We come now to the conclusion of the dialogues of Job. His friends have stridently insisted that he is suffering because he has sinned. He vehemently argues he has not. As it turns out, he’s right. Then why is God making him suffer? Here God himself appears to explain. Or rather, to insist that he is not going to explain and that Job has no right to ask him to.
Is this an answer to suffering? Or, well, a satisfactory one? We can’t even ask?
Decide for yourself. Here’s how I explain the climax of the book of Job in my book God’s Problem (HarperOne, 2008).
Job has no time – or need – to reply to this restatement of his friends’ views. Before he can respond, God himself appears, in power, to overwhelm Job with his presence and to cow him into submission in the dirt. God does not appear with a still, small voice from heaven, or in human guise, or in a comforting dream. He sends a violent and terrifying whirlwind, and speaks to Job out of it, roaring out his reprimand:
Who is this that darkens council by words without knowledge?
Gird up your loins like a man,
I will question you, and you shall declare to me.
Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements – surely you know!
Or who stretched the line upon it?
On what were its bases sunk,
or who laid its cornerstone
when the morning stars sang together
and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?… (38:2-7)
In his anger, God reproves Job for thinking that he, a mere mortal, can contend with the one who created the world and all that is in it. God is the Almighty, unanswerable to those who live their petty existence here on earth. He asks Job a series of impossible questions, meant to grind him into submission before his divine omnipotence:
Have you commanded the morning since your days began,
and caused the dawn to know its place?….
Have you entered into the springs of the sea,
or walked in the recesses of the deep?
Have the gates of death been revealed to you,
or have you seen the gates of deep darkness?
Have you comprehended the expanse of the earth?
Declare if you know this….
Have you entered the storehouses of the snow,
or have you seen the storehouses of the hail?…
Do you know the ordinances of the heavens?
Can you establish their rule on the earth?
Can you lift up your voice to the clouds,
so that a flood of waters may cover you?
Can you send forth lightnings, so that they may go,
and say to you, “Here we are”?
Is it by your wisdom that the hawk soars,
and spreads its wings toward the south?
Is it at your command that the eagle mounts up
and makes its nest on high? (38:12, 16-18; 22, 33-35; 39:26-27)
This demonstration of raw divine power – it is God, not Job, who is the creator and ruler of this world — leads to the natural conclusion. If God is Almighty and Job is a pathetically weak mortal, who is he to contend with God? (40:1-2). Job submits in humility (40:3-4). But God is not finished with him. He speaks a second time from the whirlwind:
Then the LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind:
Gird up your loins like a man;
I will question you, and you declare to me.
Will you even put me in the wrong?
Will you condemn me that you may be justified?
Have you an arm like God,
and can you thunder with a voice like his? (40:6-9)
No, obviously not. Job had predicted that if God ever were to appear to him, he would be completely overpowered by his divine majesty and driven to submit before him, whether innocent or not. And that’s exactly what happens. When God’s thundering voice is finally silent, Job repents and confesses:
I know that you can do all things,
and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted….
I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear,
but now my eye sees you;
therefore I despise myself,
and repent in dust and ashes. (42:2, 5-6)
Readers have read this climax to the poetic dialogues in a variety of ways. Some think that Job got everything that he wished for – a divine audience – and that he was satisfied with that. Others think that Job came to realize his inherent guilt before the Almighty. Others think that once Job has recognized the enormity of God’s creation, he can put his individual suffering in a cosmic perspective. Yet others think that the point is that God has far too much on his hands – the governance of the entire universe, after all – to be all that concerned about Job’s quibbles about innocent suffering.
I don’t think any of these answers is right. Job did want a divine audience, but that was so he could declare his innocence before God – and he is never given a chance to get a word in. Nor is there any sense in which Job comes to realize that in fact he was guilty before God after all: when he “repents” he does not repent of any wrongdoing (he was, after all, completely innocent!); he repents of having thought that he could make his case before the Almighty. Nor does it seem fair to relativize a person’s suffering because the world is, after all, a very big and amazing place. And it can’t be true that the Lord God has too many other things to worry about than Job’s miserable little life: the entire point of Job’s speeches is not that God is absent from his life but that he is far too present, in punishing him in ways that make no sense, since he has done nothing wrong.
It cannot be overlooked that in the divine response from the whirlwind to Job’s passionate and desperate plea for understanding why he, an innocent man, is suffering so horribly, no answer is in fact given. God does not explain why Job suffers. He simply asserts that he is the Almighty and, as such, cannot be questioned. He does not explain that Job committed sins of which he was simply unaware. He does not say that the suffering did not come from him but from other humans (or demonic beings) who were behaving badly towards Job. He does not indicate that it has all been a test to see if he would remain faithful. His only answer is that he is the Almighty who cannot be questioned by mere mortals, and that the very quest for an answer, the very search for truth, the very impulse to understand is an affront to his Powerful Being. God is not to be questioned and reasons are not to be sought. Anyone who dares to challenge God will be withered on the spot, squashed into the dirt by his overpowering presence. The answer to suffering is that there is no answer, and we should not look for one. The problem with Job is that he expects God to deal rationally with him, to give him a reasonable explanation of the state of affairs; but God refuses to do so. And he is, after all, God. Why should he have to answer to anybody? Who are we, mere mortals, to question GOD?
This response of God from the whirlwind seems to get God off the hook for innocent suffering – he can do whatever he pleases, since he is the Almighty and is not accountable to anyone. On the other hand, does it really get him off the hook? Doesn’t this view mean that God can maim, torment, and murder at will and not be held accountable? As human beings, we’re not allowed to get away with that. Can God? Does the fact that he’s Almighty give him the right to torment innocent souls and murder children? Does might make right?
Moreover, if the point is that we cannot judge the cruel acts of God by human standards (remember: Job was innocent!), where does that leave us? In the Bible, aren’t humans made in the very image of God? Aren’t human standards given by God? Doesn’t he establish what is right and fair and just? Aren’t humans to be like him in how they treat others? If we don’t understand God by human standards (which he himself has given), how can we understand him at all, since we’re human? Isn’t this explanation of God’s justice, at the end of the day, simply a cop out, a refusal to think hard about the disasters and evils in the world as having any meaning whatsoever?
I’m happy to know what you think.
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