Sunday, September 2, 2007

The 35W Bridge Collapse and the Book of Job

On my August 9th blog, I argued that there’s no reason to suppose that God was involved in the collapse of the 35 W bridge. I’ve been pleasantly surprised at the amount of blog activity this has generated.

On one particular blog a person argues that my view is inconsistent with the book of Job. He writes:

[Boyd’s] view fails to make sense of texts like the biblical book of Job. In Job, it’s very clear that Satan caused all of Job’s suffering. It’s also very clear that God controls every move Satan makes—such that when Job says that “the Lord gave and the Lord has taken away” (Job 1:21), the narrator says that “in all this Job did not sin with his lips” (Job 2:10; cf. 1:22). In other words, even though Satan was at work to destroy Job’s life through a series of calamities, Job did not err when he said that the Lord was ultimately behind everything that happened to him. (

This blogger is raising two points from the book of Job against my theology:

1) God controls every move Satan makes.

2) Job’s statement that “the Lord gave and the Lord has taken away” (Job 1:21) is a view the narrator endorses.

Hence this blogger concludes that God, not Satan, was the ultimate cause of Job’s sufferings. And so, by implication, God, not Satan, was the ultimate cause of the 35 W bridge collapse.

I beg to differ. I’ll briefly make four points from the book of Job against this argument.

1) First, it's interesting that Satan was not one of the invited guests to the council meeting of the “sons of God” (1:6-7; 2:1). Indeed, Yahweh is surprised to see him! He asks Satan, “Where have you been?” and Satan answers, “going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it” (1:7; 2:2). Far from controlling “every move Satan makes,” Yahweh didn't even know where he was! Now, I grant that we’re dealing with epic poetry here, so we shouldn’t press the narrative for metaphysical details about the going-ons of the heavenly realm. But at the very least the point of the passage is to show that, unlike the sons of God (the angels), Satan is not under Yahweh’s control. Indeed, Yahweh has to protect people like Job from him (1:10).

2) It’s true that Job didn’t sin at first, even when he said “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away.” But that’s not the same as saying the author of this work is endorsing this theology. Consider the fact that at the end of this book the author depicts Yahweh commending Job for speaking “right” (koon), in contrast to Job’s friends (42:7). Yet, Yahweh strongly rebukes Job for the theology he espoused throughout this work (chs 37-41) and Job himself says “[s]urely I spoke of things I did not understand” (Job 42:3) and repents of it (42:6).

How can Yahweh say Job spoke “right” when he nevertheless corrects his theology and Job himself repents of it? The Hebrew word translated “right” (koon) has the connotation of “straight.” Yahweh commended Job for being honest, not for speaking theological truth. So too, the fact that the author says that Job didn’t sin or accuse God of wrong doing (1:22; 2:10) in the first part of the book when Job exclaimed “the Lord gave and the Lord takes away” does not mean the author is endorsing his theology.

3) If you examine what Job actually says about God throughout this book, it's very clear the author has no intention of endorsing his theology. For example, throughout the narrative Job depicts God as a cruel tyrant who controls everything. “When disaster brings sudden death,” Job exclaims:

[God] mocks at the calamity of the innocent.
The earth is given into the hand of the wicked;
He covers the eyes of its judges –
If it is not he, who then is it?
(Job 9:23-24, cf. 21:17-26, 30-32; 24:1-12)

According to Job, God mockingly laughs at the misfortunes of the innocent and causes judges to judge unjustly! Can anyone imagine a biblical author endorsing this perspective? Of course not.

So too, consider verses like this:

What is the Almighty, that we should serve him?
And what profit do we get if we pray to him?
(Job 21:15)

From the city the dying groan,
And the throat of the wounded cries for help;
Yet God pays no attention to their prayer.
(Job 24:12)

When victims of injustice cry for help, Job says God pays no attention to their prayers. Are we to believe that this is the view the author is recommending?

