The Hidden Meaning of the Storm-Cloud God of Job

Who is this who darkens counsel with words of ignorance?

With these words God appears out of a whirlwind, or storm cloud, to Job, the despondent Old Testament character who had lost his family, health, and wealth to a series of misfortunes. Job had since vacillated between bemoaning his misery and calling upon God to let him plead his innocence before Him.

And so, finally, in Job 38, God appears.

This theophany is exactly what Job had demanded but nothing like what he had expected.

“Then call me, and I will respond; or let me speak first, and answer me,” Job had said (Job 13:22). Later, imagining what it would be like to chance upon God, Job said he was ready to make his case before the Almighty: “I would set out my case before him, fill my mouth with arguments” (Job 23:4).

Job had longed to find God. “Would that I knew how to find him that I might come to his dwelling!” (Job 23:3). The opposite had happened: God not only came to Job, but did so in such a way that it would be impossible for Job to find Him on his own. For whirlwinds have no ‘dwelling,’ no fixed place. “The wind blows where it wills, and you can hear the sound it makes, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes,” (John 3:8).

The storm-cloud and God’s first words to Job are steeped in irony.

Job had earlier cursed the day of his birth, wishing that dark storm clouds had brooded over it (Job 3:5). He was ready to die. Instead, he gets what is effectively a second birthday. For his encounter with God really does mark a rebirth for Job—his relationship with God is restored and he gets a new life.

Storm clouds are typically dark, not bright and reflective. But it is God who accuses Job of ‘darkening’ counsel. Job considered himself in the know—enlightened, one might say—about the true state of his soul and his place in the world. But the light of man is really darkness. And what appears to be the darkness of God is true light. Put another way: “The foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom” (1 Corinthians 1:25).

Job had expected answers from God. Not only does he never get to even ask his questions, he finds himself being questioned:

Who is this who darkens counsel
with words of ignorance?
Gird up your loins now, like a man;
I will question you, and you tell me the answers
Where were you when I founded the earth?
Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its size? Surely you know?
Who stretched out the measuring line for it? (Job 38:2-5).

These lines go on in what becomes a long soliloquy, in which God describes the creation of the world and all the creatures that inhabit it. All this is in the form of a question, which amounts to, Who are you to ask questions of me?

Job had been in the dark about God’s true nature. And, in encountering God, he remains in the dark about God, who remains cloaked behind the storm-cloud. But here is the beginning of enlightenment for Job: the realization that God is beyond His own self-made standards of what is right and how the world should work. God is beyond his grasp. And this, ironically, is the first step towards knowing God.

Not only had Job been ignorant of God. He had also been ignorant of his own true nature:

Look, I am of little account; what can I answer you?
I put my hand over my mouth (Job 40:4).

Here is the total humility that is required of us—that we not only admit that God is beyond all our concepts, but that even we, as His creatures, are not the masters of our own reality. Our lives are, in a sense, ‘hidden’ with Him (see Colossians 3:3). Faced with such a profound truth, we can only respond in silence. And it is precisely in silence that God is truly encountered.

image: By Reinhardhauke (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Stephen Beale

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Stephen Beale is a freelance writer based in Providence, Rhode Island. Raised as an evangelical Protestant, he is a convert to Catholicism. He is a former news editor at GoLocalProv.com and was a correspondent for the New Hampshire Union Leader, where he covered the 2008 presidential primary. He has appeared on Fox News, C-SPAN and the Today Show and his writing has been published in the Washington Times, Providence Journal, the National Catholic Register and on MSNBC.com and ABCNews.com. A native of Topsfield, Massachusetts, he graduated from Brown University in 2004 with a degree in classics and history. His areas of interest include Eastern Christianity, Marian and Eucharistic theology, medieval history, and the saints. He welcomes tips, suggestions, and any other feedback at bealenews at gmail dot com. Follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/StephenBeale1

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  • John Mulqueen

    iInteresting commentary. I am not sure that Job repented and surrendered to God after God’s outburst. Several authors believe he did not, and that the section in 42.6 quoting his surrender has been mistranslated.

    Most notably Jack Miles, a former Jesuit priest, now an Episcopalian who teaches at University of California, Irvine, wrote in “God: A Biography”, that the traditional translation of v.42.6, “therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes” is mistaken. He says it should read ‘I shudder with sorrow for mortal clay”. The meaning ,according to Miles, is that Job fears what God is capable of doing, and he continues to accuse God, forcing him to restore Job’s wealth. See “God” pp 324-326 for a full discussion, and especially the footnotes pp 426-430. Vintage paperback edition 1999, New York.

    Roland Murphy, a Catholic priest, agrees with Miles that the translation of 42.6 has been incorrect, and that Job is not repenting for everything that he said and did but disagrees with Miles’ interpretation. He says Job has changed his mind about God’s guilt. See Murphy’s “Tree of Life.” pp 45-46.

