Nov 30, 2022
“God is good because he’s good, not just because he’s God.”
Recently, we posted King James on TWS (Thoughts While Shaving), highlighting the Stuart king’s ‘different’ theological and political ideas. As we saw, James was an ultra-nominalist who rejected the idea that God does what he does because it is ‘good’; rather, James believed that things are ‘good’ simply because God does them. Similarly, laws are ‘just’ simply because a king proclaims them, regardless of their content.
Just as James’ political philosophy deviates from today’s consensus, so his theology conflicts with much of Judeo-Christian tradition. In King James, we challenged James’ theology with a verse from Chapter One of Genesis: “Then God said: Let there be light, and there was light. God saw that the light was good.”
This idea that God acts according to an objective standard (Good) runs throughout Scripture, but it is the primary subject of the Book of Job.
Job presents an ancient narrative shared by many Middle Eastern cultures (think Iliad), book ended by a prologue/epilogue probably added by a Commentator at a later date. However, these literary bookends help situate the epic in an overtly theological context. According to the prologue, God tries to act unjustly, but according to the Epilog, he can’t! Sorry, King James, that’s ‘game, set, match’; correct? Yes… but let’s dig deeper:
Like any fresh-faced 6th grader on the first day of middle school, God is challenged by a more worldly classmate (Satan) to do something ‘naughty’: Be bad for once! I dare you! As we know from The Christmas Story, no tween can resist a ‘double dog dare’ and God is no exception.
God accepts Satan’s challenge, and they agree on the terms. Unfortunately, God being God and Satan being Satan, the stakes are a little bit higher than normal for a school yard prank. God agrees to ‘break into’ the world and inflict unimaginable physical, emotional, and spiritual torture on his BFF, Job; and he does just that!
No, it’s not a good look for God. (But remember, there’s a deeper purpose to this story.)
When the body of the Job poem begins, we find our hero, sitting in a pile of ashes outside his home, skin covered in boils, taunted by passers-by, scorned by his wife, the rest of his family and all his possessions ‘confiscated’.
Satan bets God that Job will not withstand this torture: he will turn his back on his best friend, he will curse God. God, perhaps a bit naively - it is the first day of school after all – believes that Job will remain loyal to him through thick and thin. In fact, Job splits the difference. He does remain loyal to God, but he’s not happy about it and, if you happen to walk past his ash heap, Job will let you know just how unhappy he is.
And then Job has a stroke – no, not that kind of stroke - a stroke of genius!
Job believes that God is behaving unjustly (Job’s right, of course). What would you do today if someone treated you unjustly? Why didn't you? Well, Job had the same idea more than 2500 years before you. But how do you sue God? How do you summon him to court? What court has jurisdiction, and what judge has the power to compel God to respect the legal process and accept the verdict?
It’s a heavy lift, but Job is up for it. He invokes an ancient legal formula then current throughout the Middle East; it includes a lengthy and detailed oath of innocence. For a year and a day, God has ignored Job’s complaints, however justified; now he can’t!
You see, God has a Covenant with his people. Under the terms of this Covenant, God acknowledges that the law is binding on all, creator and creature alike. God has renounced any claim of ‘executive privilege’.
God will comply with Job’s subpoena, but he’s not happy about it: What a pain in the neck this Job is! (God did not say “neck”.) God appears, but he appears in a whirlwind. Keeping up his bad boy persona, God hopes to bully Job into dropping his action: “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundations.”
Job is unflappable: no justice, no peace! But how is it that Job dares to challenge God like this, right to his ‘face’? First, Job has faith in himself; he knows he’s right. Second, Job has faith in God; he respects ‘right’ and he won’t violate the terms of his Covenant. Third, Job has faith in his relationship with God, in the primal love that bound them together for decades; he will not forget me.
Job believes: God will obey my summons, he will uphold the law; therefore, I will be found ‘not guilty’, and he won’t smite me for my impertinence!
Job has followed proper legal procedure. He can state his case, having faith that the verdict will be just; but there are complications. According to legal norms, God is judge and jury, the sole and final arbiter of all disputes. But God is also the defendant in this suit. Today, we would cry, “Conflict of interest!” Not Job! Job has faith that God can and will build an impervious firewall between ‘God-the-defendant’ and ‘God-the-judge’.
