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John Walton | Coronavirus and the Book of Job

John Walton leads us through the book of Job with an eye toward our current situation. He walks through three elements of the story of Job that might help us today: rest, peace, and coherence.

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John Walton leads us through the book of Job with an eye toward our current situation. He walks through three elements of the story of Job that might help us today: rest, peace, and coherence.

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Description

A podcast that shows the harmony between Christian faith and current scientific discoveries by sharing the stories of interesting people who have found a better way of understanding science and Christian faith.
  • Originally aired on April 30, 2020
  • With 
    Jim Stump

Many of us find rest and comfort in having good health, secure jobs, and a vibrant community. Of course we do. But what happens when that is taken away, like it was for Job? Some of us, while stuck in our homes during the coronavirus pandemic, may have started to ask some questions about the way the world works and how God could let this kind of a thing happen. Well, we’re not the first to ask those questions and the book of Job is about someone doing just that.

John Walton is an Old Testament scholar and he leads us through the book of Job with an eye toward our current situation. Walton walks through three elements of the story of Job that might help us today: rest (our ability to rise above tumultuous circumstances), peace (freedom from our feelings of fear), and coherence (finding order among confusion). The episode was recorded digitally with a live audience and so we were also able to take questions from the audience, which you’ll hear throughout.

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Transcript

Walton:

The book of Job doesn’t try to explain why you should believe that God is just or how you explain God’s justice or his fairness. The book of Job is saying you’re supposed to trust God’s wisdom, even when you can’t figure out any of it. You have no idea what’s going on. And that idea of trust, and trust being based on love, and know that you’re loved. I think that’s an important part of the book of Job. 

My name is John Walton. I’m a professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College. 

Stump:

Welcome to Language of God. I’m your host Jim Stump. This is the second time John Walton has been the guest on the podcast. The first was back in episode 17, where we talked about biblical interpretation, and science, and the Bible generally. During these days of coronavirus, we thought it might be relevant to talk to him again, this time more specifically about the book of Job. And since we were recording remotely over the internet, we thought it might be interesting to stream our conversation live, and so be able to include listener questions in the interview. So you’ll hear some of those tossed in.

By way of introduction, for those who don’t know, John Walton is a professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College and the author of lots of books, including the Lost World franchise, which doesn’t have anything to do with Jurassic Park. But, rather, is about the ancient Near Eastern cognitive environment in which the Old Testament was written. The first of those books, The Lost World of Genesis One, has become something of a contemporary classic and has helped lots of people reframe their understanding of what is going on in that creation account. Among his other books, he’s also the editor of the NIV Cultural Background Study Bible, the author of a commentary on the book of Job, and a shorter book co-authored with Tremper Longman, How to Read Job, which helped to frame our conversation for this episode.

One of the central ideas the book of Job counteracts is what Walton calls the retribution principle: that righteous people are blessed and wicked people are cursed. That just doesn’t seem to fit Job’s experience, and it doesn’t fit ours today. And we may not ultimately understand why God made the world the way he did and why he allows certain tragedies to befall us who follow him and trust that he works all things together for good. But we can come to know God better, and so, perhaps, find rest and peace even in difficult circumstances.

Let’s get to the conversation.

Interview Part One

Stump:

John, we can’t really start a conversation these days without acknowledging the reality all around us. How are you and Kim faring during the pandemic?

Walton:

Well, we’re doing well. We certainly are in better shape than lots of folks around who, you know, we pray for and are very concerned about. But we’re doing well spending a lot of time together in the house doing jigsaw puzzles, listening to podcasts.

Stump:

And you have kids in various places around the country and even the world, right? Are they ok?

Walton:

We do, and as far flung as Scotland, and everyone seems to be doing okay.

Stump:

And for your work, you’ve shifted to online classes. The semester must be about drawing to a close, right?

Walton:

It is. This is our last week of classes, so I’ve been navigating my way through the online environment. I miss the classroom energy.

Stump:

I’m sure. Has there been anything unexpected, though? Any surprises that have come out of this online teaching that have been silver linings in this cloud?

Walton:

I’m not sure I’ve found them yet. I’m sure there are some.

[Stump laughs]

Stump:

Okay. Well, it seemed appropriate to talk about the book of Job during all of this. To some people, it feels like they’re in the middle of the book right now—perhaps having lost loved ones to the virus, sitting on an ash heap, listening to the fake wisdom of our Facebook friends, crying out to God, and not getting any answers. Whether or not that describes our own situations precisely, it’s hard to imagine that any of us have been unaffected by the pandemic. And particularly by questions about God’s superintendence of the world, God’s justice, God’s wisdom. Let’s see what we might glean from this ancient book of wisdom for our times today. So if you would start, John, the book of Job is usually identified as part of the wisdom literature of the Old Testament or the Hebrew Bible. What should we know about wisdom literature in general, the kinds of things we can expect and not expect from these books? Are they just how-to manuals for proper living or what should we make of these?

Walton:

That’s a great question. Wisdom literature is designed to help us find the pathway to wisdom, which is obvious enough. But that means that it’s going to use all kinds of different literary approaches to get us there. And of course, the book of Job uses story—the story of this man and his family and his experiences. And so it uses story to illustrate some important wisdom teachings. Wisdom is trying to show us the pathway to find order. And the book of Job is certainly a great example of that.

