A Thick and Dreadful Darkness

by Aron Wall

The book of Job has two oddities. The first oddity comes in the surprising disconnectedness of the main character to any of the religious structures which we grow to expect in the other books of Hebrew scripture; Job worships the monotheistic God of Israel and yet has no apparent connection to Israel. The second oddity is theological. In the other books we have grown very used to the motif that God rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked, and the theme of Job is in strong tension to this motif. The goal of this paper is to forge a connection between these two oddities in the book of Job and to show how they relate. The disconnectedness of Job from Israel is a clue that will be used to explore the other, theological, oddity.

The book of Job never mentions Israel or religious ceremonies appertaining to Israel. However, there is no need to rely on an argument from silence to show that Job is not an Israelite. Job offers sacrifices to God for his children (Job 1:5 [1]). But this would not have been allowed under the Mosaic Law, which requires that sacrifices be brought to the priests, who would sacrifice the animal for the individual. Job is described as a righteous man so he clearly would not be routinely violating the Mosaic rituals for sacrifices, so he must not be bound by the Mosaic Law. Job does not appear to be in Egypt, and this is certainly not taking place during the wandering of the Israelites through the desert. But before Egypt, Israel was one household only, so Job cannot have been an Israelite at any time.

Although Job does not have a familial connection to Israel there is nevertheless something familiar about him. Job is in a very similar position to that of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Socially, they are heads of families. Financially, they are very rich and support themselves through cattle herding. Religiously, we have seen that they know the one God and offer sacrifices to him directly. Job lives not only long enough to have adult children but also for 140 years more after that (Job 42:16). The patriarchs also had superhuman lifespans, with Abraham living 175 years, Isaac 180, and Jacob 130. And the isolation from Israel is like the patriarchs too, for in that time they were the entirety of God's chosen, so that their religious connection to God at that time was that of a family rather than that of a people or a nation.

Thus we have found a connection between Job and the patriarchs of the Israelites, but it is not a connection of relationship but rather one of similarity. Why does the author of Job give us a character who is so similar to the patriarchs? I maintain that it is because the book of Job is in part a commentary on the patriarchs and their relationship to God. Thus the cultural and religious similarities are there to point to a theological question about the relationship between God and humanity.

So the the two oddities I brought up in the introduction are indeed related. This raises an important question: if we grant that the author of Job is saying something about the patriarchs with his book, what is the message communicated? What aspect of the patriarchs does the book of Job extract and examine? Both the first oddity and the second appeared at first to be differences between the book of Job and the rest of the Hebrew Bible, but now it appears that the first oddity is pointing to a similarity, rather than a difference, between Job and the patriarchs. It could be maintained that the second, theological oddity is still to be interpreted contrastively. It is certainly a valid literary technique to show one person as being similar to another in order to highlight some difference between them. So I will now explore the theological tension, to see whether the viewpoint in which Job is portrayed like the patriarchs in order to make clearer a contrast between them really works out.

In Genesis we get clear pictures of God judging the wicked and saving or rewarding the good. God floods the world to destroy wicked men (Genesis 6) but Noah, "a righteous man" (Gen 6:9) is saved. Sodom and Gomorrah are destroyed for their wickedness, and Lot, who is at least righteous by comparison, is saved (Gen 19). God rewards Abraham's faith in him by blessing him and his family in numerous ways. Indeed, Jacob appears to view this as the basis for his relationship with God, vowing that "If God will be with me and will watch over me on this journey I am taking and will give me food to eat and clothes to wear so that I return safely to my father's house, then the LORD will be my God" (Gen 28:20) He is interested in God precisely because he rewards those who serve him. While no doctrine of strict quid pro quo reward for goodness can be deduced from the text, there is certainly an expectation and many examples of the idea that being good will result in good things happening to you.

