Conflicting Moral Imaginations: Job, His Friends, and Suffering, Part 1

In the next few posts, I’m going to post a paper I wrote as the final for my Job Exegesis paper at Drew University this summer.  It will be broken into a series of posts over the next few days.  Hope you enjoy a subject that really challenged and stretched my own imagination and understanding.  I’d love to hear your thoughts.

We live in a world that experiences suffering on a global scale. Simply watching the news, reading the newspaper, and viewing online news content awakens one to the fact that there are terrible things happening around the world. Dictators seize power, ethnic and religious groups pose great threats of violence to one another, and unexpected tragedies fill our minds. It’s enough to wonder what to make of the world in which we live. The book of Job is an epic work for such a time as this.

Job’s story, his interaction with the divine council, his friends’ response, and even God’s final reply provide an incredibly vivid backdrop for exploring some of the most difficult questions we face.

One of the ways the book of Job interacts with the tough questions of life is by exploring a variety of traditions and cultural discourses. Carol Newsom does a terrific job describing the way that the difficult dialogue between Job and his friends is more than simple difference of opinion. Newsom describes it as a conflict between two spectacularly different moral imaginations. On one hand we have a presentation of the moral imagination of the friends,

“The imagination of the friends is anchored in integrative narrative patterns and practices of piety that allow one to experience not only a grounding sense of order and security but also the hope of transformation. A person who has suffered calamity even as great as Job’s can, without compromise to integrity, embrace the perspective of the friends for the work of rehabilitating a life.”

Then on the other hand, we find the moral imagination of Job

“At the heart of Job’s imagination lies the enigma of bodies broken for no reason. By insisting on speaking of and for such bodies, Job is drawn to the language of justice and accountability as it can be imagined in a court of law. From this perspective, the only narrative that does not falsely rehabilitate that brokenness is the narrative of testimony.”

These two approaches are diverse, and in Newsom’s words, incommensurable.[1] We not only have two different approaches to suffering, but two completely different ways of experiencing the world and thinking imaginatively about the moral consequences of suffering. The friends see the possibility in suffering of rehabilitating a life, while Job wrestles with the utter despair of bodies broken for no reason.

[1] Newsom, Carol A., “Job and His Friends: A Conflict of Moral Imaginations,” Interpretation. (1999) 239-253

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