Job – An operatic encounter with a transcendent God

 Job – An operatic encounter with a transcendental God

Introduction

 The book of Job has long been thought of as a ‘dramatic’ work, in the sense that it would not look out of place on a stage, and it has even been arranged for dramatic performance.[1]  However, on re-encountering the text, I was struck by the fact that it wasn’t just dramatic in its style and scope but it is virtually operatic in nature: the overture introduces us to a noble and upright paragon of virtue, the scene shifts to nothing less than the court of heaven and a virtual wager between God and (the)[2] Satan, and then we have Job’s fall from wealth, health and security into destitution and poverty. Wagner would have been proud.[3]

When Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar arrive there is an interlude of mournful silence.   Then they stop being useful and start speaking and there is the long exchange of monologues; but these are no mere speeches, these could be arias, such is their tone and scope.  When, finally, it becomes clear that the limits of human wisdom have been reached and that Job is no closer to understanding why he has fallen from grace we have the theophany as God addresses Job.  But this appearance of God is no ‘gentle whisper’[4], rather God speaks to Job ‘out of the storm.’[5] Operatic indeed.

Finally we have the ‘happy ending’ of Job’s health, fortune and family restored.  Although, I accept, that this finale may appear more Tim Rice than Richard Wagner![6]

I have used this ‘operatic’ analogy as my overture because I want to emphasise that it is essential to keep genre in mind as we encounter something of the God that Job encountered.  Whilst I shall be suggesting that it is important for modern Christians to engage with this account of God, we should also bear in mind that this has been written in a very particular, poetic, form; we should therefore treat with caution the nature of the conclusions we draw.

That said, in this brief essay, I shall be thinking a little about why many Christians in the 21st century may find the ‘transcendental otherness’ of the God we encounter in Job a challenging answer to an already difficult question but why, ultimately, it may be good for us to be so challenged.

The Problem Stated / The Presenting Issue

Job’s considerable misfortune, including the death of his children and his descent into ill-health and poverty, have not been caused by personal fecklessness or irreligiosity.  We are told expressly that Job was ‘blameless and upright’ and that, ‘he was the greatest man among all the people of the East’.[7] Further we, the audience (although not Job or his comforters), are shown right from the outset that the underlying cause for all that is to follow is the fact that God allows (the) Satan to do everything short of killing Job to test his true devotion to God.[8]

The fact that God allows (the) Satan to test almost to destruction the one who is most devoted to him is, of itself, an image of God that may challenge some of our preconceptions about the nature of God.  Further, this challenge is not simply a ‘Jobian’ or even an ‘Old Testament’ issue; we are reminded of the temptations of Jesus in the wilderness and, perhaps less obviously, in the Garden of Gethsemane and, even, whilst on the cross.[9]  We should also be reminded that the very early church went through significant ‘testing’ and some of the epistles state, for example, that ‘God disciples those whom he loves’ and that ‘suffering produces perseverance’.[10]  Therefore, although the image of God allowing Job to suffer as a test of faith is challenging to a particular view of God it is not inimical to an image of God seen in many places in the bible and, therefore, perhaps it is our preconceptions about God which need to be changed.  That, I suspect, is the thrust of much of this book.

Job, of course, had not been privy to the heavenly wager and his central cry throughout this book is ‘what have I done to deserve this?’.  This is often broadened into the question, ‘why do bad things happen to good people?’ which is the perennial question of those who seek to reconcile the omnipresence, omnipotence, omniscience and omnibenevolence of God with a world of unjust suffering.

