I would like to clarify a point I made in the post about the book of Job yesterday.
In that piece I said, “One might say that the Book of Job ends with a stand-off.”
A few respondents here and elsewhere have disputed that analysis and have pushed back with the more traditional understanding that in the end God asserts his sovereignty in such a way that Job is simply and roundly humbled, chastened, and put in his place by God.
God ends up the “winner” in the book, and everyone else, including the protagonist, takes their places as lowly sinners before the Almighty and Righteous One.
I have understood and taught Job that way, but this time through, with the help of some commentators like Walter Brueggemann, I saw something very different, something that I think fits with other stories in the Hebrew Bible that leave us with lessons more complex than this simple “God-centered” interpretation.
So let me clarify what I mean by the “stand-off” at the end of the book of Job.
I think the paradigm of Jacob wrestling with God (Gen. 32:22-32) is quite pertinent here.
Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” (32:24-28 NRSV)
In one sense, no one can wrestle with God and win. The text is clear that “the man” (later identified as “God” in the text) defeated Jacob, deeply and permanently wounding him. As day was breaking, all Jacob could do was cling to his opponent.
Yet cling he did, saying, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” It seems that God counted that an expression of faith, for God went on to declare Jacob the winner! He named him “Israel,” the one who had striven with God and humans and prevailed.
God defeated Jacob, but Jacob was declared the winner.
Jacob remained wounded his entire life, but he had won the blessing.
I see this same kind of “wrestling match” in the book of Job.
Chapter after chapter, Job agonizes and contends with God and his friends about the sufferings he endures. Then, in the end Yahweh overwhelms Job with a mystical vision that shows God and his ways to be beyond human explanation. One might say that God defeated Job, put him in his place, deeply and permanently wounded him.
Job was humbled in dramatic fashion. And yet the denouement of the story shows that God considered Job a “winner” — he had striven with humans and God and prevailed. God “justifies” Job — declares him to be in the right, calls him his servant. God commends Job to the others as a priest who can pray for them and restore their lives. He never once calls Job to account for his sins or casts any blame on Job. Just like Jacob, deeply wounded through a dramatic personal encounter with One mightier and more mysterious than he could imagine, Job arose and lived the rest of his days in God’s blessing.
This is what I mean by the “stand-off” at the end of the book of Job.
God defeated Job, but Job was declared the winner.
Job remained wounded his entire life, but he had won the blessing.
* * *
There is a side to the stories in the Hebrew Bible that asserts the dignity of human beings, as well as their precocious, spirited nature before God. People are characters, and I use that word in its idiomatic sense. I love what our regular commenter HUG wrote yesterday:
Job argues with Proverbs. Jacob gets his leg broken getting physical with God. Abraham haggles God down to “ten righteous men in Sodom” like a bazaar merchant. Peter & Paul have a knock-down-drag-out over whether to let the Goyim into the Church. There is just something wild and pugnacious and REAL about this.
At the risk of being misunderstood, let me say that there are times when religion can be far too “God-centered,” and we miss this delightful human, earthy dimension. In their laudable efforts to restore transcendence to the Christian faith, it is my opinion that folks of Calvinist and Reformed persuasions sometimes miss the playful humanity of the Scriptures, the parts that tell stories about characters who stand up to God and get declared winners.