The book of Job is one of the best-known but also one of the most perplexing books of the Bible. It begins with a simple “once upon a time” story about the righteous Job, who suddenly loses all his property and children and then develops an awful skin disease. And yet, he seems to accept everything without complaint. This is the part of the story that people are thinking of when they use the phrase “the patience of Job.” But when Job’s three friends arrive and begin to talk with him, Job is anything but patient! He accuses God of cruel and monstrous behavior, while the friends try to defend God. Job doesn’t want to talk with them, however. He wants to have a legal trial with God. When God eventually appears “out of the whirlwind,” God all but ignores Job’s demand for a trial and instead describes the mystery of the cosmos and the strange beauty of the wildest of wild animals. It is difficult to say whether Job is simply subdued or genuinely satisfied by God’s reply. God rebukes Job’s friends, praises Job, and then restores Job’s fortunes and gives him a new family and a long life. So things appear to end “happily ever after.” But many questions linger.
Why do bad things happen to the good Job?
The book of Job sets out to answer a difficult question. If God blesses righteous people (as the book assumes), then are people righteous only for what they can get out of such behavior? And if that is the case, then they aren’t truly righteous, are they? This is the argument that erupts between God and the angel called “the accuser,” who is basically the prosecuting attorney of heaven. God thinks Job is a perfectly righteous man, but the accuser thinks Job is, well, just in it for the money. There is only one way to find out. If everything is taken away from Job, then he will either curse God (as the accuser thinks), or he will be as pious in misfortune as in good fortune (as God thinks). So Job is subjected to something like a scientific experiment. What an outrageous story! But as some of the ancient rabbis noted, the story of Job is a kind of parable, and it is often the case that parables make their points by using outrageous situations. In the “once upon a time...and they lived happily ever after” part of the book (Job 1-2, Job 42:7-17), Job demonstrates that it is possible for a person to be both righteous and blessed. In the long middle part of the book, however, some different questions are asked, this time not about human beings but about God. Is innocent suffering an indication that God doesn’t care about the world? Or, even worse, does God personally delight in tormenting the innocent?
Does God really answer Job or not?
In chapters 3-31, Job struggles with his image of God. It is not just his own suffering that he finds so perplexing. When Job looks around at the world in general, it seems to him that God pays no attention to the suffering of the poor and innocent and that the wicked are the very ones who are doing quite well. God must be a cruel monster. And yet, how could the God who commands people to act with justice not be just himself? This is why Job thinks that if he could have a trial with God, justice would be done.
When God speaks from the whirlwind (Job 38-39), however, God does not seem to answer Job’s questions—and for good reason. Job had come to assume that everything that happens is a divine judgment on good or bad behavior. He left no room for randomness, accidents, or human evil. But the world is not like that. God’s speeches paint a picture of a world of beauty, order, and vibrant life—but also a place where fearsome and uncontrollable things exist.
Following God’s speeches, the ending of the book no longer looks like a reward for passing the test but rather like Job’s acceptance of what it means to live in such a world as God has described. But Job knows that the world is also a place for love and joy. He is willing to bring ten more children into the world, even knowing that bad things sometimes do happen to good people.
Carol Newsom, "Job", n.p. [cited 19 Oct 2020]. Online: http://www.bibleodyssey.org/en/people/main-articles/job
Carol A. Newsom, Charles Howard Candler Professor of Old Testament/Hebrew Bible, Emory University, is the author of a commentary on Job in the New Interpreter’s Bible and of a book on Job, The Book of Job: A Contest of Moral Imaginations (Oxford University Press, 2003). She also wrote the entry for Job in the Women’s Bible Commentary (Westminster John Knox, 2012).