Our professor in class talked about the two kinds of wisdom presented by the Wisdom literature of the Old Testament – constructive and deconstructive. The former is found mostly in Proverbs. It contains keys for “the good life,” maxims that generally prove true and provide glimpses into how to be successful and happy during your time on earth.
But most of the biblical Wisdom literature is actually deconstructive – describing or questioning the fact that, for many people who do the right things, the good life doesn’t actually happen. Instead, they suffer and die. These texts can be stupefyingly depressing, especially so in Ecclesiastes:
I saw the tears of the oppressed—and they have no one to comfort them. Their oppressors wield power—but they have no one to comfort them. So I declare that the dead, who have already died, are more fortunate than the living, who are still alive. But happier than both are those who have never existed, who haven’t witnessed the terrible things that happen under the sun.
In truth, the Wisdom texts of the Bible appear to be in conversation with each other, and the conclusion they reach is unsatisfying. Because they ultimately do not reach a conclusion, do they? Sometimes we think they do – we’ve probably been taught that they do – but what is it?
The Teacher of Ecclesiastes ends his sermon the way he began it: “Meaningless! Meaningless! Everything is meaningless!” It takes a narrator at the end of the book to try to derive some positive message from the Teacher’s words, and that message is, “Worship God and keep God’s commandments because that is what everyone must do. God will definitely bring every deed to judgment, including every hidden thing, whether good or bad.” (Eccl. 12:13-14) Not exactly funeral-preaching material.
Nowhere is this unsatisfying conversation more apparent than in Job, when he and his friends engage in a tense, confrontational debate about why he has been made to suffer. I grew up believing Job essentially had this formula:
- Explanation for Job’s troubles
- Job’s righteous reaction
- Job’s stupid and/or evil friends tell him lies
- Job righteously defends himself
- God comes in and answers Job’s questions
- Job is given everything back and more
But that isn’t really what happens, is it?
Yes, in Job 1-2, we get an explanation of sorts for why Job is tortured, but it’s a pretty lousy one. Was God simply doing this to show him off? To win some sort of cosmic bet? Isn’t this a prima facie reason not to be too righteous? Because let’s be clear: Job not only loses all of his possessions and is afflicted with a horrible skin disease – bad enough – but he loses all of his children, which as a father resonates much more deeply with me. I don’t know about you, but I would rather be a little less righteous if it means I can escape the boasting of God and keep my kids.
In Job 2:11, Job’s friends show up, and they sit with him in silence for seven days, which indicates to me these are actually pretty good friends, not just horrible people who’ve come to inexplicable torment him. Finally, after a week of silence, Job speaks in chapter 3, and he regrets ever being born. The language is beautiful in its despair:
Perish the day I was born,
the night someone said,
“A boy has been conceived.”
4 That day—let it be darkness;
may God above ignore it,
and light not shine on it.
5 May deepest darkness claim it
and a cloud linger over it;
may all that darkens the day terrify it.
6 May gloom seize that night;
may it not be counted
in the days of a year;
may it not appear in the months.
7 May that night be childless;
may no happy singing come in it.
8 May those who curse the day curse it,
those with enough skill
to awaken Leviathan.
9 May its evening stars stay dark;
may it wait in vain for light;
may it not see dawn’s gleam,
10 because it didn’t close
the doors of my mother’s womb,
didn’t hide trouble from my eyes.
Note the first appearance of Leviathan, which doesn’t show up again until God does.
In chapter 4, Job’s first friend begins the series of what are ultimately condemnations of Job’s character, but it starts out more tentatively: “Isn’t your religion the source of your confidence; the integrity of your conduct the source of your hope? Think! What innocent person has ever perished? When have those who do the right thing been destroyed? As I’ve observed, those who plow sin and sow trouble will harvest it.”
