From Despair to Hope: Job’s Extraordinary Journey

The Book of Job seems the least likely of any in the Old Testament to be hopeful.

Sure, it ultimately ends happily, but it’s the titular character’s existential angst and his sheer, unending misery that dominates. From the beginning, the mood is one of despair and gloom. After a series of calamities strikes him and his household, we meet Job sitting on a heap of ashes, scraping his sores from a broken shard of a pot (Job 2).  His wife tells him to curse God and die. Instead, Job curses the day of his birth in the most unequivocal terms (Job 3).

And so it goes throughout the book. Job is still souring over his sorry fate near the end. In Job 30 he cries out,

I go about in gloom, without the sun;
I rise in the assembly and cry for help.
I have become a brother to jackals,
a companion to ostriches.
My blackened skin falls away from me;
my very frame is scorched by the heat
(verses 28-30; all quotations NAB, Rev. ed. unless otherwise noted).

And yet, hope is throughout the book. Yachal, one of the four main Hebrew words for hope, appears 8 times in Job—more than any other book except the much-longer Psalms, where it is used 17 times. Another word, tiqwah, occurs a dozen times in Job, more than any other book in the Old Testament. Two other Hebrew words for hope also are in Job. One is the considerably rarer tochelet, which is in just a handful of books. The fourth word, qavah is used in three prophetic books, the Psalms, and Job. (For more, see this article, which is a key source of the summary here.)

To be sure, some instances of these words for hope in Job are in a negative context: they either describe the absence of hope for Job or others or refer to the sort of things a completely miserable person might ‘hope’ for, such as death. But then, hope springs up in positive contexts as well.

What’s more: the seemingly negative and positive contexts are not opposed to each other, but instead they are interrelated. In other words, the key to understanding the kind of hope that Job offers to us is not ignoring his abject state of affairs, but grasping their full meaning.

In the midst of his despair, Job does have a sort of hope. In Job 17:13, he declares his “only hope is dwelling in Sheol and spreading my couch in darkness.” (Sheol is the generic Hebrew term for the underworld.) He describes at length his longing for death:

Like a slave who longs for the shade,
a hireling who waits for wages,
So I have been assigned months of futility,
and troubled nights have been counted off for me (Job 7:2-3).

Although not explicit in these verses, commentators interpret this as an unmistakable wish for death. Certainly the term shade here is richly connotative of this: just as a hard laborer waits for the shadow of the evening, when his work comes to an end, so Job awaits the evening of his life. Perhaps not coincidentally, in the ancient world, particularly Greece and Rome, souls who had departed to the afterlife were called ‘shades’—they had no real flesh and bone substance, but were mere shadows of their former selves.

But Job soon realizes that death is no hope. So he goes from hoping for death to despairing over the utter hopelessness of death itself, according to an account from one Australian-based biblical scholar, Suzanne Boorer. In the words of Job,

Where then is my hope,
my happiness, who can see it?
Will they descend with me into Sheol?
Shall we go down together into the dust? (Job 17:15-16).

This sentiment represents a turning point for Job. Having faced the hopelessness of death, he founds within himself a new desire: a hope that he will be vindicated as a righteous man by God. This, according to Boorer, is actually stated a few chapters earlier:

Though he slays me, I will hope for him;
I will defend my conduct before him.
This shall be my salvation:
no impious man can come into his presence

(Job 13:15-16; translation is this author’s own
adaption from the NAB, Rev. Ed., based on other
renderings and the Hebrew).

In the Old Testament it was understood that no one impure could see God and live (see Exodus 33:20; where it simply states ‘no one’—presumably because all are sinners). Job believes he is not wicked, so surviving an encounter with God would demonstrate his innocence. But, given that he also already accepted the impending reality of his death, he is also willing to risk being wrong. As Boorer puts it, “In the face of the prospect of his hope for death which is no–hope, and no hope in life, he has nothing to lose: He is free to desire to confront even God at the risk of everything, even death.”

In desiring death, Job has admitted his inherent nothingness. This implicit grasp of his own existential condition is what enables him to reach for God. However, on the level of intellect, he yet does not fully understand his true nature, the death for which he had wished, and the God he seems to accuse of unjustly tormenting him.

This understanding would only come after his encounter with God, which begins in Job 38. He finally realizes this after God’s first speech to him. “Look, I am of little account; what can I answer you? I put my hand over my mouth,” he says (Job 40:4).

In this encounter with God, Job’s understanding of both death and hope are transformed, according to Boorer. He had looked forward to death as an end to a miserable life. And he had sought Sheol as an escape from a miserable life. But God, in his first soliloquy, declares that sheol falls under his dominion, in describing as part of the created order:

Have you entered into the sources of the sea,
or walked about on the bottom of the deep?

Have the gates of death been shown to you,
or have you seen the gates of darkness?

Have you comprehended the breadth of the earth?
Tell me, if you know it all (Job 38:16-18).

God’s power over the domain of the dead means he has control over death itself. Hence, many images of death in his speech are transformed into signs of life. For example, there are the fledging eagles who drink the blood of the prey fed to them (Job 39:29). And the clouds that Job had called upon to darken the day of his birth are re-imagined as the swaddling clothes for the sea (Job 3:5; Job 38:9). Boorer concludes:

Thus, in this universe, not only is life affirmed but so also is death, and life and death are inseparably related in an unfathomable way, such that there is not one without the other. . …Hence it can be said that not only is Job’s initial hope for death and his rejection of life denied in the Yahweh speeches, but so also is his later rejection of death as a symbol of hopelessness. For death has a vital place, in relation to life, in Yahweh’s universe.

The key thing then is not to hope for a happy life or death to end a miserable one, but instead to place one’s hope in God ordains both and causes all things to work together for good (Romans 8:24).

How God finally appeared to Job was a most fitting manner in which to convey this message. The Douay-Rheims translation says God was in ‘whirlwind.’ The revised edition of the New American Bible calls it a ‘storm.’ Both point to the general idea of a storm cloud. Now recall that Job had called upon a cloud to overshadow his birthday. Here then at last is the hoped-for cloud.

But far from spelling his doom, it signals a new birth.

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

By

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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