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The Riddle of Job

David Cowles

May 29, 2022

If I do my job in this essay, you may become a modern-day version of Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, who “stoppeth one of three." You’ll be spreading the truth about Job to anyone who’ll listen.

Ask absolutely anyone, and they'll gladly tell you that the Old Testament Book of Job is a treatise on the Problem of Evil ('POE'): Why Bad Things Happen to Good People (Rabbi Harold Kushner, 1981).

But is it? Is it possible that everyone (well, nearly everyone) is wrong about Job…and has been wrong for more than 2,500 years? Not very likely, I'll grant you…but possible, yes.

Proceed at your own risk, reader! If I do my job in this essay, you may become a modern-day version of Coleridge's Ancient Mariner, who "stoppeth one of three." You'll be spreading the truth about Job to anyone who'll listen.

No? Still with us? Then let's get started:

Simply put, the Problem of Evil (POE) asks why God, presumed to be all good and all-powerful, would allow injustice to infect his creation? It is his creation, after all, correct? Then fix it already!

The author/compiler/editor of the Book of Job attacks POE head on, but so do most other philosophers and theologians. Job showcases many potential solutions to POE, but tough questions remain:

  1. Are any of the solutions mentioned in Job satisfying?

  2. Does the author/compiler/editor of Job endorse any of these answers?

  3. Or does he (sic) offer a solution of his own?

  4. Or is POE not what the Book of Job is about after all? And if not POE, what?

No proposed solution has achieved broad acceptance, and non-believers often cite this as the #1 reason for their disbelief. 20th century philosopher, mathematician, and social activist, Bertrand Russell, based Why I am not a Christian on POE.

The Problem of Evil is often viewed through the prism of Job, and rightly so! The Job-poem, which makes up 95% of the Book of Job, is one of the world's great epics. Even in translation its language is dazzling, but more importantly for our purposes, the poem catalogs more 'POE solutions' than any other comparable source.

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But we have a problem: the poem debunks every one of the solutions it 'proposes,' and it does not seem to offer any new solution of its own. Odd, don't you think?

It is customary for philosophical writing to critique prior opinions, but it is also customary for it to propose solutions of its own. The Job-poem does plenty of the former, but none of the latter: 40 chapters and still crickets!

From the earliest times, commentators have struggled, unsuccessfully, in my view, to tease a solution to POE out of the Job-text itself. But what if the Job-poet never meant to propose a solution to POE in the first place?

What if Job is not about the Problem of Evil at all? What if that's just its 'narrative skin?' In that case, understanding Job as a treatise on POE would be roughly equivalent to understanding Joyce's Ulysses as a Dublin travelog.

Job is not about POE; just the opposite. In fact; Job asks questions like:

What is the nature and origin of Good? What makes something, anything, 'good,' and what makes one thing better (more good) than another? Is something subjectively good because it is God's will; or is it God's will because it is objectively good? (For more on this, check out The Problem of Good, elsewhere in this issue of AT Magazine.)

To this last question, the Book of Job gives a clear and unequivocal answer: God is subject to the same objective ethical values and standards as the rest of us! This is what the book is really all about.

Be skeptical, dear reader, but please; hear me out!

The Book of Job consists of three parts: an epic poem (the 'Job-poem') that spans more than 40 chapters and makes up 95% of the total text; a short prose Prologue (1:1 – 2:13), and a very short prose Epilogue (42: 7-17).

The two prose sections were almost certainly not part of the original text, but were added later. They function as 'bookends,' creating out of whole cloth a possible context for the poem; but in fact they amount to an early (and not very good) commentary on the epic

The Job-poem is structured as a dramatic dialog. There are six main characters: Job, four so-called 'friends'… and God! (What would an epic be without God?)

Over a very short time, Job, by all accounts a virtuous man, right in his own conduct, just and generous in his dealings with others, has lost his wealth, his children, the respect of his community, and ultimately, his good health.

The Job-poem opens with Job sitting on a 'dunghill' covered in boils, lamenting his fate:

"Let the day disappear, the day I was born and the night that announced: a man has been conceived. As for that day, let it be darkness…let darkness, dead darkness, expunge it." (3: 3 – 5a)

Job asks, "Why couldn't I be a stillborn?" and then goes on to extol the benefits of 'being dead:'

"There, no more restless are the troubled…all prisoners are at peace. They hear no more the voice of their oppressor. The small and the great, there are the same; and the slave is set free from his master." (3: 17 – 19)

Then, stunningly, Job's understandable self-pity turns into unexpected curiosity: "Why give light…to a man whose path is hidden from God, who screens him off from his sight? (3: 20 – 23)

Job can't help himself. As he recounts his sad tale, he stimulates his own sense of wonder. Job's focus shifts from 'why did I have to be born' to 'why does anyone have to be born' to an even bigger question: 'why create a universe at all, if it's going to include so much suffering.'

