Sunday School Lesson #32

August 3, 2006 | 10 comments
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Lesson 32: Job

WARNING: This may set the record for the length of my scripture study posts.


Word Biblical Commentary quotes this very nice poem from W. H. Auden, “Thomas Epilogises”:

Where Job squats awkwardly upon his ashpit,

Alone on his denuded battlefield,

Scraping himself with blunted Occam Razors

He sharpened once to shave the Absolute . . .

Eliphaz, Zophar, Bildad rise together,

Begin to creak a wooden sarabande;

“Glory to God,” they cry, and praise his Name

In epigrams that trail off in a stammer.

Suave Death comes, final as a Händel cadence,

And snaps their limbs like twigs across his knees,

Silenus nods, his finger to his nose.

One lesson on Job and, so, about one week of reading and thinking about it rather than several months is so little that it is difficult to know what to do. The scholarly material on Job is enormous. In Word Biblical Commentary, the bibliography of recommended reading runs to 53 pages, and there are additional bibliographies for each of the commentary’s subsections. However, even if we ignore the scholarly material in the interest of focusing on the book as material for Sunday School and for self-reflection and meditation, a week is scarcely long enough. But, of course, were we to devote all the time needed for many of our lessons, we certainly wouldn’t finish the Bible this year. We might not ever get to some of the other Standard Works. So I will bit this bullet and proceed.

Part of the Hebrew Bible called “The Writings” (see the notes on lesson 31 for more about the Writings), the book of Job is an unusual book of scripture. We do not know who wrote it; the narrator never identifies himself. The only place in the Old Testament where Job is mentioned is in Ezekiel 14:14, where he is mentioned as an example of an exemplary righteous person. The book may well have more than one author. For example, some scholars think that chapter 28 was inserted by someone after the main part of the book was written. Many believe that the ending (42:11-17) was added by another writer. And some think that Elihu’s speeches (chapters 32-37) were inserted later. We also do not know when the book was written, nor where it was written, though it has a non-Israelite setting, and we do not know its intended audience.

Job has been praised as one of the most important literary contributions to our culture by writers as gifted as Tennyson, Carlisle, Blake, and Frost. Perhaps because of its literary importance, people tend to find in Job what they are looking for: Calvin wrote 159 sermons on Job, using the book to demonstrate his understanding of divine grace and predestination; Voltaire saw Job as a rebel and the book as describing the universal human condition; contemporary psychiatrists have seen in it a description of the grief process. Job is not an easy book to interpret. In fact, many have found its message disturbing, and some have even thought that it teaches things that are contrary to faith. Because Job is not easy to understand at first glance, we often deal with it by proof-texting, choosing passages that support something we believe, without regard for whether that is what Job is actually teaching. For example, it isn’t uncommon for someone to quote one of Job’s friends approvingly, though it is clear that the book rejects their ready-made, moralizing answers to his suffering. Or we often assume that we know what Job is about—most often we assume that it is about the problem of suffering. But is it? If so, why is it about the suffering of only one particular person? It doesn’t really give us an explicit answer to the problem of suffering for Job, much less something we can universalize. So, though we assume that this is a book about that problem, we should ask ourselves whether that is right. Isn’t it perhaps more about how to suffer than why we suffer?

In spite of the variety of interpretations, there is almost universal agreement that the book of Job teaches that the natural order of the world is not a moral order. Like Koheleth in Ecclesiastes, Job teaches us that the good do not always prosper, nor do the wicked always come off worse in this life. (If the natural order were a moral order, then it would be obvious to everyone that goodness is better than wickedness and they would be good so as not to suffer rather than because it was good. In other words, righteousness would not be possible if the good were always rewarded and the wicked always punished in proportion to their goodness or wickedness.) Job also teaches that we cannot judge God using our understanding of morality. Thus, though James emphasizes Job’s patience in suffering (James 5:11), that is probably not the main theme of the book. Instead, it is an attribute one acquires if she understands the lessons of the book of Job.

