The Book of Job is an extremely interesting and curious theodicy in the Bible.

The setup is perhaps the most interesting part: there is a man named Job in the land of Uz, and he is very rich, extremely righteous, and quite holy. One day, "the sons of God came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came among them." God proceeds to boast to Satan that there is nobody in the world as great and upright as Job, and then Satan gets permission to "test" him. The rest of the book is mainly about how Satan and God inflict misfortunes on Job, how Job deals with it, and, ultimately, how he confronts God about all of this.

It is very important to note that this is probably not the Satan we all immediately think of. This is one of the only references to him in the Old Testament, and he appears to be more of a direct servant of God than the Satan of New Testament fame. He very explicitly asks permission of God to test Job, and God grants it; He even comes along for the ride. It is a very distinct possiblity that the Satan in this case is somekind of angel or other servant who acts very literally as The Adversary of man in that he tempts them to determine if they are truly loyal to God.

The story goes as follows (this is a very abbreviated summary, so please forgive the inaccuracies): all of Job's children, livestock, and fortunate are destroyed. His wife leaves him, and he is horribly afflicted with sores and other bodily ailments. Some friends come to comfort him, which mostly entails asking and discussing what he may have done wrong, but all the while he claims that he is righteous and didn't do anything. He grumbles a lot, but never curses God, but finally calls God to task and demands an answer for why this happened. God's answer is basically, "You're a mortal. I can create big and scary animals; can YOU? You have no idea what's actually going on. You can't see the divine plan, and shit just kind of happens sometimes." For sticking with God and not cursing him, God rewards Job by giving back all that he had and more (more and better children, more and better wives, more and better livestock, etc. As if that somehow makes up for the suffering and pain of seeing your kids die).

The book of Job is also extremely interesting in that it is really a few other, probably more ancient stories grafted together, much the same way as the story of Noah. Parts of the book were written at different times by different people, sometimes hundreds of years apart. In fact, in the original, Job probably wasn't reimbursed and rewarded in the end. The addition of the reward actually kind of defeated the whole point of the book, which was essentially:
  • shit sometimes happens that we can't understand
  • you just have to kind of take it
  • bad things sometimes happen to good people for no reason
  • you might not get rewarded for your faith
  • God can make crocodiles and hippopotami (I am serious)

It's fairly good, although kind of depressing if you try to take it seriously. It is extremely poetic, and, at times, kind of confusing because of its hybrid nature: I have read and heard of people struggling to piece together the truly strange and inexplicable portions of the book. For example, there is this one bit where a bunch of Jobs friends come to "comfort" him, and in the middle of their comforting, this one guy comes out of nowhere and starts offering strange and poetic pieces of wisdom. Was this fellow sent down by God? Is this fellow God, and is he trying to aid Job? Isn't this breaking the rules of God's wager with Satan? Wild.

Some have claimed that The Book of Job was one of the first places in Judaism where the idea of Faith in addition to Good Works was required for righteousness: Job is chastized for trying to second guess God (he had no Faith) and this is a sin despite his very Good Works.

I recall an extremely interesting treatment of the Book of Job in some short story I read a while ago. Regretably, I cannot remember the author, but the crux of the author's idea was this: Prior to Job, according to this author, God needed to offer mankind a reason for His doings, lest he lose their faith and become thought of among the forces of nature or the meaningless, arbitrary gods. God did these things to Job and inspired the book of Job so that He could be freed from having to ever offer an explanation to mankind for any of His deeds.

H. G. Wells, of all people, also had a very brief story dealing with The Book of Job. In it, a very accountant-like Satan has a conversation with God. During the course of the story, Satan does some quick calculations, and figures that, judging from the number of progeny God was said to have given Job as a reward, there must be a little bit of Job in all of us by now.

Judging from life, I suspect this to be true; if not in blood, in spirit.

One day, a spirit comes before God (people generally quote it as Satan, but the original wording is more like Lawyer) and is dicussing how things are going, and God says

"Observe Job. He follows my ways, he's a great guy, etc., and thus I have blessed him."

And the lawyer says "But...he only follows you, to whatever degree he does, because you reward him for it.

And so, over a period, God kills Job's family, destroys his home, his wealth, etc.

And at the end, Job is left sitting on a heap of ash, mourning before God.

His wife and friends offer him a number of different advisements...curse God, ask God for forgiveness, etc.

The general consensus being that:

  1. Either God's just being malicious, and does mean things to nice people for the hell of it, in which case Job might as well just be smart for once and tell Him to fuck off,
  2. Or, more popularly, Job has to have done something wrong for him to be punished like this.