Job’s friends have a host of answers to those questions, most of which boil down to ‘bad things don’t happen to good people, therefore you must have been bad’.[11]  In some ways that is a ‘comforting’ answer because it maintains the illusion that bad things can never happen to truly good people and it maintains an ‘otherness’ between those who deserve punishment and those who are blameless.  “If I am good,” we think, “then all will be well with me, and those who are suffering must be very different from me.”  The problems with this theology are manifold:

  1. It de-personalises God and transforms him into nothing more than a dispenser of ‘karmic’ consequences, i.e. good fortune will always follow good action and vice versa;
  2. It encourages a lack of empathy with those who are suffering because the suffering must be deserved in some way; and
  3. When suffering comes to the proponent (as it comes to all in some form eventually) their view of God is so fundamentally challenged that faith itself can be destroyed.[12]

In short, if we build and worship an image of God which is built upon the ‘karmic’ theology of Job’s comforters then it is view of God built on sand that will likely be washed away by the experience of suffering.

So, if Job’s friends are wrong, how does God answer Job’s question of ‘why is this happening to me?’ and the wider question of ‘why do bad things happen to good people’? 

The Theophany

Job’s anger at his predicament, at his friends and even with God have doubtless changed and, perhaps, even emboldened him.  In the prologue his acceptance of God’s will is ‘upright’ and, even Stoical:

Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will depart.  The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away, may the name of the Lord be praised.”[13]

But by Chapter 23 Job wishes to take his complaint to God direct, if only he could:

If only I knew where to find him: if only I could go to his dwelling!  I would state my case before him and fill my mouth with arguments”[14]

Of course, it is not necessary for Job to track down God because God knows where he is to be found and addresses him from out of a storm.[15]

However, if we come to this point expecting an easy answer to Job’s, or our, questions then we shall be disappointed.  God simply does not answer the problem of suffering, at least in the manner in which those questions have been posed. If he did theodicy would be rather more straightforward. Rather, through a series of rhetorical challenges posed to Job God seeks to reframe his question, and perhaps therefore the pre-conceptions which underlie the question; to lift Job’s eyes from his predicament to the majesty of God’s creation and, therefore, to the transcendent nature of God himself:

Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?

            Have you ever given orders to the morning, or shown the dawn it’s place?

            Have you comprehended the vast expanse of the earth?

            Can you bind the chains of the Pleiades?

            Do you know the laws of the heavens?”[16]

The unspoken answer to these, and many more, questions is, of course, ‘no’ and it is apparent that Job has been humbled, perhaps even shocked:

I am unworthy – how can I reply to you? I put my hand over my mouth.”[17]

Despite this apparent submission God continues to relentlessly extol the wonder, beauty and complexity of his creation.  A creation which Job barely comprehends let alone controls.  God is telling Job, in no uncertain terms, that God is so far above Job’s understanding that how dare he question God’s judgement or presume to know better than him?  And God’s words certainly take the wind out of Job’s angry sails, as his final words before the epilogue make clear:

My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you.  Therefore, I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.”[18]

Krish Kandiah puts the effect of God’s words on Job like this:

God’s questions to Job act like a mental version of a defibrillator, shocking the brain out of self-importance and introspection and forcing him – and us – to see our true place in the universe that God has created.”[19]

God is pulling rank in spectacular fashion.  God is telling Job that he, Job, is but a small part of creation whereas God is the creator.  The God we encounter in Job is a wholly transcendent God and, as I explore next, I suspect that this is an aspect of God that Christians find especially challenging.

Transcendence vs. Immanence

Amongst the three ‘Abrahamic’ faiths I would suggest that Christianity has the most highly developed view of the immanence of God.  This flows firstly from the incarnation of God the Son, in the person of Jesus, ‘Immanuel, God with us.’[20] And the ‘incarnation’ of the Holy Spirit in the body of the Church and the bodies of all the baptised.[21]

Christian theology would therefore tend to posit a view of God which is highly involved within the life of his creation; not just because he created it but because he has also inhabited it and continues so to do.  Whilst this immanent theology emphasises the connection and intimacy between God and humanity I would suggest that it makes the Jobian, wholly transcendent, God, seem culturally alien.  Further, Job’s response of utter submission to the will of this transcendent God, much as it may echo Jesus’ own submission to the Father in Gethsemane, is culturally challenging in a society that values democracy and negotiation.  There is, therefore, a considerable historical, theological and cultural gap between 21st century Christians and the God we encounter in Job.