Stump:

It’s unique, isn’t it, among these other books of wisdom in telling a story like this where we have a plot, and even a scene where there’s a heavenly Council and a Satan character, and God making a wager or something? What are we to make of these as plot devices?

Walton:

Well, they are exactly that: they’re plot devices. I’m inclined to see the book of Job as presenting us with sort of a thought experiment. Let’s imagine this kind of scenario. And it kind of pulls everything to the extremes. As it paints this portrait of the most righteous man you can imagine suffering the most significant amount that you can imagine. And by pulling everything to the extremes, helps us to really think about the issues in the book.

Stump:

So if you could boil it down to a takeaway message that the book of Job is trying to give us, what would that be? What is this message of Job? And we’ll dig into some of the particulars then, but, first, give us the overview.

Walton:

Well, the book is trying to get us to think about what we should imagine about God when the world goes crazy. Our thoughts naturally turn to God when the world is going crazy, when everything feels like it’s wrecked, and off the tracks, and off the rails—every little idiom and metaphor you want to use. And this is trying to help us think about God. And the whole message of the book is based on the question: Does Job serve God for nothing? Because that’s a question we all have to ask. Do we serve God for nothing? And the way the book explores that, it says, “Okay, take everything away, and then we’ll find out whether he serves God for nothing.” And so in that sense, suffering and crises are the real test of what is it that our faith is all about? And what makes it stand up?

Stump:

So sometimes I think Job is set up as a kind of counterpoint to Proverbs, where it seems that there’s a more consistent message that if you do the right thing, then life will go well for you. Is that a fair characterization, or even a fair comparison, to make between these two books and the messages that we get?

Walton:

Yeah, I think it is, Jim. The issue that we talk about there is called the retribution principle. And the retribution principle is that the righteous will prosper and the wicked will suffer. And the book of Proverbs promotes that kind of thinking on a proverbial level. That is, when you think about an ideal world, in generalizations, this is how you might think. But Job does, you’re right, come at it from a different direction, and says, “But really, that doesn’t always work, does it?” Everyone’s experience is not that. And that’s not supposed to be taken as, sort of, a guarantee in life, that prosperity will come from being righteous. And so it explores the downside of it.

Stump:

The downside of when the righteous don’t prosper, you mean? Or what do you mean by the downside?

Walton:

Exactly. Yeah, exactly that. When you’re doing everything you know to do, and life is still a wreck. And again, the point is: How do you think about God in that kind of scenario?

Stump:

So it seems that there should be some warning there for us not to take the story or the Proverbs, in their proverbial wisdom, or the story that they’re telling, and just take these propositions, say— I think especially we Protestants have been kind of primed to look at the Bible and see, “Here it says this thing, this is the word of God, this must be the way it is,” right? So when I see a proverb that says, “Train up a child in the way that you ought, and he’ll never depart from this when he’s old.” Or you know, pick your proverb that—if proverbs are proverbial wisdom that give general principles that are open to exceptions, how do we characterize the wisdom of Job? Or how we take away the words that we find in the story there and not get hung up on the specific propositions that say, “Here was this man Job, and here was the adversary, or Satan, that did this and that?” What’s the best way to interpret wisdom literature, I guess is what I’m asking?

Walton:

Well, of course, Proverbs are generalizations. And as generalizations, we understand that that means they’re often true, but not always true. And so, in that sense, we have to understand that nature of proverbial literature. Again, the book of Job probes that one type of proverb about the retribution principle and tries to show us that it’s not always the case. Part of the problem that Job and his friends had was that they were taking this as a guarantee in life. And they expected that their experiences would match up with the retribution principle. And when Job’s didn’t, then he ran into trouble because he didn’t know how to think about God anymore. He didn’t know how to think about his circumstances and himself. And the whole problem was that he had taken that retribution principle as if it was a guarantee, an assured result. And the whole point of the book of Job—no, not the whole point—but part of the point is that that’s really not what it is.

Stump:

Okay, so let’s dig into this retribution principle a little more deeply here. Because it feels like it’s right, doesn’t it? Doesn’t it feel like the righteous should prosper and the wicked should not? And yet, all of us know in experience that it doesn’t. Sometimes bad people win the lottery. Sometimes good people get cancer, right? Is the retribution principle something more akin, today, in our world, to the prosperity gospel, or something, where we think that God will bless us in material terms if we do what’s right? That sounds good, but it just isn’t really reality.

Walton:

It is very much like that. And I kind of group that all together as what I call a transactional faith. That I give, and I get. I do what I’m supposed to do for God, and I get double in return. And it ends up giving us false motivation. That’s exactly the point that’s brought up in chapter one when the question is posed: “Does Job serve God for nothing?” It’s obvious on the surface that Job serves God. The question is what motivates him? Is it really just positive return, a good profit margin, that motivates him? Or is he motivated simply by the importance of faith and the worthiness of God? And I think that’s the question we all have to ask ourselves. Have we turned our faith into a transactional faith where we’re just kind of giving and taking according to some prescribed plan? And the book of Job is there to dismantle that kind of thinking. 

