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Job Verses God: The Trial of the Epoch

David Cowles

Jun 1, 2024

“Job v. God is the Marbury v. Madison of theological law.”

Those of us old enough to remember 1995 know the impact a good trial can have on society. For nearly a year, business paused, and an entire nation focused on a Los Angeles courtroom: “Hush! Hush! Whisper who dares! Christopher Robin is saying his prayers.” O.J. Simpson was on trial!

Vietnam, Civil Rights, Rodney King, nothing polarized this nation quite like OJ. It’s appropriately known as the ‘Trial of the Century’ and it is certainly one of the seminal public events in my superannuated lifetime. But it pales in comparison to a trial that took place 3000 years earlier at an undisclosed location somewhere in the Middle East; I’m referring, of course, to Job v. God.

Astonishingly, we have a verbatim transcript of those proceedings, virtually intact! The text is embedded in the Old Testament Book of Job. Here’s the ‘run-up’: Job, a virtuous man by all accounts, right in his personal conduct, just and generous in his dealings with others, suddenly loses his wealth, his children, his reputation, his social standing, and eventually, his health. He is the victim of an ‘Act of God’. 

That God acted capriciously in this matter is not in dispute. He admits it and shows no remorse. God is no Bill Clinton; he does not feel Job’s pain! The legal issue here is whether God, being God, the Almighty, Creator of Heaven and Earth, is entitled to act capriciously. I mean, he is God after all! That’s got to count for something, right? Or to put it the other way, is there a higher law that can bring even God to heel? 

The Book of Job is a 40 chapter epic poem bookended by a short prose prologue and epilogue. The provenance of the prose is suspect and its semantic relation to the poem itself is dubious, so we’ll focus on the OG epic itself. 

Job’s physical suffering is overwhelming, but surprisingly, that is not his biggest complaint, not by a long shot. Torture is nothing compared to existential angst. You know that. You’ve tossed and turned at 2AM, lying on Egyptian cotton sheets. 

“(Human beings) are quashed more easily than a moth, from daybreak to evening they are crushed; when it is not even nightfall, they disappear, forever unnoticed. The pegs of their tent are pulled up. They die without knowledge.” (4: 19b – 21) 

Job is possibly the most misunderstood character in all of Judeo-Christian literature. He is famous for his patience: he is anything but patient! He is about to lead an assault on Heaven, only slightly less ferocious than Lucifer’s…but enormously more successful. Job’s crusade is about to put an end to humanity’s dreams of an Imperial Deity.

Job’s determination does not come out of any personal disrespect for God but rather out of profound ‘faith in the system’ (legal and cosmic). While society around him has accepted the notion of God as benevolent but erratic, Job holds out for a higher value: Justice.

Job is joined by a cadre of ‘false friends’. They reject the notion that God can act capriciously. From Job’s ‘reduced circumstances’ they infer evidence of sin. They advise Job to ‘cop a plea’: Admit guilt (even if you don’t feel it) and ask God to commute your sentence to time served. Sensible advice, abhorrent to Job!

Job will not debase himself, not even before God. And he will not corrupt the value of Truth with a false pleading. Rather than plead out, Job welcomes a trial: It gives him an opportunity to confront his opponent ‘face-to-face’ and a chance to question God directly.

Job’s reasoning? If I cannot get my conviction overturned, at least I can gain a better understanding of ‘what makes God tick’. That alone would be worthwhile. 

Like many corporate litigants today, Job not only wants to win his suit; he also hopes to force God to divulge ‘trade secrets’. Job will use the trial to ask God for nothing less than a full accounting of himself and his activities: what did he have in mind when he ‘created the heavens and the earth’, why didn’t he do a better job, and why doesn’t he fix it…now? 

And so the trial begins. Job, the Plaintiff, appears pro se; God, in absentia, is represented by a self-appointed legal team – the very same ‘friends’ that previously counseled Job to cop a plea. This is the Old Testament’s version of Johnny Cochran’s Dream Team…only much less competent. Pity any god who cannot afford better legal representation than this! 

Job carries a heavy legal burden. To defeat God’s application for Summary Judgment, Job must show that there is a court of competent jurisdiction, that he is the victim of a tort, that he has legal standing to bring an action, and that a potential remedy exists. (Note that God’s agency in Job’s tragedy is not at issue.)

