Yahweh’s (Inexplicable?) Response to Job

One of the most marvelous passages of Scripture in the Tanak is found at the end of the book of Job where Yahweh (surprisingly) responds to Job from the whirlwind (Job 38:1-42:6).  I’ve tended to understand Yahweh’s reply to Job as a series of unanswerable questions that put Job and his so-called friends in their place, so to speak. If Job doesn’t understand the workings of the world in which he finds himself, then how does he expect to understand the workings of God’s moral universe?  The questions are to humble Job and underscore human finititude. The questions should elicit epistemic humility in Job (and the reader). In my mind, they highlight that the theme of the book of Job is less about “suffering” or “theodicy” than it is about “Who is truly wise?”  That is, who understands the question of suffering?

The other day my theology colleague brought to my attention a short section on “Job and Inexplicability” in an essay by philosopher Slavoj Žižek. The essay is from the recently published volume edited by John Milbank, Paul’s New Moment: Continental Philosophy and the Future of Christian Theology (Brazos, 2010; Buy from Amazon.ca | Amazon.com). In this section, Žižek understands God’s response to Job also highlights that God doesn’t even understand his own creation. He notes:

The rationalist points out that the fine thing about the world is that it can all be explained. But this is the point that God’s reply explicitly opposes — if I may put it so — to the point of violence. God says, in effect, that if there is one fine thing about the world, as far as people are concerned, it is that it cannot be explained. He insists on the inexplicableness of everything.


Again, to startle humans, God becomes, for an instant, a blasphemer. One might almost say that God becomes, for an instant, an atheist. He unrolls before Job a long panorama of created things… The Maker of all things is astonished at the things he has himself made. Again, here the point is not that God knows the deeper meaning, but it is as if God himself is overwhelmed at the excess of his creation (pp. 177-78).

While Žižek’s notion is provocative, I’m not sure that it is borne out by the text itself.  I agree with the first paragraph above;  the world we find ourselves in is ultimately inexplicable from our vantage point. I am not so sure I agree with the second paragraph, that God himself also doesn’t “know the deeper meaning.” The force of the rhetorical questions is that while Job (and all humans) may not know, Yahweh does. While I believe this is implied throughout the entire passage, it is explicit in a number of places:

“Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundations? Speak if you have understanding” (Job 38:4)

“Have you penetrated the vaults of snow, Seen the vaults of hail, Which I have put aside for a time of adversity, For a day of war and battle?” (Job 38:22-23)

“Who sets the wild ass free? Who loosens the bonds of the onager, Whose home I have made the wilderness, The salt land his dwelling-place? He scoffs at the tumult of the city, Does not hear the shouts of the driver. He roams the hills for his pasture; He searches for any green thing” (Job 39:5-8).

That God knows and understands is even more clear in his second response to Job, IMHO. So while Žižek’s comments are intriguing, they are only partially correct. What do you think?

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8 Responses to Yahweh’s (Inexplicable?) Response to Job

  1. I’m on board with YHWH’s response as one that is meant to humble Job. But I’m unconvinced that is where we stop. Too often, I think, interpreters of Job accept this point that human knowledge of God is limited and leave it at that. The text is saying much more in my view. These thoughts are fresh in my mind, having just taught Job yesterday to my students.

    I characterize God’s response to Job out of the whirlwind as essentially a non-answer to anything Job has asked about. It is, in a way, an egocentric word. God affirms a God-centered universe (contra Gen 1:26-28!!!). God shows up and responds to Job’s appeals by saying the equivalent–for two chapters–of “I’m God, you’re not . . . buck up and deal with it.”

    The most important part of the book, I think, is also often ignored by most interpreters, to the detriment of a proper understanding of the book. In chapter 42, on the heels of the response out of the whirlwind, God affirms that the ONLY person who has spoken rightly in the entire book is . . . Job! Not the friends, not the satan, not God. As I put it to my students, if God is ‘on trial’ in Job, it seems to be a pretty bad defense–surely one doomed to failure–to say that the person accusing you is the only one who has spoken truthfully about the matter!

    And so my sense of the book of Job is that it presses us to realize that yes, humans cannot understand God, but what is it about God that we cannot understand? His awesome power, sure. But Job also says that we cannot understand the how or why of many of God’s actions. Or, put another, and better, way, God is not bound by any definitions of reliability that can be counted on at all times; in some instances, relationship with God becomes, inexplicably or not, unsettling.

  2. Interesting… I never thought to apply God’s comment at the end of the book to his own response from the whirlwind. The actual wording of the verse would make such an interpretation difficult, IMHO.

    “After Yahweh had spoken these words to Job, Yahweh said to Eliphaz the Temanite: “My wrath is kindled against you [sg] and against your [sg] two friends; for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.” Job 42:7

    The context is Yahweh speaking to Eliphaz and saying what he and his friends have spoken is not correct. I’m not sure how it would also apply to what Yahweh said. Or, for that matter, even to what Elihu said (although I think that Elihu’s comments are judged by the fact they are ignored).

  3. Fair enough, though let me clarify. I am not saying so much that God’s comment in Job 42 is meant to apply also to God’s words in 38-40; but if in 42 God is affirming Job’s words throughout and not the friends, then that at least states implicitly that Job has been right in calling God to account, in calling God out on how God has acted. God in effect is saying yes, Job, your suffering is without warrant. That is the charge leveled against God by Job . . . and a charge, it seems to me, that God indicts himself on. Similarly, while God has provided his answer to Job, that does not seem to mean from the divine perspective that Job has spoken wrongly, as 42 makes clear.

  4. FWIW, the bulk of those quotes seems to come not from Žižek but from G.K. Chesterton’s ‘Introduction to the Book of Job’, which you can read here: .

    I read Chesterton’s essay several times while taking a course on Job almost 20 years ago, and his rather distinctive turns of phrase leapt out at me as I read the above quotes, so I checked the relevant pages of Žižek’s book at Amazon.com just now to see if he actually claims these words as his own, and the answer is sort of yes and no: he does acknowledge that he is summarizing Chesterton’s treatment of Job, but his summary includes substantial copy-and-pastes from Chesterton’s essay, even outside the quote marks.

  5. Sorry, the link to Chesterton’s essay seems to have vanished. I’ll try one more time: You can read G.K. Chesterton’s ‘Introduction to the Book of Job here.

  6. Hey Peter, you’re right. I probably should have mentioned that Žižek was interacting with Chesterton in this section, although there were no quote marks around what I reproduced. My copy of Chesterton was at my office so I couldn’t check to see even if Žižek was taking him out of context.

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  8. Ken Brown says:

    I’m late to the conversation (just saw your post in the Carnival), but I think there may be something to John’s suggestion. Job’s accusations run directly counter to YHWH’s, and in fact he essentially predicts chs. 38-41 in 9:16-24. To admit that Job was right at least approaches admitting that God was not. It certainly ends the book on an ambiguous note.

    At the same time, I think there is much more going on in the divine speeches than merely telling Job that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. To be sure, the emphasis on humanity not being the center can be seen as a reaction to Job’s egocentrism (cf. especially ch. 3), but God’s control over Behemoth and Leviathan would seem to imply, if nothing else, both the power of evil and God’s mastery of it.

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