I’ll let you know up front that this is a longer than normal post, but there was no good way to break it up. Hopefully, you’ll find the time it takes to read it well spent.
I’m a big fan of Seth Andrews and his podcast The Thinking Atheist. A week or two ago, I was listening to an episode, and Seth’s guest was Chris Matheson, who was one of the writer’s for Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (one of my favorite films, as some of you may remember).
Anyway, Matheson has recently written a book called The Story of God: A Biblical Comedy about Love (and Hate), and that was the subject of their interview. Seth asked him if he had a favorite book in the Bible, and Matheson replied that it was Job. When asked why, he said that he views Job as a wonderful satire. That really piqued my curiosity. Could it be that the writer of Job truly intended his book to be a satire, like Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal?
The idea stuck with me for several days, and I realized that I needed to revisit the Book of Job and find out for myself. Is it serious or satire?
A Breakdown of the Book of Job
Job is an interesting book. No one knows who wrote it, what the author’s nationality was, nor when it was written. There’s been speculation over the years that the book was originally written in another language and translated into Hebrew, because it contains many words and word-forms that aren’t found anywhere else in the Old Testament. However, no other text of the book has ever been found. And many scholars today have come back to the idea that the author was an Israelite who simply chose to use some foreign-looking word-forms to compliment the setting of the book, which is outside the kingdoms of Israel and Judah (wiki).
The book’s intent is to focus on theodicy, or why bad things happen to good people. In the prologue, we’re introduced to Job, who is described as being “blameless and upright,” and God has blessed him with great wealth. But Satan comes before God and says that Job’s obedience is only a result of all the good that God has blessed him with. If calamity were to befall him, he would turn his back on God. God decides to take Satan up on this bet and allows Satan to bring ruin upon Job, just so long as Job himself isn’t physically harmed.
So that’s how the book begins. Before we go further, I’d like to note something that stood out to me right away. Regardless of whether or not the author of Job was writing a satire, I’m convinced he did not believe he was writing actual history. This is a fable — actually, this is a play.
First of all, Job is presented as a little too perfect. In the first 5 verses of the book, we’re told that he is blameless, upright, fears God, and turns away from evil. He has 7 sons and 3 daughters (a total of 10 children). When it comes to his possessions, they also come out to nice round numbers: 7,000 sheep, 3,000 camels (which is the same breakdown as his children, but multiplied by 1,000), 500 female donkeys, and 500 yoke of oxen. He also has many servants and is “the greatest of all the peoples of the east.” It’s hard to know how much is included in “the east,” but this is obviously an amazing superlative. Verses 4 and 5 talk about how wonderful Job’s adult children are, and we’re also told that Job regularly offers sacrifices for all of them simply as a precaution.
The guy seems perfect, but that’s not necessarily a reason for thinking he wasn’t real. After all, it’s his exceptional character that causes him to be singled out by God and Satan anyway. But consider this: the story actually works better if it’s fictional. A real person is imperfect. If Job were real, then his friends would be more justified when they accuse him of doing something wrong (as we’ll see shortly). But if this is a fictional tale, then it’s easier for us to accept that Job is truly blameless. If the author wants to talk about why bad things happen to good people, then he needs someone who is unquestionably good; he needs a paragon. Also, consider the setting in God’s realm (1:6-12):
Now there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came among them. The Lord said to Satan, “From where have you come?” Satan answered the Lord and said, “From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it.” And the Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job, that there is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil?” Then Satan answered the Lord and said…
And the Lord said to Satan, “Behold, all that he has is in your hand. Only against him do not stretch out your hand.” So Satan went out from the presence of the Lord.
Most modern Christians believe that God is everywhere at once and always aware of everything. Why, then, would there need to be a particular day on which “the sons of God” present themselves before him (chapter 2 shows us that this was a regular occurrence)? And why would he need to ask them what they’ve been doing? If Satan is a spiritual being, why does he need to go down onto the earth and walk upon it? How could multiple bad things happen across the globe at the same time, if he has to operate in such an anthropomorphic way? And how could Satan go out from the presence of the Lord if God is everywhere? This whole setup is modeled on the way an earthly court would operate. How could this scenario be literally true?
