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Understanding the Story of Job

In this thread on the afterlife in the Bible, I have turned to Ecclesiastes and Job as providing alternative views to what is found in most of the Hebrew Bible.  In my previous post I noted that Job appears to be two different books by two different authors edited together at some point into one long account.  The beginning and end of the book represent a short folk tale, with an intriguing view of why it is people suffer (a matter of importance to views of the afterlife, as we will see in the next post,).  Here is what I say about the tale in my book God’s Problem:


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 not…

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Why I Find the Story of Job is Disturbing
The Two Books of Job: A Blast from the Past



  1. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  April 11, 2017

    Job does present a view of a “horrible” God to go along with all of the divine killing in the Bible. This portrayal of God was one of the big dominoes to fall in my childhood view of the Bible.

    For those new to the blog, I highly recommend Dr. Ehrman’s “God’s Problem.”

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    Seeker1952  April 11, 2017

    Until the last few years I’d always taken the point of Job’s story to be that, even though the combination of horrific suffering and an all-powerful, perfectly good God doesn’t make sense, there is nowhere else for us to go other than to God. It’s not so much a test from God as a limiting case for faith. The world, especially its evil, is a mystery. The only alternative to trust in an ultimate happy ending is despair. It’s as if we need to have faith in faith itself, in order to keep going.

    But, as you point out, there is at least one other alternative, ie, Job’s story disconfirms the existence of an all-powerful, perfectly good God. And that still leaves us with the opportunity for an Ecclesiastes-style enjoyment of life, as best we can, while it lasts.

    Is the first paragraph a fair assessment of at least some of the common “religious” thinking about Job? Though I’ve never read it I’d always understood that to also be the theme (or one of the important themes) of Archibald MacLeish’s “J.B.” I’d better read it for myself.

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    Wilusa  April 11, 2017

    We see people today having the same attitudes. For example, when someone has been wrongly imprisoned for a decade or more…lawyers devoted to justice bring about his release…and he emerges from prison joyously thanking and praising “God.” *Never questioning* why a presumably omnipotent “God” had let him be wrongly convicted in the first place!

  4. Avatar
    Wilusa  April 11, 2017

    I’m wondering how you’ll connect this to views on the afterlife… Do you think the author meant to indicate that if people have this sort of blind faith, it will definitely be rewarded, even if the reward has to come after death? (It would have been apparent to his readers that some people were dying after enduring suffering they in no way “deserved.”)

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    dankoh  April 11, 2017

    I’ve always been troubled by Job (who hasn’t?) because, among other things, God allows the killing of all his children as part of the test. But these are also human beings who have done nothing wrong, and are just bumped off just to make a point. And when God gives Job new sons and daughters, there is no mention of the earlier children; it’s as though they did not exist.

    On the matter of “satan”: I’m sure you are aware of the passage in Numbers (22:22), where God sends an angel to stand in Balaam’s way (l’satan lo) because Balaam is on his way to curse the Israelites. The “satanic” angel (as it were) has been assigned to carry out God’s will here.

    Side observation from Jack Miles in God:A Biography – using the Jewish order of the books, God’s speech to Job our of the whirlwind is the last God time God speaks in the Bible.

  6. Avatar
    Hormiga  April 11, 2017

    It would seem that the concept of an omniscient Yahweh would have trouble with the story of Job. Why test the guy if the results are, courtesy omniscience, already known?

  7. Avatar
    tskorick  April 11, 2017

    I remember the first time I read an actual Jewish translation of Job from the Masoretic and how much it contrasted with the Christianized version of the OT from the Septuagint. The Tanakh from the JPS calls this “ha satan” servant The Adversary and never by the name Satan (of course). The Stone Edition calls him “The Satan” and clarifies in the footnotes that this was a servant whose job it was to “circulate throughout the earth evaluating the deeds of Mankind (Rashi).” And also that “This dialogue took place on Rosh Hashanah, the Day of Judgment (Ibn Ezra)” – referring to the conversation between the Adversary and YHWH at the beginning of the tale.

    The evolution of the idea of “ha satan” into the Christian “fallen-angel-king-of-bad-guys” I find very interesting. I wonder how much of the evolving personification of the Hebrew term borrowed elements from the “Ahriman” person from the more dualistic Zoroastrianism before being replaced by Alexander with Hellenistic theology. This would predate Christianity by a few centuries and wouldn’t explain where Christians adopted the view of a personal Satan unless latent dualistic theological views were present in Judaism throughout that period.

