Sunday, May 4, 2008

Who Is This That Darkens Counsel? (5/4/08)

Who Is This That Darkens Counsel?
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee
May 4th, 2008

The Book of Job is in my view, one of the finest examples of literature in the Bible.  Literary critic, Harold Bloom, calls Job “the greatest aesthetic triumph of the Hebrew Bible.”[i]  Bloom writes that Job is “one of the world’s great poems, though complex and ambivalent.” 

Job is not what we might expect or what common wisdom says it is.  Bloom points out that the clich√©, “the patience of Job” does not apply to this Job.  According to Bloom, Job is about as patient as King Lear, and neither King Lear or Job provide much of a justification for the gods or for YHWH. 

The Book of Job can be divided into five sections.  The prologue is set in the heavens in which YHWH boasts about his servant Job to Satan or the Adversary.   Satan is not the evil fallen angel but more of a prosecuting attorney.  He goes to and fro on the earth to determine who is naughty and nice. 

In response to YHWH’s boast about the righteous of Job, Satan tells YHWH that Job wouldn’t be so faithful if he experienced trouble.  YHWH’s blessing of Job is what makes Job faithful, suggests Satan.  Take away the blessing, you take away the devotion.   YHWH takes the bait and makes the bet.

YHWH said to Satan, ‘Very well, all that he has is in your power; only do not stretch out your hand against him!’ So Satan went out from the presence of the Lord.  Job 1:12

YHWH is as Bloom points out an unsympathetic character in the extreme.   Bloom writes:  “Yahweh’s motivation appears to be either His usual bad temper, or merely a CEO’s skepticism concerning his most faithful employee.”[ii]  There can be no justification of this God.

The second section of the book, chapters 3-31, contains dialogues between Job and his three comforters, who offer no comfort, just nonsense.   Their nonsense is the driving theology of the Deuteronomic covenant.   You are suffering as punishment for your disobedience.   We as readers, and Job, as character, both know that is not true.  Job knows from experience and the readers know what neither Job nor his comforters know:  Job suffers because YHWH is bored and is playing with Job as a cruel child plucks the wings from a fly.   

Job in this second section is neither patient nor repentant.  He is defiant.    He wishes he were dead and curses the day of his birth.  Hardly patience.  

O that I might have my request,
   and that God would grant my desire;
that it would please God to crush me,
   that he would let loose his hand and cut me off!
This would be my consolation;
   I would even exult in unrelenting pain;
   for I have not denied the words of the Holy One.
What is my strength, that I should wait?
   And what is my end, that I should be patient?
Is my strength the strength of stones,
   or is my flesh bronze?
In truth I have no help in me,
   and any resource is driven from me.  Job 6:8-13

Job is certainly not repentant.  He speaks of YHWH:

If it is a contest of strength, he is the strong one!
   If it is a matter of justice, who can summon him?
Though I am innocent, my own mouth would condemn me;
   though I am blameless, he would prove me perverse.
I am blameless; I do not know myself;
   I loathe my life.
It is all one; therefore I say,
   he destroys both the blameless and the wicked.
When disaster brings sudden death,
   he mocks at the calamity of the innocent.
The earth is given into the hand of the wicked;
   he covers the eyes of its judges—
   if it is not he, who then is it?  Job 9:19-24

In the third section of the Book of Job, Elihu speaks. 

So these three men ceased to answer Job, because he was righteous in his own eyes. Then Elihu son of Barachel the Buzite, of the family of Ram, became angry. He was angry at Job because he justified himself rather than God; he was angry also at Job’s three friends because they had found no answer, though they had declared Job to be in the wrong.  Job 32:1-3

Elihu harangues Job for three chapters.   Elihu defends God’s majesty and justice and says of Job:

Job opens his mouth in empty talk,
   he multiplies words without knowledge.’ Job 35:16

Job does not get to respond to Elihu, because finally in the fourth section, YHWH appears in the whirlwind and speaks to Job:

Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind:
‘Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?
Gird up your loins like a man,
   I will question you, and you shall declare to me.  Job 38:1-3

Finally, Job is going to get an answer.  Finally, we the readers will expect YHWH to come clean.   We expect, because we must think of YHWH as truth and justice to say something like this:

Hey, Job, buddy.  It is kind of funny really.  Old Satan and I had a little wager going..  I was bragging about you and Satan thought that if he took away everything, you would cease your devotion to me.   I told him to let you have it, because you are my man.   And hey, you are.   Sorry for the trouble.  Tell you what.  I will give you back everything and more.   And those children who all died?  No problem, I’ll make you some new ones, even better looking than the last.  Still friends, Job, old buddy? 

But no.  Neither Job nor we get a straight answer.  What we get from the whirlwind is YHWH’s resume.   All we and Job receive, in beautiful poetic language, is the sarcastic taunt of absolute power:

‘Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
   Tell me, if you have understanding.
5Who determined its measurements—surely you know!
   Or who stretched the line upon it?
6On what were its bases sunk,
   or who laid its cornerstone
7when the morning stars sang together
   and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy? Job 38:4-7

And YHWH challenges Job even further.  YHWH reminds me of President Nixon:  “I am not a crook” when clearly he is. 
And the Lord said to Job:
‘Shall a fault-finder contend with the Almighty?
   Anyone who argues with God must respond.’ 