Yet in the book of Job, Job is described as "blameless and upright; he feared God and shunned evil" (Job 1:1). Satan is permitted to harm Job not because Job is a bad person, but because Job is a good person. It is God bragging about Job's goodness that leads to the challenge from Satan, and God permitting Satan to afflict Job (Job 1:8-12, 2:3-6). Thus God allows goodness not only to go unrewarded but to be punished, not only allows a good man to suffer incidentally, but because of his goodness, and does not even allow it as the natural course of things but directly grants permission for it to occur. Furthermore as Job complains, "Why do the wicked live on, growing old and increasing in power? They see their children established around them, their offspring before their eyes" (Job 21:7). It works both ways, so that the wicked prosper while the good suffer. Even if one can reconcile the two theological truths, it would still seem to be the logical deduction that the person of Job is being contrasted to that of the blessed patriarchs.

Additionally, as another contrast, in Genesis an absolute trust and faith in God is looked highly upon. When God told Abraham he would have a son, "Abraham believed the LORD, and he credited it to him as righteousness" (Gen 15:6). Later God's approval for this kind of faith is evidenced by God rewarding Abraham for being willing to sacrifice his son Isaac to him (Gen 22). An absolute and unquestioning faith in God would seem to be the standard here.

Yet Job relentlessly questions God, asking why God is making him suffer. He seems to have very little faith that God is at all good to him, instead accusing him of destroying his life unjustly. "Know that God has wronged me, and drawn his net around me," says Job, "Though I cry, `I've been wronged!' I get no response; though I call for help, there is no justice" (Job 19:6-7). And then, as the big shocker in the book of Job, God, after telling Job he doesn't know anything (Job 38:2), says to Eliphaz, "I am angry with you and your two friends, because you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has" (42:7). Job is commended for his speeches questioning God! This seems to be very far away from the unquestioning faith that God commended in Abraham. Thus it appears that on this second level there is a fundamental distinction between the patriarchs and Job.

However the above analysis of the situation is oversimplistic and requires that certain aspects of the patriarchal relationship be simply ignored. If the above view of the patriarchs were the whole of the truth, than Satan's accusation against Job could be levied against the patriarchs as well: "Have you not put a hedge around him and his household and everything he has? You have blessed the work of his hands, so that his flocks and herds are spread throughout the land" (Job 1:10). The implication is that Job--and the patriarchs by extension--were only serving God because of the good things he would do for them, that they take Jacob's attitude towards God. And if there were not counterbalancing aspects of the patriarchal relationship with God, the accusation would be unanswerable. We don't respect someone who does the right thing because they were bribed to. Therefore the true thesis of this paper is that rather than contrasting Job to the patriarchs, the author is using him to illustrate one aspect of the patriarchs, one which cannot be explained in terms of wanting to be rewarded with material things by God, and is not the unquestioning acceptance advocated by Job's friends. The two points of theological tension I have highlighted will be resolved by showing that the attributes of the book of Job which did not seem to go along with Genesis can actually be found in the patriarchal relationship to God as revealed in several of the stories about them.

Abraham's faith in God is shown to be much more like Job's faith when God tells Abraham about the upcoming destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham asks God what he will do if there are fifty righteous people in Sodom: "Will you really sweep [the city] away and not spare the place for the sake of the fifty righteous people in it? Far be it from you to do such a thing--to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike. Far be it from you! Will not the Judge of the whole earth do right?" (Gen 18:24-25). Abraham is disturbed by the same thing as Job--that a good and just God appears to be acting in a way that punishes the righteous like the wicked. Although in Job's case his plaint is naturally more personally felt because it is his own treatment that is in question rather than that of others, the essential nature of the problem for both of them is the same.

