The Wisdom of Job

In the wisdom books of the Bible there is a recurring theme which, for the ancient writers, was clearly one of the “big issues” of their time.

Job and his friends ~ Ilya Repin

The issue is this: when and how does God judge the wicked and reward the righteous? Does God do that during our lifetime or is judgement reserved for a later time? Are the nasty (but apparently chance) things that happen to some people God’s punishments on them? Equally, do the good (but apparently chance) things that happen to others represent God’s rewards for them? Many parts of the Bible declare that God is righteous and will reward faith while punishing wrongdoing. The simplest, literal understanding of many of these passages would lead to the conclusion that God is watching what people do and brings blessing or calamity to a person’s life depending on how they are behaving.

Take Psalm 37:1-4 for example:

“Fret not yourself because of evildoers, be not envious of wrongdoers. For they shall soon fade like grass, and wither like the green herb. Trust in the Lord, and do good; dwell in the land, and befriend faithfulness. Delight yourself in the Lord; and he will give you the desires of your heart.”

This issue is particularly addressed in the book of Job in the argument between Job and his three friends and the way Job presents his point of view raises some interesting perspectives.

In a nutshell, Job’s friends argued for the “doctrine of immediate retribution” that is, God punishes or rewards people during their lifetime. On this basis they concluded that Job’s suffering must have been as a result of his wicked behaviour. It has often been commented that their basic premise that “God will judge righteously” is scriptural. There are plenty of examples of a simple, literal reading of God’s word apparently supporting the friends’ position. Good examples would include Deuteronomy 28 where the Israelites are told that if they abide by God’s law they will receive blessings, however if they do not, curses and calamity will befall them, also, Ezekiel 18 with its principle of “the soul that sins, it shall die” declares that if a man is righteous he will live (v5-9) but if a man is evil he will die (v10-12).

However, the point of interest relates to how Job counters his friends’ argument. We notice that he appeals to the evidence of what he can see in the world around him. He particularly makes this point at length in chapter 21, for example this extract from Job 21:28-30.

“For you say, ‘Where is the house of the prince? Where is the tent in which the wicked lived?’ Have you not asked those who travel the roads, and do you not accept their testimony that the evil man is spared in the day of calamity, that he is rescued in the day of wrath?”

His counter argument to his friends is: “your explanation of what God is doing must be wrong because it is not consistent with what we can see going on in the world”. Job therefore rejected the friends’ simplistic understanding and sought for an alternative interpretation of how and when God will judge. His conclusion, expressed in Job 19:25-26, was that God would carry out his righteous judgement at a future time following a resurrection.

“For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God.”

What Job did was bring together God’s revelation with his observations of the world. He applied his ability to reason and derived an understanding which made them consistent. The wisdom of Job and his approach to bringing God’s revelation to life in the real world is timeless and speaks to the same questions men and women have today.

Prove all things

“Prove all things; hold fast that which is good.” (1 Thessalonians 5:21, KJV)

“but test everything; hold fast what is good.” (1 Thessalonians 5:21, ESV)

So says the Apostle Paul, and it sounds like a very ‘modern’ statement, sitting quite well in our scientific age.  But my suspicion is that we don’t apply it quite as much as we might like to think! When choosing to vote for a politician for example, is it always done on the basis of assessing their intellectual arguments or rather on how we feel about them, or even how they look?

Regardless of the accuracy of my suspicion about how people decide what is true, there is a clear and consistent call in the Bible for us to apply our reason to God, his existence, his activity and what he calls upon us to do.  God calls on Israel for them to “reason together” (Isa 1:18), Paul reasoned with Jews in their synagogues (Acts 17:2), and Peter was prepared to give a “reason for the hope” which he had (1 Peter 3:15). Far from being a blind, inexplicable feeling which someone either has to doesn’t have, Biblical faith is a rational, reason-based thing.  Biblical faith certainly may provoke plenty of emotion but fundamentally it has its foundation in reasoned deduction.

That all sounds very “reasonable” but if we are to test everything – against what? What is the standard or the benchmark for testing something as true? In its context Paul’s urge to test everything sits side by side with the example of the Bereans who were considered particularly open to reason.

“Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so.”

Acts 17:11

So the testing which Paul is advocating is against something authoritative, either Old Testament scripture or, in a 1st century context, the authority of the Apostles. John, when also advocating the continual testing of the spirit behind what people teach puts it pretty bluntly:

“We are from God. Whoever knows God listens to us; whoever is not from God does not listen to us. By this we know the Spirit of truth and the spirit of error.”

1 John 4:1-6

Acceptance or not of the authority of the Apostles’ words (particularly about their witness to the resurrected Jesus) was the ultimate test of truth or error for John.

So in a 21st century context what does “test everything” mean? Well, although it may be necessary for us to engage in a whole lot more effort to prove the existence of God and the authority of the scriptures these days, that doesn’t take away from Paul’s point. Today, just as in the 1st century, the test of Christian belief and practice is still against the established benchmark authority of scripture and although the Apostles have long gone, we have their authoritative writings alongside the Old Testament scriptures.

