Facing the Whirlwind

The final Bible story I want to explore in depth in this series on knowing God is Job’s encounter with God in the whirlwind. The story of Job is as follows: Though a holy and honorable man, Job loses his health, wealth, and family in a series of calamities. Job must deal not only with his own grief and sense of injustice, but also fend off the ‘helpful’ criticisms of his friends — conventional wisdom being apparently as maddeningly dumb and unjust in the Ancient Near East as it is today. He refuses to buy into their rationalizations and demands God answer his complaints. In the part of the story I want to look at today, “YHWH answered Job out of the whirlwind” (Job 38.1). What follows is two long speeches in which God expounds on the glories of the created world. This isn’t exactly an answer to Job’s complaints… Or is it? Are God’s words to Job an answer? Is the very fact of the theophany itself an answer? What ultimately does this text have to say to those who are suffering? These are the questions I want to explore here.

Once again, I’ll be using my spiralic Integral hermeneutical method, which looks at the same text from different perspectives (as summarized in the chart below). In these posts, I ‘show the work’, so you can feel free to skip down to the end if you just want to see the conclusions.

Experience

I have a complicated relationship to this text. There have been times in my life when I have been able to relate to Job, when the life I had built had collapsed around me for, as far as I could tell, no reason; when all I could see was loss and desolation. And, like Job, what was just as hard as the losses themselves were the “helpful” words of my “friends”: the empty platitudes of “Everything happens for a reason” and “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle;” the accusations that clearly I had been arrogant and God needed to teach me humility, or that I had “already given up” when I was holding on with every ounce of strength I had; or the encouragements that a Dark Night of the Soul was a gift from God and I needed to be grateful for it. Managing my friends’ opinions and emotions was often a greater burden than managing my own. Even now a decade later, “helpful” words follow me in the aftermath of that experience. There are people in my life who exult in my struggles with dating and treat my prolonged singleness as a cautionary tale that gay men are indeed incapable of loving, committed, and holy relationships. I have other friends who tell me that I need to stop building the life I feel called to live because it takes me further away from the values and desires of the dating world, and still more whose advice boils down to saying that I obviously should have done the opposite of whatever it was that I did (even if it’s what the last time around they had told me I obviously shouldn’t have done). It’s all just exhausting.

The fact is, though, there’s little special about me or my experiences, then or now. Most of us, in one way or another, have had times when everything has gone wrong, when nothing we do seems to be able to make anything better, and when our friends and family — who really do deep down have our best interests at heart — add to our suffering instead of alleviating it. In fact part of what made my situation so awful ten years ago was that many of the people in my support system were facing their own traumas, reversals, and betrayals. There were nights when we just sat together, shell-shocked, amidst the rubble.

And so, in the end, the story of Job resonates with my heart and my story simply because it is fundamentally a human story. In some way, most of us are like Job, pleading for a hearing before a silent God.

So, I clearly don’t come to the study of this text a blank slate. I can’t help but read it through the lens of my own experiences. (This isn’t bad; we all do this to some extent every time we come to the Scriptures; that’s why I’ve included owning up to those experiences as an important part of the process of Scripture study: articulating what I bring to the text creates space for my perspectives to be broadened in the later steps.) Acknowledging this, what is my experience of reading the story of God’s answer to Job?

To be honest, I’m not sure what I think about it. God’s answer to Job is less an answer than it is a defense. And God’s defense is a sort of shock-and-awe campaign of wonder. Aside from a single paragraph in which Job responds, the entirety of chapters 38-41 is taken up with two long speeches by God, litanies of the world’s wonders, with the refrain, “Were you there when…?” On the one hand it annoys me that Job doesn’t get an answer. On the other hand, when it comes to questions about our intimate losses and deepest griefs, there simply is no answer to them. They just are. Resituating them within a bigger perspective, as God does for Job here, is often the best we can do.

This reframing of our experiences in the bigger picture is, from my experience, an exercise in paradox. Because, in situating ourselves within the whole picture of the cosmos, it clearly decentres them. And yet, that somehow doesn’t make them less important. It isn’t saying our struggles, fears, wounds, and traumas aren’t important, only that they aren’t the whole story. I’m reminded of these words from C.S. Lewis’ book Perelandra:

“We also have need beyond measure of all that He has made. Love me, my brothers, for I am infinitely necessary to you and for your delight I was made. Blessed be He! … We also have no need of anything that is made. Love me, my brothers, for I am infinitely superfluous, and your love shall be like His, born neither of your need nor of my deserving, but a plain bounty. Blessed be He!”

