Sunday, 13 December 2015

The Bible and Me Part V - Job

[I've struggled for a long time with my relationship with the Bible. It has been a rich source of insight and spiritual nourishment to me, but also at times, a source of deep doubt and confusion. My intention in this series is to share a little of how that relationship has developed over time. If you're a Christian and you're trying to work out your own approach to the Bible then it won't give you all the answers, but it may give you some questions and insights that could help you along the way. If you're not a believer, but you're interested in the Christian faith - or in Christians in particular - then it may give you a little insight into how some of us tick!]

[The Bible and Me Part I - Beginning to Question]
[The Bible and Me Part II - Creation]
[The Bible and Me Part III - Inerrancy]
[The Bible and Me Part IV - Scripture vs Tradition]

After concluding that the creation stories at the beginning of the Bible probably weren't meant to be taken entirely literally (see Part I and Part II of this series), the next bit of the Bible I started to wonder about (although not until some time later) was the book of Job (pronounced Joeb).

Job is the story of a man who has everything, but then loses it all - his possessions, his family and his health - almost overnight. He ends up sitting on an ash heap, covered in sores and scraping himself with bits of broken pottery. Job is portrayed as a good man: he is kind and generous and has always looked out for those who are less fortunate than himself. The book mostly consists of the dialog between Job and his friends as they try to make sense of what has happened to him - or more specifically, as his "friends" try to blame him for it and work out what he's done wrong to deserve it, while Job defends himself, protests his innocence and blames God for his condition. It's a wonderful book, which tries to address the perplexing question of why - if God is just - bad things still seem to happen, often arbitrarily, to good people.

From a historical point of view though, there were 2 things in particular that puzzled me about this book:

First of all, the first part of the story contains a couple of discussions which take place in heaven between God and Satan. I'd often wondered how these discussions had come to be recorded! Obviously there were no people in heaven to hear what had taken place, so the only alternative - if it was historically true - was that God must have directly revealed this conversation to somebody afterwards.

The second thing that puzzled me about this book was ... most of the rest of the book! Specifically - as I mentioned just now - the book consists almost entirely of the dialog between Job and his friends. It is poetic, philosophical, rich, deep, ... and very long! Somebody had to have had a very good memory to have written it all down perfectly afterwards! Not impossible of course - within reason anyway - but it did make me wonder...

Once I became curious enough about this to do a bit more research, I discovered something else about the book that I hadn't noticed before - notably that it contains no indication of when these events are meant to have taken place. It simply starts with "In the land of Uz there lived a man whose name was Job". Now, Uz was a real place, so you could argue that it has some historical context, but apart from that it is starting to sound rather a lot like, "Once upon a time"! When you also consider the structure and content of the rest of the book - which as I've said is nearly all poetic dialog between Job and his friends - it actually starts to look (to my mind anyway) a lot more like the script for a play, then like a proper historical account.

Other than my own uneducated observations, I have no particular reason to believe that Job is meant to be a play - if people even wrote scripts for plays back then - but no particular reason to believe that its contents are entirely historical either, and the evidence I've just discussed seems to suggest the contrary (and a great many Biblical scholars seem to agree). Job belongs firmly within the "wisdom" tradition of the Old Testament, along with Psalms, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes. It has obviously been very carefully constructed and has been written primarily for philosophical, rather than historical purposes. Whether or not Job was a real person, and to what extent the story reflects the actual events of his life, we will probably never know, but this is very much secondary to the main purpose of this book, which is to wrestle with the deep questions of life and meaning in what sometimes appears to be a very chaotic and uncaring world.

[The Bible and Me Part VI - The Difficult Bits]
[The Bible and Me Part VII - The Supernatural]
[The Bible and Me Part VIII - Noah and the Flood]

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