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Job 9:4-10 – A Sunday School Text Used Out of Context

Job 9:4-10 – A Sunday School Text Used Out of Context

I like reading the texts before I’ve read the lesson material so that I can see what I can learn from them without the direction of the lesson topic. So why do I call this text “out of context” when I haven’t even seen how it will be used by the lesson material.

The reason is simply that the text trims out the material that would let us know the speaker or the point in the argument at which this text appears. If we look back to Job 9:1, we find that this is one of Job’s responses to his friends, the friends who have come to make sure his depression is as deep as possible.

When you consider that when God appears in this story, God doesn’t think much of what has been said before God’s appearance, it is perhaps not helpful to take theology out of any of the speeches from chapter 3 through chapter 37. While God commends Job, it is not for Job’s speech.

In my experience, most Christians who quote from Job at all quote from the speeches of Job’s friends, and don’t trouble to take note of who is speaking. That’s because Job’s friends maintain what most of us feel, which is that many, if not most of the bad things that happen to people are the result of their bad decision. God, according to this view, is in the business of rewarding good behavior and punishing bad.

Job doesn’t really counter this so much as simply assert his innocence. In this passage he’s declaring God powerful, but also distant. That’s Job’s problem with all this. He’d like God to show up and answer his questions. God hasn’t done that.

What is trimmed out of our reading is the fact that this is Job speaking (v. 1), and that he has just declared that God will not answer. His comments on God’s power are not so much praise as they are a declaration of God’s distance. At the end of verse 3 he declares that God won’t respond one time in a thousand.

With all that trimmed, this can sound like a declaration of praise for the Creator. What it actually is, is a complaint about the distance of a God who allows Job to suffer and yet refuses to explain himself.

Job is often referred to as a theodicy, a justification of God’s behavior. Theodicies usually try to explain how God can be good, all-powerful, and yet allow suffering or evil to exist. The book of Job doesn’t actually attempt any theodicy. Job is answered, insofar as he is at all, when God appears and challenges him. In the story, Job never finds out what was going on in the background. We, the readers are privy to the council, and to what God is proving through Job’s suffering.

Equally interesting to me is the fact that Job is quite satisfied with the answer, even though on a logical basis it’s not much of an answer. What Job longs for is what he sees lacking: God needs to take note of him. Once this has happened Job is quite happy.

One of the reasons for that, I suspect, is that Job simply sees that God truly is that great, and is in turn grateful that God has paid attention to his complaints at all, even though God doesn’t answer the questions Job has raised.

So let’s go full circle back to the point about context. Sometimes texts can be used out of context. The problem is that we generally try to make scripture authoritative. If one uses a text out of context and pretends that this reading is authoritative because it is scripture, that presents quite a problem.

When I was in elementary school we had a program of scripture memorization that included memorizing lists of four texts. We’d have four texts on the Sabbath (I was Seventh-day Adventist at the time), four texts on the state of the dead, and so forth. Today I would view a number of these texts as taken out of context. And for their purpose, some of them were.

On the other hand there are allusions and literary borrowing. Revelation, for example, is filled with verbal allusions to various passages in Hebrew scripture. These are not used as proof texts, but rather form part of the literary fabric from which the report of John’s vision is woven. As long as we understand what is going on, there is no problem. The problem is that we often see only one use in scripture: proving doctrinal points.

I’m reminded of the saying, “Good fences make good neighbors.” This is quoted in a pious way, indicating that by erecting effective barriers, we can live more peacefully. I actually think this is quite correct. Boundaries, well-defined and reasonable, are very helpful to relationships.

That was not the meaning of this line when it was first written. You might take the time to read the Robert Front poem.

Sometimes in our Bible reading we need to realize that we are reading a story, seeing a picture, getting a sense, and not learning a doctrine.

Why We Don’t Teach Revelation Contextually

Why We Don’t Teach Revelation Contextually

Lawrence Garcia asks why pastors in America don’t teach Revelation contextually. It’s a good question. He gives a good answer, concluding that the contextual message of Revelation is going to run head-on into our civil religion. We have divided loyalties, and if we see our idols—imperial power, perhaps?—condemned, we get tense. If our pastors started to tell us that the message of the cross said that our dependence on the power of this world is bad, we might start finding other pastors, presumably ones with a less startling message.

I agree that the message of Revelation runs directly into many of our favored activities and attitudes. But I think there’s another reason we don’t want to read Revelation contextually.

It’s not as much fun.

It’s not as comforting.

You may be thinking “Revelation? Comforting?” but first let’s consider the matter of fun. We really like to know the future. At least we like to think we know the future. That’s why sports analysts and political pundits can make so much money. We don’t really check the accuracy of what they say, but we like to find a prophet that tells us what we want to hear. Knowing the future makes us feel special.

Ever since we got this kind of dispensational view of Revelation that results in the Left Behind series, we’re stuck with that as the popular vision of Revelation. I recall being invited to teach a youth class shortly after I joined my first United Methodist congregation. I was there to talk about Bible translations, but when I asked for questions at the end of my presentation the first one was this: Are you pre-, mid-, or post-trib? The folks were somewhat disappointed to know that I didn’t believe in a separate rapture of the church at all. Since that time I’ve found that most discussions of Revelation are in the context of some form of futurism, with the debate being over which particular futurist view you take.

I taught Revelation from my study guide (this web site is dedicated to that guide), which does not deal with the rapture or the seven year tribulation, neither of which can be found in Revelation, in my opinion. The group insisted on a 14th lesson to specifically discuss that question. The tribulation and who was going to be in it was the critical question. Or more precisely the critical question was who could get out of it.

It’s just disappointing to realize that Revelation doesn’t provide a detailed road map of the future. We’d so much rather it did that! In fact, when it doesn’t, we insist on pretending that it does. It’s just more fun!

And it is comforting. Yes, I know there are all kinds of disturbing images in the book, but if you can figure out precisely where you fit in, and if you can convince yourself that you know the future and how you’ll handle the tribulation (it won’t trouble you!), that’s comforting. We want so badly to know the future that we’ll believe almost anything.

Eschatology: A Participatory Study GuideAnd the prevalence of a pre-tribulation rapture speaks to that desire for comfort. It tells modern Christians that unlike millions of Christians before them, and those living in other lands right now, they will indeed be able to avoid the nastiest events. They’re going to be sitting comfortably off in heaven while everyone else passes through disaster after disaster. Take that all you people who didn’t listen to us!

But the bottom line is precisely what Laurence Garcia says: Taking the message of Revelation as it would appear in its historical context brings the message much too close to home. It’s much more relevant than the futurist understanding, but it just doesn’t make us nearly as happy.

For those interested in digging deeper into eschatology, I’d like to recommend the latest volume in the Participatory Study Series, Eschatology: A Participatory Study Guide. This book will introduce you to the ideas and terminology that will make it possible to sort your way through the incredible amount of drivel that’s put out on this subject on a daily basis.