Is Justice the Last Word? — The Book of Job

Perhaps the oldest book in the Hebrew bible is the Book of Job, and perhaps the longest poetic delivery from God to humankind is God’s voice from the whirlwind in that book. For unrelenting pure poetry it can’t be beat.  The Song of Songs and the Voice from the whirlwind must be two of the most extended and powerful biblical paeans, songs of triumphal praise — the first, of a woman for her love, the second, of a God for his cosmos.  I wonder if that’s what the rabbis who connected Song of Song and the Voice were noticing?  I’m in my fifth month in Israel – it’s time I found out.

As fate would have it, I attended a conference at Tel Aviv University on the Binding of Isaac and The Book of Job.  Here are some of my thoughts, more or less off the cuff, in response to the papers and the discussion.  Excuse the length.  This sets a new record (for me) for a post.  And I guess I presuppose that most of my readers will already have had a thought about Job.

I think, 1),  that the relation between God and Job (and other major figures in the Hebrew bible) is one of intimacy–of tight and intense conversational and emotional bonds, bonds anchored in highly charged give and take.

Given the New Testament,and our cultural hierarchies of value,we tend to think of intimacy in terms of love.There is also the intimacy of affectionate or dutiful responsibility, or respect, or just fine-tuned attention (whether sympathetic or not– a criminal can have an intimate knowledge of his victim’s habits).  Perhaps no intimacy can be sustained over long periods — but it’s intimacy that’s distinctive and most worthy in the Hebrew divine-human relation (as I see it).

It’s intimacy that pertains between Job and the Lord, not love, and not – once the action starts – even a necessarily sympathetic intimacy. God’s capacity for violence and temper tantrums appear elsewhere in the Hebrew bible. When He’s ugly, He’s ugly or abusive, not out of detached, impersonal indifference.  His intimacy can be rough and fractured, raw and frightening. It can be like the raw intimacy that brews as ‘moral hatred (or envy or jealousy) between father and son, or between siblings and mothers and daughters. We might say these are intimate bonds gone bad, but intimacy none the less. The exchanges and connections remain deep and vibrant, ‘spicing’ negativity with extra hurt.

2)  I think God thinks Job is “good” and “righteous” but I don’t think He loves him.  Nor does God deserve love. Intimacy (of this fraught, ‘negative’ strain) just plain is there– whether or not we like it or accept it or not. It’s certainly not a mark of God’s goodness.  Nevertheless, it’s what unites man and God in their sometimes frightening battles, unites God and woman.  It’s a kind of wrestling intimacy, as we have in Jacob wrestling ‘the stranger’ or angel.  We may need that bond, even if it’s fraught, conflicted.  It’s a need, it seems, even if it seems far from a desire for happiness or for the sustained ‘good feeling’ we expect from happy marriages or happy loves.

3) There is‘ intimacy’ of a strange sort vouchsafed in the Voice (not in the restoration of all Job had lost).Many see Job’s “silence” or his“being silenced” as abject submission to the will of another, to raw power.   But I think the Voice functions more as the romantics heard it, as an evocation of a ‘sublime’ which humbles us – but not in a way that strips us of dignity or self-worth.

The sublime (in raging storms or mountain peaks) strips away our petty cares and local worries and personal commitments – we are made to bask in something so powerfully alluring-repelling that we are made speechless.  Now this is a raw and intimate relation.  But it is not exactly love (though certainly close to respect), so if we read the book this way, God and Job are not ‘reconciled through love.’  Where the Hebrew has “I repent in dust and ash” we might read “ I melt away” (as before great music).


Job ‘submits’ but in the way we give ourselves over to the beauty of a bird, or the song of a lark.  I am in a strange way ‘intimate’ with the bird. Yielding to the song of a lark or the wonder of an evening breeze is submitting, setting resistance and agency aside, but not submitting to the will of another. Master-­slave relations aren’t the only sort. I can yield to great music; I am nothing in its presence; I stop my lips; I knew not whereof I spoke — back then, as I gossiped about the Bach on the way to the concert hall.

