The Story of Job
A poll of Jews, Christians and Muslims certainly would place Job among the most respected heroes of the Bible. (Muslims call Job Ayub and honor him as one of the prophets.) His long-suffering and unflinching faith is legendary and the stuff of great sermons and Sunday school lessons. The story of Job is unquestionably one of the great tragedies of Western literature, but, almost like a Hollywood movie, all’s well that ends well—at least for Job. As famous as his torture, faith, and reward, is Job’s conversation with God. This conversation takes on special significance because it is the last time God the Father speaks in the Old Testament, so it is literally the final word.
Satan was convinced that God’s devoted servants only persisted in their devotion because of the blessings which God bestowed upon them—take away the blessings and the devotion would go too. God of course knew that this was not the case and suggested that Satan “consider” His servant, Job. God did put a stipulation or constraint on Satan, however: Satan could take anything from Job, inflict any misery, but he had to spare Job’s life. Well, Satan took this free hand quite literally, and he set about testing Job’s faith in every conceivable manner.
Job was a wealthy patriarch, owning a vast estate, with many servants (slaves) and countless livestock—sheep, camels, oxen, and asses. All of Job’s worldly possessions were taken from him. It wasn’t enough for Job to be stripped of ownership of the servants and beasts; they were almost all killed—innocent victims of Satan’s effort to turn Job against God. Job also had ten children, seven sons and three daughters, who he naturally loved as any parent would. These children too were taken from Job—killed—more innocent victims in Job’s test of faith. Then Job was afflicted with every disgusting physical affliction, even boils on his skin from his feet to his crown, so that he suffered great physical pain in addition to the emotional torment of having lost his children and the economic privation of having lost his fortune.
You might think that Job could at least count on the moral support of his wife and friends during this horrible time of tribulation, right? Well, not quite. Job was visited by his three best friends—Bildad, Eliphaz, and Zophar—who came to comfort him, but they reasoned that it must have been Job’s fault that God was cursing him, and that, in any event, it was time to cut his losses and abandon God. His wife was no better. She too advised him to “curse God, and die.” Job should abandon his faith, for, to her, it was obvious that God had abandoned Job.
Nevertheless, through all of his economic, emotional and physical torture, and with no support from his wife or friends, Job remained faithful to God. He refused to give up his faith. But he did question God: “Why hast thou set me as a mark against thee, so that I am a burden to myself?” And God answered Job and his friends from a whirlwind, setting out a series of questions designed to show that He was God Almighty, and Job and his friends were mere mortals, completely incapable of understanding the vastness of His cosmic depth. It was not Job’s place, or anyone’s place, to question God, because, by implication, humans are incapable of understanding the divine purposes. Being the loyal servant that he was, Job accepted God’s reply; after all, it was the word of God. And for his long-suffering faithfulness and his acceptance of the reply, Job was rewarded. Everything he had was restored to him twofold. He was once again the richest man in the land. And his replacement children were wonderful too. In fact, his daughters were famous as the most beautiful women in the land. Today, the Freemasons have a girls’ auxiliary called the International Order of Job’s Daughters.
The Standard Interpretation of Job
There are two elements in the standard, Christian, Jewish and Muslim interpretation of the Book of Job. First, Job is to be taken as a role model. All of us have hard times. We might lose loved ones, perhaps even a child. We might suffer from serious illness or injury ourselves, or from financial hardships. Certainly, in today’s economy, with high unemployment and underemployment so rampant, this kind of hardship is very widespread. It is natural when people suffer such hardship or loss for some to question their faith—or even to question God. In those times people are counseled to remember the example of Job. “Surely your troubles are not as great as Job’s, and still he kept the faith.” “If only you will keep the faith, then, like Job, in the end, you too will reap your rewards—if not in this life, then in the hereafter.” So be like Job, the ultimate biblical role model.
The second standard lesson from the Book of Job is that one does not question God. He is the Creator of the Universe, which is vast, amazing, complex, and mysterious beyond the comprehension of us mere mortals. We cannot understand His ways. We cannot comprehend His motives or His means, but that is not our place. As God said to Job and his friends from the whirlwind, we must simply trust him and accept whatever may come as His will.
Untold peace of mind has been manufactured via the standard interpretation of Job. For the faithful, in times of trouble, these lessons can be quite comforting. Unfortunately, the entire story is never told in Sunday school. And when a modern reader takes a critical look at the Book of Job, new lessons are learned that are not so comforting to the Christians.
