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Why I Find the Story of Job is Disturbing

In yesterday’s post I summarized the narrative of Job (the story that frames the book, chs. 1-2 and 42, which come from a different author from the poetic dialogues of Job and his “friends” of chs. 3-41), with a few words about its view of why a good person might suffer.  Life’s miseries could be a test from God to see if a person will remain faithful, not just when he is thriving but also when he is in the midst of dire hardship.  Does this person worship God for what he can get out of it (wealth, prestige, stature) or because God deserves to be worshiped no matter what?

When I was a Christian I was drawn to this story and thought that it taught a valuable lesson.  It was important to be faithful, even when times were hard.  Suffering might simply be a test to see if I truly loved God and wanted to serve him, no matter what.

I no longer see the story that way, but instead find it disturbing on several levels.   To begin with, the whole premise seems to me both ludicrous and offensive.   Would the Almighty Creator of all really sanction the destruction of a person’s life – destroying all his possessions, murdering his children, and inflicting him with horrible disease – just to see if he could make him curse rather than bless Him?   Would God make a wager with another divine being about whether a sufferer can be made to reject and despise him?  Would God inflict horrible suffering (or sanction another being to do it) just in order to win a bet?

I find one particular detail in the story even more problematic and upsetting: the view of …

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Job’s So-called Friends (With Friends Like These….)
Understanding the Story of Job

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Comments

  1. RonaldTaska  April 12, 2017

    It is disturbing indeed and I find a lot of the Bible, certainly not all of it, but lots of it, to be disturbing and what is even more disturbing for me is that so many see all of the Bible as being the “wonderful Word of God” and not disturbing. Hmmm? I think people tend to see that which confirms what they want to see – Confirmation Bias 101.

    • Robby  April 14, 2017

      Yup, confirmation bias and the “Illusory Truth Effect”

  2. jhague  April 12, 2017

    When I was a Christian I was drawn to this story and thought that it taught a valuable lesson. It was important to be faithful, even when times were hard. Suffering might simply be a test to see if I truly loved God and wanted to serve him, no matter what.

    This is certainly what is taught in all the Christian churches I’ve been a part of. Also, it is taught that Job is an actual person and these events really happened.

    How is it that educated, civilized people can view the atrocities in the Bible are good lessons for life? If these type of things happen outside of the Bible, they most people are appalled!

    Also, regarding the pastors of churches that know that a story like Job is not a real story but present it as such is also disturbing.

  3. dankoh  April 12, 2017

    I find in general that in the First Temple period reward and punishment is communal; if the people behave, they will have grass in the field for their cattle, and so on. In the Second Temple period, there is a shift toward personal responsibility, but it is still about this world, not the next, until Daniel (c. 164 BCE).

    About adultery: The commandment is specific: Do not sleep with another man’s wife. Nothing about sleeping with another woman’s husband. I once knew a rabbi who tried to convince me it was OK for him to sleep with another man’s wife if they were not married according to Jewish law. (He was a schmuck in other ways, too.)

  4. godspell  April 12, 2017

    Bart, I think maybe your early religious training is making you take this too literally. 🙂

    • Bart
      Bart  April 13, 2017

      ??? I’m not taking it *literally*! I don’t think there really was a Job!

      • godspell  April 13, 2017

        I find it hard to believe anybody, up to and including the people who created this tale of woe, really believed there was a Job. My point is that it’s a story, and that in stories, we are not necessarily supposed to agree with or like the behavior of everyone in it–even sympathetic characters. If we can say the author of Mark wanted to say the disciples of Jesus never figured out he was the Messiah (and self-evidently they had come to that conclusion long before Mark’s time), then how can we say the author(s) of Job couldn’t be making similarly subtle literary points?

        You’re just saying “I don’t like these people and how they behave” but is that really the purpose of the story? To be likable?

        I think what we’re seeing here is an internal dialogue within the Judaism of that time. “How should we explain the undeniable fact that good things happen to bad people?” A question that would go on being asked if all religion vanished from the face of the earth. “Why me?” is the oldest question there is!

        We don’t judge a great work of fiction on how likable it is, or whether the characters always behave in ways that are admirable, or even sensible. Fiction that always does this is, by definition, bad fiction.

        • Bart
          Bart  April 15, 2017

          Yes, it’s a story. But I don’t know of any instance of ancient Israelite stories about God where you are supposed to find the portrayal of God offensive! The story teller is conveying his idea of what God is like. To moderns, this particular story is unpalatable.

          • godspell  April 15, 2017

            Oh come now. Are we going to accuse God of ‘micro-aggressions’? Life is offensive. Reality is offensive. Truth is offensive. As Bernard Shaw had his Don Juan say in Hell, “In this palace of lies, a truth or two won’t hurt you.”

            ‘Unpalatable’. A book that has outlasted entire civilizations.