Stump:

There was a trend, maybe a decade ago or so, called Christian hedonism. I don’t know if you’re aware of it, of people who are pushing this. But even saying—just your talk about the transactional nature of this is—are we still prey to this? Are we still just in it to escape the fires of hell? Are we only doing this because of what I get out of it? Or can we talk about something deeper than that, that is not prey to that hedonism or that egoism?

Walton:

I think we have to. 

Stump:

I hope so. 

Walton:

The people who did the hedonism kind of thing were trying to put things on a right path, but it still has its dangers. There are undoubtedly benefits that we receive by being people of God, by being Christians. Undoubtedly benefits we receive. But our benefits can’t be our motivation. It’s God who should be our motivation. Now, that’s a tough thing to say, because it’s hard to, kind of, clean out our brains from all of that and really think straight. But that’s really the part of what the book of Job wants to get at. What’s making you do this? What’s your motivation?

Stump:

So let’s keep talking here about the retribution principle. Why is this wrong or, at least, incomplete as a description of what God will do in the human realm?

Walton:

Well, it’s incomplete when we treat it as a guarantee that things are going to happen that way all the time. But the problem with it is that it gets us focusing on the wrong thing. When we think in terms of retribution principle, and we feel like we’re doing everything that we should do, and then something goes desperately wrong. We do what everyone does. We say, “Why?” “What’s the cause?” “What reason could there possibly be why I, or my family, or my loved ones, or my country, or my world are suffering this way?” “Why?” It’s the big why question. And that immediately puts our focus, I think, on the wrong thing. 

And I take that lead from Jesus. I think that’s a good idea. Because in John 9, when they walk past the man born blind. And the disciples think they’re going to get a great answer to the retribution principle problem. So they say, “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he’s born blind?” I mean, what a great opportunity to get Jesus to reply to this great philosophical problem of the ages. And, so, what’s the reason, what’s the cause of this man’s blindness? And they’re thinking, Well, if he says the parents, then we’re going to ask: then why is this man suffering? And if he tries to say it’s this man—but, how could it be? He was born blind. And they think they really got him. And as is typical of Jesus, he answers their question—is it this man or his parents—by saying, no. “It’s neither this man nor his parents, but that the son of man might be glorified.”

And it’s interesting there that what he’s doing is, he’s turning their attention from the past and the “why” question to the present and the future and “what for” question. The question is not what caused this to happen—retribution principle thinking. The question is: What do we do from here? Now we’re here where we’ve got this mess. We’ve got this problem. We’ve got this suffering. We’ve got this crisis. We’ve got this pandemic. What do we do from here that the son of man might be glorified? And so, it’s not like he answers the philosophical question. He, rather, redirects and focuses our attention elsewhere and think about how can we glorify God from where we are. And I think that’s the big question that I try to answer and face and what any of us should do in these difficult times.

Stump:

I want to ask a little more about this business with reasons that we look for versus purposes. But first, I see we’ve got some questions coming in already from listeners that are on this same topic and retribution principle here. Lee asks, “What would be the difference between the retribution principle and justice? Because it sure sounds like retribution principle is justice, isn’t it?”

Walton:

In a perfect world, certainly, retribution principle would be justice. And when humans are called upon, in their accountability, to God to do justice, they should think somewhat in those terms on a government level. Yet, at the same time, we realize that Jesus says we’re not supposed to treat everyone in this way. We turn the other cheek. We look the other direction. We forgive. And that’s not justice, per se. So there’s the place for justice. There’s a place for mercy. There are the things we’re responsible for corporately of trying to maintain justice and do justice. But there’s also the idea of forgiveness and mercy. And there’s the idea that, in a fallen world, perfect justice will never come about. We can just do all that we can.

Stump:

Okay, let me read a short paragraph here from your book. I’m on page 165, in case anyone’s following along, chapter 18. You talk about this message of Job for today. And one of the things that particularly caught my attention there was the discussion about reasons for suffering versus finding purpose in suffering. So here’s just a short paragraph, and let me have you respond to that then. 

You say, “When we look to the past, we’re seeking reasons. When we look to the future, we’re seeking purposes. The former attempt should be abandoned and the latter held loosely. We should not seek reasons for our suffering because we have no basis for thinking they exist. If some of our experiences result from living in a world that includes non-order and disorder, then those experiences are not the result of reasons. In contrast, we can seek out purposes for our suffering, but there’s no guarantee that we will find them…” 

So, unpack that a little bit. You don’t mean that we can’t find reasons for our suffering in, say, knowing the physical causes right? We know this virus is the cause of much suffering. It’s the reason why things are happening right now. But you’re, rather, the “why,” like the why in John chapter 9 when Jesus’ disciples were asking about the man born blind. They’re not looking for an anatomy lesson in why he’s blind, right? But why would God allow something like this?

Walton:

Exactly how we think about God. You know, those are really tough paragraphs to write. And they’re hard to hear every time I hear them as well. 

