Mar3TueThe question at the heart of the Book of Job: Why do bad things happen to good people? March 3, 2020 by Carla Lindsey
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- Opinion & Critical Thought
We all need advice for getting through life, and the wisdom books in the Bible show that God is interested in all aspects of our lives. In the third of a four-part series, we look at the searing reality of suffering in the Book of Job.
Life wasn’t easy in the ancient world. It was often short and brutal. A famine might wipe out your people. Mysterious diseases might claim your children. Your village might be invaded, your possessions taken and you might even be taken into slavery. Forces beyond your control might inflict terrible anguish.
Suffering was part of life, and like the biblical writer Job (pronounced Jobe), extra-biblical writers also wanted to know why brutal, life-shortening things happened to good people. If there were divine forces controlling events (and they believed that there were), then why couldn’t they be a little more fair?
The Mesopotamian work Man and His God (c.1800-1500 BC) includes a prayer from someone who is suffering. He protests his innocence, believing he has done nothing to deserve what has happened to him, and God hears and restores him.
I Will Praise the Lord of Wisdom (c.1700 BC) is another work that has been called the “Babylonian Job.” In it, a prosperous man loses his position, fortune, friends and family. The man cries out to the god Marduk, blaming him for the disasters. Marduk then gives him back everything he lost. Now, if you already know something about Job, you are probably thinking there are some interesting similarities there!
Three Things You May Not Know About Job
There are three interesting things that are important for understanding Job:
1. Job might be the oldest book in the Bible. It is set very early, around the time of Abraham (2000-1800 BC). People were living in nomadic tribes, wealth was measured in the number of cattle or servants one had, and Job—like Abraham—made religious sacrifices for his family. There were no priests yet.
2. Job isn’t an Israelite book. We are told that the events are set in Uz, and while scholars don’t have a clue where that was, they do know it wasn’t in Israel. Job doesn’t mention the Israelites or Hebrews, the temple, the covenant, Canaan or the patriarchs or any other Israelite things that we would expect, but … the writer did know the Hebrew God.
This is unusual! After all, the Old Testament is the story of Israel. Yet in Job, our focus widens, and we are reminded that God was working outside of Israel, too. Somehow, in a pagan land where people worshipped many gods, Yahweh, the God of Israel, had reached down and connected with Job—and Job is counted as one of God’s loyal followers.
3. Job is mostly poetry. While it is framed with prose at the beginning and end, 40 chapters out of 42 are poetry. The 40 chapters of poetry are a debate. Most people don’t debate in poetry, but apparently Job and his friends did!
Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People?
The book begins with two prose chapters that tell us the story of Job. We get to eavesdrop on a conversation that takes place in Yahweh’s heavenly court. A heavenly creature called “the satan,” which means “the accuser,” approaches Yahweh and suggests that Job is only righteous because God had blessed him. He says that taking everything away from Job would reveal his true character. And so, Yahweh allows the satan to take everything from Job. In a series of disasters heaped one on top of the other, Job lost his children, his possessions and his health.
There are a lot of questions about this heavenly scene. Is this Satan himself who waltzes into God’s presence to have a chat? How could Satan be in the presence of a holy God? Is this the kind of relationship God and Satan have, where they look out at people and decide who to inflict suffering on, just to see what they’re made of? That doesn’t sit well with me!
But here’s the thing. The Book of Job isn’t really about the first two chapters. Their purpose is to provide the backdrop so that the debate can happen. By focusing on the unanswerable questions from chapters one and two, we can miss the point of Job. And his point is … a discussion of the character of God. If God is fair and just, how could he let terrible things happen to good people?
So, back to Job. By the end of chapter two, we find Job sitting in the rubbish dump, his clothes ripped, and covered in burning sores and ash. He’s in such a bad way that when his friends come along to comfort him, he is unrecognizable.
The friends initially just sit in silence with him. For days no one says anything. They can see Job’s suffering is just so dreadful. When Job begins to speak, he doesn’t hold back. He launches into a poem called the “Deathwish Poem,” in which he curses the day he was born. He is angry. He is questioning. He is filled with despair.
Job’s friends respond. They each develop their own argument in different ways, but essentially all say the same thing: that God is fair and just, so that means you get what you deserve. If you are good, you will get rewarded; if you sin, you will suffer. Therefore, if you are suffering, you must have sinned.
The friends’ intentions are good, but their theology is bad. It is simplistic, shallow and ultimately not at all helpful to Job.
Throughout all of the 36 chapters of debating back and forth, God is silent. But, finally, Job calls God to account. He feels God owes him an explanation!
Out of a storm God speaks to Job, and … he doesn’t even attempt to answer Job’s questions. Instead, he asks Job a series of probing questions, which take Job on a tour of the universe. He says to Job: Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? Have you ever given orders to the morning, or shown the dawn its place? Can you bring forth the constellations in their seasons? Do you send the lightning bolts on their way? Do you give the horse its strength? Does the eagle soar at your command? (see Job 38-39). Well, Job … do you do any of these things?
God is saying, “I created this entire universe. All of its beauty, design and rhythm was my idea. I put it there and I keep it there. Do you really think you could do better?” And with this, Job’s attitude changes.
A Mind-Blowing Encounter
Job never got his answers, but he no longer needed them. What he got instead was an enlarged picture of who God is. He saw just how big God is. He saw just how amazing God is to manage the entire universe. And it was mind-blowing.
Job never learned why he suffered, yet he found peace because he learned he could absolutely trust God.
The Book of Job is about making assumptions about how God works. For example, “If you sin, you will suffer.”
But God is not bound by our expectations or concepts of him. God does not have to conform to our guidelines. “Nothing is more frustrating and restricting than to set up rules for God and then wonder why he doesn’t follow them!” say LaSor, Hubbard and Bush in their book Old Testament Survey: The Message, Form, and Background of the Old Testament.
God can be working in places we might not expect. God can choose to be silent. God can allow suffering and we may never know the reason why. God can even debate in poetry!
For millennia, people have wanted to know why bad things happen to good people. In Man and His God and I Will Praise the Lord of Wisdom there are hints that the sufferer had, in fact, sinned and therefore deserved it. But that is not the biblical conclusion. In fact, there is not a clear-cut biblical conclusion. Job had to live with the mystery, and so do we—but we can do that with peace, knowing that God is so much bigger than we can ever imagine.
Reprinted with permission from War Cry (The Salvation Army New Zealand, Fiji, Tonga and Samoa Territory).
Photo: Willowpix/E+ via Getty Images