I call upon You, Lord, God of Abraham and God of Isaac and God of Jacob and Israel, You who are the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the God who, through the abundance of your mercy, was well-pleased towards us so that we may know You, who made heaven and earth, who rules over all, You who are the one and the true God, above whom there is no other God; You who, by our Lord Jesus Christ gave us the gift of the Holy Spirit, give to every one who reads this writing to know You, that You alone are God, to be strengthened in You, and to avoid every heretical and godless and impious teaching.

St Irenaeus of Lyons, Against the Heresies 3:6:4

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Lex Talion and Theodicy in Job 34

Few people are ever very impressed with the role of Elihu in the book of Job. Some have argued that his diatribe is a redactor’s gloss, added by a later scribe who sought to do what Job’s other three friends could not do: justify God’s dealings with poor Job. Summing up the thoughts of R. H. Pfieiffer and M. H. Pope, Derek Kidner puts it thus, “[Pfieiffer and Pope] regards the Elihu speeches as the well-meaning intervention of a reader who was shocked at Job’s audacity and disappointed by the failure of his friends to silence him” (An Introduction To Wisdom Literature, 1985. 82).

Others have thought that Elihu’s place in the story is simply a ‘too little, too late’ type situation; Elihu actually adds nothing to the long-waxed prose of Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar. Nevertheless, whatever Elihu’s place is in the plot, we can find little to complain about the gist of his theology.

Having said that, lets look at Job 34 in particular. Here, I believe, is a fine example of applying the lex talionic principle of God’s judgments to the problem of theodicy (i.e., justifying God’s actions).

Elihu begins with an invitation for the “wise men” to give his argument an ear (v. 2, 10). Elihu then invokes the same sensory figure—“ear tests words” just as the “palate tastes food”—that Job had earlier in his pleas (cf. 12:11; Ps 119:103, etc).

Elihu, in keeping with Near Eastern etiquette, refrained from offering his verdict too soon, because of his relative youthfulness (32:4. Note: That Elihu’s remarks would be dismissed due to his youthful impropriety is not uncommon, granting the cultural context of ‘many years = wisdom.’ However, this mustn’t be made too absolute of a criterion. The elevated piety of the psalmist reflects a parallel attitude, Ps 119:97—104. Also, if we were to take this too absolutely, what are we to make of Jesus’ conflicts with the "elders of Israel," and that as a thirty-something?!?). After all, “Is it not the old who are wise...?” (32:9; cf. 12:12). Though Elihu is “young in years” and his company is “aged” (32:6), he can finally stand it no longer. With hints of prophetic unction (v. 8), he is now prepared to vent the frothing, fermenting speech that threatens to burst him asunder (vv. 17—20). The utter incompetence of his elder fellows in substantiating their charges against Job, thus failing to rebut his complaints, was a driving force for Elihu (v. 3, 11—16). But the main concern for Elihu, that which caused him to “burn with anger at Job” was “because [Job] justified himself rather than God” (v. 2). Theodicy is therefore Elihu’s top priority.

That theodicy is primary is further supported by Elihu’s choice of Job’s complaints in chapter 34. In v. 5, Elihu quotes Job’s earlier remark: “I am in the right, and God has taken away my right” (cf. 27:2—6). Similarly, in v. 9, Elihu cites Job again, this time recalling his statement, “It profits a man nothing that he should delight in God” (cf. 21:15). Elihu’s thesis, the centre of his argument, is the lex talionic principle of God’s justice incased by a brief introversion of couplets, following the A-X-A’ pattern. This is vv. 10—12.

"Therefore, hear me, you men of understanding:

(A. 1) far be it from God that he should do wickedness,
(A. 2) and from the Almighty that he should do wrong.
(X. 1) For according to the work of a man he will repay him,
(X. 2) and according to his ways he will make it befall him.
(A’. 1) Of a truth, God will not do wickedly,
(A’. 2) and the Almighty will not pervert justice. "

What was at stake was God being charged with injustice and wickedness (!). These charges have become very popular in the propaganda of the New Atheists today (antitheists, better; e.g., Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, et cetera). In the pair of A lines, Elihu implicitly draws and denies the necessary conclusion of Job’s reasoning; in the A’ set, he states his denial with emphatic negatives. Between the couplets is the grounds for Elihu’s denial, the lex talionis principle. Regardless of one’s appraisal of Elihu’s role in the story, I believe that his comments here can be pedagogical for us.

Granted, with respect to Job’s story, we modern readers have the back of the book answer, so to speak; we were made privy to the heavenly levels disclosed in the first two chapters, and we know the end, we have “seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful” (Jas 5:11). This vantage allows us to evaluate not only Job’s circumstances better than his four friends, but also lets us treat them a bit unfairly. In much of the popular moralistic type of preaching today, a sermon from this book will usually have for its take-home point something to the effect that “In Suffering, listen, don’t speak...Don’t be like Job’s non-comforters.”

Of course, there are times when people have questions and even accusations against God that are borne in genuine suffering. In these cases, they are not in need of philosophical dialectics, but empathy. However, this is stressed to the point that I fear that it has emasculated further the already weak apologetical posture and abilities of the Church at large. Because there are often times when the ‘problem of evil’ is thrust upon believers as a formidable objection to the omnibenevolent, omnipotent and omniscient God portrayed in Scripture, we cannot suspend judgment indiscriminately in every case.

In other words, when the philosophical objection is made by someone, parroting either Richard Dawkins or his junior college philosophy professor, we must be ready always to give a defense to any one who asks us a reason for the hope that is in us (1 Pet 3:15). And I believe that the lex talionic principle can often be helpful in that defense.

When the texts appropriate it, we’ll look further in this direction and its various applications. For a more thorough examination and one answer to the ‘problem of evil’ from a Christian perspective, you might want to check this out.

Blessings in the thrice holy God!

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