Perhaps more than any other book in the Bible, Job centers on raising questions more than providing answers. For generations, Bible students have found the book to be quite a challenge.
What about this book? Who wrote this book, when, and why? We don’t really know. We are given little or no data within the book itself to locate it time wise or author wise. We also ask how the book is to be read. Is it a history book that tells us pretty exactly what happened when “a man whose name was Job” lived “in the land of Uz” (Job 1:1)? Or, is it a kind of novella, a piece of pious fiction or kind of folk tale?
Probably the book is meant to be read more as a kind of parable, a story whose significance lies not in it being literal history but in the ways in which the story itself challenges us to think and, especially, to reflect on God and our relationship with God.
That is to say, our focus probably should not be on how at some point in history God and Satan had the kind of conversation recorded here. Rather, we are better served to think about the meaning of what Satan and God are talking about, and, more importantly later on, what Job and God are talking about. Nothing within the book itself requires us to think of it as history. The story unfolds as we would expect of wisdom literature that challenges our imaginations.
We are unable to place the book of Job in a clear historical context. However, the book makes sense as a response to strict rewards and punishments theology that assumes that the world operates strictly according to just desserts – if we deserve good we will receive good and vice versa with bad (or, probably more directly, we are receiving good things we must deserve them and vice versa with bad). This type of theology exerted especially strong influence among the Israelites following the destruction of their nation-state and their time in exile. Following the exile, in their desire not to follow the old paths that led to their trauma, many in Israel sought to work hard at creating the kind of community that would deserve God’s blessing.
The writer of Job may be seen as speaking to an over-emphasis on the rewards and punishment theology, presenting a case for life being a bit more mysterious. Certainly it was important for Israel’s self-identity to remember the failures of their ancestors, especially the disregard for the core concerns of Torah. Yet to strong a focus on rewards and punishments may well lead to a strongly static social philosophy wherein people at the top by definition deserve to be their and people who suffer by definition deserve to suffer.
The book of Job presents things in a much more complicated scenario. The books main protagonist, Job, clearly does deserve his wealth and success. But then it is taken away. How do we make sense of that?
The first two chapters of the book portray Job as an amazing person. Initially, he embodies the idea that quality of character and material blessing go hand in hand. He’s a man of great faith, “a blameless and upright man who fears God and turns away from evil” (1:8) – and also happens to be extremely wealthy both in material things and family members.
Then disaster follows disaster and Job is left childless and with his possessions in ruins. Finally, even as he still sat in his mourning ashes (2:9), he finds himself covered “with loathsome sores…from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head” (2:7). These sores are of the type that one might tend to understand as signs of God’s disfavor.
Job’s wife speaks for the only time in the entire book to give him some understandable advice: “Curse God and die” (2:9). Job, however, remains steadfast. Incredibly, after all he had suffered, he continues to trust in God. “Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?” (2:10).
One question arises for us. In the words of Carol Newsom in the New Interpreter’s Bible, “Is Job’s response an example of sublime faith or of religious masochism?” Is the point here simply that Job models genuine faith that trusts in God no matter what, or is this story here more subtly intending to subvert such a view of faith by presenting it in its absurd extremity?
This question becomes more challenging when we factor in the information about God that Job is not privy to – that God willingly allows Job’s suffering because of what strikes the reader as a somewhat frivolous debate with Satan.
What about God? On this point, it probably does matter whether we think of the book of Job as history or fiction. Do we best read Job 1–2 as an accurate portrayal of how God actually is and a true account of historical interaction between God and Satan? Or do we better read this passage as a parable meant not so much to tell us exactly what God is like as meant to challenge us to think more deeply about what God truly is like?
Is the God of these two chapters worthy of Job’s unconditional trust? Why or why not? What are our bases for our trust in God? Would (should) we trust in a God who would treat us as God treats Job here?
These questions do not lend themselves to easy answers. In times of trauma and uncertainty, religious faith also often reflects the uncertainties fostered by life contexts.
