Commentary on Job 9:1-12, 14-16
In today’s reading Job responds to Bildad of Shuah, one of his friends and comforters. Basically Bildad had said that punishment of the wicked is as certain as the laws of nature. There is an implication that Job’s misfortunes are somehow the punishment for his wrongdoings.
Job agrees with this in principle and he does not claim that he is sinless but he does wish to have an opportunity to prove that at least he is not guilty of the kind of sin that would bring down on him such terrible misfortunes as he has experienced. He will make serious complaints against God’s treatment of him but he never abandons his God nor (as Satan foretold) does he curse him.
Much later in the book (chap 42; cf. Saturday’s reading) it is implied that Job persevered but in these earlier chapters he does so with impatience. We talk about the ‘patience of Job’ but the book is really concerned with his perseverance and refusal to rebel against God. “You have heard of the endurance of Job”, says the Letter of James (5:11).
In today’s reading he admits that God is all-powerful. “How can one be in the right against God?” His speech is filled with the imagery of the courtroom: “answer him”, “argue with him”, “innocent…plead…Judge”, “summon(ed)”, “pronounce me guilty”, “judges”, “court”, “charges…against me”, “witnesses”. Job strongly argues his innocence, but he feels that because God is so great there is no use in contending with him. Job’s innocence does him no good . The reason is that God’s “heart is wise and his strength is great”.
Job then sings a hymn to the overwhelming power of God over his creation; he is the Master and there is no other. He moves mountains and performs countless wonders. But Job feels no blessings from all this. It simply speaks of an unchallengeable power. Job does not yet see that God’s power is controlled by goodness and justice. (cf. Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount about the universality of God’s love – Matt 5:45)
At this point, however, Job cannot see clearly that God’s power is controlled by goodness and justice. He sees simply a God who can do what he likes when he likes and against whom the creature has no redress.
The power of God is illustrated in the ways he can overturn mountains and move the earth so that it shakes on its pillars. The ancient world believed that the earth was a flat surface supported underneath by great pillars. Earthquakes, too, must have been a truly frightening experience (as they still are for us today but we at least now know their cause). Later in the book the earth will be described as suspended over nothing (26:7).
God can control the rising and setting of the sun and the shining of the stars. He alone made the vast heavens and “trampled the seas’ tall waves”. The Jerusalem Bible comments:
In the Babylonian cosmogonies Tiamat (the Sea) cooperated in the birth of the gods and was then conquered and subdued by one of their number. The imagination of the people, or of poets, seized on this story: Yahweh became the conqueror who then set Chaos in order and ever after held the Sea and its monsters in control.
Canaanite texts describe the goddess Asherah as walking on the sea (or sea-god) to subdue it. So, in the same way, God ‘treads on the waves’ to control the boisterous sea.
It is the same God who made the vast constellations in the skies – the Great Bear (Plough), Orion and the Pleiades. Although the ancients did not understand fully the nature of heavenly bodies they were overawed by their size and mystery and their movements, which were often believed to influence events on earth. There was more astrology than astronomy. They would have even been more overawed if they had known the true size and extent of the heavens.
This hymn to the vastness of the universe, all made by an all-powerful God, only makes Job feel worse. He wishes to argue his innocence, but he feels that because God is so great there is no use in contending with him. Job’s innocence does him no good. There is no use asking God, “What are you doing?” He is answerable to no one. “How dare I plead my cause, then, or choose arguments against him?”
For God is both judge and jury. “Suppose I am in the right, what use is my defence? For he whom I must sue is judge as well.” Job is obviously not yet clear about what is happening to him.
He acknowledges God’s absolute power over him but at the same time questions whether it justifies the situation he now finds himself in. Like his friends, he is still largely of the conviction that the good are rewarded and the evil punished in this life. It is the challenging of this very belief which is at the heart of this book.
The pain and the suffering of the good are not signs of God’s displeasure at all. They can in time be seen positively as signs of grace and God’s love steering us into a deeper relationship with him. Other more impersonal happenings are often simply the effects of the forces of nature (physics, chemistry and biology) which is not reasonable to expect God to interfere with.
This is the move from passive fatalism to a positive and welcoming acceptance of whatever way God comes into our lives. Sickness and death are not the ultimate evils; sin, the absence of truth and love, is.