That is the sense this reading gives me: that we — and all of the experiences that we have — are both infinitely necessary and unnecessary, utterly superfluous yet loved all the more because of it.

Encounter

Moving to the text itself, who do we meet in this story? Much like the story of Moses and the Burning Bush the other week, this story features only two characters: our human protagonist and God, here as in that story, identified with the mysterious divine name YHWH. Let’s look at how their characters are developed here.

Job

We are told everything we need to know about Job’s character at the very beginning of the book. In the first chapter, Job is described as “blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil” (1.1). In God’s dispute with Satan, which prompts the events of the book, God proudly boasts about him, saying: “There is no one like him on the earth” (1.8). We also know from the story that Job knows who he is and how he has lived before God. When he loses everything, he refuses to accept the slanders of his friends, who — in good Deuteronomistic-ethic-style — are convinced that Job’s suffering is the result of sin and he must repent and change his ways. He refuses to confess his sins because he believes — and the text agrees with him — that he has done nothing wrong. Instead he demands God answer his complaints. When God does just that in the passage under consideration now, resituating Job’s complain within the wonders of the created world, Job replies humbly that he can have no genuine response to this display: “See, I am of small account; what shall I answer you? I lay my hand on my mouth. I have spoken once, and I will not answer; twice, but will proceed no further” (40.4-5). But this isn’t enough for God, who then launches into God’s second speech. After that, Job realizes he does need to repent — not because he hasn’t lived a just life, but because he has been caught in his narrow vision of the world, because he hasn’t seen his circumstances through God’s expansive lens:

“I know that you can do all things,  and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted. Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge? Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand,  things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. Hear, and I will speak;  I will question you, and you declare to me. I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear,  but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.”

Before he had followed God, but now — through his experience of God in the whirlwind — Job has seen God and had his perspective widened.

YHWH

The image we get of God in this passage rests on the knife’s edge of patience and impatience. On the one hand, God loves and respects Job enough to show up and answer his complaint. But at the same time, God’s response is something of a rant. It’s the kind of patience that shows a current of impatience beneath the surface.

But if God is a little frustrated with Job, it’s a frustration that is clearly grounded in a deeply loving relationship. It isn’t the kind of speech you give to an enemy, but to a loved one. We know God cares deeply for Job, no matter what God has allowed to happen to him. God has boasted about him in chapter 1, and even after spending the bulk of four chapters chastising him, in the immediate aftermath, God turns to Job’s detractors and lets them have it: “My wrath is kindled against you and against your two friends; for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.”

This is interesting since it demonstrates that Job wasn’t wrong in what he was saying. God wanted a bit more from his response, but Job was still right. This is further demonstrated in the fact that, while God cannot give Job his old life back — what’s lost is after all, lost — God does give Job a new life, more abundant than the one he lost.

Beyond God’s relationship with Job, we also see in this passage something of God’s pride in creation. In God’s asking Job “Where you there when…” there’s a sense of “Look what I made!” It is an enthusiastic expression of the “And God saw that it was good” from the creation story.

Explore

There were only two major questions that I brought to the scholarship this time: 1) What is the meaning of God speaking from the whirlwind? And 2) How do other readers of Job interpret God’s answer?

God speaks from the whirlwind

In the works that I looked at, there was surprisingly little reflection on the whirlwind. Mostly, the commentators focus on the aptness of the metaphor, in similar ways to how the fire of the burning bush was described: Rudolf Otto called it “the element of the mysterious displayed in rare purity and completion.” According to the spiritual theologian Richard Rohr, the whirlwind means that “You can’t hold this God down, you can’t explain this God. This God is dynamic, in motion, while our definitions are always static, trying to put God in a box…” Others note that, while perhaps apt, this is a unique metaphor for God in the Scriptures; though I would point out that Elijah is taken up to heaven in a whirlwind and prophetic and apocalyptic writing speaks of God coming on the clouds, and so while the image of God as a raging cyclone may be particularly strong in this passage, it isn’t entirely unique.