            I’m sure many did find it offensive back then. The book itself is clear evidence that people back then argued over the nature of God, why life is so unjust, how to explain bad things happening to seemingly upstanding people. It’s a dialogue, as you know. You write dialogues so that different ideas warring in your own head can have at it. That’s what Job is. Yes, God isn’t nice here–why do we want a nice God? What’s so great about being nice, anyway? “You’re not good, you’re not bad, you’re just nice!” Sondheim’s ultimate expression of contempt for the weakness of humanity.

            What I meant by taking it literally is that stories are supposed to deal with conflicts like this. Art is supposed to deal with things like this. Religion (which comes from the same place inside of us as art) is supposed to deal with things like this. There are things that can’t be expressed otherwise, that evade logic and rationality, because life isn’t logical or rational. Life is full of contradictions, confusions, chaos. Life isn’t a mathematical equation.

  5. Boltonian  April 12, 2017

    I have a similar problem with Exodus ch 10-1. It reads as if God has hardened Pharoah’s heart and then punishes him and his people (very severely) for a crime He made Pharoah commit. Then he boasts to Moses how he has made fools of the Egyptians. What kind of a god does that sort of thing?

    • godspell  April 13, 2017

      Well, obviously that never happened. For one thing. And people who keep slaves are guilty of great sins, by definition (don’t think for one minute that’s not exactly how American slaves read Exodus, and rightly so).

      But in the context of the story, whoever is writing this is in a bind. He wants Moses to prove beyond all possible doubt that his God IS God, that he can wield enormous power, over nature itself, in that God’s name. He doesn’t want the slightest ambiguity about God’s power. God will prove to Pharaoh that he can do anything he wants to, and Pharaoh and his cheesy snake staff sorcerers can’t do a thing about it.

      Okay, so what leader in his right mind wouldn’t just let the people go already? He’s losing a fortune here, he could even be dethroned. He’s behaving like some irrational movie villain (very conveniently for C.B. DeMille).

      So that has to be explained, and since God is God of everyone, not just the Israelites, that’s the only explanation. In the movie, of course, they can just use a spiteful Anne Baxter being mad that Moses doesn’t love her anymore. Heaven hath no fury….;)

  6. BartyD4all  April 12, 2017

    I believe I read this first in your book, God’s Problem. Yes it is very disturbing that a Deity would harshly manipulate it’s creation to this extent. All due to a bet with the competing deity. Thanks again for your insight.

    • godspell  April 13, 2017

      The Adversary is not a competing deity. He’s an angel, created by God, loyal to God, and entirely subordinate to God. But given a job to do, which is to be–for want of a better word–adversarial. It’s not a bet (what would the stakes be?). It’s an investigation. Are these humans, even the seemingly best of them, truly good, or are they merely engaging in righteous behavior and praising God simply to get stuff?

      Again, taking the story at face value is stupid. Nobody is supposed to believe this actually happened. It’s an allegory for the unfairness of life, and an attempt to reconcile the belief in a just God with the injustices of human existence. And honestly, if you believe God created the world, gave you life, gave you everything you had–what is unfair? Why should you be immune from misfortune because you say your prayers and don’t do anything bad? Has Job ever done anything positively good? Has he ever risked himself to help another?

      What does his ‘goodness’ mean if it’s never tested?

      I agree with Bart that giving him substitute children to replace the ones he lost is no recompense, but in the real world of this time, you might lose most of your children, or all of them–you still had to try and keep your line alive, your tribe, so you’d have more.

      There’s a story about an Italian noblewoman during the Renaissance. Her castle was surrounded by enemies, who had captured her two only children. They told her to open the gates or they’d kill them in front of her. Her response was to laugh–“Idiots! You only have to look at me to see I can make more of them!”

      Don’t project your own values, such as they are, backwards in time. It’s never good history to do so.

      • Bart
        Bart  April 15, 2017

        Yes, it’s good advice. The problem is that this story is found in the Bible, and people therefore often take it as “authoritative” in some sense, unlike other stories from the ancient world.

        • godspell  April 15, 2017

          Oh come now. Are we going to accuse God of ‘micro-aggressions’? Life is offensive. Reality is offensive. Truth is offensive. As Bernard Shaw had his Don Juan say in Hell, “In this palace of lies, a truth or two won’t hurt you.”

          ‘Unpalatable’. A book that has outlasted entire civilizations.

          I’m sure many did find it offensive back then. The book itself is clear evidence that people back then argued over the nature of God, why life is so unjust, how to explain bad things happening to seemingly upstanding people. It’s a dialogue, as you know. You write dialogues so that different ideas warring in your own head can have at it. That’s what Job is. Yes, God isn’t nice here–why do we want a nice God? What’s so great about being nice, anyway? “You’re not good, you’re not bad, you’re just nice!” Sondheim’s ultimate expression of contempt for the weakness of humanity.

          What I meant by taking it literally is that stories are supposed to deal with conflicts like this. Art is supposed to deal with things like this. Religion (which comes from the same place inside of us as art) is supposed to deal with things like this. There are things that can’t be expressed otherwise, that evade logic and rationality, because life isn’t logical or rational. Life is full of contradictions, confusions, chaos. Life isn’t a mathematical equation.

          • Bart
            Bart  April 16, 2017

            Somehow I don’t think sanctioning or causing the death of ten children is a micro-aggression.

