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Evaluation of Job’s View of Suffering

When I evaluated the short story of Job – found now in the first two and the final chapters of the book – I indicated that I love it as a story. But I do not at *all* find its view of suffering (why it happens) satisfactory. Just the contrary – I find it offensive and even somewhat repulsive. That God would kill innocent children in order to see whether their loving father would curse him seems completely beyond the pale to me.

And now, what about the poetic section in chapters 3-41, Job’s dialogues with his three, and then four, friends, and God’s final response to Job in which he silences his claims and protestations by revealing himself in all his awesome and completely overwhelming glory?

Here too I find the book mesmerizing and powerful, a real masterpiece of dialogue that reaches a breath-taking climax. This is one of the great pieces of literature from antiquity. But again I find the view of suffering it presents to be completely inadequate and offensive. Let me stress for the believers out there that I am NOT saying that I find God’s view of suffering inadequate and offensive. I don’t think we know what God’s views are (since I don’t think we know even if there is a God). But I’m not objecting to God. I’m objecting to this author’s *portrayal* of God, one which I find to be completely inadequate and even, again, offensive.

 

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Job is innocent.  He knows it.  He beseeches God to give him an audience so he can declare to his face that he is unworthy of his pain and misery.  He wants God to explain to him why this is happening to him.

And rather than explain, God appears and devastates Job by his very presence, grinding him down into the dust where he writhes before the divine presence and repents.   Of what exactly?  Of being human enough to ask why his suffering is deserved.   God declares that he is the Almighty, and that he is not to be asked about his ways.  He is the Creator, the Sovereign Lord of All, and he can do whatever he chooses.  Humans are mere mortals, worms crawling on the earth, with no power and no right to plead their innocence before God.  God is not answerable to mere specks of dust with human souls.  He can and will do what he wants, and no one can question his ways.

I find this repulsive.   Humans are not to use their (God-given!?) intelligence to wonder why things are the way they are?  They are not to recognize that they really do not deserve the pain and misery they are going through?   They are not to ask the Big Questions of life?  They are simply to accept their lot without complaining — and starve to death, or die of malaria, or be killed by a tsunami, and simply accept that God is powerful, we are weak, and we have no right to try to figure it out or to question why it has to be this way?  Should we just accept the suffering of the world?  Should we just let the multitudes die of foul water or no food or pointless natural disaster, since God can do anything he wants and this is what he wants?

I don’t buy it for a second.  Yes, if God is the all-powerful presence that the book of Job claims he is, then he certainly can overwhelm any one of us by his presence and grind us into the dirt by his overpowering being.   But I can’t believe that there is such a cold-hearted, mean-spirited, egocentric, arrogant, ruthless divine being who created the world and called the human race into being, who demands that they yield to their senseless suffering and refuses even to be asked why they have to undergo it.   This is not a God of love.  It is a God of wrath and power.  And I simply don’t believe he exists.   Job, and others like him, have made him up and foisted him on subsequent generations of those who read the book, because it became part of Scripture.

We are human’s and we do have intelligence and we can indeed see that there is injustice in the suffering of the innocent.  And we need to proclaim this injustice forcefully and with all our being – not swallow our views because God is the ALMIGHTY and we are worthless slugs.  We should question why there is suffering and we should challenge the way things are.  Because, in fact, things are not the way they should be.  And if there is anyone responsible (I personally don’t believe there is), that one should indeed be held to account.

The rhetorical back and forth between Job and his friends is very moving and very much worth reading and re-reading.  And the climax with the divine appearance to Job is breathtaking and marvelous.  But the view of suffering presented by the book is not one that I can accept.


Women in the Churches of Paul
Suffering in the Poetic Section of Job

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    mister.friendly  July 23, 2013

    I have always felt this way. Voltaire is famous for having said, “If God does not exist we will have to create him”. The Russian anarchist Bakunin turned it around saying, “If God exists we must destroy him” and he was thinking of the God of the OT. Just a thought.

  2. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  July 23, 2013

    Amen! Amen! Amen! I don’t object to God either just to many of the Biblical portrayals of God, especially to the Old Testament portrayal of a God who over and over kills humans for trivial reasons. The authors of Job lived long ago and surely our view of God has changed since those ancient days. I guess the authors of Job provided the best understanding of suffering that they could provide, but surely we can do a little better than those authors now.