A textual analysis of the vocabulary of storms in Job is more fruitful in providing a clue as to why God chose to manifest in this way. In chapter 9, Job refers to the tragedies that have befallen him as a “tempest,” saying:

Though I am innocent, I cannot answer him;  I must appeal for mercy to my accuser. […] For he crushes me with a tempest,  and multiplies my wounds without cause (9.15, 17)

Here we have Job in full on lament describing God’s actions in his life as a storm. Later, Job describes God’s judgment against the wicked in similar terms, this time specifically using the word whirlwind:

They go to bed with wealth, but will do so no more; they open their eyes, and it is gone. Terrors overtake them like a flood; in the night a whirlwind carries them off. The east wind lifts them up and they are gone; it sweeps them out of their place. It hurls at them without pity; they flee from its power in headlong flight. (27.19-22)

These two passages illustrate Job’s conundrum. Job’s theology, as shown in the second quote, is based in what is called the “Deuteronomistic ethic,” which pervades the canon of the Hebrew Bible. Deuteronomy through 2 Kings all share the belief that if you do good you will be blessed and if you do bad you will be punished. But what happens when the good suffer? Job’s friends reject the premise entirely and insist that Job must in fact be a sinner for all these disasters to have befallen him. But, despite his circumstances mirroring how he expects God to treat the wicked, Job insists that he is innocent before God.

And so, for Job, the whirlwind is a symbol of both his loss and of his theological conundrum.

In the chapter before the theophany, one of Job’s friends (notably the one who is not rebuked by God in the end), Elihu, picks up on the whirlwind imagery in a hymn glorifying God’s power in words that echo what God’s own revelation will be in the following chapter:

God thunders wondrously with his voice; he does great things that we cannot comprehend. […] From its chamber comes the whirlwind, and cold from the scattering winds. (37.5, 9)

Is it any wonder then that God appears to Job and Elihu in the form of a whirlwind? For Job, it’s a powerful symbol of the devastation and confusion wrought upon his life; for Elihu, it’s an equally powerful symbol of God’s creative power. The theophany from the whirlwind isn’t random, but is a symbol that speaks into where the hearts of Job and his friends are at.

How is God’s answer an answer?

Every commentary I looked at for this exercise agrees that God does not directly answer Job’s complaints. And yet, Job leaves this encounter changed. So where does the “answer” lie? Since the words of God’s speech don’t directly answer Job’s situation, are they important at all? Or is the heart of Job’s change the theophany itself, irrespective of God’s words?

On the side of the fact of the voice from the whirlwind being the answer for Job, several scholars focus on Job’s earlier pleas for God to return to him and address him (see 13.15, 14.15 for example). Lindsay Wilson notes, “Job’s God-directed cries and complaints throughout the dialogue are a call on the seemingly absence God to become present. … Once Job sees God again, he is able to accept that he does not need to know exhaustively God’s purposes.” Similarly, Richard Rohr writes, “When God himself, in this great dramatic presentation, refuses to give us answers, and calls us instead into communion, that … is the answer. That’s all we want, or need.” He continues, “It is an openness to the other — as other — that frees us for creativity and originality in our response: the other who … gives me a reference point that relativizes all of my own.” In this line of thinking, the theophany is itself Job’s answer because it replaces theology with relationship, thinking with meeting an other — “I and Thou,” in Martin Buber’s famous expression.

While there is something unquestionably right about this idea, I don’t think it entirely captures what’s going on, since it doesn’t address this theophany specifically. Otto was right, I think, to argue that while, yes Job’s confrontation with God is itself an answer for him, “In the last resort it relies on … the sheer absolute wondrousness that transcends thought, on the mysterium, presented in its pure, non-rational form.” The answer, at least in part, is the whirlwind, the experience of being confronted with something of incredible power, wonder, and fierce beauty.

On the other hand, Wilson notes that the message of God’s speeches must be important, since God isn’t satisfied with Job’s response to the first speech, and feels the need to launch into another. Yet God addresses Job seriously, but “playfully,” and this tone is important because, as we find out at the end of the book, Job is actually right and God can’t be too harsh with him lest God endorse the false and ungracious views of his friends. In addressing Job as God does — “Brace yourself as a fighter” (38.3, 40.7) — God’s attitude here is reminiscent of that in the story of Jacob wrestling with the stranger. In Rohr’s words, ” ‘This is the kind of person I can wrestle with,’ he seems to be saying, ‘those who are not afraid to fight with me.’ “This has been a recurring theme in these theodicy stories: Isaac wrestles with God, Abraham advocates on behalf of Sodom, Moses questions God’s plans — over and over we see that faith is not blind obedience, humility is not timidity. God welcomes challenge in God’s human followers.

