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Job and the God Who Refuses To Answer

This will be my last post in this thread within a thread on Job.  I ended my last post by pointing out that near the end of the poetic dialogues (chs. 3-42a), Job pleads to have a chance to defend himself before God himself.  Before he is granted – or made to suffer – such a chance, another so-called friend, Elihu appears and states forcefully the view of all the “friends,” that Job is suffering because he has committed sins and God is punishing him.

This is where I pick up the plot in my book God’s Problem, as I set out the ultimate view of suffering for the author of these backs-and-forths, the view that becomes clear only when God blasts Job with his Almighty presence.


Job has no time – or need – to reply to this restatement of his friends’ views.  Before he can respond, God himself appears, in power, to overwhelm Job with his presence and to cower him into submission in the dirt.  God does not appear with a still, small voice from heaven, or in human guise, or in a comforting dream.  He sends a violent and terrifying whirlwind, and speaks to Job out of it, roaring out his reprimand:

Who is this that darkens council by words without knowledge?

Gird up your loins like a man,

I will question you, and you shall declare to me.

Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?

Tell me, if you have understanding.

Who determined its measurements – surely you know!

Or who stretched the line upon it?

On what were its bases sunk,

or who laid its cornerstone

when the morning stars sang together

and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?… (38:2-7)

In his anger, God reproves Job for thinking that he, a mere mortal, can contend with the one who created the world and all that is in it.  God is the Almighty, unanswerable to those who live their petty existence here on earth.  He asks Job a series of impossible questions, meant to grind him into submission before his divine omnipotence….

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Dinner With Me? A Blog Idea.
Was Job Really Innocent?



  1. Avatar
    godspell  April 18, 2017

    I think Job gives the same answer as Ecclesiastes, but in a different form, that bothers some people on a personal level. Including you, but arguably, the work that bothers you more is the superior work, since it has made you think more deeply, provoked a stronger reaction. Ecclesiastes is a more contemplative work, more philosophical. Job confronts suffering in a way Ecclesiastes never does. Whoever wrote Job knew much more about suffering–and the anger and incomprehension it engenders–than whoever wrote Ecclesiastes. Philosophy can only comfort us so much when we lose everything we love, and our bodies fail us. Philosophy is a fine diversion for those who are comfortable, educated, abstracted from the cares that afflict the poor and miserable.

    Did you ever see the film The Incredible Shrinking Man? Based on a novel by Richard Matheson. The hero, an ordinary decent man with a good marriage, is bathed in a radioactive mist (it’s the 1950’s) and starts to shrink. He’s very bitter about it, makes his wife miserable, while she tries to comfort and care for him. Finally, he’s so small that he’s lost entirely, can no longer communicate with other people. Utterly alone. And then he has a revelation–that no matter how small he is, he still exists. Everything is small in relation to the cosmos. Everyone is equally significant, and everyone is equally insignificant. He lets go of his anger, and accepts his fate.

    In Job, God is the entire cosmos–all that is, was, and will be. God is the creator of all and the destroyer of all. Not the kind loving father, nor a sadistic tormentor (clearly God gets no pleasure from Job’s torment, and neither did the Adversary). Beyond good, beyond evil. But why should it matter more to them than the torment of a mouse caught in a trap? Why do we place so much more value on our suffering than on that of others? Why can’t we see that everyone is equally significant, equally insignificant?

    Confronted by the sheer majesty of the universe he inhabits, his utter helplessness before it, Job accepts his place in it, accepts that he can’t control his destiny, and that is his victory–perhaps it’s a bit convenient that he gets back everything he lost, but he who loses his life shall save it.

    Our inability to accept our limits is killing our world. We surround ourselves in possessions and pleasures, trying to deny that we are small weak mortal creatures, no better than any other living thing. Our hubris threatens to destroy all life on this world, and we continue, blindly, in pure selfishness and narcissism (embodied by the current leader of the ‘free world’, who wouldn’t like the Book of Job either, I bet, if he ever read it, which he never will).

    You’re not supposed to like the God in Job. But you have to accept that the authors of this work were confronting, in a very powerful and courageous way, certain insoluble dilemmas of our existence. They considered all the various explanations for suffering, and they ultimately reject them all. They accept the smallness of human beings, and that all joys must be balanced out with sorrow. But we still exist. And without some creative force in the universe, that we might as well call God–there would be no pain, and no joy either. There would be nothing. Would that be better?

