Is the Lord’s Answer to Job a Slap-Down or an Invitation?

screen-shot-2016-01-22-at-8-22-45-amIn public and private presentations of Faith and Wisdom in Science, discussions of the central Book of Job often arise.  In particular, in regard to the interpretation of the ‘Lord’s Answer’ in chapters 38-42, I have been encouraged to give a little more.  To recall, I find this extraordinary ancient nature-poem of questions (Were you there when I laid the foundations of the Earth? … Do you know the way to the abode of light … Can you count the clouds …) by no means a divine ‘put-down’, as it is sometimes interpreted, but rather an invitation to take the Creator’s perspective, and to engage with the natural world.

There are a couple  preliminary ‘ground-clearing’ operations to do. It would be wrong to suggest that YHWH is inviting Job to ‘do science’ in the modern sense. My thesis is that ‘science is the name of the current chapter in a book that humankind has been writing since its origin’. So the earlier ‘chapters’ are not ‘science’ in the modern sense but are in continuity with it. The point is that the passage is inviting a cognitive questioning of the natural world, a perspective of responsibility and care rather than abdication and complaint – it is about relationship above all. Our relationship with the natural world underlies what ‘science’, which is more a set of tools to achieve it, lies deeper and is foundational to science, not science itself. Job is at the headwaters of that narrative – that is the claim.

Job Blake

From William Blake’s series of paintings depicting scenes from the Book of Job. Behemoth and Leviathan Wikimedia commons

The other essential preliminary is the implied claim about what YHWH is notdoing.  What you term the ‘standard’ interpretation of Job 38-42 (though when you actually work through the commentaries it doesn’t look that way, especially among the more scholarly of them) is that the string of questions is meant as what we would term a ‘put-down’.  This is YHWH speaking from an elevated position of authority down to the presumptuous Job, unleashing a volley of rapid-fire tests of his knowledge and understanding to the end that it is clear to Job that he has neither [1].  So part of the support for an invitational interpretation needs to be a critique of this one.

(1) The introductory trope (v3) ‘Gird up your loins like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer me’. This is of course as close an answer to your original question as you could want – it is of course, and quite explicitly, an ‘invitation’.  Specifically it is an invitation to (metaphorical) combat between two male (the verse is gendered) contenders. Quite the opposite of denigration, the invocation of this standard invitation to combat [2] is a mark of respect as an opponent, so Hartley, ‘Neither [Job’s] affliction nor his inflamed rhetoric has diminished his intrinsic worth as a human being’ [3].  Job scholar David Clines imputes a desire to win to YHWH, rather than to browbeat at this point [4].  This may ‘locally’ be the point, but as Stump points out in her magisterial study of Biblical wilderness experience and theodicies, the overarching aim of YHWH is to love – understanding that love must at times be severe, permissive of a free response, and teleologically restorative [5].

(2) The form of the Answer as questions. The pejorative use of questions, common (perhaps sadly) in our own society, is by no means universal.  In particular the question-form is not used this way in ancient Hebrew, but predominantly as a stimulus to reflection, thought and learning.  It is the central educational instrument.  The preponderance of questions throughout Biblical literature is itself significant.  The Jewish love affair with the questioning mind persists to this day.  It is enshrined in the Seder liturgy of course, in the role of the children present whose task it is to ask the important questions. The cultural love of the question carries down to to our own day; it is reflected in the story told by Jewish physicist Isidore Rabi, whose mother would ask him every day on coming home from school, ‘Did you ask any good questions today?’.  So the questions in The Lord’s Answer ought first to be interpreted through this, thought-provoking lens, not that of point- scoring (or several other possible interpretations such as a request for information, a rhetorical pathway to a trap and so on). A closely lasted set of divine questions, also referring to natural creation, as noted by Habel [6] is found in Second Isaiah (e.g. 40:12-15, 45:18-22) where their point is to generate reflection in the recipient to the end that they conceive of God’s power to act.  Westermann also refers to these ‘trial speeches of Second Isaiah where YHWH and the gods of the surrounding nations confront each other in a legal process, the purpose of which is to decide who is truly God.’ [7]  Essential to this background is that when YHWH defends himself that is not an end in itself, but rather a preliminary that then allows humans to follow the true God into their true task (in the case of Second Isaiah to take up the role of ‘The Servant’ in renewing the relationship with God’s People (Ch 49). A New Testament echo is Jesus invitation to John’s disciples to interpret what they see – he too answers a question with a question (Matt 11:2-10).  So the questions in Job, which fall into this pattern of ‘education’ (literally ‘leading out’ of course) to a purpose is the appropriate expectation – the readers task is to identify what it being learned and to what purpose.