[Stump laughs]

Because they go against our natural instincts. We really do want to know why, what God’s doing. And the fact is, we often—we usually—don’t get those explanations. Now, you know, there are exceptions. Somebody says, “Oh, wow, why am I in jail?” Well, you committed a crime, so you’re in jail! So I’m not talking about those kinds of situations. But, why is there hunger in the world? Why do children suffer? Why is there illness? Why is there this pandemic? And the idea that we should expect to get those answers from God. 

You know, God created the world as it is. And that means that there are some things in the world that we are going to experience negatively. I don’t like that any more than anybody else does. But that’s the fact, certainly in a fallen world. But these are things that God, in his wisdom, has made the world this way. And as a result, it works this way. That means that if you step off a cliff, you’re going to fall. That’s how gravity works. And so the world works in these ways, and God set it up to work this way. And that means sometimes we’re going to find ourselves at odds with all of that. 

But that’s one of the “reasons” side of the equation. Of course, we also have the “purposes” side. And the key point I was trying to make there is that it’s one thing to say, “Oh, there’s a purpose for this.” But of course, most of us in our experiences would say, “Yeah, but I have no idea what it is.” And sometimes we feel like we never find out. And it’s one thing to say there are purposes. But that doesn’t mean we necessarily can get any sort of confidence as to what those purposes are. We just try our best to try to live out what purpose is possible. So that’s why I kind of held that, would you call it, agnosticism about both reasons and purposes.

Stump:

Yeah. Let’s push further into the reasons why God made the world this way. And knowing that that agnosticism will probably show up here again. But you have made the point repeatedly about Genesis and creation that God’s original creation is described as good, even very good, but not perfect. I want to ask what’s the difference there, then, between very good and perfect? And why wouldn’t God create a perfect world? Can we even ask such a thing? I did ask. So can you answer such a thing? 

[Walton and Stump laugh]

Walton:

We certainly can ask and we can try to give our best answers. But, of course, some of these times, we’re just guessing. The point I’ve tried to make is that the term “good” is not the same as a word that would mean “perfect.” And so we have to look into context to find out what it’s talking about. My own interpretation, and of course it’s discussable, but my own interpretation is that good, there, focus is on the fact that it’s now ordered to operate. Not operate perfectly, but operate functionally. And so God has set it up to work, and it works. 

Now why didn’t he create it perfect? Well, one of the answers we can give from the scripture we have would be that he then created people in his image who he gives the task of working alongside him to bring further order. That is, to turn “good” to “better.” It’s still God’s work but us working with him. It’s like any mentor will do with the person they’re mentoring to bring them alongside and work together toward a goal. And I think that’s what God’s doing. He orders it sufficiently, that it can work for us. But, now, we take on a responsibility, a stewardship along with him to continue bringing order to the world. And, so, in that sense, he’s got a job for us. And that’s why he didn’t finish it, because that’s kind of on us to work with him.

Stump:

So one of the big clues to that there, even in Genesis 1, is that right after God says, “Here’s this world that’s very good. Now fill the earth and subdue it” (Genesis 1:28). So, evidently, he didn’t create it in exactly the form that he wanted it ultimately to be. Otherwise he would have created it, filled, and subdued it to start with, right? Is that a fair interpretation of that passage?

Walton:

Sure. And there’s still an “outside the garden.” So the order inside the garden does not equal the order outside the garden. So again, more work to be done.

Stump:

Okay, so let’s talk a bit more about Job again in this respect, and maybe draw some comparison there for us with the chaos creatures that we find in Job. And then, ultimately, where we want to go with this is whether the virus of today is some manifestation of that same non-ordered or disordered principle that may have been there from the beginning, that were part of the good world. Can we even say that? Tell us about these chaos creatures that we encounter in Job first.

Walton:

Well, our entryway into that, is to understand that in the ancient world they thought about the ordered world, which order had been brought into a non-ordered world. Non-order is not bad. It’s just not ordered yet. And it’s in the process of being ordered. But order has to be brought about because order is not natural. It has to be achieved, and God is the order-achiever. Then there’s a third category which I call disorder, where someone works against the order that’s being established. So you have non-order, which is neutral; order, which is preferred, but not the normal circumstances; and then disorder, which is the negative. 

Now, where do chaos creatures fit into that? Chaos creatures, for the most part, are still understood as part of the non-ordered world. They have no will of their own. They are instinctive. They have no morality. They’re not good or evil. They just act, and they do what they do. That’s where the ancient audiences would have placed chaos creatures. 

Now, what’s interesting in all of that is that God offers, oftentimes, a different perspective on that. When he talks about Leviathan in Psalm 104, he made Leviathan to sport with. It’s a play thing for him. He talks about the great sea creatures in Genesis 1:21. And their creation is part of the ordered world. And, so, it has these chaos creatures kind of on the periphery—partly in the ordered world, partly not quite in the ordered world. And that’s the positioning of them. So that’s how Israel would have thought about them. 

They play a big role in the book of Job. As a matter of fact, one large portion of the message of the book is built on those. We’ll probably get to that later. But all through the book, the chaos creatures come into play—especially the Leviathan comes into play—and how Job talks about “Why are you treating me like a chaos creature?” And then, later on, he actually calls God a chaos creature. He’s acting like a chaos creature. So it’s really interesting to see how all of that takes. 

