The Book of Job is a book of the Old Testament where people without a rich religious upbringing don’t really see the point and people who did grow up with such an upbringing usually misunderstand it. Both for secular and religious purposes though, it’s such a loss that it has been tamed by the religious and discarded by the nonbeliever.
This Book of Job in the Old Testament is helpfully explained thusly in the South Park episode, Cartman Land, when Kyle’s Jewish parents try to comfort him in a time of suffering. Speaking interchangeably, his parents say:
You see, Job lived in the east of Jordan, a long long time ago. Job was a great man.
He was blessed with ten lovely children, a wonderful wife, and many friends.
He was godly, and a good man, and fed the poor.
He was the most upright and honorable of men, and every day he praised God.
But one day, Satan went up to Heaven and talked to God.
And God says to Satan, "Have you seen Job? He is a great man, and he praises me every day."
But Satan said, "Oh yeah? He only praises you because you gave him so much. If you didn't give him those things, he would curse your name."
To which God said, "Oh yeah? I'll show you, Satan! I'll take those things away from Job and he will still praise my name."
And so, God had a bunch of barbarians come in and slaughter Job's oxen and donkeys, and murder all his workers.
Then God sent his fireballs from the sky and killed his sheep and the rest of his employees.
And then, as Job's sons and daughters were eating, God sent a mighty wind to collapse the house and crush and kill them all.
Job was terribly sad, but he fell to his knees and said, "The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away," and praised God's name.
So then, Job got painful sores all over his body.
He was in terrible, miserable pain all day, every day. But he still kept his faith.
God said to Satan, "See? I told you. Job still praises me."
Needless to say, Kyle was not comforted by this story, “And that's it? That's the end?”
“Basically,” his mother confirms.
“That's the most horrible story I've ever heard. Why would God do such a horrible thing to a good person just to prove a point to Satan?” now Kyle is outraged.
“Oh. Uhhh, I don't know,” admits his father.
I remember watching this scene with my girlfriend, who has a powerful gift of Bathos – to suck out the reverence and self-seriousness of a person or situation with a simple observation. She’s not mean, but it helps stop people (like me) from getting bogged down in their intensity. Anyway, she turned to me and asked, “is that accurate?” To which I had to sheepishly confirm that it was mostly right minus a few details. Even after clearing up those details she wasn’t much more impressed with the story than Kyle.
It’s understandable for Kyle and my girlfriend to have those reservations because the Book of Job really is an odd story. But I have to agree with the early 20th century Christian apologist, GK Chesterton, when he says
“[T]here were things in the tradition of Israel which belong to all humanity now, and might have belonged to all humanity then. They had one of the colossal cornerstones of the world: the Book of Job. It obviously stands over against the Iliad and the Greek tragedies; and even more than they it was an early meeting and parting of poetry and philosophy in the morning of the world.”
He later goes on to show frustration with the Book of Job’s obscurity in the ancient world, saying it would be like the pyramids of Egypt being kept secret.
For the sake of clarity, though, Job was a “blameless and upright” man who “feared God and turned away from evil.” A wealthy man with 7 sons and 3 daughters. One day, Satan, who was more of a prosecutor on God’s behalf (a sort of devil’s advocate in God’s service) during the writing of the book but is now more traditionally understood now to be the devil himself (a promotion in a way), goads God into allowing him to heap tragedy on Job in order to prove that Job’s righteousness was conditional. With God’s permission, Satan destroys all of Job’s wealth and kills his children. Nonetheless, “Job did not sin or charge God with wrong” (Job 1:22) in his grief.
Satan returns to God who has grown frustrated with him, “He still holds fast his integrity, although you incited me against him to destroy him without reason” (Job 2:3). Which is pivotal. Satan offers that he can make Job squeal with bodily suffering, “All that a man has he will give for his life. But stretch out your hand and touch his bone and his flesh, and he will curse you to your face” (2:4-5). What I find interesting is that Satan is demonstrating a basic knowledge of human neurology: it’s much easier to hold on to values when the suffering is abstract (sudden loss of wealth, loss of a loved one, etc.) as painful as it might be. But people are more likely to experience almost a complete loss of higher function when the suffering if primal and bodily (life-threatening circumstance, starvation, etc.).
