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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.

Football: I suspect God was indifferent to the ultimate outcome

Football: I suspect God was indifferent to the ultimate outcome

Finding God in Suffering: A Journey with JobBruce Epperly, author of the recently released book Finding God in Suffering: A Journey with Job, questions the view that God determines the outcome of football games (or, I suspect, any other sport), rewarding the faithful and punishing the unfaithful. The title to this post includes his money quote from his post, Is God a Seahawks Fan?. Here’s the full paragraph:

I am sure that God was present on the playing field but not as a miracle worker or team mascot; God was there urging the players to achieve their best as team members, to be sportsmanlike, and to remain healthy amid a rough and tumble game. I suspect God was indifferent to the ultimate outcome.

I found this post refreshing. God is involved, but God isn’t there to make your team win–or lose. He’s there with each person.
Bruce Epperly Interview and Sale

Bruce Epperly Interview and Sale

epperly_saleLast night I had the privilege of interviewing Dr. Bruce Epperly, author of several Energion titles out of a total of 28 books he has written so far. Bruce is always both interesting and challenging, and doesn’t avoid the hard questions.

We placed his books on a special “buy 2 get 1 free” sale just before the interview, but I was so interested in the topic, I forgot to mention it on video! I’ve extended that sale by one day, so it will be good all day today and tomorrow. If you want to stock up on these titles, this is the time to do it. Note that the buy 2 get 1 offer works along with quantity discounts, so if you’d like to stock up for a study group, again, now is the time. Just go to Energion Direct, and you’ll see a section for the sale on Bruce Epperly’s books. You can make your choices from there.

For those who may have missed it, I’m embedding the YouTube video below.

From My Editing Work: Claim Your Identity as a Theologian

From My Editing Work: Claim Your Identity as a Theologian

Finding God in Suffering: A Journey with JobFrom the forthcoming book Finding God in Suffering: A Journey with Job by Bruce G. Epperly.

The book of Job invites us to claim our identity as theologians.  Job shouts out to us, “You are a theologian” because we have experienced the pain of the world and are trying to make sense of it.  Job shouts to us: “Don’t let the word ‘theology’ put you off.  By whatever word, we strive to make sense of the senseless and meaning of the meaningless.”  We become theologians the moment we begin to ask hard questions about life and the One who creates the universe and gives birth to each moment of experience.  Theology asks questions of life, death, meaning, human hope, and immortality.  It also raises questions about the meaning and purpose of our brief, and often challenging and ambiguous lives. For Job, theology and spirituality are intimately related.  As Episcopalian spiritual guide Alan Jones once asserted, spirituality deals with the unfixable aspects of life – or what I would describe as life’s inevitabilities.  Sooner or later even the most fortunate of us must make theological and personal sense of what is beyond our control, while taking responsibility for what we can change.

So Wrong Divine Intervention is Required

So Wrong Divine Intervention is Required

In my recent reading from the book of Job I came across the following from Zophar. I’ll quote just a bit:

“Shouldn’t the multitude of words be answered?
Should a man full of talk be justified?
Should your boastings make men hold their peace?
When you mock, shall no man make you ashamed?
For you say, ‘My doctrine is pure.
I am clean in your eyes.’

But oh that God would speak,
and open his lips against you,
that he would show you the secrets of wisdom!
For true wisdom has two sides.
Know therefore that God exacts of you less than your iniquity deserves.
(Job 11:1-6, WEB)

I once preached a sermon in which I labeled the three friends of Job with modern denominational labels. I didn’t do this because I had tagged a particular one of them with denominational characteristics. In fact, I can’t remember what label I put on each. What I was trying to illustrate is that Job’s friends have their disciples in our modern churches.

Have you ever had an argument, or to be kind, a ‘vigorous discussion’ with someone, only to have it conclude with your opponent saying something like “I’ll pray for you!” By the tone, you know they won’t be praying for your health. What they’ll be praying for is that God will straighten you out. Now I don’t mind having someone pray for me, and I’m sure God can handle whatever they ask, but often the underlying meaning of that phrase is something quite different. To go to the title of this post, what you’re being told is that you’re so wrong (and so stubborn) that only divine intervention will suffice to set you straight.

