But what about Job? That’s what I’d hear in my head anytime I listened to a preacher extolling the virtues of God—his grace, his goodness, his power, his presence. What about Job? Never, in all my reading, study, worship, etc., did I get a satisfactory answer.
The story recounted in Job is fairly straightforward. After ranging over the earth for a spell, Satan swings by to see God in his heaven, sort of like a gangbanger going to see his granny on a Sunday afternoon. God asks him where he’s been. Satan’s like, “Dude, I been roaming all over the earth, going back and forth, leaving misery and mayhem everywhere in my wake.”
God replies that he couldn’t have messed with Job, his loyal and faithful servant. “There is no one on earth like him; he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil” (1:8).
Satan calls bullshit. “Have you not put a hedge around him and his household and everything he has?” (1:9). Just see what happens if you take it all away. He’ll “curse you to your face.” (1:11).
God says go ahead, “…everything he has in your hands, but don’t lay a finger on him.” (1:12).
So Satan leaves and in quick succession kills Job’s oxen, donkeys, servants, sheep, more servants, camels, still more servants, and all of his sons and daughters.
And God was right. All Job did was tear his robes and shave his head—a common practice among the bereaved back then—and fell to the ground in worship, saying:
Naked I came from my mother’s womb,
And naked I will depart.
The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away;
May the name of the Lord be praised. (1:21)
Never did Job sin by charging God with wrongdoing.
Thus ends the first chapter, which would be a nice story with a nice ending, had the storytellers left it at that. People hearing it might have wondered at who this God is that plays games with people’s lives in order to win bets with Satan, but hey, they wouldn’t have personally known Job, and were probably not so rich as Job had been, so might have just figured, tough luck for Job. But the story didn’t end there.
Satan returns to see the Lord after spending another while “roaming through the earth and going back and forth in it.” (2:2)
God taunts Satan with the results of the bet. Satan doubles down, replying, “A man will give all he has for his own life. But stretch out your hand and strike his flesh and bones, and he will surely curse you to your face.” (2:4,5)
God agrees, saying Satan can do anything with Job he wishes, but must spare him his life.
Satan afflicts Job with painful sores all over his body, which Job scrapes with a piece of broken pottery while sitting among the ashes.
Satan leaves Job’s wife alive and well, exhibiting a keen understanding of the marital relationship, at least from the male’s point of view. He had to have known Job’s wife would help him with his plan, and she does, chiding Job, “Are you still holding on to your integrity? Curse God and die!” (2:9).
(The notes in the “Life Application Study Bible”, NIV, explain that God may have allowed Job’s wife to live in order to add to his torment. I’m not kidding. I quote, from the note on Chapter 2, verse 9, “Why was Job’s wife spared when the rest of his family was killed? It is possible that her very presence caused Job even more suffering through her chiding or sorrow over all they had lost.” I can imagine Job looking heavenward after his wife tells him to ‘Curse God and die’ and saying under his breath, “Really, God? You take everything but her? Wow. Just wow. You must really hate me.”)
Nowhere do God or Satan discuss how Job’s wife might feel at the loss of her children, and of her husband’s livelihood. She only surfaces in the tale to chide Job, a bit like Eve only makes an appearance in a tale from earlier times for the purpose of tempting Adam.
Job replies to her chiding, “You are talking like a foolish woman. Shall we accept good from God and not trouble?” (2:10)
In all this, he never sinned in what he said.
Thus ends the second chapter. But, I have to ask—might Job have cursed God in his heart? Nobody knows another person’s heart. Sometimes, we don’t even know our own hearts. God knows a person’s heart, but this tale is not written from God’s perspective. It is in third person, God being one of the many who appear. But it is keen that they observed that “Job did not sin in what he said,” and not that Job did not sin at all. The ancients were often wiser, by many measures, than we are. I bet they knew that they could only tell by one’s actions what might be one’s thoughts. We moderns, instead, often pretend to mind-reading.
The action of the story is basically complete after the first two chapters, except at the end when Job gets all his stuff back, including a bunch more children. The rest of this longest book in the Bible is consumed with Shakespearean soliloquys (ostensibly dialogues, but nobody gets to talk that long and with that many fantastic metaphors in anything approaching a real dialogue) by either Job, his “friends” who claim that he’s being punished for some hidden sin and needs to confess, or by a young man, Elihu, who rebukes the three friends for blaming the victim by explaining that we cannot possibly understand all that God allows.
Eventually, God himself gets involved in the dialogue, speaking directly to Job from a storm, laying out in intricate detail a litany of things God does and knows that are beyond the power of Job and man. Curiously enough, along the way of laying out his majestic power and presence and knowledge, God speaks of himself in third-person, like a megalomaniacal rap star (Kanye?) might. Finally, God rebukes Job’s friends for believing the worst about him, and makes them go to Job and ask his forgiveness, requiring they offer to Job a sacrifice of seven bulls and seven rams as atonement for their sins. God promises to accept Job’s prayers for his friends, in a sense deputizing Job as God’s intermediary over them. Once Job prays for his friends, God makes him more prosperous than he’d been before God let Satan destroy him.
Job is a difficult read, particularly Chapters 3 through 41. All of the action takes place in the first two chapters and Chapter 42, the last. I could not read the soliloquy/dialogues of Chapters 3-41 in Spanish as I initially tried. Often enough, I could only barely make out the meanings of the quite outlandish similes and metaphors and analogies in my native English, without hope when it came to Spanish (sin esperanza con espanol).
So, what about Job?
If the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) were a club someone was trying to convince you to join (and not, in the main, a fact of birth), and you heard everything of God’s greatness—his grace and magnanimity; his all-encompassing power, presence and knowledge; the special love he carries in his heart for the beings created in his own image—and then you were told the story of Job, what would you think?
Would you think, like I did, who is this God that plays games with people’s lives so that he can win bets with Satan? And wait a minute, who is this Satan character, who seems to mock this all-powerful God and get away with it? Why doesn’t God just eliminate the scourge of Satan from the face of the earth? Is he not as all-powerful as he claims? Or, worse, is he malevolent, actively afflicting his creation with evil? Why? Why did he do this to Job? And for the Christians and Muslims, why was it seemingly all about material good fortune? Why, if this story is to tell us something of the nature of this God, did it all turn on whether Job was healthy and successful? What happened to concern over Job’s soul, except to test his allegiance to God through depriving him of material things which can not be loved without the fear of losing, a love that St. Augustine said was like death? Isn’t the promise of God that there is something infinite and eternal to be gained through worshiping him to which all the riches and beauty and status on earth can’t compare?
And if you think those thoughts (as I did), you are well on your way to understanding God. Which is to say, to understanding that God is inexplicable. No finite being, such as is man, will ever be capable of truly and completely understanding the infinitude that is God. The relationship of mankind to God should ever and always be one of humble obeisance. We can but try to understand how what we see as evil, God sees as good. It is not in our nature to ever fully succeed. Naked we came into the world and naked we shall leave it. Along the way, thank God for it all, because it all arises from a wisdom, power and presence we can’t begin to understand, and thereby should never question.
I wish the story would have ended differently, with Job dying a penniless, lonely man (although berated and chided by his wife to the bitter end—there’s no lonely like marital lonely). Because that’s sometimes all the earthly reward that faithfulness to God yields. Better “to store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6: 20-21). I wish, in other words, that Job had died penniless, but at the same time, rich.