After I finished my short thread of posts about the problem of suffering a couple of weeks ago, I realized that it might be helpful for me to discuss one or two of the books of the Bible that deal with the issue head-on — in part because many people don’t read these books much, even if they know about them, and in part because many people who *do* read them don’t know how expert interpreters have explained them.

For no book is this more true that that gem in the Hebrew Bible, the book of Job.  Or rather those two books, the two books of Job.

To talk about Job and what it is really about will require several posts.  This is the first, an introduction to the single most important issue connected with the book that most people have never heard and that completely affects how the book is to be interpreted.

This is how I discuss it in my book God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question — Why We Suffer (HarperOne, 2008).

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The Book of Job: An Overview

Most people who read Job do not realize that the book as it has come down to us today is the product of  different authors, and that these different authors had different, and contradictory, understandings of why it is that people suffer.  Most important, the way the story begins and ends – with the prose narrative of the righteous suffering of Job, whose patient endurance under duress is rewarded by God – stands at odds with the poetic dialogues that take up most of the book, in which Job is not patient but defiant, and in which God does not reward the one he has made to suffer but overpowers him and grinds him into submission.  These are two different views of suffering, and to understand the book we have to understand its two different messages.[i]

As it now stands, with the prose narrative and the poetic dialogues combined into one long account, the book can be summarized as follows: it begins with a prose description of Job, a very wealthy and pious man, the richest man in the eastern world.  The action moves up to heaven, where God speaks with “the Satan” – the Hebrew word means “the adversary” – and commends Job to him.  The Satan claims that Job is pious toward God only because of the rewards he gets for his piety. God allows the Satan then to take away all Job has: his possessions, his servants, and his children; then, in a second round of attacks, his own health.  Job refuses to curse God for what has happened to him.  Three friends come to visit him and comfort him; but it is cold comfort indeed.  Throughout their speeches they tell Job that he is being punished for his sins (that is, they take the “classical” view of suffering, that sinners get what they deserve).  Job continues to insist on his innocence and pleads with God to allow him to present his case before him.  At the end of the dialogues with the friends (which take up most of the book), God does show up, and overwhelms Job with his greatness, forcefully reproving him for thinking that he, God, has anything to explain to Job, a mere mortal.  Job repents of his desire to make his plea before God.  In the epilogue, which reverts to prose narrative, God commends Job for his upright behavior, and condemns the friends for what they have said.  He restores to Job all of his wealth, and more; he provides him with another batch of children, and Job lives out his life in prosperity, dying at a ripe old age.

Some of the basic discrepancies between the prose narrative with which the book begins and ends (just under three chapters) and the poetic dialogues (which take up nearly forty chapters) can be seen just from this brief summary.  The two sources that have been spliced together to make the final product are written in different genres: a prose folktale and a set of poetic dialogues.  The writing styles are different between these two genres.  Closer analysis shows that the names for the divine being are different in the prose (where the name Yahweh is used) and the poetry (where the divinity is named El, Eloah, and Shaddai).  Yet more striking, the portrayal of Job differs in the two parts of the book: in the prose he is a patient sufferer, in the poetry he is thoroughly defiant, and anything but patient.  Correspondingly he is commended in the prose but rebuked in the poetry.  Moreover, the prose folktale indicates that God deals with his people according to their merit, whereas that the entire point of the poetry is that he does not do so – and is not bound to do so.  Finally, and most important, the view of why the innocent suffer differs between the two parts of the book: in the prose narrative, suffering comes as a test of faith; in the poetry, suffering remains a mystery that cannot be fathomed or explained.

To deal adequately with the book of Job, then, we need to look at the two parts of the book separately, and explore at greater length its two explanations for the suffering of the innocent.


[i].  As you might imagine, the literature on Job is vast.  For introduction to some of the most important critical issues, see the discussions and bibliographies in Collins, Hebrew Bible, 505-17; Coogan, Old Testament, pp. 479-89; and James Crenshaw, “Job, Book of” in Freedman,  Anchor Bible Dictionary, vo. 3, pp. 858-68.