But the basic point is that the chaos creatures are non-volitional, no-willed, amoral—that is not good or evil—yet their powers, forces that they believed impacted them. And that’s what I mean when I say that they’re sort of parallel to how we think about viruses or bacteria. Except chaos creatures are on the macro level, and those things are on the micro level. But it’s still the idea that viruses and bacteria have no will of their own. They act according to the properties that they have. They are not moral. They’re not good or evil. People who do the sciences connected with viruses and bacteria see the good aspects of both of them as well as some of the negative aspects. And, so, in that sense, they fit the same slot in our thinking as chaos creatures would fit into the ancient world of thinking. And so there’s some comparability that we could identify.

Stump:

And so there’s no need in your theological understanding of this to assign those chaos creatures to being effects of the fall, as though they wouldn’t have been around or part of God’s good world before human sin?

Walton:

Correct. They’re part of non-order, and you can talk about a certain level of order. In fact, that’s part of what the first speech of Yahweh in Job 38 does. He says all these things that you think are not ordered actually have more order than you would ever know. And we could say the same thing about viruses and bacteria. We might feel like they’re raging out of control. And one of the things that I think God would say if we heard him speak in the storm would be there’s more order there than you know. And you just don’t know enough to appreciate it.

Stump:

We don’t know enough. I’m afraid that can be said of us multiple times, right? I wonder even on this same theme then, of whether there’s any connection to the world being good, even very good, and our inability to truly or comprehensively know what is really good. Is there any connection—I guess I’m asking here—is there some connection between the book of Job, the author here, drawing our attention to the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, which was forbidden, once they had eaten of it? Do they really know good and evil? Are they really like God now in their ability to comprehend those kinds of things? 

Walton:

You know, I think that in the Garden of Eden, that tree is described in such a way that we can interpret it as a wisdom tree. And I’ve said before, wisdom is the pathway to order. And when people chose to take that tree, that fruit, for themselves, they were choosing to seize the reins of order from the Creator God. Saying, basically, we want to do it ourselves. I can do it myself. And we want to bring order on our terms, not on your terms. And, so, in that sense, this does go back to the Garden of Eden. And even when the Bible talks about the fear of the Lord being the beginning of wisdom, fear of the Lord is submitting to the authority of God to be the order-bringer. 

That is, we turn in our license to bring about order on our own. Now, I think that the sciences—and this is where science comes into this—science really is our continuing attempt to try to bring order, to understand how the world works, so that we can order it, and that’s a good thing. God created an image to be able to do that. When we end up doing it for our own agendas instead of God’s agenda, then it can lead to difficulties. But the whole idea of science is really picking up the image of God and that attempting to bring order. And, so, when we try to discover the nature of this virus and the vaccine that will help resolve it. These are the things that we do in trying to pursue order.

[Musical interlude]

BioLogos:

Hi Language of God listeners. We wanted to take a quick break from the episode to tell you about the BioLogos resource centers found at our website, biologos.org. You’ll find articles, videos, and other resources curated for pastors, educators, youth ministry, campus ministry, and small groups. Help bring the science and faith conversation to the places that are important to you. Just click the resources tab at the top of the page. Now back to the show. 

Interview Part Two

Stump:

Let’s carry through on the book of Job here a little further then. So Job is asking all these questions you just alluded to—the first speech we hear from Yahweh—but play out the rest of the book there for us, if you would. And I even see one of our mutual friends in the audience here, Richard Middleton, is asking, “Why is there a second speech from the whirlwind in the book of Job? What is different in focus between God’s first and second speeches?”

Walton:

Yeah, I think that’s really important. Thanks, Richard. You know, the first speech is enough for Job to say, “I don’t know enough. You know, I’ll just stop talking now. I don’t know enough.” But that’s not far enough. And the second speech pushes Job to the next level, pushes all of us to the next level. Because in the second speech, we find out that there’s reason to fall down in dust and ashes. What is that? I actually think that the second speech—and this makes sense literarily—the second speech carries the main message of the book. How are we supposed to think about God when crises and suffering come along? If that’s what the book is trying to get at, then this second speech is going to give us whatever answer it’s got to give. Remember, the book is not trying to tell us the answer for suffering in the world. It’s trying to help us understand, “How do we think about God when there’s suffering?”

So we’ve got these two chaos creatures, Behemoth and Leviathan, and each has a different lesson to teach. Behemoth is very clear. The text says, “I made you just like Behemoth, Job.” And so he equates the two. And then he observes about Behemoth that he stands firm and stable in raging waters. Well, that’s exactly what we’re supposed to do when there’s raging waters all around us, to stand firm and stable. Well, how do you do that if you’re being tossed all around? Okay, so that’s what we’re looking for. And we’ll get to that answer in a second. The second one Leviathan. Lots of people read that, and they say, “Oh, God can beat up Leviathan so…” But that’s not the point. The point is not God taming Leviathan. Read the section carefully. 

