Why Atheists Should Read – And Love – the Book of Job

The god Job discovers in the tempest – a deity of sheer power, amoral on a good day, but certainly capable of behaving immorally too – is one with whom we are obligated to sever relations. He is not merely “irrelevant,” as some interpreters would have it:1 he is a potential enemy of human flourishing before whom we might cower in fear and shrewdly play the sycophant, but whom we cannot trust. As Eliphaz feared, if Job’s accusations of divine malfeasance were shown to be true, then surely we would be “doing away with the fear of God” altogether (15:4). Religion in its positive aspect would be at an end, supplanted by bare appeasement, and by the enduring hope that Israel’s capricious sky god doesn’t get bored with matters in heaven and look our direction.

By James A. Metzger
East Carolina University
Greenville, NC, USA
October 2013

In many Jewish and Christian communities, Job is still held up as a model of patient endurance in the midst of unimaginable personal loss and unrelenting physical pain. It is said that although nearly everything Job valued had been taken from him – his children, health, reputation, and wealth – he never wavered in his fidelity to God. Indeed, in the immediate aftermath of his losses, the narrator informs us that he neither “charged God with wrongdoing” nor “sinned with his lips” (1:22; 2:10). And when confronted by God at the end of the drama in the midst of a terrible storm, Job appears to accept God’s reply to his grievances humbly, and even to repent of having mistakenly believed that God had become his enemy (42:1-6). Because Job remained loyal, God therefore chose to reward him with twice as much as he had before, so that his latter days were even better than his former (42:10-12). With his body fully restored to health, a rehabilitated reputation, and “ten new children to replace those who were lost,” it is often assumed that Job lived “happily ever after,”2 until, at the ripe old age of one-hundred forty, God’s devoted servant was finally laid to rest with his ancestors. And the moral of the story? When misfortune strikes, remain faithful to God, and he will remain faithful to you. Persevere through adversity, and be comforted in the knowledge that God will not give you more than you can handle. Indeed, for those like Job who do not waver in their loyalty to God, the outcome of any of life’s trials must have a happy ending.

If such a reading were at all true to the book, we might safely say that it’s not even worth the paper that it’s written on, tear it from our Bibles, and send it through the shredder. For, life in this world teaches us that patient endurance amid suffering often is not rewarded, the cries of people in pain frequently go unheard, and fidelity to God is just as likely to result in unhappiness as it is in happiness. What the book really – and brilliantly – does is upend traditional theistic commitments to divine benevolence, a universal moral order, and the meaningfulness of suffering. In fact, we might go so far to say that for any who resonate with the portrait of God offered by the book’s reliable narrator, by Yahweh’s two speeches from the whirlwind, and by Job himself – the only human character said to have spoken “what is right” about God (42:7-8) – voluntary relations with this deity are at an end. Put differently, for readers persuaded by the book’s characterization of God, religion is no more.

The basic contours of the plot are familiar to many. A man whose piety is unmatched is unwittingly drawn into a petty wager between Israel’s high god, Yahweh, and a member of his heavenly retinue, identified not by personal name but by his chief function (ha’satan). The Adversary, as we’ll call him, does not believe that Job’s devotion is inspired purely by a fondness for his maker. “Strike all that Job has,” he says, “and he will curse you to your face” (1:11). The Adversary may tap into a nagging insecurity of God’s, for God accepts the challenge without hesitation. He grants the Adversary power over everything Job has, and the two then wait to see who’s right.

Job initially seems to prove God correct. After losing his children, livestock, and most of his servants, the man from Uz falls to the ground and “blesses the name of Yahweh” (1:20-21). At no point, adds the narrator, did Job ever “sin or charge God with wrongdoing” (1:22). But the Adversary is not satisfied. “Touch his bone and flesh,” he says, and surely “he will curse you to his face” (2:5). Once again, God finds that he is unable to resist to the challenge, so he withdraws the protective hedge around Job. Very soon, Job finds his whole body covered in loathsome sores and takes his place among the ashes, perhaps as a sign of mourning, but more likely to sooth the pain and itching caused by his open wounds.3 After “sitting shiva” with three of his friends, pious Job of the book’s prologue suddenly vanishes without a trace: the man once willing to accept both the good and the bad from the hand of God (2:10) begins to curse the day of his birth (3:3-19). In the ensuing exchange between Job and his friends, Job’s despair is soon displaced by anger, and he eventually accuses God not only of cruelly targeting an innocent man but also of refusing to fulfill his obligation as high god to safeguard justice on Earth.