Job's opening speech ends with a further meditation on the human condition, followed by an astounding conclusion:

"They (human beings) are quashed before twilight, from daybreak to evening they are crushed; when it is not even nightfall, they forever disappear. Their tent-pin is pulled up on them. They die without knowledge." (4: 19 – 21)

Job has just given a detailed description of his plight (and ours) in language worthy of Dante's Inferno. He ends by lamenting the fact that humans 'die without knowledge?' Of all the tortures he's endured, is it possible that the worst is the prospect of 'eternal ignorance?'

The Job-poem is structured as a legal proceeding. Job feels that his current sufferings are unjust. He has lived a righteous and generous life; so why is it that so much evil has befallen him? And even if he did inadvertently commit some sins along the way, those sins cannot possibly justify the enormity of his suffering.

Job will not feign guilt and throw himself on God's mercy, as his friends suggest. Instead, he decides to bring legal action against the Deity.

As we will see shortly, Job's determination does not come out of any disrespect for God, but rather out of profound faith.

Job does not imagine that he has the power to divert God's will; and he knows that no court can compel God to appear and make an answer, much less force him to comply with its final judgment. But even with no real hope of prevailing, Job wants to be heard, and he wants to hear from God; and a legal proceeding offers a most conducive venue for such an exchange.

Like so many lawsuits today, Job's is not so much about winning as it is about forcing the defendant (God in this case) to divulge some of his trade secrets. And as we will see shortly, in that respect, at least, Job is successful.

So, Job asks God for nothing less than a full accounting of himself. 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?

In this proceeding, Job is the plaintiff, appearing pro se, God the defendant initially in absentia; and the so-called 'friends' are an ancient version of Johnny Cochran's Dream Team…but self-appointed, and much less competent. Pity any god who cannot afford better representation than this!

Job bears a heavy legal burden. To defeat God's application for Summary Judgment, Job must show that he has probable cause, that there is a court with jurisdiction, that he has legal standing, and that a potential remedy exists.

Job v. God opens with Job offering the court a detailed summary of the injustices done to him. Then, each of the four 'friends' attempts to "justify the ways of God to men" (Milton, Paradise Lost).

They take turns defending God, reprising all the usual POE arguments, but then adding some new ones of their own; these are two of my 'favorites'…not:

  1. Job is being punished, not for his own sins, nor for the sins of his father, but for the sins of his sons.

  2. Job has been punished (past) because he was eventually going to take God to court (future).

Job's friends reason deductively; they accept certain things a priori and they reason from those axioms to the analyses and remedies they offer.

That most of their so-called solutions make no sense (e.g., the two above), is of no concern to them; common sense is irrelevant in the face of divine revelation.

One by one, Job effortlessly swats away his friends' arguments by appealing to concrete experience. Job is the ultimate empiricist, long before there was any such thing as empiricism. 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 as upright as me, often deliberate workers of evil, in fact, 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, and I live on a dunghill covered with scabs.

But Job can read the handwriting on a wall. He realizes that he can't meet a single one of his legal burdens: no one has standing to challenge God, no court has the power to compel God to answer, no one can ever have probable cause to sue God, and even if all these things were otherwise than they are, no plausible remedy exists.

So, God-4, Job-0. "There is no joy in Mudville…Mighty Casey (Job) has struck out." Or has he?

Job invokes the legal doctrine known as 'Nullification;' he asks the court to look behind the veil of legal procedure and judge the case solely on its merits, i.e., based on universal values and on empirical evidence, without regard to pre-conceived religious dogma.

This is a big ask. Job is asking the court to acknowledge Natural Law (as well as written law) as an element in its ruling. Job is also asking the court to rewrite the rules of evidence.

What drove Job to challenge God? Had his faith waned? Did his agony finally drive him to blasphemy? Quite the opposite! It is Job's extreme faith that gives him the wisdom and the courage to proceed:

"I know that my vindicator lives and that he will rise -p upon the earth…While in the flesh I'll see Eloah…my eyes, not a stranger's, will see." (19: 26-27)

Job can challenge God because his faith goes beyond God. Job has faith in a 'higher power,' a power that transcends even God - to wit, 'the Good,' which we experience as Beauty, Truth, and Justice.

