I am currently working on a Romans blog post which is taking me more time than expected. In the interim, I came across an old paper/examination I did on Job and Ecclesiastes; their similarities and differences as well as how they compared to God in Deuteronomistic texts. In other words, this is a full on Bible nerd essay. Enjoy…
The representations of God in the books of Ecclesiastes and Job seem to be coinciding understandings, or lack thereof, of God’s mysterious rationale. There are obvious intertextualities between the main themes of both books and even thematic similarities with other books located in the Writings or Ketuvim category of the Hebrew Bible, such as Psalms and Jonah; Jonah reels from God’s decisions to spare his and Israel’s mortal enemies in the Assyrian capital, Nineveh, and David’s often excruciating pleas for justice in Psalms are reminiscent of similar queries by both Solomon and Job.
In comparison and on their surface, Job and Ecclesiastes can leave the reader feeling despairingly devoid of social justice or reason. Both seem to characterize God as remotely and clandestinely exacting His purpose at the expense of the very feeble human. These circumstances and their outcomes justifiably pang the believing and non-believing audience and questions abound as a result. They seem to contradict the Deuteronomistic and prophet’s presuppositions that God punishes the idolatrous and those who disobey His covenant while rewarding those who are obedient to His law. In fact, according to Ecclesiastes and Job, reward and disaster befall both the wicked and the one who belongs to God.
The resulting question is age old: Why do bad things happen to good people? I would argue that God cannot and does not cause evil or suffering, but instead He wields it for a purpose that is sometimes beyond the scope of human understanding. The how and the why is simply rendered unattainable until the entire story is woven; an example made undeniably clear in the story of Joseph in Genesis. Sometimes the weaving process lasts throughout generations of people and transcends centuries of time. Like a giant tapestry, each thread is interwoven with another, affecting another, and only its designer knows the outcome rendering it impossible to predict details or understand the intricacy and complexity of circumstances that are set in motion, even intentionally, to influence a circumstance, someone, or something in the future.
Ecclesiastes declares practically all human endeavors to be meaningless, that it is prudent to fear God, and our only consolation in life is to “Eat, drink, and be merry” (NRSV, Eccl 8:15). This seems to come off as a very superficial deduction from the wisdom-endowed king, Solomon. In Job, we see Satan personally requesting permission from God to crush Job, who is a righteous and faithful man, hoping that Job will curse God to His face. As if life weren’t challenging enough, we are now introduced to diabolical forces working purposefully against God’s people. Frighteningly, God grants permission to Satan with one exception; that he cannot kill Job.
In both books, and in contrast to what seems to be common Deuteronomistic way, the seemingly innocent law abiders may receive initial protection from God only until they’re later abandoned presumably because of their sin. In addition, evil people can be successful in their lifetime and are capable of sidestepping and averting justice. Even the Ecclesiastes author demonstrates a sense of bewilderment in his attempt to understand how God could allow this to happen. Both Job and the Ecclesiastes author have essentially the same question for God. The difference between the two books is that only Job gets a response, although not a direct answer to his specific plight.
After losing his children, wife, home, livestock, and being inflicted with painful sores to the point of being unrecognizable to his friends, Job, who views himself as an innocent man asks God, “why”? God never directly answers the question, but in a Theophany He explains His immeasurable power to Job and His ultimate authority and control over all things. God’s knowledge and wisdom undermine Job’s insufficient understanding and God reminds him that his grasp and observations are ignorant compared to God’s unsurpassable power and wisdom. In the end Job is humbled and admits that he did not fully understand. Job says of God, “I know that you can do all things and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted. Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know” (NRSV, Job 42:2-3). God doubles Job’s possessions from that which he had before and replaces his children.
The themes within Job and Ecclesiastes; the human inability to fully fathom the immeasurable wisdom of God, is echoed in Psalms and Isaiah. David states in Psalms, “You have enclosed me in behind and before, and laid your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is too high, I cannot attain to it. Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?” (NRSV, Psalms 139:6). And Isaiah says, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are my ways your ways, declares the Lord” (NRSV, Is 55:8). These texts combined with Job and Ecclesiastes reflect God’s exactingness despite our blindness in the chaos of the unknown. Whether the Law is broken or abided by, nothing will thwart God’s purpose. This idea is present throughout the wisdom writings as well as in the stories of Deuteronomistic History. Therefore, they neither contradict nor compliment Deuteronomistic History, but rather, unveil a deeper level of understanding God.