Job’s three friends (as well as latecomer Elihu) all serve to prop up the traditional view that God is just and presides over a moral universe in which the righteous are rewarded and the wicked are punished. For them, there can be no such thing as unjust suffering. It is simply unthinkable that God would ever “cut off” the upright (4:7) or “pervert justice” (8:3; 34:12). And when suffering does arrive, it is often a sign of God’s “tough love,” an attempt to turn a sinner from his errant ways (5:17-18). Of course, the not-so-subtle implication throughout their speeches is that Job has in fact committed a serious moral offense, and that if only he would repent, God would immediately restore his fortune and health. At one point, Zophar even goes so far as to claim that God is exacting less of Job than he deserves (11:6), and Eliphaz, in an act of sheer desperation, groundlessly accuses Job of having stripped the naked of their clothing, withholding food and water from the poor, sending widows away empty-handed, and crushing “the arms of orphans” (22:6-11). Put concisely, their argument is that because God is just – a nonnegotiable premise for all of Job’s interlocutors – Job must have sinned, a view they authorize by appealing variously to divine revelation (4:12-21; 33:15-18), to the accumulated wisdom of Israel’s ancestors (8:8-10; 15:10, 18; 20:4-5), and to ordinary observation of human behavior and its consequences.

Job, meanwhile, maintains his innocence and reiterates his belief that God has unfairly singled him out for this ruthless assault on his family, honor, possessions, and body. The experience, he claims, has given him unique insight into the character of God, whom he too once believed was a guardian of justice committed to human well-being. But he now senses that Yahweh is not at all the kind of god Israel’s elders thought he was. Job deploys a number of vivid similes and metaphors to convey his conviction that God tortures him without cause: Shaddai, he says, hunts him like a lion, rushes at him like a warrior, marshals troops against him, sets him up as a target for archers, even “slashes open” his kidneys and “pours out [his] gall on the ground” (10:16; 16:12-14; 19:12; 30:18-21). But God, he believes, isn’t a menace only to him. Drawing upon his own personal experience with suffering and his observations of others’ (often ill-fated) lives, he concludes that God intentionally causes people pain, impedes judges from administering justice, and enables the wicked to prosper at the expense of society’s most vulnerable (e.g., 9:22-24; 21:7-34; 24:12, 21-25). What Job is suggesting is nothing less than a proclivity to cruelty – even to sadism – in the heart of God. God is not merely amoral or indifferent to human welfare: too often, claims Job, he proves to be an immoral power who deliberately wrecks innocent lives. But the reader may wonder: Is Job’s characterization of Yahweh correct? Or, has he mistakenly projected the divine malevolence he senses at work in his own life onto the world writ large? Given that God, says our reliable narrator, “swallowed [Job] for no reason” and brought “evil” upon a man whose piety and fidelity were unparalleled (2:3; 42:11), surely it is not inconceivable that God could intentionally ruin the lives of persons of inferior moral fiber. Moreover, God himself seems to confirm Job’s characterization of him in the book’s epilogue when he informs Eliphaz that only Job spoke “what is right about me” (42:7).

As the dialogue progresses, Job seems to acquire more and more confidence both in his blamelessness and in his emerging intuition of God as an immoral power. As a result, he eventually demands a hearing with God, where he hopes to defend himself against the charges manufactured by his “friends” and to receive an explanation for why he is suffering. And a hearing, in spite of Elihu’s claim that Shaddai can nowhere be found (37:23), is precisely what Job receives.

When longwinded Elihu finally wraps up his own defense of God’s justice, Yahweh appears suddenly to Job in the midst of a great storm and hurls a number of rhetorical questions at this desperately ill and grieving man to drive home the following – and rather obvious – point: Job is no god. “Where were you,” asks Yahweh, “when I laid the foundation of the earth,” “determined its measurements,” or “shut in the sea” (38:4-10)? Do you know the way to “the gates of death,” to “the storehouses of snow ... and hail,” or to “the place where light is distributed” (38:17, 22-24)? Of course he doesn’t. He is, rather, an ignorant, insignificant, and utterly powerless ’adam who knows virtually nothing about God’s world or about the true character of its creator. The intended effect of the endless barrage of rhetorical questions is to impress upon Job that someone of such humble stature has absolutely no right to challenge the all-powerful sovereign of the universe, who can do whatever he wants with what he has made. God is not bound to treat us the way Job or anyone else believes they ought to be treated. After all, because no creature has ever really given God anything – indeed, “everything beneath heaven is [his]” – he is under no obligation whatever to any of us (41:10-11).4 But the reader knows that Job has already correctly intuited this unsettling truth about the character of God: “Whatever he wants,” concludes Job long before God ever reveals himself, “that he does” (23:13).

