How the Book of Job Can Help Us Understand a Pandemic
There is more order than we know.
John H. Walton
To address this issue of how the book of Job can help us understand the pandemic, we have to begin with some insights for understanding Job that differ from intuitive approaches. Though Job is the main character, the book is more about God than about Job. After all, Job is mostly wrong throughout the book. The teaching of the book is not delivered by Job, but by God, and it is about God, not Job. The book addresses how to think about God when life falls apart. It is not trying to teach us how to think about suffering, but how to think about God when we are suffering. Consequently, it is more about what constitutes righteousness than about why we suffer. Does Job serve God for nothing? Do we? If we do, then when we suffer, our faith will not collapse. In the end, the book is more about trusting than about answers. It does not give us a solution to all our questions, but encourages us to trust God. Trust steps in when knowledge fails.
One of the major philosophical issues under consideration in the book is known as the Retribution Principle (RP): the idea that the wicked will suffer and the righteous will prosper. Though the RP may address the general inclinations that characterize God, the book intends to eliminate it as the grid or equation for interpreting our circumstances. When we are suffering, we should not be trying to identify cause in the past (unless there is some obvious sin), but to turn our eyes to the future. We see this teaching in John 9 when Jesus and the disciples encounter the man born blind. Jesus ignores the disciples’ question about causes in the past and draws their attention to purpose in the future. We should ask “what for?” rather than “why?” This offers good advice as we face adverse circumstances.
The lesson of the book of Job in not found in the person of Job, but in the speeches of YHWH. His first speech asserts order where non-order would have been assumed. Job and his friends believed that the RP represented order. God’s speech suggests that they do not understand enough of his ordering of the cosmos to reduce it to a simple equation like the RP. His second speech draws lessons from the great chaos creatures Behemoth and Leviathan. Chaos creatures were understood in the ancient world to be part of the ordered world but serving as agents of non-order by virtue of their mindless nature. They were not considered morally evil but as capable of doing serious harm. They were not enemies of God but could wreak havoc among humans. The lessons in the book are that Job (and readers) should (like Behemoth) not be alarmed by raging rivers (metaphor for the circumstances of life). And secondly, they should recognize that if they cannot domesticate Leviathan—they should not think that they can domesticate God (who is greater than Leviathan). Recall the comment about Aslan in the Chronicles of Narnia: “He is not a tame lion; but he is good.”
The perspectives on suffering that this offers are important:
“Normal” cannot be defined as a life free of suffering.
Suffering is not intrinsically connected to sin.
Suffering provides an opportunity to deepen our faith.
Our suffering shapes our identity, often in productive ways.
The Bible does not teach that God wants everyone to be healthy and happy.
In times like these, we seek order in our lives, which is comprised of rest, peace, and coherence.
REST: A perspective that transcends any turmoil in our circumstances. Rest does not consist in the elimination of unrest, but in rising above it.
Matthew 11:28-29: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.
PEACE: Consists of freedom from fear, and it revitalizes our feelings.
John 16:33: “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”
COHERENCE: Pertains to our thoughts. We can find order not in our ability to understand and explain everything but by trusting God; when our reference point is God and his kingdom, our thinking can rise above the confusion swirling around us.
Proverbs 3:5 Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding (our own understanding will only lead to confusion)
As we consider the book of Job, we learn that there is more order than we know. This is an important insight when we are coping with something like the coronavirus. Our job is to discover ways to serve and honor God even when in crisis and to trust him to sustain us as we find a way forward that will testify to his faithfulness.
John H. Walton (Ph.D. Hebrew Union College) is Professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College and Graduate School where he has taught for twenty years. Dr. Walton has published nearly 30 books, among them commentaries, reference works, text books, scholarly monographs, and popular academic works. He was the Old Testament general editor for the Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible (NIV, NKJV, NRSV), and is perhaps most widely known for the “Lost World” books (including The Lost World of Genesis One, The Lost World of Adam and Eve, and The Lost World of the Flood). He has authored a commentary on the book of Job as well as How to Read Job (with Tremper Longman).