        • godspell  April 16, 2017

          Fair enough. Except in the real word, children die all the time. So do we accuse nature–reality itself–of murder?

          God isn’t a person. But Christianity tends to treat Him as one, which is where the confusion comes in.

          To let something happen is not aggression of any kind. If it is, we are all guilty of the death of untold millions.

          You’re disturbed by a fable written thousands of years ago? I’m disturbed by what is being done in my name, every day, with my tax dollars. And approved by both believers and unbelievers–while other believers and unbelievers protest it together.

          I don’t believe we are inherently evil, but we are quite definitely not inherently good either. And God, if God is out there, owes us NOTHING.

  7. DestinationReign  April 12, 2017

    Agreed that Job is a disturbing read – if we read it as a book of “literal history.” And Yahweh surely does come across Biblically as a rather “disturbed” entity. This is where what the Gnostics said makes a lot of sense – that Yahweh isn’t the true benevolent Source Creator, but a corrupted form of It. What are your thoughts about the differences between Genesis 1 and Genesis 2? The (unnamed) Elohim declared everything as “good” in ch. 1, but when Yahweh comes along in Genesis 2, he creates the tree of the knowledge of good and EVIL. Then of course, not long after that, everything came off the rails. I’m confident in saying that for 2,000 years, Christians have been feeding their worship energies to the wrong “God.” The one who does depraved stuff like we see in Job. Things won’t change for the better until they awaken to that fact. They are feeding Yahweh of lot of power.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 13, 2017

      I certainly don’t read it as literal history! I think it’s just a story. But the views it expresses are disturbing!

      • godspell  April 13, 2017

        Bart, you are an incredibly learned man, it goes without saying–but how much fiction have you read?

        I mean, from the last few centuries, written as fiction.

        We have always been a storytelling species. Perhaps the only one. The best stories we tell are pretty much always disturbing. Even the fairy tales we tell our children. I mean, have you read the original versions of the stories the Brothers Grimm told? Well-named!

        Job is a masterpiece of storytelling, every bit as much as Ecclesiastes. All the more because it’s so unsettling. That Judaism could produce such a complex multi-layered work so early is a testament (so to speak) of its greatness.

        Personally, it’s the parts of the Old Testament that are very one-track in their messages that bother me. “We are the chosen people, and nobody else matters.” That’s the true evil, and sad to say, it’s not unique to the Old Testament. Or to religious people.

        • Bart
          Bart  April 15, 2017

          How much fiction have I read? Really? The only thing I read in my spare time is fiction. I was an English literature major in college. My wife is the chair of the English Department at Duke. I read massively especially in nineteenth century novels. Over the past few weeks I have finished Les Miserables; read The Sense of an Ending; and am now reading A Room with a View. Among my favorite authors are George Eliot, Dickens, Trollope, Doestoevsky, Tolstoy, and … and and and!

          • godspell  April 15, 2017

            Good! And aren’t they often highly offensive? Were not their contemporaries frequently offended and troubled and sometimes enraged by what they had to say?

            And every last one of them would have admired The Book of Job, I bet. Maybe not agreed with it (it doesn’t entirely seem to agree with itself, which can often be the mark of a great work of literature).

            Thing is, when we read great literature of the past, we often don’t find it offensive anymore. We get used to it, the shocking things it told its original readers have become accepted truths.

            How great is Job that it can still bother us, thousands of years after all its authors were corpses?

          • Bart
            Bart  April 16, 2017

            I do think it’s a great book! And highly offensive to my sense of what is right.

          • godspell  April 16, 2017

            And also thought-provoking as all hell, as it was no doubt originally intended to be. But as you say, when it becomes taken as holy writ, there will be those who refuse to think about it, and smooth over the moral wrinkles, to avoid questioning their own beliefs.

            The one thing that offends me about Job is the pat ending. It’s too easy. But of course, the author(s) would have seen this happen. A man loses everything, to a war, or a pestilence. He survives. He finds the strength (perhaps through faith) to start over again. To not give up on life. To not just curse God and die.

            Look at the world around you and tell me that isn’t still a meaningful story.

    • Robby  April 14, 2017

      Regarding ‘the tree’, any parent who would leave a loaded gun on the coffee table in front of their youngsters and says ‘don’t touch that’ while walking out the door would be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law when it went wrong.

      • VirtualAlex  April 23, 2017

        Yes god is a very bad father indeed. Very much a case of do as I say not as I do. “Be like your father in heaven…”. Er, no thanks.

  8. talmoore
    talmoore  April 12, 2017

    There’s a tradition that says Job was an Edomite, which would explain a number of things. For instance, Yahweh was also part of the Edomite pantheon, though he wasn’t the main god of Edom, who I believe was Qos. More accurately, it seems Yahweh and Qos were conflated. Both appear to have been worshipped at the Edomite alter on Mount Se’ir. Anyway, that might explain some odd features of the Book of Job, such as it’s lexicon of obscure words and idioms. That is, it’s possible that parts of Job are actually in the Edomite rather than Israelite Hebrew dialect (I don’t think enough Edomite Hebrew has been preserved that allows us to precisely distinguish one dialect from another, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there were evidence in the Hebrew Bible itself, just waiting to be discovered).

