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Job and his friends discuss suffering. By Vladimir Borovikovsky.

The book of Job deals with the struggles of the title character (pronounced ‘Jobe’), as he expresses a particular form of the problem of evil, namely ‘why do good people suffer?’ Like the book of Psalms we looked at last time, this is another example of wisdom literature in the Bible. This type of writing tends to be poetic in style but has a more philosophical tone, exploring how to live life and other intellectual questions. It is found in the traditional storytelling of cultures all over the world, and indeed the story of Job is of non-Hebrew origins.

The story goes that Job was well known as a very good man in his community and took care of his family. He was also a pious follower of God (though not, incidentally, of the Jewish kind), and one day a character called ‘the Accuser’ spoke with the character representing God, teasing him that Job was only pious because his life was so good. Maintainting that this was not the case, ‘God’ makes Job’s house collapse killing his children, gives him a painful skin disease, and worst of all gets his wife to nag him! Sure enough, Job continues to be faithful, but is provoked to ask some searching questions.

Some biblical critics have likened this genre of story to pantomime. A few reasons for this is are that it takes a traditional fable and expands it into drama, it uses exaggerated characters, indeed ‘God’ here is clearly a characature of the God of the Bible and not God ‘himself’, and has some comic moments (like the aforementiond nagging/teasing).

In each of the first two passages we looked at a different friend of Job’s is trying to console him, or rather, trying to get him to accept their explanations of why he is suffering.

Bildad, chapter 8:

Bildad extolls the wisdom of scholarly tradition and it seems he is telling Job that suffering is a punishment for sin. This is similiar to the idea of karma, you get what you deserve. But a more careful reading suggests he is saying that God *allows* people to suffer the effects that come from their sin, but His only active part is played in their redemption, not their punishment.

So basically, Bildad was saying to Job ‘I know you are righteous, but this is the way the world is, so you must have done something to offend God’. This is unsophisticated. It particularly stands in need of a distinction between direct and indirect suffering. For instance, if someone directly suffers -as Job’s children did- is that because the children themselves were deserving of death? But then they should not have been treated in that way if Job himself was very good, because then he wouldn’t have been deserving of the very large indirect suffering of having his children die. Even so, the approach taken in the more careful reading is congruent with the quite promising solution of the 17th century German thinker Leibniz.

Zophar, chapter 11:

A second friend Zophar insists that the world must have a moral framework. He seems to also make the stronger claim that we cannot know anything about this framework, so that we must blindly trust that everything that happens is for the best. But if this suggestion were true then it would have the sinister consequence that we cannot know when we are doing wrong.

He also suggests that God has probably forgotten the small things Job has done wrong, and that likewise Job will forget his suffering as it is temporary. But this is not very helpful because although suffering is temporary, so is life, and thus it can endure for as long as we live. As a person with disibilities may well have responded, knowing that pain is temporary is not the same as knowing that its affliction will pass.

Job’s response (from chapters 9 and 21):

“Indeed, I know that this is true.
But how can mere mortals prove their innocence before God?
Though they wished to dispute with him,
they could not answer him one time out of a thousand. His wisdom is profound, his power is vast….
When he passes me, I cannot see him…
How then can I dispute with him?…
Even if I summoned him and he responded,
I do not believe he would give me a hearing.
He would crush me with a storm…

Although I am blameless,
I have no concern for myself;
I despise my own life.
It is all the same; that is why I say,
‘He destroys both the blameless and the wicked.’…
If it is not he, then who is it?
If I say, ‘I will forget my complaint,
I will change my expression, and smile,’
I still dread all my sufferings…
If only there were someone to mediate between us,
someone to bring us together,
someone to remove God’s rod from me,
so that his terror would frighten me no more.
Then I would speak up without fear of him,
but as it now stands with me, I cannot….

“Mortals, born of woman,
are of few days and full of trouble.
They spring up like flowers and wither away;
like fleeting shadows, they do not endure.
So look away from him and let him alone,
till he has put in his time like a hired labourer….

