If You Meet Yahweh on the Road . . .
Joining an Ancient Lineage of God-Interrogators
Immediately after being cancelled by Dave Oshana, I found myself studying the book of Job. Coincidence? What at first seemed almost like an afterthought of Fate was quickly revealed as an intervention. Turning away from “Dave” (if enlightenment exists, then who is “Dave” anyway, besides a rumor about a memory?) coincided exactly with a literal (or at least a literary) turning towards God (or “God”).
Naturally: for where else is there to turn to?
My choosing to finish reading Jack Miles’ God: A Biography during the Oshana retreat which I was prevented from attending was a “random” choice, you might say, a “coincidence.” And it might have ended there, were it not for the many curious parallels between my confrontation with “Dave” and the Book of Job that immediately occurred to me via Miles’ interpretation (it would not have been nearly so obvious if I had been reading the book of Job itself). It was because of this that I was drawn, irresistibly, as if by divine mandate, to studying the scripture.
“Dave’s” push out the nest, then, was delivered with sufficient force and precision to send me out of his orbit and into my own (i.e., God’s). No longer caught by the gravitational pull of “Dave,” I found myself drawn effortlessly into that of the Bible, a celestial body I had been orbiting for decades, without ever quite taking the plunge.
And as I began to write about the Bible, without consciously choosing to do so, I realized I had become part of a lineage. It is a lineage that goes back, if not to Job (who probably never existed), then to the original poet-author(s), and from there, to the book’s many adapters, editors, re-writers and translators, and the countless commentators—of whom I am now one.
The bulk of the Book of Job, in my opinion, is found in the first three chapters and the final five. The thirty-four chapters that come between consist of a series of speeches by the five main characters: Job, Job’s “friends,” Eliphaz, Bildad, Zophar, and a young man who makes a last-minute appearance, Elihu. The three older friends take turns rebuking Job because Job is lamenting his God-ravaged predicament (the loss of his livestock, servants, and children, and his physical affliction with sores from head to toe).
Job’s lamentations amount to: “I get that God is great and can do whatever He wants with me; and look at all the amazing things he can do, so who am I to doubt his power; but why has He picked on me, and when will He deign to explain it to me?”
The gist of the rebukes leveled at Job by his friends are: “God is great and who are you to question Him? Quit complaining and suck it up!!” Implicit in these rebukes is the idea that Job in some sense deserves what has happened to him, because God is just, and God doesn’t make mistakes.
Elihu’s rebukes to Job are somewhat more nuanced and insightful. Elihu adds that Job’s assumption that God is refusing to answer and give account may be just that, an assumption. God speaks to men in dreams, he says, and even via events that befall us, including sickness and infirmity. God is already communicating with Job, Elihu implies, albeit in ways that Job can’t—or doesn’t want to—hear.
Yet all the rebukes, as well as Job’s own lamentations, have one thing in common: they are all made up primarily of descriptions of the awesome power and reach of God, as seen in the many natural phenomena of creation, including those that undermine, outstrip, and potentially destroy all the works of Man.
A curious thing about the Book of Job is that it would be a challenge for any but the most learned scholar to distinguish between any two passages taken from it, and say out of whose mouth the exhortation to fear God issued. Paul in the New Testament even quotes one of Job’s friends! (1 Cor. 3:19-20: “For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God. For it is written, He taketh the wise in their own craftiness.”)
In a sense, Job and his four friends seem to be arguing over not much at all, if not the right to have the final say regarding the greatness of God. But Job’s words have the added, essential element of suffering, lamentation, and petition, mixed in with the praise. The Book of Job seems, among other things, intentionally or not, to be an illustration of the propensity of mortal men (with their rational minds) to wax lyrically but rather emptily (and to a tiresome degree) about the glory of God. And to do so at the cost of ordinary human compassion.
Any passage from the Book of Job that describes God’s power (including the final chapters, in which Yahweh sings His own praises out of the whirlwind and puts Job in his place) could be (and of course have been, countless times) cited (in church or elsewhere) to express more or less similar sentiments: that God is not to be trifled with, but must be regarded with awe, fear, and worship.
And yet, many of these passages are placed at odds with each other, in the narrative form of an argument between various characters. Even the characters who apparently agree, in their broad stoke definitions of God, cannot agree when it comes to asserting their own personal points of view about Him. Clearly, the personal God is something to be taken very personally, indeed.
At the end of the Book of Job, Yahweh Himself rebukes the three older men (leaving Elihu out of it) by stating that (unlike Job) they have not spoken rightly about Him. He then tells Job to pray for them. The inference is that their praise of God was empty blather, compared to Job’s direct challenge, which somehow found favor with God (eventually).
One implication of the Book of Job, then, is that no one (including God’s most loyal servant) knows what they are talking about when they talk about God. By extension, the entire Tanakh (Old Testament, or Hebrew Bible) is made up of misrepresentations of God?!
Hallelujah and Amen. If you meet Yahweh on the road . . .
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