Eleven Frequently Asked Questions about the Book of Job
Bill Long, M. Div., Ph. D., J.D.
1. Is the Book of Job primarily about why there is suffering (i.e., the origin of suffering) in the world?
No. Actually, the explanation of how suffering comes upon Job and his family in chapters 1-2 is, as has often been pointed out, an inadequate answer to the question of why there is suffering. Job and his family suffered because God permitted the Satan (see below, question 8) to wreak havoc on his life in order to determine the purity of Job's religious motivation. When we realize, however, that the author is not really interested in speculating on whence evil comes, we are getting ready for the really big issue probed by the Book of Job: how does a person live with terrible suffering? It is fun to speculate about the question of the origin of evil and fun to ask difficult questions about the obvious intellectual lacunae in Job 1-2, but once you get over the sophomoric joy of exposing this "weakness" of the text, you can begin to ask the questions of suffering that the book wants to probe.
2. Is Job's (the character's) major concern why (i.e., for what reason) he suffers?
Only partially. Job's personal concern is not why there is suffering or why even the "good" suffer. He, like his three friends, is utterly committed to the Wisdom Tradition's view of the world--that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, that God sometimes brings "trials" or "tests" into life in order to refine a person's commitment, that redemption comes for those who maintain their fidelity during the storms of life. What does bother Job throughout the book, however, is that the suffering he faces right now is disproportionate to any level of suffering that ought to be inflicted by God on a person, even for purposes of instruction or discipline. That is, the implicit commitment of the wisdom tradition was to "proportionate suffering." What Job is suffering here is disproportionate to anything he "deserved." It is like killing flies with a hydrogen bomb. This sense of unfairness, of disproportion, then occupies Job's mind as he decides on his verbal strategy with the friends and with God. He ultimately concludes that God is having an extremely bad day or, even worse, that God has been angry for a very long time. Job has confidence that God, in His better moments, will "come to His senses" and restore him. Thus, the Book of Job is a very personal book, an anguished cry of one who feels that he is suffering unjustly and that God needs to explain Himself to Job on the issue.
3. What is the relationship between the Book of Job and the Wisdom Tradition?
The traditional scholarly explanation of the origin of the Wisdom tradition is that it is the product of "court" rather than "cult" (i.e., priestly) circles; that is, it consisted of scholars and administrators who were functionaries in the royal courts of Israel and Judah beginning probably in the days of Kings David or Solomon (11th or 10th century B.C.). Being practical men who were charged with delicate responsiblities of how to relate to powerful and potentially volatile kings, the "Wisdom" men developed the Book of Proverbs as the "Magna Carta" (my phrase) of their profession. Proverbs is a book filled with maxims of advice to young men on how they should live their lives in the brave new world of king and court. Thus, scholars have emphasized the "secularizing tendencies" of the Wisdom tradition, despite its fundamental principle that the "fear of the Lord" is the beginning of wisdom (cf. Prov. 1:7).
The Book of Proverbs, then, can be seen as "orthodox" wisdom, reflecting the agreed-upon principles of conduct for a young man on the make in the world. The Book of Job is fully conversant with this world and takes issue with it at every point. The three friends are meant to be representatives of the tradition, but two points are often ignored: 1) that Job himself very much bought into the theology of wisdom (else he might not have had the kind of intellectual struggles he did in the book) and 2) that the author of the Book of Job presents the friends, after the first cycle of speeches (Job 3-11), as rather mindless exponents of the tradition.
It is best to see the Book of Job as a searching critique of the Wisdom tradition. The ending of Job seems to reaffirm the tradition, which is to say that the blessings that came to Job after his great distress can be explained sufficiently by wisdom categories, but a close reading of the scathing denunication of the tradition by Job, combined with the words of God from Job 42:7,8 that Job has spoken "right" about God, suggest to me that the author of the Book of Job wants to show the bankruptcy of the Wisdom tradition. Therefore, while many scholars see the Book of Job as questioning but reaffirming Wisdom, I see it as exposing the shallowness and brittleness of its central principles.
