Chaos and Equality: Part 1Posted: April 7, 2011
The Book of Job has been a text that I’ve never really known how to approach, and have always been confused and troubled by. William P. Brown offers a phenomenal commentary on the poetic tale of Job in The Ethos of the Cosmos: The Genesis of Moral Imagination in the Bible. Brown shows how the relationship between Job and Yahweh radically confronts the wisdom tradition and critiques the privileged patriarchy that Job so piously identifies himself with. The supposedly righteous Job losing everything flies in the face of ancient wisdom teachings. This is a good thing! Admittedly, I’m not a fan of Proverbs. While there is genuinely good advice and truth to be found in its wisdom, it presupposes a cosmic/divine submission to the implementation of moral and ethical aphorisms; it is wisdom in a vacuum. The issue of injustice is greater than my personal adherence to the maxims of Proverbs. My facing adversity, failure, and hardships are not results of my failure to live up to a particular standard of moral or spiritual conduct. Likewise, the oppression endured by millions around the world is not a result of their failure to live up to a moral or spiritual standard. And conversely, the success, health, good fortune, and abundance that we enjoy in the West and Global North is also not the result of our righteousness, spiritual fervor, and ability to carve out a moral society that reflects biblical values. The connections between wealth, success, and divine blessing are deeply woven into the cosmology ancient Judaism and other Near East religions as well.
Enter Job. Here is a person of incredible means who is in want of nothing, and believes he doing everything right. Brown writes,
Befitting his eminence, Job is a man of unprecedented blessing, hard evidence for the satan to challenge Yahweh (1:10). In the satan’s own words, Job’s possessions have ‘broken out over’ or ‘overrun’ the land. As Job’s wealth has transgressed the land, as it were, so Yahweh has violated all sense of equity in favoring Job (Brown, 321).
Job’s identity lies within his righteousness, wealth, status, and piety. The wisdom tradition says that Job has done everything correctly, yet Job does not reap the benefits of blessing and wealth. Job becomes the archetype of privilege, blessing, and wealth lost. Job is now caught in poverty, desperation, and confusion, and has come to become who he detests. Rather than losing his status, Job curses his existence and would rather see a massive reversal and undoing of creation than to be on the bottom of society, sitting on an “ash heap, bereft of the trappings of patriarchy: ownership, honor, and stature” (321). Job’s new situation is a destructive threat to his worldview, as he now believes himself to be a “victim of God’s abusive whim (7:12-15; 9:17-19, 30-32; 10:16-17)” (322). Carrying on the imagery of his own undoing, Job “envisions existence in Sheol as one that encompasses all walks of life, both great and small . . .Social divisions are erased, and the inhabitants of Sheol enjoy the eternal blessings of freedom . . .Job, one the wielder of wealth, can now identify with those who forever have lacked material means” (323).
It is only in this realm of Sheol that Job sees a veritable equity. Princes and slaves are side by side; the “small and the great” together (3:19). Job’s worldview, preoccupied with wealth, status, blessing, and stratification, cannot imagine this equality in reality. Job finds liberation within his call for cosmic undoing. His imagined chaos frees him from the shackles of his unjust reality. However, it is not simply a selfish freedom. The liberating chaos of his imagination levels all. Brown notes,
Chaos serves to erase all form and structure associated with life and community on this side of existence. For Job, this is indeed salutary, even liberating. Chaos has paved the way to freedom; it packs a revolutionary wallop. As the subversive instrument that disrupts and breaks down the cosmos, chaos ushers in new possibilities of social existence. The ancient sages long equated social upheaval with cosmic upheaval (324). 
Job is exploring the other side of structure and the other side of patriarchy and sees an equality. The opposite of structure and order is chaos. Because patriarchy and governance is associated with structure and order, envisioning egalitarianism and radical equality is equated with chaos and anarchy. Equality becomes an enemy of structure and order. The sacrifice of power is too great and too threatening to yield to any new social, familial, ecclesial, or political order on this side of life. Appealing to the equality in which we stand before God but not seeking to implement and live out that equality “on earth as it is in heaven” is a result of the love of power that thrives on comfortable structure and order.
Only in death can Job reside in such a community of equals, one so radical in its orientation that only predatory chaos can clear away the cosmic clutter and set the stage for a new morphology of community. Only in the land of the dead, stripped of all stratification, can freedom and equality reign, so Job imagines. The dissolution of the cosmic community is ultimately its rehabilitation (324).
Rehabilitation, discipleship, and restoration next week.
Brown, William P. The Ethos of the Cosmos: The Genesis of Moral Imagination in the Bible. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1998.