The Book of Job: A Whirlwind of Confusion

An ambiguous divine speech is the subject of great scholarly debate.

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 Reprinted with permission from Jewish People, Jewish Thought, published by Prentice Hall.

The book of Job is one of the most problematic portions of the Bible and has called forth a variety of interpretations. A major difficulty in understanding the meaning of the book is, what insight leads Job to submit so humbly to God at the end. (It should be kept in mind that Job is not the author, but the principal character.) 

There are important and subtle differences between the various modern scholarly views, but they usually revolve around two aspects of God’s speech from the whirlwind. First, that the divine voice does not answer Job’s complaint directly, but instead describes the wonders of creation, pointing to natural occurrences that surpass the limits of human understanding. Second, that Job does indeed receive an answer.

The Mystery of it All

One widely held view is that the climax of the book teaches that God’s purposes and ways are mysterious and unfathomable, hidden from his creatures. Given the difference between infinite God and finite man, theodicy is not possible. (Theodicy is the theological justification of God’s goodness in relation to his omnipotence [i.e. his all-powerful nature].)

Walther Eichrodt writes, "In the speeches of God in the book of Job, this God of men’s construction [the traditional theodicy of the friends] is opposed to the incomprehensibly wonderful Creator God, who cannot be caught in a system of reasonable purposes, but escapes all human calculation."

Also taking note of the preoccupation with the beauties of nature in the speech from the whirl­wind, but drawing a less extreme conclusion, is Robert Gordis, who sug­gests that the author implies that there is an analogy between the har­monious order of the natural world and the moral order. "What cannot be comprehended through reason must be embraced in love."

Several scholars have turned to an earlier chapter of the book for the key to the divine speeches (chap. 28, especially 28:28). A righteous man cannot know why he suffers and the wicked prosper, because men’s wisdom is not God’s. YHVH [i.e. God] keeps his cosmic wisdom from human beings, giving them instead a "fear of God" as their own precious and proper concern.

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Robert Seltzer is a Professor of History at Hunter College (CUNY).

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