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    dennis  July 24, 2013

    Some would say that we are all brain cells in the mind of God to see the suffering before us , our minds , hearts and hands God’s instruments to alleviate it . That is why we have the sensitivity to feel for suffering , not only our own , but that of all living things , and the conscience that impels us to do something about it . Consult Mathew Chap 25 v. 34 to v.41 for possible game plans ?

  4. Avatar
    stephena  July 24, 2013

    Dr. Ehrman, I agree with you and do not take this story literally, and as the oldest book in the Bible, I understand it of course as the oldest view of God in the Bible, and therefore far less evolved and complex than later views, and certainly our views, of suffering and of God’s powers and nature.

    What do you think of Harold Kushner’s theory of suffering (in When Bad Things Happen to Good People – that suffering just happens, and we find meaning in it, and find God in the meaning, not the Natural elements that caused it? I find it very satisfying and it preserved his (and my) faith in God. Why didn’t it do that for you when you wrestled with the issue of human suffering and God’s role or lack of a role in it – or have you considered his views at all?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  July 25, 2013

      I didn’t like the book when I first read it when I was thirty, because of its very odd interpretation of the book of Job. I reread it 20 years ago, and still didn’t like it’s interpretation of Job, but was impressed by its deeper wisdom.

  5. Avatar
    billgraham1961  July 24, 2013

    You mentioned yesterday that Job’s picture of God with regard to suffering is different from other authors in the Hebrew canon. I remember the idea being taught that God’s decisions are sovereign and that he doesn’t need our approval. I was taught that God has his reasons for letting us suffer and that should be good enough for us. The way you expressed it takes it to a level I’ve never even considered, particularly in light of other authors and how they viewed suffering. The psalmists viewed suffering as an evil, and openly questioned God. The prophets took great pains to explain why Israel and Judah suffered, and promised them a day of redemption of they repented of their sin. The Law of Moses promised blessings and curses for obedience and disobedience.

    It’s interesting to note that Abraham could move God to change his mind in the case of Sodom and Gomorrah. In Exodus, however, God hardens the heart of Pharaoh. In that sense, God appears to be two different personalities. In one instance, God is compassionate, and slow to anger. He is willing to listen to an intercessor. In another instance, God appears to have cast his judgment on Pharaoh already. There is no hope. God has made up his mind and his will is sovereign. It shall prevail.

    With that in mind, it appears that we have different versions of God in the Hebrew canon. I have to admit that I sometimes think we’re looking at different gods — not the one and only God. This is especially true when you think of the difference between elohim and YHWH, but it certainly isn’t limited to that. The fact that God, who is supposed to be immutable and sovereign, changes his mind so often in the Hebrew canon tells me that the images we have of him there are in great conflict as if the Almighty God had multiple personalities.

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    tcc  July 24, 2013

    There’s an ex-Christian musician named David Bazan that wrote a song called “In Stitches” that summed up Job so well I thought I’d post it here:

    When Job asked you the question
    You responded, “Who are you,
    To challenge your creator?”
    Well, if that one part is true
    It makes you sound defensive

    Like you had not thought it through
    Enough to have an answer
    Like you might have bit off
    More than you could chew

  7. talitakum
    talitakum  July 24, 2013

    I think that’s why Marcion, almost 2000 years ago, didn’t like the OT that much 😉

  8. Avatar
    westrayboy  July 24, 2013

    It’s this kind of thing that makes me wonder why Christians even bother with the OT. After all, following this example faithfully would do away with a lot of aid agencies.

  9. Avatar
    lbehrendt  July 24, 2013

    I can only hope that the God others believe in is half as good as the one you don’t believe in.

  10. Avatar
    EricBrown  July 24, 2013

    As I read your assessment above, an alternative interpretation occurs to me (straw man, of course). Perhaps the author’s purpose (in the poetic tale) isn’t an attempt to explain suffering, so much as it is an apologetic for monotheism.

    Consider that in 1000 BC (or 400 BC), the region was lousy with cults and dieties. These dieties were writ “small” … they themsleves suffer the slings and arrows of fortune, and are subject to constraints, etc.

    Now there is a peculiar school of thought contneding a single diety. Q: “Well if the God we know is present in our lives (immanent) and alone, who created him? Who created the world? who created that of which He is made?”