    But as it pertains to this post, this would also explain another interesting feature of the Book of Job. Job never, ever mentions a “Day of YHWH” (יום יהוה) or any other allusion to the day of God’s judgment and restoration of Israel that we find abundantly in the Prophets, for example. One would think that, if the author of Job was a thorough-going Israelite, he would have at least mentioned such an important idea. Alas, the author of Job appears to be saying the exact opposite of the Prophets of the eschaton, for example in verses like (7:9-10) כָּלָה עָנָן וַיֵּלַךְ כֵּן יוֹרֵד שְׁאוֹל לֹא יַעֲלֶה, לֹא-יָשׁוּב עוֹד לְבֵיתוֹוְלֹא-יַכִּירֶנּוּ עוֹד מְקֹמוֹ — “[As] a cloud is consumed and goes away, thus it [i.e. the spirit of a dead man] descends to She’ol. Not [ever] will it rise. No more does it return to his home, and no more do we recognize its place.” Indeed, the author of Job outright contradicts such a notion as the eschaton and pre-ordained final day of judgment, for example, in verses like 34:23 — כִּי לֹא עַל-אִישׁ, יָשִׂים עוֹד לַהֲלֹךְ אֶל-אֵל בַּמִּשְׁפָּט — “Because on no man is appointed again to go to God in judgment.” In other words, God judges you once (and punishes you once) in this life, and that’s it.

  9. andersg89  April 12, 2017

    It’s indeed a disturbing story but was never canonised independent but only together with the poetic part. The point of the whole book is that even without divine justice righteousness has value in and of itself.
    As regard to family members as property Moshe Greenberg’s work might be old now but not irrelevant. Particularly the priestly writings have a high view of human life and shouldn’t be lumped together with the narrative part of Job.

  10. John4
    John4  April 12, 2017

    I can understand, Bart, why you would find the story of Job disturbing. I’m sure that many people do.

    To me, though, it has long seemed that *reality* is disturbing. One thing I have always liked about the Old Testament is that, for all of its peculiar cultural and metaphysical presuppositions, it deals with reality. In the prose section of Job, it deals with reality in a very unrealistic and fairy-tale-like way, sure. But, then, we have the poetic section of Job, too, don’t we!

    Thank you so much, Bart, for all of your thoughtful and informative posts! 🙂

  11. Wilusa  April 12, 2017

    And if the author had any sensitivity, he could so easily have said the *original* children had been “restored to life”!

    I can’t help wondering why people find *any* of this stuff worth reading. I understand that you’re using it to make the point, as you see it, that the author doesn’t believe in any kind of afterlife. And it has value for historians in general, interested in the beliefs of some or all Jews in that era. But I’d certainly never suggest anyone read it for its own sake!

  12. godspell  April 12, 2017

    Just curious–has anyone ever not found the story of Job disturbing?

    Isn’t that kind of the point of the story?

    I can’t honestly say I’ve ever read a story that moved me and had any powerful insights to convey, that did not disturb me in some way.

    The story of Jesus is, if anything, more disturbing. All the more if you’re seeing the story that’s really being told there, instead of the gloss that gets put over it.

    Ecclesiastes says that everything we’ve worked for and treasured is pointless and empty and will come to nothing in the end.

    That’s not disturbing?

    Disturb me all you like, just don’t bore me.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 13, 2017

      When I was an evangelical Christian I didn’t find it at all disturbing. And my sense is that this is true of most Bible believers.

      • godspell  April 13, 2017

        It may be true of some fundamentalists (if that’s what you mean by ‘bible believer’), because they are not allowed to admit to any doubt, or confusion, or any contradictions within any part of scripture. Whatever doubts they have, they keep to themselves.

        I always found it a troubling story, and I was a believing Catholic when I first read it (Catholics are not, in the main, fundamentalists, and I remember one of my parish priests who spoke rather contemptuously of fundamentalism). I never assumed Job was a real person, because it was so obviously a story that was being told to make a point. Or for that matter, many points.

        Paradox is a major part of Jewish religious thought, which Christianity and Islam both inherited. That some have refused this inheritance does not make it any less valuable.

      • jimviv2@gmail.com  April 14, 2017

        I agree. Years ago, I did not find it disturbing either. Recently, I attended my daughter’s Sunday school class who just happened to be studying the book of Job. When I pointed out the disturbing aspect of murdering the 10 children followed by their replacement with another 10, I was met with blank stares – he got his children back so everything is OK now. They didn’t seem to comprehend the children’s perspective.

        • godspell  April 15, 2017

          The authors of Job are not responsible for the deep impenetrable stupidity of much of the human race.

  13. SidDhartha1953  April 12, 2017

    It just occurred to me that, from what current cosmology tells us of the future of the universe, there is no scenario in which God should have created us (sentient beings who can think of our existence in terms of what is just or unjust) at all, because the last humans on Earth will die a horrible, lonely death – unless God murders them in their sleep before things get out of hand.