4)   On forgiveness: I think Job is able to ‘get past’ his moral outrage.  One possibility is that he forgives God the harms visited upon him.  But that doesn’t seem right tome.Job is led past protest and anger and moral outrage not through forgiveness but through (as I see it) a kind of self-­emptying.  He yields to the multiform wonders and terrors of existence, brought to his consciousness by the Voice, in creature after creature, sunrise after hailstorm, bull after leviathan.  But let’s say we linger on forgiveness – just to get it more in focus, as something that in other cases can get us past protest and outrage.

Forgiveness allows us to go forward, turn a new leaf, restore good relations, setting the impasse of resentment and accusation aside.  But it doesn’t require that we utterly forget the abuse or offense or hurt.  Keeping the abuse forefront in the abuser-­abused relationship maintains conflict and an inability to move forward on good terms.  Forgiveness is not a change of mind about whether someone has been a cause of hurt.  It is a ‘devaluation of the hurt, not in terms of how it was experienced at the time of hurt, but in terms of letting its intensity degrade so that cooperative, hopeful, positive relations can be restarted, or started up for what could count as the first time.

Think of the intimacy between a mother and her son, the convicted, coldblooded murderer. The mother knows her son is a murderer but can’t help loving him, or at least standing by him. [Maybe the intimacy of the God-man relationship is a stalwart  ‘standing by,” in the long run and for the long haul, through thick and thin, through battles and reconciliations.] She doesn’t forget or deny the harm he has done, but loves (or stands by) him none-the-less. Could this characterize a Job who  knows he has been harmed, but can’t help maintaining a hopeful – ­if fraught, bittersweet relation to God?

Going this interpretative way sets aside my own preferred model – namely, that Job does not forgive the harms done to him, but is ‘swept away’ by the wonder and terror of creation.  I just ask, now, as a thought experiment, whether Job could intelligibly 

a) know he has been harmed (as God wreaks horrible, blatant and unequivocal havoc on him), and

b) want to sustain a struggling, intimate and fraught relationship, a bittersweet  ‘intimacy ’ – less than moral outrage, something deeply ambivalent.

The upshot of these two thoughts about forgiveness is that forgiveness isn’t the ONLY response a victim of abuse might have as that victim moves (or is moved) toward restoration of a deeply meaningful relationship.


5)   A question: We usually expect forgiveness to be requested (“please forgive me . . . “)  and the offer is given to those we hope are ready to accept it.  Is it plausible, then, that Job forgives GodDoes God plead for forgiveness? Would God accept forgiveness – or even recognize its visage?

Why wouldn’t God’s attitude be, “I don’t care one way or the other– whether you love me or forgive me or hate me…it’s all the same to me !-­ I’m creating a cosmos, you brave and tenacious gad fly, and I’m enjoying and marveling at the expanse and wonder of my Creation, which you, Job, have overlooked in your single-minded, selfcentered obsession with your pain…something far beneath my attention, you should know.  I do GRAND THINGSand I don’t worry about the complaint of an ant who happens to fall under my feet as I stride across planets and skies.


6)       Victoria (at our conference)  suggested that an important dimension of Job’s protest was the cry “I just don’t understand!”  Now that surely overlaps with the belief (on Job’s part) that he’s been harmed, abused, for no good reason. “How could you do that! I don’t understand!” are often equivalent to “You’re at fault! I blame you!”  But sometimes there’s the exasperation of ignorance – “Really . . . I just don’t understand.”  If I say “I just don’t understand from the bewildered side far short of conclusive hatred or confident assurance in judgment, then we have a different case than if it’s said as part of an emphatic, unqualified declaration of outrage.

Perhaps its an open question how to hear Job, though I tilt toward his bafflement and bewilderment amidst outrage, something this side of cool self-assured, steady moral hatred.  If he pleads for understanding (in a mood of deep bafflement), then he falls short of a firm, unqualified accusation.

