The book of Job attempts to wrestle with the problem of theodicy more than any other book in the Bible. And I find it interesting that despite his reputation, Job is far from patient. He’s quite vitriolic in the way that he speaks up for himself, even to the point of accusing God of being mean and unfair. We, the readers, sympathize with him, because God does seem mean and unfair. He makes Job suffer horribly, and all over a bet with Satan?
The drama is filled with characters who respond in different ways to suffering. Job throws a fit, yet God restores him in the end, which teaches us that it’s OK to be honest and to yell at God when our world is crumbling around us. God understands.
Job’s wife nags her husband to curse God and get it over with. He’ll get zapped, but at least he won’t be in pain anymore. Not very nice, but in the end, she too reaps Job’s blessings.
After wreaking havoc in Job’s life, destroying his children, livestock, and even his health, Satan is nowhere to be seen at the end of the book. He lost the bet, and so that’s understandable.
Then we get to Job’s friends. Out of all the characters, they are the only ones who get into big trouble with God. He says to Eliphaz, “My wrath is kindled against you and your two friends; for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has” (Job42:7b, NRSV).
The friends get into trouble for spouting the then orthodox answer for suffering: you must have done something wrong to make God so mad at you. In other words, they attempted to connect the dots for Job, creating a picture of a just God punishing a deserving sinner. And in the end, Job is vindicated. The friends were wrong.
But that leaves us with a great deal of tension. If Job was right in that he didn’t deserve all the horrible things that happened to him, then why did Job suffer?
Perhaps one lesson can be gleaned from the friends of Job who teach us what not to do. In other words, God doesn’t want us speaking for Him in these situations, regardless of what the current orthodox theology on suffering is. There are enough preachers out there who claim to be speaking for God. Too many, in fact. Maybe God wants more people speaking up for humanity — like Moses, who argued on behalf of the children of Israel. And Jesus, who spoke up for the woman caught in adultery, and the man with a withered hand, and the sinful woman who anointed His feet with her tears (to name but a few).
And yet, an honest assessment of Job’s story recognizes a conflicting tension: Jesus demonstrated great tenderness and grace toward humanity, while God in the book of Job appears cruel. For one, I can’t get past the torture of Job and the execution of his family. And all for what? To teach Job a lesson? To teach Satan a lesson? To prove God was right about Job’s integrity? To demonstrate that people must love God even if everything is taken away from them? Does torture and the death of innocent children justify this?
In his poem, “Edward’s Anecdote,” poet laureate Donald Hall describes a scene he read in a newspaper in which a father physically abused his one-year-old daughter by beating her with a broomstick,
“breaking rib bone, and as
she screamed she kept crawling
back to her father: Where else
should she look for comfort?”
One of the hard questions I ask myself is how is this scene any different from the way that God treated Job? Granted, in the poem the father is drunk. And God doesn’t get drunk. But the behavior seems eerily similar. God, through Satan, inflicts horrible pain and suffering on Job to see if he comes crawling back. Compare Hall’s verse with Job’s complaint against God:
With violence he seizes my garment;
He grasps me by the collar of my tunic.
He has cast me into the mire,
And I have become like dust and ashes.
I cry to you and you do not answer me;
I stand, and you merely look at me.
You have turned cruel to me;… (Job 30:18-21a NRSV)
Today we throw people in jail for this kind of behavior. And even Job recognizes the injustice, which is why he demands an opportunity to argue his case before an impartial judge, because Job’s quite confident that he can win (Job 23: 3-7).
Now, I think the majority of us would agree that God is NOT an abuser. I certainly don’t believe that God goes around siccing Satan on people. But sometimes life gets so traumatic that God can seem to act this way. The writer of Job obviously knew this all too well, which is what makes his book so profound. But it leaves me with a difficult task: how do I reconcile the God Job experienced with the Father Jesus described in his parable of the prodigal son? Job was innocent, but he suffered at God’s hands. The prodigal was guilty but was embraced by God and prospered. Both stories portray God in radically different ways. Both represent truth. Both have happy endings in that Job and the prodigal are restored.
And I have to admit, as much as I struggle with the way God treated Job, at the end of the book Job is satisfied with the new connect-the-dot picture of God he received. Because before the suffering, Job had just heard of God. After the suffering, Job could now see Him (Job 42:5).
Kelly Pigott is a church history professor who teaches at Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene, Texas. You can find more musings on history, culture, contemplative spirituality and theology, along with interviews with authors at kellypigott.com. Follow him on twitter @kellypigott