How Adequately does the Book of Job deal with the Problem of Innocent Suffering?
More often than not, when the question of innocent suffering arises, the Book of Job enters the conversation. That pattern reflects certain assumptions with respect to the Book of Job (JOB), not the least of which is the supposition that JOB actually deals, to any significant degree, with innocent suffering. Did the author intend that JOB wrestle with the issue of suffering itself, or were his/her main themes discussions of the natures of piety, religious dogma and God, with the suffering of Job simply functioning as a vehicle for the diatribe? If it was the latter, it would not seem to be required that dealing with the quandary used as the plot be done satisfactorily.
The notion of innocence also complicates the matter since it is rife with subjective inferences. Is the adjective ‘innocent’ predicated on guiltlessness, the lack of choice, or on a sense of some results or circumstances being undeserved? With regard to the latter, is any suffering, especially to the degree described in JOB, ever deserved?
Another question that arises is with respect to equating ‘good’ or ‘righteous’ with ‘innocent’. Job is actually described by the narrator, God and himself not as innocent, but as righteous. “Why do bad things happen to good people?”, a question commonly encountered in Christian dialogue that can stem from a reading of JOB, or even elicit a prescription to read it, may more accurately represent one of the themes of the book. To be sure there are innocents depicted in JOB, along with descriptions of their suffering, but the extent to which JOB adequately deals with these situations depends on which of the various perspectives the reader chooses.
The question posed in the title lends itself more to a reading of JOB as a complete canonical book, rather than a critical analysis of the formulation of the book over a period of time with possible redactions. This paper, then, will deal lightly with issues of dating, authorship, redactions and the like, except when those issues assist in examining what the whole seems to be saying about suffering, innocence, righteousness, justice and the nature of God. One significant point of agreement for most of the reference sources used is that JOB is not historical literature, even to the point of being likened to a play or drama with acts and/or movements.
The title character of JOB is initially described by the narrator as “blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil” (1:1, NRSV), a description that is reiterated by God in two exchanges (1:8, 2:3) with hasatan. Job is further described by reference to his children and their practices (1:2, 4, 5), his possessions and status (1:3), and his own righteous practices (1:5).
Significant for the purposes of this paper is the fact that the NRSV has Job claiming that he is innocent (9:15, 20, 34:5) whereas, in Hebrew, Job says he is righteous. Job’s use of the word innocent is almost always in the collective sense of a label, as in, “…the innocent stir themselves up against the godless” (17:8, NRSV). An exception occurs in 9:28, but Job is making the argument that if he drops his claim he will no longer be able to be considered innocent by virtue of forgoing his integrity. It is clear that abandoning his integrity would represent a sinful act to Job. Absent a claim to innocence by Job himself, are there any bases on which to characterize him as such?
The most obvious is that Job appears to be a pawn in the hands of God. It is widely accepted that 1:1-2:13 and 42:7-17 are remnants of a much older folktale used as a framework for the drama, with a central dialogue between Job and his friends that has subsequently become lost. It must be presumed that, within this dialogue, Job would have maintained his faith in God, which prompted the restoration and magnification of his resources as reported in the last section. God, rather than being omni-everything, is portrayed as being goaded into allowing the satan to manipulate Job’s circumstances to test Job’s unwavering devotion to God.
The idea that the original folktale came from pre-Israelite sources may explain the depiction of God’s apparent capriciousness and manipulability, since the attitudes that gods could be both benevolent and malevolent were present in many early religions. Despite this, given the dramatic author’s acceptance of these depictions, these qualities of God were evidently deemed appropriate for inclusion in the final work. God acquiesces to the satan’s torment of Job, seemingly just to answer a challenge or prove a point, which hardly provides a suitable response to the problem of innocent suffering. The net result would be the belief that humans exist as toys or possessions to be maneuvered at the whim of a fickle God who was not subject to any sense of ethics or morality. Rather than prove in any way comforting to the person seeking an answer to innocent suffering, relying on just the ‘original’ framework would simply add to the sense of futility and impotence he or she likely possessed.