Why do the wicked live on,
growing old and increasing in power?
Their homes are safe and free from fear;
the rod of God is not on them…
“How often is the lamp of the wicked snuffed out?
…It is said, ‘God stores up the punishment of the wicked for their children.’
Let him repay the wicked, so that they themselves will experience it!
Let their own eyes see their destruction…
for what do they care about the families they leave behind….
“So how can you console me with your nonsense?
Nothing is left of your answers but falsehood!”


Job seems to be protesting that he suffers even though he is certain he is righteous. What is more, lots of wicked people live untroubled lives so there is no evidence of a Karmic moral framework to the universe.

Job’s thoughts express quite a negative view of human nature, an almost nihilistic one.

Job examplifies a type of anger or ‘righteous indignation’ often found in the Old Testament. This is particularly directed that the thought that people should I be punished for the mistakes of others (their forefathers).

The whole speech expresses humanity’s condition of distance from God, and in that sense could be seen as an atheistic train of thought.

‘God’ (from chapters 38-41):

Then the LORD spoke to Job out of the storm. He said:
“Who is this that obscures my design
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 shut up the sea behind doors
when it burst forth from the womb…?
“Have you ever given orders to the morning,
or shown the dawn its place…?
“Do you hunt the prey for the lioness
and satisfy the hunger of the lions…?
“Do you give the horse its strength
or clothe its neck with a flowing mane…?
“Does the hawk take flight by your wisdom…?”

“Would you discredit my justice?
Would you condemn me to justify yourself?
“Can you pull in Leviathan* with a fishhook
or tie down its tongue with a rope?
Can you put a cord through its nose
or pierce its jaw with a hook?
Will it keep begging you for mercy?
Will it speak to you with gentle words?
Will it make an agreement with you…?”

[*Leviathan: a monster symbolising chaos.]


God’s appearance is disproves Job’s statement (in his first paragraph) that God would not come down to speak to an individual. (This also shows God is immanent as well as transcendent.) But ironically ‘God’ here conforms to Job’s negative picture of him.

The passage seems to be saying that God has authority through his creative actions, but he cares enough that he speaks to Job. Yet God speaks by asking questions rather than answering them (as indeed Jesus usually did!).

Linked to his design, God is the master of chaos, taming it. He tames the Leviathan, rather than killing it. Thus he works with chaos, bringing it to order as much as he can, with sympathy. This seems to build upon the Leibnizian solution to suffering with an Openness Theology approach.

Job’s final response (from chapter 42):

Then Job replied to the LORD:

You know that you can do all things,
and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.
You say, “Who is this that obscures design
by words without knowledge?”
Therefore I have uttered what I have not understood,
things too wonderful for me which I did not know.
You said, “Hear, and I will speak; I will question you, and you will make me to know.”
I have heard you with my own ears,
and now my eye sees you!
Therefore I recant and change my mind
concerning dust and ashes.”


Finally, God tells off Job’s friends for being so useless and restores Job’s life to twice as good as how it was before he was tested. But the presentation of Job’s sudden change of mind seems somewhat contrived- a real pantomime ending!

What has his mind changed upon? “Dust and ashes” (this is a reliable translation, but not the most popular one)- these symbolise the precarious value of human life and the chaos of natural world. Did his encounter with God reassure him enough? Can this be reduced to the information God gave him, so that the encounter is not necessary to our acceptance of suffering? Perhaps some kind of encounter with God is the only really satisfactory response to suffering.

Note the difference between answering a problem (as his friends attempt) and an approach leading to acceptance of it.

In his perfection, Job foreshadows Christ, especially because the nature of this world is that the good must suffer. He also becomes a mediator between God and man.


View the Next Part of Bible for Bluffers.

Comments on: "Job and the Mystery of Suffering" (1)

  1. […] issues were discussed further in our workshop on the book of Job. Share this:FacebookTwitterDiggMoreLinkedInRedditStumbleUponPrintEmailLike this:LikeBe the first to […]

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