Put this in the perspective of today’s Realpolitik. A President of the United States has been impeached by the House of Representatives and now must be tried – but not in the Senate. Under this alternative constitution, only the President has the power to remove someone from office. So, in this hypothetical example, the House would present its case to the President and the President would decide whether or not to remove himself from office. Imagine the outcry!
I can ‘hear’ you rolling your eyes! You’re thinking, “I guess we all know how this is going to turn out!” You’re right, ‘the fix is in’ as we used to say, but not in the way you might think. In any event, Job is perfectly happy with these legal arrangements:
"I would speak to Shaddai; it is an argument with El that I desire… I will accuse him of his ways to his face…only he can be my salvation.”
“Would that I knew how to find him, that I might come to his dwelling! I would set out my case before him…he himself would heed me!”
“I know that my redeemer lives; the respondent will testify on earth…while in the flesh I’ll see Eloah… For even now my witness is in the heavens. The one who knows the truth is on high.”
Job maintains his faith in God, right up to the end… Up to the end, not necessarily through the end.
Much to everyone’s surprise (except Job’s), God complies with Job’s subpoena. Whirlwind notwithstanding, God shows up. Implicitly, if not explicitly, he acknowledges the jurisdiction of the court.
But as deep as Job’s faith was, so is his disappointment. God appears, but he ‘takes the 5th’; he doesn’t respond to any of Job’s allegations. He won’t debate the origin and destiny of the universe with an insignificant speck; and he won’t stand still for a lecture on right and wrong from a mere human. To be fair to God, to get a sense of his understandable frustration, imagine trying to explain to an ant why it’s not a good idea for it to walk through a puddle of molasses. Try it! See how far you get.
On the other hand, to be fair to Job, he’s had to sit through two long-winded speeches intended to scare him and convince him of his worthlessness. This is God being ‘fatherly’, but certainly not in a fatherly way. In fact, God behaves more like the ham actors Shakespeare always complains about: “a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage…” (Macbeth)
God doesn’t engage Job on any of the issues. Instead, he storms and blusters and, by implication at least, threatens, and in the end, he appears to win after all. He has worn Job down; our hero, unconvinced, nonetheless concedes: “As a hearing by the ear I have heard you. And now my eye has seen you. That is why I am fed up; I take pity on ‘dust and ashes’ (i.e., humanity).”
Pause here for a moment. Put yourself in Job’s sandals. A long and virtuous life, an unshakable faith, all for naught. Job has accomplished the unimaginable. He has summoned God and God has appeared, but only to turn his back on Job. He has demanded that God account for his actions, and after a fashion at least, God has complied. Yet, Job is left with nothing: no justification, no apology, no restitution, no admission of responsibility. He is truly “dust and ashes”.
Whatever Job and his hangers-on might have imagined, they certainly did not expect God to turn out to be an empty windbag. That was not even on the menu of possible outcomes. Job has given up; he has lost. He’s not even going to wait for the judge to deliver the verdict. No matter! The judge will deliver the verdict anyway, per proper legal procedure.
Is anyone besides me old enough to remember the O.J. Simpson trial? The trial lasted 8 months, but the jury only deliberated for 4 hours before handing Judge Ito their unanimous verdict. It was a stunner…but no more so than the verdict in Job v. God: Decision for the plaintiff!
Job wins after all. He’s entitled to restitution plus liberal damages. God complies with the findings of the court… because God is good. This is the message of Job. In a word, King James was wrong. God is good because he’s good, not just because he’s God.
Image: From Job, The King James Version. Here’s what Loyal Books has to say: “The Book of Job is one of the books of the Hebrew Bible. It relates the story of Job, his trials at the hands of Satan, his theological discussions with friends on the origins and nature of his suffering, his challenge to God, and finally a response from God. The Book itself comprises a didactic poem set in a prose framing device and has been called ‘the most profound and literary work of the entire Old Testament’. The Book itself and its numerous exegeses are attempts to address the problem of evil.”
David Cowles is the founder and editor-in-chief of Aletheia Today Magazine. He lives with his family in Massachusetts where he studies and writes about philosophy, science, theology, and scripture. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.