    A: A God outside all of creation and not changed by it (transcendent).

    Q. “Two Gods?”

    A. “No, one God”

    Maybe this story is really meant to overcome the difficult problem of immanence and transcendance, admittedly, ultimately, with a “because I said so” approach. In which case, it may not be an attempt to explain suffering so much.

  11. Avatar
    seeker_of_truth  July 25, 2013

    This series is just one of the reasons why I am very glad to be a member of this blog.

  12. Avatar
    proveit  July 26, 2013

    Perhaps this is the model for the authoritarian political climate that has been developing in this country over the past decades.

  13. Avatar
    Steefen  July 26, 2013

    Bart D. Ehrman: …I can’t believe that there is such a cold-hearted, mean-spirited, egocentric, arrogant, ruthless divine being who created the world and called the human race into being, who demands that they yield to their senseless suffering and refuses even to be asked why they have to undergo it.

    Steefen: I can believe it. One time I heard James Lovelock speak on Gaia Theory at the Am. Museum of Nat.’l History. His talk made me believe the self-regulating surface of the Earth was an alive Mother-Goddess and that notions of this goddess was more than words. Mother-Earth can give us beauties of nature but also horrors. Is Earth ruthless, egocentric, arrogant, towards humans? Comprehensive notions of Gods cannot solely be personal, they also have to be impersonal. Stars are born in nebulae. The nebula from which our star-Sun was nursed could be a Creator-God. That God has dissipated. Does it really need to answer to Job?

    Bart D. Ehrman: This is not a God of love. It is a God of wrath and power. And I simply don’t believe he exists.

    Steefen: All of the planetary deities of our solar system are NOT gods of love. Venus is not the only planet keeping Earth company around the Sun. How the planets relate to one another are not always loving either: their are trines as well as squares. So, you only believe in a God of Love? (Venus is not the center of the solar system giving us gravity, warmth, photosynthesis.) You’re in the wrong Solar System to hold that view.

    We may live a spiritual life staying close to Christ and the Holy Spirit to save and comfort us along the way, but it is unfortunate to believe only in a God of Love.

  14. Avatar
    Dr.Context  July 29, 2013

    Job was willing to give up all he had, his family, his wealth, but not willing to give up his integrity. He went round and round with his friends in defense of his highly prized integrity. But Job was a righteous man. He did help widows and orphans. He was a good man. But God was showing him that no man deserved anything from God, that man rather needed a savior.

  15. Avatar
    Jen  February 22, 2014

    Your writings are mesmerizing to me. I’ve lived my life as a Christian (I’m not young), but always with unanswered important questions, such as suffering in the world, eternal torment in hell, God telling Abraham to kill his son Isaac, never ending scenarios about “supposed” end time events, etc. etc. etc. I hope I do not truly become agnostic, because it would be an empty life. I certainly do understand why you are.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  February 24, 2014

      I don’t find it to be an empty life at all, speaking personally. Actually, quite the opposite!

    • Avatar
      kdgecko  January 30, 2015

      Jen, I hope you do not mind that I comment on your post. I was raised Roman Catholic; and, like so many of the faithful, had questions like those you posed in your post. As a young adult, I struggled with my beliefs. Eventually, after a lot of contemplation, I decided on atheism or agnosticism, depending on how one defines those terms. I have lived close to thirty years without faith, and find my life no more or less empty without belief in God and Jesus. My actions, thoughts and deeds, and family and friends, my beloved husband and dogs give my life meaning. The volunteer work I do with persons afflicted with MS gives my life purpose and meaning. Although, as I type “purpose and meaning” I’m not sure I look for such things in life. Maybe. I sort of just live, and do what makes me happy. I am here. I live for the present, not for some future reward or heaven. I do my best to be kind and accepting of all others, regardless of their faith, color, sexual orientation, culture, ethnicity, etc. Again, I do not act in such a way for the promise of a heavenly afterlife but because I am no better or worse than my neighbor. Lastly, for me, at least at this middle-aged stage of life, I believe that when I die — that’s it. I know this notion is uncomfortable and unsettling for many individuals, especially for those of faith. None of us wants to die; and, the possibility of life after death is quite enticing. I just don’t believe it.

      I admire you for engaging in this blog. Your faith does not prevent you from keeping an open mind and searching for answers.

      Thank you.