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    jlparris  April 11, 2017

    This has always been a very sad verse for me: “2 And there were born unto him seven sons and three daughters.”

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    Jason  April 11, 2017

    It just now struck home with me the implications that this has for my former “believer” self, how without reason I had been, making a bargain of faith and deeds for an afterlife with a being that I defended as having the “right” to do this to Job, and thus whom could demonstrably not be trusted to uphold his alleged end of that deal.

  10. Avatar
    FadyRiad  April 11, 2017

    I wonder if you have read Carl Jung’s The Answer to Job…
    It’s a very deep book and a very rewarding read.
    In brief, Jung argues that Satan could manipulate God to hurt Job. Omnipotent by nature, God wasn’t psychologically mature; he didn’t need to consider his actions and decisions because they could never be of harm to him. When Job complained to God, however, it was the first time that God had to face the consequences of his actions and the wound that this confrontation left in God’s psyche led him to desire wisdom. (This is why you find books like Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Solomon after Job.)
    God’s ultimate desire for wisdom led him to be incarnated in Jesus Christ who is God and Job in one person.
    I understand none of this makes sense from a scholar point of view, but the book is meant to be psychology, not a serious religious study. I would seriously recommend you read it!
    Coming this Easter…

  11. Avatar
    doug  April 11, 2017

    It always strikes me as interesting that in the book of Job, his 10 children are considered expendable. After they are deliberately killed, all that needs to be done is to replace them with 10 more children, as tho the first 10 were merely “things” rather than people.

  12. DestinationReign
    DestinationReign  April 12, 2017

    I think what a lot of people miss is the fact that Job actually DIDN’T maintain his “perfection” throughout his ordeal. Remember, Yahweh rebuked Job at the conclusion of his trials for speaking without knowledge – Job had a lesson to learn. Yes, for all intents and purposes, Job was a “good man.” But he had to learn to be even better. (None of this necessitates that the “Job story” is literal history. It is a metaphorical teaching about true spiritual growth.)

    I have no doubts that the scriptures are “divinely inspired,” but not in the way Christian apologists claim. And even the alterations and spurious portions of Scripture have had a divine reason for their orchestrations. While it’s too much to get into here in one brief blog reply, Job actually represents Christianity (the entire 2,000-year establishment). Christians see themselves as righteous and blameless in God’s sight, but Christianity as a whole is blind and “speaks without knowledge,” as Job did. The Church started off as the “good seed” when Christ first established it, but His followers all “fell away” into darkness and blindness after He left the world. (Seeds naturally get buried in darkness. This is also what He meant in His prophecy of John 9:4-5 about night coming, when no one could work. Christianity was established after He departed, and Christianity is Mystery Babylon, with it’s 30,000+ denominations all seeing different “truths.”)

    Now, however, we are at the “end of the age” and the Church must awaken and repent and confess its blindness to the world. The Church has to realize it has been speaking of things that it has no knowledge of (the Kingdom of God), even as Job came to that realization at the end of his ordeal. (This will be the “coming out of Babylon.” Christianity’s sins have piled to the heavens after 2,000 long years of “night.”) Thus, the “pattern” of the Church fits the “pattern” of Job’s own life story. It started off as good, fell away into error and self-delusion (as Job did), and now must awaken and purify itself in God’s sight. Is this making sense? (I don’t mean to ramble but I felt compelled to share these things here.) Another way of looking at it – just as Christ’s “body” slept in darkness for “2 days” and awakened on the third day, so does the “Body of Christ” have to now awaken and come out of darkness as we approach the third “day”/third millennium since Christ has left the world in darkness. Then just as Christ ascended after awakening, so will those who awaken at the end of the age “ascend alive” in what Christianity thinks of as the “rapture.”

    Again, I apologize for the ramble but I’m happy to be on board here where we can bounce these insights off of one another and discuss. I have a lot of respect for the work that Mr. Ehrman does, in calling out the foolishness of Christian apologists who insist that there are “no contradictions” in the Bible, when it is FULL of contradictions! But again, remember – they are blind and speak of things they have no knowledge about.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 12, 2017

      Yahweh’s rebuke to Job is not in the narrative, but in the poems, written by a different author.

      • Avatar
        godspell  April 12, 2017

        But why does that matter, if we’re only discussing the underlying meaning of the story? All myths have different versions, different traditions. The poems are someone’s commentary on the already existing story, that have been incorporated into what we now call The Book of Job–so? Good chance that’s right, but it doesn’t change the fact that we, as a culture, have absorbed them as a single narrative. How many people contributed to The Iliad, or the Arthurian legends?

