Everyone knows the story of Job…or thinks he does. A just and righteous man, Job enjoys family, wealth and respect. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, he loses everything. His children are killed, his wealth wiped out and his body covered with boils. The neighbors who once looked up to him, now scorn him.
Three old friends hear of Job’s plight and travel a great distance, ostensibly to comfort him. Job’s dialogues with these so-called ‘comforters’, with a young man traveling in their party, and with God constitute the narrative content of the long dramatic poem that forms the bulk of the Old Testament Book of Job, our source for this story.
According to conventional interpretations, the Book of Job is about the causes of human suffering: “Why bad things happen to good people” (as Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote). This is certainly the narrative theme.
Funny thing through, the book actually doesn’t provide a definitive answer to that question. Theories are proposed throughout the text but scholars disagree on where the book ultimately comes down on the question. Or does it intentionally leave the question unanswered?
While the Problem of Evil is the narrative theme, could it be that that is not what the poem is about at all? Is it possible that the poem is about something altogether different and is simply using the problem of human suffering to make an even bigger point?
The Book of Job consists of three distinct parts: a prose Prologue (Chapters 1 and 2), the long dramatic poem, and then a short prose Epilogue (Chapter 42). The Prologue and Epilogue are interpretive in nature and probably were added at a later date by someone other than the ‘author’ of the poem. Yet much of what we think we know about Job comes from the prose sections of the text.
Without the Prologue, we do not know that God is the sole and proximate cause of Job’s sufferings; we do not know the details of that suffering or the extent of Job’s loss. Without the Prologue, Job could be virtually any man suffering a streak of bad luck. Also, without the Epilogue, we do not know that God supposedly, but unconvincingly, restores Job ultimately to his previous estate.
Since both the Prologue and the Epilogue are almost certainly later additions to the text and since they are themselves interpretations of the poem, I propose to ignore these sections until the very end. Let’s focus initially just on the text of the dramatic poem itself and see what that tells us.
Without the Prologue or the Epilogue to guide us…or distract us…we can reconsider what the poem is really about. What questions is it addressing?
What is God? Is God a universal force, a cosmological principle, a philosophical category, an algorithm; or is God more personal than that? Conflicting conceptions of God’s nature have tended to lie along this ‘personality continuum’ from the earliest speculations right up to the 21st century.
What is the world? Is it a well wound watch, a mechanism whose every act is pre-determined by the laws of nature…or by the will of God? Or is there an element of chance, or even freedom, in the unfolding of events? Again, this debate began before Plato and rages on today.
As we shall see shortly, these two questions are tightly intertwined, but since we are writing about a story from The Bible, let us focus initially on the nature of God.
Contemporary scientists and other intellectuals, to the extent they are comfortable with the concept of God, prefer a more cosmological God. When physicists inappropriately called the Higgs Boson the ‘God Particle’, they were placing themselves squarely in this camp.
On the other hand, worshippers testify to an unmistakably personal God that they encounter through prayer and in liturgy.
Within all of the world’s major religions, both tendencies can be found. Paul Tillich and others call God the ‘Ground of all Being’ while Evangelical Christians testify to a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, their Lord and Savior. In Exodus, God says, “I am who am”, but in Genesis that same God walks on earth with Adam and Noah and enters into debate with Abraham.
The Book of Job, one of the most cited and least understood books of the Bible, was probably completed in its current form a little over 2,500 years ago (though some of its material may be much older). Perhaps unexpectedly, Job tackles these ontological questions head on and, as we shall see shortly, it renders a surprisingly unequivocal verdict.
Our cast of characters includes Job himself, three so-called ‘comforters’, a young man travelling in the comforters’ party, and of course, the Lord; they are engaged in a lively theological debate worthy of any college dorm room. Let’s listen in.
Job begins: “Perish the day on which I was born…may that day be darkness…may light not shine upon it…may it not be counted among the days of the year.”
“Why did I not die at birth?”
“For to me sighing comes more readily than food; my groans well forth like water. For what I have feared overtakes me; what I dreaded comes upon me. I have no peace nor ease; I have no rest for trouble has come!”
“My breath is abhorrent to my wife; I am loathsome to my very children.” (Note Job’s reference to his children. According to the Prologue, Job’s children were all killed prior to the onset of his physical sufferings.)
“Is not life on earth a drudgery, its days like those of a hireling?”
“My days are swifter than a weaver’s shuttle; they come to an end without any hope. Remember that my life is like the wind…As a cloud dissolves and vanishes, so whoever goes down to Sheol shall not come up. They shall not return home again; their place shall know them no more.”
“Ah, could my anguish but be measured and my calamity laid with it in the scales, they would outweigh the sands of the sea! …The terrors of God are arrayed against me.”
Job’s angst is existential. His language could have been lifted from an anthology of 20th century literature. He is not looking to solve the ‘Problem of Evil’. He just wants someone to listen to his anguish and grief:
“At least listen to my words and let that be the consolation you offer.”
“Pity me, pity me, you my friends, for the hand of God has struck me!”
