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Job and the Deuteronomists

Date: 10/11/2013/Speaker: John Cheong

Good morning church! I’m very excited to be delivering the message today.
Let us center ourselves with a short prayer.
Lord God of heaven, our creator, merciful and compassionate. Lord, let your spirit fill me and let my words be spoken as You in heaven has intended. Let all our hearts be stirred and our meditations be aware to You and your prompting. In the name of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

The lectionary passage I’ve selected comes from the book of Job, chapter 19, verse 23 to 27. It reads,

“Oh, that my words were recorded,
that they were written on a scroll,
that they were inscribed with an iron tool on lead,
or engraved in rock forever!
I know that my redeemer lives,
and that in the end he will stand on the earth.
And after my skin has been destroyed,
yet in my flesh I will see God;
I myself will see him
with my own eyes—I, and not another.
How my heart yearns within me!

I thought to myself as I meditated and prayed about this verse from Job. The book of Job has always been a very challenging book for me. It is easy to understand, but difficult to see the depth of wisdom within its pages. I’ve read many commentaries, many books concerning Job, and it’s difficult to piece everything together beyond what is shown at surface value. To fully extract comprehend the depth of the message of Job, we need to learn to read and see the Old Testament in the eyes of the people living in that time. Otherwise, we would have severely glossed over the significance of this book in the construction of our faith.

I’m going to bring all of you back in time, to the days of the Old Testament, to the period of the Old Testament in the days of Judah. To see and experience the history and religion of ancient Judaism. And then, with the exposure of such a context, to read the book of Job in the mind of an Old Testament reader.

It is not every day that we are taken on a journey. How many of us here are familiar with the history of the Old Testament? The days of the conquest of Assyria, the destruction of the Temple of Solomon, the Babylonian exile? Can we imagine for a while, what life must be like for these people?

I’m somewhat of a history buff and thus let me deliver an exposition into the history of the Iron Age.

Before the Babylonian’s conquest of Judah, there are 2 distinct kingdoms of Judaism, the kingdom of Israel with the capital being Samaria, and the kingdom of Judah, the capital being Jerusalem. These 2 capitals are in a constant flux of conflict and power. The feud of Jerusalem and Samaria we see in the later part of the Old Testament and in the New Testament, goes way back.

The communities back then, we read in the Old Testament Pentateuch, believed in gaining and retaining the favour of God, they worshipped Yahweh, and a few other
lesser gods, like El, Asherah and Baal. Is this surprising? The religion of this period is polytheistic, and different families and regions have their gods and ways of worshipping.

Around 720 BCE, Assyria invaded the kingdom of Israel, known also as the northern kingdom, or the kingdom of Samaria. To protect itself from being conquered, the southern kingdom, the kingdom of Judea forged a treaty with Assyria, the treaty of Esarhaddon, making it a vassal state of Assyria. It was able to retain its own kingship, a dynasty of Davidic kings. According to modern scholarship, Deuteronomy was apparently written sometime during this historical crisis, it reflects the desire to preserve Judean cultural and religious integrity. The authors of Deuteronomy were convinced that the older conventions of worship and social organisation were no longer viable. If the religion of the Lord God Yahweh were to persist through this crisis and survive, renewals and adaptations were necessary. The collection of laws that formed the core of Deuteronomy, chapters 12 to 26, provides a remarkably comprehensive program for revival. These laws deal with worship, institutions in public life like justice, kingship, priesthood, criminals, family and civil law and ethics. They form the requirements for the covenant of God and the nation and the people swore an oath to uphold, under penalty of sanctions.

If any among here has read modern history, we know what happened with the Treaty of Versailles. Secondary school history, for those who forgot it is a document detailing the impositions of the allied nations onto post world war one Germany, who had little choice to accept. The reaction to that treaty was a revival of Nationalism in Germany.