When Satan is set loose upon Job, an incredible number of things happen to him all at once. A messenger arrives and tells Job that a band of Sabean raiders has taken all his oxen and donkeys and killed the servants that were with them. While he’s speaking, another messenger arrives and says that fire from the sky fell and burned up all the sheep and the servants that were with them. While he’s speaking, a messenger says that 3 groups of Chaldean raiders took all the camels and killed the servants that were with them. And while he’s speaking, a final messenger arrives and says that a great wind has blown down the house of one of his children — all of his children were inside, and they’re all dead.
To me, this reads more like a setup in a play or fable than actual history, even if the events were somehow spurred by Satan (did he possess the various groups of raiders? Did it infringe upon their free will? How long in advance did he have to set things in motion to make them all happen simultaneously?). There’s one more thing that makes me think this wasn’t supposed to be taken as literal history, and I’ll mention it when I come to it in just a moment.
After Job is stripped of everything, he still didn’t curse God (1:20-22):
Then Job arose and tore his robe and shaved his head and fell on the ground and worshiped. And he said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.”
In all this Job did not sin or charge God with wrong.
When Satan next appears before God, God brags that Job was still faithful, despite what Satan had done to him. To this, Satan replies that Job remained faithful, because he still had his health. A man would give all he has to save his life — so take away Job’s good health, and he’ll turn against God. So God gives Satan permission to torment Job, so long as Satan doesn’t take his life. Satan causes painful sores to spring up all over Job’s body, putting him in immense agony. Job’s wife suggests that he curse God and die, but Job refuses (2:10):
“You speak as one of the foolish women would speak. Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?” In all this Job did not sin with his lips.
Job has 3 friends that hear of his misfortune, so they come visit to offer him comfort. According to Job 2:13, they sit on the ground with Job for 7 days and 7 nights without speaking. I just find that incredibly hard to believe. This is the other aspect of the story that makes me think Job is an allegory and not meant to be actual history. And there are even Christians who take that view as well, though I wasn’t able to find any decent articles arguing for that. However, I did find a number of articles from Christians who talk about those “liberal” scholars and Christians who view Job as allegorical, but insist that it must be actual history. Mostly, they insist upon this because it seems that some later writers of the Bible thought Job was real (Ezek 14:14, 20; James 5:11), and these Christians worry about what that would mean for the inspiration of those texts. If you’re interested, you can read those arguments here and here.
Anyway, now that the stage has been set, we come to the discourse. Most of this book is a series of speeches made by the different characters. Job kicks things off, but then each of his three friends take turns speaking to him, and he replies to each. It follows that format for two and a half cycles, after which, Job gives a long speech. Then, we’re introduced to a fifth cast member — a man named Elihu, who is younger than Job and his friends. Elihu promises to offer wisdom that will cut to the heart of the matter, but much of what he says is no different than what Job’s friends have said. Once he’s finished, we finally hear from God, whom the reader assumes will finally put these questions to rest. Here’s a brief summary of the conversation:
Job: (chapter 3)
Curse the day of my birth! Why couldn’t I have been stillborn?
Eliphaz: (chapters 4 & 5)
You’ve always been an encourager, but now bad things happen to you and you fold. Well, bad things happen to people who do bad things. No man is blameless before God. God is awesome, so don’t despise his discipline.
[Incidentally, in 5:1, Eliphaz asks “to which of the holy ones will you turn?” Is this, as well as chapter 1’s reference to “the sons of god,” a hint at polytheism? Also, the last 10 or so verses of chapter 5 have Eliphaz make a number of statements about God and how he takes care of people. What’s funny is that he supports all of his statements by saying, “Behold, this we have searched out; it is true.” (v. 27). Oh, okay then. 😉 ]
Job: (chapters 6 & 7)
Things are bad — I’m pretty justified in my complaints. You guys are pretty bad friends. Life sucks — why is this happening?!