  2. Avatar
    fishician  April 18, 2017

    Job and his friends never mention Satan as a source of suffering, only God. Doesn’t this support the idea that early Hebrews saw God as the source of both good and evil and that the concept of Satan came later, and was therefore added onto the beginning of the book?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 20, 2017


      • Avatar
        godspell  April 20, 2017

        Except that didn’t what we now call Judaism begin as a polytheistic religion (that presumably included evil deities, demons, what have you–what we find in most if not all religions, to explain the existence of evil, though Trickster gods are rather ambiguous in this regard), and evolve towards Yahweh, originally a Moon God, becoming the only deity, and all other supernatural beings extremely subordinate to him?

        So having made their God the only God, they went back the other way, and then back again, looking for the right formula, never quite finding it? In taxonomic biology, this trend is called splitting and lumping, but I suppose any scientists reading this would be cross with me for making the analogy. 😉

    • Avatar
      godspell  April 20, 2017

      If Satan works for God, and does nothing without God’s okay, God is still responsible. God is the CEO, and Satan is just the one who shows up with the pink slips.

      The idea of angels is very old. I’d say the real split came with the idea that Satan and other angels had rebelled and been cast out from heaven, partly because they were jealous of the attention given to Adam and his descendants, but this clearly happened after all of Job had been written.

  3. Avatar
    Seeker1952  April 18, 2017

    Are there any deep and thoughtful comparisons of Job and Jesus? Jesus’s end is rather similar to this extended episode in Job’s life. Jesus is innocent but suffers horribly. However, as the story is told in the gospels, Jesus’s suffering has a purpose, ie, saving humanity from just punishment for their sins. And, perhaps in part because his suffering has a purpose, Jesus trusts God and accepts the divine will. Both stories go on to have happy endings. So the change is that suffering has a purpose, somehow it helps others, perhaps by reducing their suffering? Catholics have been taught to offer up their suffering for the poor souls in purgatory.

    • Avatar
      Seeker1952  April 18, 2017

      I suppose I’m getting carried away but maybe the theological development in the gospels would be that the undeserved suffering of the innocent reduces the deserved suffering of the evil, ie, that’s the explanation/justification for the former. So suffering results from the acts of the evil but is shared by all (or, if not all, then randomly shared). Unfortunately, a lot of suffering is not in fact due to evil human acts but to an indifferent nature.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 20, 2017

      Interesting idea! I haven’t seen anything like this, but it does make some sense.

    • Avatar
      godspell  April 20, 2017

      I definitely do not see that idea in Job, but I can see a connection between the stories, in terms of both men crying out to God in their misery. Difference is, Jesus wasn’t just standing around, living a nice life. He had no possessions, no wife, no children, little day-to-day contact with his family (who were not particularly afflicted, anyway). Jesus SOUGHT OUT the fate he received, expected it, engaged in actions he expected to cause it. Then he (perhaps) expected God to step in and do something about it. Perhaps transform the world into the Kingdom Jesus had preached about. When he asks God why he’s been forsaken, he’s asking why God isn’t manifesting himself, or speaking to him personally. All he hears is silence. The Voice that spoke to him when he was baptized is absent. That’s how I interpret it, anyway. Obviously the gospel story in its entirety tells us Jesus was justified in his faith, raised up into heaven. But the story in its most basic form says Jesus died in agony and despair.

      Job is sorely tested, but he is not forsaken. God comes to him, in all his majesty, and tells him he has done nothing wrong, and that his suffering is not punishment. It’s just the lot of all finite creatures to suffer and die. Why should we be treated differently than all other living things that live and die without questioning God’s will? Problem is, as George Burns pointed out, we’re always remembering the past, and wondering about the future, so we can’t simply live in the moment, as our fellow creatures mainly do.