Job knows he hasn't done anything wrong. And he knows that God is just. So he basically sits there and gives rebuttal to his wife and friends, on this basis. This goes on for a while.

Then God comes by, and Job asks "Why?"

And God says "I've created everything here, I hold it all together...who are you to ask me why? You're part of the scheme of things, part of my creation. I am in control."

And Job says "Yeah, that's kind of what I figured".

And God restores his family and riches to an even higher level than they were previously, and the law is satisfied.

The generally lesson to be gained is that Bad things happen to Good people not because they did something wrong, but generally because, being good people, they come to the attention of the powers that be, and are tested.

This is not particularly comforting. But it does make rather a bit of sense.

One take on the book of Job that intrigues me is that it is not, as is commonly assumed, an attempt to grapple with the issue of human suffering at all. Rather, the author's intent is to convey to Israel and its Gentile captors that their God is not merely another local deity who can be coaxed into doing what we want, but the almighty and transcendent Lord and Creator of the universe. God's essence, he says, is something that is separate and distinct from our human conceptions and needs. God is who he is, not who we think he should be.

The greater part of the piece consists of the passages in which Job and his friends try to rationalize God's behavior. So outrageous is Job's misfortune that they engage in all sorts of theological gymnastics; ultimately Job is reduced to calling God out and demanding an explanation.

What he gets, though, is the furthest thing from an explanation. God doesn't give Job answers; he gives Job Himself. He reveals himself in all His glory and Job, humbled, repents of his words. Job realizes that till then he has been viewng God exclusively through the lens of his own suffering, and thinking of Him only as He relates to Job's own needs.

A lot of atheists and agnostics sneer at God's non-answer, but even when I was a skeptic His response to Job brought me up short whenever I read it. I always thought that if I were in a similar situation and had that kind of transcendent experience, I would say Everything I've lost is as nothing compared to this; this is what is really important.

The book of Job is just about the only Old Testament book with absolutely no time context. There's no time spent explaining exactly where Job lived (besides "the land of Uz"), when he lived, who his ancestors or descendants were, or how he's connected to the rest of the OT characters at all.

On the other hand, there's a great deal of time spent at the beginning of the book retelling the conversation between the LORD and Satan/the Accuser which occurred (implicitly from Job 1:7) beyond the Earthly plane. God never retells this dialogue to Job elsewhere in the book, so it's a mystery how the author could have learned of it.

My own conclusion from this is that of all the books of the Bible, this one is most likely to be fictionalized. Unlike the books of the Torah or the prophets of the Gospels, this one makes no effort to relate a historical tale. Job reads like a story intended to teach a moral lesson rather than to instruct about a major player in the history of Israel.

Not only should the book of Job not have been left out of the Old Testament, it is probably one of the most philosophically important books in it, especially from the point a view of a modern reader.

In many places in the OT the people of Israel recieve the injunction to "think of the torah day and night" - in other words, to ponder and study the religious and historical writings continually. However, Job is the only book which introduces intellectual technique to this way of life - without Job and his friends providing an example of rationalising and hypothesising about God, the practice of studying the Torah, a cornerstone and, some would say, the be all and end all of Jewish orthodox life, would be nothing more than empty parotting.

I am inclined to agree with lemuru that the "happy ending" suffixed to the book is probably a late embellishment, for Job's real reward is a one-on-one with God - a privilege reserved only for Abraham and Moses elsewhere in the OT (I could be mistaken here, but i'm pretty sure at least that the prophets, the kings and the other people to have received revelations did that in dreams or through angels-messangers).

An interesting take on the Job story is the belief (by no means uncontroversial, but still widely spread) that Job's legendary righteousness doesn't pertain to his life before the disasters strike him, but to his life after them - and that his doubts, his questions and his courage to demand answers are a part of that righteousness. Job is the first Jewish (well, we're not told he's Jewish, actually, but morally Jewish) philosopher. He doesn't take anything on anybody's authority, and remains steadfast in what his friends consider prideful and defiant insistance on his own innocence. This is what he is rewarded for, not any kind of blind adherence to God's word.

This interpretation of the book of Job and its place in the OT is one of the things that endears the Jewish religion to me (as much as a religion could ever be dear to me) - the fact that from the very primeval outset it was a philosophy which encouraged people to think and to act for themselves, and not just to follow blindly in the footsteps of others.

The Book of Job and Othello

This was a comparison/contrast literary analysis paper for my literature class.