  14. Christopher
    Christopher  April 12, 2017

    I’ve always thought that, as a Christian (which I’m not), you could easily defend the book of Job by saying that God simply is morally obligated to let Satan thrash Job since God has given the planet Earth to Satan to “try out” as his ruling ground. In other words, in order to let Satan have free will, and, inclusively, have the option to freely choose God over his own ego, then God has to let Satan “wild out” a bit. It’s a bit of a stretch, I admit, but an interesting thought. I think it’s something I’ve come up with because I think it’s really weird that we have no books in the New Testament that deal with exactly what Satan’s function and authority IS as “ruler of the Earth”. Maybe that is because this idea wasn’t very popular until after the New Testament documents had already circulated? Is it drawn out more in later centuries? Thanks!

    • Bart
      Bart  April 13, 2017

      That’s how many Christians do read the story. But the problem is that the Adversary is not the “Satan” of Christian theology, but a member of God’s divine council.

      • Seeker1952  April 13, 2017

        Would it be fair to say that the Apocalyptic worldview that emerged prior to and then continued with Jesus did see evil not as coming (directly) from God but from evil forces like the devil? At first blush that lets God off the hook for evil but then the question becomes why does God permit these evil forces to operate if God is all-powerful and perfectly good.

        I’ve often thought that certain (non-Gnostic) parts of Manicheanism are a better fit with the facts about reality than Judaeo-Christian theism, ie, a true battle battle between the forces of good and evil in which neither is all-powerful. If I’m not mistaken that’s the view of Zoroastrianism too, perhaps of much of Persian religion in general.

    • godspell  April 13, 2017

      Are we morally obligated to let our leaders bomb the hell out of countries that never attacked us?

      Because, you know, we’re doing that.

      And plenty of atheists, like the late Mr. Hitchens, defended it.

      Job just tells the truth, and we call it hell.

  15. turbopro  April 12, 2017

    I recall when I was perhaps 12/13, in our Religion class at my Catholic High School, we read and discussed The Book of Job. I believe the message to take home was that if we accept the good and the bad, eventually all will be set right–not sure if it was clear that this would occur here and now or in the afterlife. By that age I had given up on religion, but was still a bit of a deist of sorts.

    I reread the text–through the eyes of a very callow youth–and something just felt wrong about how Job was “wronged” just to prove he loved his deity. “Why would an omni-*-god need to test anyone?” And, eventually, I suppose it dawned on me: “how do you replace 10 kids?”

    So, I asked Father G, our revered and genteel religious instructor, indeed “did Yhwh restore Job’s original kids, or, were these new kids?” “And, if these were new kids, then were they all babies, or did they have the same age as the originals?” As was the case for several of my questions on scriptures addressed to Father G, he urged me to have faith.

    I’ll admit that Father G taught me a lot, and that he had a hand in molding me into that which I am today; nonetheless, I never quite appropriated that faith thingie.

    • Wilusa  April 13, 2017

      Wow, I admire you for having “given up on religion” at that early age! And…you were in a Catholic high school at age 12? As it happens, so was I. But I didn’t become an agnostic until, I think, my early twenties.

    • Robby  April 14, 2017

      I love this quote “…faith is where reason goes to die.” – Dr. Dale Allison

  16. Pegill7  April 12, 2017

    Bart,

    What was Bruce Metzger’s take on the book of Job? I tried to ascertain that from the footnotes and introduction in the NRSV but they seem to be non-committal.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 13, 2017

      I don’t think I ever heard him talk about it. I’m sure he did, but I don’t know his views.

  17. mjt  April 12, 2017

    When you were a Christian, did the fact that his family was seen as possessions disturb you? That kind of stuff always bothered me as a Christian, but it took me years of build up before it all changed my faith.

  18. Stylites  April 12, 2017

    I think the Book of Job is best understood if one discards both the prologue and epilogue and looks only at the poetic narrative. It confronts us with that most disturbing of all questions, why is there evil. It gives us an answer even more disturbing. We do not know. However, I think it implies even something still more disturbing. There are limits to not only what we as humans do know but also to what we are capable of knowing. It is humbling to ponder that possibly somewhere in the universe perhaps there are life forms that do know the answer to the riddle of Job. Of course we could say we do know. It is simply a series of random events. In the hope that I am not misusing David Hume, one could respond, “How de we know they are random?” We have observed only a tiny speck of the universe. Faith, or its antithesis, is a walk in ambiguity.

  19. Jana  April 12, 2017

    As you’ve elucidated, I too find this Jewish representation of God disturbing. Why would this book have been included? Frankly it reads more like a fight between two pagan Roman gods with Job as their pawn. What kind of perspective of God did the Jews possess to produce a book like this?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 13, 2017

      INcluded probably because people have always considered it a powerful reflection on the problem of suffering.

      • Jana  April 13, 2017

        Last night reflecting, could this have been written metaphorically (not literally) and emphatically so uneducated people would get the point?