Yahweh then draws Job’s attention to several wild animals – the lion, raven, wild ass, wild ox, ostrich, hawk, and eagle – all of which God has created and seems to have a special fondness for (38:39-39: 30). None, importantly, are subject or useful to human beings. The wild ass, in fact, is said to “scorn the tumult of the city” and “not listen to the driver’s shouts” (39:7), to show no regard whatsoever for the noise and constraints of human civilization. Another, the ostrich, is said to “deal cruelly with its own young, as if they were not its own” (39:16), a behavior that would be deemed morally repugnant in any civil society. A few nourish themselves only by slaughtering others of God’s creatures and devouring their flesh (38:39-40; 39:26-30). The horse is the one animal in the list that human beings have successfully domesticated, and it is admired by Yahweh not because of its usefulness, intelligence, or docility, but because of its “fierceness and rage,” its complete lack of fear, and its lust for doing battle (39:19-25). God created these animals, provides amply for all of them, and, what’s most unsettling, appears to delight in certain of their most unseemly attributes. The reader may wonder: Is God, too, inclined to “deal cruelly” with what he has made, to “scorn” human ways, to exhibit “fierceness and rage,” or to harbor a lust for violence?

As many commentators have noted, in God’s first speech from the whirlwind, human beings are nowhere in view. Yahweh’s panorama of creation focuses on animals that exult in their freedom and disdain human commands and customs. God leaves Job with a portrait of the natural world that is unruly and “red in tooth and claw,” hardly the harmonious and orderly universe that the Priestly Writer claimed was designed to serve human needs and submit to their decrees (Gen 1:26-31). Contrary to the relatively tame and nonthreatening cosmos of the creation narratives in Genesis, the world in the divine speeches, observes Kathryn Schifferdecker, was “created wild and dangerous from its inception, a world not centered around humanity, and indeed, not necessarily even hospitable to (or safe for) humanity” – a portrait, she concludes, that is “unique in the Hebrew Bible.”5 Surely, God’s first speech could hardly have proven consoling or even very helpful to the ill, despondent man sitting among the ashes.

But Yahweh’s far from done. He then turns Job’s gaze upon two fearsome beasts – Behemoth and Leviathan – that he himself takes extra pride in. Indeed, Behemoth, says Yahweh, was the very “first of God’s ways” (40:19), not the creation of Wisdom as in Proverbs (8:22), or ’adam as in the Yahwist’s creation myth (Gen 2:7). And what does Yahweh find most appealing about Behemoth? Its “confidence,” “strength,” “power,” and lack of fear, as well as its inability to be captured or subdued by any human being (40:16, 23-24). But Leviathan is more impressive. It too displays “mighty strength” and an “impressive frame,” striking fear not only in human beings but in the gods themselves (41:1, 12, 22, 25). Leviathan spews fire from its mouth, fears no creature, “scorns” human weapons, has “no equal,” and reigns as “king over all” (41:19-20, 29, 33-34). And its heart, says God, is as “hard as stone” (41:24). Although both beasts are modeled loosely on real animals – Behemoth on the hippopotamus, Leviathan on the crocodile – they appear to be mythical creatures that represent threatening, chaotic forces in the natural world, forces that are typically contained or even annihilated by other ancient Near Eastern deities to allow for the development of human civilization. Indeed, Yahweh himself is said to restrain or conquer such beasts elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible,6 but here he shows no interest in doing so. Rather, he appears to take great pride in having fashioned and provided for them, and even delights in their most terrifying qualities. Once again, what’s most unsettling is that Yahweh seems to identify closely with certain attributes of both creatures. Does Yahweh, too, relish inspiring terror, laugh at our feeble attempts to craft weapons for self-defense, and have a heart as “hard as stone”?

