‘Dominion and fear are with God; he makes peace in his high heaven. Is there any number to his armies? Upon whom does his light not arise? How then can a mortal be righteous before God? How can one born of woman be pure? If even the moon is not bright and the stars are not pure in his sight, how much less a mortal, who is a maggot, and a human being, who is a worm!’
Chapters 24-26 cause problems for readers and translators alike. Structurally we expect Bildad to speak next, then Job, then Zophar and then Job again – but this third cycle of dialogue isn’t complete. In 24:1-12 the Hebrew text consistently reads ‘they’ as the subject. The NRSV translator is probably correct to interpret this as ‘the wicked’ in v.2, but in v.5 ‘they’ seem to be the oppressed; and the ambiguity continues in vv.9-12. 24:1 didn’t indicate a change of speaker; but vv.13-24 don’t ring true in the mouth of Job as they express the opposite of what he has been maintaining.
Chapter 25 is a very short response from Bildad. Has it been curtailed? Are more of his views expressed elsewhere in these chapters? 26:2-4 make sense as Job’s response to Bildad but what follows is simply a non-controversial speech about God as creator of the universe. It isn’t clear how this contributes to the flow of the debate; and all the friends could have said this as easily as Job.
Scholars offer ingenious solutions to the apparent corruption and dislocation of the text; but none are considered satisfactory. Who knows? Could ‘confusion’ be a clever device by the author cautioning against arguing round in circles to the point where no-one is clear about what each is saying, or whose views are being rebutted?
Today’s focus is on Bildad’s speech. He offers an uncontentious description of God’s infinite power and sovereignty; but then makes a leap in reasoning to conclude that no ‘maggoty’ human could be righteous before God. Is he implying that God’s majesty equates to divine righteousness and so Job is being ridiculous, almost blasphemous, by claiming to be righteous (or ‘blameless’, ‘innocent’) as he has frequently asserted? But ‘righteousness’ has a different meaning when applied to God as against humanity. The standard for humans is not moral, or any other kind of, perfection; the measure in the Hebrew Bible is conformity to what God requires of us, as set out in the ‘books of the law’.
Just as it is a fallacy to work from human understandings of justice to presume knowledge of how divine justice works, so it is a fallacy to work from an understanding of God’s righteousness to apply the same standard to ourselves. So let’s not beat ourselves up (or judge others!) when we fail to reach perfection; but give thanks that, through Christ, God understands our weakness and accepts our faith as righteousness.
God of light, your righteousness shines into all creation to reveal things as they are. Nothing can be hidden from your sight and we know that we fall short of our own expectations, let alone the standard you require of us as your people.
Yet we rejoice in the knowledge that you accept us and love us; and have chosen to continue Christ’s mission on earth through us. We are dumbfounded by this trust. When we stumble, lift us up again, that we may continue walking the way of Jesus for your glory. Amen
The Rev’d Dr Janet Tollington is a retired minister and member of Emmanuel URC in Cambridge.