What if Job was right and God is wrong?


manhandstoheadThe Book of Job is one of the most puzzling books of the Hebrew Bible.   If we take Yahweh’s speeches from the whirlwind seriously, then there is no humanly comprehensible reason for the suffering of innocents and the righteous.  The good suffer, the bad flourish, and we must accept this without question.  Does this mean that Job was right and God is wrong?

One way out of this puzzle, generally called the problem of theodicy (if God is all good, all powerful, and all knowing, then why do the innocent suffer?), is to read the Book of Job from the perspective of the New Testament.  This is what G. K. Chesterton does, seeing the suffering of the most innocent and righteous of men as a preface to Christ.   

Though God rewards Job at the Book’s conclusion with seven new sons and three new daughters even more beautiful than before, as well as doubling his flocks and oxen, most scholars agree that the section, 42:10-17 was an addition by later redactors to encourage the faithful.  The Book really ends with Job despising himself for his arrogance in questioning God (42.6).  Or at least that is one translation. 

The patience of Job?

To read the Book of Job from the perspective of the New Testament is to miss what is so challenging about it.  Job’s harsh criticism of God is not answered by God, at least not in any way the pious reader might expect.  Says Job

The good and the guilty He destroys alike.  If some scourge brings sudden death, He mocks the guiltless for their melting hearts; some land falls under a tyrant’s sway—He veils its judges’ faces, if not He, then who?  (9:22-24)

Job goes on like this chapter after chapter.  Whoever wrote about the patience of Job was crazy.  Job wants to take God to court and find him guilty (9:32-10:5). 

From a human perspective God is guilty.  He punishes a good man for no sufficient reason that humans can understand.  If one takes the opening prose frame scene seriously, in which God is making bets with the satan (who at this stage in the Bible’s development is still an agent of God, God’s accuser), then Job is the victim of God’s pride.

What we learn

One thing we learn by the time God is finished speaking to Job from the whirlwind is that God is not angry at Job for saying these terrible things about Him.  God is angry at Job’s friends, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar, who think they know God’s modus operandi.  They think that God rewards the righteous and punishes the guilty, what is sometimes called Deuteronomic theology (c. 28), a world of moral balance. Not anger at God, but the self-righteous belief that humans can know God, is the real sin.  If Job does not pray for his friends, they seem not long for this world (42:7-9). 

Job prays, and the friends survive, but it is worth asking what Job has learned from the Lord who speaks to him from the whirlwind, the last time the Lord makes an appearance in the Hebrew Scriptures. 

Job learns that the world was not made for the sake of the human being.  The world is a sublime creation in which humans participate, but it was not established with humans in mind.  It was made to be an expression of God’s creative powers.  Of His creation God is proud; if He were human we might call him haughty.  To Job He says,      

Who dares speak darkly words with no sense?  Cinch your waist like a fighter, and I will put questions, and you will inform me.  Where were you when I founded the earth?  Speak, if you have any wisdom . . . . Who barred the sea behind double gates as it was gushing out of the womb? . . . . When did you ever give dawn his orders, assign the rising sun his post?  Can you loose the lightning, and have it says, as it goes, “Your servant!”? (38:2-35)

The point is that the universe was not made for man, and human standards of justice and fairness simply do not apply.  God is playing in a different game.  Or as He puts it elsewhere,

 “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord. (Isaiah 55:8)

To be sure, there are brief references to what we might call social justice, except that God seems more interested in humbling the proud than punishing the wicked (40:10-12).  In this He is not unlike the Greek gods.  Human pride and arrogance are the sins God takes most seriously, as his anger at Job’s friends reveals.

Job’s puzzling response

Here we come to the real puzzle.  Did Job learn his lesson, and what was it?  Job learns that the universe is ordered and purposeful, but in a way that seems to have little to do with human justice or fairness.  These do not seem to be God’s categories, but humanity’s.  And so in a spirit of true humility, Jobs final words are simply

 Therefore I despise myself and repent (נָחַם) in dust and ashes. (RSV)

Only it’s not so simple

In Hebrew there is no object to verb despise.  It is the English translation that adds the object “myself.”  Other translations are similar to the RSV.

Job might equally well despise, or regret, or abhor, his situation, or the situation of the world, or even the kind of God he has learned about: one who has little care to offer humans, and even less justice.  Furthermore, the term repent (nacham) is more commonly used in the Hebrew Bible to mean “to change one’s mind” or “regret,” rather than repent. God does that several times (Exodus 32:14; Genesis 6.6).  (Strong’s 5162)

Raymond Scheindlin, whose translation I have frequently relied upon, says that Job has resigned himself to the lot of being merely human, and the terrible losses that go with it.  Job regrets the “dust and ashes” of human mortality more than ever, for it is not compensated for by the care or justice of God, at least not in a manner humans can comprehend.

In any case, Job ends up where he began, sitting on an ash heap scratching himself.  It’s not entirely clear, by any means, what he has learned. 

The moral of the story

My NIV Study Bible says that the moral of the Book of Job is that

God does not allow us to suffer for no reason, and even though the reason may be hidden in the mystery of his divine purpose—never for us to know in this life—we must trust in him as the God who does only what is right. 

I suppose this interpretation makes sense when taken in the context of the Bible as a whole, but the Bible wasn’t written as a whole.  It was written by hundreds of men over hundreds of years, and redacted by many more.  The translation of the Hebrew Bible that we use today is heavily influenced by the Masoretic text, referring to a group of Jews living between the seventh and tenth centuries CE, who decided, among other things, where the vowels in words should go, and so what they mean.

The advantage of this perspective is that it leaves us free to interpret the Book of Job.  Not in every respect, but certainly its message or moral.  I think the moral of the story is that God has created a universe of sublime beauty and given humans a place in it.  The universe is not random or chaotic. 

On the other hand, God is not particularly concerned with justice as humans understand it.  Justice, fairness and the like are strictly human concerns.  We should be inspired by the knowledge that we are creatures of God to treat each other with care and respect, but it is up to humans to work out the details, and it is up to humans to enforce the natural law (the law of care and respect), as God is not going to do it for us.  Not now, and not necessarily ever. 

Whether this is something to regret, or a source of inspiration, is up to you.    


G. K. Chesterton, Introduction to the Book of Job.  London: Cecil Palmer and Hayward, 1916.  http://www.chesterton.org/introduction-to-job

Raymond Scheindlin.  Introduction to The Book of Job, trans. Scheindlin.  New York: W. W. Norton, 1988. 

A lecture by Amy-Jill Levine influenced my interpretation of Job.  A longer discussion of the Book of Job is found in my After the Holocaust: The Book of Job, Primo Levi, and the Path to Affliction.  New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009. 

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