God, Job, and the cost of unexamined theodicy.

by K.W. Leslie, 15 February

Job 1–2.10, 42.10-17

Since we’re gonna talk theodicy, it’d be all kinds of stupid to not begin with Job. Worse, to ignore it… as so often happens.

The entire book, and entire point of the book, is why bad things happen to good people. The problem? Your average person only reads the beginning and ending, and skips all the discussion in the middle. And the middle is the meat of the book.

I intend to bring up Job a lot in the theodicy articles, so brace yourself. I’m gonna dig into it a bit.

Job is part of the ketuvím/“Writings,” the third section of the Old Testament, collected round the 400s BC. Job was written at some point in the 500s, as we can easily deduce from the Late Biblical Hebrew vocabulary (with lots of Aramaic loanwords) and historical context.

The book’s about iyóv/“Job” of Utz, a land located in Edom. Lm 4.21 Job’s friend Eliphaz of Teman Jb 2.1 had a really obvious Edomite name: The same name as Edom/Esau’s oldest son, 1Ch 1.36 and his city had the same name as Eliphaz ben Esau’s oldest son. 1Ch 1.36

Job was a famous guy in Ezekiel’s time, Ek 14.14, 20 so he must’ve existed before, if not around, the early 500s BC, when Ezekiel was written. Clearly Job was known for his morality, so the author of Job borrowed Job’s story to begin the discussion about theodicy: Here’s a moral man, who nonetheless lost all his kids and property. So what does that say about morality, God, the way God governs the universe, and evil?

Your average Christian hasn’t read Job. Well, they read the beginning two chapters, where Job lost all his stuff; and they read the last chapter, wherein God gives him 10 more kids and all his stuff back, and let him live a really long time. Jb 42.10-17 In skipping the middle part, we also mistakenly skip all the discussions between Job and his friends about theodicy… and figure we needn’t bother, ’cause Job was right and they were wrong, like the LORD said. Jb 42.7 Besides we already know why Job was suffering: The first two chapters were a great big spoiler!

In so doing we also miss the point: What Job’s friends said is exactly what people still say about theodicy. Same bad advice. Same platitudes. Same cold comfort. Read Job, and you’ll quickly begin to notice how many other Christians have never read Job.

(I should also point out: In the churches I grew up in, a number of ’em assumed Job is the oldest book in the bible… because they were young-earth creationists. Because Job lived so tremendously long, and because Job refers to creatures with names we can’t translate precisely—like vehemót/“ox” (KJV “behemoth” Jb 40.15), liweyatán/“crocodile” (KJV “leviathan” Jb 41.1), or reym/“antelope” (KJV “unicorn” Jb 39.9) —various YEC enthusiasts have embraced the idea these creatures are dinosaurs, and that Job took place shortly after Noah’s flood, back when humans were still long-lived. Ge 11.10-32 Edomites notwithstanding.)

Worst week ever.

First thing the book does is introduce Job.

Job 1.1-5 KWL
1 In the land of Utz was a man named Job.
He was moral and righteous, feared God, shunned evil.
2 Seven sons and three daughters were born to him.
3 He possessed seven flocks of sheep, three herds of camels,
500 pairs of oxen, 500 donkeys, and very many slaves.
He was the greatest man of all the sons of antiquity.
4 His seven sons went out and each of them held a feast, one man per weekday.
They invited their three sisters to eat and drink with them.
5 During the feast days, Job sent them out to be sanctified:
He rose early in the morning and offered entire burnt offerings for all 10 of them,
for Job said, “In case my children sinned, and offended God in their hearts.”
Job did such things all the time.

The LORD was far from unknown in Edom; they were descendants of Abraham too, y’know. But like Israel, like our popular culture, there were varying degrees of how much people really knew about God. Job apparently knew enough to shun evil, and cared enough to preemptively burn offerings for his kids in case they sinned during their feasts.

And Job was crazy-rich, which people back then had a bad habit of automatically associating with God’s favor: If he loves you, he’ll give you whatever you want, right? People still embrace this belief about God, too. It’s why they try to juggle the worship of God and Mammon, despite Jesus’s warning. Mt 6.24, Lk 16.13

The next bit of the book kinda generates way more questions than it ever ultimately answers. But here it is anyway.

