Theological and Narrative Consistency in the Book of Job

I began re-reading Job after encountering criticisms regarding the text’s apparent narrative and theological inconsistencies, only to find that such criticisms were without any real foundation. Although I can see why a superficial reading of the text will, no doubt, leave the impression that the narrative is internally inconsistent.

Critics of the text’s consistency argue that the stylistic and theological simplicity of the opening and closing narratives (respectively, chapters 1, 2 & 42), in contrast to the complex poetic style and theology of chapters 3-41, give evidence of two or more theologically opposed authors. The author of the opening and closing narratives (Author 1) is orthodox, while the poetic author (Author 2) is said to be an opponent of the Author 1’s orthodoxy.

Yet, if this criticism holds true, then the book can no longer be read as a serious assessment of the problem of human suffering, but must be read ironically. In essence, the book of Job would be stating that human suffering is pointless, seeing as humanity is the play-thing of the Divine and evil is rewarded while good is not. The final conclusion would present us with a picture of God that is at drastic odds with the rest of Scripture; a God who acts “without cause”.

But is the book of Job really theologically and narratively inconsistent, or are we, rather, not reading the text closely enough? Are we, like Job, so enmeshed in the rapid succession of painful events in chapters 1 & 2 that we are dizzied to the point of losing sight of who God is? The structure of the book of Job is, I think, the key to understanding what the author is intending to convey.

Dealing with Apparent Inconsistencies

Not surprisingly, the above (liberal) reductionist interpretation fails once we inspect the text a little closer and realize that the first chapter, arguably the most important chapter (seeing as it is the foundation for understanding the ensuing dialogical cycles and the epilogue) is structured as a chiasm, at the center of which stands a dialogue between God and Satan in what is, presumably, the heavenly court of God.

A. Job’s Righteousness (1:1)
B. The Birth of Job’s Children (1:2)
C. Job’s Wealth (1:3)
D. Job’s Children, Their Feasts, and his Oblations and Prayers (1:4-5)
E. The God-Satan Dialogue (1:6-12)
D’. The Continued Feasts of Job’s Children (1:13)
C’. The Loss of Job’s Wealth (1:14-17)
B’. The Death of Job’s Children (1:18-19)
A’. Job’s Righteousness (1:20-22)

Let’s summarize what we see here:

Righteous Job (1:1) makes atonement for his unrighteous children (1:4-5) to a righteous God who, in verses 6-12, initiates conversation with Satan and places “everything”, but Job’s very life, in his hands.

Without the heavenly court scene, we observe Job’s children feasting (1:4), Job praying and sacrificing for them (continually, 1:5), their persistent questionably sinful feasts (1:13), and their death (1:18-19) while engaging in such behavior. Now with the heavenly court scene, we are given a glimpse of who allowed the deaths of Job’s children, while they engaged in such behavior – God.

Although their sin is merely a possibility in the mind of Job, the manner in which they die is consistent with other Old Testament narratives that emphasize the unexpectedness of God’s judgment upon the consistently unrepentant, in spite of those who intercede and make sacrifices for them (consider the “days of Noah” that Christ refers to in Matthew 24:37-39, God’s unexpected destruction of the tower of Babel in Genesis 11:1-9, or the judgment brought upon Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 18).

God is in no way gambling with Job’s life, or playing a game with Satan. He is utilizing Satan as an instrument of His judgment upon Job’s children, while refining Job’s faith.

Interestingly, and adding some extra weight to the above interpretation, Job finds his antithetical parallel in Eli, the wicked priest of 1st Samuel. Regarding their similarities: the two men are in a position where they must make atonement for the sins of their children, which are related to, and juxtaposed against, sacrifices made to the Lord. Regarding their differences: Eli is wicked but Job is “blameless and upright”; Eli is aware of the sin of his children and does nothing about it and, accordingly, dies shortly after they die(1st Samuel 2:27-36, 3:11-14 & 4:11-18), while Job is uncertain, by his own admission, as to whether or not his children have “sinned and cursed God in their hearts” and, accordingly, makes sacrifices for them continually and, in spite of his immense suffering, does not die when his children do (Job 1:4, 2:6 (particularly, “…you must spare his life”) & 42:12-17).

Verses 6-12 Tie Together All the Supposed Loose Ends

1. They indicate the righteous judgment of God (seeing as they are situated between mention of Job’s continual sacrifices and the continual questionable behavior of his children, followed by their death). Let it be noted that this interpretation preserves God’s righteousness in that it proves that He has a twofold purpose(i.e. (i.) judging Job’s children for their sin, and (ii.) testing Job’s faith), while more traditional interpretations lump Job’s children together with his “substance”, objectifying them and, thereby, diminishing God’s righteousness. [This would be an ad hominem apologetic, for even if these children were regenerate and not engaging in behavior that called for their destruction, the Lord God Almighty very well have still decided to take their lives for His own unexpressed and perfectly good and wise reasons without ever giving us, or Job for that matter, His reasons for so doing.]

Let it further be noted that it is Satan who, for no reason, tries to incite God against Job (2:6), and that God utilizes Satan’s hatred and jealousy against Job for His own Just and Righteous purposes. There is a reason for suffering, even if we become so enmeshed in the rapid succession of painful events that we forget this fact.

2. These verses, therefore, also speak of God’s sovereignty over the “sons of God”, “Satan”, and mankind, working all things for His glory and for the good of those who love Him.

3. They also powerfully reinforce orthodox theology regarding God’s benevolence toward the righteous, seeing as Job’s children are judged, but he is spared (2:6).

A Final Thought

I think that it is highly unfortunate that “scholars” can read William Faulkner’s “The Sound and the Fury” and interpret it structurally, but refuse to grant an ancient author the same ability to convey meaning by using two different styles of writing (while Faulkner uses four). The styles of expression, in both books, are directly related to the existential situations of the characters and, when juxtaposed, reveal a rich, consistent concept (or, in Job’s case, theology) that ties together otherwise (apparently) loose ends.

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2 thoughts on “Theological and Narrative Consistency in the Book of Job

  1. Paul says:

    If I may, respectfully: how do you account for Job’s own physical suffering then, in chapter 2? God orders to spare his life but not his flesh (so to speak). Also, talking about inconsistencies: where does Elihu come from, where does he go after he talks? Why does God go on and on and on about the Behemoth? OK he created a big beast, granted. Sooo? I also understand that his three friends do not speak “critically” of God, God encourages critical thinking, it appears, but why punishing them? Anyway, Job is one of my favorite books of all time, Victor Hugo once said that if all books be burned, the Book of Job alone should remain because it is the best ever written, etc. But in spite (or because) of that, it triggers many questions.

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