Is there any way to consider the God portrayed in Job as a morally upright being who deserves complete devotion? Read the account yourself. I have summarized the “folktale” of Job (found in Job 1-2, 42) in my previous post. This is a tale that portrays God, Job, and the reason for human suffering very differently from the (different) composition of Job 3-42, a set of dialogues between Job and his friends and eventually God that I will discuss in my next posts. For now I’m interested in the reasons God crushes the righteous Job with suffering in the tale.
The overarching view of suffering from the story is clear: sometimes suffering comes to the innocent in order to see whether their pious devotion to God is genuine and disinterested. Are people faithful only when things are going well, or are they faithful no matter what the circumstances? Obviously for this author, no matter how bad things get, God still deserves worship and praise.
But serious questions can be raised about this perspective, questions raised by the text of the folktale itself. For one thing, many readers over the years have felt that God himself is not to be implicated in Job’s sufferings, since after all, it is the Satan who causes them. But a close reading of the text shows that in fact it is not that simple. It is precisely God who authorizes the Satan to do what he does; Satan could not do anything without the Lord directing him to do it. Moreover, in a couple of places the text indicates that it is God himself who is ultimately responsible. After the first round of Job’s sufferings God tells the Satan that Job “persists in his integrity, although you incited me against him, to destroy him for no reason” (2:3). Here it is God who is responsible for Job’s innocent sufferings, at the Satan’s instigation. Moreover, God points out that there was “no reason” for Job to have to suffer. This coincides with what happens at the end of the tale, where Job’s family come to comfort him after the trials are over, showing him sympathy “for all the evil that the LORD had brought upon him” (42:11).
God himself has caused the misery, pain, agony, and loss that Job experienced. You can’t just blame the Adversary. And it is important to remember what this loss entailed: not just loss of property, which is bad enough: but a ravaging of the body and the savage murder of Job’s ten children. And to what end? For “no reason” – other than proving to the Satan that Job wouldn’t curse God even if he had every right to do so. Did he have the right to do so? Remember, he didn’t do anything to deserve this treatment. He actually was innocent – as God himself acknowledges. God did this to him in order to win a bet with Satan. This is obviously a God above, beyond, and not subject to human standards. Anyone else who destroyed all your property, physically mauled you, and murdered your children – simply on a whim or a bet– would be liable to the most severe punishment that justice could mete out. But God is evidently above justice and can do whatever he pleases, if he wants to prove a point.
What then are we to make of this view of suffering, that it sometimes comes as a test of faith? I suppose people who have a blind trust in God might see suffering as a way of displaying their devotion to him, and this could indeed be a very good thing. If nothing else it can provide inward fortitude and a sense that despite everything that happens, God is ultimately in charge of this world and all that occurs within it. But is this really a satisfying solution to the pain and misery that people are compelled to endure? Are we really to imagine a divine being who wants to torment his creatures in order to see whether or not he can force them to abandon their trust in him? What exactly are they trusting him to do? Certainly not to do what is best for them: it is hard to believe that God inflicts people with cancer, flu, or AIDS in order to make sure they praise him to the end. Praise him for what? Mutilation and torture? For his great power to inflict pain and misery on innocent people?
It is important to remember that God himself acknowledged that Job was innocent – that is, that he had done nothing to deserve his torment. And God did not simply torment him by taking away his hard-earned possessions and physical health. He killed Job’s children. And why? To prove his point; to win his bet. What kind of God is this? Many readers have taken comfort in the circumstance that once Job passed the test, God rewarded him – just as God rewarded Abraham before him, and Jesus after him, just as God rewards his followers now who suffer misery so that God can prove his case. But what about Job’s children? Why were they senselessly slaughtered? So that God could prove a point? Does this mean that God is willing – even eager – to take my children in order to see how I’ll react? Am I that important, that God is willing to destroy innocent lives just to see whether I’ll be faithful to him, when he has not been faithful to me?
Possibly the most offensive part of the book of Job is the end, when God restores all that he has lost as his reward. Including additional children. Job lost seven sons and three daughters, and as a reward for his faithfulness, God gave him an additional seven sons and three daughters. What is this author thinking? That you can replace children? That the pain of a child’s death will be removed by the birth of another? That children are expendable and replaceable like a faulty computer or DVD player? What kind of God is this? Do we think that everything would be made right if the six million Jews killed in the Holocaust were “replaced” by having six million additional Jews born in the next generation?
As satisfying as the book of Job has been to people over the ages, I have to say I find it supremely dissatisfying. If God tortures, maims, and murders people just to see how they would react – to see if they would not blame him, when in fact he is to blame – then this does not seem to me to be a God worthy of worship. Worthy of fear, yes. Of praise? No.