The Book of Job: A Whirlwind of Confusion

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

Print this page Print this page

 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.

God Comes Out of Hiding

The second aspect of the speech of the voice from the whirlwind is that it takes the form of a theophany [divine speech].

Martin Buber writes, "But how about Job himself? He not only laments, but he charges that the 'cruel' God had 'removed his right' from him and thus that the judge of all the earth acts against justice. And he receives an answer from God. But what God says to him does not answer the charge; it does not even touch upon it. The true answer that Job receives is God's appearance only, only this, that distance turns into nearness, that 'his eye sees him,' that he knows Him again. Nothing is explained, nothing adjusted; wrong has not become right, nor cruelty kindness. Nothing has happened but that man again hears God's address."

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Robert M. Seltzer

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