Ignorance is bliss.” “What you don’t know won’t hurt you.” Such clichés are used in our everyday language. However, they tend to show up in literature, even dating back hundreds or thousands of years. In both of the literary works discussed in this paper, The Book of Job and Othello, the main characters are trying to find out information that they think will better their lives. Job never finds out what he’s looking for, and he gets rewarded for his patience and faithfulness. Othello, on the other hand, finds out more than he wants to know, truth or not, and is punished for what some would call his curiosity (although others may use harsher words). This essay will compare and contrast the two characters’ pursuit of unnecessary enlightenment, however understandable.

    Job’s situation was one of peril and melancholy. He had lost his entire family, all of his riches, his health, and everything on the earth that he could hold dear. Who wouldn’t want to know why? Then again, Othello’s reasoning is easily understood as well. He’s in love, and he’s been getting hints and suspicions that his wife (the one whom he is in love with) is cheating on him. Most people would want more information about it, if not more than that. Othello wants proof, and he wants to know.

    However, what Othello learns is not the truth. What he doesn’t know ends up hurting him. He doesn’t know that Desdemona is really faithful to him the entire time he questioned her. He doesn’t know that the one he was trusting, Iago, was actually the one who was unfaithful, unloving and deceitful. That is one major difference between Othello and Job. What Job doesn’t know does not hurt him at all. Actually, it’s probably a good thing that he doesn’t figure out that there was no reason behind all of his suffering. He gets rewarded for his patience and faithfulness in spite of everything that befell him. Othello’s impatience to know causes his false knowledge, and therefore in essence, his ignorance. This causes him to kill his wife, and then when he realizes the truth, it causes him even more woe.

    Another large difference between Job and Othello is just that: the consequence of knowing too much. Othello’s concluding knowledge of the truth led to his suicide, because he was so upset over the 'loss' of his wife. Job lost everything first, and then questioned why, and eventually got back worldly riches. Job also kept continued communication with the one he had a qualm with: God. Othello relied on other sources of information than his wife, who was the person he was having problems with.

    Both characters, Job and Othello, are put to a test. Will they curse the ones they love? Othello, in the end, failed his test. He not only cursed Desdemona, but he murdered her. However, he was initially untrusting of her. Othello did not trust Desdemona in the first place, and held insecurities within his own heart that prevented the necessary trust for a marriage. His lack of trust led him to a punishment: too late realizing that Desdemona was faithful, and ultimately his life. Job passed his test. If losing his possessions didn’t have an effect on his faith, then Satan will try having him lose his family. If that didn’t cause a loss of faith, then try losing his farm, home and livelihood. If that didn’t cause a loss of faith, then his health had to go. Throughout the book, Job loses possessions and worldly things that he held dear. But he passed his test. He remained faithful to the end. For this he was rewarded with renewed riches and possessions. Was it worth it? He lost his family, and went through suffering. And he, unlike Othello, never learned the reason for his turmoil. In the end, for Job, the greater good was done. In the end for Othello, his lack of faith destroyed all of the characters’ lives.

    “Curiosity killed the cat,” is another over-used cliché. Both characters were guilty of being overly curious. And in Othello’s case, it did ultimately kill him. It also ruined the last days of his life with worry and, in the last hour, regret. Job also filled years of his life with turmoil and worry about gaining unnecessary knowledge. He continued to ask God why he was going through everything he was going through, and in turn he made it worse. Stressing about your stress never helps to alleviate it. In essence, both characters’ curiosity was in vain, and it did nothing to help their problems.

    In essence, Job was the ignorant one, and Othello the curious one. Both were equally curious, however Othello took it to the extreme and was not curious for the truth, but for information to prove himself correct, whereas Job was more passive and just continued to ask for enlightenment from the most true Being. Job found bliss in his ignorance. Othello’s curiosity ended in his death. Perhaps the old clichés are right.

The story of Job is actually far more interesting than most people think. While it may outwardly seem to be a story about a man who “never gave up”, I think to interpret it this way is to miss the point of the story.

I can see where such a misconception of the story could come from, since the bible has oft been simplified by well-meaning folk who assume that each bible story can be boiled down to a one sentence cliché. The bible is a very complex book; to properly understand it one should read a chapter, think about it, sleep on it, and then read it again. It is not a matter of consumption, but digestion. But I digress.

Job is not a significant biblical character for his patience, but rather for his lack of it. He does not simply take what God gives him and assume that he must have done something wrong to deserve his punishment, though Job’s friends encourage him to think this way. Rather, he questions God, he in fact demands to see God, and is rewarded: he is one of the few characters in the bible who have an actual conversation with God. His friends, who had a blind faith without any substance, were punished by God. (Job 42:7 “My wrath is aroused against you and your two friends, for you have not spoken of Me what is right, as My servant Job has”) Job is also rebuked, but remember that his questioning extended into almost attacking God, he even curses the day he was born, tantamount to saying that God messed up. (Job 3:3 “May the day perish on which I was born”)

Job is a character in the Bible who is in fact blessed for questioning God – a gift for all Christians who do not believe in a blind faith, but rather an active relationship with God. For blind faith is not love, and is not a relationship, it is no more than what the Pharisees had.

