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The Continuing Relevance of the Book of Job
Barry Whitney

The Book of Job is widely acknowledged as a masterpiece, arguably unsurpassed in the world's literature for its presentation of the problem of suffering. Job is a time-honored classic, not only for its literary merit -- which is considerable -- but even more so, for the profundity of its theological analysis, intertwined with the intimate story of an innocent man who suffers unjustly. The reader quickly relates to Job and his predicament, for Job represents us all, in our own encounters with suffering. Job's suffering is extreme, of course, as his copes not only with fierce physical pain, but social disgrace (since his society wrongly presumed he had brought on his own suffering by sin). He suffers also emotionally and especially spiritually as he endures to courageously maintain faith in God, despite believing (wrongly) that his suffering was unjustly caused by God. Job and his four friends move little beyond the retributive theology of his day -- though they propose various nuances of this long-standing answer to suffering -- based in the Mosaic law (Deuteronomy 27-30, Leviticus 26, etc.). Yet the author of the Book of Job dared to challenge the traditional view, proposing a radically new understanding of suffering, one which has often been ignored or misunderstood.

The story of Job is told in epic poetic form within the confines of a prose prologue (ch 1-2) and epilogue (42: 7-17). Satan challenges God about the sincerity of Job's righteousness, claiming that Job has been faithful for no other than that God has rewarded his faith with the blessing of a prosperous life. To test Job's motives, God allows Satan to ravage Job's life. In a single day, Job is stripped of all his worldly possessions, including his ten children, followed by the infliction of a painful disease which covered his body in 'sore boils' (2:7). Job remains faithful to God, responding in numbing, ritualistic piety by blessing God's name to whom he attributes the suffering. The fact that the prologue has informed us that God is not the cause of Job's suffering is especially relevant, since it was Job's challenge of God's unfairness in applying the retributive (reward-punishment) standard to him, driven by his inability to reconcile it with his personal experience of suffering, which led to the vitriolic disputation with his friends (3-31) and later a fourth friend, Elihu (32-37). By the beginning of chapter 3, the quietly restrained Job of the prologue has suffered for some time, and has become loquacious, bitter, confused and increasingly impatient in accusations against God's apparent injustice. To make matters worse, his friends’ defense of God (and the reward-punishment view) presumes Job's guilt. When God himself finally answers Job (38:1) as the voice in a whirlwind (38-42:6), the answer focuses not on Job's suffering, but on the wisdom and power by which God justly governs all of creation. By this revelation, God succeeds in elevating Job's awareness to a much wider/higher perspective.

The importance of the Book of Job -- its continuing relevance -- lies in its remarkable, mesmerizing presentation of one of the great existential questions of human life: the inescapable, ultimate question of suffering. In recent decades, this problem has been escalated as a challenge not only to God's justice but to God's very existence. How is suffering to be understood? Does God cause it, or allow it, for good reason? How do the answers to these questions influence our belief or disbelief in God? How does belief or disbelief influence our ability to cope with the seemingly endless litany of suffering which wreaks havoc on our world, from the torments of mental anguish to the raw ordeal of physical pain and the fragility and precariousness of life? How is belief in God reconciled with this dark side, the suffering which so often is horrendous and seemingly unfair, unjust, gratuitous -- as, for example, in the massive loss of life in war or in natural disasters or pandemics. Such questions, of course, have long been discussed by theologians as the so-called Athe problem of evil --theologically referred to as “theodicy”[1] -- a term coined by the 18th century philosopher, Leibniz, by combining combined two Greek words, theos and dike (God and justice) asking, in effect, Is God just?

The Book of Job has extraordinary relevance not only for those who believe in God (yet for whom suffering is often a serious challenge to that belief), but also for those who reject belief in God (and do so largely because of the apparent inability to intellectually reconcile suffering with a loving, powerful, and just God). Job, as such, has much to offer anyone who seeks insight into the question of God and suffering.

The Book of Job does not offer a complete theodicy (solution) -- no conclusive rational understanding is possible. But the Book does suggest many worthwhile insights into some of the issues involved. Indeed, it has the profound ability to induce serious reflection and insight into the mystery of God and suffering. The fact that this mystery is widely acknowledged as the main obstacle to belief in God renders the Book all the more important. And since it can be argued that the question of God’s existence is essentially the same question about life’s ultimate meaningfulness, the problem of suffering and its relationship to God is among the most important of all questions. The Book of Job, moreover, presents an opportunity for serious reflection on the long-standing view that God allegedly is the cause of all suffering, not just as punishment (retribution), but as tests of faith, warnings, educational discipline, the promotion of spiritual maturity, or for other higher, divine purposes. The Book challenges this traditional view, proposing rather that suffering has its source in a complex matrix of causes -- from free creatures (including the much-neglected satanic forces) -- to the by-products of natural laws which are necessary for human existence. Attributing suffering to God's will and power alone, however, has (unfortunately) permeated much of Christian tradition, complicated further by the doctrine of divine predestination which attributes all goods and evils not simply to God's will but to God's eternal, pre-creation, pre-ordained plan.