His friends Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar, and later Elihu, console Job in his grief. After seven days, Job finally speaks and says, “Let the day perish on which I was born” (3:3), but Job’s friends are having none of it. Traditional readings suggest they thought Job must have done something wrong (whether he knows it or not) to deserve such suffering while Job insists on his innocence. However, a closer reading suggests a much more comprehensive argument that covers theology, theodicy, and existential meaning. They explain to him God does all things for the best (which means, if he’s truly good, things will get better if he just holds on), that maybe Job did deserve this catastrophe (he’s just not self-aware enough to know it), Elihu makes the case that God is challenging him so he’ll be a stronger man, they tell him to be grateful of what he has been given, challenge his supposed impudence to question God, and evangelize that there is a positive harmony to the universe even if Job just can’t see it as a mortal man. This all happens between Chapters 3 and 37 and takes up the majority of the book. As Jung put it, “Job’s friends do everything in their power to contribute to his moral torments, and instead of giving him, whom God has perfidiously abandoned, their warm-hearted support, they moralize in an all too human manner, that is, in the stupidest fashion imaginable” (Jung, para. 582). Nonetheless, Job hangs on and maintains a balance of not cursing God but expressing hostility toward him, a balance lost on his friends. Most of this book is this dialogue of Job repeating his case over and over again with sound logic and having his friends miss the point and repeat themselves over and over again with repulsive self-righteousness. It’s excruciating to read for its tedious repetition, and I think that’s the point.
Furthermore, there is the implication in the story that not the assumed benevolence of God, but fear of him is driving his friends’ concerns. There are regular references to God’s power (as though might makes right) and there’s Job’s wife’s only line is instructing Job to “curse God and die.” Considering how happy Job was before his downfall, I can only assume that his wife loved him very much and was offering a way out. Not to submit to God, but to simply submit to his power.
It's unfortunate how many interpretations of Job in modern media unwittingly take the side of Job’s friends in one way or the other. In the third season of Netflix’s Daredevil, Matt Murdock, the secret identity of the titular character, recounts the story of Job as proof of God’s innate apathy or sadism during a low point in the story. Naturally, he parallels himself with Job. It is Sister Maggie Grace, later revealed to be his mother, who scolds him for not seeing the benefits and blessings he has, but won’t recognize, to fight back against Wilson Fisk and the other indomitable forces of evil. The show takes the predictable route of associating Murdock’s bleak outlook with poor character and inefficacy: he is negligent of his duties and cruelly dismissive of his friends’ emotional needs as he mopes in self-pity. Alternatively, in Netflix’s An Interview with God, the protagonist shows the same self-centered and narcissistic tendency in his suicidal depression, but this proves to be an opportunity for growth and awareness rather than a call to restoration to the pre-depression: God tells Paul, the protagonist, “most people only seem to notice bad things when they happen to them. And maybe that's the saddest part of all.” In Daredevil, rather than reformulating Murdock’s understanding of his own suffering into something productive or meaningful, Maggie is proven accurate and Murdock simply needs to get back out of his “rut” and see the brighter side of things to be a hero again. Incidentally, this trope is delightfully subverted in the South Park episode I mentioned at the beginning, Cartman Land, when it is sadistically witnessing Cartman’s suffering that restores Kyle’s faith in God and his renowned pluck.
Job, for his part, proves himself very perceptive of human nature. He understands how his friend’s views on the innate justice of the universe and Job’s predicament are comforting yet incapable of handling reality as is, “For you have now become nothing; you see my calamity and are afraid” (6:21) he says, and later, “As for you, you whitewash with lies; worthless physicians are you all” (13:4). He also understands that his position in society is enough in itself to embolden people to rationalize disdain for him as he loses resolve and courage in the face of their judgement (16:8, 17:6-9, 23:15-17, 30:9-15). He predicts early on that this dichotomy will cause him to whither while his friends maintain their certainty and courage over time; a prediction that proves accurate or self-fulfilling as his arguments go from measured and precise, even if passionate, in the first half of the book to blubbering, pleading, pointlessly repetitive, and shrieking in self-pity as he begs for his tragedy to just be recognized while his friends remain unchallenged. He talks of himself in terms of losing his humanity as he loses a human’s worth in the eyes of others (30:29) because he is well aware that a loss of recognition of one’s trials and tribulations (whether for a person or a group of people) is ultimately deeply dehumanizing.
