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A Deeper Look at the Book of Job

I did some extra reading on the book of Job over the past month. Here’s what I learned:

Job is an unusually complex book, even for the Bible. It includes clear and possibly perplexing divisions in the text: the narrative prologue and epilogue in chapters 1-2 and chapter 42; the carefully structured speeches of the “counselors” and Job, but with the sudden disappearance of Zophar and the sudden intrusion of Elihu; the mystical interlude of the meditation on wisdom in chapter 28; God’s final whirlwind speeches, all in world literature quality poetry. All of this has given rise to multiple theories about the literary relationship of all of that text. There are suggestions that the poetry is the later addition, or on the contrary that the narrative portions are the add-on. Maybe Job was a familiar or traditional character before the book was even written, or maybe he wasn’t. … it’s hard for a non-specialist to reach a conclusion.

Similarly, the scholars take different positions on which part of the book really holds “the key” to the interpretation of the book of Job. Some say the poetry. Some say the narrative. Some say God’s speeches at the end. Some say Job’s speeches, which reveal his personal and psychological transformation through his ordeal. Some have even said the Elihu speeches, sort of, even though most everyone describes him as a pompous blowhard. (“If you read those, you’ll find they sum up the Reformed position on suffering.” I received from my Hebrew Bible professor what I hand on to you-all.)

Aside from the literary and structural complexity, the text itself is “corrupt” in places, creating numerous text-critical and translation problems. (“Everyone knows this,” if by “everyone” we mean Biblical studies specialists, especially those who specialize in the wisdom literature. The difficulties with the text don’t mean that we shouldn’t read Job, of course, or take the text to heart. But it does mean that we probably need to be cautious about building whole theologies or even daily devotionals around individual words or sentences. You know what I mean.)

Job is pretty clearly not “a theodicy.” Another thing “everyone knows” – and here “everyone” means something like “everyone who remembers anything from world literature” along with “everyone who ever did a certain kind of Bible study on the book of Job” – is that the book of Job is “a theodicy,” a Biblical response to the challenge evil in the world poses for faith in God.

“Everyone knows” the subject matter of the book of Job is “the suffering of the innocent.” Even more precisely, its subject matter is the problem of “bad things happening to good people.” Job is righteous, more righteous than anyone, or even more precisely “blameless.” According to conventional Biblical wisdom, God will reward a person like Job with prosperity and safety. All this is a given. And the very premise of the text is that this blameless figure becomes the victim of terrible tragedy, on purpose.

However, the problem with thinking of the book of Job as “a theodicy” – that is, an argument or defense of the affirmation of God’s goodness in the face of the evil we see in the world – is that the book of Job really doesn’t present anything like a defense of God’s goodness in the face of evil (understood as “things that make people suffer”). There’s no philosophical discussion. Job and his counselors don’t really explore arguments; instead, they present different views of reality.

One view is a kind of “authorized” view, in which God rewards the righteous and punishes the unrighteous. We could call this the “retribution” view. It’s fully compatible with the view of wisdom presented in the book of Proverbs. We could also call it the “Deuteronomistic” view, since it’s the basic understanding of God presented in the book of Deuteronomy and in the Deuteronomistic history (Joshua, Judges, Samuel, & Kings).

The other is Job’s experiential vision of reality, in which that’s OBVIOUSLY not how reality works in practice. This view is a lot more consistent with the view of wisdom presented in the book of Ecclesiastes. (“I’ve tried and tried to see the world as described in the book of Proverbs, to get my experience to add up that way, and to recognize that Woman Wisdom who cries out in the street and rewards the wise and penalizes the foolish, and you know what, folks – I’m just not seeing it.” Qohelet 7:23-29. My version.)

Neither Elihu nor God in the whirlwind speeches does any better at presenting a theodicy. Elihu offers additional rationales for how suffering can effect the improvement of character – but needing to improve his character wasn’t Job’s problem, according to the narrative introduction. The God of the whirlwind in effect refers Job back to God’s creative … God-ness. This was noticed perhaps most famously by Carl Jung in The Answer to Job, in which Jung says, more or less, “Erm, God, you didn’t really answer Job’s question …”

We won’t find a philosophically satisfactory theodicy anywhere in the book of Job. Don’t take my word for it. Here’s Roland Murphy: “I can no longer treat the book of Job as a theodicy, a view held by many, in any shape or form” (130). (In fact, by insisting that the book of Job IS a theodicy, we could be making ourselves into something like the modern-day equivalent of Job’s counselors, denying the evidence right in front of our faces. We might want to think about that.)