Which way we read this has consequences for what reconciliation would mean.  If the emphasis is on a definitive unqualified charge that God is an abuser, then the ‘reconciliation’ has to handle the big problem of what to do with that angry charge: is it, down the road, withdrawn? (That doesn’t seem likely.)  Can God get away with his failure to‘explain’ (or justify) his abuse?  If the emphasis is on an attitude of deep pain and bafflement, then the ‘reconciliation’ can be effected without a full explanation– its hard to imagine how there could be any, right ?!  What if God doesn’t explain, but simply distracts Job from his pain and bafflement. Then God avoids the impossible task of having to answer the charge of abuse head on.

God might say (as it were): “Look, you’re baffled at all the pain and suffering visited upon you, but there are greater things to wonder at than your petty losses or gains, good health, or boils!  (We distract a crying young child, rather than explain its undeniable hurt, or answer ‘with due reason’ its outraged plea for understanding.)  God says (as it were),

I refuse to answer the question of abuse, and of the justice or injustice of your affliction. 

You (Job) are right to protest, I don’t begrudge you that– after all, that’s a very natural response – to be angry.  And that makes you better than your friends, who lie and are false in saying that you must be at fault. They presume to know my ways, and presume to judge you.  They foolishly presume to know why I do what I do.  I am what I am.  I do what I do.

But after a while, Job, you should see, as time passes, that the injustice of your hurt (what you understandably wanted to call ‘injustice’) is ‘small potatoes’ for a creator of infinite universes   stocked with infinite wonders beyond all comprehension, wonders stretching in time from the very beginning (when you were not even a speck of dust on the canvas of my imagination) on to the infinite future (when you will be long forgotten, and less than a speck of dust).


7)     As a footnote, having recovered from God’s peroration, we might jot down a slightly different query: If Job doesn’t understand why God hates him, can he be sure it is hate that he experiences? Maybe it ‘feels’ like hate, but on ‘explanation,’ I can see it’s not hate but something else, because I come to see God not as being hateful but as inexcusably negligent or inexcusably inattentive or a clumsy blunderer, or a pig-­headed, insecure egoist who has to  ’prove something’ to an out of line Satan, the lawyerly provocateur who should have been laughed out of court.  This makes God a proper target of scorn, but not of hatred.

8)        Afterthoughts on love:  As I’ve said, I think we can get through a reading of Job without summoning love.However in discussion two sorts of love came up.One (a lesser kind) is rooted the idea of fair exchange — “I love you while you love me-­in a kind of trade or market relation. The economy of love is beneficial to both parties.”  (This is clearly a paltry– if common – view.)

The second kind of love abides even without a sharply monitored reciprocity.  It remains and sustains provided only that certain ‘red lines’ aren’t crossed (no secret affairs, no lengthy disappearances, no public humiliations). This sort of non-­reciprocal but nevertheless conditional love allows latitude for hurts falling disproportionately on one party or the other.  There’s no ‘score keeping’ or ‘tit for tat’, just a sense of the ‘forbidden,’ the transgression of which confers on the aggrieved a right to withdraw her (or his) love.

There’s a third sort of love, I think.  The target here is the very existence of the beloved.  It’s a love that hopes to endure without either ‘red linesor ‘reciprocity.’  The ‘love’ of a mother for her murderous (adult) child might fall here.  Parental love, surely of young children, often takes the shape of unconditional acceptance of their very being (however much we hate actions and attitudes the child may manifest).

Although I don’t think the intimacy between Job and God is a loving intimacy, it may very well be an unconditional intimacy – a clinging to God through outrage and anger, with no role assigned to monitoring ‘red line’ moral violations or lack of reciprocity.  In that sense, the intimacy is ‘Beyond the Law”, moral or otherwise.

9)        The over-subtle complaint (against God) that Job didn’t get back exactly the family he lost is less important than the fact that he DID get back family and world and meaning and morale.  I wonder if it’s even intelligible to expect a Kierkegaardian “repetition” (or return of world) to require precise restorationinallrespects. Job’s crops won’t be the same, the hawks won’t be the same, and the sea won’t be (in every respect) the same.  If Job grieves and protests for three weeks, his children will have aged by three weeks.  Does that mean that the VOICE is cheating because the children He returns are not the same because older?