But the ‘comforters’ have another agenda. Pre-cursing John Milton by 2000 years, they set out to “justify the ways of God to men” (Paradise Lost)
Eliphaz, a comforter, begins: “…What innocent person perishes? Where are the upright destroyed? As I see it, those who plow mischief and sow trouble will reap them. By the breath of God they perish…”
“For not from dust does mischief come, nor from the soil does trouble sprout. Human beings beget mischief…”
Although there are slight differences in argumentation among the comforters, all of them agree that Job is the cause of his own suffering and that God, in punishing Job, is really just ‘being God’.
For the most part, the comforters are content to impute undefined sins to Job as explanation of and justification for his sufferings. By his third speech, however, Eliphaz’ frustration gets the better of him and he manufactures details of Job’s wrongdoing without the slightest hint of empirical evidence:
“You keep your relatives’ goods in pledge unjustly, leave them stripped naked of their clothing. To the thirsty you give no water to drink, and from the hungry you withhold bread… You sent widows away empty-handed, and the resources of the orphans are destroyed.”
You can’t make this stuff up! (Well, apparently you can.)
Job’s three ‘comforters’ all ascribe Job’s troubles in one way or another to Job himself and to the will of God. All see these sufferings as evidence of Job’s wrongdoing. Clearly, Job’s comforters view God as an impersonal exemplar of certain metaphysical principles. God is an absolute. Since God is always perfectly just, Job’s sufferings are prima facie evidence of his guilt.
It is a little bit like the medieval custom of trial-by-ordeal: if you survive you must be innocent (“sorry for the inconvenience”); if not, you were guilty (“you got what you deserved”). Job’s sufferings then prove him guilty.
Job, of course, denies his guilt.
“I have not transgressed the commands of the Holy One.”
“My foot has always walked in his steps; I have kept his way and not turned aside.”
“God has given me over to the impious…although my hands are free from violence and my prayer sincere.”
“…Till I die I will not renounce my innocence. My justice I maintain and I will not relinquish it; my heart does not reproach me for any of my days.”
In Job’s final summation of his case, he specifically addresses Eliphaz’s absurd indictment:
“…I rescued the poor who cried out for help, the orphans, the unassisted…I wore my righteousness like a garment; justice was my robe and my turban …Let God weigh me in the scales of justice; thus he will know my innocence.”
Perhaps anticipating Job’s assertion that he is innocent of any wrongdoing, the comforters have already built a ‘Plan B” into their argument.
“How can any mortal be blameless, anyone born of woman righteous? …If the heavens are not without blame in his sight, how much less so is the abominable and corrupt?”
“How can anyone be in the right against God or how can any born of woman be innocent? Even the moon is not bright and the stars are not clear in his eyes. How much less a human being, who is but a worm, a mortal, who is only a maggot?”
So you’re damned if you do and, apparently, damned if you don’t…quite literally!
According to this argument, Job’s guilt lies not so much in what he has done as in what he is. Job’s crime is simply the crime of ‘being mortal’. Bildad, the second conforter, cites the nature of man, and indeed of the cosmos itself, as symptoms of imperfection and therefore evidence of metaphysical guilt.
Job acknowledges the theoretical strength of this ontological argument, but he still rejects the comforters’ conclusion:
“How can anyone be right before God…I am innocent but I cannot know it.”
“Even if it were true that I am at fault…it is God who has dealt with me unfairly.”
“Even now my witness is in heaven, my advocate is on high…that justice may be done for a mortal with God: as for a man with his neighbor.”
Once again, the comforters are applying a formula to determine justice; Job is appealing to a higher conception of justice: “as for a man with his neighbor.”
Interwoven into these discussion of Job’s righteousness (or lack thereof) are considerations of the differential treatment of the just and the wicked. The comforters are staunch in their belief that the wicked are punished ‘in real time’.
“The wicked is in torment all his days…”
“Truly, the light of the wicked is extinguished; the flame of his fire casts no light…Below his roots dry up, and above, his branches wither.”
Only Zophar, the third comforter, in his second and final speech, seems to suggest that the punishment of the wicked may have an eschatological dimension:
“The triumph of the wicked is short and the joy of the impious but for a moment…he perishes forever like the dung he uses for fuel…he fades away like a vision of the night.”
For this argument to be meaningful, we must assume that a different fate awaits the upright and the just. Although Zophar nowhere articulates that, it is suggested by his further remarks on the fate of the evildoer:
“He shall see no streams of oil, no torrents of honey or milk. He shall give back his gains, never used; like his profit from trade, never enjoyed.”
Job, on the other hand, argues from empirical evidence that there is no reason to believe that the just and the wicked are differentially treated:
“Yet the tents of robbers are prosperous, and those who provoke God are secure…”
“It is all one! Therefore I say: Both the innocent and the wicked he destroys. When the scourge slays suddenly, he scoffs at the despair of the innocent. The earth is given into the hands of the wicked…”
“Why do the wicked keep on living, grow old, become mighty in power? Their progeny is secure in their sight…Their homes are safe, without fear, and the rod of God is not upon them…They live out their days in prosperity and tranquilly go down to Sheol. Yet they say to God, ‘Depart from us, for we have no desire to know your ways!”