Jobs’ friends have travelled a great distance to be with Job in his hour of need, and the text explicitly states that they came to “comfort and console” because they care about him. One could therefore be forgiven in concluding that Job’s friends are in some kind of denial or arguing in bad faith. Jung goes further and suggests they are possessed by Satan to further Job’s torment. However, I hold that they are more likely influenced by some sort of ideology to not see Job’s point of view (17:4). Ideology as it is used by Zizek in The Sublime Object of Ideology when he says, “’ideological’ is a social reality whose very existence implies the non-knowledge of its participants as to its essence” (Zizek, 15-16). In other words, the vast majority of people who are ‘ideological’ (which includes all people) are not aware of the underlying assumptions and cause of their ideology (or that it even exists). Ideology indirectly impact what you tell yourself you believe and, more significantly, it impacts your behavior in ways you don’t usually recognize. Pascal, Marx, Nietzsche, economists, and psychoanalysts agree that your true belief is not “what you believe in your heart” but what you do and say. The problem with ideology is that it can create behavior and viewpoints that persist through blatant contradictions if the nature of the ideology goes unrecognized.
For his part, Job notices the almost supernatural obstinacy of his friends and attributes it to God (9:20). Perhaps rightfully. Psychology (especially influence of ideology) and divine intervention are regularly intertwined throughout the Old Testament. In Exodus, God “hardened Pharaoh’s heart” to explain his unwillingness to release the Israelites. Pharaoh’s actions could equally be explained by the Master-Slave Dialectic developed by Hegel. That is Pharaoh cannot retain his coveted identity as Master except in the context of subjugation of the Israelites. Because of the Israelites’ identity as Slave maintained over many generations, Pharaoh does not have an identity for himself except as Master and therefore clings to his power as though it were his life and refuses to let the Israelites go no matter the consequences. For reasons he could not explain, Pharaoh persists through the near ruin of his kingdom and the death of his child. One reading of this is that the authors of the Old Testament didn’t have Hegel around to explain something as subtle but prevalent as the Master-Slave Dialectic and so attributed his behavior to God. Another reading is God simply allowed him to be born in a situation as “divine” monarch that would cause the Master-Slave Dialectic to “harden his heart” in due course. In either case, the satisfying irony is his position of power becomes the source of his downfall.
In the end of Job, God shows up in person as a whirlwind. He goes on a verbose harangue of Job for questioning him, “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?” (38:2) before making a long citation demonstrating the gulf in power, knowledge, and shear being between himself and Job; saying things like, “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” (38:4) (practicing an appreciable sense of irony and sarcasm). Shockingly, rather than punishing Job, he vindicates him. He turns to Job’s accusers and says, “My anger burns against you and against your two friends, for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has” (42:7). He is so outraged with them that he won’t even accept an apology unless it is done by Job on their behalf. Job is furthermore given more children and riches to replace his losses and dies in peace at a ripe old age of 141. Not because he “deserved” it (which a cursory reading would suggest), but because the Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away.
As I said before, this book is an odd book to say the least. Which is an odd trait for a religious text. I think what people like about this book is that it doesn’t pull punches and shows religion to be capable in tackling honest hardships rather than comforting or convenient truths. However, when asked about theodicy, questions on how a God can be could but allow such terrible things to happen, most answers are like the Isle de Muerta from Pirates of the Caribbean: an island that cannot be found except for those who already know where it is. Their answers cannot be persuasive except for those who are already persuaded.