Job v. God opens with Job offering the court a detailed summary of the injustices done to him. Then, one by one, God’s attorneys attempt to “justify the ways of God to men (sic).” (Paradise Lost). 

Of course, God’s team resorts to the full bag of legal tricks. Can’t defend the assailant? No problem, put the victim on trial instead. God’s lawyers go to great lengths to demonstrate Job’s culpability…and they advance some novel legal theories in the process:

  1. Job is being punished, not for his own sins, not even for the sins of his father, but for the sins of his sons.

  2. Job is being punished now for the future crime of taking God to court. 

As in Through the Looking-glass, the miscreant first serves his sentence, then goes on trial (“Guilty!”), and only later commits the crime for which he has been convicted, sentenced, and punished. Surprisingly, Job finds a way to turn this argument against his adversaries later in the proceedings.

One by one, Job effortlessly swats away his opponents’ arguments. Against the dogmatic deductions of his friends, Job appeals to empirical facts; here’s a ‘Cliff’s Notes’ version: 

“I have lived a righteous and just life; yet I am being punished most severely. Others, not nearly as upright as me, often in fact deliberate doers of evil, are not punished at all. They live lavish lives in good health and pass that wealth onto future generations, intact. I on the other hand, have no assets, and no children to leave them to if I did, and I live on a dunghill, covered with scabs.”

That said, Job was not born last night. He realizes that he’ll struggle to meet his legal burdens. Most likely, a court will conclude that:

  1. No court has the power to compel God to answer charges…or comply with judgments; 

  2. Job’s circumstances do not constitute a tort;

  3. No one can ever have standing to sue God; and 

  4. No plausible remedy exists. 

So, Job decides to invoke the doctrine of ‘Jury Nullification’; he asks the court to look past the veil of law and judge the case based on its existential merits, on common law and natural law, based on universal values and empirical evidence, without regard to legal or religious pre-conceptions. Job’s argument for Nullification is complex…but ultimately irrefutable; note how it ingeniously puts the twisted logic of God’s attorneys (above) to purpose: 

God is assumed to be immune from civil suits because he is God. Even so, such immunity would not extend to a similarly situated defendant who was not God. Consequently, it is necessary to establish that God is God before the court can rule on his immunity claim. But how?

“God is good (adjective) and Good (noun). God does not choose to be good; God is good by nature (it’s his essence). As Jean-Paul Sartre frequently pointed out, God is the one and only being whose essence precedes his existence!

“An important component of Good is Justice (along with Beauty and Truth). If it is shown that a ‘god’ deliberately engaged in unjust behavior, then this cannot be God. And a god that is not God can assert no valid claim for immunity.”

Brilliant! Job is arguing that the court must decide the merits of the case first…before it can determine if the defendant is entitled to immunity. And the court agrees! 

An unjust God would be a violation of Natural Law (aka the Good), a ‘law’ God created and later codified in Torah. So, there is a remedy after all: the court can simply order God to be God and God cannot refuse because God is God. 

The Job-poet anticipates Dante. In Inferno, folks are sentenced to ‘be themselves’, eternally. Could a more fearsome punishment possibly be imagined? 

Did I mention that Job went ‘all in’? Consider this: We are used to a legal system where the burden of proof falls squarely on the Plaintiff. In Job’s world that burden is shared but the preponderance falls on the Defendant. “Prove you didn’t do it!” Hence, the importance of an alibi. 

However, Job can overcome this presumption of guilt, and even reverse it, by swearing an ‘Oath of Innocence’. According to the common legal customs of the ancient Middle East (The Egyptian Book of the Dead), when one party swears a proper Oath of Innocence, that party is immediately presumed to be innocent. 

