Reconciling a good God with a world that suffers is one of the theologian’s greatest challenges.
An often-held assumption concerning the book of Job is that it seeks to engage with and provide answer(s) to the problem of evil. Yet this assumption is highly questionable.
The book of Job has historically been associated with theodicy, which is a defense of the relationship between a ‘good’ and omnipotent God, and the presence of evil in the world. Indeed, providing an answer to the problem of evil has obvious pastoral and existential benefits. This is a fact that Job himself identifies in 16:1–5, in which he states that if the tables were turned, he too could make speeches and shake his head – but he would also encourage his suffering friends, ‘I could strengthen you with my mouth, and the solace of my lips would assuage your pain.’ (16:5). His friends (Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar) do precisely this – suggesting numerous theodicies to ease Job’s pain.
The deep skepticism towards human reason, most obviously espoused in Yahweh’s speeches, profoundly undermines the dialogue held between Job and his friends and the supposed ‘answers’ they might have arrived at. Within the chapters of dialogue, the lack of a normative voice or character makes the possibility of any clear message or answer to account for Job’s sufferings hugely difficult. On top of this, even the narrative given in the prologue, which gives a form of explanation for Job’s sufferings, seems to be contradicted by the end of the book itself!
To view the book of Job simply as theodicy is to get the wrong end of the stick (as his friends do). The examination of theodicy is the means by which the author of Job explores numerous other more foundational religious issues, such as theological epistemology, the relationship between Yahweh and man, as well as the appropriate view of Yahweh. The book uses Job’s experiences as a ‘peg on which to a series of discussions on theological themes.’ The theologian Wilcox says an interpretation of theodicy represent the ‘all-too-human effort to see the world in purely “moral” terms, or to imagine that the world and its God are under obligations analogous to the obligations human beings bear toward each other.’ The appearance of God (chapter 38–41) in itself resists the categorization of a normative answer to the question of theodicy. Rather Yahweh asserts his power and his freedom to do as he pleases – this certainly does not constitute a theodicy.
Does the combination of these two themes therefore lead necessarily to a view that the book of Job is ‘profoundly skeptical, agnostic; its message largely a counsel of silence’? The limitations of human reason and human wisdom are indeed key arguments that run throughout the course of the book of Job. Yahweh’s speeches fully demonstrate the limits of human wisdom via a series of unanswerable questions posed to Job, which simultaneously affirm Yahweh’s power and creative force. Humbled by this appearance of Yahweh, Job gives the only appropriate response ‘Behold, I am of small account; what shall I answer thee? I lay my hand on my mouth’ (40:4). Hence Yahweh seeks to assert that man is only one small component of creation. Yahweh’s appearance and speeches highlight the inability of man to know things outside of his own construct of reality. Essentially the appearance of Yahweh demonstrates that this God cannot be tamed – a frightening conclusion.
Thus Yahweh, by his nature resists categorization in a human theological or ethical framework. Job’s final response (42:1–6) shows a repentance for his attempts to rationalize his experiences and correspondingly to hold God accountable for them.
Yet despite the fact that Yahweh’s sheer ‘otherness’ is asserted throughout the book of Job, there is a supreme irony that he is, in fact, concerned with humanity. Yahweh has answered Job’s call, entered into his reality, vindicated him before his friends, restored his fortunes to twice the previous amount, and yet asserted the insignificance of humanity and his resistance to conform to humanity’s conceptions of morality and theology. These are held in complete tension in the book of Job, and therein can be found the message of the book.
I would argue that the message of Job is not a clear a specific message to counter or promulgate a particular model of theodicy nor it result in a position of total skepticism. Rather the book of Job resists any formal categorization and asserts a profoundly paradoxical position: that God is not shackled by any obligation to uphold the ‘Moral Order’ of the world, nor can God be held to account for his actions within his own creation. Put simply: created is unable to question Creator. And yet, ironically, Yahweh does freely uphold the ‘Moral Order’ – in Job’s case, by vindicating and restoring him. Yahweh is not bound to act justly, yet he chooses to do so. The book of Job thus seeks to promote an appropriate theology of God that places no obligations upon him yet encourages us to not be condemned in seeking God’s justice.