Outline

1.         Chapters 1-2: The prose prologue.

The prologue takes us back and forth from Uz to heaven. We first see Job living happily and prosperously in Uz. Then we see the confrontation between Satan and God in heaven, in which Satan doubts Job’s virtue. Shifting back to Uz, we see the calamity that befalls Job when Job loses everything, including his children. Finally, we see the Lord tell Satan that Job has passed the test and remained faithful, and Satan replies that he has passed it only because it didn’t touch his body. If Job suffers bodily, says Satan, he will blaspheme. The Lord allows Job to suffer bodily, and his friends, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar come to comfort him.

2.         Chapters 3-31: A poetic dialogue between Job and his three friends.

This is a cycle of complaints by Job followed by responses by his three friends, who insist that his suffering results from something evil he has done but refuses to acknowledge. The first cycle is chapters 4-14, the second is chapters 15-21, and the third is chapters 22-26. In these cycles, Job is sometimes confused and angry (for example 19:21-24), but he is also faithful: 13:15-16, 16:20, 19:25, and 26:14. The cycle ends in chapters 27-31 with Job continuing to insist that he has not done evil (for example, chapter 31). He praises God’s wisdom, which he cannot understand (chapter 28).

3.         Chapters 32-37: Elihu’s interruption—poetry.

A young man, Elihu, cannot stand it any longer. Brashly and angrily, he interrupts to condemn Job for justifying himself rather than God and to condemn Job’s friends for condemning Job without being able to refute Job’s claims to innocence. After his outburst, Elihu disappears from the poem.

4.         Chapters 38-42:6: The Lord’s answer to Job from the whirlwind—also poetry

Several times in the second part of Job, Job has asked that the Lord appear so that he can demand the reasons for his suffering. In these chapters, the Lord appears from out of a whirlwind and answers Job, asking him who he is to speak out of such ignorance. The Lord reminds Job of the many things he has created and that Job cannot even understand such things, much less create them. Job responds in 40:3-5: “Then Job answered the Lord, and said, Behold, I am vile; what shall I answer thee? I will lay mine hand upon my mouth. Once have I spoken; but I will not answer: yea, twice; but I will proceed no further.” Then the Lord repeats the substance of his demand: Do you have divine power? You can’t create thunder, much less save yourself. Job repeats and expands his response in 42:1-6.

5.         Chapters 42:7-17: The prose epilogue.

Job’s friends are condemned by the Lord but saved by Job’s intercession. Then Job is given twice as much as he had before his trial.

Questions

1:1: What does it mean to say that Job was perfect (or “whole-hearted”) and upright? What does it mean to say that he feared God? What does it mean to eschew evil? How does this book demonstrate Job’s perfection? What does Job’s story tell us about what it means to be perfect? Does Job say things that surprise you? How does that fit with his perfection?

1:9-12: Is Satan right when he says that people follow God because they expect a reward? If he is right, then why do we have the book of Job and its story? If he is wrong, then what is the point of rewards and the promise of blessings?

2:9-10: How do you explain Job’s wife’s response to his suffering? How do you explain his response to her?

2:11-13: How do Job’s friends respond to his suffering at first? Does their response fit with Alma’s injunction that those who are baptized are to “bear one another’s burdens” and “mourn with those that mourn” (Mosiah 18:8-9)?

3:1-19: What is happening in these verses? Are there questions here that you have asked at some point or feelings that you have felt?

4:7-8: What is Eliphaz suggesting?

6:15, 24, 28-29: What is Job’s response? Regarding verse 15: a brook in a desert region cannot be counted on, for though it may be full in the spring, by August, it is likely to be dry. Regarding verses 28-29: the word turn could also be translated “turn away.” Job is asking Eliphaz to change his judgment.

8:1-6: Is Bildad’s accusation any different than Eliphaz’s? What does Bildad tell Job that he should expect if he were righteous?

9:2-3: When Job says, “I know it is so,” what is he saying is so? Is Job contending with God?

9:14-22: What is Job saying here?

10:1-2: What is Job asking for?

11:1-6: How does Zophar expand Eliphaz’s and Bildad’s accusations?

13:4-8: How is Job criticizing Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar?