So, how does poor Job respond when finally given a chance to reply to this all this insensitive chest-thumping from a deity who seems to be sheer power and little else? Shall he now defend his innocence as he had planned, or ask Yahweh finally to address the question of why he is suffering so much? Naturally, Job withers before such might, and does whatever he can to bring this unwelcome and terrifying theophany to a quick end. “I uttered what I did not understand,” he says, and where before “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, ... now my eye sees you” (42:3, 5). What exactly Job sees (with only one eye open!), he doesn’t tell us. But it is his final statement that is the most vexing of all for translators and interpreters, a moment of undecidability par excellence: “Therefore I am filled with contempt, and I change my mind about dust and ashes” (42:6). What Job takes away from Yahweh’s pompous bluster all hangs on these few enigmatic words.

The first verb, ’emas (which may also be rendered “I reject” or “I despise”), has no object, so the reader is left to wonder: Toward what or whom, specifically, has the protagonist developed such viscerally negative feelings? Toward God, God’s world, himself, or even the unfortunate circumstances in which human beings find themselves? And what precisely does Job change his mind about?7 If he changes his mind on dust and ashes (as some translators wish to render the Hebrew preposition ‘al), the object of the change remains open, but if he changes his mind about dust and ashes, he seems to have altered his perspective on the human predicament, for elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible “dust and ashes” signifies our relative unimportance in the cosmic order and before the majesty of God (see Gen 18:27; Job 30:19).8

Based on what I see in Yahweh’s speeches from the whirlwind – and our own experience of God’s words is about all any of us has to go on, for Job is maddeningly unforthcoming – he feels contempt for a god who appears to care nothing for the plight of human beings, and who himself exhibits traits like those of the (wild) animals to which he drew Job’s attention, none of which are particularly amenable to human flourishing. Having had his prior intuitions about a dark side in the heart of God confirmed, he understandably changes his mind about our common lot: we are, it appears, entirely on our own, abandoned in a dangerous world where the chaotic forces symbolized by Behemoth and Leviathan threaten us at every turn, forced to carve out a little habitable space and implement justice ourselves. God seems to care nothing for justice as we envision it, so if we want the cause of society’s most vulnerable to be heard and those who exploit them to be held accountable for their actions, it’s up to us to make sure these objectives are met. God will be of little – if any – help. Indeed, as sheer power and caprice, he’s just as likely to turn on us (as he did on pious Job) as he is to assist us.

Of course, such a god cannot remain the object of religious devotion. This is a god from whom we would do well to keep our distance, but whose wrath we still might wisely placate on occasion, as Job was required to do to dissuade this irascible and unpredictable deity from “committing folly” with his three friends.9 Because only Job spoke “what is right” about Yahweh (42:7-8), it is his intercessory prayers alone that might prove efficacious in pacifying the divine ire. Job’s friends, on the other hand, “spoke falsely” by trying to construct a theodicy on God’s behalf (13:7). They were guilty of perpetuating a lie about the creator that has persisted through the ages: that God presides over a moral universe and actually cares about human well-being. The god Job discovers in the tempest – a deity of sheer power, amoral on a good day, but certainly capable of behaving immorally too – is one with whom we are obligated to sever relations. He is not merely “irrelevant,” as some interpreters would have it:10 he is a potential enemy of human flourishing before whom we might cower in fear and shrewdly play the sycophant, but whom we cannot trust. As Eliphaz feared, if Job’s accusations of divine malfeasance were shown to be true, then surely we would be “doing away with the fear of God” altogether (15:4). Religion in its positive aspect would be at an end, supplanted by bare appeasement, and by the enduring hope that Israel’s capricious sky god doesn’t get bored with matters in heaven and look our direction.

