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Evaluation of Job’s Short Story

                In my previous post I laid out the “short story” of Job – the prose narrative that begins and ends the book that was, I contended, originally a free-standing story that existed independently of the poetic dialogues between Job and his friends that take up the great bulk of the book (this isn’t my idea: it’s been a standard view in scholarship for a long time).   This short story has a different view of Job, of the reason for his suffering, of his response to suffering, and just about everything else from the poetic exchanges of chapter 3-42.   Interpretations simply get fuzzy and confused when they treat the book as a literary whole – or at least the views of each of the two constituent parts gets completely altered when they are combined together into a rather large work, as was done by an unknown editor who spliced them into the book that we now have today.

                And so, just sticking with what we find in the short story, what can we say about it as a theodicy – as an explanation for why there is suffering?   I’ll lay my cards on the table here at the outset.  I love this story.  I think it’s moving, powerful, interesting, memorable, and in its way noble.   The idea that Job’s love for God is disinterested, rather than for what he can get out of it (riches, material goods, fantastic family, and so on) is touching and ennobling, in its way.    That’s my view of the piece as a work of fiction.   As a piece of fiction that is trying to teach a lesson about why people suffer, however, I think the work is a complete disaster – for reasons many of you have pointed out in comments on my post.  Here I’ll just mention two points.

                First, if the story is teaching a lesson about God and suffering, the lesson is that God is capricious and willing to ruin, maim, and destroy a person simply in order to see if s/he will still love him anyway (and to win a bet).  Imagine parents acting that way toward a child – taking away everything she has, killing off her loved ones, and beating her, just to see if she would still say she loves them.   Conservative readers will respond that it’s different, because this is, after all, GOD we’re talking about, not mere mortals.  But is God exempt from the moral standards that he himself has set?  If he wants humans to behave in certain ways, can he act in opposite ways (tormenting, maiming, and killing) and still be GOD?  Realize, I’m not condemning God here.  I’m condemning what this author wrongfully imagines to be God.  There is no way, in my judgment, that God could be like this – willing to take a bet with one of his councilors to see if he can make Job reject him by destroying his property, killing his entire family, and subjecting him to loathesome disease and physical agony.  I refuse to believe there is a God like that.  (And it’s not good enough to say that God didn’t do it, but Satan did.  Remember: Satan is not “the Devil” here.  He is one of God’s divine counsel members.  And God is the one who authorizes all of Satan’s actions, so the buck stops *there*).

                Second point: the way it all works out.  For many readers, the ending of Job makes a lot of sense: everything is restored to Job twofold after he has has passed the “test” and remained faithful to God despite his enormous sufferings.   God rewards him with the possessions that he had lost – twice as many sheep, donkey, and oxen.  And he replaces his seven sons and three daughters with seven other sons and three other daughters.

                But wait a second!  It makes sense that you can replace livestock – even double your holdings – as a reward for righteous behavior in the midst of suffering.  But can you replace children?   If you lose a child, is it all made better by having another one?   Does this mean that God can allow Satan to murder ten children, and make it up to Job later simply by replacing them later (“Don’t worry: it was just a test!”)?  For many readers this is one of the most disturbing ideas in the entire Hebrew Bible.  And, well, I’m one of them.

                So, I really do like the story as a story.  But I refuse to accept a thing it has to say about a divine being in control of this world and the way he interacts with his people.   I think that it has not just an unacceptable view of why it is people suffer but a thoroughly contemptible view.   So you ask: why do you like it as a story then?   Good question.  The reality is that I, like most people, like *lots* of stories that have characters who are despicable and plots that are surreal, unrealistic, and implausible.   Fiction is fiction, and needs to be appreciated as such.   It’s when people say “this is how it really is” (e.g., God took away your child because he is testing your faith) that I get twitchy.   Or, rather, angry.

The Poetic Section of Job
The Prose Story of Job



  1. Avatar
    Xeronimo74  July 19, 2013

    ” But can you replace children? If you lose a child, is it all made better by having another one? Does this mean that God can allow Satan to murder ten children, and make it up to Job later simply by replacing them later (“Don’t worry: it was just a test!”)? For many readers this is one of the most disturbing ideas in the entire Hebrew Bible. And, well, I’m one of them.”


