What does Job need from his "friends"? What do they give him?
What, above all, does Job seek?
What does Job reap from the whirlwind?
Consider the ending of the book of Job. How does the ending of the book relate to the issues raised in the dialogues? Are you satisfied with the ending of the book? Does the ending support or refute the argument of Job in the dialogues?
Summarize the story line of the book of Job. See Story Line. Who was the satan? What was the basic argument of Job's three friends? What was Job's claim over against their argument?
A. Story Line
The basic story line is straightforward. Job was a morally upstanding individual. He had considerable wealth and a fine family. When the divine council met in heaven God expressed his pride in Job, but he was challenged by one called the adversary, otherwise known as the satan.
7 YHWH said to the satan, "From where have you come?" The satan answered YHWH, "From going here and there on the earth, and from walking up and down on it." 8 YHWH said to the satan, "Have you considered my servant Job? There is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, one who fears Elohim and turns away from evil?" 9 Then the satan answered YHWH, "Does Job fear Elohim for nothing?" (1:7-9)
The satan figure is the official heavenly "gadfly" whose task is to challenge Yahweh's relationship with humankind. In this case the satan is playing "devil's advocate" by giving Yahweh a counter-explanation of Job's goodness. He claims it was just a pattern of behavior calculated to get the best treatment from God.
Ha-satan. Note that "the satan" does not have a capital s because it is not a name but a title, indicated by the definite article the, ha in Hebrew. The satan figure of the book of Job is a member of the divine council, and is not the devil of later Judaism and Christianity. Satan means adversary or accuser, and this may have been an official function within the council. Satan has an interesting if only very limited history in the Hebrew Bible. The term satan used in reference to an individual is found in only three settings. Here in Job, in Zechariah 3:1-2 (also with the definite article), and in 1 Chronicles 21:1 (without the definite article). See Pagels (1995) for a history of Satan.
The adversary challenged God to take everything away from Job in order to see what his reaction would be. Yahweh first gave the adversary permission to remove all of Job's wealth and family and later his physical health. Job was reduced to being a suffering outcast. Three friends appeared at his side to give him counsel: Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar. In conversation with Job they attempted to make sense out of his plight.
But neither Job nor his friends resolved the conundrum of Job's suffering. Elihu, another counselor-friend appeared, but did not seem to further the argument. Finally, Yahweh came to Job in a terrifying theophany and commanded Job's attention. He never answered Job's questions directly. Instead, he questioned Job in a most intimidating way, seemingly belittling Job because he presumed to question the wisdom of God, who, after all, created the world. But in the end he vindicated Job. Yahweh reprimanded Job's friends and requited Job with a new family and even greater wealth. The story line is relatively simple. The theological argument is not necessarily so.
One way to get at the meat of the book is to survey the positions of the main players. We hesitate to do this because so much of the argument is in the telling. The following summary should not be taken as a replacement for reading the book itself. Job is a remarkable treatise and contains some of the best poetry in the Hebrew Bible. It should be savored.
Eliphaz He observes that no one is ever completely sinless. In no uncertain terms he upholds the theology of retribution.
7 Think about it. What innocent ever perished?
Where were the upright destroyed?
8 I have seen that those who plow evil
and sow trouble reap the same.
9 By God's blast they perish
and by the heat of his anger they disappear. (4:7-9)
Eliphaz then goes on to say that everyone can expect at least a little suffering in life. Job is relatively innocent, so he will not suffer permanently. He should be patient; his suffering will soon be over.
He applies the theology of retribution relentlessly. He claims that Job's children must have been notable sinners to be treated so brutally by God. No doubt they died justifiably.
3 Can God get justice wrong?
Can Shadday distort rightness?
4 If your children sinned against him,
he delivered them over to the consequences of their violation. (8:3-4)
Since Job is still alive, claims Bildad, he must not be too bad a sinner.
Zophar He claims that Job must be suffering for his own sin. Even though Job will not admit it publicly, he must be a sinner.
4 You say, 'My principles are pure,
and I am innocent before you.'
5 But if God would speak
and talk to you himself,
6 and tell you the secrets of wisdom--
there are many nuances to wisdom--
know that God is exacting less than you deserve. (11:4-6)
Job should honestly face his sin and ask God for mercy.