One answer is that God causes suffering because it builds character. An argument made by Elihu which isn’t refuted since God arrives before Job can retort. God, significantly, does not condemn Elihu when condemning Job’s friends which is probably because Elihu was a character added as an after- thought or, most likely, by a later author. But this response is not so much an answer as it is a small barrier to getting to the same problem. When someone still asserts the Confederacy’s goal in the American Civil War was not to maintain slavery but for “States’ Rights,” the response is: states’ rights to do what? The answer is obvious. Likewise, the response here is: build character to do what? In which case the answer is also obvious: to endure and confront the suffering of the world. Some can argue that such suffering leads to meaning and the ability to pursue new heights, and that’s true in some cases (and only some cases). The fact still remains that we are fundamentally dealing with a world that cannot be navigated except in orienting oneself toward an understanding of immensely unjust evil and suffering. Furthermore, it is simply in bad taste to make this argument in the face of many catastrophes. Would you tell someone who has suffered the unimaginable tragedy of losing their child that their loss is a test from God for better character? Elihu is inconsiderate, even cruel, for making this argument to Job who has lost all ten of his children. I imagine God only spared him his wrath due to his young age.
A more tempting interpretation is that God is asserting his authority to Job. It’s simply not for Job, and by extension anyone else, to determine how good and righteous God is given his puny human-brain to understand the nature of the universe. Job is, after all, put in the awkward situation of arguing with God (Job 40:2). But the fact the universe is fundamentally inexplicable is not a radical idea and is embraced by many forms of secular reasoning whether through physics, psychoanalysis, existentialism, Kantianism, postmodernism, you name it. The natural conclusion that we are therefore incapable of differentiating or inquiring about the difference between right and wrong (and therefore the moral integrity of an all-powerful God) is deeply problematic. There’s a quote misattributed to Dostoevsky that says, “without God, all things are permitted.” Except hasn’t the 21st century shown that the exact opposite is equally, if not more, true? Through God, all things are permitted. Anyone reading this passage can think of an audaciously immoral act justified by an unquestioning belief in God; from terrorist bombings to the Catholic Church protecting pedophiles from outside scrutiny.
Counterintuitively, it is the atheist who usually has a more rigorous standard of morality than their counterparts in the theist (even if not necessarily a richer understanding or appreciating of ethics). What people often fail to understand is it is not a strict declaration of what is good, but the problem of evil that inspires inquiry and rigor in what is good. “The fact that the world contains neither justice nor meaning threatens our ability both to act in the world and to understand it. The demand that the world be intelligible is a demand of practical and of theoretical reason, the ground of thought that philosophy is called to provide” (7) writes Susan Neiman in Evil in Modern Thought: An Alternative History to Modern Philosophy. And no one understands themselves more nakedly exposed to the evils of the universe than the atheist without the protection of a powerful God. In “Critique of Judgement,” Kant writes, “as concerns the other righteous people, [the righteous atheist] meets: no matter how worthy of happiness they may be, nature, which pays no attention to that, will still subject them to all the evils of deprivation, disease, and untimely death, just like all the other animals on the earth (Kant, 342).” Nature has no concern for justice, it is therefore up to us. Nietzsche went even further in explaining how his pronounced Death of God would not necessarily lead to nihilism or loss of moral fiber, but a huddling of the masses as we come together to ease life’s burden against the dark tomb of the universe (which could unfortunately culminate in the Last Man). There’s no backup, and there’s no buffer to evil, so we’d better make this work. It was Lacan who quipped, “If there is no God, then everything is prohibited.”
It is not an accident that as society has become more secularized over the last few centuries, it has become more moral. Questions over censorship have changed from blasphemous portrayals of God or priests to humanist concerns (spreading racist ideologies or misogyny for instance). Torture, which once commonly took place in the open, is now done secretly in the United States and to a much smaller extent than what was described by Foucault in Discipline and Punish. People might look at more pornography, but sexual assault and rape are taken more seriously than ever (though there’s still a long way before justice). There’s more violence on TV, but people were less likely to die early in the 20th century than any century before despite the unspeakable atrocities of Fascism, Stalinism, and Western Imperialism. I also don’t think it’s an accident that the United States, with one of the most famously religious populations of the industrialized societies is also one of the only countries of its status with no universal healthcare coverage, the death sentence (even though we know now it doesn’t reduce crime), and one of the highest incarceration rates in the world (holding 5% of the world’s population and 24% of its prisoners). To state the obvious, this is not to suggest innate moral superiority of atheism (atheist Stalin was a real person) or that people can’t be made morally upright by theism, I’m simply describing a trend. This is also not to suggest society has progressed in a linear fashion (I think Stephen Pinker does a disservice by treating modern problems so flippantly in light of past hardships), but to point out that moral conscientiousness and action often comes more from the anxiety and perplexity available in the atheist worldview rather than certainty and demands of obedience to a higher power. This notion was compellingly explored in the cinema Old West masterpiece, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.