Notice how Zophar first assures Job that he doesn’t understand, then wishes God would explain things to Job, but in the final line of the quote, he says “But know this …” Zophar is sure Job doesn’t understand, but he, Zophar, has it straight. If you continue reading the chapter, Zophar brings up many things that Job doesn’t understand. The implication behind the speech, however, is that Zophar does.

When Job responds, he says:

“No doubt, but you are the people,
and wisdom shall die with you.
But I have understanding as well as you;
I am not inferior to you.
Yes, who doesn’t know such things as these?” (Job 12:2-3, WEB)

It’s possible for an appeal to God or an appeal to prayer to be an act of humility. You’ll probably know by the tone. But generally such calls come from someone who is so sure he or she is deep in the counsels of God and doesn’t need instruction. But you do.

As you’re thinking about that, however, consider how many debates you’ve been in, in which you were the one with a tame god on a leash, ready to be sic’d on your opponent. Then try Job 38:2 on for size:

Who is this who darkens counsel
by words without knowledge?

Book Notes: God’s Problem (Ehrman)

Book Notes: God’s Problem (Ehrman)

Ehrman, Bart D. God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question-Why We Suffer. New York: HarperCollins, 2008. ISBN: 978-0-06-117397-4. 294 pp.

I have previously noted that Bart Ehrman’s books are much more controversial on their jackets than on their pages (see notes on The Lost Gospel of Judas Iscariot and Response to Misquoting Jesus). This is not to say that there is nothing controversial. Rather, well-known issues are stated in a stark and controversial way.

This book is no exception to this prior experience. I was both amused and annoyed that my copy from the library had been “annotated” by some previous user. That always annoys me, because defacing library books is vandalism and I don’t like it. But the form it took is interesting.

On the title page the words “fails to” are crossed out of the subtitle, and and “s” is added to “answer” to that it says “How the Bible Answers Our Most Important Question.” Then there is a note that says simply “sin, In the 1st Book Genesis 3.” Of course, as any competent scholar would, Ehrman covers the role of sin in human suffering according to various Biblical authors.

In the conclusion he also notes how people are divided between two groups. Those who announce their answer as though it was conclusive and obvious, as this annotator did, and those who really don’t want to discuss the topic at all.

I have thought a great deal about the problem of suffering and am willing to talk about it a great deal, but I don’t actually think I have any very good answers. It was interesting to me that neither Ehrman nor I will give a definitive answer, but we have a certain amount of affinity for similar answers. The bottom line for me is simply, “That’s the way the universe works.”

Of course there is also suffering caused by human evil, so the “sin” solution is certainly a part of suffering. But any of these leaves one with the question of just how God fits in. And there I would differ with Ehrman considerably. The problem of suffering itself is one thing; one can even ask the question why we should not suffer. The problem of suffering when one also believes in a “good” God is another matter entirely.

And that’s why the book is titled “God’s Problem.” On one level this is simply a summary of how the various Bible writers answer the question of why we suffer. On another, it is Dr. Ehrman’s journey in dealing with the fact that we do suffer and the implications of that fact for our understanding of God. Some may dislike the idea of mixing one’s personal experience with a book of scholarship, even a popular one. I would disagree. I think the personal reflections, however much they differ from my own, enhance the book and help one to connect the various scriptural responses to real life.

Let me look at these two levels separately. It was interesting to read this book nearly simultaneously with Bruce Waltke’s An Old Testament Theology. The books differ a great deal in size, intended audience, style, and the level of presentation, yet they very clearly illustrate a significant divide in Biblical scholarship. Do we look try to see the scriptures as ultimately unified, and thus reconcile apparent differences theologically or do we lay out those difficulties as starkly as possible?

That question outlines extremes. There are many variations along the way, including a kind of unity in diversity. I like to refer to the unity of a large river system, rather than that of a carefully delineated pathway. But Waltke approaches the Bible as a unity to be brought into subjection to his christology, while Ehrman sees the Bible as many individual schools of thought and tends to demarcate these schools rather strictly.

As an outline, I’m rather happy with Ehrman’s work. He points out what the major positions are. I think there could be some more work done on seeing how those positions might coexist. For example, the view that suffering is a punishment for sin can co-exist with the apocalyptic view that sees suffering as something inflicted by evil forces. I know people in real life who will respond with either of these options according to the circumstances. They don’t always have any logic other than whether they feel that a particular person is deserving of “discipline” or is demonstrating strength as they face the forces of evil.

