakdown old theological beliefs that limited his understanding of God and construct new frameworks with respect to his sovereignty. This is further enhanced when we consider that Job did not challenge God when he failed to answer his questions, instead he chose to accept that divine knowledge and wisdom are beyond human comprehension (42:2).[85] This freedom enables the Christian to appreciate that a sufferer’s perception of God may differ to theirs as a result of their circumstances. As Cataldo suggests, “God… can be experienced as the perpetrator of suffering on the innocent victim, as the passive, non-responsive bystander, or as the benevolent, just other”.[86] An awareness of these differing perceptions may help establish trust and empathy with the sufferer, despite theological differences.[87]

Moreover, honest communication and an acceptance of God’s sovereignty also guards against the “temptation to change pain into guilt”, because we are aware that he has the autonomy to govern his creation as he sees fit.[88] In other words, we need to stop looking for the reason behind suffering, and look to God. As Angel states, “Job asks us to look deep inside ourselves and ask whether we worship because God is God, or because God is good”.[89]

Conclusion

Job’s sense of isolation along the horizontal axis increased when the theological perspectives held by his loved ones and wider society differed from his own. This resulted in a stalemate whereby the friends held resolutely to their doctrine of retribution, whilst Job persistently declared his innocence. In short, Job found no receptive human source of comfort and was completely alone. On the vertical axis, Job felt abandoned by God when he began to doubt his “reap what you sow” theology because it did not correlate with his present reality. His response involved a lament to God that was accusatory and at times vicious. However, throughout the story Job held onto two things – his integrity and his faith in God. As a result, he developed a deeper level of faith and understanding of God’s character.

Job’s lament demonstrates that in times of isolation ongoing communication with God is vital. However, whilst holding firmly to one’s theology may, in some cases be commendable, the epilogue demonstrates that this is of lesser importance to God than truthful and honest communication. In effect, God has given us the freedom and permission to vent our sincere anger directly to (or at) him. This latitude gives the Christian the opportunity to breakdown old theological frameworks and come to a new understanding of God’s sovereignty.

This paper takes a small step towards understanding isolation caused by suffering, and how Christians should respond to this problem. Whilst it cannot claim to have presented all the answers, it demonstrates that reading Job, as a theology of isolation can help Christians understand how to communicate with God, respond to their own thoughts and emotions, and support others in times of suffering.

 

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