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An Evil Job Well Done: The Book of Job, an introduction…

July 6, 2012

One might wonder why we should seek an answer to the existence of evil in the world.  In attempting to find an answer it is impossible not to deal with some very difficult concepts and even painful, corrupt imagery.  However as rational beings created in the image of an orderly God we seek orderly explanations for the chaos which confronts us.  So into the darkness we peer; but as theists, furthermore as Christians, we learn most about the darkness by studying the attributes of light.  To put it into different terms we are best served to gain an understanding of evil through gaining an understanding of the God which evil opposes.  Fundamentally we seek to answer the age-old question of compatibility and consistency: how can the God revealed to us in attributes of love, kindness, mercy, justice and fairness co-exist with the mystery of lawlessness at work in this world?[1]  There are many approaches to this question.  Atheists, by their very nature, must simply deal with the evidences of evil laid out before them without the slightest ability to define, contain or confront the problem absent the contrast of God.  Absent the God of light, atheists have only shadows amid darkness.   Thus evil must and can only be answered, with satisfaction, by theists.

Among theists there exists a number of theories attempting to reconcile the existence of God with the presence and activity of evil.  For Christians the task remains to examine their world in light of God’s revelation to them in His word.  Within the pages of Scripture is revealed the character and attributes of the God who created all things, all things were created by Him, and apart from him nothing came into being that has come into being.[2]  The truth underlying that statement is easy to gloss over, but one does so at great peril to his understanding of God and the created realm.  One must bring against the existence of evil and suffering the recorded truth that God created all things in existence.  This may be done with cool reflection in the pages of commentaries and systematic textbooks, but when this truth intersects human life and experience the task becomes painfully difficult.

When seeking to understand evil against the backdrop of God’s recorded character few venues exists with the relevance of the book of Job.  This obscure book about an little known man from an unknown time provides the Christian with perhaps the greatest opportunity outside of the gospels to gain a picture of God in relation to the activity of evil and the result of man’s suffering in the world .

The reader of Job is provided with an outsiders perspective “that a sophisticated story-teller is at work, teaching us something about the nature of human life: while life for Job on the inside is hell, life viewed from above seems to have some kind of structure and purpose.”[3]  We shall now examine the books structure and purpose.

Overview

            The book of Job does not lend itself to concise review.  While not the longest book in the Old Testament, its complexity and depth of meaning and form have defied consensus.  Is it a narrative? Yes.  Is it a book of ANE poetry? Yes.  Does it belong in the genre of Biblical wisdom literature? Yes.  Is it Hebrew in origin? This is unknown, “the atmosphere of the book is non-Israelite and patriarchal.”[7]  There is a strong Aramaic flavor to the vocabulary and more hapax legomena and rare words than any other book in the Bible.[8]  For some, the book is an indispensable tool for addressing theological/philosophical issues such as suffering and pain.  For others the book is merely a story of a man, his loss, his search and his discovery.[9]  Regardless of the viewpoint or interpretation, there lies within Job a truth which seems to connect with the human condition.  Moreover, Job gives us a glimpse into the inner workings of God’s interaction with the created order that is unequaled.  In light of this we shall proceed to outline the book for our purposes.  Job can readily be broken into three segments of dialogue: the prologue (1:1-2:13); the poetic dialogues (3:1-37:24) and the Divine speeches (38:1-42:6).[10]

The Prologue

In the prologue we meet Job and learn of his situation and meet most of the characters of importance.  Job, his wife, children, and servants occupy the earthly realm.  God, the sons of God, and the Adversary occupy the divine council presumably in the heavens.  From the opening lines evil begins to factor into this story.  Job is described by the narrator, and later by God, as a man “blameless, upright, fearing God and turning away from evil.”[11]  Despite Job’s efforts to flee evil, evil is in pursuit of him.  When the divine council convenes in chapter 1, we see the one called the adversary come among the sons of God into His presence.  The Adversary or “הַשָּׂטָ֔ן”[12] is addressed by God and posed with a question, from this we learn that the adversary goes to and froe about the earth.  The next question is all the more relevant to the story,” הֲשַׂמְתָּ  לִבְּךָ  אֶל־עַבְדִּי אִיֹּוב ” literally ‘have you set your heart on my servant Job.’[13]  God seems to be inquiring about the desire of the Adversary, not merely about his consideration.  We are not informed as to whether or not Job has been desired previously by the adversary;  but it is now clear that Job is in his sights and the game is joined.  In a very crucial step, God grants the adversary permission to strike Job’s possessions.  Which the Adversary does, eliminating via murder Job’s servants (1:15; 1:17); theft Job’s livestock (1:14; 1:17); fire from heaven for Job’s sheep and servants (1:16); and wind for Job’s family (1:19).  Here we see the proliferation in Job’s life of three elements of what is considered evil; metaphysical evil, moral evil, and natural evil.

Metaphysical evil was manifest in the out-stretched hand of the Adversary, who un-benounced to Job and all surrounding parties was manipulating the various hardships befalling him.  Moral evil was present in the acts of theft and murder committed by the Sabines and Chaldeans who raided Job’s flocks and killed his servants.  Natural evil was present in the fire, which consumed Job’s sheep and the great wind which obliterated his children.  This triad of trauma leaves Job with only four servants and his wife.  The testing is continued and escalated in the next chapter.