Bildad: (chapter 8)
Does God pervert justice? Don’t deny your faults — these things happen for a reason. If your children offended God, then he has dealt with them. Just repent so things can be well for you — actually, even better for you than they were before.
Job: (chapters 9 & 10)
God is supreme — no one can stand against him. I’m innocent, but even so, if God is against me, what does it matter? And if it’s not him doing this, who is? Why was I born, if this is my end?
Zophar: (chapter 11)
You don’t know anything, and you deserve worse than what you’ve gotten. Repent.
Job: (chapters 12-14)
No doubt, you are the people and wisdom will die with you. Seriously, genius, you’re not telling me anything I don’t already know. I’m a laughing stock. Successful people despise the downtrodden. God is supreme, and creation is proof of his existence. I wish I could lay my case before him. And who are you to speak for God? You guys are terrible friends. I would speak to God, and I trust him to judge justly and see my innocence. Life is short and full of sorrow. And when it’s over, you have no idea what happens after you’re gone.
[While reading chapter 13, I was struck that much of Job’s agony comes from believing that there’s a God up there who could do something about it. If he didn’t believe in God, he’d still be miserable, but at least he wouldn’t have all these questions about fairness.]
Eliphaz: (chapter 15)
You don’t fear God the way you should. Only the wicked strive against God and don’t consider him.
Job: (chapters 16-17)
You guys suck. If I were in your place, I could offer you words of encouragement, or I could tear you down. God is against me. Who will stand with me? To whom do I turn for help and hope?
Bildad: (chapter 18)
Why aren’t you listening to us? Bad things happen to bad people.
Job: (chapter 19)
How long will you speak against me? God is against me — why are you against me too? My redeemer lives!*
[* This part was strange to me. It starts in 19:23, and it seems to come out of nowhere. Job has just been saying that God is against him, so why does he suddenly say “my redeemer lives”? Is he just saying that he still trusts God will save him, despite the way things look? Is this just to represent the kind of double-speak that we all engage in when we’re troubled, worried, in pain, etc? Playing devil’s advocate with himself, in other words?]
Zophar: (chapter 20)
God is against the wicked. The wicked have a terrible end.
Job: (chapter 21)
No, Zophar, the wicked often seem to live happy, prosperous lives, and even their children after them. You say God dishes it out on their descendants. Why? Why not let the wicked see it for themselves? Why should they care what happens to their houses after they’re gone? The wicked aren’t punished. You guys are full of it.
[This is where things start to get interesting, and they continue in Job’s next speech as well. He’s finally starting to rebel against the idea that bad things only happen to bad people. He already knows that he’s not a bad person, yet he’s being plagued by unthinkable horrors. And he’s also aware that the wicked often live amazing lives.]
Eliphaz: (chapter 22)
You are wicked. Repent.
Job: (chapters 23 & 24)
I would lay my case before God, but where is he? People do all kinds of evil things, but God doesn’t charge them with anything. Why not?
[These chapters lay out the problem of evil. To me, it’s one of the crucial sections of the book. Why is there evil in the world, and why does God do nothing about it? If you have time, check out 23:8-9, and all of chapter 24]
Bildad: (chapter 25)
Man is lowly — how can man ever be right before God?
Job (chapters 26-31) — this is Job’s final defense
God is amazing and powerful. I will keep my integrity. The wicked won’t prosper. Man searches all over and performs wonderful feats to gain gold, silver, iron, etc. But where is wisdom found? Wisdom is found in the fear of the Lord. Oh, how I long for the good old days! I have fallen so low. I have tried to live righteously — if I’ve lived unjustly, let me be punished.