The point is that we are unable to tame Leviathan. And the point that comes out of that is: “If you are unable to tame Leviathan, and I made Leviathan, and I’m greater than Leviathan, then why do you think that you can domesticate me?” And that’s really the indictment on Job. Because the retribution principle is an attempt to domesticate God. To say, this is how you have to work. You have to do it this way. And we’ll go through this formula. And we’ll conduct this transaction. And you’ll give me what I want. And that idea that we think we can figure it all out and domesticate God— It makes me think again of the beavers and the pevensie children in Narnia. You know, Aslan is not a tame lion. And that idea that you can’t domesticate Leviathan, so don’t think you can domesticate God. And that’s what Joe has to repent about. Because all of his strategies were trying to bring coherence by domesticating God. And so, the lesson of Behemoth says stand stable and secure in the rushing waters. And the message of Leviathan: Don’t think that you can reduce God to some kind of simple equation and domesticate him. 

Now you say, “Well, where does that leave me? I mean, so what am I supposed to do?” Well, the lesson of the book is that you can’t figure it all out. That’s domesticating God, reducing to an equation. But what you’re supposed to do is trust God’s wisdom. The book of Job doesn’t try to explain why you should believe that God is just, or how you explain God’s justice, or his fairness. The book of Job is saying you’re supposed to trust God’s wisdom, even when you can’t figure out any of it. You have no idea what’s going on. I’m reminded of the book The Shack. It makes a good point of this. Toward the end—I know it’s a controversial book, but it has some cool things in it—toward the end, he says, you know, “If you loved me, and you knew that I loved you, you would trust me. But you don’t.” And the idea of trust, and trust being based on love, and know that you’re loved. I think that’s an important part of the book of Job. 

Stump:

So you get to the end of your book on the book of Job, and one of the chapters is called “Does the Book of Job Provide Comfort?” And your answer is “no.” Let me read another short paragraph here and have you respond to that. “The book of Job offers relief from the quest for explanations from the suspicion that God has let us down or even become our enemy. This will not reduce pain or resolve our grief, but it may ease some of our fear and anxiety.” 

Further on as you talk about that, is it because it seems to reaffirm that God is ultimately in control? That that reduces our— That might not comfort us? Particularly when we see if this pandemic is what it looks like when God is in control, I’m not so sure that’s a good thing. I mean that that’s the natural reaction to that, right? But is there some sense of easing our fear and anxiety and knowing and trusting—maybe that’s the better way to say it—right? Instead of knowing? Because we don’t understand. But that trust, is that the key to this?

Walton:

Yeah, you know, it’s in what God can give. Certainly, we should trust him. We should trust his wisdom. We should believe he’s wise. We should believe he loves us. But, you know, as I got into that chapter, I felt like there were three big issues staring at us. And one I treated under what I called rest, and another one under peace, and another one under coherence. And I think those three are really important. And I learned a lot just by trying to study them, and I’m still learning.

Stump:

So let’s talk through each of those quickly. Rest, I assume you mean something more than just the absence of activity. I remember your discussion of rest in Genesis 2, that’s not just God taking a nap on day seven. So what do you mean by rest?

Walton:

Yeah, rest is not relaxation or leisure. Rest is stability and security. It’s based on the idea of our circumstances. That is, when God says that he will bring rest to his people, that means he will bring them circumstances that aren’t turmoil, that aren’t unrest. And, so, rest resolves those circumstances. That’s something God can give. And it’s especially something that he provides through his presence. God rests. And that brings rest to us when we feel God’s presence, even if there’s turmoil around us. So rest refers to our circumstances.

Stump:

Next one: peace. 

Walton:

Yes. And peace pertains to our feelings. How we feel about what’s happening. And the opposite of peace is fear. So, when God says to Israel, “Fear not,” when Jesus says to the disciples, “Fear not,” he portrays himself as the one who is able to give peace. “My peace I give to you, not the way the world gives.” And in this world you have turmoil. Remember, that’s the absence of rest. But even in the midst of that turmoil, he is the one who is able to give peace. 

Now I have to learn that lesson all the time. Because when we feel the unrest of our circumstances, it’s easy to feel fear and anxiety. But then Jesus is the one who gives peace. Even in those circumstances, when he gives peace, it’s not because he resolves the unrest or the turmoil. But somehow what he is able to give transcends it. And that’s what we’re looking for. And that’s what we try to base our hope and trust on. So that’s the difference between rest, our circumstances; and peace, our feelings about those circumstances.

Stump:

And the third coherence. Coherence sounds like we’re back to trying to understand or make sense of our experience.

Walton:

Yes, coherence is how we think. How do you puzzle things out? And of course, that’s with Job and his friends, the retribution principle represented their attempts at bringing coherence to making it all work. The opposite of coherence is confusion. And, of course, when there’s anxiety, there’s confusion. When there’s turmoil, there’s confusion. And so we look for coherence in a world that’s all topsy turvy, in a world that’s off the rails. And we just wonder: What’s going on? I don’t understand. I don’t understand what’s going on in the world. I don’t understand what I’m supposed to do about it. I don’t understand God. And we, we all feel that way. So just as God is the source of our rest, remember, “Come to me all who you labor heavy laden, I will give you rest.” Seeing our circumstances through a different lens, through a kingdom lens. And “I will give you peace.” 

