Deconstructing Theodicy: Why Job Has Nothing to Say to the Puzzle of Suffering
Burrell, professor of philosophy and theology, University of Notre Dame, approaches the Book of Job from the standpoint of a philosophical theologian as he tackles the question of the book’s contribution to theodicy. As the subtitle of the volume suggests, Burrell is convinced that the Book of Job “has little to offer for one who defines theodicy . . . as ‘explaining how there can be evil in God’s world’ ” (p. 123). In fact the book deconstructs various theories used to vindicate God. Burrell concludes that while Job does not explain the reality of undeserved suffering, it “directs us to eschew explanation for yet other ways of rendering enigmas intelligible” (p. 123, italics his). God’s verbal response to Job has performative value and creative power. In the end, relationship transcends explanation. Indeed Job seemed satisfied by the simple reality that God addressed him, while the friends, who offered a theodicy that badly missed the mark, suffered God’s rebuke.
In developing his case Burrell outlines his approach and then briefly overviews the book’s structure, the three rounds of dialogue between Job and his friends, and the “denouement” (which includes Elihu’s speeches) and epilogue. Before addressing interpretive matters he includes a relatively long chapter (written by Johns) entitled “A Comparative Glance at Ayyub [i.e., Job] in the Qur’an.” Burrell then examines four “classical commentaries” on Job—by Saadiah, Maimonides, Aquinas, and Gersonides—before turning to an analysis of two contemporary critiques of the notion of theodicy—by theologians Terrence Tilley and Marilyn McCord Adams. The final chapter is entitled “Assessing Job’s Contribution to Theodicy: Contrasting Semantics of Explaining and Addressing.”
In the reviewer’s opinion there is much of value in Burrell’s work. He has framed the problem nicely, and those interested in the history of interpretation will appreciate his survey of some classic works on the book. If one assumes Burrell’s exegetical starting point, then his conclusion makes sense.
However, here is the problem. Burrell offers only a cursory survey of God’s speech in Job 38–41 and does not interact with recent studies that utilize ancient Near Eastern materials to understand how God constructed His argument. These include, among others, J. C. L. Gibson, “On Evil in the Book of Job,” in Ascribe to the Lord, JSOT Supplement, ed. L. Eslinger and G. Taylor (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic, 1988); Tryggve N. D. Mettinger, In Search of God: The Meaning and Message of the Everlasting Names (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1988), 175–200 (a chapter entitled “Job and His God”); Robert S. Fyall, Now My Eyes Have Seen You: Images of Creation and Evil in the Book of Job, New Studies in Biblical Theology (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2002); and André LaCocque, “The Deconstruction of Job’s Fundamentalism,” Journal of Biblical Literature 126 (2007). These authors demonstrate that the key to understanding God’s argument is the symbolism of Behemoth and Leviathan, which in their ancient Near Eastern context represent the sinister forces of chaos, death, and evil. If this is so, then God does address the issue of Job’s suffering in a very pointed way by reminding him that the chaos in the world originates with the Enemy—an enemy that God alone can and will subdue. Granted, there are unanswered questions about the origin and persistence of evil; so one must acknowledge that the Book of Job does not offer a fully developed theodicy. Yet it does offer an explanation for Job’s suffering—he was caught in the crossfire of a cosmic struggle between God and the forces of evil (symbolized by Leviathan but behind which lurks the Adversary of the prologue). Burrell is correct to emphasize the performative function of God’s self-revelation and personal address to Job. When the warrior-God arrived in the windstorm, not to destroy Job but to debate him, He communicated His desire to be Job’s ally and defender, not his enemy. Both explanation and relationship are key elements in God’s response to Job’s suffering.