Job so swears. Now, if God still wants to contest Job’s claim, he must appear in person and accept that the burden of proof is now on him. But there’s a downside for Job. If a party offers an Oath of Innocence that is later judged to be untrue, the ‘taker of false oaths’ will have earned himself additional punishment, too severe to be detailed in this article. Excerpts of Job’s oath are worth a read (note its highly structured legal form):

“If ever a poor man would extend me his hand, if in time of disaster he cried out to me…If I’ve ever thwarted a poor man’s desires…or ate a loaf by myself so an orphan could not eat of it…If I ever saw a vagabond with nothing to wear or the needy with nothing to cover him...If I ever raised my hand to the fatherless…If I ever made gold my reliance and called pure gold ‘my precious’…If I ever rejoiced at my enemy’s ruin and exalted when evil befell him…If ever my land has complained of me, if ever it’s furrows cried out…” (31)

Job seals his oath: “Here is my mark, let Shaddai respond! … Complete are the words of Job.” (31: 35-40)       

God can ‘read a room’ as well as the next guy. He sees that his team is losing. Hoping to avoid an adverse judgment, he takes over his own defense and decides to testify after all. He appears “out of the whirlwind” and takes the stand. 

Is there a more exciting moment in all of literature? Almighty God, summoned to court by a man who lives on a dunghill; God complying, furiously raging, tail between his legs. “Oscar! Oscar!”

God imagines that he can dispose of Job with a simple display of pyrotechnics (aka majesty and might). That usually does the trick where muggles are concerned! But Job is no muggle, far from it in fact, as God is about to learn to his everlasting dismay.

God is supremely confident, over-confident as it turns out, that he can prevail in Earl Stanley Gardner’s Case of the Pesky Plaintiff. He decides to approach the challenge as an American Presidential nominee might approach a debate with her opponent.

God begins by questioning Job’s ‘real world’ experience. But first, he sarcastically calls on Job to put on his big boy pants: “Who is this who obscures good counsel, (using) words without knowledge? Bind up your loins like a man! I will ask you – and you will help me know!” (38: 2-3)

Job bears God’s condescension silently…but, as we shall see, he files it away for future use.

God has a keen sense of humor! (ditto Job.) God suggests that he is here to learn from Job. In fact, of course, his questions are designed to demean Job, to demonstrate that Job has no business being on the same stage, much less giving instruction:

“Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundations? (38: 4) …Have you ever reached the sources of the Sea and walked on the bottom of the Ocean? Were you ever shown the gates of Death?” (38: 16-17)

“Have you ever in your days summoned daybreak? Made known to the dawning its place, holding the earth by its corners so the wicked would be shaken from it?” (38: 12-13)

As sarcastically as possible, God highlights Job’s inexperience; then he questions  Job’s competence. Can Job do the things that God does? Can he do them better? If the answer is negative, then what’s the point of Job’s ridiculous lawsuit? And what’s the remedy? 

“Do you hunt down prey for the lion and quell the hunger of beasts?” (38: 39)

“Can you tie the wild ox by rope to a furrow?... Do you give the horse its bravery…Does the falcon take flight through your wisdom?” (39: 1-7)

Here God pauses, thinking his work is done. Confident that he has put forward irrefutable arguments, he takes one last swipe at his opponent: “Should Eloah answer (such) an accuser (Job)?” (40: 2) 

In God’s opening discourse, he attempts to bully Job into submission; but Job is well aware that God has not answered a single one of his complaints. Plus, Job cannot let God’s sarcastic taunts go unanswered; he cannot back down to the school yard bully. Against that background then, what follows seems surprising:

“Lacking respect, how can I answer you? My hand I place over my mouth. I have spoken once and I will not repeat; twice, and I will no more.” (40: 4-5)

This is traditionally interpreted as Job dropping his suit. It is easy to see how these words could be read as an ‘Act of Contrition’. Job placing his hand over his mouth could be interpreted as a gesture of submission. 

But does that meaning make sense? Would Job confess to disrespecting God when he had only the greatest respect for the Deity? Or did he cover his mouth as if to say, “I have said all there is to say, and you have not refuted any of my allegations. Why should I talk?”

If this was to be Job’s resignation, then why did God feel the need to deliver a second full throated defense? Remember, God does not want to be here. Had Job truly conceded, God would have been out of there in a flash, secrets intact. 

So how else might the verse be read? Could it be it’s God who’s disrespected Job, that Job is the object of the disrespect, not its subject? Therefore, Job’s original testimony should be more than enough to secure judgment for the Plaintiff. Job need not talk past the close!

The first God/Job exchange boiled down to taunting, bullying and name calling. (Good thing nothing like that could ever happen today!) But now the time for posturing is past; it’s time for God to ‘get real’. 

