Theological Mirage: A New "Answer" to the Book of Job

On the one hand, David Burrell’s new book, Deconstructing Theodicy: Why Job Has Nothing to Say to the Puzzle of Human Suffering, is hardly news. We know that God never answered Job’s question. But that’s not the end of it, according to Burrell. While Job’s “theodicy” — if it can even be called that — doesn’t explain why God allows unjust suffering, it directs people to activate their dependence on the creator-God in new ways, thus making possible new sorts of understanding.

As we know, the book of Job was intended as a slamming critique of Deuteronomic theology: the idea that God rewards the good and punishes the wicked. Job’s “friends” (Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar) are the straight-men who parrot this covenantal doctrine, in the end rewriting Job’s life-story (God said that Job was completely righteous and blameless (Job 2:3)) by insisting that Job must be wicked after all to be suffering the way he is. Job rightly maintains his innocence and calls on God directly, demanding that the deity appear and tell him his offense.

God does finally appear out of the infamous whirlwind, stonewalling Job with rhetorical questions, essentially saying, “Who the hell do you think you are, Job, for daring to try to make sense of why I do things? I’m the Creator and above reproach!” To which Job concedes and is made right again, his sufferings alleviated. Meanwhile — and this has always amused me to no end — Job’s friends incur God’s wrath (Job 42:7a) for having taken God’s side! It’s obvious that Deuteronomic theology is being critiqued here, but less obvious what is being advocated in its place. What exactly is Job commended for (Job 42:7b) in the end? I always thought it was for admitting that he lacked the perspective to understand God’s grand scheme of things. But Burrell thinks it goes beyond this:

“God cannot be commending Job for ‘getting it right,’ as we might say. For his cumulative outbursts are a far cry from attempts to explain his plight, never pretending to be more than bewildered complaints — despite the ways his ‘friends’ often construed them. What the voice from the whirlwind commends is rather the inherent rightness of Job’s mode of discourse: speaking to rather than about his creator.” (p 109)

That’s a curious idea, and obviously sidesteps the issue, but that’s Burrell’s thesis: that speaking about God gets one nowhere, while speaking to him opens up new possibilities. It may help to cite Burrell’s summary-statement at the end:

“[The book of Job] has little to offer for one who defines theodicy as ‘explaining how there could be evil in God’s world’. For the only ones who attempt to explain Job’s plight are his friends-turned-tormenters. Yet far from concluding that the poem is useless for the issues of undeserved suffering at the hands of a creator-God, we find that it rather directs us to eschew explanation for yet other ways of rendering enigmas intelligible… Job is commended in the end because he dared to address the creator-God; his interlocutors are castigated for purporting to speak knowingly about that One. Speaking about something veers toward explaining, while speaking to someone can engage both in a relationship of exchange open to yet other forms of understanding. Indeed, what is most telling, structurally, in the book of Job is that the creator-God does answer Job’s extended complaints. Yet those looking for an explanation will find themselves scrutinizing what the voice from the whirlwind says, while the dynamic of the unfolding relationship should lead us to what is most startling of all: that God responded to him… Here, theodicy — if we can continue to call it that — does not pretend to offer an explanation. Yet it can direct us to ways of activating that non-reciprocal relation of dependence that defines our very creaturehood, thereby transforming the fact of our existing into an undeserved gift.” (pp 123-125)

This sounds fresh and innovative in the abstract, but let’s consider its application. Are we seriously proposing to Jewish/Christian victims of horrendous suffering that even though God’s actions can’t be explained, such victims can find refuge in speaking to God directly? That things will work out for them if they communicate with (pray to?) God instead of trying to understand him? Is that even what the author of Job originally intended?

I still say there’s really no answer to the book of Job. Yes, it deconstructs theodicy as Burrell claims, but it doesn’t offer anything in its place. Job wasn’t made whole again for having dared to speak to God, but for acknowledging his limited perspective when God finally deigned to speak to him.

2 thoughts on “Theological Mirage: A New "Answer" to the Book of Job

  1. Last summer I was able to attend some classes with Carl Schultz at Houghton College as part of a summer alumni college. Schultz has focused on Job throughout his career. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to attend ALL of the lectures, but the 3 hours I heard were quite stimulating.Anyhow, apart from the question of theodicy, the other major strand of interpretation of Job is the question of what we could call unmotivated righteousness (I think there’s another term for this but it isn’t coming to mind right now). In this interpretation the major question is whether it is possible for a man to be righteous/obedient to God without any reward for doing so. Prof Schultz’s teaching habit was not to privilege any particular point of view, but this line of thought seemed to fit much better to my mind, especially considering the statements of Satan in ch 1.This doesn’t disagree with your point about critiquing Deuteronomy, just perhaps puts a finer point on it.If you like I can dig up my notes and find some more interesting Job stuff.

  2. You might be interested in this online commentary “Putting God on Trial: The Biblical Book of Job” ( as supplementary or background material for your study of the Book of Job. It is written by a Canadian criminal defense lawyer, now a Crown prosecutor, and it explores the legal and moral dynamics of the Book of Job with particular emphasis on the distinction between causal responsibility and moral blameworthiness embedded in Job’s Oath of Innocence. It is highly praised by Job scholars (Clines, Janzen, Habel) and the Review of Biblical Literature, all of whose reviews are on the website. The author is an evangelical Christian, denominationally Anglican. He is also the Canadian Director for the Mortimer J. Adler Centre for the Study of the Great Ideas, a Chicago-based think tank.Robert Sutherland

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s