Whilst Judaism, of course, does not accept the incarnation of God in the person of Jesus this does not mean that it is without any sense of immanence.  On the contrary the Hebrew bible starts with the ultimate immanent theophany of God walking within his creation[22] and Psalm 139 speaks at length and movingly of a God who is so involved with his creation that it is impossible to be away from his presence.  But much Jewish theology has been born in the context of oppression and slavery – from Egypt to Babylon to Auschwitz the Jewish experience of God has often been one of unjust suffering and the felt absence of God.  Accordingly, there is a rich vein of ‘counter-testimony’ running throughout the Hebrew bible, from Job to Ecclesiastes, Lamentations and many of the psalms.[23]   Brueggemann labels this vein of literature the ‘genre of complaint.’[24]

Therefore, although the Book of Job is equally part of the Christian canon one cannot help wondering whether the Christian community’s lack of collective suffering makes it rather less able or willing to engage creatively with this genre and, perhaps, to feel more threatened by it.[25]  In this sense Job both comes from and speaks to the Hebrew context more readily and may therefore present a greater challenge to the Christian mind-set which may be both less willing to rage against the perceived injustice of God as to submit to his transcendence.

The word ‘submit’, of course, brings us to Islam.[26]  In many ways I would suggest that the image of God we are presented with in Job is less inimical to Muslims than it is to many Christians. Of the three Abrahamic faiths Islam has the most highly developed sense both of a wholly transcendent God and of submission to the will of God.  Whilst Christianity certainly has the concept of deo volente Islam appears more committed to the concept of inshallah.  Interestingly the story of Job appears in the Quran but this account is limited to the equivalent of the prologue and epilogue – i.e. God tests Job’s faith but Job stays faithful and so God rewards him.[27]  The questioning and tussling with God, which does form part of much Hebrew theology, does not form part of this narrative.

Conclusion

Job is a wonderfully challenging book on many levels.  As Harold Kushner puts it:

Imagine trying to read a book that combines the complexity of a college philosophy text with the poetic language and imagery of a Shakespearean tragedy, and you get a sense of the challenge that the Poem of Job represents.”[28]

Beyond these textual challenges Christian readers are also faced with the cultural and theological challenges, noted above, that the transcendent, haughty God we encounter there, a God who is at ease with allowing his faithful servant first to suffer and then refuses to engage with his questions and even to humble him further into submission, seems so alien to the image of a wholly loving God with which we are more accustomed.

Nonetheless, and whilst maintaining the cautionary note of the introduction, that we should be careful about the weight of the theological structures we build on the text of this operatic / dramatic / poetic work, I would submit that it is a healthy exercise for Christians to engage with the God we encounter in Job and, indeed, throughout the ‘genre of complaint’.  A truly Trinitarian theology should be able to accommodate not only the immanence of Son and Spirit but also the transcendence of Father.  A truly resilient faith should not only be thankful to God when he is felt to be present but not be afraid to question or even rail against his felt absence.

Finally, delving into Job may teach us that Christianity has something to learn from the apparently contradictory Jewish tradition of being unafraid of taking our arguments to God and the Islamic tradition of being ready to submit to the will of God.

 

Bibliography

Brueggemann, W., 1997. Theology of the Old Testament. s.l.:Fortress Press.

Byrne, J., 2001. God. s.l.:Continuum.

Carson, D., ed., 2015. NIV Study Bible. s.l.:Zondervan Bibles.

Cole, P., 2004. Philosophy of Religion. 2nd ed. s.l.:Hodder Murray.

Daniel Masters, A. R. S. a. I. K., n.d. A Brief Intoduction to Islam. [Online]
Available at: http://www.islam-guide.com/truereligion/A_Brief_Introduction_to_Islam.htm
[Accessed 21 January 2017].

