Evensong 1st August 2021
Poetry and Wisdom in Job
Job chapter 28
Although it’s counted as one of the Wisdom books in the Bible, the book of Job is not obviously about wisdom but the problem of evil- why God allows evil, and in particular, why blameless men can nevertheless suffer. We might expect that discussion to be on clear and consistent lines, in other words like our idea of philosophical debate. We expect logic not poetry.
That expectation is perhaps not entirely well founded. The western world’s first significant philosopher – Plato- wrote in prose and the arguments in his dialogues are based on logic and experience and where they are not their proponents are ridiculed. It is quickly apparent, however, that Plato’s real point is often not in the ostensible logic of the debate, but in what is implied or what is not said. His writing is in this sense poetic, and he is generally regarded as a great artist as well as the founder of western philosophy.
The book of Job is also set in dialogue form, but we are soon disappointed if we look for the sort of logical progression which we expect of a philosophical-or theological- argument. The speeches don’t answer each other but are elliptical and elusive developing new themes and all in sometimes fantastical, albeit beautiful imagery. I believe Job does have a conclusion and a response, if not what a logician would call an answer to the problem posed, but as with a good poem, we have to work at it and the process is as important as the result.
Chapter 28 comes in the middle of the book, following a series of speeches by Job himself and his would-be comforters, speeches which mainly miss each other’s points and leave us with unresolved contradictory ideas. Why won’t Job curse God for his capriciously horrendous sufferings? Why do the comforters insist against all reason that Job or his ancestors must somehow have offended God?
Chapter 28 is an interlude before the debate hots up with God himself intervening with magnificently poetic explanations which do not in any prosaic sense, explain. Chapter 28 is again a speech, but we are not told who speaks it; it comes as the narrator’s unpartisan comment, introducing, crucially, the idea of Wisdom, although not quite wisdom as Plato or following western thinkers have seen it.
We start with the image of miners digging deep into the earth and finding metals and gems of great value. Their ingenuity and perseverance is admired but with a hint too of their arrogance; they are not satisfied with the world known by their fellow creatures, birds of prey and lions; they overturn mountains and find the hidden sources of rivers. There is a sense that they wish to reverse the ordering of the earth to bring darkness to light and the buried mysteries to the surface. But whether it’s hubristic presumption or skill and endurance, this activity does not find wisdom because wisdom cannot be compared to precious stones or metals.
It is not that wisdom is worth more than gold and sapphires and so on, but that the comparison is inept. The treasures of the earth and the human wealth that they bring are irrelevant to wisdom. Wisdom, we are told is not to be found in the land of the living, and even the dead have only heard rumours of it. This does not, I suggest, mean that it is impossible for human beings to be wise or to recognise wisdom, but they will not do so by human endeavour. Instead, wisdom is something intimately connected with creation; it is the force or the inspiration behind the power of nature as seen in the infinite power of the wind and the sea. Ultimately, we are told that wisdom is the fear of the Lord; not I think terror or anxiety about what God might do, but recognition of His and creation’s awesome power. It’s also respect for that power in following the moral code which it implies. The Fear of the Lord is wisdom and understanding God is respecting his power and the principles that structure it.
It’s easy to draw comparisons with the present ecological crisis; the climatic catastrophe facing the earth is a direct result of our arrogant failure to respect creation. The catastrophe is not so much our punishment for failure to respect creation as the inevitable consequence of not doing so. There is something essential about the ordering of the world and in Job and the Old Testament generally it is the basis of moral law as well as the laws of nature. And understanding that is wisdom, not perhaps so much having understood as the process of understanding, makes us wise. Wonder not dialectic; awe not logic.
So wisdom becomes in the latter half of Job the appropriate response to the dilemma posed at the start; how can God allow evil? We see that it is not a question that can be answered in the rational terms that we expect of human problems. What the excursus in chapter 28 reveals is the setting for the wonder that we will feel for creation explored in the latter part of Job. Understanding that fear or better, respect for God and His working is the basis for our dealings with our fellow creatures is the foundation of law and ethics, and equally for our dealings with nature, as His creation. That understanding can never be complete and will certainly entail awe and wonder, which is only amplified as we discover more and more about the workings of the world and the universe. The conclusions of the book of Job are as valid now as they were two and a half millennia ago. AmenPrint This Page