Job, Qohelet, and Obama: A Mismatch Made In Heaven
It is certainly not uncommon for people to take an interpretation of a biblical passage, or even a biblical book, without either being aware of or simply ignoring the fact that there are other, and usually historically traditional and orthodox, views on those very passages. This is particularly true when considering the more difficult passages and books of the Old Testament. Lay people, such as for example Jon Meacham, who have not been trained in the biblical languages or who are not informed of the current state of biblical studies, often assume that the musings of a reputed scholar are necessarily the final words on an understanding of what the Bible says and means.
Such is the case with Meacham’s recent article, in which he attempts to relate the wisdom books of Job and Ecclesiastes to the current plight of President Obama. There is no doubt that the Hebrew scholar to whom Meacham appeals in his interpretations, Robert Alter, is accomplished in the translation and interpretation of the Hebrew Scriptures. But there is equally no doubt that there are other scholars who are at least as accomplished who take diametrically opposed views to those espoused by Alter, which apparently Meacham takes as being virtually synonymous with the Scripture.
Meacham’s benighted effort to paint a picture of Obama’s utter defeat in the recent election as if it were reminiscent of Job’s experience might even cause Alter to blush. And Meacham’s understanding of the respective messages of the books of Job and Ecclesiastes, and ultimately what he indicates to be his understanding of the nature of God, are far outside of the mainstream of contemporary interpretation and certainly contrary to traditional orthodox understanding.
At one point Meacham declares, “Job and Ecclesiastes are especially atypical, for they are philosophically bleak, asking unanswerable questions. In these books God is great, but he is not necessarily good.” Contrary to Meacham’s inability to have any real insight into the text, a condition common among critical scholars also, the very point of Job and Ecclesiastes is to demonstrate the goodness of God.
Consider Job. Job was a man who feared God so much that he would not even use the word ‘curse’ beside the word Elohim in the text (assuming of course that Job wrote the book that has traditionally been attributed to him). Although modern translations of Job 1:5 read, “Perhaps my sons have sinned and cursed God in their hearts,” the underlying Hebrew actually uses the word ‘blessed’ rather than ‘cursed.’ Out of sheer terror, Job served and worshiped the living God.
Yet God is challenged by the Satan (hasatan) that He, God, protects Job, and that is why Job worships God. God allows the Satan to afflict Job, at first by taking away his material goods and his family, and second by afflicting Job’s body. In the ensuing debate between Job and is erstwhile comforters, Job continues to maintain his innocence of any evil that would justify such treatment, and his interlocutors continually charge Job with sin. When God finally confronts Job from the whirlwind, He makes the point that Job is merely a man who cannot even control his own circumstances. How then can a man presume to administer the affairs of the universe, or even understand such things.
Job repents in dust and ashes, and he says, “I have heard of You by the hearing of the ear; But now my eye has seen You;” After God’s interrogation of Job, Job realizes that he did not really know God. He had heard of God. He had heard of God’s justice and righteousness—the very characteristics that made Job afraid of God. However, he did not know God. Meacham points out that Job repents in dust and ashes, but he seems oblivious to the significance of this fact, and as is so common for people who are merely trying to support their own prior conclusions rather than actually to understand the text of the Bible, Meacham neglects to tell his reader that Job retracts his charges against God: “I have heard of You by the hearing of the ear; But now my eye sees You; Therefore I retract, and I repent in dust and ashes” (Job. 42:5–6). The translation “retract” is much too mild. Job actually indicates that, now that his eye has seen God, he despises what he has said about God.
Sometimes, and this is certainly true of me, God uses a two-by-four to get our attention. Job’s experience was designed to teach Israel, and all of God’s children, that although we do not always understand what or why bad things happen to us or to others, we must trust God that He has a plan, and that His plan is ultimately for our good. Meacham also neglects to point out to his readers that God did not simply give Job “gifts of livestock and new children.” God doubled all of his possessions and restored his family. The point is, God will bring all things to a resolution. God will bring justice, and every injustice will be resolved, and every one of God’s children, those who trust Him, will be blessed by Him forever. As Paul said, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Rom. 8:18). And later he declared, “For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison” (1 Cor. 4:17).
We cannot consider the distortions that Meacham imposes upon Ecclesiastes. Suffice to say that Qohelet’s point is that everything in this world—toil (1:4; 2:11,17; 4:4, 7–8), wisdom (2:15), righteousness (8:14), wealth (2:26; 5:10), prestige (4:16), pleasure (2:1–2), youth and vigor (11:10), life (6:12), and even life after death (11:8)—are vanity unless a person takes to heart Qohelet’s conclusion: “The conclusion, when all has been heard: fear God and keep His commandments, because this is for every person. For God will bring every act to judgment, everything which is hidden, whether it is good or evil” (Ecc. 12:13). In other words, Qohelet arrives at the same conclusion to which Job arrived. God will bring all things to a final resolutions, and He will set everything right.
In his article, Meacham asserts, “Like Obama, Job was once the highly favored one.” At the beginning of the book of Job, the virtues of Job are recounted to the Satan by God: “Have you considered My servant Job? For there is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, fearing God and turning away from evil” (Job. 1:8). Once the Satan had taken Job’s family and riches, God once again extolls the virtues of Job: “Have you considered My servant Job? For there is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man fearing God and turning away from evil. And he still holds fast his integrity, although you incited Me against him to ruin him without cause” (Job 2:3).
Obama is not like Job. Job was blameless and upright. Job feared God. Job held on to his integrity. Obama is no Job.
Thomas A. Howe, Ph.D.
Professor of Bible and Biblical Languages
Southern Evangelical Seminary
Matthews, North Carolina