Scholars tend to try to keep things more logically disciplined than that, which is probably a good attitude for a scholar to have. But it can get in the way of describing real people who are quite frequently a great deal messier.

In particular, I question some of Ehrman’s work on Job. I think he takes a view on Job that would require the final redactor to be some sort of idiot. See my notes on this on my Participatory Bible Study Blog.

Those who would be very critical of Ehrman’s approach, however, should consider the almost casual way theologians often try to brush aside such objections. I did not include this topic in my notes on his book, but Waltke brushes aside major issues in this fashion, particularly when talking about genocide in Joshua.

There he dismisses the problem by suggesting that those who were willing to repent and convert, such as Rahab were subject to destruction, while those in Israel who failed to maintain the standards, such as Achan, were also destroyed. Many people, myself included, would not see a “convert or die” approach as substantially more acceptable than genocide. In fact, any theory of inspiration that does not take adequate account of human failings and ideas runs aground on this problem. If God in fact said “kill them all, even babies” and intended this as a good thing, then God is monstrous. It is possible that God allowed them to think that, because that was what they were inclined to do. It is sufficiently difficult to explain God allowing such a thing, much less explaining why he would positively demand it.

Yet of course the text says that God did just that. For me, that is a strong sign of how the Bible deals with people, still steeped in the culture and moral standards of the time, struggling with what God would have them to do. This is an aspect of the problem that Ehrman only touches on as part of the punishment for sin view.

As for Ehrman, just as I noted in my review of his book Misquoting Jesus, I think he responds largely to a fairly conservative evangelical view of Biblical inspiration, such as would be espoused by Waltke. I don’t mean that a bit of adjustment in one’s view of inspiration solves all the problems. Hardly! But it does make the discussion much more interesting and offer more avenues for a solution.

And this is where we come to the more personal issue. While I did not go on to get a doctoral degree, nor have I written such popular books, I really empathize with Ehrman’s experience. I came out of seminary with a “this can’t be” kind of feeling, and departed the faith at that point. Twelve years later I came back, but to a much more liberal theology. I came to the realization that I did believe in God, however much I might prefer not to, and thus I would have to deal more with my concept of God.

I’m not trying to present my position as the better option, though obviously I prefer it since it’s mine! But if I’m to believe that the physical universe reveals its creator, then I have to be willing to adjust either the adjectives I use in referring to God or the meanings of those adjectives. In general, it may be more honest to use different adjectives.

That’s why I have written that God is more interested in freedom than comfort. Ehrman discusses the “freedom of the will” explanation for suffering, though he correctly points out that the Bible isn’t that much concerned with such an explanation, and also that it fails to deal with natural disasters that are chosen by nobody. At the same time the Bible does address this issue from the direction of responsibility. Sin comes through one man and thus death (Romans 5:12). But the Bible tends to lay responsibility without really acknowledging freedom, something that puts Paul into contortions in chapter 9, from which he extracts himself (if one is generous) by breaking into a bit of doxology.

By freedom, however, I mean something more than freedom of choice. Rather, God constrains the universe within laws rather than directing particulars. God didn’t want Hurricane Ike to destroy so many homes on the gulf coast; he wanted each hurricane to behave as hurricanes do. If you want to see God as loving, you also have to see him as willing to allow hurricanes to be hurricanes.

Is that a solution? All I can say is that it works for me, but I know plenty of people, my wife being one, who do not find that very satisfying. I found it interesting that Dr. Ehrman and his wife also differ, more profoundly than I do with my wife, on the very issues involved.

The bottom line here is that I deeply appreciate this effort to discuss such a difficult problem, and to relate it to one’s personal struggle. I disagree substantially with the conclusions, but largely because I start with different premises. My belief in God, with the kernel being “ground of all being” (Tillich) is fundamental, while my concept of God is more flexible. I’m much less likely to say, “I see that my old concept of God won’t fit with the suffering in the world, so there must not be a God” than to say, “My concept of God doesn’t fit with the suffering in the world, so I must have misunderstood God.”

That difference is personal and experiential at root, I think, and would be very hard to reconcile. It lies way too far outside the realm of “mostly certain” knowledge. In the meantime, you could do worse than to read this book and see how it helps you think about the problem of suffering.

