In the final chapters of Job, God enters the debate and speaks in such a way as to humble and to silence spokespersons on both sides of the argument. Its not that their words have been entirely wrong (apart from the accusations and speculations against Job); they have lacked the resonance and depth that distinguishes mere factuality from true wisdom. That resonance and depth are provided by compassion, humility and a sense for the limits of our knowledge and power. Add to that what Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel called wonder, or “a radical sense of awe.”
This awe, or wonder, is awakened by God’s stormy appearance to Job and his “friends” in the dark depths of mystery and suffering, and by his appeal to the wonders of His Creation, wonders which are life-giving, but also dangerous and beyond our capacity to control or to fathom. Two of these are Behemoth and Leviathan, both of which are hard to identify, because its hard to separate facts from the metaphors and overstatements that characterize poetry. Behemoth could be the hippopotamus or the elephant, while Leviathan might be the crocodile, some say a dinosaur, or even that the two monsters are simply drawn from the mythological heritage of Job and his friends. Whatever the case, its not hard for us to conjure up creatures or things that humble, challenge and awaken awe in us: childbirth, death, the ocean, the atom and its particles, as well as the universe itself. As we humans increasingly concoct and inhabit an artificial environment of roads, vehicles, buildings, businesses and media that we can control and manipulate, what does that say about the possibility for true wisdom, humility and compassion that flourish only in the experiences of awe and the wonders of creation?
In the last chapter of Job, Job is recompensed for all that he lost, and then some. The community and the extended family finally do right by him and share their wealth with him, perhaps in response to God’s vindication of Job. Some see this ending as an artifice, even a later ending to “clean up” the book of Job and make it acceptable for the Bible. But the reader must deal with the actual shape of the Bible, while speculations based on a possible canon before the canon deny us the possibility of even discussing the same Bible. The ending serves as a narrative bracket to the poetic substance, and anticipates the justice of God in a larger scale: when God finishes “making all things new.”
I was deeply touched, even spooked, by reading the first six chapters of Ecclesiastes this week. Never before had I so clearly noticed the tone of alienation, disaffection and frustration. It seems providential that I was reading it after having read Job, because both books are struggling with how to live with the limits of wisdom. For Job, who lost everything, the supreme value remained in having God. Solomon, who had everything, seems to have lost God. Or God is only a distant memory that gives some boundary to the mystery of life, but for which he can only long.
That fits with everything else we read about Solomon in Kings and Chronicles: he gained the world and lost his soul. The more he had, by way of power, wealth, wisdom and wives, the less he valued. It will all go to someone else, who did not earn it the way he did. Lest we come away from Solomon’s history thinking that his power, wealth, knowledge and pleasure are themselves the goals of human life, and unalloyed blessings from God, think again, Solomon says. He seems jealous of those who simply have enough, and who have God as well. In that sense, this is subversive literature, aimed at the heart of imperial wealth and power.
I am often impressed at how the word of people to God becomes the word of God to us. Solomon’s words amount to a cry of the human heart for meaning (not just status), contentment (not just pleasure) and value (not just power), the kind that can only come with eternal life, for death and the forgetfulness of succeeding generations, Solomon observes, makes a mockery of all such things. Let the reader examine his or her possessions, activities, responsibilities and expectations to see which, if any, are “vanity” and “chasing after the wind.” Ecclesiastes is more up to date than I might like to admit.
PSALM 44 begins like a hymn of praise to God, but turns into a national lament, not of people’s sins but of what appears to be God’s unfaithfulness. I do not know when, in Israel’s history, anyone could have said that Israel was living up to her end of the covenant, but not God. And yet it is again reassuring to see how our words to God are safe with God and even become God’s words to us, even words of complaint and anger.