Do we “test everything” against the appropriate authority in the way Paul advocates, or do we test things using other criteria? Are we prone to prefer a continuation of what has become traditional, or what we have become used to, or what makes us feel safe and comfortable?

Knowing our Bible and reading it effectively is an important first step in following Paul’s advice – and guess what, we have a course that may be able to help you with that in 2022!

The God of the gaps?

One of the less successful Christian responses to the progress of human knowledge was to claim that there would always be aspects of life, the universe and everything which could never be explained by human discovery and that God would always be needed to explain these gaps in human knowledge.

Alister McGrath in his 2007 book ‘The Dawkins Delusion’ notes:

“At certain points, William Paley’s famous Natural Theology (1801) uses arguments along these lines. It was argued that God requires to be proposed in order to deal with these gaps in scientific understanding. It was a foolish move, and was increasingly abandoned in the twentieth century.”

Writing while in a Nazi prison in 1944 the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer explained the problem with the “God of the Gaps” concept.

“How wrong it is to use God as a stop-gap for the incompleteness of our knowledge. If in fact the frontiers of knowledge are being pushed further and further back (and that is bound to be the case), then God is being pushed back with them, and is therefore continually in retreat. We are to find God in what we know, not in what we don’t know.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, p310,  Letters and Papers from Prison

It is a peculiarly modern mind set which views material things or events as either the product of natural events or of the supernatural. The two possible explanations are seen as mutually exclusive, it’s one or the other. If a phenomenon is perceived by human analysis to have a cause and effect explanation, then to modern ways of thinking, that’s all there is. There is no need for anything else outside the natural systems observed. The supernatural (by which we essentially mean God) is therefore squeezed into the ever decreasing areas which defy human explanation.
However Bonhoeffer, in the final sentence of the extract above hinted at the Biblical explanation for the relationship between the natural and supernatural, and it does not suffer from the ‘shrinking God’ problem. Consider Psa 104:27-30:

“These [animals, trees etc] all look to you, to give them their food in due season. When you give it to them, they gather it up; when you open your hand, they are filled with good things. When you hide your face, they are dismayed; when you take away their breath, they die and return to their dust. When you send forth your Spirit, they are created, and you renew the face of the ground.”

Psalm 104:27-30

Here the normal, every day occurrences of life, birth, death and animal day to day sustenance and survival are attributed to God. Even though they are unremarkable commonplace events, God was seen as part of them in some way. The same attitude is seen in Acts 17:28 when Paul quotes the poet Epimenedes to make his point about the one true God: “In him we live and move and have our being”.  Similarly, the aspects of nature pointed out to Job in chapters 38 and 39 and the words of Jesus in the sermon on the mount in Matthew 6:26-30 both illustrate the same view of God’s all-pervading connection with the natural world.

So to use the analogy proposed by John Walton in his book “The Lost World of Genesis One”, we should not think of the relationship between God and the natural as a pie, with the God-slice always decreasing as natural explanations are found. Rather we could think of it as a victoria sponge cake, with the natural world as the bottom layer and the top layer as God’s involvement, interfacing with the natural layer at all points. The integration of God with his creation is thus understood to be at such an intimate and universal level that we can have only the slightest comprehension of it. God is not the God of the gaps, he is the God of the whole show!

However, exploring these ideas is not just idle thought experiments. There are real, daily practical implications attached to perceiving the Divine involvement in life in this way.  Jesus gives this perspective in two passages from the Gospels:

“But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.”

Matthew 5:44-45

“But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil.”

Luke 6:35

Here again the every day, perfectly normal and natural sunrise and rainfall is attributed to God. But the point here is that God, in sustaining a world which indiscriminately supplies these daily benefits to many who give him nothing in return, is a behaviour model for those who would try to reflect ‘his image’.

Transferred to his kingdom

The Church at Colosse was not founded directly by the Apostle Paul, but through another disciple, Epaphras, who probably heard the Gospel from Paul in Ephesus (Col 1:7)

The road from Laodicea to Colosse

Like many cities of the Roman province of Asia, the prevailing religious culture was one of polytheism. However, there was also a large Jewish community in this city and in the adjacent cities of Laodicea and Hierapolis. With pagan polytheism alongside Jewish mysticism, the religious environment was pervaded by the worship of many gods, as well as by the Jewish traditions of veneration of spirits, protecting powers and angels.  Worship practices frequently involved asceticism and abuse of the body (Col 2:23). There is direct mention of this Jewish mysticism in the “worship of angels” in Col 2:16-23 where it is linked with the observance of Jewish festivals, new moons and Sabbaths.

Another feature of the religious environment in places such as Colosse was the willingness to blend together religious ideas from a number of local traditions. This is known as syncretism and there were evidently individuals seeking to influence the Colossian believers in that direction (Col 2:18-19). Hearing about these teachers in the ecclesia is probably what prompted Paul to write this letter and he describes them as ‘puffed up without reason’ and ‘not holding to the Head’ i.e. Christ.