        • Bart
          Bart  April 15, 2017

          I don’t think the author thought he was recording actual history, if that’s what you mean. He was telling a story.

    • godspell  April 13, 2017

      What kind of perspective do you possess to say “The Jews” produced this book? Do all Russians deserve the blame for the Protocols of the Elders of Zion? Most Jews of that time probably never read Job. Obviously there was some kind of audience for it, or it wouldn’t exist. But probably not a very large audience, for some time after it was written.

      This was an ongoing debate, and The Book of Job, in its finished form, represents many points of view, not just one.

      I think people get shocked that there’s so much dark and frequently morally ambiguous material in ‘The Bible’–and strangely, it’s often unreligious people who are most shocked. But it’s a lot of books, representing a lot of viewpoints, and if it didn’t have much in it that is universal, it wouldn’t have become such a central part of world civilization.

  20. uziteaches  April 12, 2017

    Bart,
    I like the position of one of the Talmudic sages that the story of Job ‘never took place, but is a parable’. It is a book about people who struggle with the suffering of good people. The two bottom lines of the book for me are:
    1. The climax of the book is the huge difference between hearing about God and having a direct experience (42:5). Faith Hearing about God can only take a person so far. After that, one needs a direct experience. God’s speech to Job gives him that direct experience, and he moves from ‘hearing about You’ to ‘seeing You’. It reminds me of what people who have had near-death experiences say: everything suddenly makes sense (though not necessarily in the way that traditional religions teach).
    2. The book completely debunks the idea that suffering is always the result of sin. This is what Job’s ‘comforters’ claimed, and this book totally denies this. God tells the ‘comforters’: you have not spoken truth about Me, as did my servant Job’ (42:7). Then, just in case they weren’t paying attention, God repeats the very same words in the next verse (42:8).
    Jewish tradition derives from this that it is absolutely forbidden to tell a person who is suffering: ‘It is because of your sins’. Mind you, not ‘it’s not advisable’ but rather ‘it is absolutely forbidden’.
    Essentially, Job (and Ecclesiastes) are arguing with the ‘official theology’ of most of the Hebrew Scriptures, and claiming that things aren’t always as they appear. Good people suffer, evildoers live happy lives (or at least appear to), and we don’t always have the ability to understand why this is so.
    I think of all the things said about belief in God, and human suffering, and wonder what would happen if we embraced these two teachings of the Book of Job. We would be more humble, more compassionate, and more focused on helping those in distress than on judging them.

  21. uziteaches  April 12, 2017

    Bart,
    As far as the other parts of the cover story, such as God ‘replacing’ Job’s sons and daughters, this was written to give the argument about God’s justice a narrative setting, and speaks in terms of how people thought at the time. I take from that narrative what is useful. Clearly, for us moderns, ‘replacing’ children is not something we subscribe to.

    That is different from the argument about God’s justice, which is the body of the book and has a valuable message.

    (BTW, have you read Deep Things Out of Darkness by David Wolfers MD? I helped edit it, and it might be of interest to you. He has a different perspective on Job.)

  22. Hume  April 13, 2017

    Does 2 Peter 4 reference the book of Enoch?
    “For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but sent them to hell, putting them in chains of darkness to be held for judgment”

    • Bart
      Bart  April 13, 2017

      If not Enoch, at least the traditions embedded in Enoch.

  23. Hume  April 13, 2017

    The only unpardonable sin is: Blasphemy against the Holy Ghost shall not be forgiven unto men, Matt. 12:31–32 (Mark 3:29; Luke 12:10).

    What does blasphemy mean according to Mark?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 13, 2017

      It probably means denying that the Spirit of God was the one who was active in Jesus (but that his spirit was an evil one)

  24. Hume  April 13, 2017

    How much of the bible is influenced by the book of Enoch?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 13, 2017

      It’s hard to say if 1 Enoch had a direct literary influence or if the ideas it embodies were compatible to NT authors.

  25. deanegalbraith@yahoo.co.nz  April 13, 2017

    I quite agree: I found the replacement of Job’s children at the end of the story to be particularly obscene. They become like bulk products in the marketplace. In a piece I wrote a few years ago, I somewhat sarcastically described that the Book of Job viewed Job’s children as “fungible assets”. It’s awful, but unfortunately accurate. And yet don’t you find that commentators often whitewash this as God’s return to “justice” in his dealing with Job?

  26. Junto  April 13, 2017

    Equally disturbing is the chastisement Job receives when he asks God why suffering is being heaped on him. As if it’s not our place to ask such things. I recall the debate you had with Dinesh who seemed to agree with this and asked the very question, who are we the clay to ask the potter such questions.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 13, 2017

      Yup, that’s the biggest problem of all in some ways.

    • godspell  April 13, 2017

      Well, look at what we’re doing to the world we live in, without which we will surely die–and to all the other creatures we share it with.

      God might have had a point.

      Say what you will, God listens to Job, and he responds.

      Darwin’s Natural Selection will never do us that courtesy, and we will be answering to that soon enough, if we don’t watch out.