4. I have heard people talk about the "patience of Job." Does Job demonstrate that virtue throughout the book?
Not really. The phrase, "the patience of Job," comes from James 5:11 where James exhorts his hearers to be patient until the coming of the Lord. All who show endurance are called blessed. "You have heard of the endurance of Job... (Js. 5:11, NRSV)." The patience or endurance of which the Epistle of James speaks is probably derived from Job's conduct in Job 1-2. There he exhorts his wife to fidelity even as she urges him to curse God and die. However, when you read the poetry of Job, beginning in Job 3, the last virtue you would probably associate with Job is patience. From Job 3, where he curses the day of his birth, until Job 31, where he defiantly places his signature on his complaint to God, Job is a model of impatience rather than patient endurance. At times, such as in chapter 14, he expresses a desire to wait for something, but in this instance it is to wait until God's wrath is past and God can cool down! He does not bide his time until the appearance of God in 38-41 with what we would normally call patience.
5. The friends seem awfully hostile to Job throughout the book. What is their problem?
As is almost always the case, conflicts between people are not solely the responsibility of one of the parties. The friends first demonstrated their care by coming to Job from far off and sitting wordless with him on the ground for a week (2:11-13). After Job's first speech of pain (ch. 3), Eliphaz gently tried to encourage Job to confess his fault, but he lets slip some tasteless language--the death of the wicked looks very similar to the fate of Job's children. Job then, in chapter 6, excoriates the friends vigorously, calling them as treacherous as the desert wadis that dry up when they are needed most by the weary traveler. After this exchange, the relationship goes downhill until the last chapter of the book. Though Eliphaz might have offended Job by his injudicious language in chapters 4-5, Job clobbered the friends verbally in chapter 6. He believes that the friends see his calamity and are afraid. When fear takes over a conversation, all bets are off; it is every man for himself.
6. If the Book of Job is not primarily about why there is suffering, what is the book about?
Scholars have tried for centuries to frame an adequate answer to this question. I believe that the answer lies in the area of the interpretation we place on suffering and how that initial interpretation need not be our "last word" on suffering. Suffering by its nature encourages us to interpret its meaning. When we suffer we not only feel physical pain but also psychic anguish. Our mind works overtime to suggest an interpretation of the distress we feel. Perhaps it was caused by "sin," or recklessness or by someone else's effort to hurt us. Perhaps, as with Job, it means that God is set against us. That interpretation becomes wedded to the event itself in such a way that when we think of our suffering, we immediately think of the meaning of it. When Job thought of his suffering, he immediately thought that "the hand of the Lord has done this." Job's suffering "means" that God, for some inexplicable reason, considers Job an enemy. Yet the interpretation of our suffering, which can take on a life of its own independent of the felt pain, often imprisons us rather than frees us. We become wedded to our interpretation of our suffering and thus are hindered from seeing it in a different light. That is the purpose of the Elihu speeches, I argue. Elihu gives Job a different paradigm or a different means to understand his anguish. It is not that God is angry at him; it is that God is trying to lead him into a broad place of freedom. The Book of Job challenges us to be willing to "re-read" our suffering and see it as an avenue through which new freedom develops.
7. Doesn't the "fairy-tale-like" ending take away from the power of the book? If Job just gets it all back at the end, isn't the Book of Job just a simple affirmation of the truth of the Wisdom tradition--confess your sin and your faith in God (which Job seems to do in chapter 42) and you will be restored?
I think that the ending of the book is more provocative than most scholars recognize. Certainly Job is restored with double his possessions (though servants are not mentioned), and he lives a life that is twice the "threescore and ten" years of the biblical tradition. But absent in the final several verses is any reference to Job's uprightness or blameless conduct. Can we assume that Job continues to live a life honoring God or are those scholars correct who interpret Job 42:6 to suggest that Job gives up religion (he repents "from" dust and ashes)? In addition, we are given no clues as to Job's interior life for the remainder of his days. I argue in the mini-essays on Job 42 that Job suffers another emotional collapse in 42:6 and may never be emotionally restored again. Nor are we given an reason to think that the Satan might not approach God in the next generation and point out a deficiency in one of Job's children's faith. The simple ending is simple to those who want to see it that way.