God wants a settlement, but to get it, he will have to ‘open his books’. He will need to share with Job deep secrets regarding the process of creation and the structure of the world. He must grant Job’s request for knowledge! Unlike Adam,  Job will be allowed to eat fruit from the Tree of Knowledge. 

Remember, Job has not asked God to abdicate; he has not asked for restitution, much less reparations; he has not even asked God to end his suffering. Job is clear, he’s in this for one thing only: knowledge!

In his 2nd speech, God first challenges Job to work with him to rid the world of injustice:

“If you’ve an arm (as strong as) El’s…look for the proud and lay him low…crush the wicked where they stand. Cover them all in dust; in dust wrap their faces! Then I myself will praise you as your right hand brings you triumph.” (40: 8-14)

This time God challenges Job, not to do something cosmic, something absurd on the face of it, but to do something that is local and conceivable but just very, very hard. God is happy to join Job’s Crusade, but first he needs to give Job a ‘heads-up’: the problem is not as simple as it seems, nor the remedy as easy as it looks. 

The balance of God’s testimony concerns two of his more ‘monstrous’ creations, Behemoth and Leviathan, introduced as a way of explaining to Job the ‘ecology’ of the world: 

“Behold now Behemoth which like you I created...Can you pull out Leviathan with a fishhook? Can you bind his tongue with a rope? ...Will he make a pact with you? Will he be your slave forever? Can you toy with him like a bird? …Who has ever confronted him and survived?” (40: 15  –  41: 3a)

“Of all that’s under heaven, he is mine. I cannot keep silent about him, the fact of his incomparable valor…He has no match on earth, who is made as fearless as he? …Over beasts of all kinds he is king.” (41: 3b - 26)

Even if God could rid the world of Behemoth and Leviathan, he wouldn’t do so! He’s proud of his creatures, he loves them, and he knows that they have a role to play in the ecology of creation. And besides, he’s crushing on Leviathan.

We’re transported to the 18th century (Leibniz). This is not the best world imaginable; it is just the best world possible. And that world includes Leviathan (or his functional equivalent)…sorry! 

Such ‘beasts’ are an integral part of nature; they have unique qualities (genes) of their own. True, their behavior may appear ‘evil’ from the perspective of creatures with conflicting interests (like us) but just imagine what other species would say about homo sapiens

So ends God’s defense! The Job-poem ends with Job’s ‘final speech’…and this time it really is final. Job gets the last word…and just listen to what he has to say:

“Who is this hiding counsel without knowledge? Truly I’ve spoken without comprehending – wonders beyond me that I do not know. Hear now and I will speak! I will ask you and you help me know. As a hearing by the ear, I have heard you, and now my eye has seen you. That is why I am fed up; I take pity on ‘dust and ashes’ (i.e., humanity).” (42: 3-6)

Notice that Job’s closing lines (38: 1-3) nearly duplicate God’s opening… complete with the dripping sarcasm. But now, it is Job, relishing victory, who mocks God, not the other way around. 

We’ve come full circle and there can no longer be any doubt about the outcome of this trial. But before we ‘call’ the contest for Job, we’d better check to see how the media is spinning it.

Oops! In a review of 17 independent commentaries on Job that were written over the past 150 years, Job scholar, Stephen Vicchio, found 15 calling the judgment for God and only 2 calling it for Job. Like Job’s ‘friends’, and the Chicago Tribune, we see the evidence of the world through the filtered lens of our preconceived notions: “Dewey defeats Truman!” 

Job v. God is the Marbury v. Madison of theological law. It confirms and codifies the structure of Being itself. It affirms the absolute universality and supremacy of Value (Good – Beauty, Truth, Justice). It answers once and for all the perennial question: Is Good ‘good’ because God wills it or does God will good because it is Good? 

The verdict of the court: God is subject to the same objective ethical values and standards as the rest of us; they are enforceable; he enjoys no privileged immunity. 

“Who’d a thunk it?” (Hairspray)


David Cowles is the founder and editor-in-chief of Aletheia Today Magazine. He lives with his family in Massachusetts where he studies and writes about philosophy, science, theology, and scripture. He can be reached at


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