Elihu Elihu speaks (32-37) after Job's other three friends have had their say. He says that suffering is the way God communicates with human beings. It is the way God reveals that we are sinners and that he considers sin a serious offense.
10 He opens their understanding by discipline,
and orders them to turn away from wickedness.
11 If they listen and obey,
they will end up with good days and pleasant years. (36:10-11)
All four speakers maintain the theology of retribution in some way. Their approach is very much "top down." In other words, they hold a basic belief in retribution, and they try to square Job's experience with the theological principles they hold, rather than developing a theology out of human experience.
Job has no coherent response to his calamity. He argues with his friends and attacks their counter arguments. But ultimately he remains confounded. He just does not know how to handle his predicament.
Yet there are certain claims he maintains throughout, certain points he will not relinquish. He never gives in and admits personal guilt in the measure that would call forth such suffering. He often urges God to reveal himself and state why he is afflicting him so. He challenges God in what amounts to a lawsuit, much in the manner of the covenant lawsuit popular with the prophets, even though he recognizes that if God actually appears he would be powerless to respond. This sentiment is amazingly prescient of what would soon happen.
Yahweh Yahweh does not respond to the intellectual arguments of Job and his friends, all of which had to do in some way with the theology of retribution. He quite ignores that business, neither affirming retribution nor denying it. By God's bracketing the big question of retribution, the book is saying retribution is not the real issue. God does not conduct affairs on a strictly cause-and-effect basis.
Yet God does address Job's urgent plea that he at least show himself. He appeared in a storm theophany (38-41), but instead of answering Job's questions, he put Job on trial.
2 Who is this confusing the issue
with nonsensical words?!
3 Brace yourself like a man.
I will quiz you. You teach me!
4 Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?
Tell me, if you really have such deep understanding! (38:2-4)
Yahweh continues in this same vein, badgering the witness, and impressing upon Job that he really knows nothing about how God created the world and runs it. Job finally admits that he spoke presumptuously in demanding that God justify his actions.
1 YHWH said to Job:
2 "Will one in need of discipline complain about Shadday?
Let the one accusing God answer!"
3 Then Job answered YHWH:
"I am worth nothing. How can I respond to you?
I am putting my hand over my mouth.
I spoke once, but have no answer for you,
Twice I spoke, but I will say no more." (40:1-3)
By now Job seems properly contrite, having been put in his place. The reader might expect Yahweh at this point to coddle Job or at least lay off him. Just the opposite happens. God launches into a second discourse designed further to impress Job with his omnipotence. He describes in great detail his creation and the harnessing of Behemoth and Leviathan. These creatures have been likened to the hippopotamus and crocodile, respectively, but the overblown language of their description suggests that God is really referring to the mythic monsters of chaos that he tamed and holds at bay (see Day 1985).
Through the whole encounter God is absolutely overpowering. One might wonder why God felt he needed to react in such an intimidating way. Yet God does give Job satisfaction of sorts, first, in the very fact of his appearing, and second, by putting the issue of suffering in perspective. The important outcome is that God ultimately affirmed Job, in fact had never abandoned him, even though it had seemed so to Job at the time.
Job wanted to know why. But God would not tell him why. This effectively marginalizes the theology of retribution. Perhaps the real issue is trust--can one, will one simply trust God and "leave the driving to him"? Job is the model of the one who suffers, with all the self-doubt, indignation, impatience, and spiritual agony typical of those in great crisis. But he is also the model of one who trusts God, even though he fails to comprehend why he is suffering.
ToC | Reading the Old Testament
. . . Chapter 15. Proverbs and Job | ToC
4. Job as a Whole
The book of Job consists of a poetic core surrounded by a prose narrative framework. The prose framework relates the story of Job, including the tragedy that strikes him and his family. The poetic core contains the theological heart of the book, including the dialogues of Job and his friends, and the appearance of Yahweh himself. In the cycles of dialogue each of Job's friends, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar, speaks in his turn, and Job responds to each.
The structure of the book raises problems for the interpreter. What is the relation of the prose framework and the dialogues? Who is Elihu? What is the function of the theophany, and how does it answer the issues raised in the book? The narrative conclusion of the book seems especially artificial and unsatisfying to many readers--though, perhaps, not for retribution theologians. In the end, Job's fortunes were restored. He was given sons and daughters to replace those he lost, and his former material wealth was doubled. Although Job was reduced to humble acceptance of the power of God, he was vindicated and was told to pray for his three friends who were in the wrong.
