Conflicting Moral Imaginations: Job, His Friends, and Suffering, Part 2

Job’s friends, in Newsom’s argument, aren’t simply the “bad guys” who come in from the outside to blast Job with accusations of wickedness. They are, like us, holistically formed by the stories and narratives of the culture in which they reside. Newsom shows how they seek to resist turmoil by imposing very particular narrative structures on reality as they experience it: 1.) These friends introduce narrative structures that seek to find teleological resolution in the turmoil that Job is facing. In fact, they hope the “good” that comes from Job’s suffering can somehow transcend the utter suffering he experiences in the beginning. 2.) They urge Job to seek God through particular religious practices and traditions, in the hopes that Job can resist and be transformed by the turmoil that he is facing. 3.) Finally, they offer poetic “iconic narratives” that will give a narrative structure to the moral order of the world in such a way that turmoil and suffering are weakened.[1]

Job’s friends use the skills of persuasive speech, embracing and offering powerful metaphors to help Job “wade through” his suffering. In chapter 5, Eliphaz seems to assures Job that in spite of his suffering, he will see redemption from death (5:20), rescue from war (5:20), hidden from the scourge of the tongue (5:21), and eventual restoration including safety, many descendents, and old age (5:23-27).

In chapter 8, Bildad too offers a hopeful future, including hope for a great end (8:7), the acceptance of God (8:20), and triumph over enemies (8:22).

Zophar then responds with chiding. He suggests that Job deserves even more suffering than he recieves (11:6). He is confident that God knows iniquity when he sees it, and that our stupidity regarding our iniquity is no excuse for avoiding suffering (11:11-12). Altogether, Zophar’s moral imagination comes across as the culmination of the common wisdom of the friends.

Again and again the friends are unable to embrace the possibility of meaningless suffering. They are convinced of a causal relationship between sin and suffering, and they believe that suffering is purposeful. If, as David Clines suggests, Job is a book written by the privileged for the privileged, then the friends are the epitome of those who seek to legitimize suffering for others.[2]

Presumably, this moral imagination also serves as a defense mechanism with the friends thinking, “If we can diagnose Job’s problem, we can then avoid it in our own lives!” At this point, I want to propose a dual-level theodicy. Those in positions of power should not be able to force meaning on those who are suffering. Yet, those in power should also give a privileged place to the theodicy of those who are suffering, because meaning might just be the only thing they have left.

In this dual-level theodicy, the suffering are privileged to either make meaning or not, but it lies in their hands empowering them in the midst of their despair. The privileged are thus given a burden to alleviate suffering, not to ignore it by imposing meaning from the top-down.

It seems that if we follow the friend’s example with the sufferers of our world, we are tempted to act as people complicit with the suffering. In effect, we are tempted to say, “It’s a mystery why you’re suffering, but it’s for your own good. Trust God and stay strong, but keep suffering.”[3]

[1] Newsom, Carol A., “Job and His Friends: A Conflict of Moral Imaginations,” Interpretation. (1999), p. 240

[2]David Clines, “Why is There a Book of Job and What does it do to you if you Read it?” in W. A. M. Beuken, ed., The Book of Job; BETL114 (Leuven: LUP, 1994)

[3] This follows the thinking of Walter Brueggemann, “Theodicy in a Social Dimension,” JSOT 33 (1985): 3-25

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