8. Speaking of Satan, who is he (she? it?) in the Book of Job?
First, this creature is called "The Satan." The definite article always precedes his "name," which suggests that the "name" is more of a title than a personal appellation. It is "The Satan" who goes to and fro about the earth and brings news to God of Job's conduct. The Hebrew word "ha satan" is best translated "The Adversary" or, as some scholars have it, "The Prosecutor." Second, this creature is the adversary, not of God but of humans and, in this case, of Job. In this regard, the Satan is not to be identified with the New Testament Satan or the Satan of John Milton or Dante. Satan for those great texts or authors is an eternal figure unalterably opposed to the will of God, scheming for ways to undermine the work of God in the world. In the Book of Job, the Satan appears to be a member of the heavenly court around God, whose task it is to bring human conduct to God's attention. Commentator David Clines sees a parallel between this creature and the "advocatus diaboli," the one appointed by the Church in the process of canonization or sanctification of a person whose role it is to "play the devil's advocate," i.e., to try to come up with every possible argument against sainthood so that if the person eventually is sanctified there will never be the lurking suspicion that the person got the reward without searching scrutiny.
9. Why does God listen to The Satan in Job 1-2?
I do not have a great answer to this question. One might try to argue that God's willingness to let the Satan wreak havoc in Job's life is a sign that God trusts Job--i.e., that God knows that Job will have the wherewithal to withstand the trial and will, in the end, become deepened and enriched because of the experience. This seems a bit of a hollow explanation, especially if it is given to one who has just lost ten children. Perhaps the best answer is that by having God allow the Satan to work his way against Job the author shows us that the issue of the origin of evil will not be his concern, since no one would seriously consider that God acts in this way toward people in general. But I believe that the willingness of God to defer to the Satan's wishes in Job 1-2 prepares the reader ultimately for God's shocking statement in 42:7 that the friends did not speak of God what was right, "as my servant Job has." Job surmised all along that God was behind his great distress. And, Job was right.
10. When God finally appears and speaks in Job 38-41, why does God speak in this fashion?
The "problem" of God's two long speeches in Job 38-41 can be succinctly stated: is God just appearing to crush Job as Job feared all along? When push comes to shove, so to speak, is the only language that God knows the language of power? Job has wanted to present his "case" to God ever since chapter 9. His biggest fear, however, in speaking to God is that God would disregard his complaint and simply "blow him away." "For he crushes me with a tempest," Job says (9:17). Job almost begs God not to come to him in this way--"withdraw your hand far from me, and do not let dread of you terrify me (13:21)." Job knows that God's power unleashed against him can make him do foolish things, "Though I am innocent, my own mouth would condemn me; though I am blameless, he would prove me perverse (9:20)."
Thus, Job knows that God has the power to obliterate him, either literally or figuratively, but he begs God to reason with him, to speak gently with him, to answer him not by annihilating him but by coming alongside of him in intimate conversation (cf. 14:13-17). When God appears, however, it is in the tempest, the same tempest that Job so feared (38:1). God exposes Job's massive ignorance of the world. Job is fully undone and can not even respond to God (40). His last words are that he "despises" himself and repents with dust and ashes (42:6).
An important issue for all interpreters is how to read the speeches of God. In what tone are they uttered? Pique? Gentle admonishment? Insulted pride? With as much wonder and awe as Job feels? I suggest an explanation in my essays regarding why God speaks this way, an explanation that really isn't very satisfying to religious faith but seems to be suggested by the text, and that is that God admires power, and uses powerful words to subdue Job because when all is said and done, power is the one characteristic in the universe that God respects. That is the reason for the unusually long and otherwise inexplicable focus of God's speech on the monster Leviathan in Job 41. God seems to admire the unyielding power of this great sea creature. Job, in contrast, is nothing compared to this. The way of the world is power, not reason, not even love. That is the frightening message of Job. That is the reason, I suggest in my essays, why Job experiences another emotional collapse in 42:6. The thought is just too much for him (and maybe us) to bear.
11. (A question provoked by a desire to respond to several readers). How long did Job suffer, or, how long was it between the time of Job's disaster and restoration?
The brief answer is that we don't know. From the perspective of the flow of the Book of Job, we know that it must have taken the friends several weeks to arrange their affairs and take the trip to be with Job. Then, there is one reference in 7:3 to Job's "months" of misery. But this is in a poetic section, and we don't know if we are to suppose that "months" had transpired between the disasters of ch. 1 and the poetic utterances of ch. 7. The interesting question to me is where Job's insight came from and how he developed it so quickly and with such conviction if the imagined time of suffering is very short. So, I think of several months as the period of his suffering.