Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Job and the difficulty of wisdom

I'm still meant to be revising, so here's another Old Testamental post.

In Proverbs, we saw that wisdom was fundamentally making sense of the world around us as something God was in control of. Job shows us that it's not always that simple.

Storyline

Job is a very rich very good guy. God and Satan have an argument about Job - Satan says he's just following God because things are going well for him; God denies it; Job ends up losing everything, except his nagging wife and is left sitting in the ruins of his house, scratching his sores with bits of broken pot. As if that wasn't enough, three of his "friends" show up and start arguing with him about why he is suffering in epic-style Hebrew poetry. They're later joined by another guy too. In the end, God shows up and tells them how amazing he is, then they all shut up and in the end Job lives happily ever after.

Did it really happen? I don't know. Does it matter? No. Unlike most of the rest of the Bible (except Jesus' parables and a few other bits) the important bit is not whether the events actually happened, but what we learn from them, in particular about wisdom and suffering.

Job and Wisdom

In Proverbs, wisdom was really worth finding, but often reasonably possible to find - by reading books, obeying God, and so on.

My son, if you accept my words
and store up my commands within you,
turning your ear to wisdom
and applying your heart to understanding,
and if you call out for insight
and cry aloud for understanding,
and if you look for it as for silver
and search for it as for hidden treasure,
then you will understand the fear of the LORD
and find the knowledge of God.
For the LORD gives wisdom,
and from his mouth come knowledge and understanding.
Proverbs 2:1-6, NIV

In Job, however, even though wisdom still comes from God, it's a little trickier to find...

"But where can wisdom be found?
Where does understanding dwell?
Man does not comprehend its worth;
it cannot be found in the land of the living.
The deep says, 'It is not in me';
the sea says, 'It is not with me.'
It cannot be bought with the finest gold,
nor can its price be weighed in silver.
It cannot be bought with the gold of Ophir,
with precious onyx or sapphires.
Neither gold nor crystal can compare with it,
nor can it be had for jewels of gold.
Coral and jasper are not worthy of mention;
the price of wisdom is beyond rubies.
The topaz of Cush cannot compare with it;
it cannot be bought with pure gold.
"Where then does wisdom come from?
Where does understanding dwell?
It is hidden from the eyes of every living thing,
concealed even from the birds of the air.
Destruction and Death say,
'Only a rumor of it has reached our ears.'
God understands the way to it
and he alone knows where it dwells,
...
'The fear of the Lord—that is wisdom,
and to shun evil is understanding.'
Job 28:12-28, NIV

Sometimes, as Job points out, we cannot make sense of the world. We cannot see how to "live skillfully". Job manages to refute his friends, but does not get an answer to the problem of his own suffering.

Job and God

What Job does get is God showing up and spending quite a while telling everyone how amazing he is and how feeble they are. The implication - why should we expect to be able to understand the universe or how God works?

This explains the apparently unsatisfactory climax in which God does not answer Job’s questions or charges, but though he proclaims the greatness of his all-might, not of his ethical rule, Job is satisfied. He realizes that his concept of God collapsed because it was too small; his problems evaporate when he realizes the greatness of God. The book does not set out to answer the problem of suffering but to proclaim a God so great that no answer is needed, for it would transcend the finite mind if given; the same applies to the problems incidentally raised.
H.L. Ellison in New Bible Dictionary

So wisdom literature basically summarises what it is to be human. One one hand we can make great progress in understanding how the world works. On the other, we are mortal and so cannot find real significance in life apart from God, and we are small and foolish so cannot always understand the world, especially when it comes to understanding God and his motives.

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