Source and Redaction Criticism: Ehrman on Job

Source and Redaction Criticism: Ehrman on Job

In chapter six of his book God’s Problem, Ehrman tackles the book of Job.  (My notes on the book as a whole are here.)  He describes the book as coming from two sources, one containing the narrative portions, and one containing the poetic dialogues.

This view is not that exceptional, though one should also consider a very common alternative, that the dialogues were written separately, but that one and same person wrote the narratives and redacted the entire book.

Ehrman says:

Most people who read Job do not realize that the book as it has come down to us today is the product of at least two different authors, and that these different authors had different, and contradictory understandings of why it is that people suffer. . . . (p. 162)

The prose author, he says, sees suffering as a test of faith, while the author of the dialogues believes that there ultimately is no answer.

Ehrman correctly notes differences of genre, and differences of style.  The seams in the book suggest the possibility of multiple sources.  Ehrman adds to this a difference in the portrayal of Job.  While I have been aware of the possible sources since college, and have read the book many times, I have never seen a problem with the characterization of Job.  I chalk this one up to the common scholarly exercise of trying to make people more coherent and logical than they normally are.

Ehrman also feels that the parts were not combined very well.  On page 167 he notes the reaction of God in chapter 42:

. . . It is obvious that a bit of the folktale was lost in the process of combining it with the poetic dialogues, for when it resumes, God indicates that he is angry with the three friends for what they have said, in contrast to what Job has said.  This cannot very well be a reference to what the friends and Job said in the poetic dialogues, because there it is the friends who defend God and Job who accuses him.  And so a portion of the folktale must have been cut off whent he poetic dialogues were added.  What the friends said that offended God cannot be known. (p. 167)

All of which treats the final redactor as an idiot.  This is one of the key problems when source and redaction criticism are viewed as providing “the” answer to the meaning of a passage or book.  Source critics tend to think they’re done when they have finished identifying the sources and mourning the missing parts.

But is the redactor (or final author) actually so silly that he fails to miss the fact that the friends are defending God and Job is challenging him?  I think there is good evidence to suggest not.  In the dialogues, the friends hold that Job is guilty of something and that God is punishing him.  The narrative portions clearly state that this is not the case.  In other words, the friends have been making false claims about God and accusing Job of wrongdoing, when no such wrongdoing has taken place, according to the narrative portions.

If one takes the resultant whole as a polemic against the Deuteronomistic approach (or at least a supplement to it, as the two are not completely incompatible), which holds that blessing comes to those who do right and curses to those who don’t, then I think the combined text makes quite good sense.  It is not a theodicy.  I want to scream when people insist it is; there is no intention of justifying God in the book of Job.  If there is, it is a miserable failure.  It is not a coherent picture of why people suffer.  In fact, it makes clear that one cannot know.  From the point of view of the text as a whole, Job never gets to know what the problem was.  He may have been enduring a test of faith, but all he knows is that he is a) innocent and b) suffers.  He is satisfied that God appeared, and he is affirmed as a righteous man by God’s actions.

I think a better redaction theory would be that the narrative author had the dialogues before him, which fail to present an answer.  Suffering there is mysterious, and the issue is never resolved.  He wraps this in a story that makes the mysterious suffering have a cause, in this case, the test.  While Job still remains in mystery, he is satisfied that at least God showed up.

Ehrman comments on Job’s response to God’s presence:

. . . 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.  He is, after all, God.  Why should he have to answer to anybody?  Who are <em>we</em>, mere mortals, to question GOD? (p. 188, emphasis in original)

The problem, in my view, is that this does not give adequate credit to even the literary concept of an encounter with God, much less the reported personal experience.  People speak of being terrified, spent, and shattered, yet they come out encouraged and feeling positive.  Those who have had mystical encounters, amongst whom I count myself, may well not record such encounters as entirely joyful, and may not come out with all answers, but at the same time, generally don’t feel that they can no longer seek answers.

In this concept, the friends have to repent of trying to represent God, and doing so incorrectly.  They have to repent of accusing an innocent man.  Job, on the other hand, at the same time repents of thinking he’s going to be able to handle it and understand it, yet he is not condemned for seeking an answer, and for upholding his own innocence even in the face of seemingly irrefutable theological positions.