In examining Job’s innocence in light of the whole work, it becomes apparent that the character of Job is multifaceted. As already mentioned, Job is described initially by his wealth and success, and also indicates that there is a presumed relationship between his material comfort and his righteousness. Later in the book it is disclosed that Job was also very powerful. Chapter 29 is a recounting of Job’s good old days as a patriarch – sitting at the gate administering justice, being deferred to by the rich and humble alike, being the benefactor to the poor, wretched, widowed and orphaned. It appears that Job is an all-around good man – or is he? In chapter 22, Eliphaz levels accusations against Job that seem to include economic and political self-service.
Considering the likelihood that the community existed as an economy of limited goods, it is not likely that Job could amass the wealth described without trampling on or dispossessing many of the people he claims to care for. Since a measure of righteousness in Israelite society was how one helped the less fortunate, was Job’s past benevolence delivered for the sake of the recipients or for his own political purposes? The denigrating manner in which he describes the poor in chapter 30, and the manner in which these same people seem to revel in his downfall, suggests the latter.
Job’s acquisitive nature, reveling in the trappings of his material success and vilification of the less fortunate, seem to be in direct conflict with the understanding of righteous actions proposed by many of the eighth century BC prophets. Since the dating of Job is commonly placed in the fifth or sixth centuries BC, it can be presumed that the author would likely have been familiar with these writings and their messages. It is, therefore, conceivable that Job is intentionally represented as a conflicted character – one who claims to be righteous, and is even perceived to be such by the community because of his actions and words, but who actually falls short of being righteous, and especially innocent, by virtue of being materialistic and self-serving. While Job’s guilt can be questioned, it is obvious that, given his position and wealth, he could hardly qualify for innocence based on a lack of choice.
There are others depicted within the story, however, who would qualify for the label of innocent on the basis of choice, and these receive barely a passing glance from the narrator or in the ruminations of Job. The loss of wealth, property and health seem to represent for Job the severity of his suffering. Within JOB, however, are depictions of other losses. Job’s ten children were killed during the storm that felled the house (1:19), and his very many servants killed by the fire from heaven (1:16) and the raids by the Sabeans (1:15) and Chaldeans (1:17).
Relegated to a bit part, Job’s unnamed wife gets no mention for the suffering she endures, which presumably includes caring for the sore-ridden body of Job. Newsom adds a second meaning to the wife’s outburst, “Do you still persist in your integrity? Curse God, and die” (2:9, NRSV), but there may be a third – “Curse God and get it over with, so I may have some peace.”
While it can be argued that the children and servants disappear within the narrative because they are really not significant to the storyline, this would fit, none-the-less, with the assertion that Job’s troubles are depicted as the “suffering of a patriarch”. As chattel, their deaths are simply collateral damages – the further loss of possessions and indicators of wealth. For any individuals that are inclined to ask, “Well, what about the children and/or servants and/or wife?”, recognizing them as suffering innocents, there is no satisfactory resolution to the quandary. Their suffering is simply not dealt with again, except to be replaced, just like the other possessions, with more voluminous or, in the case of the daughters, more beauteous objects.
Beyond the lack of choice, it also apparent that none of the aforementioned characters deserved their end. Can that be said of Job? Does Job get his just deserts? According to the escalating series of arguments of Job’s friends, Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar, that would seem to be the situation. These arguments occur in successive bouts that include questions, answers and more questions. The subject matter of these exchanges, however, covers much more than suffering by including queries about “the motivation and character, and therefore the meaning, of human piety and rectitude” and “classical doctrines of the absoluteness and the impassibility of God.”