      Presumably Job (if he’d really existed, and I don’t think the storytellers mean us to believe he did) still ultimately suffered and died, because we all do. And before we die, we suffer misfortunes. It’s not a punishment. It’s just the way of Life. We don’t have to like it. It’s not a failure of faith if we’re not happy about it. We must simply endure it. We endure all the joys and good fortune of life without much thinking about it. Pleasure will be paid, one time or another. That’s not Job, btw. That’s Shakespeare. 😉

  4. Benjamin
    Benjamin  April 18, 2017

    It is absurd. till the end of time, suffering is absurd. What say you, O Eminent Ehrman? I had just buried my dad. My sister died 6 months ago.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 20, 2017

      I’m so sorry to hear about your losses. Yes, much suffering is senseless, especially premature death. All best wishes from this end.

    • Avatar
      godspell  April 20, 2017

      My father died last October. I don’t find suffering absurd, though I certainly have no problem with laughing in the face of death, being of Irish descent.

      It’s good to mourn those we’ve lost, but I can never really escape the feeling we’re just sublimating our own fears of our own eventual fates by doing so.

      To live is to die. No life without death. No pleasure without pain. No good without evil. That is the truth, and the truth is never absurd. Merely the denial of it.

  5. Avatar
    Salvador Perez  April 18, 2017

    Hello Dr Ehrman
    Can you please explain why “the bet” between God and the accuser is not mentioned during the audience?
    and neither is the accuser either even though they both are essential to answer Job’s reason for suffering

    • Bart
      Bart  April 20, 2017

      Sorry, I don’t know what you mean by “during the audience”

      • Avatar
        Salvador Perez  April 20, 2017

        I mean “the audience” when God finally spoke to Job and gave him the “where were you when…” sermon

        • Bart
          Bart  April 21, 2017

          Oh, I see what you’re asking. God doesn’t mention the wager because the wager occurs in the narrative, written by a different author, not in the poetry, where God provides Job with an audience.

    • talmoore
      talmoore  April 20, 2017

      The assumption is that Job and his friends are unaware of the wager between God and Satan, hence the dialogue between them trying to figure why God has made Job to suffer. It’s what literary experts call dramatic irony.

  6. Avatar
    dankoh  April 18, 2017

    It’s ironic, then, that we can now give answers to many of God’s rhetorical questions!

    As for your point about man being made in the image of God and therefore could (should?) follow this version of God as a model. . . The way out of that is to point out that God gave us a whole set of rules precisely so we would NOT try to behave like Him. (“Do as I say, not as I do.”)

  7. Avatar
    godspell  April 18, 2017

    One question, since you’re winding this down.

    If life was perfect–if we all lived long happy prosperous lives, without illness, without the grief of losing those we love, without oppression, without cruelty (that mainly comes from other humans)–would there be any religious beliefs?

    People say “Why would a just God allow suffering? I won’t worship any God who is good with that.” Okay, but you wouldn’t NEED any God, or any type of faith to fall back on, if you never suffered, would you? And people tend to let go of things that don’t serve or flatter them in some way. Catch-22.

    It’s our inability to fully control our lives, our environments, that makes us turn to a higher power. Even addicts, unable to control their cravings, turn to a higher power, however they individually interpret that phrase.

    Religious faith has diminished greatly in the last century–but mainly among the well-off. Among the people benefiting from technological society, from longer lifespans, better medicine, more access to food, and these days most of us don’t even have to worry about being drafted to go to war. No theists without foxholes? It’s not that simple, obviously, and there are many exceptions in both directions, but that’s the overwhelming trend. Rich people dabble in religion. Poor people need it. A very large number of humans are still very poor, ridden with disease, plagued by violence and oppression and injustice. And they still tend to be religious. And it doesn’t look like they’re going anywhere. And as robots start doing more and more of our jobs, how many of us will be joining them?

    And Job will be there, waiting. To remind us nobody, God least of all, ever said life was fair. It’s as fair as we make it. No more, no less.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 20, 2017

      Yes, maybe so. But I don’t see why millions of people should be literally starving to death to make it possible for me to have faith. It’s suffering in extremis that creates problems for me.

      • Avatar
        godspell  April 20, 2017

        That’s a bit like saying that bacteria exist so penicillin could be invented.

        If we could find a way to get rid of pain, privation, and death–of both the physical and spiritual type, and the latter might prove much harder to defeat., often paradoxically increases as we grow healthier and wealthier–then perhaps we would need no faith (except perhaps in ourselves, which can be hardest of all).

