Longing for the Divine

What Did Job Say, and Why Does It Matter?

I was introduced to a new translation of the Book of Job through a video presentation by scholar Sigve Tonstad. You can view the video here.

Job was a wealthy and healthy guy until pain and tragedy struck. Some of Job’s friends came to offer condolences but ended up giving Job theological explanations for his suffering, claiming, for example, that God is great and shouldn’t be questioned or that Job must have done something wrong to receive such punishment. 

Bildad, Eliphaz, and Zophar were all miserable comforters, however, and Job rejected their arguments. Their theology was noxious, akin to claiming, “God gave you cancer to teach you a lesson; repent and regain God’s favor.” After his friends and God had spoken, Job responded to his ordeal in a final speech.

Common translations and interpretations of Job 42:6 conclude that Job was wrong and finally repented in dust and ashes, but that’s not how Bible scholar Edward L. Greenstein translates it in his book Job: A New Translation:

As a hearing by the ear

I have heard you,

And now my eye

Has seen you.

That is why I am fed up; 

I take pity on “dust and ashes”

Job 42:5–6, Greenstein, Job: A New Translation, 2019, p. 185

According to this translation, Job did not repent in dust and ashes but was rather disgusted, declaring that he took pity on the wretched human condition. Dr. Tonstad also presents other translations, such as that by David A. Kline, to explore the meaning of the text, making clear that a mere surface reading does not suffice. Over the years, I have often defended Job from those who charged him with being self-righteous. According to traditional understanding, Job is considered to have been flat-out wrong for challenging God. Christians tend to believe that His goodness is inscrutable, much like Job’s friends did while Job remained defiant against a view of God that was amoral. 

In the end, God reprimanded Job’s friends, who had defended Him with untruths about Him, and commended Job for his candidness and honesty (Job 42:7–8). How could God say that Job was right, however, when in His speech from the whirlwind, God seemed to tell him that he was wrong?

Does my reading of Job’s conclusion matter? I find it especially applicable now, as it has become difficult to make God look good in today’s hostile culture. I like that instead of defending dogmatic structures and an authoritatively rigid theology, Job advocated supporting the hungry, poor, and oppressed and showing compassion and mercy for orphans and widows. Was Job’s benevolence really disinterested? Most would be tempted to reply like Job’s friend Elihu, who was well versed in religious matters, that Job’s sin was self-righteousness and that God regarded his efforts and good deeds as unimportant. This, however, is just another droning lie from the adversary, as it does not reflect what God actually thought of Job. Job was not falsely pious. God does not despise loving and unselfish deeds for others. In fact, He speaks highly of them. 

I am finding that the ancient Book of Job is helping me defend God against many untruths spoken about Him. Most of all, it deconstructs the doctrine of reward and punishment, demanding a better explanation. It is striking to me how much traditional Christianity interprets God’s justice and notions of sin and punishment in ways similar to Job’s well-meaning friends who were reproved by God. When Jesus came, the same notions of sin and punishment were used by His own people, placing retribution and the myth of redemptive violence center stage. These notions seem to persist today in much traditional dogma, but if we were to ask suffering Job about the human condition, we would likely get dramatically different and more accurate answers that would upbraid the typical American Christian gospel.

What is the best way to deal with the painful and tragic aspects of human existence? Is it to surrender to the views of Job’s friends—views that blame suffering on humans’ departure from the right or claim it is God’s just punishment for sin? Should we just admit that we are all deserving and despise ourselves? Job spent a lot of time asking why he was suffering, and he demanded answers. As he voiced his complaints, Job felt overlooked by God and sought to make sense of his situation. Is such holy defiance permissible? Maybe the Book of Job is telling us that God not only can handle our Job-like grievances but also wants us to have the answers we seek and gives us the right to ask questions.

One thing is clear to me in the Book of Job: The suffering Job endured was not punishment from God. Suffering can be a direct consequence of our choices, but it is not intrinsically connected to sin. Job might not have known how it all worked or understood why he suffered, but it was not a punishment from God. The Book of Job clearly repudiates such a doctrine. Our suffering may be self-inflicted, but it’s not always our fault. As the Book of Job indicates, the suffering and pain we experience may sometimes be inflicted by Satan. Regardless, Job was bothered by God’s participation—the role that God played in allowing his suffering.

There is a role that God plays when suffering shows up, unbidden, at our door. It is in our desire to know and to be connected with the divine. What resources and traditions can we draw upon to help us understand? How might we read the Book of Job to better explain his story? Given pain and suffering, it may seem impossible to make God look good, but like Job, we must push back as best we can, even when it’s hard. Although Job’s friends were well versed in religion, they were guilty of defending an inaccurate theology of God.

Interpreting such an ancient text may be complex, but one thing is clear: Job never denied God by refusing to live a life of unselfish integrity. The Book of Job has helped me develop a more accurate view of God. We may not be completely sheltered from pain and suffering, but neither are we completely abandoned. God emerged and broke His silence to answer Job, though not in the way we might expect. There is an explanation given that makes sense, but it’s set within a larger framework that not only presents us as desiring to know but also gives us the right to know in surprising ways. There is a meaningful answer given and in the end Job is comforted by God’s speech.

Craig Ashton Jr. 

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