God’s Quiz, More on the Afterlife, a Present Kingdom

1. Aaron Demsky, “Writing in Ancient Israel. Part One: The Biblical Period,” Mikra: Text, Translation, Reading and Interpretation of the Hebrew Bible in Ancient Judaism and Early Christianity, ed. Martin Jan Mulder (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2004) 13.

“In fact, it has been suggested that Job 38-39 is actually based on a quiz of a teacher on the order of nature, a subject familiar to the more advanced student of both the wisdom and priestly schools.”

I heard something like this in Ed Greenstein’s class on Job, which I took at Jewish Theological Seminary. Essentially, this view states that God overwhelmed Job with his (God’s) encyclopedic knowledge of nature. “You think you’re so smart, Job?,” it presents God as asking. “Do you know this, and this, and this?”

I’ve seen scenes like this on movies and TV shows. Remember that scene in Omen II, in which the arrogant teacher was trying to stump young Damian (the Antichrist) with a bunch of hard historical questions, only to see Damian answering all of them? Or a similar scene in Finding Forrester, in which the cocky teacher was tossing at Jamaal a bunch of poetic quotations, expecting to embarrass him in front of his classmates? The only problem for him was that Jamaal knew the source of all those poetic quotations and ended up embarrassing the teacher!

Then there’s the scene in Remains of the Day, in which a rich man is trying to make a point about the flaws of democracy, and he does so by asking butler Anthony Hopkins some hard questions about gold and the economy. You can tell that the butler knows the answers, but he dutifully pretends that he does not, as he tries to be a good butler. And there’s a scene from the West Wing, in which a pop journalist embarrasses C.J. by criticizing her dress, and C.J. returns the favor by asking her questions about government (e.g., “How many representatives are in the U.S. House?”) at a press conference. The journalist walks away mortified!

In all of these scenes, a figure with authority attempts to embarrass someone by making him or her look ignorant, and that seems to be what God does in the Book of Job. Is God effective? Yes, in the sense that God brings Job to repentance, as Job realizes that he doesn’t know that much after all (though Ed Greenstein disagrees with this interpretation). But I’m not sure if I agree with God’s argument. Just because God knows a bunch of facts about nature, does that mean he runs things well? Sure, God created things a certain way, and he knows what that way is, but does that entail that it’s the best possible way?

But maybe God just assumes that Job would agree that God’s created order is the best possible way. After all, it guarantees life and sustenance to a lot of people, plants, and animals. Perhaps God is trying to convey to Job that he (God) knows the intricacies of how his complex machine works and benefits all creation. If God acts in mysterious ways to benefit living things, then why shouldn’t Job trust God when God appears untrustworthy?

2. Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Volume II: Ante-Nicene Christianity (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1910) 309.

“Another prominent feature of the catacombs is their hopeful and joyful eschatology. They portray in symbols and words a certain conviction of the immortality of the soul and the resurrection of the body, rooted and grounded in a living union with Christ in this world. These glorious hopes comforted and strengthened the early Christians in a time of poverty, trial, and persecution. This character stands in striking contrast with the preceding and contemporary gloom of paganism, for which the future world was a blank…”

At my Latin mass today, I heard a sermon about the afterlife. The priest criticized the Islamic view of post-mortem reward, with its focus on material prosperity (e.g., sex, wealth, good food, etc.). For him, material prosperity will not make people happy, since they eventually grow tired of physical pleasures. The priest contended that the only thing that can make people happy is knowledge of God, whom they will behold and understand more fully in the afterlife.

Is this the Christian conception? In some sense, yes. Paul says in I Corinthians 13:12: “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known” (NRSV). I John 3:2 states, “What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.”

I’m not sure what Paul means when he says we will know “fully.” Can we ever know God fully? Sure, there are beautiful things about God that we can appreciate, but can we completely know an inexhaustible God? I’m not sure if I’d respect God as much if I could know him fully. That implies that he has limits. I’d like to see God as someone I learn more and more about each day, meaning I can never arrive at a state of perfect knowledge.

Another point: Schaff says that paganism drew a blank in its conception of the afterlife. But, to be honest, I’m not sure how specific Christianity is about that topic. We know that we’ll be incorruptible, and that we’ll rule as kings and priests in some way, shape, or form (I Corinthians 15; II Timothy 2:12; Revelation 20:6). But, overall, the New Testament doesn’t really flesh out what we’ll be doing, at least not as far as I can see (and I may be missing something!).

3. Jacob Neusner, Judaism’s Story of Creation: Scripture, Halakhah, Aggadah (Boston: Brill, 2000) 105.

Quote of Alan Avery-Peck: “By providing opportunities for the Israelites to model their contemporary existence upon a perfected order of things, these commemorations further prepare the people for messianic times, when, under God’s rule, the world will permanently revert to the ideal character at the time of Creation.”

According to Neusner, the laws of the Torah present Israelites with the same choice that Adam and Eve had in Eden. In Genesis 2:15-16, God tells Adam: “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.”

On the Sabbatical year, Israelites could freely eat from the fallow land. Exodus 23:11 allows the poor and the wild animals to benefit from the fields, vineyards, and orchards. According to Neusner, the Sabbatical year replicated Edenic conditions, in which Adam and Eve could eat freely, private property did not really exist, and man did not have to toil for his survival (103-104).

But, in the same way that God restricted Adam and Eve from eating from one particular tree, God banned the Israelites from eating certain fruit–at least for a certain span of time. Leviticus 19:23-25 states:

“When you come into the land and plant all kinds of trees for food, then you shall regard their fruit as forbidden; three years it shall be forbidden to you, it must not be eaten. In the fourth year all their fruit shall be set apart for rejoicing in the LORD. But in the fifth year you may eat of their fruit, that their yield may be increased for you: I am the LORD your God.”

The Israelites were to submit to God’s regulation on what they should eat and when. They were to do right what Adam and Eve did wrong. Part of this was so they could avoid the fate of Adam and Eve, who were booted out of paradise. If the Israelites obeyed God, then they could continue to thrive in their good land.

But submitting to God’s rules also prepares the Israelites for the Messianic Era, a time when Edenic conditions will be restored. This reminds me of things I’ve heard from various religious groups. I once had a conversation with a couple of Jehovah’s Witnesses, and they said that they don’t believe in fighting wars because they are citizens of God’s kingdom, which will not allow war (Isaiah 2:4). And I heard a Seventh-Day Adventist pastor proclaim that we should keep the Sabbath now, since we’ll be keeping it in heaven (Isaiah 66:23). “You might as well get used to keeping the Sabbath on earth, since you’ll be doing it in heaven,” he glibly remarked.

For both, the nature of the future kingdom of God should impact how we act in the here-and-now. And they have a point. The kingdom is not just a far-off-in-the-future reality, for it has a present dimension. As Paul says in Romans 14:17, “For the kingdom of God is not food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.”

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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