The prologue concludes in chapter 2 with a resumption of the divine counsel, a second inquiry concerning Job and a second permission granted the adversary to advance Job’s suffering just short of death.  The adversary strikes Job with what are literally “evil sores” covering his entire body.[14]  Job, despite his loss and affliction has yet to curse God, and as a result, has maintained his character.  That character will be tested and show signs of strain as he begins, intellectually, to come to grips with his condition and interact with the next four characters entering the scene.  The prologue sets the stage for the dialogue to follow in the subsequent chapters.  In an ironic twist the reader is made aware of facts that Job and his friends will struggle in vain to discover.  The reader enters chapter 3 and the poetic dialogues knowing three pertinent facts, One. Job is blameless; Two. All suffering “falls within the sweep of God’s sovereignty;” and Three. Some suffering is related to sin and some suffering is “not directly related to any sin.”[15]

The Poetic Dialogues

Chapters 3 through 37 contain, next to Isaiah, the greatest concentration of biblical poetry outside of the Psalms.  The poetry is embedded in a series of speeches.  These speeches form a verbal interplay between Job, his three friends Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar and the young man Elihu.  Having been denied access to the heavenly court envisioned in chapters 1 and 2, Job essentially sets up a tribunal sitting at the city gate, surrounded by his friends, holding court.[16]  But if it was his intent to try God, he soon finds that he himself is the defendant.  His friends rather than coming to his defense serve as witnesses for the prosecution; and Elihu seems more than willing to offer some unsolicited closing arguments indicting Job and his friends while defending God.

If we gained an insight into the Divine interaction with evil in the prologue then the poetic dialogues will provide an illuminating picture of human conceptions of evil, wickedness and suffering.  Job initiates the dialogue with a critique of creation and his placement in it.  Job’s lament in the face of such meaningless suffering is the manifests itself in the cry to be uncreated.[17]  In the midst of these cries and demands for justice, Job repeatedly affirms God’s existence and His character.  Job’s lament is that his own experience is not lining up with the way God is supposed to act toward the righteous.  D.A. Carson in his book, How Long O Lord, describes Job’s speeches in this way:

Job’s speeches are the anguish of a man who knows God, who wants to know Him better, who never once doubts the existence of God, who remains convinced, at bottom, of the justice of God–but who cannot make sense of these entrenched beliefs in the light of his own experience.[18]

While Job attempts to reconcile reality with God, his friends are determined to redefine that reality based on the human condition.

Each of Job’s friends seeks to educate him on the human condition and the proper response to misfortune. In regards to this condition, Eliphaz addresses the role of the innocent in chapters 4-5.  Zophar follows in chapter 11 with a discussion on judgment that rightly befalls the wicked, and resumes in chapter 20 affirming that suffering awaits the wicked.  Bildad continues in chapter 13 describing the necessity of punishment and in chapter 25 the depravity of man.

Each also addresses the proper human response to what appears to be the judgment of God.  Bildad argues for repentance in chapter 8.  Eliphaz promotes a healthy fear of God in Chapter 15 and the necessity of humility in chapter 22.  Throughout this barrage of instruction Job listens and responds.  Rather than capitulating to their reason he uses their arguments to build his case for his own innocence.[19]  These speeches serve as stepping stones amidst the stream of Job’s thought; he will use each to slowly make his way to a right understanding of God.  But before he can achieve closure, he must contend with Elihu.

Elihu provides a lengthy and nuanced, if not original, line of reasoning.  He is above all concerned with two things, establishing his own authority to speak and defending God against charges of injustice.  For Elihu, God is blameless and sovereign able to do as he pleases for loving-kindness or correction.[20]  In this line of reasoning he is slightly more Theo-centric in his arguments than the previous speakers.[21]  But overall his purpose seems to be as a lead up; setting the stage for God’s appearance and a general change in tone during the divine speeches.

The Divine Speeches

Few passages in scripture are more profound, and from the standpoint of the reader more anti-climactic, than God’s dialogue with Job in Chapters 38-42.  As with all trials the judge is the last to speak and His words carry the greatest weight.  What is often found objectionable by readers of this book, is the apparent lack of empathy and lack of justification God provides in His address to Job.  “God does not answer Job’s questions about the problem of evil and suffering, but He makes it unambiguously clear what questions are unacceptable in God’s universe.”[22]  God, in a series of eighty rhetorical questions[23], gives Job a glimpse of the universe which far exceeds his capacity to understand.  Job did not have National Geographic, most likely very little understanding of the world outside his own region.  Yet God uses the world as His schoolroom, granting Job a greater knowledge of himself, his world and of God.[24]  The “poem that God speaks out of the storm soars beyond anything that has preceded it in the book.”[25]  God displays his mastery of the heavens above in chapter 38; and the earth below in chapter 39.  God describes his mastery of what is feared on earth through the taming of Behemoth in Chapter 40.  And He assures Job that that which is not seen in the chaos of the sea, leviathan likewise, is under His control in chapter 41.  This display reduces the once proud and verbose Job to the simple confession of repentance.  Whether Job gained a point-by-point refutation of his complaint or not seems meaningless to him.  That God has spoken is enough for Job.[26]  Job is subsequently renewed by God, his friends are rebuked, and Elihu is relegated to silence.

