The story, which was probably originally written in the sixth century BCE by an Israelite in Babylonian exile, concerns theodicy — or why God permits evil in the world. Its take on these issues radically questions the conventional wisdom.
Throughout the ages, many have remarked on the book’s importance. Martin Luther called it sublime. Alfred, Lord Tennyson called it the greatest poem of all time. And Thomas Carlyle said nothing has ever been written of equal merit.
That importance does not come by giving us a clear answer to the question of why the righteous suffer, but comes by teaching us that the problem of evil is wrapped up in the mystery of creation, which is so vast and complex that it is beyond human understanding.
The central character, Job, a wealthy and pious man leading a good life and having a large family, suffers immensely and cannot understand why. We are told that Job, “blameless and upright, feared God and turned away from evil.”
So why does a righteous and innocent man like Job suffer?
The conventional wisdom in ancient Israel, and among many to this day, is that God rewards virtue and punishes sin (see for example Proverbs 10:16-26). The Book of Job rejects those simple platitudes as answers to explain suffering, thus showing the problem of quoting any one section of the Bible as divine authority.
In a meeting with Satan, God brags about his righteous servant, Job. At this early stage in Jewish history, Satan, which mean “accuser” in Hebrew, is no red-skinned satyr with pitchfork and devilish grin.
The mainstream Jewish perspective that derives from the Book of Job is that Satan is part of the divine counsel with the task of seeking out someone’s wrongdoings and appearing as their accuser.
Satan is unimpressed and asks God why shouldn’t Job be faithful since God has given him everything. Satan presents God with a wager: what if Satan is allowed to take everything Job has away from him and see how Job’s faith is then?
Job’s extensive flocks are removed, his servants are killed, the house collapses on his children, killing them.
Famously Job responds, “The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away.”
Then Satan, with God’s permission, inflicts Job’s body with malignant ulcers from head to foot.
Three friends try to comfort Job and say that God would only have treated him so cruelly if he were guilty of some serious sin.
Job now sits in the ashes of his home, scraping his sores with a broken piece of pottery.
He continues worshipping God, who then wins the wager.
Job rejects the “wisdom” of his friends, protests his innocence and demands that God answer him.
God speaks from a whirlwind but never responds to Job’s questions. Instead He contrasts Job’s weakness with divine wisdom and power.
In a series of rhetorical questions, God displays the glory of creation: the foundations of the earth and the sea, the dwelling place of light, the clouds and the rain and the lightning, the storehouses of hail and snow, the wild ox, the ostrich, the hawk, the lion, the mountain goats, the wild ass and, finally, the mythological monsters, Behemoth and Leviathan.
Did Job have any idea of the vastness, complexity and greatness of the universe? While humans too often think it is all about us, God insist that the other creatures of the world are far nobler: the war horse that laughs at fear, the Behemoth with “bones hard as hammered iron.”
Job responds to God’s series of questions: “My words have been frivolous.”
This is the most extraordinary nature poetry found in the Bible. The Book of Job is the only time in the Bible when nature is presented as having its own intrinsic value, power, beauty and integrity. Nature is presented as the true source of morality.
Job is humbled into silence after speaking one last time: “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you.”
This is the climax of the story and the biggest interpretive challenge in the Book of Job: why is Job suddenly so silent?
Seeing God is classic language for the direct experience of the sacred. Job has had a profound encounter with the divine — a mystical experience.
Job is a typical egocentric and anthropocentric human who, turning his back on the entire cosmos, demands to know why a virtuous man like himself should suffer.
God ignores his question and reveals a cosmic order of staggering beauty in which violence and suffering are an essential part of all life.
Where Job sees only darkness and death, God reveals a planet teaming with life, where the primordial sea leaps from the web of darkness. Nature consists of harmony of conflicting opposites in which violence and beauty, terror and serenity coexist.
Rather than whining and crying “why me?” God seems to imply, other creatures of the world face the hardships of life with courage and spender and thus demonstrate their glory.
While as a human, Job was unable to see fairness in the world, his experience convinced him that God is real.
There was a conflict in the wisdom traditions of ancient Israel. Books such as Proverbs offer conventional wisdom through what William James called “second-hand” religion, that is, sets of teachings and practices learned from others.
The conventional wisdom that Job initially believed and that he heard from his friends was this “second-hand” religion. While it does produce good in the world, it can’t compare with “first-hand” religion — direct experiences of the sacred.
Religion is more than sets of beliefs, well-rehearsed rituals and stories found in ancient tomes. It must include direct experiences of the sacred. These transcending moments of mystery and wonder, which seem to defy human comprehension, can move us to a renewal of the sprit and an openness to the forces that create and uphold life.
Suffering is part of the wellspring of divine creativity in nature. Suffering and creativity are co-primal in divine nature, and to acknowledge God, Ultimate Reality, or “the ground of our being” (as Paul Tillich referred to God) in these terms is to accept, as Job must do, that suffering is our fate.
No matter what, everything testifies to the divine glory.
— Wayne Mellinger Ph.D. is a social and environmental educator, writer and activist who sits on three nonprofit boards and two Santa Barbara County commissions. He is developing the notion of nature-as-sacred into a full ecotheology in his blog, The Dionysian Naturalist. The opinions expressed are his own.