The redactor is thus not an idiot.  I personally don’t find his approach to suffering all that helpful, but I do find it challenging.  It provides a way to think further.  This redactor, or final author, if he is trying to present Job as squished into the dust and intimated into no longer seeking answers, has a rather odd way of doing so.  He presents a book that seeks after answers, challenging old ones and suggesting new ones.

I think that Ehrman has misunderstood the narrative portion, and done so in such a way as to present some unknown final redactor in the worst possible light.  Careful reading of the final whole finds a viewpoint that is worth considering in itself.

This doesn’t detract fromt he sources, though personally I think that there is only one source, the poetic dialogues.  The author of our canonical book took those dialogues and wrapped them in prose, forcing them to serve him.  Far from being an idiot who couldn’t tell that his ending didn’t match his beginning, he was a creative author who molded older material into a new and useful form.

The God Exception – Excursus on Theodicy

The God Exception – Excursus on Theodicy

Theodicy is a relatively interesting thing, and I’m really going to discuss a popular aberration, so those of you who have real backgrounds in theology can tune out, or critique me for oversimplifications.

One basic way of stating the entry point for Christian theodicy is that there are three key things we believe about God and the world: 1) He is good, 2) He is all-powerful, and 3) Evil exists. These three cannot be reconciled as normally defined, and thus much ink is spilled in trying to work with them. No, that’s not the whole of theodicy, nor does it always have to be stated that way, or derived from this irreconcilable (or more commonly inconsistent) triad.

In popular discussions the details are often bypassed, and we get a simple argument against the existence of God because there is evil. “I don’t believe in God because so many people suffer,” someone announces. Believers often fail to look behind the statement in response.

The argument from suffering really doesn’t go to the existence of God as such, but rather to the nature of God. I recall having this discussion in a philosophy of religion class in which I said simply, “What if God is evil?” I think now I would use “indifferent” as an example, but I used evil. “That would be too horrible to contemplate,” said one of my fellow students. But the fact is that “too horrible to contemplate” does nothing to establish that something isn’t true.

This particular form of theodicy has to occur within a framework of religious views. The triad is only inconsistent because Christians believe that God is both good and omniscient. One possible way to reconcile these is by simply saying that God isn’t one thing or the other. For example, a dualist has no difficulty reconciling these points. God is good, but he isn’t all-powerful. He’s in conflict with an evil power.

I encountered this the other day in discussing the book of Joshua. How can I question the command to kill all the Canaanites if it is a command given by God? It’s a good question. Is there some standard of good that is above God, and if so who made it? If God is the creator of everything, doesn’t he get to say what’s good? There’s a whole new can of worms! But the more direct question here is how do you reconcile God’s action here as recorded in scripture with God’s actions or statements elsewhere in scripture?

That’s why it’s so important not to interpret scripture based on any narrow selection of passages. For example, what do I learn about God by reading Ezekiel 18:32 (for I have no pleasure in the death of anyone) and then comparing it to God’s action in the flood when God is sorry he made humanity and decided to wipe them all out except for eight people and start over. You may say that they were all wicked and deserved to die, which is indeed what the story says, but the action still seems extreme.

If we turn then to Job, whose children are killed along with many of his servants, because God allows the adversary (the satan, but don’t read a Christian concept of “Devil” here) suggests that Job can’t take it. They may not be 100% innocent, yet the only reason given in the story for them to die is to help God prove a point.

I’m not going to dig into these stories much right now, but this leads me to a point I feel I can discuss with more confidence than a philosophical question. How does one reconcile Biblical statements, stories, and their implications in such a way as to present God as just and good? Can this be done? When I’ve looked at a few incidents, I’m going to return to the question of whether evolution actually presents a more serious issue for theodicy than do many standard Biblical stories.

In conclusion let me give one warning. As Christians we need to beware of answering one objection to God’s justice by making God look bad in another way. For example, if one suggests that God was simply carrying out justice in the flood because everyone other than Noah and his family was irredeemably evil, we should also ask why God didn’t intervene in a more successful way earlier. When dealing with a classroom, for example, I found that when one intervenes early, one will have greater success, whereas if one ignores a problem long enough, one loses control of the classroom. Is it not possible here to answer God’s justice problem by portraying God as inept?