But in doubling Job’s possessions and granting him ten more children, has Yahweh atoned for “swallowing Job for no reason” (2:3), for having brought “evil” (42:11) upon the land’s most upright and devout man?11 Do we have reason, as Athalya Brenner suggests, to believe that Yahweh is coming to terms with his dark side and working diligently on a solution?12 If Job holds out such hope, he certainly doesn’t show it. The last religious act he performs is interceding for his well-intentioned friends, presumably to spare them the horror to which he himself has unjustifiably been subjected. Importantly, his affection is directed toward fellow human beings – toward “dust and ashes” – and not toward the immoral power who shouted him down in the midst of a violent storm. The narrator gives no indication that he performed any other religious obligations before he was laid to rest in the family tomb. And, as Jeremy Schipper and Philippe Guillaume observe, because there is no mention of Job being healed of his skin disease, it is conceivable that he remained chronically ill and in pain for the remainder of his life,13 hardly conditions under which we might imagine him enthusiastically offering up words of gratitude and adoration to God. Indeed, all we are told is that “Job died, old and full of days” (42:17), language reminiscent of Isaac’s and David’s end, neither of whom had a particularly happy denouement to their lives.14 Like Job, Isaac too was betrayed by Yahweh, designated to serve as just so much dispensable human flesh in a test of his father’s loyalty (Gen 22:1-19). Could Isaac have erased this early betrayal from memory? It is unlikely. At least Job was spared the knowledge of the cruel, petty wager between the skeptical Adversary and his spineless, imbecilic Boss, who had neither the insight nor the fortitude to put a stop to the affair before so many lives had needlessly been destroyed. If Job had known what truly transpired up above, surely he would have felt contempt for his creator and pity for “dust and ashes” far sooner. But Job still managed to intuit God’s character correctly anyhow without ever being told the truth, an intuition later confirmed by Yahweh’s uncaring rant from the whirlwind. Of course, because readers know even more about Yahweh than Job, we have even more reason for our own feelings of contempt and pity.

For any persuaded by the portrait of God in Job, religion, as Eliphaz rightly observed, is indeed at an end. We are morally obligated to sever ties with this god and chart a way forward without any divine assistance. It will be up to us to carve out a habitable space in this dangerous world and administer justice the best we know how. Although the book of Job does not announce that “there is no god,” it does suggest that the artificer of this world is at best indifferent to human well-being, yet also fully capable of thwarting it “for no reason.” Readers who resonate with Job may not expunge the notion of deity altogether from their models of reality, but they certainly would live as atheists. And for many such readers today, when affirming the existence of a sacred order is entirely optional (this generally was not the case when Job was written) or even incommensurate with the latest narratives emerging in the sciences, the thesis that the creator is a demon likely will cease to convince as well, for “[a] god so remote, so unfeeling, [and] so unjust,” observes John Curtis, “is worse than no god. ... Better no god than a god who does not care.”15


1 See, e.g., Curtis, “On Job’s Response to Yahweh,” 508.

2 Marvin Sweeney, Reading the Hebrew Bible After the Shoah: Engaging Holocaust Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008), 195.

3 See Carl Gross’s “Where was Job Sitting?” for a concise summary of the options (The Bible Translator 59.4 [2008]: 185-89).

4 I am following the MT here. See also James Crenshaw, Reading Job: A Literary and Theological Commentary (Macon: Smyth & Helwys, 2011), 155.

5 Out of the Whirlwind: Creation Theology in the Book of Job (Harvard Theological Studies 61; Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2008), 100.

6 Norman Whybray points out that in two of the three other references to Leviathan in the Hebrew Bible (Ps 74:14; Isa 27:1), God is said either to have killed or defeated it in battle. In the third reference (Ps 104:26), Leviathan is tamed or rendered “harmless” (Job [Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1998], 169).

7 The verb nikhamti may also be translated “I regret,” “I feel pity,” or “I am consoled.”

8 See John Curtis, “On Job’s Response to Yahweh,” JBL 98.4 (1979): 500-01.

9 The Hebrew idiom “committing folly” elsewhere describes outrageous and “morally reprehensible” acts such as rape (Gen 34:7; Judg 19:23; 20:6), theft (Josh 7:15), and adultery (Jer 29:23). See especially Elaine A. Phillips, “Speaking Truthfully: Job’s Friends and Job,” Bulletin for Biblical Research 18.1 (2008): 41-42; Philippe Guillaume, “Dismantling the Deconstruction of Job,” JBL 127.3 (2008): 498.

10 See, e.g., Curtis, “On Job’s Response to Yahweh,” 508.

11 See Exod 22:1-9.

12 “God’s Answer to Job,” Vetus Testamentum 31.2 (1981): esp. 134-37.

13 Schipper, “Healing and Silence in the Epilogue of Job,” Word and World 30.1 (2010): 16-22; Guillaume, “Dismantling the Deconstruction of Job,” 493.

14 See Lisa Davison’s fine commentary on the Book of Job in The New Interpreter’s Study Bible (Nashville: Abingdon, 2003), 746.