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  16. Avatar
    Jen  February 24, 2014

    Thank you for your kind reply. I realize that yours is not a blog for theological questions. Therefore I won’t take your time as I deal with my own internal issues. I am truly very happy for you that you are experiencing a full and meaningful life. For me, however, knowing all the suffering going on both in the world and in the lives of personal loved ones, I find it difficult to find meaning in life if there is no higher power to whom we might turn for hope and help. Furthermore, if there is no afterlife, our short existence on this earth leaves me empty not only for myself but especially for those whose lives are only filled with torment, pain, and struggles. Thank you. I admire your work.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  February 25, 2014

      Yes, I thought I would feel that way too if I became an agnostic. But just the opposite has happened, in my case. Knowing that this life is all there is has allowed me to throw myself into life and enjoy it to the fullest. For me, that’s where the meaning is — in family, friends, meaningful activities, culture (reading, music, and son on), etc.

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    nickgallagher  July 5, 2014

    I have re-read Job 1 and 2 and have a question for clarification: Did God kill Job’s children or punish Job directly? or did he ALLOW Satan to do the bad deeds? You stated that you find it offensive “That God would kill innocent children in order to see whether their loving father would curse him”. I completely agree-and even if God only permitted such a thing knowingly-I still find it an offensive idea. However, I know if I try to share this point with my fundamentalist family members the way you state it–they will miss the point entirely and say that the Job account just shows how terrible Satan is –but God is the hero because after it’s all over- he restores to Job what Satan had taken from him many more times. Dan Barker also stated that Job 2:3 destroys the morality of Christianity in that single verse. I just want to make sure I’m understanding this concept of the Job story correctly so I can share it with others. Thank you for all of your work.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  July 6, 2014

      In the back and forth, God told the Satan (this is not the Devil, btw; it is a member of God’s divine council, literary “The Adversary” ) to go ahead and take away everything that was Job’s. So the answer is that it’s somewhere between God just allowing it and God himself doing it. His servant Satan does it, because God tells him to do it (in order to prove that he, God, was right that Job would never curse him.)t

      I’ve always found it offensive this view that God is the good guy because he gives Job everything back and makes it all right. How do you give back ten children who have died in a horrible disaster? Couldn’t God have allowed the Satan to take the camels, goats, and sheep, but leave the innocent human victims alone? To see if Job would sin, he had to allow the children to die / have the Satan destroy them?

      • Avatar
        nickgallagher  July 6, 2014

        Thank you for your reply. I feel the Job story relates humans as individuals of no value. It seems to me that when you don’t understand the natural world around you-and then there is suffering- people tried to give it some kind of explanation. I can’t bring myself to seriously accept their explanations of God’s actions in the Job story.

        How would I explain that Job chaps. 1 and 2 do not refer to Satan “the” Devil, the Chief adversary of God? According to a foot note in one bible I have–it states that Job 1 is the first time the phrase “has satan” with the definite article appears–although it appears nine times previous to this without the article starting with Numbers 22:22.
        I was taught when it appears with the definite article–such as at (Zec 3:1,2) we are talking about “the Devil”- Satan and when there is no definite article we are referring to individuals who are resisters of other men.

        I’m just trying to understand these stories from the authors perspective. Thank you again for sharing your knowledge.

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  July 7, 2014

          “The Adversary” became “The Devil” only with apocalyptic Judaism, near the end of the Hebrew Bible period and into the NT.

      • Avatar
        Rogers  April 24, 2016

        Hah, I finally have something to disagree with Barth Erhman about!

        No, Bart, the story would not have been improved if they Yahweh deity entity of Job had permitted the slaughter of domestic animals but spared Job’s children and members of their household.

        One is still left with this pompous, thoroughly nasty piece of work of a deity being goaded on the point of pride and inner insecurity – very base human frailties magnified more so in this what effectively is a profile of the nature of the deity concept of the time. Killing mere animals and exempting people doesn’t ameliorate this unseemly portrait.

        Okay, so maybe it’s a mild disagreement, but animals need not suffer due to other beings have a crisis of self image projection.

        On a more serious note: the opening part of Job that describes all this intentional calamity, tends to very much parallel the Lament for Ur. As Akkad/Sumer civilization came to a precipitous end somewhere around the transition of 2000 BCE, the survivors may have been reflecting back on why their civilization met its demise (this calamity of Akkad/Sumer collapse could also be a source of the Abrahamic account of his migration out of the city of Ur).