[Once again, we have a section where Job seems to backpedal a little. 27:13-23 has him agreeing with his friends that wickedness doesn’t pay off. Like I said, maybe this is just an illustration of indecision — he doesn’t know quite what he thinks at this point. Chapter 28 is the discourse on wisdom. It’s hard to tell from the way it’s written if this is still part of Job’s speech, or if it’s being spoken by the narrator. Scholars are divided on that. Finally, I found 29:4-5 interesting, because he speaks about “friendship with God” and “when God was with me.” How would he know? Earlier, he asked “where is God?” It’s obvious from that earlier passage, as well as when God finally speaks to him, that Job has never had a real relationship with God before. These verses in chapter 29 seem to simply be what many people do — he’s ascribing the good things of life to God automatically, without requiring any evidence for the supernatural.]
Elihu: (chapters 32-37)
I’ve kept silent because of my youth — I assumed that you older men would be wiser than I, yet you’ve been unable to answer Job. So listen to me, and I will teach you wisdom. God is amazing — much higher than any man. Far be it from him to do anything wicked. God punishes the unrighteous, and the righteous live well.
God: (chapters 38-41)
I’m awesome — who are you to question me?
And that’s pretty much it — that’s God’s defense. He spends 4 chapters comparing himself to man and (surprise) finds man lacking.
Job speaks one last time and repents to God for ever wanting to present his case before him (chapter 42). In other words, “I’m a worm, and I’m sorry for questioning anything.”
We then find out that God is angry at Job’s three friends, because “you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.” Remember, Job’s three friends’ main arguments were “God is amazing, and God punishes the wicked — since you’re obviously being punished, you should repent.” God himself reiterated the point that he is indeed amazing. So apparently, the part that Job’s friends got wrong was that he only punishes the wicked. In fact, God can punish anyone he wants, period. This reminds me of John Zande’s book, The Owner of All Infernal Names, where he argues that the evidence we have supports the idea of an omnimalevolent creator far better than an omnibenevolent one.
At the end of the Book of Job, we’re given an epilogue where we find out that God blesses Job with twice as much as he had before. He’s once again given 10 children (7 boys; 3 girls), which undoubtedly more than made up for the first 10, especially since we’re told “in all the land there were no women so beautiful as Job’s daughters” (42:15). And he now has 14,000 sheep, 6,000 camels, 1,000 yoke of oxen, and 1,000 female donkeys. And Job lived 140 more years, seeing his descendants to the fourth generation.
I’ve long been bothered by the moral implications of the Book of Job. First of all, the idea that God would allow Satan to coax him into a game of chance over someone who is loyal to him is pretty obscene. Even worse, Job’s children and servants become collateral damage and are eradicated on a whim. Why are all those lives less important than Job’s? I’m pretty confident that Job wouldn’t have seen it that way. If he could have given his own life to save theirs, no doubt he would have. Then, to end the book with the sick notion that “all’s well that ends well” because Job has been given replacement children is offensive.
But there’s also the theme of Job. As we said at the outset, the writer is tackling the question of “why do bad things happen to good people?” In the case of Job, we’re given the answer immediately — it’s because God and Satan are performing an experiment with him. But what about everyone else? Why do bad things happen to good people, if there’s a good God in control of everything. And to that question, we don’t get an answer, other than “they just do.” Or worse, “because you’re God’s property and he can do what he wants with you.”
I don’t think it ever would have struck me to view the Book of Job as a satire, but now that I’ve read it with that idea in mind, I find the notion pretty persuasive. It’s hard to imagine that the writer of Job took on this lengthy work simply to leave the question unanswered at the end, especially when he phrased the problem so well in passages like chapters 23 and 24. The satire isn’t especially overt. And if it had been, it might not have become part of the Jewish canon. But I can see the possibility that the writer was being subversive and pointing out the dilemma of theodicy below a facade of “Yay God!” enthusiasm. If that’s what’s really going on here, then I have a new respect for the book. In fact, its moral failings make far more sense from this perspective, since they heighten the absurdity of the whole situation.