An Essay on Job


In an earlier post on theodicy, the justification of God’s ways to man, I said I’d describe my sermon on the book of Job, published in the Humanist. In that earlier post, I explained how I came to write my essay. I consider that famous story as a unified work of literature rather than selecting verses here and there from which to draw lessons.

I’m not a Biblical scholar, and I don’t read the Bible in its ancient Hebrew. I’m limited to reading the various English translations. I have read articles and books on Job and on the general subject of theodicy. One enjoyable, informative book is William Safire’s The First Dissident, in which the New York Times columnist explained that contrary to Job’s reputation as patient, he strongly protested against the Lord’s rule, and that the Lord did not respond honestly to him. Reading this book gave me the idea and the courage to assemble my thoughts. Lincoln’s famous Second Inaugural Address deals with the subject of God’s ways, and I recommend it to everyone. It’s shorter than this post.

The authors of the Bible’s books are not known to us. Scholars believe that Job as it has come down to us had several authors. There is a prose introduction that describes a series of calamities that befall Job. There is a poem in which Job’s three friends try to comfort him in his suffering. A fourth friend shows up to repeat and muddle some of these discussions. God responds in a famous theophany, His longest speech in the Bible. There is a coda tacked on at the end that restores Job to his original condition. Although scholars believe that each of these parts had its own author or authors, there must have been some final compiler or editor, and the work remained stable after his work. Thus someone believed that the work belonged together as one, and that in that form they provided a consistent and important message for readers. At this time, the work must have expressed ideas that seemed important to its guardians, and they worked to maintain the text. A key purpose of the entire Bible was to explain God to the Jewish people, and a modern reader might well expect to learn something about God’s character, activities, powers, and thoughts. As Lincoln said, however, God’s ways are inscrutable to us.

Modern religious readers focus their attention on the arguments and discussions between Job and his friends. They like God’s great speech too. These readers might choose a verse or two as the theme of a sermon. They might say something similar to one or another of the remarks of Job’s friends in an attempt to comfort a modern sufferer, although none of the ancient bromides comforted Job. It must be in accordance with God’s plans, and we know Him to be true and just, so don’t complain, for example. I don’t think they comfort modern people either, yet the book is the one people read for help dealing with apparently unjust suffering.

As I read the book, however, all those arguments are beside the point. The entire book is an extended exercise in literary irony. We readers know things that the characters don’t. In the case of Job, the prolog explains the reason for Job’s suffering, but he, his wife, and his friends never learn the reason. God does not tell him when He has the chance.

Have you forgotten your Sunday school Bible reading? In the prolog God calls a meeting of his companions, including one usually called Satan, in translations, but apparently the word in Hebrew is more like an advocate. Satan tells God that he has been roaming the Earth, and God proudly asks if Satan has noticed Job and his many good qualities, foremost that he respects God. Satan has noticed him, but tells God that Job only respects Him because God has given him so many good things: a loyal wife, respectful and pious children, large lands, great herds, and many possessions, many servants. Take these away from him, and he will curse you. God and the Satan make a bet. Satan may do whatever damage he wishes to Job, short of killing him. If Job curses God, Satan wins. I’m not sure why anyone would bet against an omniscient being, but the story plays out as if God doesn’t know in advance what will happen.

In famous prose, one servant after another comes to inform Job of the loss of his herds and fields, and that a great wind has blown his eldest son’s house down upon all of Job’s children killing them. Stalwart in the face of these misfortunes, Job maintains his respect for God. With God’s permission, Satan afflicts Job with boils and worse. Job’s wife, whose suffering in these circumstances is not mentioned by the Biblical authors, urges Job to curse God so that God will kill him and end his suffering. Job refuses. She has lost her children, her husband’s livelihood and property have been destroyed, her husband is afflicted by disease, but her only lines are her suggestion to Job.

Job’s friends have heard of these sudden calamities and come to comfort him in the poetic parts of the book. But no human character knows the reason for Job’s suffering: that God has made a bar room bet, choosing Job as a victim precisely because he is without sin and doesn’t deserve to be punished. One friend guesses that Job has committed some terrible sin. Another, that perhaps his children are insufficiently pious and respectful. Finally, that there must be some reason why God, who everyone knows is just and fair, has punished Job, so Job should just accept his lot. Job denies that he could be a fault, or that his children failed to follow God’s law, or that there might be some just but hidden reason.

