The Book of Job: A Whirlwind of Confusion

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

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According to this position, the answer to Job's dilemma is found in religious experience, not in theological speculation. Rather than a theoretical solution to Job's problem, there is an ineffable [indescribable] self‑manifestation of deity to the individual in his particularity.

In H. H. Rowley's interpretation, "All his past experience of God was as nothing compared with the experience he has now found. He therefore no longer cries out to God to be delivered from his suffering. He rests in God even in his pain." If the theophany is made central, then the book of Job can be seen as a large‑scale psalm of lament, like Psalm 73, in which accusation and doubt are resolved by an experience of reaffirmed faith and trust.

Rejecting Divine Retribution

A quite different interpretation has been proposed by Matitiahu Tsevat in his essay, "The Meaning of the Book of Job." Tsevat suggests that the content of God's speech is intended to convey a picture of the universe deliberately at variance with that held previously by Job and the friends. In the friends' insistence that Job's suffering meant he had sinned, and in Job's demanding a specific reason why he, in his innocence, should suffer, both sides had presumed the reality of reward and punishment in the cosmos.

Perhaps, however, the voice from the whirlwind is asserting that there is no such law of retribution and that nature is neutral to man's moral action. The sun rises on the righteous and sinner alike (28:13, 15). Rain falls on the desert, whereas it could have been directed only to the cultivated land where it is needed by men (38:26‑27). Wild animals do not observe the tenets of human morality (38:15‑16). Accordingly, God's speech can be construed to imply that material prosperity and misfortune do not constitute divine recompense or chastisement.

Tsevat proposes that only the concept of a cosmic order that does not operate according to a built‑in principle of moral retribution makes possible the selfless piety that was the first issue posed by the book of Job.

"It would be a grave error to interpret [the book's] denial of divine retribution as constituting a legitimate excuse for man from his obligations to establish justice on earth. Justice is not woven into the stuff of the universe nor is God occupied with its administration, but it is an ideal to be realized by society."

The author of Job may be denying one fundamental assumption of the narrative and prophetic books of the Bible, but his denial is consistent with another, even more fundamental assumption: that it is up to man to carry out God's commandments and that this primary task must be done in society and actualized in the course of history. A principle of automatic reward and punishment would, in fact, be a form of coercion, leaving no special realm in which man could exercise his moral freedom by doing the good from purely disinterested motives.

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Robert M. Seltzer

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