by David Faulkner
Almost the last word in Mark Twain’s novel Huckleberry Finn is Huck’s comment, “…there ain’t nothing more to write about, and I am rotten glad about it, because if I’d a known what a trouble it was to make a book, I wouldn’t a tackled it, and ain’t agoing to do it no more.” Now that my first book, The Gospel According to Job: Good News from the Old Testament has gone to the typesetters, I almost, but not quite, have to agree.
When the book finally sees the full light of day, probably in October, it will mean the end of a more than four-year long process. The book had its genesis when my brother took a job working for a pastor named Henry W. Wright. In his book Be In Health, which has been a religious bestseller for several years, Wright teaches that Job suffered because he was a terrible sinner. In other words he adopts the position of Job’s three friends, who use their speeches to build a case against Job. I wrote my book because my brother challenged me to “take a new look at Job.” I did, and found that my original belief, that Henry Wright was profoundly wrong, was correct. When it comes to Job, Wright is wrong.
The sins of which Job’s friends accuse him are what we would call sins against society. They charge him with neglecting the poor, taking advantage of widows and orphans, being hostile to strangers and the like. The sins Wright accuses Job of are sins against piety. They include fear, presumption and pride. The last proved to be the most easily dealt with. Wright equates “Behemoth” and “Leviathan” in chapters 40 and 41 with pride, and says God is comparing Job with these two mythical beasts. The suggestion is ludicrous. God is simply talking about two great beasts whom He alone is able to control. But more about these two later.
Wright finds presumption in Job’s actions described in Job 1:5, where he offers sacrifices for the sins his children may have committed. Job acts as his family’s priest. The essence of the Old Testament priesthood was the presentation of sacrifices for the sins of others, including sins of which the person was unaware or that were unintentional. Even if Israel lived in Palestine during Job’s time, Job himself was not a Jew. The nearest priest of God lived weeks away, several hundred miles across the desert. So it was appropriate for Job to be his family’s priest.
Job himself admits to fear (3:25). But you will search the Scriptures in vain to find a place where fear is called a sin. It is often argued that II Timothy 1:7, “For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but a spirit of power, love and self discipline,” teaches that fear is sinful. Some even assert that there is a particular kind of demon called a “spirit of fear.” But Paul is not talking here about spirits of any kind, holy or evil. That is why the words “spirit” and “fear, power, love and self discipline,” are not capitalized. He is not speaking about non-corporeal beings, but about the attitude we bring to proclaiming the Gospel. We are to share the good news boldly, not timidly. The idea that fear is a sin, I learned, comes from the nineteenth century teachers of what was called the “mind cure,” a “New Thought” doctrine that has more in common with the teachings of the cultic “Church of Christ’s Scientists” than it does with biblical Christianity.
The real key to understanding Job’s dilemma is found in Job 1:8, where God says to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one on earth like him. He is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil.” Anyone who knew Job very well knew he was a man who feared God and avoided evil. But the first two words God uses, “blameless” and “upright” represent God’s judgment on Job, for only God can declare a person blameless and upright. The words indicate that, though Job is not perfect, he is a justified man, and thus is not suffering for any sin. God reinforces this in 2:3, when he says to Satan, “Though you incited me against him, to ruin him without cause..” Job had done nothing to deserve his losses and pain.
I’m glad I got the book finished before I read Rabbi Harold Kushner’s The Book of Job: When Bad Things Happen to a Good Man. If I had read that book sooner my book about Job would have been over 400 pages long, instead of the almost 350 it will be when it’s finally published. Kushner misreads Job as bad as Wright does. He uses Job to justify his belief that God is good, but not all-powerful and so cannot prevent Job’s suffering. He claims “Behemoth” and “Leviathan” represent the forces of nature God cannot or does not control. Wright uses Job to justify his belief that suffering is always the result of sin and so the road to healing requires us to become more righteous before God. Wright, in other words, is profoundly legalistic. It can safely be said that neither Kushner nor Wright understand grace.
There is certainly a lesson for all of us here. It is to be very careful how we handle Scripture. We must not bring our own preconceptions to it but let God use it to say what He wants to say. This means careful study. It also means we examine such things as language and context carefully. Perhaps the first principle of sound biblical interpretation is that, “A text without a context is a pretext.” It is possible to assemble verses and pieces of verses together in such a way that the Bible can be made to say whatever we want it to say. Henry Wright is a master of that kind of :”interpretation.”
Our task as Christians is the same given to Timothy: “Do your best to present yourself to God as one who…correctly handles the word of truth” (II Timothy 2:15). God has something he wants to say to us all in every text of Scripture. Our job is to let God speak, to find out what He means in every text, not to simply read through it, then pontificate about what the text means to us. If we do that, nobody will have to write books correcting our errors. Oh and one more thing; maybe Huck Finn was smarter than I am. I’ve already started my next book.