Similarly, in Judah, the revival of Judean society into renewed religiosity is a reaction to the Treaty of Esarhaddon forced upon them. Deuteronomy, from this perspective, is seen as a counter-treaty. The authors of Deuteronomy turned the weapon of imperialism into a bid for freedom, shifting its oath of loyalty from the Assyrian overlord to their divine sovereign.
At this time, the power of Assyria in the north is starting to crumble. The power vacuum was soon filled by the Babylonian conquest of Judea. This is the end! The decline of Judah, the end of the Davidic kingship, the destruction of the temple of Solomon. Kings, priests, scribes and prophets were exiled from Judea. The period of exile is a very significant portion of the Hebrew Bible. From the writing of the books of Isaiah to Ezekiel, to the final version of Jeremiah and even back to the reworking of the Priestly account within the Pentateuch.
Could we for a moment imagine as a Jew in that time, our sovereign most powerful God, who resides in the Holy of holies in the temple of Solomon in Jerusalem. Why would He forsake us? Why would He, in His mightiness allow His temple to be destroyed by the Babylonian conquerors? Why would the all-powerful God, He who is beyond the wrath of nations past and future, allow the Babylonians to succeed and scatter God’s chosen people to exile? This is a period of great lamentation. The people are searching for an answer to God abandoning them.

What do you think were the conclusion that came with this search? The reason God had abandoned us was because we were unfaithful, we were worshiping false gods, we did not obey His laws. We were not pure before His sight.

This period of Babylonian exile was a theological and cultural cleansing, with an increased emphasis on purity. This was so that they might now “win-back” the favour of God, and so that He will never abandon them again. This is the beginning of the class of
theology known as “Deuteronomist Theology”, which was built upon the experience of the Israelites in the period of Babylonian exile.

The core of Deuteronomism can be reduced to a covenant between Yahweh and Israelites, providing blessings for obedience, curses and suffering to disobedience. Yahweh will bless those who obey and punish those who disobey.

In 539 BCE, the Persians defeated the Babylonians and occupied Judah. The Persians allowed the exiled Jews to come back to rebuild their temple. They were also allowed to practise their religion. The great Persian conqueror who defeated the hateful Babylonians and liberated the Israelites, was a celebrated figure in Judean, Christian and Muslim history. He is referred as Cyrus the Great, the Annoited, though he himself practises pagan Zoroastrianism.
Deuteronomical thought, forged in the exiled years, continued to persist in the restored temple and religion. Reiterating one such ideal, Yahweh will bless those who obey and punish those who disobey. In reverse form, if you’re suffering then it must be because you disobeyed and if you’re prospering it must be because you have been obedient. Pretty harsh retribution, what you sow, you will reap.

I have given all of you a very lengthy exposition. All that history, timeline and what’s going on to reach a conclusion; The development of Deuteronomist Theology, you reap what you sow. I could just say it at the start and make you all take it at face value, but nope, I basically wanted to give a lecture on the significance of Israel’s history.
Now before I bring in the book of Job, let’s bring the scale of time to today. And ask ourselves, are there any modern Deuteronomist? Yahweh will bless those who obey and punish those who disobey. If one is suffering then it must be because one disobeyed and one is prospering it must be because one has been obedient.

Have we heard of statements like these?
Hurricane Katrina is divine retribution for America’s sexual immorality.
Al Qaeda claims hurricane Katrina is God attacking America, the result of answering the prayers of the oppressed.
Earthquake in Haiti is God’s punishment for the nation for making a pact with the Devil.
Homosexuality is a sin. AIDS is sent by God to punish the gays.
You are poor and suffering because you did not give enough money to the Church. It’s stealing from God.
This I heard personally. “You lost your child in a miscarriage as punishment from God because you had a divorce and God says in Malachi 2:16 that He hates divorce.”