15 “On Job’s Response to Yahweh,” 510.

Comments (8)


There is, however, a theological trajectory which agrees with this interpretation of Job, and yet embraces it. For example, in Calvin's commentary on Job, he claims that although there is every indication of disorder and injustice on earth, at some higher, unknowable level, God remains just (136 [Job 35:1-7] 640.b.6). So Calvin implores his congregation to "come up higher" and affirm that "God is always righteous howsoever he handle men" (103 [Job 9:1-6] 151.b.49). In Barth's commentary on Job which appears within his Dogmatics, he summarises that God "disposes and rules quite simply in accordance with the infinite right of his infinite might in the face of which man can only maintain a horrified silence, or break out into violent protest, but concerning which he cannot speak with God since God will not allow this" (4.3.1, pp. 403-4). For Barth, the only possible relationship Job can have is "complete defenceless" before "the strange and terrifying form of a relentlessly aggressive adversary" (404). There are no words which can be used to engage God or which are "on the same level as" God (430).

So what seems like the most amoral injustice gets painted, theologically, as justice beyond our ability to imagine it.

To me, and I may lack theological sophistic-ation in saying it, this amounts to precisely the same conclusion as yours - albeit with a positive spin. The statements that seek to explain divine justice in other biblical books (in particular that God rewards righteousness or punishes wickedness) are fatally undermined in the book of Job. The claim that divine justice is based on God's own principles is made worthless by the book of Job's claim that its ultimate ground is divine arbitrariness and whim (i.e. what the theologians like to call, with their positive spin, "grace"). For in the end, God acts "for no reason at all" in Job.

It strikes me as peculiar that some people are not only unbothered by this lack of ethical principle, but valorise it.

#1 - Deane Galbraith - 10/09/2013 - 08:38


Thank you very much for the references. I especially like the one from Barth (and it does sound very much like the Barth I remember reading so much of long ago in the M.Div. program!). I seem to remember that Luther held a similar picture of God. For all three, in fact, there is this notion that no matter what God’s real character, we simply have no choice to but accept it and live our lives on his terms. If God’s character and plan for humanity are not to our personal tastes, that’s just too bad: God’s the creator and therefore reserves the right to do whatever he wishes with what he has made. One, of course, finds a similar idea in Rom 9-11, where Paul suggests that Yahweh may have made certain people for the sole purpose of being destroyed and others for communion with him (or “for glory,” as he puts it). This is Yahweh’s prerogative as creator, and we have no right to question his judgment - and we certainly, says Paul, can’t “resist his will.”

Thanks again. I just saw that you too have written a piece on Job (published in one of my favorite journals). I’m eager to take a look.


#2 - J. Metzger - 10/09/2013 - 19:30

What I find most appalling is the "poker game" between God and Satan over Job's life. The rest follows in course.

#3 - Edward Mills - 10/09/2013 - 19:57

It doesn't seem unreasonable for God to say to us 'You can't expect me to explain myself'; otherwise God is no more than a human personality with added power. Hobbes thought that this should be balanced against God's not expecting us to understand him, ie avoid heresy.

#4 - Martin - 10/15/2013 - 20:26

I would dispute your original "moral of the story." It ignores the dominant theme of mystery in the book. It finds precedent in Job's suffering for our own. Yet one thing is certainly clear—no-one is like Job.

I would also dispute your claim about the real function of the book, that what it does is "upend traditional theistic commitments to divine benevolence." This judgment presumes you have enough information to make such a judgment, but I think you're assuming you know more than you can (or than the author of Job allows you to know).

It's clear that Job never knows enough to make such a judgment about God—he never learns of the wager between God and the Satan in the prologue, and when God eventually speaks to him all Job hears are questions which highlight just how much about the universe he simply does not know (as he recognises—"I uttered what I did not understand…"). How then could he, who knows so little, possibly hope to make an accurate judgment of God's behaviour?

The theme of mystery and our ignorance is, of course, highlighted in the central poem (Job 28). And do we, as readers, have enough information to make any real judgment of God's character? It's tempting to think so, based on the rationale for Job's suffering presented in the prologue. However, there are numerous indications in the prologue and beyond that we're not being told the whole story. And that makes sense—if the book's major theme is the un-knowability of divine justifications for the events that take place in this world, the author would really be shooting himself in the foot if a full explanation was given to the readers! Instead there are, I think, good grounds for questioning this. The result is we then have a book that craftily pulls the reader into sharing the ignorance that is ultimately its primary message.