“God is storing up the man’s misery for his children? – let him requite the man himself so that he knows it! Let his own eyes behold his calamity…for what interest has he in his family after him, when the number of his months of is finished?”
Job’s comforters expect to receive their just desserts, reward or punishment, in this life…or through the lives of their decedents. To them, virtue and justice are the equivalent of good estate planning. They have no concept of anything beyond.
Job’s eschatology, however, is much more nuanced; it shows flashes of another possibility:
“Even now my witness is in heaven, my advocate is on high.”
“So mortals lie down, never to rise. Until the heavens are no more, they shall not awake, nor be roused out of their sleep. Oh, that you would hide me in Sheol, shelter me till your wrath is past, fix a time to remember me! If a man were to die, and live again, all the days of my drudgery I would wait for my relief to come. You would call, and I would answer you; you would long for the work of your hands…My misdeeds would be sealed up in a pouch, and you would cover over my guilt.”
“As for me, I know that my vindicator lives, and that he will at last stand forth upon the dust. This will happen when my skin has been stripped off, and from my flesh I will see God: I will see for myself, my own eyes, not another’s will behold him…”
There are hints here of New Testament eschatology: redemption, resurrection, eternal life.
Most remarkably, Job’s conception of God is totally personal. God is Job, only writ larger. Mathematicians would say they are ‘congruent’. God and Job are made in each other’s image and likeness.
The comforters all have a common recommendation for Job: admit guilt and throw yourself on the mercy of the court. In this they are relying on God’s mercy in the same way they earlier relied on his justice.
“In your place, I would appeal to God, and to God I would state my plea…For he wounds but he binds up; he strikes but his hands give healing.”
“Settle with him and have peace. That way good shall come to you. Receive instruction from his mouth and place his words in your heart. If you return to the Almighty, you will be restored; if you put iniquity far from your tent…Entreat him and he will hear you…He will deliver whoever is innocent; you will be delivered if your hands are clean.”
“If you set your heart aright and stretch out your hands toward him…you may stand firm and unafraid…Then your life shall be brighter than the noonday…and you shall be secure because there is hope.”
“…Still, if you yourself have recourse to God and make supplication to the Almighty, should you be blameless and upright, surely now he will rouse himself for you and restore your rightful home. Though your beginning was small, your future will flourish indeed.” (Note Bildad’s reference to Job’s ‘small beginning’, apparently contradicting the Prologue.)
Although reliance on God’s mercy would seem to suggest belief in a highly personal God, it is not so with the comforters. They view God’s mercy algorithmically, just as they did his justice and his transcendence. If you do A, you will get B; if you do C, you will get not-B.
What does Job want? An end to his suffering? Perhaps, but more than that, he wants a fair trial!
“I would speak with the Almighty; I want to argue with God. I will defend my conduct before him.”
“Would that I knew how to find him, that I might come to his dwelling! I would set out my case before him…he himself would heed me!”
“Oh, that I might have my request, and that God would grant me what I long for…Then I should have consolation and could exult through unremitting pain.”
“Slay me though he might, I will wait for him; I will defend my conduct before him. This shall be my salvation: no impious man can come into his presence.”
Can it be that Job is actually daring to lay a logic trap for God? If he can convince God to grant him an audience then the content of their conversation may be irrelevant. The mere fact of being granted an audience with God will be proof positive of Job’s piety.
In the best Old Testament tradition, Job is not afraid to argue with God, and his arguments explore all possible registers. He appeals to God’s ego: “Oh, remember that you fashioned me from clay! Will you then bring me down to dust again?”
“Your hands have formed and fashioned me; will you then turn and destroy me?”
He appeals to God’s ‘compassion’ which is slightly different than his ‘mercy’:
“If I should sin…you would not absolve me…Why then did you bring me forth from the womb?”
“Why do you not pardon my offense, or take away my guilt? For soon I shall lie down in the dust and should you seek me I shall be gone.”
Compassion is a personal quality, actually an interpersonal quality; mercy can be merely algorithmic. (Consider Pilate’s practice of pardoning a prisoner at Passover.)
Job challenges God: “…you seek for guilt in me and search after my sins, even though you know that I am not wicked.” Like Abraham. Job is willing to assume the moral high ground in his argument with the Almighty.
“I will say to God: Do not put me in the wrong! Let me know why you oppose me. Is it a pleasure for you to oppress, to spurn the work of your hands, and shine on the plan of the wicked?”
He even tries to shame God: “I have become the sport of my neighbors: ‘The one whom God answers when he calls upon him, the just, the perfect man’, is a laughingstock.”
All of this must have mystified Job’s comforters. The idea that God could be argued with, reasoned with, shamed or even tricked is totally absent from their philosophies. That a man would contend with God over ethics…unimaginable!
The comforters can no more hear Job’s arguments than they can recognize the empirical evidence of rampant injustice in the world. They lack a personal conception of God. For them, God is an algorithm. You do good, you get rewarded; you do evil, punishment! Amazingly, they are so steadfast in this view that they can completely ignore the obvious fact that this is not at all how the real world works.