In Col 1:12-13 we find part of Paul’s counter argument to this influence. Speaking in v12 about the impact of their response to the Gospel, he says they “give thanks to the Father who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light“. There is just the merest hint here of an allusion to the time of the exodus, with the anticipation of the people of Israel as they wandered in the wilderness waiting to receive their inheritance in the promised land.

This suspicion of an allusion is confirmed by the language of v13:

“He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son“.

Colossian 1:13

The word transferred (gk. methistemi) is rare and has a specific meaning of “to transfer from one place to another” (BDAG Greek-English lexicon). This definitely continues the exodus allusion of people being relocated, as Israel were delivered from Egypt and constituted as a new nation with the prospect of a promised inheritance. Paul wants the Colossians to think of their transition from a previous way of life to a new one in the same sort of way. Just as Israel escaped their slave masters in Egypt (the domain of darkness) and entered a covenant to serve a new Master, he wants the Christians of Colosse to think of themselves as having escaped bondage to old superstitions to now be under the rulership of a new king, the beloved Son. He doesn’t want them to look back or try to blend their old ways with the Gospel, but to leave it all behind and press forward.

To get the full impact of Paul’s statement we also need to appreciate the broader definition of ‘kingdom’ as meaning royalty, or royal authority. This explains why the phrase is in the past tense: “he has transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son“. In committing to Christ, Christians, whether in 1st century Colosse or today, place themselves under the royal authority of the anointed Son of God. In this sense they have already been transferred from the domain of darkness into his kingdom, from serving an old master to living under the royal authority of a new king (Christ). In writing to the Romans, Paul puts it like this:

“But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness.”

Romans 6:17-18

The Colossian believers needed to leave their “Egypt” behind along with those trying to blend the Gospel with their previous philosophies and  practices. That seems like a call that is equally relevant for Christians today.

Note: Paul’s allusion in Colossians to the exodus is typical of the many “echoes” across different Biblical texts. How to identify them and apply them to help interpret the text is covered in our “Learn to read the Bible effectively course“.

Why read Leviticus?

Some parts of the Bible make great reading, they have action, drama and engaging characters.  Other parts might seem dull as dishwater or just plain weird – like Leviticus!

Leviticus is the third book of the Bible, coming after Genesis and Exodus.  It’s all about how to perform sacrifices, what food is clean and unclean, how Israel’s priests should remain holy and Israel’s annual cycle of feasts.  Irrelevant to a 21st century Christian right?  Well, maybe not entirely…

Firstly, the book is positioned immediately after the end of Exodus where the tabernacle, or tent of meeting, is completed and the record says; “the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle”.  So the question that Leviticus addresses is ‘how can God dwell amongst people?’  Secondly, Leviticus is very carefully structured in a symmetrical form with the focal mid-point being chapter 16, the arrangements for the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur).  This single day in the religious calendar of the ancient Israelites is about removing the uncleanness of sin from the people and the sanctuary so that God may continue to dwell among the people.  If the book of Leviticus is providing an ancient perspective on the question ‘how can God dwell amongst people?’ then it may well have something to say to Christian communities wondering about how God might be with them.

Positioned on either side of the chapters about the Day of Atonement are chapters which describe two different kinds of impurity or uncleanness. 

11-15Ritual impurity
Associated with: contact with the dead,
unclean meat, corrupting skin diseases,
procreation and birth.
Unavoidable parts of daily life
Impurity is not permanent
The uncleanness is contagious
There are procedures to be made clean
There is no personal guilt attached to it.
18-20Moral impurity
Associated with: idolatry,
sexual immorality,
bloodshed and murder
They are actions of personal choice
They bring personal guilt
They leave a stain on the individual, the land
and the sanctuary
There is no procedure to remedy it
If practiced would lead to exile from the land
and God’s departure from his people
Source: Klawans, J., 2004. Concepts of Purity in the Bible. In A. Berlin & M. Z. Brettler, eds. The Jewish Study Bible. New York: Oxford University Press, p. 2041.

This seems to highlight two perspectives.  Firstly, the ritual impurities recognise the weakness inherent in being a human being and the cycle of death and birth associated with mortality.  While it is important to recognise this inherent weakness, it does not prevent God from working with and dwelling amongst people. In fact, large parts of the Biblical narrative are about God continuing to work with flawed people!  This is just as relevant to Christian communities today – yes, we must be humble in the face of our inherent weakness but be comforted that God does not hold us guilty for being human, on the contrary, he wants to work with us.

Secondly, the moral failures described in Leviticus show that when people commit to those personal choices they alienate themselves from God and this has an affect on their community.  Leviticus shows that the Law had no remedy for these acts and this sets up a contrast between Law and Faith which is drawn out in the New Testament particularly in the book of Hebrews.  No legal procedure could deal with these moral impurities but the impact that the sacrifice of Jesus can have on a person’s conscience is able to produce the faith and change of heart that leads to full forgiveness.  This is summarised in Hebrews 9:13-14.

“For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God.”

So maybe Levitius does have something to say to Christians after all!