Job responds with no response, kind of like Jesus before Pilate:
Then Job answered the Lord:
‘See, I am of small account; what shall I answer you?
   I lay my hand on my mouth.
I have spoken once, and I will not answer;
   twice, but will proceed no further.’

 Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind:
‘Gird up your loins like a man;
   I will question you, and you declare to me.
Will you even put me in the wrong?
   Will you condemn me that you may be justified?
Have you an arm like God,
   and can you thunder with a voice like his? Job 40:1-9

YHWH taunts Job further:

‘Can you draw out Leviathan with a fish-hook,
   or press down its tongue with a cord?
Can you put a rope in its nose,
   or pierce its jaw with a hook?
Will it make many supplications to you?
   Will it speak soft words to you?
Will it make a covenant with you
   to be taken as your servant for ever? Job 41:1-4

Of course, no, Job cannot.  But that isn’t the point is it?  Or maybe it is the point.  YHWH is not just.  YHWH is power.   Then Job answers:

The traditional translation of Job’s answer is that Job repents.  Here is that translation:

Then Job answered the Lord:
‘I know that you can do all things,
   and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.
“Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?”
Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand,
   things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.
“Hear, and I will speak;
   I will question you, and you declare to me.”
I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear,
   but now my eye sees you;
therefore I despise myself,
   and repent in dust and ashes.’ Job 42:1-6

There is a problem with that answer.  Job has no reason to repent.  Job as we the readers know, and as he himself knows from experience is right.   This translation is a translation choice based on theology not grammar, nor context.  These six verses are confusing and ambiguous in the Hebrew, especially verse six where Job is supposedly repentant. 

Another literary critic, Jack Miles, pointed this out in his fine book, God:  A Biography.  I won’t go into the complexities of the translation problems here.   I will offer Jack Miles’ translation of these six verses:

Then Job answered the Lord:
“You know you can do anything.
            Nothing can stop you.
You ask, “Who is this ignorant muddler?”
Well, I said more than I knew, wonders quite beyond me.
‘You listen, and I’ll talk,’ you say,
            ‘I’ll question you, and you tell me.’
Word of you had reached my ears,
            But now that my eyes have seen you,
I shudder with sorrow for mortal clay.”



To paraphrase Job: 

I know that you, YHWH, are absolute power, and you will do what you want.   You ask “Who is this who darkens counsel without knowledge?”   I spoke more than I knew.   You said, “Listen and I will speak.  I will question you and you declare to me.”   I heard you and now I know by seeing, and I mourn for humanity in dust and ashes.”

That is a very different reading.  A reading, I think, consistent with the text.  Job acknowledges the absolute power of YHWH.  He can do no other.  But he will not be sorry for what he has spoken which was the truth.  YHWH is not just.   Job has not changed his mind.

Job never questioned YHWH’s power, he questioned YHWH’s justice.   YHWH’s speech gives him no reason to think otherwise. 

The Book of Job I think is a critique of absolute power and of blind obedience to authority.  Jesus before Pilate acted like Job.  He acknowledged that Pilate held the cards.  Pilate had the power to take his life.  But Jesus in stubborn silence retained his dignity. 

That act of defiance is what gives humanity its dignity.   Throughout history, the Church, or the State, or the paterfamilias has held power and authority.  But that did not mean that these authorities held justice or truth.   There were a few courageous souls who stood up to them, took their lumps, and inspired future generations.

Job won this battle with YHWH.  In the fifth and final section of the book, YHWH concedes defeat by restoring Job’s fortune, giving Job twice as much as he had before.   It is a pretty sappy ending.   But Job did end up with some beautiful daughters, more lovely than the first ones, I suppose.




  After this encounter, neither Job, YHWH, nor the honest reader will remain the same.   No longer will any of us including YHWH be able to get away with confusing power with goodness.  YHWH learns that there is more to being a god than simply being able to put a fishhook in Leviathan’s nostril.  Job learns the dark side of divinity, that what he most feared is correct.   God may be God, but it doesn’t mean he is good. 

We, through Job’s defiance, will learn that human dignity is far more noble than the tyranny of the gods, whether those gods are incarnated in Church or in State or in our own imaginations.    The virtue lies not in obedience but in defiance to that which is unjust no matter how holy it may mask itself. 

This higher virtue may be in what Ghandi called non-cooperation. Any god we worship must not be a god of power but a god of goodness.  I will close with Ghandi’s words:

"Non-cooperation is an attempt to awaken the masses, to a sense of their dignity and power. This can only be done by enabling them to realize that they need not fear brute force, if they would but know the soul within."



[i] Harold Bloom, Where Shall Wisdom Be Found?  (New York:  Riverhead Books, 2004), p. 13.
[ii] Ibid., p. 15.

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