#5 - Martin Shields - 10/15/2013 - 21:24

Hi Martin,

I would agree that Job does have a relatively limited amount to work with when forming a judgment of Yahweh’s character and intentions. And he certainly knows less than we (readers) do. Nevertheless, he’s one of just a few in the HB to receive a single theophany in which God goes on and on and on for so many pages. It seems to me that he’s in a much better position than most draw inferences about his character. What I argue here is that the tone and content of Yahweh’s speeches from the whirlwind confirm for him intuitions about God already derived through personal experience and observation. So, yes, it’s not as if he’s forming a judgment based on numerous back-and-forth conversations with God over several years, but he does have quite a bit more to work with than most biblical characters. And, I really doubt Job is so dense that after all he hears from Yahweh in chapters 38-41, he’s left with nothing other than, “God sure is mysterious.” Surely he’s capable of more than that. Readers certainly are, and I’m going to assume our protagonist is too.

I’m curious about your intuition that there’s more to the story than we know. I’ve never gotten that sense while reading the prologue. What aspects about the narrative suggest that to you?


#6 - J. Metzger - 10/17/2013 - 22:20

Hi Jim,

I think there are a various considerations which mean that your understanding of Job's response in Job 42:6 is only one of several possible interpretations and, in the end, perhaps not the best one. It seems an awful lot of your reading hangs on this verse.

As to the notion that there's more to the story than is related in the prologue, I believe there are a number of aspects of the text which reflect this. The most obvious is Job's continued suffering after Job 2:10 when the wager with the Satan has been won. Job 2:10 mirrors 1:22 (in a narrative with a very clear and deliberately repetitive structure) and records the narrator's confirmation that Job had not behaved in the way the Satan had predicted. Yet what follows is not a third day when the Satan appears in the divine court. The Satan does not reappear at all throughout the remainder of the book, yet Job continues to suffer.

There's a fair bit more which commends this reading, but for all the details I would point you to my article "Malevolent or Mysterious? God's Character in the Prologue of Job," Tyndale Bulletin 61.2 (2010) 255–270.

#7 - Martin Shields - 10/18/2013 - 12:35

Thank you very much for the reference, Martin – a very interesting piece!

I had a chance to read your article last night, and I can certainly see your point about the wager having been brought to a satisfactory resolution in the prologue itself. But if this is true, for me it only frames Yahweh in an even more negative light. If Yahweh has already won the bet by the end of chapter 2 but refuses to restore Job to health until chapter 42, how can that possibly reflect well on his character? I suppose it’s possible that there is some other unrelated reason for Job’s continued suffering beyond the prologue, as you argue, but the text gives no clues as to what that might be. In the absence of such clues, most readers naturally will assume that the reason supplied in the prologue will carry over to the remainder of the book.

It seems to me that we differ most on how much may be gleaned from Yahweh’s speeches: I argue that divine insouciance and/or malfeasance is confirmed in the speeches, and you argue that they point almost exclusively to our inability to understand God’s ways. This is a point on which we’ll have to agree to disagree. But, if that’s all Yahweh intended to say to Job – “You can’t possibly understand why I do what I do” – he sure does waste a lot of Job’s time. He could simply have said, “You wouldn’t understand anyway, even if I explained it to you,” and left it at that (which, I think, would be a bit odd given God’s unsurpassed intelligence). Instead, he goes on and on about the cosmos, various (wild) creatures, and Behemoth and Leviathan for several pages. I think Yahweh manages to communicate quite a bit more, even if he does so unintentionally.

We offer two very different readings – a testament, I think, to the ambiguity/undecidability that inheres in this magnificent narrative.


#8 - J. Metzger - 10/20/2013 - 14:20

Article Comments

Submitted by Chris on Sat, 12/25/2021 - 16:59


I was a believer when I first started reading Job in a Bible study. This book is what started my unbelief, and now I'm atheist. What you fail to realize is that many people became atheists after reading and studying the Bible in depth. Can you imagine a serial killer coming to the home of parent with an adult child, making a bet exactly as God and Satan did, then you telling the serial killer "Go ahead and see what happens after you kill his family and destroy his business?" I'd kill him to save my son from all that agony

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