Ultimately the book closes by proving of God’s intent to show “that a human being can love God, fear God, and pursue righteousness without receiving prompt reward.” [27] Indeed the pursuit of God may occur and may be made all the more meaningful through the experience of evil and suffering.  Through all God is sovereign and in control over the suffering that man experiences and the evil which instigates it.

In part Two of the introduction we shall continue our discussion of evil in the book of Job by exposing the book to three forms of theodicy, with the purpose of gaining a clearer picture of God’s purpose behind evil and suffering.


[1] The Mystery of Lawlessness as described by Paul in 2 Thessalonians 2:7. “for the mystery of lawlessness is already at work…”

[2] John 1:3

[3] Craig G. Bartholomew and Ryan O’Dowd. Old Testament Wisdom Literature: a Theological introduction. Downers Grove: IVP Academic. 2011. 135.

[4]The belief that the source of evil is the given ability man possesses to choose freely, and that suffering results consequently from the sinful exercise of the free-will.

[5] The belief that source of evil is found in the lack of God’s good creation, evil itself does not exist but rather is merely the absence of good, suffering is then seen as merely an incidental part of God’s creation.

[6] For our purposes the text of Job can be broken down into three primary segments: the prologue (1:1-2:13); the poetic dialogues (3:1-37:24) and the Divine speeches (38:1-42:6).  Bartholomew, 136.

[7] William Dumbrell. The Faith of Israel: a Theological survey of the Old Testament. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic. 2002. 254.

[8] Ralph L. Smith. Introduction to the book of Job. Southwestern Journal of Theology 14, No. 1 (1971): 6.

[9] Francis Anderson. Job: an Introduction and Commentary. Downers Grove: IVP 1976. 64.

[10]Bartholomew, 136.

[11]Job 1:1; 1:8; 2:3 The evil mentioned in each is the Hebrew word ” רע ”  rah’ which appears 15 times in the book of Job, 6 times within the two chapters of the prologue. “ רע   ” among its 663 different uses it is translated some 442 times in the Old Testament as “evil” including Genesis 2:9 in the “tree of knowledge of Good and evil”  the discovery of which heralded the fall of man and the beginning of sin on earth. (BDG)

[12]Much has been written on whether or not this is in fact the one described in the New Testament as Satan.  The fact that the noun has the article would seem to suggest that it is in fact a definite title rather than a name.  However, the actions of this adversary speak much larger than his title.  For he seems to thrive on opposing God and His creation, seeking to see the creation renounce its creator, which is consistent with the role of the serpent in Genesis 3.  Even his movements seem consistent with that of the devil who is also described as roaming about the earth seeking whom he may devour. (1 Peter 5:8)

[13] The interrogatory phrase ,לִבְּךָ   הֲשַׂמְתָּ  or “Have you set your heart?” is often translated “have you considered,” combining the two words into one abstract meaning.  However, לִבְּךָ or ‘leb’ is translated some 508 times in the Old Testament as heart.  It seems more literal to see this as the workings of the heart rather than the conideration of the mind.  Seeing the adversary’s apparent relishing of his task in returning a second time into the divine council and provoking God yet a second time, seems to point perhaps to some desire on his part to see Job curse God.

[14]  “מִכַּף רָע ” Here ‘ra’ is used again, translated literally as ‘evil boils’.

[15] D.A. Carson. Job; Mystery and Faith. The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology Vol. 4 No.2 (Summer 2000): 41.

[16] Robert Fyall in his book  Now my Eyes have seen You: images of creation and evil in the book of Job. (Downers Grove: IVP. 2002.)  posits  that there exists within Job a host of legal imagery which serves as a major “literary device which integrates the narrative procession and theological motif.” (31)

[17] “Chapter three is Job’s lament: like Jeremiah (20:14-18), he wishes he had never been born.” Carson, Job. 41.

[18] D. A. Carson. How Long of Lord: Reflections on Suffering and Evil. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic. 1990, 2006. 146.

[19] One could argue that by the end of their dialogue they had reached such an impasse, as “the three men stopped answering Job, because he was righteous in his own eyes.” (Job 32:1)  Carson, How Long… 147.

[20]Job 37:13

[21] Even though Elihu appears to be more orthodox in his arguments, the irony is that his arguments “continually contradict the threefold affirmation in the prologue (1:1, 8, 2:3) and God’s confirmation of Job in 42:7” Bartholomew, 143.

[22] Carson, How Long.. 151.

[23] Bartholomew, 144.

[24] Anderson, 269. The two, knowledge of self and of God, “always go together in the Bible.”

[25] Robert Alter. The Art of Biblical Poetry. New York: Basic. 1985. 87.

[26] Anderson, 269.

[27]Carson, Job., 43.

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