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.