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The Immaterial Hippopotamus: Rereading the Book of Job on God and Evil, Part 1

The other night I had a conversation with some friends about God and suffering: Why does God allow good people to suffer?  I was reminded of a paper that I wrote on the book of Job and I thought I would post it here for anyone who is interested.  You’ll see that I depart pretty significantly from traditional readings of the book, but I think taking this alternative, non-traditional interpretive path–which is not usually my style–not only does better justice to the actual text, but also pays greater theological dividends in the long-run.  I will lay out the paper in several installments over the next few weeks and then conclude with some theological and practical reflections.  I will look forward to hearing your thoughts!

Commenting on God’s speeches in the Book of Job, George Bernard Shaw wryly but acutely observed, “If I complain that I am suffering unjustly, it is no answer to say, ‘Can you make a hippopotamus?’”[1]  Although Bernard Shaw himself certainly intended his remark as a dig at the Book of Job (and it certainly succeeds in being such against a common reading of the book), it might indeed better serve as a summation of one of the book’s central themes.  For while the created order and God’s sui generis standing as the Creator thereof are repeatedly invoked by Job, his friends and even God Himself in their deliberations on Job’s  anomalous anguish, it is not immediately obvious just how these discourses are to be taken within the context of the book as a whole.  How, at the end of the day, are readers of the Book of Job to understand the relationship between creation and theodicy?

“If I complain that I am suffering unjustly, it is no answer to say, ‘Can you make a hippopotamus?’" ~George Bernard Shaw

The question undoubtedly turns on the interpretation of the climactic exchange between God and Job in chapters 38:1-42:6 in general and on the interpretation of Job’s pithy responses to God’s stormy diatribes in particular.  The majority report amongst interpreters of the book takes Job to be knuckling under in 40:3-5 and 42:1-6, and consequently understands Job’s having “spoken of [God] what is right” (42:7-8) to consist of his recognition that he cannot, in fact, make a hippopotamus and that he had, therefore, overstepped his bounds by questioning God’s justice in putting him to so much grief.[2]

Jack Miles, however, demurs.  In his Pulitzer Prize winning book, God: A Biography, Miles argues that Job does not back down in the face of God’s tempestuous tirades.[1]  Rather, Job holds his ground, never withdrawing his charge that God has afflicted him for no good reason and has, therefore, committed a gross injustice against him, and bemoans the hopelessness of the human condition if we are, indeed, subject to so capricious a Deity.  In short, Miles’ Job knows better than Bernard Shaw that his incapacity to make a hippopotamus is utterly irrelevant to the question of God’s injustice in treating him as He has.  If Miles is correct in his reading of Job’s responses, and if we take seriously the Creator’s conclusion in the epilogue that Job has spoken rightly of Him (42:6, 7), then the invocations of the created order throughout the book take on an altogether different hue.  In that case, they are spectacular.  They are dazzling.  And they are completely beside the point.  Thus, any assessment of the way in which the Book of Job correlates creation theology and theodicy will have to be decided by a close reading of Job’s responses to God.  But, before we tackle that central interpretive task, some preliminary stage-setting is in order, to which we now turn.

God: A Biography, by Jack Miles (Vintage, 1996)

“Here There Is No Why”

Throughout the dialogues Job’s basic question has been “What possible reason could God have for doing this to me?” (see, e.g., 10:1-7; 13:18-25)  His friends’ basic answer has amounted to saying “Surely you must have done something!” (see, e.g., 11:2-6, 11, 13-15; 15:14-16, 20-22, 31-32)  But Job knows, and the reader knows (from the prologue) and, most importantly, God knows that Job’s friends are wrong and that Job has, in fact, done nothing to deserve his fate.[2]  Indeed, Job’s trials have opened his eyes to all manner of injustices in the world (24:1-4, 9-10, 12-25), a fact which makes this reader suspect that Job is intended to represent all actual innocent sufferers and is not merely a convenient prop for a hypothetical scenario.

Implicit in Job’s question is the suggestion, indeed, the accusation that God, in fact, has no good reason for so afflicting Job.  If I summoned him and he answered me, I do not believe that he would listen to my voice,” he says (9:16).  For he crushes me with a tempest (asher-bis’arah yeshupeni), and multiplies my wounds without cause (hinnam)….” (9:17)  And, of course, the reader knows that Job is right, for in the prologue God Himself recognizes that, in spite of his tribulations, Job holds fast to his integrity and that He has allowed the Satan to incite Him “to destroy him without cause (hinnam).”  The alert reader (or, at any rate, the reader who allows the prologue to inform her interpretation of the poetic discourses) knows full well that God, in fact, has no good reason for dragging Job through his own private hell.