Bottom line: God cannot be unjust and still be God. 'Being just' is not a choice that God makes from moment to moment (as we do), nor can he choose not to be himself; i.e., not to be God. (Jean-Paul Sartre repeatedly asserted that God is the being whose essence precedes his existence. Unlike us, he cannot be other than he is.) Being Justice, per se, he cannot act unjustly! Therefore, Job and a court of competent jurisdiction, can hold God accountable after all.

An unjust God is a violation of Natural Law (the Good). So, there is a remedy: the court can simply order (or remind) God to be God! God cannot refuse to be God because God is God.

The legal process must grind on. But Job is 'all in.' He decides to go nuclear! Like Truman (Hiroshima) Job has saved his WMD until the very end…and now he decides to unleash it. Job closes by offering an 'Oath of Innocence.'

According to the common legal customs of the ancient Middle East (e.g., The Egyptian Book of the Dead), when one party swears a proper Oath of Innocence, that party is immediately presumed to be innocent.

If God still wants to contest Job's claim, he must now appear in person and accept that the burden of proof is now on him. The downside of this strategy for Job? If a party offers an Oath of Innocence that is later shown to be untrue, the 'taker of false oaths' will have earned himself severe additional punishment. Let's listen to some excerpts from Job's oath:

"If a poor man would extend me his hand, if in time of disaster he cried out to me (30:24)…If I've ever thwarted a poor man's desires…or ate a loaf by myself, so an orphan could not eat of it (31:16-17a)…If I ever saw a vagabond with nothing to wear or the needy with nothing to cover him (31:19)...If I ever raised my hand to the fatherless (31:21a)…If I ever made gold my reliance and called pure gold 'my security' (31:24)…If I ever looked at the light (starlight) as it shone or the moon as it moved so nobly (i.e. if I ever engaged in pagan worship) (31:26)…If I ever rejoiced at my enemy's ruin and exalted when evil befell him (31:29)…If ever my land has complained of me, if ever it's furrows cried out (31:38)…"

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

God's defense team panics, as well as they should. Fearing defeat, they allow a fourth 'friend,' young Elihu, to deliver their closing argument on God's behalf. Perhaps new blood will shake things up…it doesn't!

God can 'read a room' as well as the next guy. He sees that his team is losing. Hoping to avoid an adverse judgment, God takes over his own defense. He 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?

God imagines that he can dispose of Job with a simple display of 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 dismay.

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

God will begin by questioning Job's 'real world' experience. But first, he 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's God has a keen sense of humor! (So does Job, as it turns out.) 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 debate stage, much less giving instruction to God:

"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 turns attention to Job's competence. Can Job do the things that God does? Can he do them better? If the answer to both these questions is negative, then what's the point of Job's lawsuit? And what's the remedy?

"Who cleaves a downpour's channel and a path for the thunderstorm to rain down on land without people, on wilderness with no human in it, drenching utter wasteland and sprouting grassy growth." (38:25-27)

Note that God is concerned for all creation and for all creatures, not just human beings. When God 'created the heavens and the earth,' he created an ecosystem. What happens 'off camera' is just as important as what happens 'center stage.'

Is this the first clear reference to 'ecology' in Western literature? Is it the first conscious attack on anthropocentrism? "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)

Chapter 39 offers a litany of animals, each with its own special characteristics and needs – needs that are met by God through the medium of his creation. If Job were to be awarded custody (of the universe), could he do as well?

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)

Prior to Elihu's rant, Job finished his summation, closing with the words, "Completed are the words of Job." (31:91) Job did not expect to address the court again. Notice that he did not rebut Elihu, but that was before God appeared and testified on his own behalf.

In God's opening discourse, he attempts to bully Job into submission (and most commentators think that he does just that). But Job is anything but submissive; he is furious and frustrated. He is not cowed by God's bluster, and he is well aware that God has not answered any of the points in his complaint. Job cannot let God's sarcastic taunts go unanswered; and he cannot back down to a bully.

"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)

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.

If this were the actual end of the poem, it would be one of the greatest anti-climaxes in all of literature. This epic is beautifully composed and intricately constructed; it seems unlikely that it would end with such a thud.