     I think that if one wants a sense of justice to prevail, then one wants ‘full payment’ for everything lost, and maybe more, for the suffering.  But Job doesn’t get justice, isn’t meant to, and is meant to appreciate something ‘deeper’ than justice – a world in which things (including justice) can emerge. Its not just that he gets back the sea and the stars, though this is essential.  It’s that he learns that there’s something deeper than justice.  If the rabbinical tradition wants to vindicate LAW, and think the VOICE fails, that just establishes that THIS book of the bible quite daringly (in my view) says that, — well, — there can be a teleological suspension of LAW.  And the whole epilogue/Hollywood-­ending can’t be the crux on which the book is judged.

    Abraham’s ‘getting Isaac back’ is a ‘very good thing’, but likewise it is not a matter of balancing the scales of justice. In terms of justice, the order to sacrifice is unjust and terrible, period.  It isn’t made more acceptable – more just – by God’s changing his mind.  Nevertheless the outcome is “very good’. Maybe after the fact we see the original order delivered to Abraham as being neither just nor unjust.  But just as Job’s initial cry is for justice, so, if Abraham had voiced initial resistance, it too would have been (we can suppose) in the name of justice. But when the storys done, we see that justice is, in the last analysis, beside the point.

10)   In sum:

In the back of my mind is a reading of Job that has him move from real indignation to real  ‘yielding before the sublime,’ where the  ‘yieldingjust shelves  the issue  of  justice  without  saying  (or  not  saying)  that  justice  is  not  important.  It’s as if Job is superior to the friends because he questions this for-all-the-world unambiguously unjust treatment and won’t settle  for  the  falsehood  that  he deserves it.   And it’s as if Job is even greater, exactly insofar as he lets protest die out– not because it did not  have  its  rightful  time  and  place,  but  because  it  does  not everywhere  and  always  have  a  time  and  place. 

Job is great in NOT yielding to the palliatives  of  his  ‘friends,’  and  he  is  also  great  in  his  setting  protest asidein  his yielding  to a  magnificent  powerthe  powerful  sublimity  of  the world  and  its  creatures  and  awesome  happenings.  He  sets aside, or gets past, justice-issues  as not  of ultimate   importance.  Questions of justice/injustice areneverthelessabidingly   important   (if not ultimate).

Whether we can-or ought tostomach a God who often thus puts questions of justice on hold is a difficult question.  I think that the midholocaust rabbis who accused God, found him guilty, and then prayed, might expose a relation to God who has evidently put questions of justice aside (not trumped them, just deflected his attention from them – theyre beneath notice).  But in the rabbis’ view, HE is nevertheless still a personage to whom loyalty as an intimate confidant is befitting.  All the while, we are utterly bewildered (if not angry) that this capacity for loyalty survives its trial. This is a very difficult picture of faith. Perhaps it’s what was called at the Tel Aviv conference ‘struggling with God.’


11 comments on “Is Justice the Last Word? — The Book of Job

  1. dmfant says:

    not sure that I got all of that (will return to it later) so maybe you covered this but if not what, if any, role do you see at play in the different kinds (species?) of beings involved, God, man, angel, etc., and how this kind of interspecies relations may unfold?

    • efmooney says:

      Well the Whirlwind certainly doesn’t privilege human over other species — if anything, in their self-centeredness and false self-importance they need to be taken down several pegs. Angels don’t play a role, though a ‘Satan’ or legal adversary does, and Elihu is a kind of prophetic ‘forerunner’ of God. The Whale or the legions of Stars are far more majestic and sacred than the common run of humankind.