13:15-16: How does this show us Job’s faith? What does Job mean when he says, “I will maintain mine own ways before him”? (Another translation has “I will argue my ways before him.”)

14:7-14: What is Job’s question here? Does he know the answer? What difference does the answer make to his situation? If Job lives righteously because he knows that God will give him a reward in the life hereafter, then isn’t Satan’s claim in chapters 1 and 2 (1:9-11 and 2:4-5) right, namely that even perfect Job is only righteous because God blesses him for it?

19:23-27: What is Job’s testimony? How is it related to his question in chapter 14? How does his answer overcome Satan’s claim?

23:3-7: Why does Job want to confront God? What does he think the outcome would be? When would a person be justified in arguing with God? Is Job implicitly accusing the Lord of acting unrighteously?

26:1-4: Of what is Job accusing Bildad in these verses? Are we ever like Bildad? If so, how? What does Job’s response say of us?

27:2-5: This is one of a number of places where Job speaks of his integrity, saying that he will not give it up. The Hebrew word translated integrity could also be translated “wholeness” or “perfection.” It is a variation of the word translated perfect or “blameless” in Job 1:1. Why is this so important to Job? What would giving up his integrity require him to do that he is unwilling to do?

38:1: How does this differ from Elijah’s experience (1 Kings 19:11-13) and how do you explain the difference? Is it significant that Job’s family was killed by a great wind (1:19)? What might that parallel suggest? Job prayed for this encounter several times. (See 23:3-7, for example.) How does what happens differ from what he demanded?

38:2: What does it mean to say that Job has darkened counsel? (This is a literal translation of the Hebrew.) Whose counsel has he darkened? How has he done so?

38:3: Why does the Lord tell Job to gird up his loins? What does that phrase suggest?

38:4-11: What is the point of the Lord’s questions?

38:12-13: Why is the Lord asking Job about Job’s power?

40:4-5: What is Job’s response to the long series of questions that God asked him?

40:6-41:26: Why does the Lord repeat his rebuke of Job after having rebuked him once and received Job’s humble response?

42:1-6: What has Job learned? What did he utter without understanding? What does he mean when he says in verse 5: “I have heard of thee by the hearing of the ear: but now mine eye seeth thee”? When do we hear by the hearing of the ear but not see? How do we see?

10 Responses to Sunday School Lesson #32

  1. Russell Arben Fox on August 3, 2006 at 12:57 pm

    Jim,

    Thanks very much for these thoughtful and provocative questions. There is no book in all the standard works, with the possible exceptions of Jacob in the BoM and perhaps some of the epistles of Paul, that combine beautiful writing and hard questions as Job does. Which makes it, unfortunately, as you note, a book that is prooftexted far more often than it is read. (Elder Bruce R. McConkie, in a speech he gave at BYU that “ranked” all the books of the Bible, said that “Job is for people who like the book of Job.”)

    Of the many things I’d like to say in response to or in addition to your comments, I think I will focus on Elihu. You skip his chapters entirely in your thought questions–why? Because the textual and literary evidence strongly suggests those chapters are an interpolation? But the same can be said for the prologue and the epilogue (though those additions are certainly older). Do you think Elihu doesn’t fit in thematically or stylistically? If so, why? While I don’t fully agree with Elihu’s “doctrine” (not that anyone in the poem actually puts forward any coherent argument in that sense), I think it is important to take seriously his claim: that God is both sovereign and good, and that the only way to hold both of those views simultaneously is to believe that God intends all suffering for our benefit–and to believe that not answering our questions as to why we suffer is also for our benefit. It is, arguably, not all that different from the theodicy taught by Joseph Smith. Moreover, it is a position which is compatible with God’s subsequent condemnation of Job and his friends in the final chapters for having presumed or demanded accounts for the cause of suffering, rather than faithfully defining it away as a problem (that is, as a theological problem; I don’t read Elihu as proposing anything that would remove the need for sympathy and mourning) by positing the goodness of God’s nature.