There are (at least) two ways to respond when God's actions do not seem to meet up to our standards of justice. The first way is that of Job's friends--to reject the conflict as something unseemly, as a lack of "faith" in God. This can be done by rejecting our earthly standards of justice altogether when it comes to God, like Bildad does when he says "How then can a man be righteous before God? How can one born of women be pure?" (Job 25:4) While Bildad does not say this in so many words, the implication here is that because all humanity is evil in comparison to God, therefore God is not bound by human standards of justice in dealing with them--he is justified in doing whatever he pleases. Were this not Bildad's implication, then there would be no point in bringing it up to justify God. Another way is to twist the facts around so that God's actions are justified according to our standard. "You sent widows away empty-handed," accuses Eliphaz, "and broke the strength of the fatherless" (Job 22:9). Eliphaz has no evidence that Job did any of the numerous evils he attributes to him in Job 22, except that it is necessary for Eliphaz's conception of God's justice not to be questioned. Either way, they deal with the conflict between heavenly justice and earthly injustice by refusing to come to terms with the earthly injustice. And they are being intellectually dishonest. Job realizes this, saying "Will you speak wickedly on God's behalf? Will you speak deceitfully for him? Will you show him partiality? Will you argue the case for God?" (Job 13:7-8). God does not need our protection! Job's friends have a faith of the same kind that has caused the use of the word today to become scorned as "belief without evidence". They are unwilling to deal with the issues honestly.

The way of Job and Abraham is different. They do not conclude that God must be unjust and leave it at that, but neither do they deny the injustice of the situation. Instead they seek to question God to determine how God's justice can be reconciled to the situation. Job states his desire thus: "If only I knew where to find him; if only I could go to his dwelling! I would state my case before him and fill my mouth with arguments. I would find out what he would answer me, and consider what he would say" (Job 23:3-5). Job does not doubt that God is able to fully satisfy his mind about his justice. But it is this very faith that drives him to question God, rather than be content with his situation. If he were to accept the paradox with what most people might call "faith" he would cheapen God's justice. Instead he desperately seeks after an answer. The audience with God that Job seeks here, Abraham obtains, and he uses it not for unquestioning acceptance but to question the divine plan. And God does not chastise Abraham for seeking more knowledge about God's justice, but indeed seems to have planned for it to occur, saying to himself, "Shall I hide from Abraham what I am going to do?" (Gen 18:17). Unlike when God tells Lot the city will be destroyed, there is no action that Abraham needs to perform as a result of this knowledge. Therefore it must have been told to Abraham for the sake of Abraham's faith. Abraham is let into the divine council, encouraging this other, Job-like faith rather than a faith like those of Job's three friends.

This kind of faith in God is also illustrated by Jacob when he wrestles with God. This episode would be offensive to the kind of faith that Job's friends have. Jacob wrestles with a mysterious man during the night. Jacob demands a blessing from him before he goes, and the man does, saying, "Your name will no longer be Jacob but Israel, because you have struggled with man and with God and have overcome" (Gen 32:28). Now the blessing of Jacob is given because he struggled with God. It is clear that God is not only allowing but rewarding a faith here that is like that of Job. This is after the man tells Jacob to let him go, and Jacob replies "I will not let you go until you bless me" (Gen 32:26). Jacob is persistent in getting a blessing from God, to the point of physical combat.

Now what does this tell us about God? It seems on the face of it to be absurd. God is not physical, nor is it possible to defeat him or prevent him from doing anything. Yet the passage seems to be saying that Jacob wrestled physically with him, and not only that, but "the man saw that he could not overpower him" (Gen 32:25). Now what on earth can this mean? However we might suppose it to have occurred that God let Jacob experience Jacob's struggle with him physically, it clearly involved in some way God putting himself on Jacob's level and not taking full advantage of his divine position to win the fight. God does "cheat" once, when the man touches the socket of Jacob's hip and it becomes wrenched (Gen 32:25), indicating God's superiority over him, yet this does not prevent Jacob from holding onto him. God is willing to stoop to Jacob's level to fight with him.

This too is similar to what Job wants, not that Job wants to physically combat God, but he does want the intellectual combat of an argument defending himself against God. Now although it is more obvious in the case of physical combat, it is just as much true that God must stoop down to engage us in argument. Elihu tells Job he should not desire an audience with God. "Should he be told that I want to speak?" asks Elihu, "Would any man ask to be swallowed up? Now no one can look at the sun, bright as it is in the skies after the wind has swept them clean" (Job 37:20-21). Elihu is right that a full-on meeting with God would be like this, but underestimates God's humility. God indeed does speak to Job and although Job is humbled, he is not blown away. Job does not get the answer to the problem that he was looking for, yet nevertheless God says he has spoken of him rightly, thus giving approval to his desire to confront God.