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    Scott F  July 19, 2013

    Twitchy? Great – now I have an image in my miond of you twitching like Chief Inspector Dreyfus after a meeting with Inspector Clouseau!

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    dallaswolf  July 19, 2013

    Yes. It’s very difficult to discuss books like “Job” with the literal/factual crowd. They make me believe in devolution.

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    Sblake1  July 19, 2013

    “Imagine parents acting that way toward a child – taking away everything she has, killing off her loved ones, and beating her, just to see if she would still say she loves them.” I think we can see at least a version of this in Act I, Scene 1 of “King Lear.” Lear tests his daughters to see which love him the most and, as I am sure you know, it ends very badly. I am not sure there are any other connections between Lear and Job, but your comment made me think of this one. SBD

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    Wilusa  July 19, 2013

    Your saying “what this author wrongly imagines to be God”… For many years, I took the concept that the authors of the Old Testament, and ancient Jews as a whole, “worshipped a different God than the Christian God” to mean exactly that: that they were directing their worship to the same God, but had a wrong understanding of Him and what He wanted. I was shocked to learn (from your writings and lectures) that some early Christians believed there really were two gods, and Jews were worshipping “the wrong one”!

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    Joel_Lisboa  July 19, 2013

    Could this “Job’s experience” (fictional) be based on some real experience of some guy in ancient times in Near East? Could be that the oral tradition was “changed” to be adapted to different cultures (Hebrew, Babylonian or Egyptian)? Maybe there’s something based on reality.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  July 20, 2013

      could be. There are lots of people, regrettably, who have had similar experiences (without getting everything back in the end….).

      • Avatar
        osman  March 8, 2018

        always wondered if that was the main reason the idea of heaven/hell was invented? so that in the end you will get what you deserve…

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    EricBrown  July 19, 2013

    Scientists can conduct experiemnts on animals without being motivated by cruelty. The goal of the experiements could be betterment of the rest of that species (for example, finding a cure for a disease that afflict that species.

    Perhasp the challenge lies in assuming that God “the Father” has the relationship to humans of a nucvlear family father, rather than as some kind of caretaker.

    Of course, in this story, God’s fatherly behavior is sort of like Job’s … lose some kids, OK, get some more.

  8. talitakum
    talitakum  July 19, 2013

    I agree with your comments. The most interesting thing (as you properly pointed out) is what the author thought about children, which presumably reflects the society of its time. Apparently the “massacre of the innocents” account of Matthew was not so unbelievable at the time Herod (althought at a much later time).

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    RyanBrown  July 20, 2013

    We all know of the patience of Job. That’s why believers don’t have to actually read what happens in the narrative. Patience is a virtue. Now please don’t point out that Satan is a member of God’s entourage, it undermines the importance of dualism.

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    toddfrederick  July 20, 2013

    During my formal studies of biblical writings I never got into Job very deeply. Never studied it and its structure. I may have read it once. I appreciate your presenting this in the way you did…by breaking it down into it’s literary
    format and theological meaning.

    There is another Hebrew writing that popped into my head while reading your discussion of Job that may be an interesting contrast (if I am interpreting it correctly) and that is Ecclesiastes. In my reading of it, Ecclesiastes takes a very different view of life (it’s joys and woes). Ecclesiastes seems to me to be very existential in nature (possibly one of the first such books written) in that it simply accepts whatever comes in life as by chance to be repeated over and over without any moral overtones or divine interventions or deep meanings…we are here, we live, and we’re gone. There may be different authors to this as well since it seems to shift gears here and there, but I think it expresses another view of suffering…in that both happiness and suffering are different sides of the same coin.

    Perhaps sometime you might take a look at Ecclesiastes and share your thoughts with us on this very interesting book as it relates to the body of Hebrew writings, the meaning of human existence and suffering in particular.

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    maxhirez  July 20, 2013

    Do you really think that suffering is the biggest question religion has to address (as stated in God’s Problem)? What about things like purpose, the nature of consciousness and an afterlife or meta life-where do they fall on the list for you? Are there other, otherwise unanswerable questions of similar weight that I’m missing to your way of thinking?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  July 20, 2013

      All those are way up there as well! But in some ways, if there weren’t suffering these other questions would probably not be so pressing, IMHO.

  12. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  July 20, 2013

    You explain things with such clarity in your books, your blogs, and your Teaching Company lectures. Thanks.