A Critical Interpretation of Job
Now the first thing that strikes the critical reader is that Job had to ask God why He put the burden on him. The reason Job had to ask the question is that he is merely a character in the book. We, as readers, have an advantage over Job. We don’t have to ask why because the narrator of the story tells us why in the first chapter of the book. Get this: God and Satan are sitting around (presumably in Heaven) visiting, when God ask Satan where he has been. Satan says he has been walking about earth. “And the Lord said unto Satan, Hast thou considered my servant Job, that there is none like him in the earth, a perfect and an upright man, one that feareth God, and escheweth evil?” Satan postulates his theory that people are only devoted to God because of the blessings God bestows upon them. God countered, and they get into what is essentially a cosmic pissing contest. God actually came up with the idea of afflicting Job—”And the Lord said unto Satan, Behold, all that he hath is in thy power …” So Job never got an answer to the question, why? But we know the answer. All of Job’s suffering, the death of his innocent children, the death of his innocent servants, the death and suffering of his innocent livestock, was to settle an argument between God and Satan. Why is this so outrageous? Because God is all-powerful, omnipotent, right? At least that is what the Bible says, doesn’t it? So were there no alternative, more-humane means of convincing Satan that Job’s devotion was sincere? Let’s see, God could have snapped His regal fingers, blinked His holy eyes, or simply commanded Satan, “Thou shall know!” All of these were within God’s Almighty power, yet He chose to slaughter innocent people and torture His most devoted servant. This part of the story is never told in Sunday school.
How could the author of the Book of Job have included the slaughter of Job’s servants and children and not have thought that his readers would have been appalled by God allowing such blatant inhumanity? To understand this puzzle requires a bit of a history lesson. Job was a patriarch—the oldest male in his family. And Hebrew society at the time of Job was a patriarchal society, which meant that only the patriarch counted, and only the patriarch’s suffering counted. So the loss of life of the children was not a tragedy in itself, as it is in modern America, for example, but it was only tragic because it was a loss to Job. That is why the author deemed Job to be made whole by having more children. Certainly, no modern mother or father would consider themselves made whole by having more children after the death of their previously existing children. That is because today children are valued in themselves, not just as the property of the patriarch. Had the Book of Job been written by a modern author, it probably would have had God stipulate that Satan could take no innocent life, as the original author had God stipulate that Satan could not take Job’s life. But the Book of Job is not only instructive regarding historic attitudes about children and servants, it also reveals important aspects of the character of God.
Theodicy is the branch of theology that deals with the problem of evil in the presence of an assumed all-loving, all-knowing and all-powerful God. Theologians and philosophers debate how God could allow the Holocaust and other genocides, child rape and murder, and other atrocities. The way the problem is posed is this: If God is all-knowing, then he knows these horrors are going on; if He is all-loving, then He must love the innocent victims of these atrocities; and if He is all-powerful, then he has the power to prevent them. How can such evil exist? We are all familiar with the standard Christian responses: It’s not God’s fault; it’s Satan’s fault; man has free will; it’s the punishment for original sin (by the way, how could eating the fruit have been a sin if Adam and Eve didn’t know right from wrong until after they ate the fruit?). But the Book of Job does not present us with a problem of theodicy; in fact, Job may solve the problem of theodicy; because in Job God does one thing that is ethically correct—He takes responsibility! He does not blame Satan. He does not shirk from the fact that the torture and torment were caused by Him. When Job’s brothers and sisters came to visit after the calamity, “they bemoaned him, and comforted him over all the evil that the Lord had brought upon him …” God simply asserts that we mortals are too feeble to comprehend His actions, so we must just accept them. But I refuse to accept child abuse, and the God of Job is the worst kind of murderous child abuser. Don’t forget that, according to the Bible, Job’s children and servants were also children of God the Father, and God was willing to sacrifice their innocent lives just to prove a point in a debate with Satan. In the entire Book of Job, there is no mention of God being loving or merciful. And his actions show him to be exactly the opposite—cruel and mean. So if Job is the ultimate biblical hero, God is the villain. He did not deserve Job’s devotion. He does not deserve anyone’s devotion.
According to a very old Jewish tradition, Moses is the author of the Book of Job. But there are so many myths surrounding all religions. For morality’s sake and humanity’s sake, we can be thankful that the Book of Job, like the rest of the Bible, is fiction.