Why start with Job? Because this magnificent and harrowing story encapsulates the questions of all the ages, those for which man has never to this day found an answer, nor will he ever find one, but he will always search for it because he needs it in order to live, to understand himself and the world. Job is the just man oppressed by injustice…

Primo Levi


The Wife of Anguish

The story of the just man oppressed by injustice has been written for as long as we have known writing.

“What I know does not come out right with me… The truth which I speak has been turned into a lie… When I go into the house I despair. When I go into the street… Food is all about, yet my food is hunger. When the shares were allotted… my share was suffering...”

This is from the Sumerian text “A Man and his God”, dating from around 2000BC. The man of the tale is a proto-Job, proclaiming his innocence and lamenting the treatment he receives at the hands of God and man. At the conclusion, God answers the man and removes from him “the anguish that had embraced him, though he was not its wife.”

The Book of Job, known in its present form since at least the 3rd century BC is of course a religious text but is also one of the greatest works of world literature, deserving to be read by the irreligious as much as the believer. Even in translation, the eloquence and power of the language has influenced language itself. Much ink has been spilled over Job, which has become one of the fundamental texts of the Western intellectual tradition. I make no apologies if this essay seems at times a patchwork of quotation. Critical commentary on the poem constitutes a vast literature in its own right, the ‘problem of evil’ straddling religion and philosophy.

The provenance of the book remains a topic of debate. Rabbinical scholarship sometimes considers Job a historical character. According to Maimonides however, the book is a fiction to illustrate our perception and experience of providence. Job is “the man in the land of Uz” and as well as being a proper noun, the Hebrew word ‘Uz’ is the imperative of the verb meaning ‘to take advice’. This, says Maimonides, is an exhortation to study the tale deeply.


Wanna bet?

The tale is well known. Job the upright, the subject of a wager between God and Satan, is set upon and assailed. His servants are killed, then his livestock, then his children. Sardonically and ever an acute judge of human character, the Devil lets Job’s wife live, appreciating perhaps that she will only add to his torment. Job’s response to catastrophe is predictably pious – “the LORD gave and the LORD hath taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD.” Unsatisfied, Satan asks to go further.

And the LORD said unto Satan, Behold, he is in thine hand; but save his life.

So Job is left without even the dignity of his own skin, smitten with running sores and boils from toe to crown. As Slavoj Zizek puts it in his inimitable style, “Job get screw up.” Finally broken, sitting in ashes scraping himself with a potsherd, Job laments bitterly. He does not quite, as his wife kindly suggests, “curse God and die” though he curses his own birth and all life.

Job’s indictment is one of the most powerful in all literature, filling page after page and giving rise to some of the best-known passages of the book (“Man that is born of a woman is of few days and full of trouble…”). Death is better than life says Job and best of all were to never have been born.


Friends like these

Enter Job’s friends : Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar. They upbraid Job for his temerity in complaining of God and offer consolations that neatly cover the classical theodicies :

Eliphaz, sticking the boot in, holds that God is just and that Job’s misfortunes must be the result of some hidden sin : “Is not thy wickedness great, and thine iniquities infinite?”

Bildad also contends that there is justice and promises God will reward Job for his patience through any troubles and misfortunes that he suffers.

Zophar adopts the position that God’s ways are mysterious and His will unquestionable, though indubitably stemming from deep and secret wisdom.

A fourth friend, Elihu seemingly offers his personal blend of the previous positions with little new. Maimonides extracts a tortuous point about references to nature but scholars largely believe Elihu to be a later interpolation – as evidenced by the fact that he is not mentioned in the epilogue where God speaks only of Job and the three friends.

All theodicy is furiously rebutted by Job who calls his interlocutors “miserable comforters”, “forgers of lies”, “physicians of no value” and insists that he is not wicked, that future reward or punishment does not justify present evil, that there is no afterlife and that mysterious or not :

I would speak to the Almighty, and I desire to reason with God.


Sound and fury

Then the LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind, and said,

Who is this that darkeneth counsel by words without knowledge?

Here He is, in Job 38. God Himself. Come down perhaps to defend Himself, to answer Job’s questions, to comfort him, to explain the nature of divine justice? Nothing of the sort. He turns the tables :

Gird up now thy loins like a man; for I will demand of thee, and answer thou me.