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    oatz01  July 20, 2013

    For a new topic I was wondering if you’d discuss the genre the gospels fall into. What are the characteristics of that genre? How do the gospels compare to other works in from that time period in the same genre? Thanks.

  14. Robertus
    Robertus  July 20, 2013

    I’m not so sure the prose story is intended to be taken too seriously by the author. Perhaps it was a way to make the more serious reflections on suffering contained in the poetic section more palatable to the more simple minded public. I’m tempted to consider the genre of the prose story as a ‘cartoon’, something along the lines of El Kabong and Baba Looey.

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    dikelmm  July 20, 2013

    Do you buy the idea of a difference between “the God of the Old Testament (Hebrew Bible) and the God of the New Testament?” One jealous and bloodthirsty, one loving and kind. Is that an oversimplification?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  July 21, 2013

      Nope, don’t buy it. The OT God is plenty loving in places, and the NT God is plenty wrathful (read the book of Revelation!)

  16. Avatar
    Wilusa  July 20, 2013

    Just have to wonder… I’m not willing to plow through a Bible and see if it *could* be interpreted this way. But what if the “new” children were reincarnations of the original ones, and Job knew it? Or, going further…what if God restored everything (children and all) exactly as they’d been on the day before he and Satan began “testing” Job? (Of course, if the reader was meant to take the story as true, and Job’s and others’ memories of the original history had been wiped out, the reader would have to be convinced the writer had learned the story through divine revelation.) What would be the morality of inflicting real, horrific suffering…but later, wiping out the victims’ memories of it?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  July 21, 2013

      I don’t thin kthere’s any evidence that ancient Israelites subscribed to reincarnation — just the contrary, they clearly didn’t. And the text is pretty clear that these are ten *diffferent* children….

  17. Avatar
    Sblake1  July 20, 2013

    “The patience of Job” is an interesting phrase. Job doesn’t appear to me to be very patient. In the opening prose intro he is more shocked than anything else and his responses to his supposed “friends” do not seem to me to exhibit much if any patience. He wants a response from God – now! I think we should throw away that tired old saying.

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    Steefen  July 24, 2013

    Is God exempt from the moral standards that he himself has set? Yes.

    God (the Sun) is a different entity than a planetary deity (Saturn, for example).
    From another angle, Keter is a different manifestation than Chokmah.
    From another angle, man is a different entity than a robot.
    From another angle, man is a different entity than a West-Nile virus carrying insect.
    From another angle, adults in the post-midlife stage of life is a different moral entity than a child or a young adult.
    From another angle, a business owner has a different moral environment than an office clerk in his company.

    You’re condemning what this author wrongfully imagines to be God.
    I do not agree with the condemnation, yet. God as personification of Life is nothing to condemn.
    The astrological model of God and deities or the mystical model of God and manifestations have merit.

    Second, it is a story, an exaggeration in addition to a nonfiction notion of God.

    It may be a story of Uranus trining Jupiter turning to Uranus squaring or opposing Jupiter or it may be a story of Pluto trining Jupiter turning to Pluto squaring or opposing Jupiter.

    It’s a reversal of fortune story (three turns instead of two).
    Uranus or Pluto conjunct Jupiter to Uranus or Pluto opposes Jupiter back to Uranus or Pluto conjunct Jupiter.
    Literary license allows the return to fortune to be doubled.

  19. Avatar
    Steefen  July 24, 2013

    Regarding anger about God took away your child because God is testing your faith

    This is semantics because stated another way, it makes sense:

    Death in a family can undo a person.
    Will that person have bad grief and become dysfunctional or good grief and press on?
    Death is part of life.
    Life has many tests.
    Life personified as God yields God has many tests.

  20. Avatar
    shakespeare66  August 7, 2015

    As a work of literature, I am not impressed. Who uses two different genres to write a story? It is difficult to follow, and it does not read well. It lends credence to the idea that writers in Antiquity did not know much about the structure of stories. It would not make the top 100 short stories in my book.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 8, 2015

      Well, it was remarkably affective. It’s one of the best known stories from all of antiquity!!

      • Avatar
        shakespeare66  August 8, 2015

        It is tough, as you know, to have a “discussion” on a blog. I am referring to the construction of it as a piece of literature. It is an engaging story. I suppose it does depend on what we are evaluating.

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