I am prosperous because it is a sign from God that He has blessed me because I’m obedient to my pastor who is God’s representative.
God is answering all my prayers because I am faithful and obedient.
How many church leaders do we see today uses this deuteronomical principle to justify their lavish lifestyles? How many of us are like that?
Can we extend this reasoning to the aristocracy and monarchy? The upper class don’t work to produce food, clothing, tools or whatever, but they do extract value from the work of others. They end up eating and living well no matter what they do while those who do work hard may not eat and live well because of how much they must turn over in taxes. The aristocracy benefits greatly from the reversed version of the principle, “whatever you are reaping, you must have sown.” Instead of “what you sow, you will reap.”
Class, politics, economics, sociology are all human sciences and they cannot depart from one another.

Deuteronomist Theology presents a flawed morality. I would like to call this morality “blame-the-victim” morality. If something is wrong, it is because someone is disobedient to God. Deuteronomist Theology, besides its tendency to blame the victim, is also unable to deal with structural and institutional problems, which are problems in structures or organisation in social systems which creates or perpetuates inequality and injustice.

It is not surprising that the use of this Deuteronomical principle is most common amongst those who are least affected by structural injustices. They are the most privileged and close to the ruling classes. They will acknowledge the source of the problems is always with the individual and never the system because suffering is a direct consequence of God cursing or withholding blessings to the person simply because he is disobedient. It is never the consequence of the flaws in the social system – a system that our modern priests, the self-proclaimed representatives of God, benefit from.

In Jesus’ time, every problem is blamed on a lack of perfect obedience to the laws as explained by these pharisees, who are the sole and direct interpreters of Deuteronomist texts. It seems the decay of time has spared these ideas and allowed it to take root in our religions today. According to them, every problem can be solved by praying to God, begging for forgiveness and listening to what these priests are telling them about how best to obey God, or the self-proclaimed representatives of God.

How is everyone feeling? I’m about half-way through my message. Now! After the journey through early Christian history, we have the right frame of reference to read the book of Job, which is my main topic today.
How many are familiar with the story in Job? For those who need a refresher, let me summarise for you in this list.

The story starts by describing the piety and prosperity of Job. Satan the accuser comes to Job and says that Job is only pious to God because God had protected and blessed him greatly. Satan next obtains permission to test Job. All of Job’s possessions were destroyed or stolen from him, his servants and all his family is dead in the blink of an eye. Job 2: Then Satan again obtains permission from God to inflict Job with pains and sores. Then, Job’s friends come and comfort him and saw how great his suffering was. In the next 40 chapters, this is what transpired.

Throughout it all, his friends who were the hardcore Deuteronomist keeps reproving Job. Reproving means scolding. His 3 friends, Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar and Job enter into 3 cycles of speeches. They held the stand that Job must have sinned knowingly or unknowingly to receive God’s punishment. As the speeches progress, Job’s friends progressively scolded him for refusing to confess his sins, although they themselves do not know what sin he has committed. As hardcore Deuteronomist, they believe that God always rewards good and punishes evil, with no exceptions. There is no room in their understanding of God for divine freedom in allowing and arranging suffering for purposes other than retribution.

Then Job who is confident of his own innocence, maintains that his suffering is unjustified as he has not sinned, and that there is no reason for God to punish him at all. However, he does not curse God’s name or accuse God of injustice but rather seeks an explanation of what he did wrong.

Next in chapter 32-37, Elihu comes and tries to mediate between Job and his 3 friends. He too, maintained the sovereignty and righteousness and gracious mercy of God. Elihu argues for God’s power and His absolute rightness in all his conduct. He says that Job, while righteous, is not perfect. Job does not dispute this point.