But again, the speeches don’t answer the questions of theodicy, justice, and suffering. If Job finds himself silenced by God’s words (40.4f), it is because they “are not intended to be answered, bur rather to reorient Job to take a different stance.” “The problem,” Wilson, continues, “is not that Job had wrong knowledge of God, but that his view was telescopic (limited only to the issue of justice) rather than panoramic (concerned with how God orders his world).”

And so we come to the conclusion that the whirlwind and the speech are saying the same thing. The medium conveys the message of God’s words wordlessly, just as we saw that the burning bush was a visible expression of the divine name. Both the tempest and the vast, sprawling expression of God’s creative power function to reorient and expand Job’s thinking. As Gustavo Gutierrez put it, “Job’s call for justice is legitimate …. [but] it must be set in the context of God’s overall plan for human history, for it is there that God grants self-revelation.” In simpler terms, we could say that it “zooms out” Job’s understanding of himself, his circumstances, and the world. As Rohr puts it, “The God who speaks to Job out of the whirlwind is not an answer giver or a problem solver. God does more than that. God frees Job and every believer from their hall of mirrors, their prison of self where they cannot see or understand. God gives us a place to stand.”

Rohr and Gutierrez also agree that the nature of divine revelation turns this story of one man’s suffering into a story that pushes us towards grace. As Rohr states, “The language is moving from a juridical horizon of should’s and ought’s to a vast horizon formed by the gratuity of God’s love. Space is opening up for both God and Job, and for a new relationship. The conversation moves into an entirely different framework because love is so much broader and deeper than any theology of retribution.” And Gutierrez, “The Lord’s words have released him from the cell in which he had found himself imprisoned because of the contradiction between his experience of his own innocence and the doctrine of retribution. He had the courage to face up to the contradiction…” And again:

The truth that he has grasped … is that justice alone does not have the final say about how we are to speak of God. Only when we have come to realize that God’s love is freely bestowed do we enter fully and definitively into the presence of the God of faith. Grace is not opposed to the quest for justice nor does it play it down; on the contrary, it gives it its full meaning. God’s love, like all true love, operates in a world not of cause and effect but of freedom and gratuitousness.

And so, at the end of the book, God vindicates Job, undoing the tidiness of the Deuteronomistic ethic and providing a lasting symbol that the world and our experience of it is far more interesting and complicated than the prevailing spirit of “bad things should happen to bad people” would have us believe. Love, grace, and mercy are required when we see people suffering, because the true roots of that suffering are unknowable and mysterious. Job leaves vindicated, not because God ultimately restores his wealth, but because he has been heard by God, because he has girded his loins and wrestled with God, and because his vision has been expanded, and his mind freed from the limitations of his theology.

Challenge

This is the part of the interpretive process where we challenge both the text and our reading of it difficult questions.

Nothing can change the fact that Job is a troubling book. It begins with God gambling on Job’s faithfulness, an act that causes Job to lose his wealth and health, but more importantly, Job’s wife and children their lives. The narrator’s disregard for them is heightened by the fact that they are simply replaced at the end of the story without comment. These parts of the story are beyond the scope of this study of God’s address from the whirlwind, but are undoubtedly part of the context for it. There is nothing in the story to suggest that it was a “true story;” it reads far more like a folk tale. And so perhaps it can be forgiven on those terms. But it’s important to remember that those terms undervalue the lives of women and children, understanding them primarily as a disposable and replaceable part of a man’s wealth.

When it comes to texts from the Hebrew Bible, I also like to spend time in this step looking at Jewish interpretations. Job’s story is particularly poignant with respect to Jewish history, since so much of Jewish experience throughout the centuries has been marked by oppression and injustice.

Rabbi Robert Seltzer agrees that the text challenges the idea of the Deuteronomistic ethic: “Only the concept of a cosmic order that does not operate according to a built-in principle of moral retribution makes possible the selfless piety that was the first issue posed by the book of Job.” What he’s saying is that it only in rejecting of the idea that good things happen to good people that we can truly see the value of doing the right thing. “A principle of automatic reward and punishment would,” he continues, “in fact, be a form of coercion, leaving no special realm in which man could exercise his moral freedom by doing the good from purely disinterested motives.” Essentially, it is only because the world is fundamentally unfair and often unkind that goodness matters. Rabbi David Lyon agrees: “Our Sages affirmed their faith that all life is a gift from God… Rather than be disillusioned about what remained concealed from them, they grasped for opportunities to do mitzvot [covenant responsibilities], to respond to God’s command.”