        It matters in terms of better understanding how the Book of Job came into being, but we still have to deal with The Book of Job as a unified entity, because that’s how it has been absorbed into human consciousness, for thousands of years now.

      • DestinationReign
        DestinationReign  April 12, 2017

        I wouldn’t say you’re wrong about that. You are an expert on the literary aspects of Scripture! (I definitely side with your view of things for the most part in comparison to Christianity.) But even if that’s the case, it doesn’t negate the “divine” assembly of Job. Meaning, even if it was compiled by multiple authors.

    • Avatar
      dragonfly  April 12, 2017

      Job didn’t need to learn to be better. God confirms he was without sin. God rebukes Job’s friends for thinking there was a moral order in the world and that therefore Job must have sinned. They were wrong, there is no moral order in world. Job was wrong for thinking there should be. God wasn’t wrong for being immoral, Job was wrong for thinking God *should* be moral. The poetic author has pretty much challenged every traditional belief in the Hebrew Bible. This must be the hardest book to stomach for someone who believes the bible is consistent.

  13. Avatar
    godspell  April 12, 2017

    “Shall we receive the good at the hand of God and not receive the bad”?

    I’ve always thought that was a good argument.

    Suppose ‘God’ is just nature, the living world around us? Do we hate the natural world, which makes our lives possible, which provides us with everything we have (and which we routinely rape and destroy), for sending us plagues, famines, storms, earthquakes? Humans have wrestled with this conflict for as long as we’ve been telling stories. And make no mistake, the people who created the story of Job knew they were telling a story. They didn’t think any of this had happened. Not in the specific manner described.

    I understand your point–that you’re reacting to the Christian notion of God as a loving wise father, who looks after all who believe in Him, and only punishes evil, but that’s always been the most superficial and shallow version of Judaeo Christian belief–the ‘simple son’ version of the story, as they might say in the Rabbinic traditions.

    Job is an enduring tale, because it’s the truth. Whether you believe God is an old white man with a beard in the sky, the entire substance of the universe we live in, or just Life itself, we owe everything we have, everything we are, to Him/Her/Whatever. We have done a better job controlling our environment than other animals, but when we look at animals suffering (much of that suffering caused by us) do we think to ourselves this is an argument for there being nothing governing our lives but chaos? No, because that’s them. We’re special. We should be treated differently.

    It’s not God I curse when I hear this kind of argument. It’s Man. We are selfish spiteful self-involved creatures, who think of ourselves as the center of the universe. God should do nothing but cater to our needs, let us have as many children as we like, eat all we like, own all we like. We should have unlimited resources devoted to us, and we should live forever in perfect happiness, without pain.

    Job questions all of that. Job makes us confront the simple fact that nobody owes us anything. That everything we have we were GIVEN. Yes, some of us worked to make things better–many others only worked for their own short-term self-centered goals.

    Job isn’t about God, or Satan. God is unknowable, beyond understanding. Satan is a metaphor for the bad things in life. Job is about us. About humans. About how we deal with the ultimate truth that we can’t control everything, and we never will. We’re just another anthill. Even if God genuinely loves us–well, according to Jonah, God wouldn’t destroy Ninevah for the sake of the animals as much as the people there. What makes you better than an ox, or a cow, or a dog? What are you, that God should care for you? Did you create the world you live in? Something did. And that something could just as easily destroy it tomorrow.

    Much as I admire science, it never gives us any answers to problems like this. Religion, at its best, can at least ask the right questions.

  14. Avatar
    randal  April 12, 2017

    If God is all knowing (including future events). then he already knew that Job wouldn’t curse him. It appears this author believed God didn’t know future events so he had to test Job to see how he would respond. What do you think?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 13, 2017

      I think this author doesn’t think about God that way, as having omniscience.

      • Avatar
        christopherfisher  January 27, 2020

        Mr Ehrman,
        When do you believe the Jewish or Christian community first took up and/or popularized the Classical understanding of Omniscience of God?

        • Bart
          Bart  January 28, 2020

          I”m not sure what you mean by the classical understanding. But if you mean when did they start thinking that God knew absolutely everything, I’d suppose that goes way back into Israelite religion.

          • Avatar
            christopherfisher  January 31, 2020

            In Raffaele Pettazzoni’s “All Knowing God” he described typical ANE omniscience as particularly a visual omniscience. God knows because God sees. This precludes exhaustive knowledge of all future events.