Then God appeared and called Job to answer his questions. God says that He is king of the world and is not necessarily subject to questions from His creatures, including men. His point was to proclaim the absolute freedom of God over His creation, and is not in need of approval from them. Then humbled by this chastising, or scolding, he keeps quiet and repents of his previous requests of seeking justice. It is not the only reason that Job stays silent, I believe it is also out of defiance. Short of calling God to be unjust, which he would not, he could neither do nor say anything against the apparent tyranny and undeserved punishment God can allow on his faithful. It’s seemingly fickle that punishment can be dealt to anyone without any retributive cause. Even in the end, God never told him that Satan was the one who exacted these punishment. It would still make no difference, Satan did obtain permission from God. In the end, God praised Job for speaking the truth about Him, and He scolds his 3 friends for not realising what this truth is. What is this truth? Even after reading the entire book of Job and trying to understand, this “truth” was not mentioned.

The last part where God restored to the fortunes of Job and blessed him twice over was the jarring part of the story for me. To many readers, this last part was hard to accept. To me, it is a modern absurdist ending that calls into question everything that had been transpired. The whole book of Job up to this point was an argument against the doctrine of retributive justice, an argument against the Deuteronomical idea of “good things happen to good people, and bad things happen to bad people”, an argument against the doctrine of God always rewards the righteous and always punishes the wicked. At the end, Job is reimbursed and rewarded. Turns out that his friends were right all along.

The happy ending in epilogue of the book of Job can be read as a superficial and shallow ending to an otherwise profound and philosophically-weighty book. In the end, modern biblical scholarship disputes altogether if the last part about restoring Job’s fortunes could have been added in later.

So what is this truth that God said that Job had revealed and the other 3 friends did not see? This is that part that I stop, and ask the members of the congregation to think for yourselves. Everything I say henceforth is what I chose to believe as the message of the book of Job. I’m choosing to consider that the last part of the epilogue is added in to make the book more palatable. Someone, in the past decided that it was too uncomfortable and decided to sanitise the Bible.

The only conclusion there is that the Deuteronomist idea of divine retribution is unreliable. God does not always reward the righteous, and He certainly does not always punish the wicked. Good things happen to bad people, and bad things happen to good people with no apparent reason at all! It is coincidence, it is luck, it is fickle and it is random. It is God telling the Deuteronomist that you can’t decide what I will do. The nature of the universe is that there is no embedded notion of fairness. And it is really a very hard lesson to learn, that injustice sometimes prevails. This singular book of Job, sits inside the Old Testament in blatant contrary to the rest of the Deuteronomical texts to teach the readers this very important lesson.
Have we endured periods of our lives that seem to be so unfair to us? Were there situations where reward and punishment came so undeservedly? Were there sufferings so great that we wonder about the magnanimity and fairness of God? Were there wars, genocides, natural disasters that wrought so much chaos and destruction that we wonder if God had actually allowed it to happen?

These questions, undoubtedly are just the beginning of the life of understanding what we as Christians believe in. There is no comfort to accept that things can be the way they are with no apparent reason at all.

So what now? Good things happen to bad people and bad things happen to good people. This is where my appreciation of process theology sets in. For those who have missed my last message or forgotten about it, I summarise.

Process Theology makes us realise our responsibility in God’s ongoing act of creation, healing and teaching. God persuades us into a relationship with Him and we in turn in relationship with others to participate in breaking his kingdom of love, joy, peace, gratitude, justice and so on, on earth.

God calls us to all participate with Him, to be the hand of justice in this world. What this means is that without us being part of it. Injustice will prevail. Only, by being part of this, can we be assured that it does not. If we witness a moment of injustice, what God wants us to do is to act, to enact and to deliver appropriate fairness in every situation, because we cannot simply pray to God and do nothing. There is always something we can do. And we must do. If we see someone being unjustly treated, we must run to aid. Otherwise, no matter how much we would have prayed for good, a small part of us dies inside because we witnessed an injustice and chose not to act. If we want equality for LGBT, for racial minority, for the alleviation of suffering in this world, then it is not just enough to pray for God to act, because nothing will happen, we must act on His behalf.

My fellow brothers and sisters, I leave you all with this thought.
We must bring the change we want in this world. And that is a divine charge. That is the Christian charge.