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.
Job approaches the problem from a totally opposite direction. While the comforters begin with a model of reality and interpret (or ignore) experience in terms of that model, Job begins with his experience and seeks a framework in which to make sense of it.
He calls out the comforters for their refusal to acknowledge the obvious:
“They (the comforters) would change the night into day; where there is darkness they talk of approaching light.”
“How empty the consolation you offer me! Your arguments remain a fraud.”
“But you who say, ‘How shall we persecute him, seeing that the root of the matter is found in him?’ Be afraid of the sword for yourselves, for your anger is a crime deserving the sword; that you may know that there is a judgment.”
So who’s right, Job or his comforters? Well, obviously, Job. His conception of God and the world is consistent with the empirical evidence while the comforters’ model leads to outrageous conclusions that are immediately falsified by any and every appeal to real experience.
An algorithmic model of God is essentially a linear model. It can never be varied and flexible enough to account for our experience of this world. A personal model of God, on the other hand, is essentially non-linear. God and the world form a template; they have a totally interactive relationship that is able to account for all the richness of everyday life.
In any algorithm there is a hard wired relationship between input and output. Input A always leads to output B. Of course, inputs can be complex and there can be multiple inputs at any one time; this can lead to the appearance of varied outcomes but that variety is not nearly sufficient to model what we experience in the real world.
In a personal (quantum?) model, the output of any input is a probability distribution…at best. Thus Job can risk an argument with God. He can ‘roll the dice’…quite literally.
One is tempted to see here a parallel to Kurt Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem: no algorithmic system (e.g. arithmetic) can ever account for the set of all the true propositions in its domain.
So according to this analysis, the Book of Job solved one of the major questions of theology and anticipated logical arguments that were not formalized until the 20th century. Not bad for a bunch of guys writing 2500 years ago!
But we’re not done yet! We still have to hear from Elihu and, of course, from the Lord himself.
Elihu is a young man, presumably the son of one of the comforters’ travelling companions. He is silent throughout the comforters’ 8 speeches and Job’s 9 replies; but now that the debate seems to have run its course, Elihu jumps in with a fresh perspective.
Elihu’s arguments follow a very different course from those of the comforters. For example, Job has consistently complained that God does not address him directly; but Elihu contends that he does…and has:
“For God does speak once, even twice, though you do not see it: in a dream, in a vision of the night…By turning mortals from acting and keeping pride away from a man, he (God) holds his (man’s) soul from the pit, his life from passing to the grave. Or he (man) is chastened on a bed of pain, suffering continually in his bones…If there be a divine mediator (angel), one out of a thousand, to show him (man) what is right, he (God) will take pity on him and say, ‘Deliver him from going down to the pit; I have found him a ransom’…See, all these things God does, two, even three times, for a man, bringing his soul from the pit to the light, in the light of the living.”
Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar contend that Job is being punished for something he has done (sin) in the past or for something that he is (mortal). Elihu, on the other hand, suggests that Job is being punished for what he is doing right now, i.e. challenging God:
“What man is like Job? He drinks in blasphemies like water…Let Job be tested to the limit, since his answers are those of the impious; for he is adding rebellion to his sin by brushing off our arguments and addressing many words to God.”
At first glance, Elihu’s argument seems to contain a logical fallacy:
Job is suffering; therefore Job complains to God; Job’s complaints are blasphemous; therefore God punishes Job.
The problem, of course, is that Job’s sufferings precede his alleged blasphemy. But there are ways to rescue Elihu’s argument…if one is so inclined:
God’s justice may not unfold in historical time. He may punish in advance a sin that will not be committed until some future time. After all, to God all time is instantaneous…and eternal.
Or, while Job’s overt blasphemy followed the onset of his sufferings, he may have had a blasphemous heart long before.
Seeing that the just and the wicked are rewarded and punished equally (at best!) in this world, Job has complained, “What advantage do I have from not sinning?” Elihu turns Job’s words against him:
“If you sin, what do you do to God? Even if your offenses are many, how do you affect him? If you are righteous, what do you give him, or what does he receive from your hand? Your wickedness affects only someone like yourself, and your justice, only a fellow human being.”
According to Elihu, God is under no obligation to punish wrongdoers; if he does so, it is only because of his love for the poor, the oppressed and the afflicted. He certainly has no obligation…or perhaps even inclination…to reward the upright and the just.
I am reminded of the child who asks, “What will you give me if I am good?” and the parent who justly replies, “Nothing. I expect you to be good all the time. But if you are not good, I may give you a punishment.”