        If I may quote from a modern interpretation of a different belief system–

        //Zeus: Perseus has won. My son has triumphed.

        Hera: A fortunate young man.

        Zeus: Fortune is ally to the brave.

        Thetis: What a dangerous precedent. What if there more heroes like him? What if courage and imagination became everyday mortal qualities? What will become of us?

        Zeus: We would no longer be needed. But, for the moment, there is sufficient cowardice, sloth and mendacity down there on Earth to last forever. //

        Hail Zeus.


    • Avatar
      HawksJ  April 20, 2017

      {{If life was perfect–if we all lived long happy prosperous lives, without illness, without the grief of losing those we love, without oppression, without cruelty (that mainly comes from other humans)–would there be any religious beliefs?}}

      So, are you suggesting that god created/allows suffering so that we would need him? Or are you suggesting that suffering is worth it because it makes people ‘religious’?

  8. talmoore
    talmoore  April 18, 2017

    In other words, God is the ultimate father figure. “You do as I say and without the backtalk, ya hear?”

    A better defense of Divine Command Theory cannot be made.

  9. Avatar
    bamurray  April 18, 2017

    “Shut up he explained.” (Ring Lardner, The Young Immigrants)

  10. cheito
    cheito  April 18, 2017

    Dr Ehrman:

    Your comment:

    It cannot be overlooked that in the divine response from the whirlwind to Job’s passionate and desperate plea for understanding why he, an innocent man, is suffering so horribly, no answer is in fact given. God does not explain why Job suffers. He simply asserts that he is the Almighty and, as such, cannot be questioned.

    My Question:

    Is the “divine” response to Job to be considered the response of God himself, or the notion of the author, who believed that God would answer Job with the words he imagined in his fictional account?

    Your comment:

    It may be that Job’s problem is that he has read the Wisdom literature (Proverbs) and the Prophets, and thinks there must be a connection between sin and punishment — since otherwise it doesn’t make sense to him that he is suffering. Maybe he should have read the book of Ecclesiastes instead. For there we find the view that suffering does not come for known causes or known reasons. Suffering just comes, and we need to deal with it as best we can.

    My Questions:

    Do we really know when Job existed?

    Did Job have access to the writings of the proverbs of Solomon or the prophecies of the prophets?

    Are we to base our faith in God on the conclusions and worldviews of the authors of the books of Ecclesiastes and Job?

    Is the author of Ecclesiastes speaking the words of God himself?

    Did God tell the author of Ecclesiastes that there’s no life after death, or that suffering does not come for known causes or known reasons?

    It may be that you’re confusing the words of men for the words of God DR Ehrman

    • Bart
      Bart  April 20, 2017

      I’m not quite sure what you’re asking. I think when authors of the Bible record what God said, they’re not really recording what God said. They’re recording what they imagined God said, or would have said.

      • cheito
        cheito  April 20, 2017

        I’ll agree with you, DR Ehrman, that the authors of many of the books in the ‘bible’ recorded what they imagined God Said, or would have said.

        I do not consider that the books in the bible written by these authors who wrote what they imagined God said, are the words of the Lord.

        However not all the books in the bible were written by authors who wrote out of their own inspiration.

        Some authors of the bible literally wrote down ‘the words of the Lord’, because The Lord appeared to them, and spoke to them audibly. These authors saw The Lord and heard His voice in real time, and the Lord Himself instructed them to write the words they heard, in scrolls.

        Whether it was Moses, Jeremiah or Paul, these men saw the Lord and the Lord spoke to them and commanded them, what to say and what to do.

        The writings of ‘Mark’, ‘Matthew’ and ‘Luke’, in my estimation don’t have the same authoritative clout as the writings of Moses, Jeremiah and Paul have.

        I believe The Lord Himself spoke to Moses, Jeremiah and Paul and that their words are reliable and trustworthy, despite the problems with the manuscripts.

        As for Matthew and Luke, they used the words of Mark to make up their own Jesus. The Lord did not speak to these authors, (whoever they were) nor did The Lord commissioned them to write their accounts.

        The authors of Mark, Matthew and Luke took it upon themselves to write about Jesus.

        We can’t be sure that they are quoting Jesus correctly.

        Their accounts are not historically accurate.

        I’ll give an example from one of the books in the Old Testament of what I mean.