    Mayer Gruber in his commentary on Job in “The Jewish Study Bible” says that the word translated as “recant” in the version I recant and relent being but dust and ashes” usually means despise, and the rest of the phrase might mean Job is simply speaking from a dust-heap. The ending is thus ambiguous, he notes, but apparently satisfies the Lord Oxford University Press 1999 p. 1561.

    Strange that a central passage in one of the most read pieces of literature is still open to mistranslation after several thousand years.

  • Viki63

    “He had also been ignorant of his own true nature:”
    Many people are getting their DNA checked to find out their ancestry, and often are surprised at the results. I was 50 before I found out I had been baptized a Catholic (nobody bothered to mention it). New discoveries are being made all the time — they say we may have the DNA of Neanderthals; who knows what else?
    In the end we will discover that we are not what we thought – not these boring creatures who go through life’s daily grind, but as C.S. Lewis says, “creatures that if you saw [them] now, you would be strongly tempted to worship.”
    Drawing nearer to God can help us see the reality of ourselves more clearly.

  • Stephen Beale

    How interesting. Thanks for the feedback. I was unaware of this debate. Given the context, I think it’s most likely that Job did repent, but the underlying Hebrew is indeed difficult to translate.

  • Michael J. Lichens

    A fantastic comment! Thanks for that.

    I also like to remember St. Bernard of Clairvaux, “There are two things you should know: first, what you are; second, that you are not what you are by your own power. Then you will boast, but not in vain.”

  • John Mulqueen

    Two ways to play that idea. One that he realizes his insignificance and surrenders. Other that he realizes his independence and refuses to surrender. I read someplace that God’s speech in Job is the first instance in literature of a piece of writing that is celebrated for its literary worth, rather than its ideas. This appreciation if I remember correctly was made in 17th Century England by writers using a new “sentimentality”, I maybe be getting that reference slightly wrong.

  • Robin H

    I don’t know Hebrew but I don’t agree with the interpretation. You can never meet God and remain unrepented. The fear of the Lord is not “I am so scared God will kill me” but “I am so scared of Him that I would gladly die if He kills me right at the spot” You would rather die than to force Him to do anything. There is only one ending to the story in which a human confronts God. Yes The crappy ending that the righteous Job repents instead of God who gave Job all the crap. (I thought my story would be different because this time God was indisputably in the wrong..)

    The Book of Job is to be mystically experienced not to be intellectually explained. The ending is relational. You have to have a history with God building up to the moment of repentance to reach the same conclusion as Job when you encounter Him.

    Forcing God to restore things is not a true healing at all. Getting rebuked by God after all those sufferings ironically heals to the deepest part of the soul.

  • John Mulqueen

    That is a possible reading, a believer’s reading, but the story of Job is a puzzle that Ronald Murphy describes well. pages 33-47, and especially pp 202-208 in the Third Edition of his book, where he agrees with Miles but suggests Miles has missed the point of the poet.. The story has confused readers for 2000 years and continues to do. You can impose a solution on it, or you can agree that it has none. God’s actions are puzzling, so are Job’s.

  • Adrian Johnson

    I pay no attention to “modernist” interpreters of Scripture. The point of the book of Job is that until the incarnation, God is “the utterly other”, and incomprehensible to man (along with man’s incomprehension of the meaning of his own suffering) without God’s self-revelation.

    Some Scripture scholars think that the Book of Job may well pre-date the Pentateuch, which sort of makes sense psychologically: The Book of Job poses the philosophical question which is answered by the rest of Scripture as it unfolds in history.

  • John Mulqueen

    Job knew nothing about the Incarnation. The book of Job does raise a question. How Job answers it is a legitimate question. Does “modernist” means simply that a contemporary scholar is offering an opinion on a text, or are you implying something else

  • Adrian Johnson

    Of course Job knew nothing of the Incarnation. His answer, therefore, is (from the historical long-view) unsatisfactory because incomplete.

    “Modernism” has a precise meaning — it was called by Pope Pius X, who wrote an encyclical (“Pascendi”) prophetically warning against it. In the realm of scripture scholarship, it is a warning against “Higher criticism” by Catholic theologians; the Catholic Encyclopaedia entry on the topic concludes with,

    “. . .the Church warmly recommends the exercise of criticism according to sound principles unbiased by rationalistic presuppositions, but it must condemn undue deference to heterodox writers and any conclusions at variance with revealed truth. When doubt arises about the permissibility of hypotheses, it is for ecclesiastical authority to decide how far they consist with the deposit of faith or are expedient to the welfare of religion.”

  • John Mulqueen

    I was afraid you were talking about that encyclical. Read “Divided Friends” by William Portier a professor at Fordham who describes well the effects of that absurd document one Catholic intellectuals. Did you know John 23 was caught up in the “red scare” that the encyclical inspired. Also Father Duffy,he of tWW1 fame, whose statute is in Time Square.. The encyclical of course was largely junked by later popes, especially Vatican 2.

  • John Mulqueen

    Roncalli a commie pinko. Who would have guessed. They are everywhere

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