John H. Walton and Tremper Longman III. How to Read Job. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2015. See here to buy the book.
John H. Walton and Tremper Longman III are prolific scholars of the Hebrew Bible. They are also evangelical Christians. In How to Read Job, they discuss ways to understand features of the Book of Job, while also applying its theological and spiritual message. The book familiarizes popular readers with academic insights into the Book of Job, yet it also has the pastoral concern of demonstrating how the Book of Job can address people’s concern about suffering.
The book interacts with a variety of questions: Was the Book of Job intended to be history, literary, or historical fiction? Was there a real person named Job? Who are the creatures Leviathan and Behemoth, and how do they function in the Book of Job, particularly in God’s speeches? How does the Book of Job compare with other ancient Near Eastern stories about the righteous sufferer, or ancient Near Eastern theology in general? Do God’s speeches to Job contain inaccuracies about nature, according to modern science, and, if so, how can Christians account for that theologically? Did Job believe in an afterlife? What did Job mean when he requested an intercessor, and was he asking for someone like Jesus? Was ha-satan in the Book of Job the devil? What spiritual lessons can we gain from the Book of Job, and can it help us deal with suffering?
The book largely takes a historical-critical perspective, while still maintaining that the book has relevance in Christian theology. Like many critical scholars, but unlike a number of Christian interpreters, Walton and Longman maintain that ha-Satan in the Book of Job was not the devil, that Job did not believe in resurrection from the dead, and that the intercessor Job requested was not like Jesus. At the same time, they do somewhat present the Book of Job as a step up from other ancient Near Eastern stories about the righteous sufferer, and ancient Near Eastern theology: the Book of Job, for example, presents morality as the way to please God, whereas the gods of the ancient Near East were primarily concerned with ritual, which supported them. In terms of the New Testament, Walton and Longman believe that the New Testament offers more hope than the Book of Job by itself does, and yet they think that one can draw important lessons from the Book of Job by itself—-particularly lessons about the importance of disinterested righteousness, and how one should trust God’s wisdom.
There are many assets to this book. Its historical-critical treatment of the Book of Job is one of them, and so are its interesting conclusions about what the text is saying: its interpretation of the significance of Leviathan and Behemoth in the Book of Job comes to mind. Walton and Longman also find a way to interpret the speeches in the Book of Job in light of the narrative. The narrative is about Job passing the test of staying faithful to God after losing everything, whereas the speeches focus on the argument between Job’s friends and Job: Job’s friends argue that Job must have done something wrong to deserve misfortune, while Job defends himself and questions God’s providence. Many scholars argue that there are different sources in the Book of Job: the narrative, “Job the Impatient,” “Job the Patient,” the Elihu speeches, etc. Walton and Longman, however, seem to approach the book more synchronically, and they maintain that the speeches are related to the narrative. According to Walton and Longman, even though Job in the speeches challenges God, he stays in a relationship with God rather than abandoning it due to misfortune. Moreover, Job does not take the easy way out by confessing sin to appease God and get his stuff back, for Job sincerely believe that he is righteous and does not deserve his misfortune, and he wants an audience with God. For Walton and Longman, Job shows here that he is not just worshiping God to get blessings. This argument struck me as a bit of a stretch, and Walton and Longman should have mentioned, at least briefly, the scholarly view that there are different sources in the Book of Job. Still, this discussion, among others, did make the book interesting.
Another asset to the book is how Walton and Longman wrestle with the issue of suffering. They tend to land on pat-answers (i.e., trust God because God is wise), yet one can tell that they are not entirely satisfied with a lot of pat-answers. Their discussion on suffering is rather complex, in places, and that can be frustrating to those who want clarity or consistency, yet it may resonate with those who see suffering as too complex of an issue to be explained away glibly. Some of the points that Walton and Longman make are intriguing: that God in the Bible created a world that included non-order so that humans would cooperate with God in ordering it; that simply blaming suffering on sin does not work as a viable explanation (and not only because it is rude and inconsiderate); and that certain forms of “comfort” (i.e., commiseration) do not entirely comfort, as important as they may be. There were some issues that I wish Walton and Longman had addressed more. Walton and Longman state, for example, that God does not micromanage the world. Does that mean that praying for things (i.e., blessings, protection) is an exercise in futility? Walton and Longman say that we should pray for things while remembering that God is still wise, and thus God knows best, but is praying for things inconsistent with saying that God does not micromanage?
There were other questions that I had in reading this book. Walton and Longman argue that the point of God’s speeches is that God rules the world by wisdom, not by justice, even though justice fits somewhere into God’s wise rule of the world. Walton and Longman did well to note that wisdom is a theme that appears throughout the Book of Job, but they did not really demonstrate how God’s speeches supported the point that they believed the speeches were making. (They say in the bibliography, however, that their commentaries do this.) Moreover, I was wondering what exactly God’s wise rule of the world entailed. Is it ruling the world in a manner that benefits as many people as possible? Is it ruling the world in a manner that is consistent with God’s long-term plan?
I suspect Walton and Longman are correct, overall, in their portrayal of ancient Near Eastern religion: that the gods were more concerned about ritual than morality, and that the gods were not really blamed for evil because they were not considered all-powerful, anyway. Still, there were aspects of what Walton and Longman were saying that made me wonder if there was more to the story. They say that one ancient Near Eastern view was that “God made us with evil inclinations and prone to suffer.” Do not “evil inclinations,” however, imply that ancient Near Easterners were concerned about moral evil, not just ritual impropriety or negligence? Walton and Longman should have wrestled with this some more.
I also have some reservations about the book’s argument that, even if God does not bless us (in this life and the next, and this is hypothetically-speaking), we should honor God because God is God. I do not think that one should honor God out of a mercenary motivation, for right is right and wrong is wrong, regardless of what happens to me personally. At the same time, I have problems with the idea that God deserves honor simply because God is God, as if God’s status is why God deserves honor. Would God deserve honor, even if God were unrighteous? Walton and Longman are clear that God is not unrighteous—-God, they claim, is wise and deserves trust. Still, saying that God deserves honor simply for being God is slightly problematic, in my opinion.
Finally, overall, the approach of Walton and Longman to the relationship of Job to the New Testament was all right. They said that certain perspectives in the Book of Job differed from the New Testament, and I appreciated their acknowledgement of diversity within the Bible and their commitment to letting the Book of Job be what it is, as opposed to forcing it into a Christian mold. They did, however, seem to try to reconcile the Book of Job with James 5:11’s statement that Job was patient, or persevering, and that was interesting. (As one lady told me, Job in the Book of Job does not look all that patient!) Still, Walton and Longman should have addressed I Corinthians 3:19, which quotes Job 5:13. Job 5:13 is from one of the speeches of Eliphaz, a friend of Job whom God criticized at the end of the book. Why is the New Testament quoting as authoritative a speech of one of Job’s friends, whose words God rejected in the Book of Job? This question deserves consideration.
I found the book to be a thoughtful exploration of the Book of Job and the question of suffering. People would probably do well to read the Book of Job, or to read a summary of the Book of Job, before reading this book, since that would familiarize them with the topics that the book addresses.
I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher, in exchange for an honest review.