  2. Jim F. on August 3, 2006 at 4:39 pm

    Russell, I don’t actually know why I skipped Elihu’s speech in my study questions. I didn’t consciously decide to omit it. I read the book making notes as I went along and then made questions from my notes. For some reason, that process didn’t result in any questions about those chapters. It probably means that I was sufficiently ignorant while reading them that I couldn’t even come up with decent questions about them.

    I appreciate you bringing this to my attention. We could at least add what you say about those chapters–and the questions that raises–to the study notes.

  3. Mark Butler on August 3, 2006 at 4:41 pm

    I do not believe that God intends all sufferring, for that would make him the author of sin, but rather that he turns all suffering to our good, and to his name’s glory. Quite a trick, that.

  4. Kaimi Wenger on August 3, 2006 at 5:59 pm

    Jim,

    Good Job!

    (Sorry, it had to be said . . . )

  5. John Taber on August 4, 2006 at 11:03 am

    Suffering is the consequence of an imperfect world. God tries to use it to help us at times, and tries to help us mitigate it at times. Satan tries to spread it around so we’re all as miserable as he is.

  6. BrianJ on August 4, 2006 at 12:51 pm

    Jim F wrote: “So, though we assume that this is a book about [suffering], we should ask ourselves whether that is right. Isn’t it perhaps more about how to suffer than why we suffer?”

    Thanks for highlighting this point about Job’s story. He is such a good example of the faithfulness aspect of faith that I felt cheated when I realized that I had been raised to think of Job only as a book about suffering.

    A friend recently advised me to read the Book of Job, but omit the last chapter. Without that “feel-good ending,” I was forced to actually think about Job’s experiences and what they teach.

    If anyone wanted to explore the theme “Why is everything going wrong when I am doing everything right?” then I would suggest reading the novel “The Sparrow” by Mary Doria Russell. She’s an average storyteller, but I think she does a good job forcing the reader to drop the platitudes and actually confront this question.

  7. Kaui Trainer on August 15, 2006 at 6:19 am

    When we talk about matter, it can neither be created nor destroyed…but it can change shape and it can be used to become a whole myriad of different things. Like when atoms are ionized, they jump up to a different level of existence. It is that energy that allows them to become something far greater than what they were.
    Suffering tends to do that as well. Through suffering, we can choose to allow a greater power to mold us and change us into something greater than we were before. We are just living by the laws of nature that Jehovah and God the Father obey. Perhaps we just are unaware of it. We often compare suffering to metal being purified with heat…all the dross gets melted out until the metal is pure. We must allow God to purify us through our suffering so that we become more pure. We cannot achieve it on our own. Suffering must turn us inward so that we seek our Father through His Son, Jesus Christ. I love the story of Job because through his suffering he continues to seek the Father and the Son! the powers that allow him to be purified…ionized???…energized??…changed into someone that is now greater than he was before.

  8. Jim F. on August 15, 2006 at 11:55 pm

    Excellent material on Job at http://faithprorumor.weblogs.us/archives/242. (Thanks, Kaimi.)

  9. Robert C. on August 23, 2006 at 1:03 pm

    Joe Spencer has posted here an interesting take on Job that Gerald Janzen takes. He takes an alternate translation of 42:6, that Job repents of dust and ashes instead of in dust and ashes, and argues that Job’s transformation is one from false humility to a more clear understanding of his relationship with God (which is more than just dust and ashes).

    I’d love to hear others thoughts on this idea, either here or at the Feast wiki—just add to the discussion page if you don’t want to bother with the site policies for commentary pages. One reason I’ve been MIA is we’ve been having some engrossing discussions about Isaiah 6 and several other related topics—mainly thanks to Joe’s efforts—so have a look if you haven’t stopped by the wiki yet/recently….

  10. Robert C. on September 3, 2006 at 10:28 am

    I found a very interesting article by William Morrown in the Journal of Biblical Literature discussing 3 very different translations of Job 42:6 each of which the scholarly community has defended. Morrow’s claim is that there some tension with each of these translations and concludes that the author is deliberately ambiguous. Even if you disagree with his conclusion, it’s a fascinating read. I posted a more detailed summary here, although it’s very rough (the JBL article is available through JSTOR which can be accessed on-campus at most universities…).