Davis, S. T. ed., 1981. Encountering Evil Live Options in Theodicy. Edinburgh: T&T Clark.

Jung, C., 1973. Answer to Job. Fiftieth anniversary edition 2010 ed. s.l.:Princeton University Press.

Kandiah, K., 2014. Paradoxology. s.l.:Hodder & Stoughton.

Kushner, H. S., 2012. The Book of Job When Bad Things Happened to a Good Person. 1st ed. s.l.:Schocken Books.

Pope, M. H., 1965. Job, A New Translation and Commentary. 2008 ed. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

Razumeiko, G. &., 2009. [Online]
Available at: https://www.reddit.com/r/classicalmusic/comments/4fcys5/opera_book_of_job_by_ukrainian_composers_roman/
[Accessed 1 February 2017].

Swinburne, R., 2004. The Existence of God. 2nd ed. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Vardy, P., 1992. The Puzzle of Evil. s.l.:Harper Collins.

Vardy, P., 1999. The Puzzle of God. London: Fount.

Weatherhead, L. D., 1944. The Will of God. Nashville: Abingdon Press.

 

 

 

Footnotes

[1] Anon. The Oldest Drama in the World: The Book of Job, Arranged in Dramatic Form with Elucidations Ulan Press 2012.  See also the Coen Brothers film “A Serious Man” (2009).

[2] I shall use this slightly inelegant form as it seeks to strike a balance between the Hebrew and English.

[3] It transpires that I was not alone in spotting the operatic qualities of Job and the Ukrainian composers Roman Grygorly and Illia Razumeiko produced an operatic adaptation, also in 2009.

[4] cf 1 Kings 19:12

[5] Job 38:1

[6] Interestingly although the epilogue feels like a later addition, perhaps intended to soften the impact of all that has gone before, it seems that the prologue and epilogue may be the more ancient texts which the composer of the dialogues (or arias!) has used as a frame.  See Pope, 1965.   Although this may not help the epilogue sit any more comfortably with what has gone before this may, at least, increase its venerability.

[7] Job 1 vv 1 & 3.  Job 2:3

[8] E.g. Job 1: 12 & 2:6

[9] E.g. Matt 4, Matt 26:39 & Matt 27:39

[10] Hebrews 12:3 & Romans 5:3.

[11] E.g. Job 4:7

[12] Although, if this is faith in a karmic view of God then the destruction of that faith may be good, albeit hopefully replaced with something more substantial.

[13] Job 1:21

[14] Job 23:3,4.  This chapter always strikes me as an ‘anti’ Psalm 139 – instead of God being all around he is nowhere to be found.

[15] Job 38:1. Although this is an interesting contrast with the theophany to Elijah (see note 4) this is not a unique way for God to appear as he spoke to the Israelites from a storm like pillar of dark cloud and fire (e.g. Deut 4:11)

 

[16] Job 38: 4, 12, 18, 31, 33

[17] Job 40:4

[18] Job 42:6

[19] Kandiah, 2014 p.104

[20] Matt 1:23

[21] Acts 2.  1 Cor 6:19

[22] Gen 3:8

[23] eg. Pss 22:1, 10, 13, 42:9, 43:2, 44, 60, 69, 74, 77:7-9, 79, 80, 83, 85 & 137.

[24] Brueggemann, 1997 p. 321

[25] Of course there has been Christian suffering in the sense of those martyred for their faith by pagan Roman emperors and those currently oppressed in the countries which outlaw Christianity.  However I would suggest that this has rarely been of the same ‘collective’ nature of that experienced by the Jewish community.

[26] Islam being the Arabic for ‘submission to the will of God’.  (Daniel Masters, n.d.)

[27] Quran 4:163  Quran 21:83  Quran 38:41  Qur’an 38:44

 

[28] (Kushner, 2012) p37.

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