In the film, three gunslingers are on a quest to obtain a secret stash of Confederacy gold in the backdrop of the American Civil War. Tuco Ramirez, “the Ugly”, is a Mexican bandit. Angel Eyes, “the Bad”, is a duplicitous bounty hunter, casual murderer, and serial torturer. Blondie, “The Man with No Name” or “the Good”, is also a bounty hunter like Angel Eyes. He begins the film not much better than Tuco, teaming up with Tuco to swindle communities out of their reward money. In fact, he’s even worse than Tuco, breaking his partnership with him and stranding him in the middle of the desert to possibly die at the beginning of the film. It’s in witnessing the cruelty of Angel Eyes and the atrocities of the Civil War that change him into becoming “the Good”; “I've never seen so many men wasted so badly” he laments to Tuco as Union and Confederate soldiers are gunned down in mass number. Blondie’s first acts of truly selfless altruism are directed at a dying soldier whom he offers his coat and a cigar. By the end of the film, he has found a way to secure justice for all parties (not just his own self-interest) and even tries to spare Angel Eye’s life.
Blondie does not obtain the John Wayne White Hat status. The director, Sergio Leone, was clear that the film was a satire on the simplified notions of good and evil in the traditional cowboy film and their portrayal of American history. Rather, Blondie is able to orient himself toward what is “Good” in a lawless universe by orienting himself in the context of evil. That is, Blondie is motivated to do good and able to recognize ways to do so by recognizing evil. This did not require some transcendent understanding of good. Significantly, while both “Blondie” and “Angel Eyes” are ever known only by their nicknames, it is “the Good” who is “The Man with No Name.”
In short, our ability to be morally conscientious does not allow God to be beyond refute. Judaism, the foundation of Christianity, has far too rich a tradition of theological thought and rigor to take such a degrading position to both God and humanity. Mark Larrimore, author of The Book of Job: A Biography, suggests the Book of Job has a stronger influence on Christian rather than Jewish circles largely because it is less taboo to ask the difficult questions about God in Judaism.
When perplexed by Job, many commentators become baffled and avoid the questions entirely. They suddenly jump to other scriptures to draw conclusions not validated by Job. Some interpretations will jump to other books (popularly Romans and Exodus) to answer Job’s question as though it were the intended answer of the text (ironically not realizing that their given solution is usually already debunked in Job). While scriptural texts are undoubtedly interrelated on an intimate level, each book also needs to be able to stand for itself independently. The problem with drawing connections on such a perfunctory level is you can use that method to draw whatever conclusion you want by referring to chapter and verse out of context. Much like data and prisoners of war, scriptures will tell you whatever they think you want to hear if you torture them enough.
I could go on and on with examples, but really, I’m being unfair. Carol A. Newsom, author of The Book of Job: A Contest of Moral Imaginations, says the book isn’t supposed to be a monologic story with any one given solution. The Book of Job was written collaboratively over a very long time period (like many books of the bible) in order to explore the nature of evil in this world knowing that the reasoning of any one contributor would be insufficient. Not out of some “relativistic” notion, to use the term inaccurately, that life and evil are just what you make of it, but out of a deep sense of humility that this problem is simply too ambiguous and complex for any one of them. Thus, Job is not inevitably sacrilegious if one is willing to read religion not as a funnel to uniformity of belief, but an avenue for exploration.
Jung CG, Shamdasani S. Answer to Job. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press; 2011.
Kant I, Pluhar WS. Critique of Judgment. Indianapolis, Ind: Hackett; 2010.
Neiman S. Evil in Modern Thought: an Alternative History of Philosophy. Princeton: Princeton University Press; 2015.