If it is really the case that God approves of this kind of questioning faith, what is the reason for God's speeches? God says, "Who is this that darkens my counsel with words without knowledge?" (Job 38:2), and "Will the one who contends with the Almighty correct him?" (Job 40:2). These questions would seem to indicate disapproval with Job's questioning. More specifically, God says, "Would you discredit my justice? Would you condemn me to justify yourself?" (Job 40:8). How can this be consistent with what I have been saying, that God likes the sort of faith that questions his goodness and confronts God?

The truth is that Job is not so much condemned as countered. When God flat out expresses his approval and disapproval of people, Job is said to have spoken rightly about him (Job 42:7). God feels the need to put Job back into his place, instilling the wonder and fear of God into him. As a result, Job takes back his statements, saying: "Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know .... My ears had heard of you, but now my eyes have seen you, therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes" (Job 42:3,5-6). But it does not follow from this that Job was wrong to wrestle with his troubles and with the idea of God's justice. It may be that he was wrong about some of the things that he said, for which God rightly chided him, but nevertheless be true that it was his commendable faith that let him say those things. We know that Job was struggling with the idea of God's justice allowing terrible things to happen to him. He could have taken the attitude that his friends urged him to have, which we have seen comes from too little rather than too much faith. It may have been possible for him to have had a better trust in God, for which God would not have chided him, but he did not. But what is much more important is that he took his lack of trust in God, and through a deeper trust in God, dared to confront God with it. Thus, although his attitude needed correction, his faith put him into a situation in which the correction could occur, whereas Job's friends were placed in a situation where the only way to be reconciled to God was through the mediation of Job. It is like a student-teacher relationship. If a student presents something before his teacher and because it is flawed the teacher disapproves of it and rebukes the student, nevertheless the fact that the student brought it before the teacher to be corrected is something that the teacher approves of, and others who told the student to be content simply with knowing that the teacher was better than them would be most mistaken in their outlook.

Thus one of the theological tensions between Job and the patriarchs, the apparent difference in what God expects from humanity with respect to faith, turns out to be based on a selective view of Genesis, which when read properly indicates an approval for the sort of faith that Job had. There remains the other theological tension, that in Genesis God rewards materially his chosen family for serving him, but Job suffers for his role as a godly man. The issue here is not simply whether the two events can be reconciled theologically, but rather what becomes of my assertion that the character of Job is being used to explicate a specific aspect of the patriarchal relationship to God. Job's situation must therefore be somehow similar to that of the patriarchs, and again it will turn out that the initial view of the patriarchs is incomplete.

Recall the quotation from Jacob in which he vows that he will serve God if God will provide for his physical needs (Gen 28:20-22), which I used earlier to contrast the patriarchs and Job. It was not entirely fair to claim from this quotation that Jacob is only concerned with what God can give him. He asks that God will be "with him" as well as "watch over him". But quite aside from this, it is irrelevant to the comparison with Job, who also wanted material things from God. God's attitude toward them both is the same. Although God blesses the patriarchs physically in many ways, he also demands a certain kind of renunciation from them in which they give up the material things that they hold most dear--sometimes the same things that God gave them in the first place. This corresponds to the deprivation of Job, which, although it is more extreme, is of the same essence. God did not want the patriarchs to serve him because of what he would give them, and therefore God allows them to suffer through stressful situations to provide them with a deeper character and faith than they could otherwise have had. When Jacob has his vision of God (Gen 28) it is when he is fleeing from Esau, who wishes to kill him for taking his birthright and blessing, which established Jacob as the inheritor of God's promise to Abraham. But this promise is not one of mere material wealth. When we later run into Esau, he initially refuses Jacob's gift on the grounds that "I already have plenty" (Gen 33:6). If wealth were the issue here, Esau would seem to have the blessing just as much as Jacob. Indeed, of the two, Jacob goes through considerably more suffering. But that suffering gives him a divine reward rather than a human one, for Jacob inherits the spiritual blessings of Abraham. And what is that? The Lord tells him, "Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield and your very great reward" (Gen 15:1). Not what God gives him, but God himself is the reward. To be sure, God gives him other benefits as well. But along with the blessings, Abraham is consistently made to give up what he would naturally seek after. The very first thing God says to Abraham is "Leave your country, your people and your father's household and go to the land I will show you" (Gen 12:1). Thence follows an annunciation of the blessings that Abraham will receive. But they cannot be separated from the condition, that Abraham give up his home and leave nearly everything important to him behind. First comes the renunciation, then the blessing. This is what the book of Job shows us about the patriarchs, that they were blessed only after going through pain.