And likewise with coherence, we find out of course, Colossians 1 that in Christ all things cohere, that it’s God who gives us the coherence. Again, not because suddenly we understand everything. But coherence comes when we trust him for the circumstances. And that’s really a hard thing to do. I find myself struggling with it. I’m sure everyone else does as well. But, in that way, God is the source of our rest, of our peace, and of our coherence. We have to try to understand things in light of a bigger issue than our own circumstances.

Stump:

So twice in that description you appealed to Christ. Is the book of Job somehow incomplete in and of itself without Christ? Do we need that christological lens to look back on it to get that coherence? Does Job ever get the coherence you’re speaking of there?

Walton:

You know, it certainly helps to have Christ in the picture. It gives us a better view, a better perspective on those things. But we can find the same kinds of assurances in the Old Testament as God offers Israel coherence in the covenant, as he offers them peace through his relationship with them, and as he offers them rest. So we find that those things are not impossible or absent from the Old Testament. 

Does Job ever get rest? Well, yes, that’s chapter 42. Spoiler alert! God resolves his circumstances. Does Job ever receive peace? Well, he receives peace in that life goes back to something that he’s comfortable with. So he has those feelings. Yet, we still could imagine that he has regrets about the past. So that’s always there. Does Job find coherence? Well, by the time the end of the book rolls around, the retribution principle is shredded up. But, yet, God brings it back in, in another way. When God restores Job’s fortunes, it’s not a reinforcement of the retribution principle. It’s as a guarantee, as assurances, as promises. It’s rather saying, this is a good reflection of theology, how God is. And, so, it’s brought back in as theology rather than theodicy. That is, explaining why there is evil in the world and why there is suffering. And, so, in that sense, it brings Job’s good circumstances back but under a different umbrella. And, hopefully, will see a new coherence in that, as we all might. 

Stump:

You brought up theodicy there, and that’s one of the sections in the book you talk about. And I see one of our listeners here, Michael, is asking about this as well. “The Book of Job,” he says, “seems like the opposite of theodicy to me. God, just straight out declares Job can’t possibly understand. Why, then, do you think Christians spend so much time trying to explain what cannot be understood?” And maybe give us a little bit of comparison here between what Job is really doing, what the book of Job is really doing and this theodicy preoccupation that we philosophers tend to have.

Walton:

Well, that’s why Job works as wisdom literature because it reflects so well what we all very naturally do. We all are inclined to act the same way Job was, to try to piece things together, to find an equation that will work. And, yes, I think that Michael’s right that that is what we so easily are inclined to do. But it’s one of the points that the book wants to make. That is, we are not in a position to vindicate God or to explain God. And the Bible makes that pretty clear that he’s above our paygrade. Or his ways are not our ways. His thoughts are not our thoughts. And he reveals enough of himself that we can be participants in his plans and purposes. We know what he wants of us. And that’s what he’s revealing to us. Not all of the untold and unexplored, impenetrable riches of his full nature. That’s exactly Paul’s point in Romans 11. In his benediction, there. It’s that you can’t understand all of how God does what he does.

Stump:

Anything else? We have a few other listener questions to turn to here. But I want to make sure that you’ve gotten to say everything you want to say about the book of Job.  

Walton:

Well, certainly circumstances like we’re in, as we think about the book of Job, it causes us to ask questions. You know, do we find our security, our rest in our good jobs, in our good health, in our community, in our circumstances? Are these the things that actually give us security in life? I know for me, they often are. For lots of us, they often are. But when all of those things suddenly are not as certain as they were, it causes us to re-evaluate what really is the source of our security. And who is it that gives rest? Who is it that gives peace? Who is it that gives coherence? And, so, I think those kinds of questions should be on our minds. They’re certainly on mine. 

And also back to the question we asked at the beginning, “Does Job serve God for nothing?” Would we continue to serve God even if we lost all of those things that we depend on? Or do we only really serve God when things are going well for us? And certainly the circumstances that we’re in are causing lots of people to re-evaluate. “What are the foundations of life?” “How do I work through all of this?” So I feel like the book of Job, the message—the true message of the book of Job—gives us a lot of food for thought in these days.

Stump:

Good, rich stuff. Thank you so much. Among the listener questions that I’ve had passed on to me here, several people want to talk a little bit more about the Satan character in the book of Job. What do we make of this? Is it the adversary? Are we sure this is to be identified with Satan himself as we understand in the Christian tradition of Satan? Who is this character who’s in the counsel of God and that God’s making a bet with?

Walton:

Well, this has been one of the controversial things about the book that you mentioned. Because I tried to understand that character in an Old Testament context. In the New Testament, the word Satan has come to be a name for the character that we identify as the devil. So we can talk about the devil. Satan is a name that we give to the devil. Like Beelzebub, or things of that sort. Later on in Latin, Lucifer. Names that we give to the devil. When we move to the Old Testament, there is no devil character in their thinking. The role is just not not filled for them. And, so, when they use “Satan,” it’s a Hebrew word. When they use “Satan,” they’re referring to a particular kind of function. And it’s not one that has a devil job description. So, in that way, we have to treat the “Satan”—I call him the challenger—the challenger in the book of Job. He’s one of God’s functionaries. He’s doing what God tells him to do. And we have to treat him in isolation from that “devil job description” that the name eventually takes up. 