        In The book of Exodus The Lord not only spoke to Moses and to all the children of Israel in real time, but He also wrote on tablets of stone what He had spoken audibly, and what all the children of Israel, and all those who were among them heard with their own ears. Exodus 31:18

        In Chapters 19 and 20 of exodus is recorded one of the most excellent examples of what I’m trying to relate here:

        in Exodus 19:9 The Lord tells Moses that He Himself will come and speak to Moses in the sight of all the people so that they all will hear His Voice, i.e. The Lord’s voice.

        In Exodus 19:10-11, The Lord further tells Moses to go down to the people and get them ready because on the third day He will descend on Mt Sinai in their sight.

        In Exodus 20:1-22, God speaks, The ten commandments, to Moses and the people. The people heard The Lord speaking the Ten Commandments.

        My point is that the people did not imagine that God spoke the ten commandments to Moses.

        Moses himself did not imagine that God spoke the ten commandment.

        The Lord audibly spoke the Ten Commandments and then after speaking them, He wrote them on tablets of stone! (Exodus 31:18)

        The Ten commandments are the words of God not from the imagination of Moses

        What God spoke to Job was what the author(s) of Job imagined God would have said to Job
        it was not the words of God!

        • Avatar
          dragonfly  April 21, 2017

          Moses didn’t write any of the books of the bible.

          • cheito
            cheito  April 23, 2017

            Moses authorship is indirect. His writings were the source documents for the editor who put together the final form of the book of Deuteronomy, Exodus and most likely the rest of the Pentateuch.

  11. Avatar
    Jason  April 18, 2017

    Is the final conclusion here that trying to gain a sense of the book of Job’s perspective on the afterlife is a bit like trying to get directions to Chicago from a collage of two maps, one of Ohio and the other Texas?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 20, 2017

      Not quite: Job does have a view. There is no afterlife to make up for injustices in this life.

  12. Avatar
    ask21771  April 18, 2017

    In your opinion what does “Satan masquerades as an angel of light” as said in 2 corinthians 11:14 mean?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 20, 2017

      It means evil can be nefarious and disguised as an apparent good.

  13. Avatar
    doug  April 18, 2017

    IMO, ff we are to be moral, we cannot avoid making moral judgements. If we believe in God and think he is exempt from our judgement of him, we have judged him already.

  14. Josephsluna
    Josephsluna  April 18, 2017

    – Bart, I want to post something random. What if Jesus walked around with headphones on, and John the baptist seen him with the headphones on. What Jesus was listening to, John heard it. That would be one way he knew who was walking around ? LOL What if Jesus drove a truck and was behind you? Would you be startled ?LOL Would they move out of his way from anger of being startled, or fear first? When is your next live streaming event is the true post/ question?

  15. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  April 19, 2017

    It remains very puzzling to me why people would believe in this sort of nasty God much less a God involved in all of the divine killing described in the Bible. I know, I know, one can argue that this Old Testament God was an incomplete view of an ancient people who lived before Jesus, but even the New Testament contains the killing of Ananias and Sapphira and the book of Revelation is full of really horrible divine killing.

    • Avatar
      dragonfly  April 21, 2017

      Why not? If God appears to be an arsehole, what’s wrong with believing he is?

      • Avatar
        godspell  April 23, 2017

        Except that very often people we think are assholes are actually doing what needs be done–and people who tell us what we want to hear are just using us.

        Appearances can be deceiving.

  16. Avatar
    Silver  April 19, 2017

    In terms of the afterlife, what do you think ‘a certain ruler’ meant when he asked, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” ? Did he see this in terms of Jesus’ apocalyptic message and was asking about a place in a kingdom here on earth?
    Also, what is actually meant by ‘eternal life’? Does not everybody when they die have everlasting life in the sense of a ‘continuing existence’ such that some have joy for eternity (in heaven) while others have pain and torture (in hell)? If the latter group are not ‘eternally living’ then they will not feel their punishment. Certainly the ‘saved’ will not literally be experiencing eternal life UNLESS they are to do so in an earthly kingdom like that which you argue Jesus anticipated.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 20, 2017

      He appears to have meant — “how can I have life forever in heaven in the presence of God and his angels.”