  27. earthcorners  April 13, 2017

    One thing I hear in my church is that the God of the Old Testament is the same God as in the New Testament. Really? I know even my very Christian father was not a big fan of the Old Testament. In the Old Testament, God is certainly perceived as a vengeful king who promotes and even orders genocide. Well, the New Testament does have the genocide of pigs and I do like pigs. I still have some nightmares after reading the Book of Judges. It is amazing how editor’s of children’s Bible storybooks whitewash the stories. Job is so fantastically unbelievable just like Jonah and the whale and yet there are people who don’t see the stories as fictional literature. We read the book of Job way back in high school in the 1960’s and I was pretty sickened even though it is “a myth to reveal a deep truth.” The only truth I gathered at the time was that suffering sucks and boils are a bummer.

    • llamensdor  April 16, 2017

      Without the “Old Testament” the “new Testament” is meaningless.

  28. mwbaugh  April 13, 2017

    I struggle with Job largely because it feels like two different stories to me. The folktale, used as a frame, has a pretty straightforward answer to the problem of suffering. The Satan is kind of like a heavenly prosecutor and gets to torment Job to test his faith, with God’s consent. I have never found this part of the story comforting, and its version of God seems to me primitive and cruel.

    I find some comfort in the dialogs because Job, with all his doubts, questions, and anger is a good model for a faithful person, in my opinion. I like that, when God speaks from the whirlwind, it is to commend Job’s faith and to rebuke the “friends” for speaking about things they did not understand. I like that the honest doubter is accepted over the pious know-it-all “faithful.”

    I wonder if the dialogs are not meant as a critique of the simplistic theology of the folk tale as well as the theology of the friends.

    It may just be me projecting personal experience onto the book, but I have a different take on God’s awing job into silence. For me, the sense of wonder that comes from looking at the natural world has a way of overshadowing my personal problems. When God says that Job is questioning what he cannot understand, I don’t hear that as a ban on questioning. God praises Job’s faith and Job has just spent something like 30 chapters questioning.

    Instead of hearing this as, “Job, I have the answer and I could give it to you but I don’t want to,” could this be “There is no answer, at least not an answer that you could possibly understand.”? That makes more sense to me. The book grapples with an imponderable, not because it’s forbidden to grapple with suffering but because the writers know that nobody has ever come up with a satisfactory answer. The answer isn’t something arbitrarily withheld by God, but something that human wisdom seems ill-prepared to uncover. But pondering the imponderables is not forbidden. In fact, pondering the imponderables draws Job into what may be a deeper appreciation of God’s transcendent nature. If I’m right, the authors of Job are doing something similar to what Taoism or Zen strive to do.

  29. mwbaugh  April 13, 2017

    But yeah, the cultural assumptions of wife and children as property, the folktale’s assumption that it’s okay to ruin someone’s life if it leads to deeper faith, etc. That stuff is disturbing.

  30. Adam0685  April 14, 2017

    A series on disturbing or shocking verses/passages in the bible would be interesting!

  31. cheito
    cheito  April 14, 2017

    DR Ehrman:

    Your Comment:

    Your ten children were destroyed so I could prove you would be faithful no matter what. But don’t worry, I’ll make it up to you. Here are ten more children. Disturbing indeed.

    My Comment:

    Unlike you, DR Ehrman, I don’t believe all the books in the bible are ‘human books’. Many books in the bible are, for sure, from the inspiration of man and not from the inspiration of God. However, I do believe some books in the bible were inspired by God.

    Job is not one of the books I believe were inspired by God. Job is just a story and not history. The book of Job is not God’s word. One can’t ascertain any truth about God based on the story of Job. The story of Job is just from the imagination of some person or persons. The book of Job is a ‘human book’. The God portrayed in the book of Job is not the real living God. So why do you find it disturbing DR Ehrman?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 15, 2017

      I find lots of fiction disturbing.

      • cheito
        cheito  April 15, 2017

        Disturbing to the point of denying that a creator exists?

        • Bart
          Bart  April 16, 2017

          No, I don’t base my views about God on my feelings toward fiction.

  32. darren  April 14, 2017

    I always viewed Job as an attempt to square the realities of the world with a belief in God. So if you have misfortune, you must have done something, or someone close to you. My older Catholic father-in-law tells me that the sins of the father are borne by the children in illness and other misfortune. So God is love, but he’s got a temper.

    • godspell  April 15, 2017

      Except the God in Job isn’t angry. He isn’t punishing Job, that’s made very clear. Job is told his misfortunes must be punishment for something he or someone else did, but the narrative as a whole rejects this explanation. The narrative ultimately declares there is no explanation. When Buddha says “Life is suffering” nobody gets so angry about it. But in the context of the Jewish God, somehow this is seen as child abuse. It isn’t. God is no more our father than he’s the father of every other living thing, right down to the microscopic level. “What is man that thou are mindful of him, human beings that you care for them?” In Job, more than a rhetorical question.

      The author(s) of the work is genuinely thinking about it. Not just accepting rote dogma. Coming to grips with a very serious problem, that would still exist if nobody believed in any form of deity.