There are other questions the book of Job does answer, perhaps. One of the shared characteristics of the book-length treatments of the book of Job I read this month was that each took a position on what the central question of the book of Job really is. Granted, they each take different positions. But that ability to read the book of Job and find many different profound questions addressed in the text probably tells us that the book of Job is the kind of profound, complex work of sacred world literature that deals with more than one profound spiritual question at once. (Great works of literature, even non-sacred ones, often have this feature, so this probably shouldn’t surprise us. People who talk as if some text of this kind has one and only one “true” meaning probably haven’t thought about this enough.)

So, Roland Murphy suggests that the main thing to notice about the book of Job is how it affects us when we read it. Gustavo Gutierrez says the main question is how to speak rightly of God, particularly when we are keenly aware of the suffering of the innocent. Philippe Nemo identifies the main question as that of the fundamental character of God, how God can be known beyond the conventional categories of normative social life. Susannah Ticciati finds the main lesson in the parallel searching out that both Job and God are doing, in which Job undergoes a personal transformation that brings him into intimate contact with God’s way of wisdom.

We ourselves, along with other readers, may notice that the book of Job also addresses other questions: how to listen to a sufferer, or rather, how NOT to listen; the problem of loss and restoration, and what counts as restoration (because do we seriously think that Job’s second family erased his sense of loss over those earlier children? Aside from the practical difficulty of how those children were related to Job’s wife); we could probably go on.

These reflections on the book of Job have been thought-provoking in their own right, and in particular Gutierrez and Nemo. In both cases, the authors turn our thoughts toward the idea of what our relationship to God is, or can be.

For Gutierrez, the question arises in the suffering of people who, themselves, have faith in God, and are committed to loving and following God’s instructions. How is it correct to speak of God, what is it correct to say about God? The insight comes from God’s statement to Job’s friends at the end of the book: “You have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.” (Job 42:7) So we have to look at how the speakers have spoken about God. From this, one thing may be clear: it is NOT correct to say, when we encounter someone suffering poverty, loss, illness and so on, that they must have done wrong, that God must be punishing them. This is the line pursued by Job’s friends – and it was “not what is right.”

It also seems incorrect to suggest that a person’s loyalty to God is justified by the material rewards they will reap from this loyalty. This is another implication of the friends’ speeches. It suggests that human loyalty to God is properly conditional; that people would be justified in withdrawing their devotion or loyalty if were not to be rewarded. [I will want to come back to this.]

For Gutierrez, part of the lesson of Job is that correct speech about God involves two forms of speech about God, that need to come together. “Prophetic speech,” speech that denounces unjust suffering, has to inform and be informed by “contemplative speech,” speech that reflects a vision of God’s freedom and grace. “Job has learned from the Lord that the language the prophets use in speaking of God must be supplemented by the language of contemplation and worship (91).” The source of both is the presence of the entirely free God that demands that human beings practice justice, that impels human recognition of God as the “presence that leads amid darkness and pain” (91), and that grants grace as an entirely free gift.

The world of retribution – and not of temporal retribution only – is not where God dwells; at most God visits it. The Lord is not prisoner of the ‘give to me and I will give to you’ mentality. Nothing, no human work however valuable, merits grace, for if it did, grace would cease to be grace. This is the heart of the message of the Book of Job (88-9).

For Nemo, the heart of the book lies in the poetic sections, read as much as possible without a prior religious tradition to guide, or skew, their interpretation. According to him, this kind of fresh reading allows us to recognize how perfectly the text describes Job’s anxiety, his nameless dread of what “exceeds” the conventional, predictable, controlled world envisioned by his counselors, the proportional world he himself once inhabited. Pursuing this vision of the “excess” of the evil that confronts Job in his warrantless suffering leads to a recognition that what confronts Job is utterly indeterminable, and this fundamentally involves his relationship to God, who is the source of this “excess,” if not the excess itself.

Nemo’s argument is careful, complex, delicate, and brilliant. My summary here can’t do it justice. But its conclusion involves a recognition that the specific relationship humans puruse with God, the way the person agrees to work with or against God, matters. Frighteningly, Nemo’s God could be capable of evil. Particularly if our understanding of God is limited to the justice procured through “Law,” and through the kinds of “technique” or instrumentality that procure human control and intelligibility in our “world”-ly situation. It is worth quoting from Nemo’s conclusion at length here:

The thing about God that is equivalent to the Law is in fact not God at all, but rather is equivalent to the world.

Conversely, there is something which exceeds the world and which is God, the one whom Job addresses, and that is:

– Evil, as an insistence beyond everything that technical thought can render reasonable,
– Good, as an open possibility beyond every failure of technique.

This ‘something’ wants to make itself recognized (which is why it insists), but recognized as that which our intention will not dominate so long as our intention is not engged in a resolute fight against evil (139).

For Nemo, God is a “soul” related to the human “soul,” and is found to be Good to the extent that the human soul chooses for the Good, and acts resolutely in that direction, on that behalf.