  17. Avatar
    sheila0405  April 19, 2017

    The problem with suffering is the foundation of my own agnostic atheism. In my life, God never made his presence known or knowable. Learning about the real history of the Bible while desperately seeking God in its pages was my last straw. I was 60. My search stretched out over decades.

  18. Josephsluna
    Josephsluna  April 19, 2017

    Bart, Barnabas born Joseph used to get drunk and talk about GOD? Have you ever heard of the saying… Deny to his son Lord Dionysus!!!!!!! Feel Zeus in your temple like thunder and lightning. Hades the devil is powerful. Zeus just might send those. Read your bible

    l AM<

    For all things I say come true… Touched by Zeus,…..

  19. Avatar
    Hume  April 20, 2017

    Hi Bart, there are many difficulties that arise with this statement since Genesis only records two children of Adam and Eve to this point-Cain and Abel. The issues to be considered are these:

    1)If all humanity descended from Adam and Eve, then where did his wife come from?

    2)In addition, where did all the people come from that are mentioned in the account?

    3)If Cain married a relative, then doesn’t this indicate incest?

    4)If Cain married his sister, then wouldn’t we expect any offspring to suffer degenerative effects?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 20, 2017

      Yup, these are all problems. Or as we used to ask: did Adam have a navel?

      • Avatar
        Wilusa  April 20, 2017

        I don’t spend time reading the Bible, but didn’t Adam and Eve supposedly have a third son, Seth?

        In the Bible I have (a Catholic version, circa 1950), a Note “explains” that under those special circumstances – no one else existing – the sons and daughters of Adam and Eve were permitted to mate and have offspring with their siblings. Guess they never thought of the other possibilities: Adam mating with their daughters, and a pre-menopausal Eve with their sons!

    • talmoore
      talmoore  April 20, 2017

      In the Book of Jubilees the sons of Adam and Eve literally marry and procreate with their sisters. This appears to be a work by intertestimental Jews meant to answer those questions. Unfortunately, this answer means we are all the descendents of incest.

      • Avatar
        dragonfly  April 23, 2017

        “My daddy’s payin’ for this wedding.”

        “Hey! He’s my daddy too!”

  20. Avatar
    John1003  April 20, 2017

    Job 42:1-6 seems to indicate that God is taking responsibility for his suffering. “No purpose of his can be restrained” it also seems to indicate Job is not merely bowing before his power, but more fundamentally that Job recognizes that he lacks knowledge that Only God has. Verse 3 says I have rashly utterd things I did not understand , things too wonderful for me which I did not know. He uses the word wonderful.

    The same person that went on and on about Gods power by use of the whirlwind also wrote chp 42:1-6. Shouldn’t we be looking at that passage to find the real lesson of Job. Isn’t the poet now interpreting the meaning of all that rhetoric from the whirlwind.

    Job 42:1-6 seems to leave alot of room for interpretation but it seems like Job would call the purposes of God wonderful and instructive. I think verse 5-6 implies that he repents in ashes for questioning God’s Character.

    Those six verses could have simply recorded Job throwing himself at God’s mercy because God is so powerful, he should not even question him. Thats not the conclusion of the writer of Job in verse 1-6.

    • Avatar
      John1003  April 28, 2017

      I can see your passionate about this subject. I have read your article several times and its very well thought out. I have also given this particular issue alot of thought. You put alot of emphasis on Job ultimately bowing to God’s power but I am reading 42:1-6 as emphasizing Job’s lack of understanding in Gods ways. He ask God to instruct him. I am not making the larger argument that God can do whatever he wants. I am saying that the final chapter of Job emphasizes Gods greater knowledge and understanding than man. In the first two verses Job just acknowledges Gods overwhelming power as obvious and Goes on to the real point. god has understanding and knowledge unavailable to him. Is this reading of 42:1-6 reasonable?? Can this conclusion be used as insight into all the poetry that comes before ? Why would Job call the purposes of God wonderful and instructive if God’s overwhelming power to do what he pleases is the point ? Could you comment on Job 42:3 ?

      • Bart
        Bart  April 28, 2017

        Yes, it is sometimes read that way. My point is that God calls upon his own greater knowledge and power to disparage Job as small and insignificant, and insists that he doesn’t have to answer the question of why Job suffers.

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