        So in the minds of those ancients, the only thing they could come up with is, that yes the deity is a thoroughly arbitrary and capricious bastard, but because a deity is all we have to explain things, we just have to accept the absoluteness of said deity. Man can merely submit to that dour reality.

  18. Avatar
    sashko123  July 25, 2014

    I am about a year late, but I see that you posted something only about three weeks ago, and it is relevant to where I am anyway. Several thoughts: although Satan apparently serves as an agent of God, not as an evil lesser god, he is pretty clearly a device to grant God plausible deniability for any evil done to Job. Do you, like others, credit Zoroastrianism for the invention of an evil god to explain the duality of the human experience of good and evil? Ahura Mazda against Angra Mainyu, I think. I read Robert Price’s The Reason Driven Life last summer, and he discusses some of these problems and theological “resolutions,” and the most reasonable conclusion to me is that if there were a God, he is either not omnipotent or not omnibenevolent. It seems a strange thing about fundamentalist psychology, which I myself tried to hold onto until the last couple of years, that we credit God with the good that we do and blame ourselves for the evil we do; how can we know whether God is keeping his promise to love us? If God ever did something evil, he could point the finger at Satan (the now evil Satan) or us and say “It wasn’t me.” And of course, with a God who will commit atrocities, such as genocide, the words “love” and “good” seem to have no definite meaning, unless it is “that which God does.”

  19. Avatar
    Blackie  October 25, 2014

    You almost feel like Marcion that there were two distinct supreme Gods in the bible – one of the old testament and a completely new one in the new testament who would even sacrifice his own son. Their character seem so different or did God mellow as he matured.

  20. Avatar
    kdgecko  January 24, 2015

    Dr. Ehrman: Today, I watched a YouTube video of a debate on suffering between you and Dr. D’Souza. One overall comment or shall I call it a curiosity. . . It seemed to me that you and Dr. D’Souza talked about two different Gods, the OT God and the NT God. Although, isn’t the NT about Jesus, not God. Is God discussed much in the NT? I have not read it. Nor, quite honestly, much of the OT. It also seems to me that Christian believers pay less attention to the OT God than Jesus.

    In the debate, The Book of Job was mentioned. Several years ago, I took a graduate level English Literature course, Evil in Literature. (Fabulously terrific course, the readings and class debates.) One course reading was Job. I was raised in the Roman Catholic tradition, and never before read Job, not on my own. When I read the story I came away with questions and curiosities that had not occurred to me in my youth. A mature mind, life experience, and agnosticism played a role in my modern interpretation of the story.

    Here are some thoughts:

    Why did the author’s narrative paint a portrait of God willing to engage in the Adversary’s challenge (Job 2:1-7)? Clearly, the author thinks God is Almighty and all powerful and all knowing, etc., etc. Yet, God needs to prove something to the Adversary? Why?

    When debating “why God allows suffering,” is it fair to compare the God of the Old Testament with the God of the New Testament? The OT God has plenty of human “issues” and short-comings. It seems to my non-academic perception that most Christians look to Jesus not necessarily God, even though they are one (and the trinity aspect of the father, son, and holy ghost) to judge God’s goodness.

    Why did the early Christian leaders, was it at Nicaea?, decide to include the Old Testament God and that God in their new Christian faith and canon? As far as I am concerned, I think we humans created God in our image, not the other way round. But, from a Christian perspective, why wouldn’t Church leaders include in the bible only stories that highlight God’s goodness?

    I’d love to engage more, but I guess this will suffice for the time being.

    Thank you.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 24, 2015

      I can’t answer all these questions here, but if you want to flesh one out, one at a time, I’d be happy to address it. The OT is indeed about God; the NT is also about God, and Jesus too.

      • Avatar
        kdgecko  January 24, 2015

        Thank you for your prompt response, Professor. Let’s begin with Job’s God. What does academic research suggest as to why a loving and benevolent God would accept the wager? From a purely human perspective, God seems to need to prove Job’s loyalty to the Adversary? Why? Does the author of the story wish to convey God’s humanity, ego?

        • Bart
          Bart  January 25, 2015

          My kind of historical, academic research does not have any way of dealing with what God does or doesn’t do (or even whether he exists); those would be questions for theologians.

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