When all the angels sang for joy … Job Ch. 38

(3) The structure and quantity of questions, and the context of Job’s earlier questions. There are approaching 170 of them.  It would take 2 or 3 only to establish that YHWH possessed knowledge and Job ignorance. The extensive litany tells us from a structural point of view that more is going on here. I have detailed the categories, realms of nature, and detailed referential links to the nature metaphors invoked in the earlier cycles of speeches of the book before [8] so won’t go into unnecessary detail here. However, we must recall that these are productive, leading questions –  sort that suggest investigations in such of answers. They also cover the catalogue of nature’s wild side, from the depths of the oceans to the clustering of the stars. They touch on Job’s partial, but incomplete knowledge.  Within the framework established in (2) above of education to a purpose, it is more than suggestive that that purpose has to do with nature itself. The vital point here is that YHWH’s questions do tackle head-on the actual substance of Job’s complaint.  It bears repeating – Job’s accusation is not primarily that he is suffering unjustly but that this is just part of a much wider problem of a cosmos out of control.  It is the aleatory strike of the lightning bolt (36:32), the earthquake (9:5), disease (10:9) and the flood (6:15) that constitutes the foundation of his case against YHWH.  This is why it is appropriate for the Answer to address the free reign of natural processes that give rise to the rich complexity that the magnificent survey of Job 38-42 encompasses.

(4) The manner of YHWH’s appearing – of the whirlwind, is paradoxically what Job simultaneously most desires and most fears. He has already anticipated that an epiphany would crush him (9:34), yet repeatedly requested it (13:15). When it happens, it is far from crushing- Job is invited to stand up and ‘gird his loins’ (see 1 above). Furthermore the epiphany is more than suggestive of the canonical appearance to Moses on Sinai. The cover of cloud is replaced by the cover of a whirlwind, the spoken commandments by a speech of a different kind, but the context of covenant is very suggestive.

(5) The context of the Hymn to Wisdom in Job 28. The connection between YHWH’s answer and the Hymn to Wisdom is vital, for the ‘Answer’ is as much an answer to the great question there – Where can Wisdom be found? – as it is to Job’s demands for vindication and explanation. Again I have written about Job 28 in detail elsewhere [8] but the salient point is that the metaphor of the miner in Job 28 points out the special nature of humans that set us apart from other animals is that we are able to see into the structure of nature deeper than they, and by our own art. The shocking final passage of the Hymn to Wisdom parallels this as the characteristic function of God’s own wisdom. It is a call to follow the Creator into a deeper knowledge of creation. Job 38 takes the same journey to and through the depths as Job 28 – it is a personal enactment of the invitation there.  This is an invitation to take God’s perspective on nature.  That is explicit in Job 28 and a natural interpretation of Job 38, not only because of the context of the search for Wisdom of the whole book, but because that is precisely what Job needs to do.  For another stark example of being asked to take God’s perspective, see the close parallel of Jonah, where God’s lessons to Jonah are also worked through a phenomenon of nature (a sun-wilted bush) and where the key question is left hanging.  Alternatively and movingly see the entire book of Hosea, where the prophet is invited into YHWH’s emotional perspective of rejected love.

(6) The effect upon Job. Were the speeches meant as a crushing put-down (note I do not say that they are not corrective) then Job himself would have been crushed by them. Instead, his experience turns out to be palliative, and restorative – he does quieten down in terms of his complains, but he rises with a new confidence. Here the reading of 42: 6 is important and there has been considerable philological change of direction recently on the ambiguous Hebrew here (see both Habel and Clines on this verse in [4] and [6]).  The problem with translating nhm as ‘repent’ is that with the preposition used in this verse it is better rendered with the sense of changing one’s mind about something – so ‘repent of my dust and ashes’ is better than ‘repent in dust and ashes’.  Similarly the verb m’s which has been translated ‘despise’ is now thought much more likely to adopt here its legal connotations and mean ‘retract’ (‘my case’).  So Job is not crushed – he simply retracts his case and moves on: I withdraw my case and leave my dust and ashes behind me. There is an interesting aspect to the question-form of the Answer and Job’s restoration as well.  As Goldingay puts it’ ‘Much of the time what we need (not what we think we need) is the capacity to live with the questions. At one level this is what God wants for Job.’[8]

(7) The eschatological context. Comparisons with Isaiah have already been noted, but are not essential to situate the prophetic, wisdom-poem of Job within the arc of theological history of Judaism (and its inheritor).  Stories around individual characters (Moses, Samson, David, Elijah, Jonah, Job, Hosea, …) take place within a much larger and longer arc of creation, rebellion, election, redemption, restoration, new-creation.  They are themes, within movements within a symphony, and as such give to and receive from their narrative context extra meaning and depth.  In particular they give and receive along the communication channels of purpose.  The purpose of humans, called and in-breathed with the ruach and pneuma of YHWH’s own spirit, and created in his image, is to participate in the continuity of creation’s story. Job is future-directed, not only for its protagonist, but for its readers as well.

[1] D. Robertson, The book of Job: a literary study. Soundings 1973, 56, 446–68.

[2] See D.J.A Clines, ‘Loin-girding and other male activities in the Book of Job’

[3] J.E. Hartley in The Book of Job, Ed. W.A.M. Beuken BETL 114

[4] D.J.A. Clines (2011) World Biblical Commentary on Job, Nashville: Thos. Nelson, p.1097

[5] E. Stump (2012), Wandering in Darkness, Oxford: OUP

[6] N.C. Habel (1985) The Book of Job, London: SCM Press

[7] C. Westermann Isaiah 40-66, The Old Testament Library, London: SCM Press 1969

[7] T.C.B. McLeish (2014) Faith and Wisdom in Science Oxford: OUP, Ch. 5

[8] J. Goldingay (2013) Job for Everyone, Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press p.196