Conflicting Moral Imaginations: Job, His Friends, and Suffering, Part 3

Job responds out of a moral imagination shaped by the bitter and difficult experience of crushing suffering. The sheer terror of these events shakes Job’s moral imagination to its core. We might even ask whether Job’s moral imagination was the reason he was chosen or if it was shaped by the sheer force of his suffering. In other words, which came first, the suffering or the moral imagination that enabled and shaped his response?

Instead of being able to easily embrace the friends version of what is happening, Job begins in Chapter 3 with a profound lament, cursing the day of his birth (3:1), longing for non-existence (3:13-15), praying for the grave (3:21-22), and utterly lamenting the omnipresent nature of his groans and sighs (3:24). He responds first to Eliphaz as he reminds him of the realities of his suffering: worm-eaten flesh (7:5), swift days that end without hope (7:6), and even utter hopelessness in the face of his suffering (7:21). He then replies to Bildad desperation over being unable to even communicate or perhaps even contend with God (9:3-5). He despairs the invisibility of God’s movements (9:11), and he is filled with bitter loss when he looks at himself in comparison to this inaccessible and overpowering God (9:15-21).

However, in Chapter 10, Job begins to shift from lament over God’s inaccessibility to give free utterance to his complaint (10:1). Somehow, he begins to form a complaint and argument against the unfair treatment he has experienced. He asks God if he oppresses (10:3), he asks if God can see (10:4), and he begs God to leave him alone and allow him to depart to the land of gloom and deep darkness (10:18-22).

Finally, in response to Zophar’s accusation, Job comes back with sarcasm, in effect saying, “You guys are so brilliant. When you die, wisdom will die with you (12:2).” Job then restates his innocence (12:4) and describes God’s power once again (12:13-25). Finally, we see him resorting to the only recourse he can imagine. As Carol Newsom so helpfully points out, Job can only imagine justice and accountability through a divine court of law. Job’s only recourse that doesn’t effectively diminish the suffering he faces is by telling his broken testimony in front of witnesses.

The friends, unlike Job, simply can’t imagine a suffering that is not for the good of the righteous sufferer. They seem to have no difficulty imagining suffering that wears down the unrighteous and grinds the unjust into dust, but they are struggling with the picture of the righteous sufferer. One can easily see that this is a common theme in exilic literature. If we did something wrong, then exile is punishment for that wrong. However, if we have been righteous and we’re still in exile, then what is the response.

I think there is a definite tension between the moral imaginations of the friends and Job that can be extrapolated to the national level of exilic suffering. I would suggest that the friends are saying the suffering necessarily suggests there has been a serious breach of relationship with God, whereas Job seems to hold fast to the idea that he is suffering unjustly. In the face of utter injustice, the only response his imagination will allow is the recitation of his suffering in such a way that God hears as if through a court of appeals. Somehow, the only response he can imagine is the spoken testimony of what is taking place.

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