Yet the patriarchs are indubitably materially blessed. Can it be that although they gave up something to receive the blessings, they simply found it worthwhile to do so because of the reward that they would get, apart from seeking after God for himself? It is not so. The external blessing which Abraham seems to care most about is his son Isaac, for when God tells Abraham that he is his shield and reward, Abraham asks the Lord, "What can you give me, since I remain childless?" (Gen 15:2). Yet even his son Isaac, the main component of God's external blessing to Abraham, is then asked of him. God asks Abraham to sacrifice the very son God gave him. The question here is exactly the same as the one that Satan asks about Job, does Abraham serve the Lord only because of what he gets out of it? And we discover that Abraham serves God even when it looks like he will lose his son. As Job puts it, "The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised" (Job 1:21). And all the patriarchs are tested in the same way--every one of them in some sense loses their son. Isaac has Jacob flee from the area as a refugee from his brother Esau (Gen 27:43), and Jacob thinks that his son Joseph is dead for many years (Gen 37:34-35). Each is called to give up their dearest family member, as Job lost all his sons and daughters (Job 1:18-19). Thus the patriarchs are indeed like Job. Although they never suffer in as many ways simultaneously as Job does, God takes away from each of them what they most desire, so that if that were the reason why they were faithful to God, they would then surely curse God to his face once their motive for serving him goes away (Job 1:11). But they do not, and it proves that the blessings that they were given were not the reason that they served God, so that they have the faithfulness of Job.

But what God takes away from them, he gives back after seeing how they react. The pattern is from prosperity to loss to vindication and glory. Joseph is sold as a slave, yet becomes the ruler of all Egypt (Gen 37, 41). And "The Lord blessed the latter part of Job's life more than the first" (Job 42:12). It is important that people are proven to be good not simply because of a reward they will get, but once they have proven it they can nevertheless be rewarded. But because of the trials they go through, their seeking of God is more pure. The sort of faith that Job has, true faith unlike his friends, is cultivated by the suffering he goes through. "Only grant me these two things, O God, and then I will not hide from you," petitions Job, "Withdraw your hand far from me, and stop frightening me with your terrors" (Job 13:20-21). The first request is for God to put an end to his suffering. But his second request is "Then summon me and I will answer, or let me speak, and you reply" (Job 13:22). It is not enough for him to make it through his pain, he is also driven to seek an explanation from God. And in the course of the seeking for an explanation, he begins to desire the meeting with God for its own sake, so that it is the separation from God that pains him as much as his earthly suffering.

Because of this, God's rebuke of Job is itself the reward for Job's faith. No answers are given to Job, only questions, but his desire for God to appear has been satisfied. "My ears have heard of you, but now my eyes have seen you" (Job 42:5). For the first time, Job receives a message from God directly, giving him the sort of relationship with God that the patriarchs had. But this suggests that the seeing of God is inextricably tied up with the requirement of a certain sort of pain and renunciation of other things. Those who enter into a relationship with God must pass through the "thick and dreadful darkness" (Gen 15:12) that Abraham passed through, which is the seal and test that they have died to everything else that might form an external reason for seeking after him. And it is then that God can bless somebody, not as a bribe but as one part of the life that comes only from him.

All quotations are taken from: Holy Bible, New International Version, Zondervon, Grand Rapids, MN 1973.

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