The following passages are astonishing in their thunder. God does not answer, but in response to Job He launches a series of unanswerable questions of His own :

Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth?

and on, listing wonder after wonder, spectacle after spectacle, creature after creature. “Hath the rain a father?” “Out of whose womb came the ice?” “Hath thou given the horse strength?” “Doth the eagle mount up at thy command?” What can Job respond under this sarcastic onslaught? All he can get out is :

Behold, I am vile; what shall I answer thee? I will lay mine hand upon my mouth.

God’s answer is like the silence of no answer but louder, silence roared at cosmic volume. He speaks again and this time of the most terrifying of His creation. The brute violence of fate admits no questioning; it is as insensible, inscrutable and irresistible as God’s monsters - Leviathan in the sea and Behemoth on the land.

So Job repents… and lives happily ever after I guess.


Making sense?

What are we to make of God’s extraordinary tirade? A number of positions have been taken. Inevitably any attempt to rationalise God’s behaviour slips into the groove of the theodicies offered by Job’s comforters.

Some have taken the position of Eliphaz the Temanite : that Job had some hidden sin which God punished and that Job is described as perfect and upright retrospectively - after his repentance. Others walk with Bildad the Shuhite, emphasising the transient vanity of this world and the eternal justice of the hereafter (for the last few centuries at least, few people have claimed that God giving Job new, prettier children makes up for allowing the first ones to be killed). Yet others join the party of Zophar the Namaathite : His ways are mysterious but surely follow some secret wisdom. Immanuel Kant essentially ends up plonking for this opinion in his essay on Job, which is said to mark the end of theodicy.

There is of course a brilliant twist to the Job tale. God rebukes His defenders, Job’s friends :

…the LORD said to Eliphaz the Temanite, My wrath is kindled against thee, and against thy two friends: for ye have not spoken of me the thing that is right, as my servant Job hath.

God crushes Job but He never calls him wrong and here He seems to vindicate him. Again, baffling and making a nonsense of many orthodox positions. God does not say that He is right or just, He simply shows He is mightier than Job.

In her excellent study of the problem of evil, Susan Neiman divides the last 250 yeas into two paths : “The one, from Rousseau to Arendt, insists that morality demands that we make evil intelligible. The other, from Voltaire to Jean Améry, insists that morality demands that we don’t.” Rousseau and Voltaire wrote on the Lisbon earthquake of 1755; Arendt and Améry wrote on the Holocaust. God’s morality in the book of Job does not trouble itself to make evil intelligible to us; one conclusion we could draw is that it will remain forever unintelligible.

“Sometime during the Enlightenment,” Neiman says, “commentators stopped looking for ways in which Job’s torments could be justified… Earlier writers identified with Job’s friends, the theodicy-makers who found justification. Later ones identified with Job, who found none.”

Writers in a less reverential age indeed openly proclaim Job’s moral and intellectual superiority over God in the tale. Among the most indignant is the psychoanalyst Carl Jung. To Jung, the Job story is “an unvarnished spectacle of divine savagery and ruthlessness.” In his view, God is amoral - a psychopath and a thug whose terrorising answer amounts to the gangster’s ‘and what are you going to do about it?’ In Jungian mysticism, God’s identity is revealed in Job as something between unconscious force and Abraxas. Though not as strident as Jung, G. K. Chesterton bends his mind into koan-like assertions in his essay on Job, on God’s apparent amorality. “For a moment,” he says, “God is almost an atheist.”


Answers on a postcard

There’s a great scene in Woody Allen’s film, Manhattan in which he gazes at his implausibly beautiful girlfriend and says half-jokingly, “You’re God’s answer to Job… God would say ‘I may do a lot of terrible things but I can also make one of these’ and Job would have to say ‘you’re right.’”

It’s a corny gag and doesn’t stand to reason but there’s some sort of point behind it. As Primo Levi, atheist and survivor of Auschwitz notes : there is no answer to the questions the Book of Job raises and there never will be. But knowing this doesn’t stop us, as human beings, from going out and trying to find our own anyway.




  • The Book of Job ( King James Version)
  • Primo Levi, The Search for Roots
  • Jeremy Black et al., The Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature (online)
  • Susan Neiman, Evil in Modern Thought
  • Carl Gustav Jung, Answer to Job
  • GK Chesterton, An Introduction to the Book of Job (online)
  • Moses Maimonides The Guide for the Perplexed (Book III Chapters 22-3, online)
  • Immanuel Kant, On the miscarriage of all philosophical trials in theodicy
  • Slavoj Zizek, Theology and Materialism, (online)

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