      Incidentally, people seem to miss the most important fact of the story–not the indifference of God (who does come to Job, does listen to him, does ultimately comfort him). It’s that not one of the human ‘friends’ of Job who come to him offer him any material help at all. They can’t give him back his wealth, or his family, but they could tend to his bodily ailments, offer him sympathy. “I’m telling you, without a doubt–Nobody loves you when you’re down and out!”

      Look at the world around us. Look at all the very real suffering in it.

      What are we doing about it?

      Judge not God, lest ye be judged.

  33. Eskil  April 15, 2017

    Jews do not seems to have similar issues with Job as Christians do. For example, here one contemporary Jew says:

    “While in Christian terms Job’s personal spiritual triumph is theologically impossible, in Jewish terms it stands out as the embodiment of God’s salvation program for mankind. In Deuteronomy 30:15, the Torah attests to this principle and in Isaiah 45:7, the prophet echoes this message when he declares that the Almighty Himself creates evil.”

    Source https://outreachjudaism.org/who-is-satan/

    Marcionists and Gnostics seem to have had a bit similar view on the creator God as contemporary Jews but Christians believe otherwise. They believe that Christians have the same view on God as Jews have and that Marcionists and Gnostics developed their corrupted ideas themselves by reading the Old Testament.

    For example, I do not recall you writing in “Lost Christianities” that Marcionists and Gnostics’ interpretation of old testament God was somewhat similar to Jews.

    What is critical scholars’ view on this?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 16, 2017

      Scholars would say that you can’t generalize about what “Jews'” views of something were. Lots of different Jews have lots of different Jews, just as Christians do.

  34. webattorney  April 15, 2017

    God killing off the first born babies of Egyptians is shocking too. I remember long time ago when I read it when I was young, I was thinking “Man, this God guy must be a mean person.” Why would he punish poor babies!

    Many things are disturbing depending on the times and perspectives in which one reads the stories.

  35. smackemyackem  April 15, 2017

    //What is more offensive is what happens at the end. When Job has “passed the test” by refusing to curse God, God rewards him. How? By giving him back more than he had before, twice the possessions that he had lost – twice as many sheep, donkey, and oxen. But most striking, he replaces Job’s murdered seven sons and three daughters with seven other sons and three other daughters.

    But wait a second! It makes sense that you can replace livestock – even double your holdings. But can you replace children? If you lose a child, is it all made better by having another one? Does this mean that God can allow Satan to murder ten children, and make it up to Job later simply by replacing them later (“Don’t worry: it was just a test!”)? For many readers this is one of the most disturbing ideas in the entire Hebrew Bible.//

    I think this point gets lost when the text is “supposed” to be sandwiched between other texts that when read together…give weight to a notion of what it is “supposed” to mean by the authorities….ie, The Machine.

  36. John1003  April 16, 2017

    Some theologians present the bible as unveiling more and more revelation about God’s character and our place in creation as history unfolds. It seems that Jesus would say something like ” you have heard that you must write your wife a certificate of divorce but I say etc ” he would up the moral expectations. Even as we may teach our children certain lessons about life to protect and train them until it is time for more learning at a later stage in life. I may not correct all there misconceptions or inaccurate views about reality all at once. Why can’t this be an explanation for Job, The Ten Commandments, etc that accept the idea that people could be property. It was a reality of that day for everyone. The fact that Jewish laws created some rights for these people was possibly revolutionary for that time. Is it reasonable that God was bringing the nation of Israel closer and closer to a full understanding of what is moral in small steps.

    • godspell  April 16, 2017

      I think it would be more reasonable to say that in thinking deeply about the nature of God, the early Jews were coming to terms with morality in a new way. Originally Yahweh was simply a tribal deity, not much different from thousands of others.

      By saying “Our God is the God of All” they were forced to think about what that meant. If their God is everyone’s father–aren’t all humans related? Jesus, a believing Jew, took that to the next level, but presumably he wasn’t the only Jewish thinker doing this.

      Why did these books of the Old and New Testament find such a ready audience, far from their point of origin? There were and are rich profound truths in many other religions as well. But there was something unique about this. Something that troubled the conscience of humankind, and has done so ever since.

      There’s much I don’t like about ‘The Bible’–much that I wish wasn’t there. But it’s for us to refine the teachings, and continue the journey.

  37. The Agnostic Christian
    The Agnostic Christian  April 20, 2017

    So for the 7 sons (the girls don’t even come into it), at what point does individual personhood arrive? Marriage? And at that point the cycle starts again with the kids being nothing more than property to be used and disposed of at will?

    Job, though it is certain he never existed, would have been a child at some point. God could have killed him as mere property of his own father.

    I’m convinced the evolution we see in Judaism and Christianity is a result of grappling with these disturbing ramifications.

  38. nbraith1975  April 21, 2017

    Not to mention that an “all-knowing” God already knew how Job would respond. So, it seems like Satan got one over on God when God gave him permission to reek havoc and murder on Job and his family. And exactly how does Satan have “total” free will if he must get God’s permission to do certain things?

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