I have been doing a series of posts on the views of suffering in the book of Job. I quite intentionally use the plural “views” because, unlike what most people think or assume (those who have any opinion on the matter) the book of Job does not present a solitary view but several views that are at odds with each other. One of those views is opposed by the author. But two of them – that are at odds! – are embraced by the author. Or, rather, we need to use the plural again: by the “authors.” As I point out, there are at least two authors behind our book of Job, writing at different times, in different places, for different audiences, and setting forth different views. Only later did some unknown third person combine the writings – one of them a narrative folk tale told in prose (chs. 1-2, 42) and the other a set of dialogues presented in poetry (chs. 3-42).
If you haven’t read the previous posts, no worries. This one and the ones that follow will make sense on their own. These will be on the view of suffering found in the main part of the book the poetic dialogues. They again will be drawn from my book God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer our Most Important Question – Why We Suffer (HarperOne 2008).
The view found in these dialogues is very, very different from the one in the narrative framing story of the prologue and epilogue. The issue dealt with, however, is the same. If God is ultimately in charge of all of life, why is it that the innocent suffer?
For the folktale it is because God tests people to see if they can retain their piety despite undeserved pain and misery. For the poetic dialogues, there are different answers for different ones of the figures involved: for Job’s so-called friends, suffering comes as a punishment for sin (this view appears to be rejected by the narrator). Job himself, in the poetic speeches, cannot figure out a reason for innocent suffering. And God, who appears at the end of the poetic exchanges, refuses to give a reason. It appears that for this author the answer to innocent suffering is that there is no answer. That, in itself, is obviously very interesting!
The Overall Structure of the Poetic Dialogues
The poetic dialogues are set up as a kind of back and forth between Job and his three “friends.” Job makes a statement and one of his friends replies; Job responds and the second friend replies; Job responds again and then the third friend replies. This sequence happens three times, so that there are three cycles of speeches. The third cycle however, has become muddled, possibly in the copying of the book over the ages: one of the friend’s (Bildad’s) comments are inordinately short in the third go-around (only five verses); another friend’s (Zophar’s) comments are missing this time; and Job’s response at one point appears to take the position that his friends had been advocating and that he had been opposing in the rest of the book (ch. 27). Scholars typically think something has gone awry in the transmission of the dialogues at this point (i.e., in the copying of the text).
But the rest of the structure is clear. After the friends have had their say, a fourth figure appears; this is a young man name Elihu, who is said to be dissatisfied with the strength of the case laid out by the other three. Elihu tries to state the case more forcefully: Job is suffering because of his sins. This restatement appears to be no more convincing than anything the others have said, but before Job can reply, God himself appears, wows Job into submission by his overpowering presence, and informs him that he, Job, has no right to challenge the workings of the one who created the universe and all that is in it. Job repents of his desire to understand, and grovels in the dirt before the awe-inspiring challenge of the Almighty. And that’s where the poetic dialogues end.
Job and His Friends
The poetic section begins with Job, out of his misery, cursing the day he was born and wishing that he had died at birth:
After this Job opened his mouth and cursed the day of his birth. Job said:
“Let the day perish in which I was born,
and the night that said ‘A man-child is conceived.’…
Why did I not die at birth,
come forth from the womb and expire?
Why were there knees to receive me,
or breasts for me to suck?…
Or why was I not buried like a stillborn child,
like an infant that never sees the light?” (3:1-3; 11-12; 16)
Eliphaz is the first friend to respond, and his response sets the tone for what all the friends will say. In their opinion, Job has received what was coming to him. God does not, they claim (wrongly, as readers of the prologue know), punish the innocent but only the guilty:
Then Eliphaz the Temanite answered:
“If one ventures a word with you, will you be offended?
But who can keep from speaking.?…
Think now, who that was innocent ever perished?
Or where were the upright cut off?
As I have seen, those who plow iniquity
and sow trouble reap the same.
By the breath of God they perish,
and by the blast of his anger they are consumed.” (4:1-2; 7-9)
All three friends will have similar things to say throughout the many chapters of their speeches. Job is guilty, he should repent, and if he does so God will relent and return him to his favor. If he refuses, he is simply showing his recalcitrance and willfulness before the God who punishes those who deserve it. (These friends seem well versed in the views of the Israelite prophets we considered in chapters 2 and 3) And so Bildad, for example, insists that God is just and seeks Job’s repentance:
Then Bildad the Shuhite answered:
“How long will you say these things,
and the words of your mouth be a great wind?
Does God pervert justice?
Or does the Almighty pervert the right?
If your children sinned against him,
he delivered them into the power of their transgression.
If you will seek God
and make supplication to the Almighty,
if you are pure and upright,
surely then he will rouse himself for you
and restore to you your rightful place.
Though your beginning was small,
your latter days will be very great.” (8:1-7)
Zophar too thinks that Job’s protestations of innocence are completely misguided and an affront to God. If he is suffering, it is because he is guilty and is getting his due; in fact, he deserves far worse (one wonders what could be worse, if the folktale is any guide)
Then Zophar the Naamathite answered:
“Should a multitude of words go unanswered,
and should one full of talk be vindicated?
Should your babble put others to silence,
and when you mock, shall no one shame you?
For you say, ‘My conduct is pure,
and I am clean in God’s sight.’
But O that God would speak,
and open his lips to you
and that he would tell you the secrets of wisdom!
For wisdom is many-sided.
Know then that God exacts of you less than your guilt deserves.” (11:1-6)
And this is what Job’s friends are saying! I’ll continue in the next post.