It would appear that one of the underlying cultural assumptions that the book of Job is trying to challenge is the sense that life is a simple matter of good people receiving good things and bad people receiving bad things. As the old song asserts, “it ain’t necessarily so.”
Job’s friends, in chapters four and five, follow this logic, offering Job little comfort. If you are facing misfortune, it must be because you deserve it.
Let’s consider a few snippets from the book, remembering what we were told at the beginning of the book – Job is righteous, and, even though Job does not know this, his plagues were actually approved of by God.
9:32-35. Job knows in his heart that he has not brought the plagues upon himself. He wants to challenge God, but here recognizes that God not a human being (9:32). This is significant because it means that Job cannot possibly find someone to arbitrate between himself and God. Hence, Job is profoundly constrained in challenging God. All the power is on God’s side, and Job hence is “frightened” by God’s “terror” (9:34).
God should be our best hope for justice, and often is presented in the Bible as such. But what if we find God to be the source of injustice? Where do we turn then?
13:20-24. Job will not give up his challenge. He asks God to “stop frightening me with your terrors” (13:20), so that Job may be allowed to speak. When he speaks, he will claim he has not committed “wrongs and sins.” Again, we must remember that according to God’s own testimony in Job 1:8 and 2:3, Job has bases for his argument (not to mention the report that the traumas came from God’s dispute with Satan).
It is shocking, and unprecedented in the Bible, for God to be challenged in this way. Even more shocking, though, is the strong evidence Job has on his side to support his challenge.
19:25-27. Job gains strength with the hope that he does have an advocate, someone to take his side in this dispute. The “redeemer” (Hebrew, go’el) in the Old Testament is typically the nearest male relative who enters a court case to protect one’s interests when one is unable to.
We need only think of how important it has been to us when we feel besieged for whatever reason, to have someone we can trust, someone who offers us support. We aren’t told who Job’s defender is, but that he has one offers him great courage and support.
23:10-12. Again, remembering that Job is righteous according to the story, we read these verses as a statement of Job’s confidence that he will indeed be vindicated. He hints here at a bedrock trust that God ultimately is a God who knows the truth and acts accordingly.
At this point in the story, we face a paradox. On the one hand, Job affirms that, in the end, we have no place to turn but to God. On the other hand, the God we have seen so far does not necessarily seem worthy of such trust. But where else may we go?
Job is famous for his patience, persistence. However, the book of Job actually portrays Job’s persistence in what may be a surprising way. Certainly we see the famous persistence in chapter two, where Job refuses to curse God even after devastating loss upon devastating loss (2:10). Job persists in trusting in God even as he suffers profoundly.
However, what we also see in chapters 27 and 31 is that Job persists in challenging God. If God is truly just and truly the master of the universe, God would not have allowed a person such as Job to suffer as he has.
Perhaps we recoil at Job’s self-assertion here; he makes some pretty strong claims about his own faithfulness. In our verses, Job claims to be “blameless” (27:6) and just (31:13). These are only two of many examples. Isn’t he displaying a bit of pride here? Even more, Job directly challenges God’s own justice, the God “who has denied me justice” (27:2).
We shouldn’t be too quick to draw such a conclusion, though. We are told explicitly at the beginning of the book that Job is extraordinarily upright – and God states this directly, even saying that Job is “blameless” (2:3).
So, the point of the story as we have read it thus far seems clearly not to be that all people, including Job, are hopeless sinners. We have no reason not to accept Job’s self-characterization based on what we are told about Job and about God’s own view of Job.
We find here a different challenge than each of us needing to recognize our own shortcomings. The challenge the book of Job is laying before us is this: What do we make of a universe within which even people who are blameless and upright, people who deserve nothing but good, suffer grievous hurt and injustice? What does God’s sovereignty mean in such a universe?