  2. Steve says:

    As someone who always leaps over the dialectics and runs straight for the whirlwind, I completely agree with your general approach to the Book of Job. Rereading your very fine “notes” this morning, I found myself wondering about my longstanding indifference to the “problem of suffering” – the beseeching and to my mind utterly pointless Why? Why? Why? directed to God. Probably my indifference results from my not thinking of the divine as a person. The problem of divine justice, it seems to me, arises almost entirely from theism’s tendency to over-extend and take too literally its anthropomorphic metaphor. A particularly gross instance of this is the Book of Job’s representation of God as a judge hearing litigation regarding “his” own justice (a conflict of interest if ever there was one). On the other hand, the whirlwind, and the sublime poetry that issues from it, suggests to me a corrective to the book’s own anthropomorphic excesses. It returns me to something more like the “wild god of the world” of Robinson Jeffers or to the sublime god-in-nature of Henry Thoreau. Sticking with Thoreau, I think his sense of the divine has nothing to do with God’s purposes or with our human expectations regarding them; and that his contemplation of the divine – and of accident, suffering, old age, and death as they might affect his contemplation – is never mediated by questions of conscience, spotless or otherwise. To my knowledge, Thoreau was constitutionally incapable of responding to life’s trials and tribulations with questions such as: “Am I being punished?” or “Why is God doing this to me?” I might adduce here his intriguing journal entry of April-May 1850, in which he contrasts the Hebrew approach to religion with that of the Hindus.

    Thanks for this subtle and lucid post, Ed. I’ve derived much from it. (Do you know, by the way, if Thoreau ever mentions Job?)

  3. efmooney says:

    I think what you say about Thoreau is on target, Steve. He never asks “Why me?!?” And he thinks that all of nature mourns at deaths but also delights in births — so our plight, in dawns or dusks or horrible affliction is nothing special in the scheme of things. I don’t think he mentions Job anywhere, but I’ll check. Thanks!

    • dmfant says:

      seems to me that the idea of interacting with space-aliens would actually be an alien one to a naturalist like Thoreau…

  4. Dean says:

    I wonder how this pairs with Gustavo Guiterrez’s book On Job. In it, he makes the argument that the real test in Job is whether or not God can be loved simply because Job loves–not for reward, nor because of theological premises. In other words, God wishes to be loved without a personal gain attached, that is, loved simply out of love, which is the purest love (cf. Kierkegaard’s Works Of Love).

    Richard Beck has a good summary of the idea here:

    • efmooney says:

      Thanks, Dean. I do think that Job substantiates an unbreakable bond, a reciprocal intimacy that is not based on whether God rewards him. I know ‘love’ is a traditional way of describing that intimacy, but I think the intimate connection has none of the soft tenderness and affection we associate with love. It’s a ‘bond through thick and thin” but it’s closer to the bond of Jacob wrestling and wrestling come what may rather than a bond of Eros or Caritas, compassion or friendship. I’m searching for a word for it. So Guiterrez is right (I think) that hope for rewards and fear of punishments can’t be any part of the deal, Job is put to the test and passes it (unlike the ‘comforters’). I’ll have to read the Richard Beck.

      • Dean says:

        Thanks for your reply. I certainly understand your reservations about love as a descriptive term, but I wonder (and this is really just wondering, not a veiled argument) if this is a problem of hellenizing a Jewish term. Is the love of God able to be categorized as Eros or Caritas? Or is it something altogether different? I’m interested in the many dimensions of love, to be sure, and perhaps I’m just too taken with Guiterrez to see the shortcomings of the word “love” in this case. Perhaps if you find another term that will clarify things.

        Excellent post, by the way. I forgot to mention that the first time.

  5. efmooney says:

    I think there IS a big gap in our understanding of “God’s love” insofar as “love” comes to be defined in the New Testament in a way that leaves some of the Hebrew bible meanings of “intimacy with God” (or “love of God” lost in the dust, and new meanings easier for us to assimilate come into play. I’ll ask a friend who knows the biblical Hebrew and Aramaic and is sensitive to these things. You’re right: hellenizing a Jewish term will not do for whatever gets translated as “love.” We just have to dig a bit.

  6. […] This post is a bit older, but I wanted to give it some attention this week. I re-read it today and found more to chew on. It’s a discussion by Ed Mooney, an excellent poet and scholar (as well as a great dialogue partner, if you’re in the market for one), about the book of Job, specifically with regard to justice. Ed has a knack for picking up nuances and contours that I would otherwise fly by. […]

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