Such a view, prevalent since the later writings of St. Augustine (early 5th c), has been the subject of much theological controversy.[2] Not only has this theology confused believers, but it has been among the most devastating factors in encouraging disbelief in God. Atheists often base their rejection of God by the argument that a god which not only causes gratuitous suffering but denies genuine human freedom is unacceptable, unworthy of worship. In this, they are correct, but the mistake of atheism -- the irony, if you will -- is that the god they reject is not the God of the Bible, not the God revealed in Job and assuredly not the God revealed by Jesus.[3] The mistake is understandable, however, since predestination theology is complex, easily misunderstood, and does have extreme versions which do indeed imply the denial of human freedom.

The relevance of the Book of Job, then, is simply -- profoundly -- that it has much to contribute to the ongoing debates about these complex and controversial issues, and much to stir the interest of anyone who approaches this Book with serious intent. And, indeed, there are several other closely related themes discussed in this Book which likewise give the Book contemporary relevance. The questions, for example, of coping with suffering, the silence of God, and the apparent lack of answer to prayer at times. Other issues concern the limits of human knowledge and the nature of faith. With respect to the latter, the Book of Job is often used -- wrongly, I'm convinced -- as an argument for fideism which reduces to an anti-intellectualism that disparages human reasoning about God. The fact that Job and his friends were wrong in their theology should not be read as a rejection of all theology (rational thinking about God), nor should it be taken as an excuse to neglect the need for theological apologetics, the rational defense of religious beliefs held in faith. The biblical message is that the maturing of faith is not anti-intellectualism but makes use of our reasoning abilities (Mt 22:37): loving God with all our heart, soul, and mind.

One final theme (among many others)[4] must be noted here. In the theophany -- God's answer to Job -- Job experiences God first-hand and submits (42:5), recognizing that his previous understanding was limited; he had known only about God but now knows God more clearly as powerful, loving, just and wise in the creation and care for all creatures. God has the power to intervene coercively against evil, but permits the wicked, the useless, and the hostile (40:8-41:34), granting them freedom that is restricted by divinely imposed limits. God's revelation to Job reveals, in effect, that He remains in control of creation, including Behemoth and Leviathan (who symbolize chaos, evil, and hostility toward God) and is long-suffering and patient in His exercise of power, justice and the working of good in all things, ruling not by unilateral force but and seeking our redemption through the persuasive love of grace. Herein lies the key: true wisdom and understanding is the fear of God (28:28) i.e., a love, faith and trust in the Creator, rather than the focus on ourselves, our understanding and our limited speculations. This is hardly the simplistic reward and punishment, cause and effect scheme debated by Job and his friends. Neither is it a coercive pre-determinism. The reason for suffering is far more complex, a truth for which the Book of Job provides a wealth of remarkable insight.

An earlier version of this article was presented at the Annual Conference of Association for Core Texts and Courses, in Vancouver, BC, 2004.
1. See Barry Whitney, Theodicy: An Annotated Bibliography. Bowling Green State University: Philosophy Documentation Center, 1998.
2. Predestination has been a basic yet controversial Christian doctrine. In the Catholic and Orthodox tradition, it has sought to maintain the biblical dialectic of divine power/grace vis-à-vis human free will. Reformed theology broke this dialectic in Luther’s denial of free will and Calvin’s redefinition of free will. Some forms of modern Protestantism defend free will by referring to God’s self-limitation of power. Jesus’ view and actions (the curing of suffering, for example) was that divine retribution is not the explanation for human sin, the view wrongly assumed by Jesus’ disciples (see John 9, Luke 13, etc.) and by Job and his friends.
3. On the irony of atheism, see my “Promethean Atheism,” in God. Literature, and Process Thought, edited by Darren Middleton (London: Ashgate, 2002: 103-131).
4. Among the other important themes in Job are the following: The reality of Satan; the common Christian interpretation of Christ as the mediator referred to in Job; the Christian focus on redemptive suffering, suffering for others; the Christian view of divine justice taking effect not in this world but in an afterlife redemption.
Author Information: Barry Whitney was Professor of Christian Theology and Philosophy of Religion at the University of Windsor, Windsor ON Canada for more than 35 years. He also was Editor of the journal,
Process Studies, from 1996 to 2009. He is now retired and continuing his research and other projects in Ottawa, Canada.

© BARRY WHITNEY, 2005. Please request permission from the author at DrBarryWhitney@mac.com to use this publication in whole or in part in web publications or in other forms of publication and dissemination.