We have not heard from God yet, but Job seems to be building a pretty strong case. We have to admire Job’s own clarity about his life, the strength of his convictions about the quality of his thoughts and deeds.
So the questions bubble up.
Of what value was Job living such a life? He walked in truth, avoiding deceit (31:5). He stayed on the righteous path (31:7). He lived justly in relation to his servants (31:13). Even with his wealth, he trusted not in gold (31:24). He faced the great test of having his wealth taken away and still trusted (2:10). And yet, he ends up in mourning, suffering great anguish emotionally and physically. So, why should we seek truth and faithfulness to the ways of justice and righteousness?
If God is creator and sovereign Lord, is God then responsible for the injustice, pain, and suffering that so often characterize God’s creation?
Job seems to be facing a troubling conclusion. God does not operate according to the best of human values. God does not seem to be just in the way that Job is assuming that God should be. Job keeps appealing to God’s justice with the sense that since God is just, God will vindicate Job.
The Book of Job challenges our understanding of God as much as any book in the Bible. We have seen how Job lost his children and wealth in a series of random disasters. We are told, though, that these disasters were a consequence of God’s conversations with Satan that led to God giving Satan permission to test Job’s trust in God by causing Job’s traumas.
Then, we read of Job’s responses. Even without knowing of God and Satan’s conversation, Job challenges God’s way of running the universe. If the universe truly were just, then a person as righteous as himself should not suffer the kinds of disasters he has suffered.
Job has several friends who tell him that because indeed the universe is just, his sufferings must have been earned. Job vehemently denies this, and we have God’s own testimony in 2:3 that Job is indeed extraordinarily righteous. Job and his friends all believe in God’s justice, though their beliefs lead to different responses. While the friends blame Job, Job challenges God. If you are a truly just God, and I still believe that you are, you will vindicate me, he says. For most of the book, God remains silent in the face of Job’s challenge.
Finally, God responds. However, we don’t get direct answers from God. In verses such as Job 38:1-7; 40:7-9; 42:1-6, God first simply challenges whether Job has a basis for his challenge, given that he is simply a human being, of a totally different order than the One who has “laid the earth’s foundations” (38:4). This tone continues in 40:9, “do you have an arm like God’s, and can your voice thunder like his?”
Following this latter comment, God brings Job face to face with two incredible creatures, Behemoth (40:15) and Leviathan (41:1) as means to underscore Job’s insignificance.
Following God’s response, Job backs down, almost totally. “Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know” (42:3). He concludes, according to the NIV translation, “My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you; therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes” (42:6).
The book concludes, famously, with Job having his fortunes restored (42:10-17).
However, many of the issues Job raised earlier are not resolved. In God’s response, the question of the justice of the universe remains unanswered. God does not say, yes I am just and this is my evidence. Rather, God simply says these issues are too big for you as a finite human being to understand. Is this a satisfying response?
One way to read the book is as an affirmation of God’s sovereignty and our need simply to accept this sovereignty and not ask questions. Maybe the man Job should simply have accepted his fate and trusted that the almighty God allowed these terrible things to happen for God’s own purposes – purposes Job can’t really understand and shouldn’t really try to.
Yet, Job’s sufferings came from what strikes us as a kind of game between God and Satan – and Job was indeed “blameless.” Is a God who plays these kinds of games worthy of our trust? On the other hand, where else does Job (or we) have to turn if not to God?
Perhaps one clear lesson from the book is that indeed the universe is not governed by simple justice in the sense that we all always get what we deserve, for better and for worse. If we recognize that the universe includes a fairly large measure of chaos, how do we sustain faith?
Perhaps God’s lack of clear answers to Job’s challenge leaves us in a position where we have to struggle all the more with those questions, recognizing that they do not have simple and easy answers. Because bad things do continue to happen to good people (and good things to bad people), because any one of us may face sudden and life-transforming traumas that defy explanation, we do well to read Job as a call to keep asking and struggling.