Friday, April 27, 2012

Job Transfigured

"I had heard of thee by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees thee" (Job 42: 5).

Some of my readers may not know that I am a armchair bible scholar.  I've read much of the bible in its original languages.  I audit graduate courses in bible and theology for the fun of it.  What a nerd!

One of my nerdy ways is that I enjoy reading translations of the bible that footnote critical problems with the text.  My Hebrew teacher told our class once--and I have found it to be quite true in my own experience--that if the underlying Greek or Hebrew is clear, then the translations will usually be clear; however, if the English translation makes no sense, it is probably because the original makes no sense.  A good critical translation, like the Revised Standard Version* (The New Oxford Annotated Bible), will let you know when the original text is "uncertain" and what the options are and where they come from.

When I read Job again this Lent, I read it in the RSV.  The notes were useful in a nerdy sort of way--just the way I like it.  I don't look for insight in the notes.  I'm just looking for the facts about the underlying text.  

I was pleasantly surprised, however, when I was reading the comment on Job 42: 5.  The commentator points out that God's appearance to Job in the whirlwind neither justifies Job nor answers any of Job's questions: "God has not justified Job, but [H]e has come to him personally.... and intimacy with the Creator makes vindication superfluous."  

Yes! Right and wrong, good and bad, correct and incorrect--all of these categories we fight and attack and strive to be on the right side of--all of these become superfluous in the personal presence of the Creator.

Lest anyone think I am a libertine, I must hasten to say with the Apostle Paul that the commandments of God are "holy, just and good" (Rom. 7:12).  I am not saying that morality is irrelevant.  Nevertheless, I do say that the commandments exist not so that we can be righteous in keeping them, but that in keeping them we may learn that we are not righteous and thus be led to depend on the righteousness of Christ.  And in depending on Christ, we come to know Him.  And in knowing Him, being right no longer matters.

When God comes to Job at the end of his trial, it is not to clear things up.  "The philosophical problem is not solved" the commentator says in the notes, "but it is transfigured by the theological reality of the divine-human rapport."  God comes to establish rapport--literally, to bring Job back to Himself thus bringing Job to himself.  

On one point, however, I want to disagree with this commentator.  Perhaps it is not so much the philosophical problem that is transfigured, as it is Job himself who is transfigured.  Philosophical problems are generally just that: problems, quandaries, puzzles with missing pieces and thus with no lasting solution.  Although philosophical problems, in my opinion, cannot be transfigured, they do often play a role in leading us to cry out to the One who transfigures us.  And this, I think, is what happens to Job.  Job cannot understand why his experience does not reflect his understanding of God and how God works.  

Job's suffering, and I would argue most deep suffering, has little to do with physical pain and the loss of loved ones, wealth and social status.  Job's suffering has mostly to do with the loss of his theology:  Job's experience was proving to him that God was not who Job thought He was and God's ways were not what he thought they were.  This personal theodicy, personal philosophical problem, personal failure of theology is what fuels Job's crying out to God.  Sure, Job's cry is full of anger and presumption and even a certain amount of defiance.  We can only bring to God what we are; and we are often angry, presumptuous, and defiant creatures.

But just as a mother hears the cry of her baby and is drawn to her, so God hears Job's cry and our cry and comes.  God comes in ways we do not expect: sometimes in a whirlwind; sometimes as a still, small voice; sometimes through a friend (joy, healing and prosperity); sometimes through an enemy (sickness, death and loss).  God comes and we are transfigured.  God comes, not to confirm our theology.  God comes to create rapport, to bring us back to Him and back to ourselves.

*While I recommend the Revised Standard Version (1971) I do not recommend the New Revised Standard Version.  The NRSV has tried to use gender inclusive language creating a monstrosity.  I am all for inclusiveness in the interpretation of the bible.  I even encourage some careful use of inclusive language in liturgical texts--including the bible when it is used liturgically.  However, a translation of the bible as the bible, in my opinion, should be as accurate as possible without whitewashing offensive words, actions, biases or practices.  The bible certainly needs to be interpreted, interpreted by the Church and its Tradition.  However it is a dangerous thing to start intentionally correcting the biblical text to suit the political or theological taste of a particular culture or generation.  Certainly all translations have a bias, but intentional correction is to me onerous because it assumes a kind of arrogance in the face of much profound mystery.

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