Moreover, Job is right not only in his accusation in 9:16-17, but also in his worry that the Lord will ignore his legitimate grievances.  For in His long-awaited address to Job, God, in effect, does verbally crush him, speaking “out of a tempest (min masse’arah),” (38:1, DMW)[3] just as Job suspected He would (9:17).[4]  However, for the alert and cinema-savvy reader, the Lord’s response to Job must sound not unlike another iconic blustery rant: “Do you presume to criticize the great and powerful Oz?  You ungrateful creatures!”[5]  As we have seen, behind the curtain of staggering rhetorical questions and vertiginous displays of privileged insight into the created order is a God (it almost seems too dignified to capitalize the “g”) who, in point of fact, is guilty precisely of that with which Job has charged Him: He has, by His own admission, multiplied Job’s wounds without cause.[6]

Noel Langley, Florence Ryerson, and Edgar Allen Woolf, The Wizard of Oz, (Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer, 1939)

Many interpreters have been keen to forget about the prologue, in effect, telling us to pay no attention to the god behind the curtain.  Thus, for instance, Terence Fretheim suggests that “the prologue’s portrayal of God should be treated just as suspiciously as, say, the theology of Job’s friends.”[7]  Fretheim suggests that “the prologue sets up an image of a micromanaging God, which the book proceeds to subvert by providing an alternative view.”[8]  To support his claim that the rest of the book subverts the prologue’s portrait of God’s sovereign dominion of the created order, Fretheim points to God’s descriptions of the Behemoth (Bernard Shaw’s hippopotamus) and the Leviathan (40:15-41:34).  According Fretheim “it is not helpful to suggest that these creatures are fully within divine control….”[9]  Rather, for Fretheim these images serve to illustrate God’s having made a good but risky and not entirely controlled world, wherein danger and innocent suffering are practically inevitable. However, Fretheim’s suggestion is hardly born out by the text, for Indeed, it makes absolutely no sense whatsoever for Job to, immediately following the divine speeches, acknowledge God’s power to do all things and to accomplish all of His purposes (42:2) if the whole point of God’s speeches is, as Fretheim suggests, that even God cannot control the Leviathan. Rather, the point of these examples is to contrast God’s implied mastery over these incredibly powerful creatures and Job’s assumed helplessness before them (see, especially 40:15, 19; 41:10b-11).  Thus, the purpose of God’s calling to mind these monstrosities is somewhat transparently to reinforce His principal rhetorical question to Job: “Who then is he who can stand before me?” (41:2, ESV).[10]  God is, in other words, saying, “Who are you to question me, Job?  Can you make a hippopotamus?”[11]

To be Continued…
Next Week: “Job’s Silence: Deferential or Defiant?”

[1] Jack Miles, God: A Biography (New York: Vintage, 1996)

[2] Indeed, it seems that even Eliphaz knows deep down that Job is innocent (4:3-6).

[3] Throughout, translations marked ‘DMW’ are my own.

[4] See the comments of Edwin M. Good, Turns of Tempest: A Reading of Job with a Translation, (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990), 339-40

[5]Noel Langley, Florence Ryerson, and Edgar Allen Woolf, The Wizard of Oz, (Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer, 1939)

[6] The reader, of course, has the privileged knowledge about the goings on in the heavenly court; knowledge to which Job has no access.  All Job has to go on is his knowledge of his own integrity.

[7] Fretheim, God and World in the Old Testament, (Abingdon, ), 224; Similarly, Carol Newsom takes the poetic sections to “disrupt” the folktale of the pro- and epilogues,  “[challenging] its assumptions about the nature of piety, the grounds of the relationship between humans and God, the proper stance towards suffering, etc.” Carol Newsom, “Job”, (NIB 4; Nashville: Abingdon, 1996), iv. 324.

[8] Ibid

[9] Ibid, 235

[10] Indeed, it makes absolutely no sense whatsoever for Job to, immediately following the divine speeches, acknowledge God’s power to do all things and to accomplish all of His purposes (42:2) if the whole point of God’s speeches is, as Fretheim suggests, that even God cannot control the Leviathan.

[11] Fretheim’s suggestion “that ‘the satan’ figure in the prologue is essentially a symbol for the way in which God lets the creation work; in effect, giving ‘the satan’ permission to let moral and natural evil loose on Job is emblematic of God letting the creation be what it has the potential of being and becoming, including the experience of suffering” is another, particularly egregious attempt at explaining away and domesticating the prologue (Ibid, 225).

While it is obvious that the dizzying dialogues and the jaggedly affixed folktale pro- and epilogues bear all the tell-tale signs of multiple authorship, that fact does not change the fact that all of the elements of the Book—regardless of whether they once circulated independently, were added earlier or later, or whatever—are now part of a literary whole, a single literary work (albeit a composite one) and, therefore, must be read together and allowed to mutually inform one another as such.  It is only by recourse to the myth (long discredited in Pentateuchal studies) of the “mindless redactor” that one may justify a piecemeal approach to the book that marginalizes its beginning and end!


[1] As quoted in John Walton, “Job 1: Book of,” in Peter Enns and Tremper Longman III, eds., Dictionary of the Old Testament: Wisdom, Poetry and Writings, (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 2008), 333.  I recognize that God never, in so many words, asks Job whether he can make a hippopotamus (the Behemoth of Job 40:15-24).  Nevertheless, Bernard Shaw’s quip nicely captures the thrust of the divine speeches.

[2] So, e.g.,  Martin Pope, Job, AB 15 (Garden City: Doubleday, 1973), Gerald Jantzen, Job (Interpretation; Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1985), James Crenshaw, “Job” ” in The Oxford Bible Commentary, (ed., Barton, John and John Muddiman; Oxford: Oxford, 2001), John Hartley, The Book of Job, (NICOT ; Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1988), etc.

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NCSU Graduate Christian Fellowship

Hi! I'm David, the campus minister for InterVarsity's graduate and faculty ministries at NC State and Meredith College. I hope you'll join me as I learn to "practice resurrection" in the City of Oaks, in her universities, and in the wider world. You can contact me at dmwilliams83@gmail.com

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