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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



  1. Avatar
    uziteaches  April 12, 2017

    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.)

  2. Avatar
    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.

  3. Avatar
    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)

  4. Avatar
    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.

  5. Avatar
    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?

  6. Avatar
    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.

    • Avatar
      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.

  7. Avatar
    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.

    • Avatar
      llamensdor  April 16, 2017

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

  8. Avatar
    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.

  9. Avatar
    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.

  10. Avatar
    Adam0685  April 14, 2017

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

  11. 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.

  12. Avatar
    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.

    • Avatar
      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.

  13. Avatar
    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.

  14. Avatar
    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.

  15. Avatar
    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.

  16. Avatar
    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.

    • Avatar
      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.

  17. Avatar
    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.

  18. Avatar
    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?

  19. Avatar
    bensonian  April 21, 2019

    We are worried about Job’s 10 children. This is sad indeed. However, more concerning, is the 16,663,633 children under 5 years old that died in 2017. This breaks down to about 31.7 children who die every minute in the world. The good news is that we are making progress. In 2014, even thought the world population was smaller, 18,219,273 died before the age of 5. I think that those of us who subscribe to this blog are making a difference, however minor impact it may seem. Thanks to Bart for trying to make a difference.

    source: https://data.unicef.org/topic/child-survival/under-five-mortality/

  20. kt@rg.no
    kt@rg.no  June 30, 2020

    In the book of Job, the question of suffering is left without a real answer (at least for me), and the question must be seen in an infinitely large context, and at the same time the question, and the preconditions of “God’s justice” are left deconstructed, in this fabel like story (wisdomliterature).

    Even me, who more and more understand the Hebrew Bible (the Torah, the books of the prophets and the other scriptures), increasingly as spiritual symbolic messages. When I read it like that, the perspective changes from outer divinity to an inner conception where we all share a spiritual common divine origin, and finally a common fate.

    Job, who seeks answers but don’t get them, other than the complex world is much more complex than we can understand, and so is the question. For me, the book breaks up all the promises of on the surface, black-and-white “outer engagement”/intervention. Maybe we need to change our perspective and get more into this equation/matrix we call reality, and at least take responsibility for trying to do something about it, just like you do in your noble work keeping up this great blog for the benefit of others (charity) !!

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