The Book of Job and the Problem of Suffering


I recently finished reading the book of Job, and in the process, I discovered one of my favorite books of the Hebrew Bible. This post is just a catalog of my initial thoughts and a summary of the book.

The book of Job begins with a divine assembly. Satan appears before God, and they make a bet. Satan doesn’t believe that Job is righteous for its own sake; he is only righteous because God has rewarded his righteousness and protected him from harm. God gives Satan permission to harm Job, but Satan has to spare his life. All of Job’s property is stolen, all of his children die, most of his friends desert him, and he’s inflicted with a painful skin disease. Even his wife advises him to just “curse God and die.” Three of Job’s friends hear about his suffering and come to visit. They advise him that he must have sinned, so he should repent. Then God will restore his property and health. Job protests that he is an innocent and righteous man who has done nothing wrong, and God is harassing/punishing him unjustly. Job even says that God is not a god of justice, and that God does not punish the wicked or bless the righteous according to what they deserve. Most of the book consists of speeches between Job and his friends going back and forth on this topic written in beautiful and elegant poetry. Toward the end another character named Elihu joins the discussion to indict Job and criticize Job’s friends for their ineffective job at advising Job. He mainly repeats the points of the other three friends, in particular that human beings are nothing compared to God, and there are no guiltless men, even the divine beings (gods/angels) are not faultless compared to God. Finally, God arrives in a tempest to boast of his power and majesty, and he cows Job into submission. After Job submits, God restores his property, blesses him with new children, and instructs his friends to seek forgiveness by having Job intercede for them.

What I found attractive about this book is that it squarely faces the problem of evil with regard to monotheism. All of Job’s friends offer the standard defenses of God’s goodness (theodicy), such as: God is so far beyond our understanding that we cannot question his judgment; God punishes the wicked and blesses the good, therefore, you must have sinned; Who are you to substitute your judgment for God’s; All people are sinners, ergo, you deserve the punishment even if you think you don’t; God makes us suffer to teach us valuable life lessons; etc. Job rejects these excuses because he knows that he is a good person. He lists his good deeds: he has provided for the poor, protected the stranger, cared for widows and orphans, etc. And ultimately, God vindicates Job to his friends (42:7), “After the Lord had spoken these words to Job, the Lord said to Eliphaz the Temanite, ‘I am incensed at you and your two friends, for you have not spoken the truth about Me as did My servant Job.'” Even though God just spent three chapters cowing Job into submission for daring to question his judgment, he ultimately admits that what he did to Job was unjust. Job was right.

This conclusion that God is not just and doesn’t have to be, doesn’t even need to pretend to be, strikes me as a very Jewish conclusion. In some ways, this book feels more Jewish than most others in the Hebrew Bible because it dares to question God’s justice, to call God out for his cruelty, to even demand that God show up and answer the charges against him. It’s a reminder to confront injustice, even from the Almighty. It makes the excuses of the pious, like Job’s friends, sound ridiculous, hollow, and obviously false. And most of all, I like that it explicitly admits that our suffering as human beings is not fair if there is indeed a God as he describes himself in this book. It seems to me to say to God: “You can establish the pillars of the earth, set the boundaries of the sea, summon the dawn, and create leviathan, but you can’t treat us the way that we deserve? You can show up in a storm and scare us into submission, but you can’t protect our children from an early death or keep these painful illnesses from us? Sure, we’ll submit, but only because we have no choice. You’re still an asshole.”

This book leaves a bad impression of God. He’s an absolute monarch who doesn’t want to be questioned, and won’t admit when he’s wrong. He bullies people into submission when they challenge him. He’s so far removed from human existence that he doesn’t care who suffers or for what reason. He gambles away a man’s life just to see what will happen, which he presumably already knew if later theologians are to be believed about his omniscience. He kills 10 innocent people, Job’s children, just because he wants to test Job’s resolve. Then he thinks that his children can simply be replaced like they’re light bulbs or silverware. If this is God, then the old cliche is right: the nicest thing you can say about him is that he doesn’t exist.

This book is beautifully written, and as a work of literature, I think it is unsurpassed in its unflinching examination of suffering in a world governed by a supposedly just God.

1 thought on “The Book of Job and the Problem of Suffering

  1. The Wild Pomegranate May 25, 2020 — 2:39 pm

    Great summation of Job!! It always found it highly disturbing that GD gave HaSatan permission to totally destroy a pious, honest, hardworking man and kill his entire family, just to ‘test his faith.’ I find the conclusion mind-boggling — you can’t just torture a man, kill his entire family then replace the murdered children with new children and frame it as an all’s well that ends well situation! The biblical GD is a violent, vengeful and petty megalomaniac — in Exodus GD is perfectly fine with murdering newborn infants and animals. The biblical GD is like the ultimate GDFATHER — a supernatural Don Corleone on steroids.


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