Job calls for God to explain Himself, and, to everyone’s surprise I suppose, He speaks to Job in a famous speech.

Then the Lord spoke to Job out of the storm. He said:

“Who is this that obscures my plans
with words without knowledge?
Brace yourself like a man;
I will question you,
and you shall answer me.

“Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?
Tell me, if you understand.
Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know!
Who stretched a measuring line across it?
On what were its footings set,
or who laid its cornerstone—
while the morning stars sang together
and all the angels[a] shouted for joy?”

The speech takes up Job chapters 39, 40, and 41, and I won’t put it all here, but it is worth reading. As you can see from even this short excerpt, God blusters, shouts, and intimidates Job for asking questions. Nowhere in the three chapters does God tell Job the truth, or apologize for murdering Job’s children and many of his servants. Reminds me of Donald Trump’s behavior. After Job apologizes to God for asking, God praises him and in the coda arranges for a new set of children, and restores his wealth. Alas, Mrs. Job, who is now an older woman, who has already borne ten children, must bear ten more children. Still no mention of her suffering.

I’d say that the conventional reading of this story is that God is great, people are always to trust Him and never question Him. If you do so, God will reward you. In my opinion, this reading leaves out a lot. The author tells us that Job’s original children were pious and respectful, but all of them were killed. God has made a frivolous bet that leads Him to authorize the murder of these children and many of Job’s servants, the theft of his herds, his affliction with disease. God chose Job for this punishment specifically because he did not deserve it. Job was doing what he was supposed to be doing, according to God’s instructions. How can any of this be the action of a just and loving God?

God’s character as revealed to us in this story is horrifying to modern open-minded readers. He is a tyrant, toying with and torturing humans, as a sadist might torment his pets. But the ancient authors and readers must not have seen matters this way. While the Hebrew Bible is remarkable among sacred books in showing its human actors with both virtues and faults, as it does, for example, with King David, the Bible only shows us what its authors considered to be virtues of God. When God commits genocide, as He did when he wiped out all but a dozen humans in the Flood, or when He murdered the first born son of every Egyptian family, in Tenth Plague, the Bible’s authors, and most subsequent teachers, explain that God is good for these actions.

How to explain these different views, ancient and modern, of God’s actions?

Imagine yourself, a woman or man of the ancient Near East, member of a small tribe of mostly itinerant shepherds or of subsistence farmers. The world around you contained major nations, Egypt, Assyria, Persia, that struggled for dominance among themselves, often trampling their small neighbors underfoot. Distant powerful kings ruled these peoples, marching their armies, building great cities, immense tombs, and irrigation systems. Everyone owed their lives and many were enslaved or came to their deaths at the whim of these few men. The kings themselves attributed their power not just to their merits, but to the choice of the gods. Not only are you vulnerable to the vagaries of conquest, or ordinary crimes, such as murder, robbery, and rape, but to the contingencies of the natural world, storm and flood, earthquakes, locusts, diseases, all coming and going without apparent reason or at least easily discerned reason. Consider the ills that befall Job and his wife: herds raided and stolen, servants killed, children killed, boils, and more.

Where can you find both hope and meaning in this chaotic and frightening world? I imagine that those ancient people imagined a god for themselves a thousand times more powerful than those ancient kings and conquerors. That might well have been sufficiently powerful to make mountains bigger than any pyramid, to move the thunderclouds, and brush away the locusts. If only such a being were on your side. The God Job’s authors portrayed, and the God shown to us in many other parts of the Bible, is such a God. The idea that there might be some moral code to which such a great ruler might be subject did not exist. Great kings of that ancient time did as they pleased. Indeed, people appealing to such a King for favor would be sure to tell him how great he was, how handsome, how intelligent, how powerful. They would tell the King that they only wish to do as he wishes, and that they hope all of his fondest dreams come true. These are just some of the forms of prayer, praise and propitiation, and so on, offered to an absolute monarch.

I think this is why ancient people, and many modern ones, don’t see God as behaving badly in Job, or Genesis and Exodus. Excuse the aside, but Donald Trump, as far as I can tell, has in mind that that is just the type of leader people want today. He is confident that he is that type of leader. In The Art of the Deal he says he has no use for win-win negotiating. The only good deal, in his view, is the one in which he smashes the other side. Ancient people of an insignificant tribe would certainly wish to have such a powerful protector. They would have thought one on their side was just great, and that one on the side of their foes was evil.

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