Job 1.6-12 KWL
6 The day came when God’s children came to stand before the LORD,
and Satan also came among them.
7 The LORD told Satan, “Where’d you come from?”
Satan told the LORD in reply, “Here and there. Walking the earth.”
8 The LORD told Satan, “Have you taken any thought to my slave Job?
For there’s no one like him on earth: Moral, righteous, fears God, shuns evil.”
9 Satan told the LORD in reply, “Job fears God for no reason.
10 Don’t you wall around him, his house, all he has, round about?
You bless his handiwork, and his possessions fill the land. 11 Now please:
Stretch out your hand and touch all he has. He won’t publicly bless you then.”
12 The LORD told Satan, “Look, everything he has is in your hand.
But don’t stretch out your hand upon him.”
Satan went forth from the LORD’s face.

According to Christian myth, Satan got tossed out of heaven before the serpent ever tempted Eve. Ge 3 Hence Christians wonder how Satan could possibly, ever, stand before the LORD to accuse Job. Didn’t it get banned from heaven millennia before? Oh… and “God’s children”? (Hebrew benéy ha-Elohím, KJV “sons of God.”) God only has the one Son. Jn 1.18 What the heck?

This is all easily sorted out, y’know.

First “God’s children.” Historically people have figured the benéy ha-Elohím are heavenly beings (NLT, NRSV) or angels (NIV, Message). Me, I don’t necessarily. You know how we’re God’s children? Jn 1.12-13 In Hebrew mythology, after people died they immediately stood before God their judge, in kind of a courtroom, where they’d be assigned to either paradise (the good afterlife) or ge-Henna (the bad). And the prosecutor in this courtroom, your accuser… would be the devil. The word we use for its proper name, šatán/“accuser,” is really its job description. Whenever God’s followers stood before the Almighty, Satan would stand at their right hand Ps 109.6, Zc 3.1 to play “devil’s advocate” and make the case they didn’t really merit paradise. Ju 9 In the Hebrew myths, God regularly let ’em into paradise anyway, or had preemptively taken their side already. Zc 3.2 Really frosted Satan.

Ditch the Christian myth. According to Revelation, Satan didn’t get tossed from heaven till after Jesus was born. Rv 12 Before that point, Satan’s role was to accuse people of sin, of failure, of not meeting God’s standards—of using our sin as an excuse to get us ruined, destroyed, or damned. Exactly like it did in the Job story. Once Jesus came to earth to defeat sin and death, and pay our fines regardless, 1Jn 2.1 Satan realized its purpose was moot. So it pitched a royal fit, went rogue, and has only been trying to ruin us since.

In Job’s day, the devil was still doing its original job. God’s children were getting judged; Satan was there to get ’em condemned. The subject of Job of Utz came up, and Satan objected. The LORD figured Job was outstanding? He wasn’t all that, Satan insisted: The LORD had sovereignly prearranged his life so he’d be happy and prosperous and couldn’t behave any other way. He was a product of his environment, and God had rigged the environment.

Fine, said the LORD; the hedge of protection is down. Take away his environment, and we’ll see whether you’re right.

Hence Job’s profoundly awful day.

Job 1.13-22 KWL
13 On the day Job’s sons and daughters ate and drank wine in the firstborn brother’s house,
14 a herald came to Job and said,
“The oxen were plowing, the donkeys grazing on either side, 15 and the Sabeans invaded.
They took them. They killed the herdsmen with the sword’s edge.
I alone escaped to tell you.”
16 As this one still spoke, another came and said, “God’s fire fell from the sky!
It burned up the flock and consumed the herdsmen.
I alone escaped to tell you.”
17 As the second one still spoke, another came and said, “Babylonians! They made three groups!
They raided the camels, and took them. They killed the herdsmen with the sword’s edge.
I alone escaped to tell you.”
18 As the third one still spoke, another came and said, “Your sons and daughters
were eating and drinking wine in the firstborn brother’s house
19 and look, a great wind came across the fields, touched the four corners of the house,
and it fell on the youths and they died.
I alone escaped to tell you.”
20 Job rose, tore his robe, shaved his head, fell to the ground, and worshiped.
21 Job said, “I came naked from my mother’s belly. I’ll return that way just as naked.
The LORD gives; the LORD takes. But the LORD’s name is blessed.”
22 Despite all this, Job didn’t sin, and didn’t accuse God.

Apparently the LORD’s sovereign arrangement wasn’t the reason Job was a moral, righteous person. Job remained moral and righteous regardless. His worship wasn’t conditional; it wasn’t predicated on whether God granted him whatever he wished. It wasn’t mercenary.

