What are we to make of the Book of Job? Ostensibly, it is about the problem of pain and suffering; the problem of why good people suffer and bad people prosper; the problem of how God could be omnipotent and just given the evil in the world. No doubt, the Book of Job is concerned with good, evil, suffering, and God. Popularly understood, the book of Job is one of “theodicy,” that is, the theological and philosophical attempt to harmonize God’s goodness, His power, and the existence of evil. Yet, is the Book of Job a “theodicy”. Does it intend to provide an answer to these problems? Is so, what is that answer? If not, what then is the purpose of Job? A brief examination of the text reveals that if Job is a theodicy, it is a remarkably poor one. What then is its value?
In the opening of the book of Job, the common assumption that God blesses the good and curses the wicked is affirmed. Job is described as “blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away evil” (1:1 ESV). Consequently, he is extremely blessed, enjoying a large family, a great estate, and renown across the land (1:2-3). Then, in a heavenly scene unbeknownst to Job, the accusation is brought forth that Job only worships God because God has blessed him. “Does Job fear God for nothing? Have you not put a hedge around him and his house and all that he has, on every side?” (1:9-10 ESV). Job is then stripped of his family, his possessions, and his health. He is left with the conundrum: “what have I done to deserve this?”
With the entrance of Job’s three friends is the reaffirmation that only the wicked suffer and only good prosper. Job is suffering, therefore he must be wicked. Job maintains his innocence despite his circumstances heightening the dilemma of suffering. In a fit of rage, the young Elihu, accuses Job precisely of not producing a theodicy. “He burned with anger at Job because he justified himself rather than God” (32:2 ESV). Elihu then affirms yet again the belief that no one is truly innocent, so Job should repent.
God finally responds to Job in a series of rhetorical questions, the effect of which is to demonstrate to Job that despite the apparent injustices, God is in control of the universe and is just. Job responds first with silence, then with repentance. Finally, God restores Job above and beyond his state prior to his suffering.
Where, then, is the theodicy in this? Job is given no explanation as to why he is suffering. No explanation is given generally as to why good people suffer or why wicked people prosper. No justification is offered as to how God’s omnipotence, goodness and the existence of evil might be reconciled. The problem of pain and suffering is left completely unresolved. In fact, in light of God’s response to Job, the book seems to argue that no such answer is even possible.
If the purpose of Job is not one of theodicy, what is its purpose? While Job does not offer a solution to the problem of evil, what it does do is dispel us of the notion that when we are prosperous it is because we are righteous (and vice-versa) and when we suffer it is because we have done wrong (and vice-versa). The book of Job shows there is no “quid pro quo” karmic relationship between our good deeds and prosperity nor our evil deeds and suffering. It rids us of the notion that suffering is a sign of God’s judgment.
So why do we suffer? The Book of Job does not say. What it does though is provide us with a framework for how we respond to such seemingly meaningless suffering. The solution is not to be found in philosophical and theological argument, the gulf between God and man is simply too great for such explanations to be truly satisfying. The solution is found in God Himself. In the end, Job recognizes that his complaints against God were not based on a full knowledge of God: “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you” (42:5).
Finally, the Book of Job should rid us of the myth that the Judeo-Christian religion is “escapist”. That it is wishful thinking in a good, all-loving God who will save us from our pain. The message of Job is not that God will save us from suffering, but that in the midst of our suffering, God is there. God Himself is the answer to the question. In the face of God all questions evaporate. This is how someone like St. Thomas Aquinas can look back on his work and refer to it as “straw” after having an encounter with God. Then, and only then, we can affirm with Job, “I uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know” (42:3 ESV).