The reason why suffering exists isn’t a capricious God or even human freedom, but the simple fact of our mortality. Citing the Jewish prayer book Gates of Prayer, Lyon says: “ ‘Just because we are human, we are prisoners of the years. Yet that very prison is the room of discipline in which we, driven by the urgency of time, create.’ Freedom from that prison doesn’t come from seeking immortality; rather, freedom continues to be the privilege to choose the rules that will bind us. As Jews, we still choose to bind ourselves to the b’rit, the “covenant” that God made with our ancestors and with us for ‘our life and the length of our days’ (Deuteronomy 30:20).”

In a sense this brings us back to idea at the start of this post that Job’s story is a fundamentally human story. His suffering may have been more acute and sudden than most of humanity’s, but even had things not happened as they did, Job still would have buried people he loved, experienced financial setbacks, and suffered illnesses of his own. To suffer, to lose, to grieve is simply human.

Expand

Pulling the threads together here, the reading of this story that has emerged is that Job encounters God in a whirlwind, an image that is both full of personal meaning for him and his friends and an apt symbol of a God who is all-powerful and the scope of whose action is far more vast than can be contained or understood by human experience. Job’s encounter with God’s wondrous transcendence zooms out his vision from his own circumstances to the humbling appreciation of just how big and incomprehensible the world and the God who created it are. This doesn’t answer Job’s complaints or lessen his loss and grief, but reorients him and recasts his vision. I’m reminded of the Hebrew idiom “and he lifted his eyes and saw…,” which tends to be used to convey a psychological or spiritual perception more than a physical one. The theophany in the whirlwind allows Job to “lift up his eyes and see” his circumstances no longer through the limited understanding of the stories he was telling himself, but through God’s bigger vision of life.

In this way, this interpretation expands our awareness, because it asks us to similarly be willing to let go of our own stories and see our lives in God’s bigger picture. It also promotes growth and integration because, by asking us to see past our immediate circumstances, it asks us to drop our own sense of ‘good’ and ‘bad’, thereby allowing us to integrate more of our life experiences without judgment.

And lastly, the emerging interpretation has a positive impact on those around us by challenging the simplistic ethic of retribution that is as common now as it was thousands of years ago. There is no satisfactory answer to the questions of injustice and human suffering, because what lost is genuinely lost. Rather, Job’s problem — that he, an innocent man, is suffering in the way that ‘sinners’ should — is resolved by expanding his vision beyond the idea of retributive justice to, ironically enough, the gracious, gratuitous love of God. And the story challenges us to do the same, both in our own sufferings and those of our neighbours.

Suffering will always be with us as long as we are mortal. The good news of Job’s story is that, as real and true as that suffering is, it isn’t the whole story. We too can face the whirlwind of our pain and grief and meet God there, in all God’s expansive, gratuitous, creative love.

Bibliography

Glazer, Nahum N., ed. The Dimensions of Job: A Study and Selected Readings. New York: Schocken, 1969.

Good, Edwin M. In Turns of Tempest: A Reading of Job. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1990.

Greenwald, Adam. “The Book of Job and the Paradox of Suffering.” Available from: https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/the-book-of-job-and-the-paradox-of-suffering/.

Gutiérrez, Gustavo. On Job: God-Talk and the Suffering fo the Innocent. Translated by Matthew J. O’Connell. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1987).

Hartley, John E. The Book of Job. Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmanns, 1988.

Lyon, David A. “Finding the Richness and the Glory in God’s Ways.” Available from: https://reformjudaism.org/learning/torah-study/bhar-bchukotai/finding-richness-and-glory-gods-ways/.

Ponet, James. “Job.” Available from: https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/job.

Rohr, Richard. Job and the Mystery of Suffering: Spiritual Reflections. New York: Crossroad Publishing Company, 1996.

Seltzer, Robert M. “The Book of Job: A Whirlwind of Confusion.” Available from: https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/the-book-of-job-a-whirlwind-of-confusion/.

Wilson, Lindsay. Job. Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmanns, 2015.

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