In this view it may be fair to describe JOB as an investigation of dichotomous theologies, one very traditional centered on the observation of law and dogma and the other quite radical based on experience and understanding, using the situation of Job’s suffering as simply a jumping off point or foundation for entering the discussion. Ultimately, answers to the various questions, including those related to suffering, aren’t answered directly. In the end, in God’s final affirmation that Job’s arguments for a less rigid and dogmatic theology were right, there is still no resolution to the question of innocent suffering. While the question seems to just fade into the background, there are still some interesting insights that appear within the various dialogues.
The three friends mentioned earlier base their views on suffering on the traditional view that the qualities of one’s circumstances reveal the righteousness of one’s life, although they framed their statements in decidedly different ways. Eliphaz begins, “…who that was innocent ever perished? Or where were the upright cut off?” (4:7, NRSV) Bildad follows with, “Can papyrus grow where there is no marsh?” (8:11, NRSV), meaning, can punishment be leveled where there is no iniquity? Job responds by discussing the lack of a pattern of repayment for good, punishment for evil. His experience has shown him that some evil people prosper and some good people suffer.
Job continues to rail against the injustice he perceives God has perpetrated on him, but steadfastly retains the belief that, given an opportunity to address God directly, he will eventually be exonerated and restored. Job’s view of God, however, is predicated on his view of himself as a patriarch – God should act like Job when he is administering justice from the gate – in terms of reward and punishment. Job views God in his own image. Thankfully, God deals with this in his response, which will be discussed shortly.
The dialogue continues and Bildad goes so far as to ask, “How then can a mortal be righteous before God?” (25:4, NRSV), perhaps prognosticating Calvin’s notion of human depravity. Job responds sarcastically, “With whose help have you uttered words, and whose spirit has come forth from you?” (26:4, NRSV), questioning the quality of the pastoral advice he is getting. Job is taking to task the notion of earthly suffering as divine retribution for iniquity, and with it seems to be challenging an approach to pastoral care that, unfortunately, continues to this day – blaming the victim.
Job’s friends came to him in order to comfort him. Their idea of pastoral care, however, revolves around the belief that Job had obviously sinned in order to warrant such grievous punishment. All Job has to do is to admit his sin to God – even Job’s belief that he hasn’t sinned could be a sin – and God will set him right. They are saying, “Take responsibility for your conditions – they are your own fault.” Extrapolated out, this line of reasoning makes the murdered responsible for their own deaths, the poor responsible for their impoverishment, the Jews responsible for the Holocaust, and on and on. It lays the source of all suffering squarely in the lap of God, as God’s punishment of humans for unrighteous behavior, individually and collectively.
Thankfully, God’s response from the whirlwind (chapters 38-41) destroys this line of reasoning, as well as Job’s patriarchal image of God. Although the end result may not be more comforting for those wrestling with innocent suffering, God essentially says there may not be a specific purpose in suffering. What God appears to grapple with in his lines is the notion that all of creation points to humans. God is depicted as describing the whole of creation and pointing out that Job in particular, and humankind in general, can have no understanding of the immensity of it all. God also challenges Job’s understanding of the order of creation, which he expressed when he criticized God’s order because some of the wicked flourished and righteous suffered.
“Here, however, containment of the violence of the wicked is set in the context of the work of creation, which is renewed each day. Like the hedging in of the sea with bars and doors, the light of day contains and limits but does not eliminate the wicked from the world.”
Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar understand suffering to be divine punishment for sin, while Job considers benevolence to be repayment for righteousness. Good and bad, right and wrong, guilt and innocence – these are the dichotomies that are the key elements of justice in the understanding of Job and his friends.
Into this awareness God poses the question, “Will you condemn me that you may be justified?” (40:8, NRSV), challenging the notion that God can be judged righteous or malevolent based on the circumstances humans experience. In governing the world God does not function within the terms of human legalities, but in the sense of regulation and containment – setting appropriate limits. Neither Job specifically, nor humanity in general, are the center of God’s universe, but are inhabitants of creation along with many great and awesome things. It is as if God is saying, “Creation is, and within it you exist, and within it things happen that may not have a particular meaning for you. They just are.”
