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What follows are some thoughts from a recently completed re-reading of the Book of Job.
To set the stage: Job tells the story of a righteous man who endures incredible suffering, all under the sovereign oversight of Almighty God. The narrative follows a series of long poetic dialogs between Job and the friends who have come to mourn with him and comfort him, all concerning the nature of man and his relationship to God. Job’s friends argue that Job must have sinned greatly to have merited such punishment from God. Job counters that he has lived a just life, and that the miseries visited upon him are unjust. Ultimately, Job is vindicated and restored by God, but in the telling, it is made clear to Job that he is not owed an answer or justification by God. Rather Job comes to recognize that the Lord’s power and authority are beyond human accountability.
Having previously read this particular book several times, I must admit that earlier efforts were pretty shallow. I didn’t really enjoy the subject. Quite frankly, the deeper message of a loving and all-knowing Lord who would allow unspeakable suffering and affliction towards an innocent person confused and confounded me. However, the passage of time and the gaining of a bit of maturity has revealed a number of new insights from this particular book of Scripture. I’d like to share two of them here.
From Chapter 15, verses 17, 25 and 26.* Eliphaz, one of Job’s friends, is speaking:
The wicked man writhes in pain all his days…
Because he has stretched out his hand against God
…and defies the Almighty,
running stubbornly against him
…with a thickly bossed shield
I read this and immediately thought, “Wow; that reads an awful lot like a reference to classical Hellenic (Greek) hoplite battle. Where did that come from?”
Why is this significant? Because the Hellenes, contemporaries of the Hebrew at the time story of Job was being definitively transferred from oral to written form, fought in a unique, disciplined, and distinctively Greek method. Their ground combat was characterized not by the wild, disorganized milieu of a mob of single warriors all fighting hand-to-hand that we tend to imagine. Rather, it was the tightly disciplined and ordered phalanx of soldiers who achieved victory by pushing their enemies off the field by the weight of their hoplon shields. Thus, the image emerges of a wicked man striving against God by attempting to push him off of the field, or rather, out of his life, so as to remain master of his own little piece of ground. The image is both contemporary within the context of the time it was written, yet timeless in its broader application to the human condition. Even if one does not believe in the existence of a higher power, don’t all people perceive their lives at times to be a struggle against greater adversity?
Further on, the author of Job makes a number of references to natural phenomena, stating that, the Lord “binds up the waters in his thick clouds, and the cloud is not split open under them.” (Job 26:8) And later, Elihu observes that,
For (God) draws up the drops of water;
…They distill his mist in rain (Job 36:27)
By the breath of God ice is given,
…And the broad waters are frozen fast.
He loads the thick cloud with moisture;
…The clouds scatter his lightning. (Job 37:10-11)
Isn’t it a little remarkable that an ancient Jewish writer, most likely living in Persia at the time, would be able to describe the subtleties of the natural water cycle in all its physical phases — solid, liquid, gas — so elegantly? It becomes even more of a mental “kick-in-the-pants” when one considers that the story of Job is set in a much earlier era, the time of Abraham, and located in Northern Arabia. The story of Job had come down through ages of oral tradition from the earliest days of the Hebrew nation before being committed to written form. Familiarity with frozen seas (Glaciers? Icebergs?) and the cycle of water from earth to sky was so well known that the author could put these words into the mouths of his characters with the expectation that his readers and listeners would understand. Whether or not one ascribes these natural processes to the design of a creator or not, how can one not see the beauty and wonderment of such phenomena?
These are just two examples of the wisdom embedded through this marvelous ancient piece of literature. By my reckoning, Job was written down in the form that it has come down to modern readers around 750 BC. This would make it a contemporary of Homer’s Iliad. I suggest that both works are literary masterpieces, but each of them paints very different pictures of Mankind’s relationship with the divine and the natural world. In Job, one can see how even in the face of unjust suffering, one might retain dignity and honor. Job gives us an appreciation for that broader world, sky, and stars that makes us feel infinitely small and incomprehensibly big at the same time.
* All quotations are from the English Standard Version.