Satan demanded another go at him:

Job 2.1-10 KWL
1 The day came when God’s children came to stand before the LORD,
and Satan also came among them to stand before the LORD.
2 The LORD told Satan, “Where’d you come from?”
Satan told the LORD in reply, “Here and there. Walking the earth.”
3 The LORD told Satan, “Have you taken any thought to my slave Job?
For there’s no one like him on earth: Moral, righteous, fears God, shuns evil.
And he stays consistent, even though you incite me against him,
to destroy him for no reason.”
4 Satan told the LORD in reply, “That’s skin-deep. A man gives all he has for his life. 5 Now please:
Stretch out your hand and touch his flesh and bone. He won’t publicly bless you then.”
6 The LORD told Satan, “Look, he’s in your hand. But keep him alive.”
7 Satan went forth from the LORD’s face.
It struck Job with evil boils, from the sole of his foot to his scalp.
8 Job got himself a pottery shard to scratch himself with.
He sat in the middle of the garbage fire ashes.
9 Job’s woman told him, “You still stay consistent? Bless God—and die!”
10 Job told her, “You speak like one of the fools would.
We always accept good from God; can’t we accept evil?”
In all this he said, Job didn’t sin.

Just in case Job’s love and worship was purely superficial—he could handle God taking away all his possessions and kids, but please don’t strike him down—Satan wanted to take Job’s health too, and gave him a nasty case of chickenpox, or whatever all those boils were.

The LORD was right: Job was still moral and righteous. Hugely annoyed at God—he wanted to know why him, dammit!—but faithful. Despite losing his kids, his stuff, and having to listen to three useless friends give him all the usual platitudes we give people when they’re suffering.

The happy ending.

Christians tend to jump to the back of the book for the happy ending, and today so will I.

The LORD never did explain to Job why he suffered. We have the first two chapters, so we know the backstory, but nobody ever clued Job in. In fact, much of the point of Job’s last five chapters is God doesn’t have to explain himself. Job’s duty was to trust God regardless of apparent circumstances.

Which he did:

Job 19.25-27 KWL
25 “I myself know my savior lives.
On the Last Day he’ll stand on the dust, 26 after this skin is flayed off of my flesh.
I will see God. 27 Whom I will see. By me. My eyes will see.
Not some stranger, though my kidneys are failing.”

Yeah, that “kidneys are failing” bit is weird, but that was an idiom back then for how emotional Job was about it. He expected to see God someday. Wasn’t a question in his mind. That’s how strong his faith was. That’s the strength God was counting on.

But sad to say, we skip even this bit of testimony on Job’s part. Sometimes “I know that my redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand on the earth” Jb 19.25 NIV comes up in worship songs… but the average Christian has no idea where the phrase comes from, and assume it’s from the New Testament, ’cause it sounds so very much like Jesus.

Nah; we just bounce to the happy ending.

Job 42.10-17 KWL
10 As he prayed for his friends, the LORD reversed what’d been driven away from Job.
The LORD added double to everything Job owned.
11 All Job’s brothers and sisters came to him, and all who knew his face.
They ate bread with him in his house. They mourned with him.
They sympathized with him over all the evil the LORD brought on him.
Each man gave him one silver coin and and one gold earring.
12 The LORD blessed Job’s end more than his beginning.
He possessed 14 flocks of sheep, six herds of camels,
1,000 pairs of oxen, and 1,000 donkeys.
13 Seven sons and three daughters were born to Job.
14 Job gave one daughter the name Imimá/“pigeon.”
The second, the name Qechihá/“cassia.”
The third, the name Qerén-Hapúkh/“antimony horn.”
15 In all the land, one couldn’t find women as beautiful as Job’s daughters.
Their father gave them inheritances, same as their brothers.
16 After this, Job lived 140 years. He saw children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
17 Job died old, with abundant days.

He used to have seven flocks of sheep; now he had 14. He used to have three herds of camels; now six. Five hundred teams of oxen, 500 donkeys; now 1,000 of each. Ten kids… well, now 10 more kids, and some Christians like to point out this signifies his 10 previous kids may be dead but not entirely lost. Whereas his previous animals? Gone.

But in leaping to the end, Christians leap to the conclusion, “Yeah, sometimes life sucks. But Job was a good man, and so God gave him all his stuff back. Twice his stuff back! So when I’m going through a rough patch, that’s all I have to do as well. In the end, God’ll give back twice what he takes away. Twice! No wonder he’s giving me a mansion when I get to heaven!” Jn 14.2 KJV

If you’re a materialist, this spin on Job is really gonna work for you. If you’re big on karma, it means hold tight: In time you’ll get your great big karmic reward.

Was that the point of Job? Not even close. This was just Job’s author filling us in on the rest of what was known about Job of Utz: Twice his stuff back, 10 more kids, and smokin’-hot daughters he named after a bird, perfume, and a horn full of eyeshadow. Skipping the middle reduces Job to a story just as cute and superficial as the names Job gave his daughters.

No wonder we Christians are ill-equipped to counsel, much less go through, difficult times.