Finally, Elihu questions Job’s assumption that God has not heard his complaints and petitions:
“But it is idle to say that God does not hear or that the Almighty does not take notice. Even though you say, ‘You take no notice of it,’ the case is before him; with trembling wait upon him. But now that you have done otherwise, God’s anger punishes…”
In my view at least, Elihu’s arguments seem better considered and more persuasive that those of the three comforters. Perhaps they were added at a late stage of the poem’s composition by someone who essentially agreed with the comforters but found their arguments weak.
For many, Elihu is the most hated character in the Book of Job. It has even been suggested that Elihu is Satan assuming a human form. There are a number reasons to consider seriously such a possibility:
Otherwise, who is he really? Where does he come from? Why is he even there? What role does he play in the whole story? He seems almost an afterthought (see above for an alternate explanation of this).
Although we are not told this, his arguments may be the most painful to Job, He undercuts Job’s right to challenge God and, in fact, he locates Job’s guilt in the challenge itself. Further, he denies all Job’s premises about God…or turns them against him.
He certainly is the most arrogant character in the book. He even presumes to speak for God: “…There are still words to be said for God. I will assemble arguments from afar and for my maker I will establish what is right.”
Toward the end of Elihu’s 3rd unanswered speech, he uses language similar to the language God will use later: “God thunders forth marvels with his voice; he does great things beyond our knowing…Stand and consider the marvels of God…Do you know how the clouds are banked…Can you with him spread out the firmament of the skies?”
For Elihu, wisdom is a divine endowment, a participation in God’s nature, and is not in any way attributable to human experience: “But there is a spirit in human beings, the breath of the Almighty, that gives them understanding. It is not those of many days who are wise…”
Elihu’s God, like Job’s, is a personal God, not an algorithm. God does speak to man, albeit enigmatically, and he does reach out to rescue humans, albeit inconsistently. But Elihu perverts God’s personhood into selfish indifference. He challenges the fundamental assumption that God is benevolent.
Finally, Elihu ends his monologue with some surprising language: “From Zaphon the golden splendor comes, surrounding God’s awesome majesty! The Almighty! We cannot find him, preeminent in power and judgment, abundant in justice, who never oppresses. Therefore people fear him: none can see him, however wise their hearts.” Is it possible that Elihu (Satan) is speaking of God sarcastically here?
Amazingly, Job, otherwise so loquacious, never replies to Elihu. Because he cannot get a word in edgewise? Maybe. Or maybe because Job senses that it is not now his place to respond (to Satan?).
In any event, the moment Elihu finishes, the Lord appears! What finally convinces God to take part in the debate? Is it Job’s incessant pleadings? Or is it Elihu’s arrogance and mischaracterization that stirs him?
“Then the Lord answered Job out of the storm and said: ‘…Where were you when I founded the earth?…Who determined its size?…Who shut within doors the sea?…Have you ever in your lifetime commanded the morning and shown the dawn its place…Have the gates of death been shown to you, or have you seen the gates of darkness?…What is the way to the dwelling of the light?…What is the way to the parting of the winds?…Who has begotten the drops of dew?…Have you tied cords to the Pleiades, or loosened the bonds of Orion?’”
In his first speech to Job, the Lord is clearly presenting his credentials, ‘showing ID’, ‘gaining street cred’ as we would say today. As the Nicene Creed reminds us, he is the “maker of heaven and earth and all things visible and invisible.” In this opening speech the Lord is also reminding Job of the huge ontological divide that separates mortals from God.
The Lord may also be doing something else here; he may be setting the stage for a new theme that will emerge in his second speech: “Do you know the ordinances of the heavens; can you put into effect their plan on earth?”
There is a hint here of the Lord’s Prayer, composed by Jesus of Nazareth 500 years later: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” But there is a big difference: Jesus’ prayer is eschatological. It is his vision of the end time. In Job, people are expecting God’s will be done on earth right now, in historical time.
Is God suggesting that there might be a domain (the world) where God influences by example and exhortation rather than by decree?
The Lord’s second speech is quite different both in tone and in content from the first. It is addressed much more personally to Job: “Would you refuse to acknowledge my right? Would you condemn me that you may be justified? …Let loose the fury of your wrath; look at everyone who is proud and bring them down. Look at everyone who is proud and humble them. Tear down the wicked in their place, bury them in the dust together; in the hidden world imprison them. Then will I too praise you.”
Job has challenged God’s tolerance of evil in the world. Now God turns the tables on Job: ‘Ok then, you make the world a better place if you can; and if you do, I’ll praise you’.