Determining the adequacy of JOB in dealing with innocent suffering is as convoluted as the book itself. It depends, to a large degree on the situation and perspective of the reader. If ‘dealing’ with suffering does not require finding a meaning or answer within particular circumstances, and if one of the participants in the discussion is not asking questions because they are in need of pastoral care due to the trauma of a deep loss, JOB can function more than adequately as a study into many theological issues, innocent suffering among them. JOB, which has the complexity of the most involved psychological thriller or ironic drama due to its twists and turns of plot and its somewhat inconclusive ending, covers a vast array of theological topics and should prompt vigorous discussions. Just as the author of JOB did, any dialogue will likely produce more questions than answers, but will provide opportunities for wrestling with major theological issues.
If, however, the impetus for trying to find meaning in suffering comes from a traumatic event requiring pastoral care, JOB would likely prove wholly inadequate as a pastoral tool. In this instance, the complex nature of the work and the escalating questions without direct answers would serve more to compound the difficulties the reader happened to be experiencing. Prescribing JOB as a study in this circumstance just might be enough to warrant the imposition of some of Job’s suffering on the pastoral caretaker.
Gottwald, Norman K. 1985. The Hebrew Bible – A Socio-Literary Introduction. (Philadelphia: Fortress press.)
Habel, Norman C. 1985. The Book of Job. The Old Testament Library. (Philadelphia: Westminster Press.) Accessed through online subscription to Cokebury’s iPreach Biblical resources available at http://www.cokesburylibraries.com/NXT/.*
Janzen, J. Gerald. 1985. “Job.” Interpretation, a Bible commentary for teaching and preaching. (Atlanta: John Knox Press.) Accessed through online subscription to Cokebury’s iPreach Biblical resources available at http://www.cokesburylibraries.com/NXT/.*
Newsom, Carol A. 1996. “The Book of Job”. The New Interpreter’s Bible – A Commentary in 12 Volumes. (Nashville: Abingdon Press.) Accessed through online subscription to Cokebury’s iPreach Biblical resources available at http://www.cokesburylibraries.com/NXT/.*
Newsom, Carol A. 1992. “Job.” The Women’s Bible Commentary. Edited by Carol A. Newsom & Sharon H. Ringe. (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press & London: SPCK)
Sawyer, John F. A. 1993. Prophecy and the Biblical Prophets. Oxford Bible Series. (Oxford University Press.)
* These texts, being electronic versions structured within Java framework, have neither numbered pages nor individual url’s. An effort was made to identify them by subtitle and paragraph number with the section.
 For economy of words, the Book of Job will be referenced by the use of the capitalized “JOB”, while the main character of the Book will be addressed as “Job”.
 Habel, Introduction – The Narrative Plot.
 The satan, hasatan, meaning the adversary or accuser, represents more the notion of a prosecuting attorney in the divine court of God than the personification of evil that later became known as Satan. See Newson, 1996, Job 1:6-12, Scene 2: A Dialogue About Job – Commentary. ¶1-2.
 Newsom, 1996, Introduction – Reading the Book of Job: Issues of Structure and Unity. ¶5.
 Janzen, Introduction – The Setting of the Book of Job in the History of the Religions of the Ancient Near East . ¶1-3.
 Newsom, 1992, 134.
 Sawyer, 43-45.
 The third suggestion is purely conjecture on my part. The usual inference is “Give up your faith as God has given you up – Curse God and die”, but another may be “If you will persist in your integrity, say to God what is on your heart before you die.” See Newsom, 1992 133-134.
 Newsom, 1992, 133.
 Janzen, Introduction – Approach to Interpretation of the Text, ¶15-16.
 Newsom, 1992, 132-133.
 Newsom, 1992, 135.
 Newsom, 1996, Job 38:1-38 – The Cosmic Structures, ¶12.
 Newsom, 1996, Job 40:6-14, The Challenge, ¶1, 4.