In my previous post I explained how the book of Job comprises both a folk-tale written in prose about a righteous man named Job (chs. 1-2; 42) and a set of dialogues written in poetry between Job, his so-called friends, and eventually God (chs. 3-42).   These are two different compositions with two different authors living at two different times with two different understandings of why Job and people like him suffer.

To unpack these understandings, I begin with the folktale as discussed in my book God’s Problem (HarperOne, 2008).


The Folktale: The Suffering of Job as a Test of Faith

The action of the prose folktale alternates between scenes on earth and in heaven.  It begins by indicating that Job lived in the land of Uz; usually this is located in Edom, to the southeast of Israel.  Job, in other words, is not an Israelite.  As a book of “wisdom,” this account is not concerned with specifically Israelite traditions: it is concerned with understanding the world in ways that should make sense to everyone living in it.  In any event, Job is said to be “blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil” (1:1). We have already seen that in other books of wisdom, such as Proverbs, wealth and prosperity come to those who are righteous before God; here this dictum is borne out.  Job is said to be enormously wealthy, with 7000 sheep, 3000 camels, 500 yoke of oxen, 500 donkeys, and very many servants.  His piety is seen in his daily devotions to God: early every morning he makes a burnt offering to God for all his children, seven sons and three daughters, in case they have committed some sin.

The narrator then moves to a heavenly scene in which the “heavenly beings” (literally: the sons of God) appear before the Lord, “the Satan” among them.  It is important to recognize that the Satan here is

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not the fallen angel who has been booted from heaven, the cosmic enemy of God.  Here he is portrayed as one of God’s divine council members, a group of divinities who regularly report to God and, evidently, go about the world doing his will.  Only at a later stage of Israelite religion (as we will see in chapter 7), does “Satan” become “the Devil,” God’s mortal enemy.  The term “the Satan” here in Job does not appear to be a name so much as a description of his office: it literally means “the Adversary” (or the Accuser).  But he is not an adversary to God: he is one of the heavenly beings who reports to God.  He is the adversary who plays “devil’s advocate,” as it were, who challenges conventional wisdom in order to try to prove a point.  In the present instance his challenge has to do with Job.  The Lord brags to the Satan about Job’s blameless life and the Satan challenges God about it: Job is upright only because he is so richly blessed in exchange.  If God were to take away what he has, the Satan insists, Job would “curse you to your face” (1:11).  God doesn’t think so, and gives the Satan authority to take everything away from Job.  In other words, this is to be a test of Job’s righteousness: can he have a disinterested piety, or does his pious relationship to God depend entirely on what he manages to get out of the deal?

The Satan attacks Job’s household.  In one day, the oxen are stolen away, the sheep are burned up by fire from heaven, the camels are raided and carried off, all the servants are killed, and even the sons and daughters are mercilessly destroyed by a storm that levels their house.  Job’s reaction?  As God predicted, he does not utter curses for his misfortune: he goes into mourning:

Job arose, tore his robe, shaved his head, and fell on the ground and worshiped.  He said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return there; the LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD.” (1:20)

The narrator assures us that in all this “Job did not sin or charge God with wrongdoing” (1:22).   One might wonder what “wrongdoing” God could possibly do, if robbery, destruction of property, and murder is not wrong.  But in this story, at least, for Job to preserve his piety means for him to continue trusting God, whatever God does to him.

The narrative then reverts to a heavenly scene of God and his divine council.  The Satan appears before the Lord, who once again brags about his servant Job.  The Satan replies that of course Job has not cursed God – he has not himself been afflicted with physical pain.  But, he tells God, “stretch out your hand now and touch his bone and his flesh and he will curse you to your face” (2:5).  God allows the Satan to do so, with the proviso that he not take away Job’s life (in part, one might suppose, because it would be hard to evaluate Job’s reaction were he not alive to have one).  The Satan then afflicts Job with “loathsome sores…from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head” (2:7).  Job sits on a pile of ashes and scrapes his wounds with a potsherd.  His wife urges on him the natural course, “Do you still persist in your integrity? Curse God and die.”  But Job refuses, “Shall we receive the good at the hand of God and not receive the bad”? (2:10).  In all this Job does not sin against God.

Job’s three friends then come to him – Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite.  And they do the only thing true friends can do in this kind of situation, they weep with him, mourn with him, and sit with him, not saying a word.  What sufferers need is not advice, but a comforting human presence.

It is at this point that the poetic dialogues begin, in which the friends do not behave like friends, much less like comforters, insisting that Job has simply gotten what he has deserves.  I will talk about these dialogues later, as they come from a different author from the prose narrative.  The folktale is not resumed until the very conclusion of the book at the end of chapter 42.  It is obvious that a bit of the folktale has been cut out in the process of combining it with the poetic dialogues: for when it resumes, God indicates that he is angry with the three friends for what they have said, in contrast to what Job has said.  This cannot very well be a reference to what the friends and Job said in the poetic dialogues, because there it is the friends who defend God and Job who accuses him.  And so a portion of the folktale must have been cut off when the poetic dialogues were added.  What the friends said that offended God cannot be known.

But what is clear is that God rewards Job for passing the test: he has not cursed God.  Job is told to make a sacrifice and prayer on behalf of his friends, and he does so.  God then restores everything that had been lost to Job, and even more: 14,000 sheep, 6000 camels, 1000 yoke of oxen, and 1000 donkeys.  And he gives him another seven sons and three daughters.  Job lives out his days in peace and prosperity surrounded by children and grandchildren.

This is an intriguing understanding of why there is suffering — it comes as a test.  It is not the view you find in the other part of Job, the forty chapters of poetic dialogue between Job and his “friends.”  But what do you think of it as an evaluation for why people (even the Jobs of the world) suffer?  I’ll explain what I think of it in the next post.