How to Read Job
Reviewed by Douglas Bennett
By John H. Walton and Tremper Longman III. InterVarsity Press, 2015. 208 pages. $20/paperback; $16.99/eBook.
Stop me if you have heard this one. God and Satan are kicking back with some other heavenly big shots when Satan says, “People only worship God to get favors and benefits, not because they truly love God.” So God says, “Let’s put this to the test. You go ahead, Satan, and punish a genuinely righteous man. Then we’ll see if this unfortunate man still loves God.” Oh, you have heard that one? Of course, it’s the story of Job.
Only it’s not a joke. Job stands firm in his righteousness despite losing his wealth, his children, and his health. He does whine a good deal (but wouldn’t you?), and in the end, Job gets back his health, his wealth, and a new set of children (too bad about the first set).
And what do we learn from this? We learn simply that God, in His majesty, has ways that are far beyond us. In trusting God we shouldn’t expect comprehension.
Is there a more puzzling book in the Bible than the Book of Job? Is there anything more enigmatic? Not in my understanding. So thank heavens for a commentary on the Book of Job to guide us through it. But are we satisfied when the commentary leaves us still puzzled, still hip deep in enigma? Perhaps.
Is there any more singular book in the Bible? Most of the others have siblings. The Bible has not one book of history but several; not one Gospel but several; not one letter but several; not one song or prayer but several. Each helps us read its siblings. But the Book of Job is a one-off head scratcher. Perhaps it is like an extended parable, but with other parables we think we are learning more than that God is inscrutable.
Job suffers, but Walton and Longman argue this isn’t a book in which we can expect to learn much about suffering or how to bear it. It isn’t even particularly about Job, they say. It’s not about Satan either, who makes his most extended appearance in the Bible here but somehow slips out a side door unnoticed midway through. It’s about God and about how we should understand God. It is about wisdom and “reasons for righteousness.”
Walton is a professor of theology at Wheaton College, and Longman is a professor of biblical studies at Westmont College. Each has written a longer, more scholarly commentary on the Book of Job that they encourage us to read if we want more depth. This How to Read Job is for ordinary folk like me and perhaps you. It is one of a number of commentaries on books of the Bible that InterVarsity Press has published.
God favors the righteous and punishes the wicked. Walton and Longman refer to that claim as the retribution principle. Examining that claim is the focus of the Book of Job. Even a superficial acquaintance with the Hebrew Bible brings to mind numerous claims that appear to uphold this understanding of how God acts toward humans, but we all know instances of bad things happening to good people. The Book of Job is an extended commentary on the insufficiency of the retribution principle as a template for how God acts in the world.
One of the best aspects of How to Read Job is the insight it provides into how other peoples and religions in the ancient Near East understood God and justice. These others believed, too, in the retribution principle, but if they believed in plural gods, deviations from the retribution principle could be explained by conflict among the gods. Moreover, the religious groups around the Israelites had quite a different understanding of the relationship between humans and gods. Their gods were needy and had inexplicable cultic expectations that could never be wholly fulfilled. Thus, apparently good people deserved punishment for their failure to do things in support of the gods, even if those people didn’t understand how they had failed.
The Israelites had no such way out. Should not the One God who had established a covenant relation with the people be expected to deliver justice in the form of the retribution principle? But when we see so many exceptions (sinful people prospering and righteous people suffering), we need some way to understand this—hence, Job.
“God’s policies are on trial,” argue Walton and Longman. But what we should learn from the Book of Job is that “justice” (the retribution principle) is not the primary basis on which God has organized creation; “justice is not the linchpin of the cosmos.” To look to Job, to the Bible, or to God for an understanding of why God allows injustice in the world is to seek the wrong thing.
Walton and Longman say it is better to see the Book of Job as “a book about who has wisdom.” In the dialogues that make up the Book of Job, the alternative understandings of his friends (Eliphaz, Bildad, Zophar, Elihu) are all found wanting, as is Job’s understanding, even though Job is righteous. Only God’s wisdom is adequate, and it is beyond us. We can only seek to be in relationship with God.
“What answers does the book provide?” Walton and Longman ask. “Beyond the fact that we do not get an explanation of why something happened, [Job] helps us to arrive at an important insight that we should not think that there is an explanation.”
Or, as Socrates says in Plato’s Apology, true wisdom consists in knowing that human wisdom counts for very little.