Studying Job 42 (1-6, 10-17)

We are finishing up our peek into the book of Job, and also our quarter on Biblical perspectives on justice, with a look at the finale, or perhaps the epilogue, of the book: Job’s last word on the subject, and the “restoration of Job’s fortunes.” We are studying Job 42 (selected verses 1-6 and 10-17) for Sunday, February 27 – also, as it happens, Transfiguration, with Ash Wednesday and Lent on the horizon, so there’s a liturgical context for us. [Some questions on the text are here.] Here are some notes on this text:

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BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: By now we know that the story of Job seems to be old, but the book of Job, with its profound poetic treatment of the subject of the suffering of the righteous, seems not to be. Job is not an Israelite, nor are any of his friends – the setting is “Uz,” an indeterminate place that might or might not be as definite as Edom, but is not anywhere in Israel at any time, as far as we can tell. For us, Job could be anyone, from anywhere; at least in that sense, the story takes place in the universal time and involves the universal characters of the mythic past.

We have skipped almost all of the book. We always do that, of course, but I particularly notice how wrong this feels this week. We’ve skipped the entire poetic development of Job’s plight, and of the conventional wisdom Job is up against. We’ve skipped the shifting voices of this poetry [which are part of its development, and which contribute to its meaning]. We’ve skipped Elihu’s long-winded moralism, and we’ve also skipped God’s response to Job. We are taking up the story again with Job’s response to God’s response, and then the conclusion of the tale.

So let’s remember that Job’s response has as its immediate context God’s direct poetic speech. Job’s response has been enlightened by that exchange. [Robert Alter has a long and valuable analysis of the speeches of the Voice from the Whirlwind at the end, which give a clear sense of what that has involved. If I were you, I would go read that instead of this.]

Then, after Job’s final poetic summation, we come back to prose, and the way life goes on, but not unchanged.

We expect, and may want, stories of adversity to have “happy endings.” As readers, we probably also have developed some ideas about what makes a “satisfying” ending to a story. All the threads of the plot tied off in a way that puts everything neatly into place. Like the last piece of a puzzle. So we could think about whether the ending of the book of Job we have is a satisfying happy ending, according to that description. And if we don’t think that, why we don’t.

Our text this week is one of the [Revised Common] lectionary’s Hebrew Bible alternatives for the 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B. So there’s a chance churchgoers might have heard it in church some time, especially if their pastor has ever taken up the challenge of preaching a few weeks on Job.

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CLOSER READING: Job is still speaking in poetry in verses 1-6, and the poetry is hard to translate into English. Verse 2, in particular, has a text problem. Everyone seems to resolve it by reading Job as saying “I know” and I am no one to argue with Everyone. But the text seems to read “you know” – and that way of reading it wouldn’t be impossible. Just, something for us to know.

Job’s description of God here is open to a play of ideas. NRSV translates “no purpose of yours can be thwarted,” which makes it seem like God always picks the purpose first. Alter translates “no devising is beyond You,” which is a little closer to the idea – there, it seems to me, in [some clunky] Hebrew – that “there is no holding back, from you, purpose.” God, you could have any purpose at all, you could decide to do anything. In its context, that is, in light of God’s immediately preceding speeches, this seems particularly significant. God could even decide to make heavens and earth, and literally all they contain, astonishing as all that is.

V3, Job quotes God from 38:2. The word translated “uttered” has a sense of making known or saying out loud for public consumption. We ourselves might have said something like “I didn’t know what I was talking about.”

In v4, NRSV leaves untranslated the little word nah, which makes a big affective difference. “Hear, pray” or “Hear, please,” is different to hear from God than “Hear!” Don’t you think? God does tell people to hear a lot, as we know. E.g., in Deuteronomy 6:4. “I will ask of you, and you will make known to me.” On the surface, this was simply setting Job up to recognize his lack of knowledge. But – there is something, maybe, in God’s very act of asking that brings about knowing, of something.

V5 is back to hearing [now repeated three times in these two verses], and contrasted with sight.

V6 the verbs have no direct objects; Job “rejects” or “despises,” or perhaps “recants,” and “repents” or “relents” or “rethinks.”

Although our selection of text skips out verses 7-9, there’s an interesting note in the Jewish Study Bible that points out that the offerings God demands from Job’s three “comforters” are specific and significant. The bulls would be appropriate as sin offerings for “the anointed priest” or “the whole community of Israel.” The rams would be appropriate as guilt offerings for sacrilege. [See Leviticus 5:17 or Leviticus 5:21.] These specific offerings, then, portray the three men as community leaders who have done or spoken something wrong, incurred guilt, and now become aware of it. They aren’t just generic burnt offerings.

Then in v10 God turns the fortunes of Job, restoring everything double.

In v11, the behavior of the brothers, sisters, and acquaintances amounts to a flurry of activity: they come, they eat, they console, they comfort, they give. The verb translated “console” is an expressive one, that evokes the lamenting of mourners and the fluttering of birds. We get the image of this flock of people descending with casseroles and bustling around the Job house and fetching him cups of tea and exclaiming over and over again “You poor thing!!” Plus, with re-start-up capital.

Then v12 is the new property, and v13-15 the new family. Two-thirds of which is devoted to Job’s daughters, who are interesting, because mysterious. It is undoubtedly significant that they have names, exotic ones, and that they receive inheritances, but what exactly that signifies is not obvious. [This reminded me that I preached a sermon on this text a decade ago, and that sermon is still online; I would still stand by it.]

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A FINAL WORD: It is tempting when we read the Bible to want to “sum everything up” in a sentence or two, and for that sentence to echo some pious sentiment or check off some attribute of God’s we already know about and are comfortable with. Sunday school curriculum, it seems to me, is often prone to this particular sin. So whenever our curriculum trots out some bland truism about God as the “moral of the story” here – God is loving and forgiving and always with us, for instance – at a minimum we should ask ourselves where in the text do we read that, and how we are reading the text to make it say that. But moreover, what exactly does this text say? What else, what all, does it say? And maybe more important: where is all that taking us?

Because surely it is not reverence, or piety, or devotion to pretend that God, or the Bible that speaks about God, or God’s creation, or God’s Truth, is SIMPLE. Simple in the sense that it could be shallow. Simple in the sense that it could safely be encapsulated, encompassed in some tidy formula for the purposes of memorization and “application.” Simple as if we could glance at it and grade and sort it the way we’d glance at and grade and sort fruit in a packing house, slotting everything we read neat and sweet into the boxes we’ve got in front of us. Simple as if the questions the Bible raises are just something to get past as quickly as possible, instead of the main point, and the invitation into the mystery in which we, too, might catch a glimpse of the God we didn’t make up. Surely running past the questions is not reverence, or piety, or devotion, or respect for truth, or gratitude for the minds God gave us, or the beginning of wisdom. Surely.

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Alter, Robert. The Hebrew Bible. Volume 3: The Writings; Ketuvim. A Translation with Commentary. W.W. Norton & Company, 2019.

Gruber, Mayer. “Introduction and Notes – Job.” The Jewish Study Bible. Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler editors. Oxford University Press, 2004.

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abstract image painging of suffering Job

Image: “Job,” Andreas Neumann-Nochten, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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