Windbag Speeches: The Cruelty of Talking Too Much
by Brian Zahnd
The only detailed story of the satan in the Old Testament is found in the tragedy of Job. In the first two chapters the satan accuses Job before God and trouble shortly ensues. In three thunderclaps of horror Job loses his wealth, his health, and his children.
After the first two chapters in the Book of Job the satan disappears from the narrative. Or does it? What actually happens is the satan is channeled through Job’s three annoyingly religious friends: Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar.
Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar initially come to comfort Job, but end up tormenting Job’s already shattered soul. I think the three amigos intended well, but in their obsession to explain they became satanic agents of accusation and cruelty.
Basically, Larry, Moe, and Curly had a “Proverbial Theology.” One of the dominant themes of the Book of Proverbs is that if you fear God and live righteously good things will happen. And this is true. We all know it’s true. To fear God and live righteously leads to a blessed and happy life. It’s true. Except when it isn’t.
The Old Testament is immersed in a spirited Jewish debate with itself. For example: The priests insist that God wants ritual sacrifice. But the prophets say, “I’m not so sure about that. Let’s talk about it.”
Proverbs says, “Fear God and live righteously and good things will happen.”
Job says, “Well, I’ve got a story to tell you!”
Tom, Dick, and Harry tell Job, “We know that good things happen to the those who fear God and live righteously. The Bible says so. And since bad things have happened to you, it must be because you do not fear God and have not lived righteously.”
To which Job replies, “Yeah, well, I’m glad you have it all figured out, but there’s only one problem: You’re wrong! Ido fear God and I have lived righteously! What has happened to me happened for no good reason!”
And around and around and around the debate goes.
What’s going on here?
For one thing, the Three Musketeers of Certitude felt compelled to give tidy explanations, not for Job’s sake, but for the sake of their own sense of security. As eyewitnesses to a wrenching human tragedy they want to reassure themselves that this could never happen to them. They cling to their Proverbial security blanket of “nothing-bad-happens-to-the-righteous.” Their own sense of well-being depends upon their ability to give a theological explanation for why this bad thing has happened to Job.
Or perhaps these three iron age theologians were Calvinists, convinced that Job deserved his misfortune “for general purposes.” The “T” on the tulip was reason enough to tell Job to shut up and quit complaining.
Does “total depravity” exonerate God? For the death of Job’s children? For the Holocaust? For Sandy Hook? For Plaza Towers Elementary School? (There’s a reason why Ivan Karamazov made the suffering of innocent children the crux of his argument for “returning his ticket.”)
This much I am sure of: The satan has reappeared in the story in the form of Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar. Their insistence on talking and explaining has inevitably led to accusing and tormenting blameless Job. Finally Job can stand it no more and explodes…
I’ve had all I can take of your talk.
What a bunch of miserable comforters!
Is there no end to your windbag speeches?
What’s your problem that you go on and on like this?
(Job 16:2-3 MSG)
Yeah. Windbag speeches. What is your problem? Why go on and on like that?! It’s just plain cruel.
A cruelty rooted in defending the false comfort of theological certitude.
Or was it just the cruelty of talking too much?
And just in case you’re somehow inclined to defend the Eliphaz gang, don’t forget this…
After God had finished addressing Job, he turned to Eliphaz the Temanite and said, “I’ve had it with you and your two friends. I’m fed up! You haven’t been honest either with me or about me — not the way Job has.” (Job 42:7 MSG)
And how does God defend himself in the “whirlwind speeches”?
As far as I can tell he doesn’t — unless it’s by way of implication. Is God implying something like this: “Look, I’m the Creator. And if there is something wrong, I know about it and I’ll do something about it. I know the buck stops here.” Is that what God is implying? Perhaps. I’m not sure.
I am convinced that the closest thing we have to a Christian theodicy is simply this:
The world is full of unjust suffering. This is true. But God has not exempted himself from it. In Christ, God has joined us in the reality of human suffering. If the question is “Where was God?” — the Christian answer is, “There, upon the cross, joining us in solidarity with our suffering.”
I think Dietrich Bonhoeffer was on to something when he said, “Only the suffering God can help.”
Then there’s Easter with its promise of New Creation — a world imagined by the prophets as beyond tears, beyond death, “beyond the twisted reach of crazy sorrow.”
In the meantime, it’s probably best that we refrain from windbag speeches that attempt to explain too much. For in the attempt to explain we are liable to become little satans and agents of cruelty.
“Love alone is credible.” -Hans Urs von Balthasar
(The artwork is The Suffering of Job by Trenét Worlds)
PS: Here’s something really good from Walter Brueggemann…