As Eliphaz has observed – and as the writer of Proverbs observed, too. To the extent that we consider Job’s friends to be misguided, we should also question the wisdom of Psalms and Proverbs, shouldn’t we? Consider these various verses, taken from the words of Job’s friends:
- “Happy is the person God corrects, so don’t reject the Almighty’s instruction.” (5:17)
- “Does God pervert justice? Does the Almighty distort what is right?” (8:3)
- “Does papyrus grow apart from a marsh? Does a reed flourish without water? While still tender, uncut, it will wither before every other grass. So are the paths of all who forget God.” (8:11-13a)
- “Surely God won’t reject integrity, won’t strengthen the hand of the wicked.” (8:20)
- “If you throw out the sin in your hands and don’t let injustice dwell in your tents, then you will lift up your face without blemish. … [But] the eyes of the wicked will grow faint; flight has vanished from them; their hope is a dying gasp.” (11:13b-14, 20)
- “What are humans that they might be pure, and those born of woman that they might be innocent?” (15:14)
I could go on for much longer, but you get the idea. These friends are espousing constructive wisdom, which Job counters with deconstructive wisdom:
If I cry “Violence!” I’m not answered;
I shout—but there is no justice.
8 He walled up my path so I can’t pass
and put darkness on my trail,
9 stripped my honor from me,
removed the crown from my head,
10 tore me down completely so that I’ll die, and uprooted my hope like a tree.
11 His anger burns against me;
he considers me his enemy.
12 His troops come as one
and construct their siege ramp against me;
they camp around my tent.
As an aside, I also love how angry Job and his friends get with each other – Job in chapter 12 gets especially sarcastic: “Surely you are the people, and wisdom will die with you,” while Eliphaz returns in kind in chapter 15: “Will the wise respond
with windy knowledge and fill their belly with the east wind? Will they argue with a word that has no benefit and with unprofitable words? You are truly making religion ineffective and restraining meditation before God.”
Regardless, it’s hard to fault Job’s friends for the content of their words, given these are the same words we so often apply literally to situations today when they’re found in Psalms and Proverbs. The timing of their words, however, is a completely different story.
In the end, God comes in and settles the score, right? He gives the friends what-for and tells Job he was right all along and restores his fortunes. Well, not quite. God does tell the friends he’s angry with them and tells them to make sacrifices (which perhaps gives us a clue on where to date the authorship of this book) in 42:7-9, but that’s after four chapters of upbraiding Job for “darken[ing] counsel with words lacking knowledge” and similar statements about how Job had no right to be questioning him about the way he runs the world. Which is fine, except that amounts to God saying, “If I want to torture you to win a bet with Satan, I can very well do it, and who are you to question me?” Not exactly the stuff of Jesus.
Then God gives Job twice as much as he had before, including 10 more children – which is nice and all, but is this story really the great ending it’s usually made out to be? Do more wealth and additional children make things better? I wouldn’t think so.
In the end, perhaps we read Job the wrong way. Our modern western attitudes toward stories like these expect a neat bow and a moral on which to hang our hats. Perhaps that’s not the way Job was intended to be written.
Our professor, noting Job’s primary complaint was not unjust treatment but a despair of living, theorized that God’s response – which is a long defense of the wonder and majesty of his creation, complete with a reference to the very creature Job mentioned in chapter 3, Leviathan – is not so much a self-defense as an encouragement. Life is worth living; God is still worth believing in, even when it’s hard. Even when we don’t understand, and answers aren’t coming. And Job’s new prosperity isn’t an attempt to replace what he lost but a way to say: It’s OK to move on with life after loss. Don’t let what you lost replace what you could still have. Which is wisdom indeed – more practical, arguably, than simply what the literal words imply.
But who knows? Job itself is a conversation among six people – Job, his three friends, the mysterious late-arriver Elihu and God himself. And it is part of a larger conversation with books such as Ecclesiastes, Proverbs and several of the Psalms about the meaning of life and what it means to live and suffer in a fallen world ruled by a God who is both good and omnipotent. It’s a conversation begun thousands of years ago, and one we continue today. We are no closer to the answer than Job and his friends.