The Book of Job: A Guide in Suffering (Part 1)
It was my junior year of college and I was sitting in my Western Civilization Class at the University of Kansas. While I’d already taken Western Civ. at a community college, the credit had only been accepted as an elective, so there I was taking Western Civ. for a second time. Admittedly the K.U. rendition was markedly better, despite being taught by a graduate student who was—let’s face it—probably the epitome of what I would have been in his place, reserved, a little disheveled, and somewhat geeky.
The primary attribute that made the K.U. class superior was the amount of time we spent reading primary sources like The Epic of Gilgamesh and The Aeneid. There was still the same anti-Christian attitude that I expected when I chose to attend the University; in this class it partially manifested in the way that the course selected one of the more amenable and lucid chapters in the Koran while selecting the book of Job from the Bible for analysis.
I still remember my instructor discussing the story of Job and in essence saying, “The God in this story is no different than the gods in the Epic of Gilgamesh. He is a bully who toys with the lives of men.”
From that moment on, I found myself drawn to the story of Job, determined to understand it—to the extent that the book remains one of my favorites to this day.
What follows includes a number of my thoughts that have helped me to decipher this story and some of the lessons I have learned from it. I will acknowledge up front that I am not a biblical scholar in the traditional sense, nor do I speak or read Hebrew. I am, however, a passionate student of history and a lover of literature. Consequently, I lean hard on literary methods. The beauty of the Bible and how the Holy Spirit works is that God delights in teaching us using the tools we have.
Here’s the short version of the plot:
Job is a righteous man, fearing God and shunning evil. He is blessed with great wealth, the affluence that wealth brings (he’s the greatest man among the eastern people), and a large family with seven sons and three daughters. Job is so righteous that he offers daily sacrifices for the potential, hidden sins of his children.
In heaven, the angels appear before God, including the fallen angel Lucifer, or Satan, who has to give an account of his actions. What has he been up to?
“Roaming the earth,” Satan says.
“Have you considered my servant Job?” God asks, which starts a debate where Satan claims Job’s righteousness is the result of God’s blessing.
“Take away Job’s possessions and he will curse you,” Satan challenges.
God answers, “Very well, but don’t lay a finger on him.”
One day a messengers arrives with the news that a Sabean raiding party captured Job’s oxen and donkeys, killing the servants who were tending to them. A second messenger says fire fell from heaven consuming Job’s sheep and servants. A third messenger bears news that a Chaldean raiding party captured the camels and killed the servants. Then a fourth messenger announces that a mighty wind collapsed the house Job’s children were feasting in, killing them.
Let me pause here. It’s easy to rush through Job’s losses, and we shouldn’t. We have to stop and dwell and ponder. Personally, I have an easier time accepting the loss of Job’s belongings and servants as part of living in an older, more violent time. However, the loss of Job’s children cuts me because I’m the parent of four little children.
It’s important not to assume that Job’s children were all adults either. The eldest had a house, yes. Still Job will later have more children, which implies his youngest children to die would have been young children, perhaps even babies. As readers, we should feel this loss above any other. It is devastating.
In response, Job tears his clothes, shaves his head, and falls to the ground in worship saying,
“Naked I came from my mother’s womb,
and naked I will depart.
The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away;
may the name of the Lord be praised.” (1:21)
The angels again appear before the Lord, Satan along with them.
“Where have you been?” God asks.
“Roaming the earth.”
“Have you considered my servant Job?” God asks. “He is still blameless and upright, though you incited me against him.”
“Take his health, and he will curse you,” Satan argues.
“Very well,” God answers, “but spare his life.”
So Satan afflicts Job with painful boils, from head to foot. Job sits in ashes and scrapes himself with pieces of broken pottery. His wife says, “Give up on your integrity. Curse God and die.”
Yet Job answers, “‘You are talking like a foolish woman. Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?’” (2:10).
At this point, three of Job’s friends arrive. They sit with him in silence for a week. Then Job opens his mouth and curses the day of his birth, which starts a philosophical debate between Job and his friends that spans the next thirty-five chapters. The debate largely revolves around Job saying that he’s innocent and God has wronged him, while his friends insist that Job must have done something.
Like most debates this one gets messy. Three of Job’s friends insists that Job did something wrong, while Job staunchly defends his innocence.
Finally, the fourth and youngest friend, Elihu, speaks up. He chastises the other friends but also holds Job accountable, defending God. At the end of Elihu’s speech, God finally interjects and speaks for four chapters.
Job answers, “You’re right. I don’t know what I’m talking about.”
Afterward, God rebukes Jobs three friends. Then we get a couple paragraphs detailing how God blesses the later part of Job’s life more than the first. He has seven more sons and three more daughters, sees his descendants to the fourth generation, and has twice the financial assets.
(For more from Luke, check out postjadedmk.com.)