At least – that’s my understanding of Nemo’s discussion. I would probably understand it better if I read it again, once or twice. I understand this much, though: reading it again, once or twice, would be completely worth it. Nemo seems to have the conviction that being on the side of Good is an imperative for faith; that is, that faith cannot allow itself to be seduced by anything less than Good, even if it promises greater certainty or clarity. That’s my kind of continental philosopher.

If I could only recommend one of these readings of Job, however, it would be Roland Murphy’s The Book of Job: A Short Reading. That book is wonderful. It’s a concise, accessible commentary that lays out all the issues that confront the reader of the book of Job clearly and simply – but, it seems, not over-simply – with the measured confidence of a scholar whose understanding of the wisdom literature is unsurpassed. Murphy’s treatment is charitable and kind, open and warm, informed and informative, and ultimately practical and honest.

Since Murphy’s invitation is to focus on “what the book of Job does to the reader,” it may make sense to end with a comment on what reading the book of Job, along with these books about Job, does to this reader.

What concerns me at this point in my history with the book of Job is this matter of “indifferent faith” or the (wrongful) conditionality of humans’ love for God. On one hand, I can accept this idea, at least up to a point: if we serve God only for “what’s in it for us,” if we don’t hang in there with God for God’s sake rather than for the rewards’ sake, we human beings are simply being mercenary. This is one of the profound problems with the “health and wealth” theology that’s so popular all around the US these days.

But it seems that it must also be wrong to worship God in the absence of signs of care and concern. If a person’s experience of God is only or even overwhelmingly negative – if God persistently appears to people as arbitrary, or as demanding suffering for suffering’s sake, or in other words, as acting like a sadist, surely it’s monstrous to insist that there is something “good” about human acceptance of those terms of relationship. And if one advances the argument (as Job does) that there’s nothing human beings can do to affect the terms of the relationship that God offers humanity, that makes it worse, not better. The implicit argument there, then, is that God gets to do whatever God wants, just because God is the most powerful being in all of Reality. And while that may be Realistic, it does not seem to be what we mean by Good.

I understand that analogies can only go so far when it comes to God, so that it’s undeniably wrong to apply the logic of girlfriends and boyfriends to this theological situation. But still – we all know that if our best friend were in a relationship with someone who was never kind and often cruel, who was even actively punitive, who caused them extremes of suffering, without explanation, and who occasionally shows up and points out that they really shouldn’t say anything because they don’t know what they’re talking about – we would encourage them to break up. We would feel it our duty as their friend.

I don’t feel it’s my duty to encourage people to break up with God. Largely because I don’t feel God is “that way,” despite the objective evidence of bads in the world around us. Because there’s good here, too; too much good to ignore, it seems to me, on balance.

I do feel it’s OK to question the wisdom of taking the “indifferent love of God” too far, though. The question, “Does Job fear God for naught?” comes from the Satan, after all. It’s a malicious question, a question calculated to obscure the nature of Goodness, and what’s important about Goodness. And the malice of the question itself comes from a kind of ignorance about love, and goodness, it seems to me.

At some point, Goodness must show itself as Goodness. That’s how Goodness … is. If we had to think that would never happen, and that it would be better for it never to happen, so that people could love God with a “pure,” “disinterested” kind of love, and that in order to realize our own “good” we would have to persist into eternity in the absence of that revelation – well, that would be a lie, I think, a lie about the nature of love and of the Good.

Of course, in our current condition we might be confused in a lot of ways about the nature of Goodness. We may, no doubt, have it confused with things that are not, really, all that Good – with health and wealth and leisure and so on, for instance. And to the extent that we call our confusion pleasant and good, to that extent the experiencing of that fog lifting, and of our confusion dissipating, might initially feel unpleasant, like suffering, or even like death.

Even then, however, even with our confusion, it seems to me that we cannot honestly imagine anything other than this: that the closer we get to loving God with all our hearts and souls and minds for Godself, instead of for ourselves and our self-interest, the closer we get to that love ultimately being its own reward. But – if it’s a reward, it will feel rewarding. And then, there we will be, not having loved God for naught after all. Not even able to do that, in the very nature of the thing.

I don’t see a way around this.

I can’t imagine it being any different.


The Bible. New Revised Standard Version.

Gutierrez, Gustavo. On Job: God-Talk and the Suffering of the Innocent. Translated from the Spanish by Matthew J. O’Connell. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1987.

Murphy, Roland E. The Book of Job: A Short Reading. New York: Paulist Press, 1999.

Nemo, Philippe. Job and the Excess of Evil. Translated by Michael Kigel, postface by Emmanuel Levinas. PittsburghDuquesne University Press. 1998.

Ticciati, Susannah. Job and the Disruption of Identity: Reading Beyond Barth. London: T&T Clark, 2005.

abstract image painging of suffering Job

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