This week’s reading is the fourth passage from the book of Job, ending the story of Job’s suffering with restoration and restitution. Last week’s reading was God’s theophany in the whirlwind when God appeared to Job, although God did not exactly respond to Job’s complaint.
In 42:1-6, Job answers God’s thundering speech. He sounds a little chastened. Job acknowledges God’s power, saying he has overstepped his place by challenging God so strongly. In v. 2, he replies very briefly to God’s extended show of power, letting God know he has understood God’s power evidenced in creation: ‘I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.’ There is an impression that Job backs down, perhaps still fearful (as he was in chapter 23) of what more God might do to him. This accords with the similar wisdom sentiment in the book of Ecclesiastes, ‘God is in heaven, and you upon earth; therefore let your words be few’ (Eccles. 5:2b).
In v. 3, Job recalls God’s challenge to him, ‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’ By repeating this statement, Job implies that he now realizes he did not fully understand his place in the larger picture of creation, and spoke rashly, ‘I uttered what I did not understand.’
In v. 4, Job again quotes from the divine speeches, ‘Hear, and I will speak; I will question you, and you declare to me.’ Recalling God’s response to him, Job says in v. 5, ‘I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you.’ To some, this suggests Job is content without the answer he looked for. It is sufficient that God has heard his cry and answered him by appearing. God is hidden no longer, even if his presence is more disturbing than comforting. Job has experienced God first-hand, rather than at a distance and by report, and therefore, he says, ‘I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.’ Many commentators read this verse as Job capitulating to God, bowing before the might and power of the divine.
Other interpreters such as Edwin Good, in his post-modern reading of Job, In Turns of Tempest, have a different slant on the story. They note that there is no clear object for the verb to despise, therefore Job may be despising the whole situation, or despising the dust and ashes, the sense of futility and grief inherent in human life. Such commentators read Job as saying in v. 6 ‘I repent of dust and ashes,’ as though Job is tired of hitting his head against the wall of suffering and questioning. In this view, Job is cowed by God’s power, but never foregoes his hold on integrity. The text does not allow easy resolution of these alternate readings. Seeing Job as still belligerent here is in keeping with the wild rhetoric he used at times in the poetic dialogues. Yet after the overwhelming power of God’s appearance, it is not inconceivable that Job may have backed down and gained a humble appreciation of his place in God’s creation.
In preaching on this passage, one might explore reactions to grief or crisis, and whether there is some comfort in a sense of God’s presence even if no clear reasons or answers emerge.
From v. 7 onwards, the text reverts to prose in the epilogue (like the prose of the prologue in the first two chapters). This comprises the other part of the frame within which the poetic core of the book is set. Here we see a return to more mainstream wisdom thinking, with the good man rewarded, the balance righted (yet in such a way as leaves questions for the modern reader, who will likely feel that the giving of new children cannot possibly compensate for the loss of the earlier ones.)
The lectionary leaves out a crucial part of the text in vv. 7-9, in which God is angry with the friends and vindicates Job, because they ‘have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.’ Thus, God undercuts all of the friends’ facile linkage of sin and suffering. The friends are only spared punishment because of Job’s willingness to pray for them, the very ones who had given him such a grilling.
In v. 10 where the lectionary picks up the story, the restoration of Job’s fortunes comes after Job prays for his friends. Job receives double for all his deprivation, more herds and wealth. Job is restored to community as all his siblings emerge (who had hitherto been absent) to eat with him, and comfort him ‘for all the evil that the Lord had brought upon him,’ and to give him money. It is interesting to see that the Lord is clearly envisioned as the source of Job’s suffering, despite the agency of the satan figure.
Job is given the same number of children as he had before, seven sons and three daughters. Flouting convention, the daughters rather than the sons are named in the text. They are noted for their beauty and given striking names meaning ‘dove’, ‘cinnamon’, and ‘eye-shadow’. In an unusual addition, it is noted that the daughters were given a share of the inheritance along with their brothers. This may be read as an indication that Job’s fortunes are not merely restored, but that the Lord has instituted a new time where the old constraints cannot contain the joy of life restored.
The text makes no mention of his wife in this restored picture (though her presence can perhaps be assumed in the arrival of children). Some commentators feel this lack of acknowledgment was because of her harsh words in chapter 2, which mean she is not to have a place in the final restoration.
Job lives an additional 140 years (twice the hoped-for three-score years and ten), and sees four generations of descendents, near immortality by the standards of the ancient world. Finally he dies ‘old and full of days’, a sign itself of divine approval.
The traditional interpretation of Job praised ‘the patience of Job.’ Instead, as we have seen in reading the chapters in which Job questions God, he is anything but patient, complaining bitterly about the unfairness of life in which a righteous person may suffer without cause. In this final chapter of Job’s story, readers may find that the happy ending jars somewhat, reading something like a Hollywood ending appended to an otherwise bleak film.
The questions Job raises about human suffering are not answered satisfactorily here, though there may be some comfort in the inclusion of these agonizing questions in the biblical canon. As was the case last week, in preaching from Job in the context of Christian worship, one might draw on the lectionary reading from Hebrews chapter 7. There, Christ is seen as the intermediary between humankind and God (similar to the go'el figure of whom Job could only dream), who ‘lives to make intercession,’ for humanity in all its sin and suffering (Heb 7:25b).
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