            In Classical Omniscience, God is “simple” meaning He has no parts. God can’t learn from outside Himself. Instead, all God’s knowledge is un-generated and internal to Himself.God’s knowledge cannot “grow”.

            Here is Pantaenus 190-210AD
            “Neither does He gain acquaintance with sensible things by the senses, nor with things within the sphere of the understanding by the understanding: for it is not possible that He who is above all existing things should apprehend them by means of existing things. We assert, on the contrary, that He is acquainted with existing things as the products of His own volition.”

            I was wonder where you believe the New Testament writers fall?

          • Bart
            Bart  February 2, 2020

            My sense is that they didn’t have any philosophical training or inclinations, and probably never thought about it in any complex way. They just thought God knew everything. Like most Christians today.

  15. Avatar
    Junto  April 13, 2017

    A great way to put these stories in perspective is to think of Yahweh as a human parent. If a Mother or Father ever implemented “love tests” on their child to make sure their child really truly loves them, we’d call them a monster. When Yahweh does it, we find a way to see the wisdom of it, in sometimes rather clever and creative ways.

    • Avatar
      godspell  April 14, 2017

      Except he’s not a human parent. We may say that, but that’s not what God is. That’s like saying the guy who built the house you live in is your dad, even though you never met him, or even glimpsed him from a distance.

      He builds your home, and leaves it for you, asking for nothing in return except maybe a little respect. You screw it all up, make a wreck out of it. Then you go around bawling about what a jerk he is. Well, somebody sure is. 😉

  16. Avatar
    steveandcris  April 14, 2017

    God is ineffable, he is unknowable. Beyond the categories of being and non-being.
    Buddha once said ” It both is and is not, neither is, nor is not.”
    All encompassing. The Yin And Yang.
    Joseph Campbell the distinguished author and teacher and scholar of mythology once told a story of a trip to India where he met a celebrated guru named Sri Kirshna Menon. It is a tradition for the teacher to ask if you have any questions. He will never tell you anything you are not ready to hear. So Joseph Campbell said: ” Yes I have a question. Since everything in the universe is a manifestation of Divinity itself, how should we say no to anything in the world? How should we say no to brutality, to stupidity, to vulgarity, to thoughtlessness?
    And he answered, “For you and for me-the way is to say yes.”
    I always liked that. He states its an important point in all Oriental religions.God is a thought. God is a name. God is an idea. But it’s reference is to something that transcends all thinking.
    Kant said the best things can’t be told because they transcend thought. The second best are misunderstood, because those are the thoughts that are supposed to refer to that which can’t be thought about. The third best are what we talk about.
    The ultimate word in our language to describe that which can’t be described or understood is GOD.

  17. Avatar
    JamesSnappJr  April 19, 2017

    (Just two sources? Does not chapter 28 hit like a textual meteorite?)

    B: “Sometimes suffering comes to the innocent in order to see whether their pious devotion to God is genuine and disinterested.”

    That’s not what I get out of it. Rather something more like, “God works in ways that we would not understand even if we were told. When God tells us He is able to redeem painful situations and grievous losses, there’s no proof that He is telling the truth, and no scientific way to test His claim. What can we see of God’s ultimate intentions from the edge of an anthill? The survival of our hope that God is, and that He is good, may depend on whether one /wants/ to believe that God is good, against present (but partial) evidence to the contrary.”

  18. Avatar
    The Agnostic Christian  April 19, 2017

    I always understood that God was angry with the friends who were wrongly accusing Job and that God was simply being merciful to Job in that while he finally broke, he was still the most righteous man in the earth and had suffered more than any man before finally breaking. And that Jesus was the only man who would suffer more than Job and yet not break.

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    joeydag  April 20, 2017

    One aspect of biblical literature that invites me to speculate is the creative narrative imagination that created these stories. Imagine if we knew how the story of Job developed. Did the original teller include the frame story? Was it simply a story about a good man, not even an Israelite, that suffered and was accused by his “friends” of calling the ills upon himself. Was this God even an Israelite mythic element, when the story was first told? Was this a non-Israelite story that was absorbed into the Hebrew tradition? So many question that have no historical answer, sad.

  20. Avatar
    brandon284  May 15, 2017

    Hi Dr. Ehrman. Could you talk about how, why and when Satan DID come to be seen as the cosmic enemy of God? Very interesting!

    • Bart
      Bart  May 16, 2017

      yes, I hope to do that soon — when I finish this personal autobiographical thread that I have somehow found myself in!

      • Avatar
        brandon284  May 17, 2017

        Ok thanks! It would be very interesting to hear you elucidate this topic

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