Yet the ending is far from satisfying. In one grand narrative stroke what we thought was the lesson of the book to this point seems to be undone. The lesson of the book seemed to be that there is no direct and necessary correlation between righteousness and material well-being. Do we now, at the last, see Job rewarded for being in the right? If so, the theology of retribution seems to be upheld after all: in the end Job is rewarded for his uprightness. It almost seems the profound lesson of the theophany (38-41) is deconstructed by the triteness of the "and they lived happily ever after" conclusion.
How can we deal with this? Literary approaches to the book abound, and many seem quite able to live with the moral ambiguity of the book. Whedbee (1977) interprets the book using categories of comedy and irony. Westermann (1977) reads it as if it were a biblical lament. Habel (1985) reads Job as an allegory of the people of Israel in the postexilic period experiencing suffering and alienation from God.
Babylonian Job. The book of Job has affinities with a number of Mesopotamian writings. The Sumerian composition "A Man and his God" counsels one to turn to God with prayer and supplication in sickness and suffering (Pritchard 1969: 589-91). Ludlul Bel Nemeqi, "I will praise the Lord of wisdom," is an Akkadian composition dating to around 1000 B.C.E. It describes a man's sufferings and blames Marduk, the Lord of wisdom. Yet in the end the sufferer finds deliverance (Pritchard 1969: 434-37, 596-600). See also the Babylonian Theodicy (Pritchard 1969: 438-40, 601-604). The story of Ahiqar, late fifth century B.C.E., is about a scribe who suffers misfortunes and is later restored to a place of honor (Pritchard 1969: 427-30). For Babylonian Wisdom as a whole see Lambert 1960.
If Job is first of all theological literature it may be in the mold of theodicy, an attempt to cope with the impenetrable character of the governance of God. The ending may be the writer's somewhat clumsy way of affirming the ultimate justice of God. Heaven as the place where rewards and punishments will be meted out was not an option at this stage of biblical religion. Everyone, whether good or bad, went to the same underworld, called sheol. Thus, Job's reward had to come during his lifetime. The writer responsible for the final shape of the book was willing, it seems, to live with the resulting tension of the freedom and sovereignty of God as expressed in the theophany, the validity of the theology of retribution, and the reality of righteous suffering.
How, then, should we construe this wonder of wisdom literature? Many things could be said. For one, it represents Israel's literary and theological attempt to get behind the phenomena of reality to the underlying truth. It asks the question why. Wisdom literature approaches reality without dependence on divine revelation, a priesthood, or a theology of history. It uses reason, everyday experience, and the power of deduction in its attempt to discern how the power of God manifests itself in the world of human affairs.
Furthermore, Proverbs and Job represent an inner-canonical dialogue on the theology of retribution. The book of Proverbs affirms it unreflectively and somewhat naively. Not to be too hard on Proverbs, this may have been a function of its role in providing clear and unambiguous moral instruction. On the other hand, the book of Job is a frontal attack on overly-simplistic retribution theology. It shows that the principle of retribution is not the only, or even the most important, factor at work in divine-human relations.
Theological reflection on the issue of retribution continues in the book of Ecclesiastes (see Chapter 16), but indirectly. Ecclesiastes deflects attention away from retribution by deconstructing it. Since the reality of death levels all rewards and punishments anyway, retribution is not the real issue; how you live your life is.
Job in the Modern World. Modern takeoffs on Job creatively wrestle with the human condition and can be recommended for the way they suggest interpretive possibilities. These include Archibald MacLeish's J.B. (1956), Neil Simon's God's Favorite (1975), Robert A. Heinlein's Job, A Comedy of Justice (1984), and probably Kafka's The Trial (see Lasine 1992).
The body of wisdom literature attests to a lively theological tradition of dialogue and development within the Hebrew Bible. Upon examination, the wisdom literature reveals a spiritual and intellectual tradition within Israel that was not afraid to ask bold and ultimate questions, that tried to make sense out of the diversity of evidences, and that resisted dogmatism in favor of intellectual honesty. The legitimacy of such theological discussion is affirmed by the very fact that these contrary voices were all included in the canon of Scripture. This recognition should encourage continuing the conversation.