But how else could the text be read? Could it be that it is God who's disrespecting Job (not the other way around), that Job is the object of the disrespect, not its subject? God's sarcastic tone demonstrates his lack of respect for Job. God sounds like any adult lecturing, and demeaning, a small child.

Job's placing his hand over his mouth may be a declaration of victory, rather than a gesture of defeat. Lacking God's respect, what point would there be in Job's talking further. Nor does Job need to speak. He already set out his case in detail during the trial, and God has not addressed, much less rebutted, a single one of his arguments. Therefore, Job's original testimony should be more than enough to secure judgment for the plaintiff. Job will not talk past the close!

Is that a quizzical look I see you wearing, dear reader? You're not totally convinced? You're thinking that you might stick with the traditional interpretation after all?

Please think again! If the traditional reading were right, the trial would have ended when Job said, "I will speak no more": Game. Set, Match, God!

But that's not what happens, is it? Seeing that Job is bloodied but unbowed, God doesn't miss a beat. He launches right into Phase Two of his defense. He no longer expects an outright victory, but he still hopes that an amicable settlement might be possible.

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

God has underestimated his opponent – his intellect and his courage - and God knows it! God realizes that he will need to do more if he wants to resolve this matter. He is not going to get away with the parental classic, "Because I said so."

God wants to pursue a settlement, but to do so he needs to give Job as much of what Job wants as God can give, safely. God will have to 'open his books.' He will need to share with Job deep secrets regarding the structure and the process of the created world. He must grant Job's request for knowledge! Remember, Job has not asked God to abdicate; he has not asked for reparations or restitution; he has not even asked God to end his suffering. Job is clear, he's only in this for the knowledge!

God can no longer get away with talking to Job as if he were a child; he can no longer name call or taunt, and he will not defeat Job by asking him if he has ever summoned daybreak, etc. In his second speech, God treats Job as his equal, and he 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 difficult. God is happy to join Job in the pursuit of justice; but first he needs to give Job a 'heads-up:' the problem is not as simple as it appears, and the remedy is not as easy as it looks.

The balance of God's testimony is given over to Behemoth and Leviathan, two of God's creatures. Traditionally, Behemoth has been identified as 'Hippopotamus' and Leviathan as 'Crocodile' or 'Sea Monster.'

God introduces the beasts as a way of explaining to Job the 'ecology' of creation: "Behold now Behemoth which, like you, I created!" (40:15)

The creation of Behemoth was not secondary to the creation of Homo Sapiens. The process of creation is the same for both! All creatures are ontologically equal; and Behemoth is a worthy exemplar of creation.

And Leviathan? "Can you pull Leviathan (out) 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?" (40:45 – 41:3)

"Of all that's under heaven, he is mine. I cannot keep silent about him, the fact of his incomparable valor…Even 'gods' live in fear of his majesty; they're in terror of the ruin he wreaks…He has no match on earth, who is made as fearless as he? …Over beasts of all kinds he is king." (41:43-26)

So ends God's defense! He will speak no more.

Job has twice promised not to speak further…but once again he changes his mind. God had hoped to convince Job that the process of creating and managing a world is much more difficult than Job imagined. Job cannot rid the universe of evil (he is no superhero), but then neither can God! No one can pull Leviathan out with a fishhook; he is part of the ecology of the universe. But even if God could rid the world of Behemoth and Leviathan, he wouldn't do so!

These beasts are an integral part of creation; they have unique qualities of their own. True, their behavior may from time to time appear to be 'evil' from the perspective of creatures with conflicting interests, but that's all part of the ecology of creation. Imagine how human behavior would be judged, if judged from the perspective of other species!

The Job-poem ends with Job's 'final speech'…and this time it really is final. Job gets the last word…but 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 who mocks God, not the other way around.

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

In a review of 17 independent commentaries on Job, written over the past 150 years, Stephen Vicchio found 15 calling the fight for God and only two calling it for Job. With the publication of this article, I'm staking my claim to be number three; can I put you down for number four?

"You can fool some of the people all of the time and all of the people some of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time." This famous quote is traditionally, but dubiously, attributed to Abraham Lincoln.

Lincoln or not, it's apparently wrong. A survey of Job commentary reveals that you can fool almost all the people almost all the time. How come?

People hear what they expect to hear!

We might all just as well have been members of God's discredited defense team. Like Job's 'friends,' we see the world through the lens of our preconceived notions of what's real: "Dewey beats Truman" and "God beats Job."


Image: Job by Léon Bonnat (1880)


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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