To my ear, God is speaking on three levels here:
Sarcastically: if you’re so smart, you do it.
Wistfully: I sincerely wish you, or I, could do it.
Encouragingly: Do what you can. You won’t succeed totally but the effort is good in itself.
The Lord then speaks at length of two of his creations, Behemoth (Hippopotamus?) and Leviathan (Sea Monster?). First God speaks of Behemoth, “whom I made along with you…See the strength in his loins, the power in the sinews of his belly.” But the Lord ends by asking, “Who can capture him by his eyes, or pierce his nose with a trap?”
“Whom I made along with you!” Obviously, the authors of Job were unaware of the modern theory of evolution but this verse suggests that they did understand something about the interconnectedness of nature. In order to get humans, you have to have Behemoths too. And for all their fearsomeness, they too have a certain sort of beauty. Nature is not black and white; it can’t be.
Then the Lord continues on to Leviathan: “Can you lead Leviathan about with a hook…can you put a ring in his nose…Will he then plead with you, time after time, or address you with tender words? Will he make a covenant with you that you may have him as a slave forever? Can you play with him, as with a bird? Can you tie him up for your little girls?”
Apparently, Behemoth and Leviathan, and of course humanity, belong to that ontological domain we referred to above, the one that God leads by exhortation and example and not by decree.
Job’s comforters assume that God rules the earth the same way he rules the heavens; therefore, they believe the world they live in is entirely determined by God’s will…and therefore perfect. Job recognizes that his world is anything but perfect and he exhorts God to intervene. But God makes it clear that he can only do so much. There is an element of ‘freedom’ in the world that God can’t or won’t compromise. To some extent at least, intervention must take the form of persuasion.
One of God’s most universal and enduring titles is “Creator”. But if God is a creator, then what he creates can’t just be a projection of his will; it must have ‘a mind of its own’. Creation only occurs when the created assumes an identity distinct from that of the creator.
We apply this rubric in the criticism of art and music and literature; how much more so should we apply it to the universe! A universe in which events are strictly determined by initial condition set by God (as in deism) or in which events are strictly determined by the will of God has not been ‘created’.
So we are finally brought back to our original questions: What is God? What is the world? Now we can see clearly how these questions are related. A cosmological God fits a deterministic world. Likewise, a personal God fits a ‘free’ world. God’s personality and the world’s freedom form a template. There are indefinitely many opportunities for interaction, communication, and interpenetration. This model and only this model is rich enough to account for the full breadth of what we call “real life experience”.
The Book of Job does not prove the existence of God. But it does prove that if God exists, then he must be a personal God, not a force, a principle or an algorithm.
Thus far, we have managed to ignore the Prologue and the Epilogue…and you may continue to do so if you wish. But for the curious of mind, I will offer a few observations.
The Prologue begins with God boasting to Satan of Job’s virtue. Satan in turn challenges God to punish Job unjustly to test the depth of Job’s loyalty. God complies and the great dramatic poem follows.
If we take the Prologue seriously, it gives lie to all the arguments of the comforters. Clearly, there is no connection whatsoever between Job’s actions and his sufferings. On the other hand, the Prologue verifies Job’s assertion that he is blameless and his punishments therefore unjust; but it also supports Elihu’s contention that God can be cruelly indifferent to the fate of human beings. Finally, it is consistent with God’s suggestion that imperfection is “hard wired” in the created world and that bad things happen for no justifiable reason.
The God of the Prologue is certainly personal, perhaps a little too personal. He is keenly aware of events unfolding on earth and takes an active, if not necessarily constructive, interest in them. He is the God Elihu.
The dramatic poem ends with Job replying to God’s 2nd speech: “By hearsay I had heard of you, but now my eye has seen you. Therefore I disown what I have said, and repent in dust and ashes.”
The dramatic poem does not have a very happy ending. Presumably, Job’s sufferings continue. God is apparently unwilling or unable to end them. However, Job at least has the satisfaction of having had a personal encounter with the Lord, and according to him, that was all he wanted in the first place.
The Epilogue, however, changes that. God rebukes the comforters (but not Elihu) and then restores Job to good health and re-creates his former riches and status: “…the Lord even gave Job twice as much as he had before.”
The author of the Epilogue seems determined to restore our faith in God’s justice but it does not ring true. No amount of good fortune can compensate Job for what he has been through. Job is given new sons and daughters but as every parent knows, the birth of one child cannot compensate for the loss of another. The justice of the Epilogue is hollow justice indeed.
The thematic disconnections and factual contradictions between the prose and verse sections of the Book of Job seem to confirm the hypothesis that they come from different sources.