Yet Job’s depiction of God is even harsher when he considers the injustice of his own state. For example, Job cries out to the Lord:

Your hands fashioned and made me;
And now you turn and destroy me (Job 10:8).

Bold as a lion you hunt me;
And repeat your exploits against me…
Let me alone;
that I might find a little comfort (Job 10:9, 20)

You have turned cruel to me;
And with the might of your hand you
persecute me (Job 30:21).

And to his friends Job testifies:

…God has worn me out;
he has made desolate all my company.
And he has shriveled me up…
He has torn me in his wrath, and hated me;
He has gnashed his teeth at me;
my adversary sharpens his eyes
against me (Job 16:7-9, cf. 11-17).

With violence he seizes my garment;
He grasps me by the collar of my tunic… (Job 30:18)

Are we to believe that these are theological insights the author of this work is recommending to his readers? Are we to view God as our “adversary” instead of our “advocate” (cf. Jn 14:16, 26; 15:26; 16:7; I Jn 2:1)? Are we to believe that our comfort is to be found when God leaves us alone (Job 10:20) rather than when he is with us? Doesn’t the God Job describes in these passages sound much more like “a roaring lion… looking for someone to devour” – in other words, “your adversary the devil” (I Pet 5:8)? Of course it does, which is why Job later confesses “I have spoken of things I did not understand” (Job 42:3) and proclaims, “I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:6).

When the despairing Job complained, “Your hands fashioned and made me; And now you turn and destroy me” (10:8), he was simply expressing, though in somewhat less pious terms, the same view of God when he earlier said, “the Lord gave and the Lord has taken away.” Though his willingness to submit changed to rage as his despair deepened, his view of God remained the same thoughout this book. In essence, Job consistently expressed (in increasingly impious language) a mistaken, omni-controlling, Calvinistic view of God. And this is the theology God rebukes Job for and that Job repents of! It’s not the view the book is recommending.

4) As a final piece of evidence that the book of Job isn’t recommending Job’s omni-controlling theology, consider what God says to Job when he finally shows up at the end of this book. In the concluding speeches, God no more acknowledges Job’s omni-controlling theology than he does the omni-controlling theology of Job’s friends. Yahweh doesn’t say, “I’m God and I have the right to bring misery on whoever I want.” Rather, he refutes this theology and puts both Job and his friends in their place by alluding to two facts: humans are ignorant about the vastness and complexity of the cosmos (chs. 37-38) and humans are ignorant about the enormity of the powers of chaos (Leviathan and Behemoth) that God must contend with (chs. 39-41). Yahweh chides Job by basically saying, “Do you have a clue as to how vast and complex this creation is?” and “Do you think you can do a better job fighting the forces of evil I contend with?” (On this, see chapter 4 in my book Is God to Blame?)

If God was controlling everything, then there obviously would be no point for God to bring up the unfathomable complexity of creation or his warfare against powers of chaos. If God is controlling everything, such matters are utterly irrelevant. In fact, if God was controlling everything, there’d be no point for God to show up at the end of the book and correct Job and his friends – for this is basically the theology they both espouse.

God’s appeal to the complexity and war-torn nature of the cosmos is significant precisely because it shows that God is not an omni-controlling deity, and that because we humans have next to no understanding of this complexity or the spiritual battles that engulf it, we should not be quick to attribute catastrophes to God.

In fact, we should follow Jesus example and not attribute catastrophes to God at all (Lk 13:1-5).

A lot more could be said, and needs to be said (see my aforementioned book if you’re interested), but this blog is already way too long. Hopeful what I’ve said has been adequate to refute the view that the book of Job depicts God as controlling “every move Satan makes” and the view that Job’s statement that “the Lord gave and the Lord has taken away” (Job 1:21) is a view the author of this book endorses.

And, hopefully, this has further helped readers accept a theology that doesn’t credit the collapse of the 35W bridge and the death and suffering it brought about on the Almighty.

God is not our adversary. Satan is.