But in the Old Testament, it’s not a personal name. And it’s not a character that’s intrinsically evil. He raises a legitimate question: “Does Job serve God for nothing?” It’s a legitimate question, and God treats it as legitimate. And it’s not Satan who’s responsible for Job’s fall. God himself says, “You incited me to ruin him without cause.” So, in that sense, I think we have to take Hasatan, the challenger, as sort of a separate character developed in its Old Testament context and, in that way, different from how he comes to be associated with the devil profile.

Stump:

And in the logic of the story we have here, it’s interesting that it’s in the mouth of the challenger that we get that question: “Does Job serve God for nothing?” But then that character drops out of the story, right? Why don’t we ever hear from him anymore?

Walton:

Because he’s not important. He’s just the catalyst. It’s the way that the question gets posed. And, by the way, you know, you’ve mentioned a couple times now, the wager. And that bothers a lot of people. And, well, it should if that’s really what’s going on. But of course, I would contend that this is a thought experiment. Therefore, it’s not trying to communicate “the truth of God’s word is that God makes bets with the devil.” Certainly not. That’s not how we’re supposed to think about this. So it’s a thought experiment, yes.

Stump:

In line with that, another listener Kevin asks, “Do you believe Job was an actual character who lived in history?” Or somebody else asked, “Why is it so necessary for evangelical Christians to hold on to stories like Job being literal stories? What do we say to those who are appalled that it might just be a story?” Are the categories of wisdom literature and historical narrative somehow mutually exclusive, or is there any other way we have from the text itself of understanding the possible historicity or non-historicity of what’s going on here?

Walton:

Once we identify it as wisdom literature, it becomes immaterial whether these are things that really happened or not, because wisdom literature’s point is not in the historicity. It’s point is in the lesson that’s being taught. At the same time, as I look at the ancient Near East—and some people would differ with me on this—but if I look at the ancient Near East, I don’t see a whole lot of made up characters. So Job is presented as, I think, a real person, in a real past, but I think that the way the book develops him is for wisdom literature purposes. So I’m inclined to think that they have these long traditions about this guy named Job, who was as righteous as you could imagine and suffered an awful lot. And his life becomes the premise for this thought experiment. So let’s take this guy that we’ve all heard about and kind of build the scenario out of that.

Stump:

Okay, let me give you one final question here that’ll give you an opportunity to hit on the main themes again, in closing. So Sharon asks, “When we say but God is in control—” I assume she’s talking here in response to these questions we brought up earlier, to ease our anxieties and fears. “—but when we say God is in control, aren’t we just falling into Job’s trap again?” Does that somehow seem to seem to suggest that we have figured God out? That we do understand his ways by saying, by even just affirming, God is in control of everything that’s going on, at least in some ultimate sense? Is that an attempt to know too much again?

Walton:

That’s a good question, Sharon. You know, it certainly can take us that direction if we’re not careful. It’s one thing to say, “God is in control.” It’s another thing to say, “And this is how he controls things.” It’s one thing to say, “I trust God’s wisdom.” It’s another thing to say, “And his wisdom should make him do this.” So, it’s always a question of how far we’re going to get into the specifics. 

When we say God is in control, are we about ready to try to describe how we think he’s in control, and what he does to do that? Or are we ready to say, “And so I don’t need the details. I’m willing to trust him.” You know, as I think of trust, I think of trust as something that steps in where our knowledge fails. Where I don’t know enough. Where I don’t know anything anymore. Trust is what I have to cling on to. And trust becomes, then, the basis for our hope. But that’s the point at which I can’t explain things now. That’s I think that’s where the line is, we can say God is in control. But the minute we try to start talking about how he micromanages or doesn’t, is where our knowledge falls apart.

Stump:

Yeah. Well, maybe we all find that rest and peace and coherence. And thank you for your work, John. Our culture’s suffering from a lack of trust in expertise. And I think we Protestants especially have this conviction that any of us can just pick up the Bible and read it and benefit from it. And I want to affirm that, but I also will affirm that people like you can help us read it better. So thank you for your work. Blessings to you on your work. And thank you so much for sharing with us here tonight.

Walton:

Quite welcome.

[musical interlude]

Credits

BioLogos:

Language of God is produced by BioLogos. It has been funded in part by the John Templeton Foundation and more than 300 individuals who donated to our crowdfunding campaign. Language of God is produced and mixed by Colin Hoogerwerf. Our theme song is by Breakmaster Cylinder. We are produced out of the remote work spaces and the homes of BioLogos staff in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

If you have questions or want to join in a conversation about this episode, find a link in the show notes for the BioLogos forum. Find more episodes of Language of God on your favorite podcast app or at our website, biologos.org, where you will also find tons of great articles and resources on faith and science. 


Featured guest

John Walton

John Walton

John Walton is a professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College in Illinois and an editor and writer of Old Testament comparative studies and commentaries. Throughout his research, Walton has focused his attention on comparing the culture and literature of the Bible and the ancient Near East. He has published dozens of books, articles and translations, both as writer and editor, including his book, The Lost World of Genesis One.

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