The topic of suffering has been a difficult idea to reconcile with a loving God. The question, why do bad things happen to good people, has been at the forefront of this.
The book of Job tries to answer this question, while also examining various popular beliefs at that time. Yet, unlike what many would want, a nice clear answer, the reader is left with only more questions.
Instead, one is forced to come to their own conclusion. However, the reader is not just thrown into a state of confusion. The author of Job guides the reader to the ideal answer.
A major problem with the book of Job though is that it is a difficult work. This is partially due to it being a work composed of an older folktale.
The author of Job used this older folktale as a pretext for his own work, which is in the form of a poetic theological argument. In effect, this older folktale, which compromise chapters 1 and 2, serves as an introduction. However, this introduction really only serves as an excuse for the author of Job to get into his own narrative.
The prologue also serves to question the conventional wisdom of the day (as well even today). It is meant to look at the notion that religion is motivated by self-interest. We see this in the question in which the Satan asks of God: “Does Job fear God for nothing?” Job 1:9.
More importantly though, this prologue sets-up the dialogue between Job and his friends, while at the same time, setting up a situation that people would have thought impossible; an innocent human suffering.
Moving past the prologue, we begin seeing a very different picture. Instead of the patient Job we saw in the prologue, the Job in the main poetic section is anything but patient. In effect, within the book of Job, there appears to be two separate Jobs.
The author of Job uses this to create dramatic irony. Unlike the characters in the story, the reader is privy to additional information. Instead of combining these two Jobs though, the author uses both for specific reasons.
The Job of the prologue is used to show innocent people can suffer, while the Job in the poetic narrative is used to question why an innocent person would suffer.
It is within this main text that we get the actual relevant material. The author of Job was most likely upset with the old folklore, and thus used it to teach a lesson. Throughout this poetic narrative, the author picks at the conventional wisdom of the day.
Job’s friends, being the voice of conventional wisdom, assume that Job must have sinned. For them, it is inconceivable that Job would be punished if he truly was innocent. Such a notion would have extended to the vast majority of the Hebrew population at that time as well.
This accusation that Job must have sinned, or was guilty, becomes offensive. Even though Job most likely have made the same exact claims, they now appear to be offensive to Job. It is also likely that they were seen to be offensive to the author as well. In effect, one is told that they deserve the suffering they have, because they supposedly did something wrong. That the person is responsible for the evil that happens.
It is here that the dilemma occurs. Even though the reader is aware that Job is sinless, he is still being punished. According to the conventional wisdom, this should not be so. If God is truly good, Job should not be suffering.
Yet, what conventional wisdom teaches simply does not seem to be working in this situation. This is primarily what the author is trying to get across. The current conceptions that people had simply failed. Innocent people do suffer, and because of that, conventional wisdom fell short.
At this point, there are a variety of options that become possible. Bart Ehrman, in his book, God’s Problem, comes to the conclusion that God most likely does not exist. Yet, agnosticism or atheism is not a must here.
Instead, it could be that God simply is not good. Or the Christian concept of Satan can be evoked. Even a God who has better things to do is an option. Theologians have come to a variety of conclusions in order to answer the question of suffering. The author of Job suggests an option based on how God creates.
This option is implied in several areas within the text, most noticeably, in the divine speeches (Job 38:1-42:7). Even before that though, we get such a suggestion from Job. In Job 9:5-8, God is described in creating by undoing order, or by bringing forth chaos. Job does say this more in anger, or frustration; however, such an idea is close to the reason why the author of this work suggests there is suffering.
It is within the divine speeches though that the author gets into his argument fully. However, the author also makes the conscious effort of having God neither answer Job’s question regarding why he is suffering, nor address the core issues that led up to this point in the narrative. Instead, the reader is expected to come to their own conclusion, while at the same time, being led along the way.
The divine speeches themselves are composed of God asking a series of questions of Job, which effectively stuns Job, to the point of silence. Job undergoes a transformation, becoming a more humble and patient individual. This is accomplished because the questions that God asks are meant to show Job just how puny he is in the grand scheme of things. God asks Job questions that Job must answer in the negative.
In Job 38:4, when God asks Job where he was when God laid the foundation for earth, Job can not answer such a question. Both God, Job, and the reader know that Job was not present at that time. When God asks Job if he knows when the mountain goats give birth (Job 39:1), the assumed answer is no. And when God asks Job if he can draw out the mythical Leviathan with a fish hook (Job 41:1), Job has to answer no.
At the same time, it is implied that God has the power, and the knowledge to do all of this. Yet, there are limitations to even God’s power. Looking at the story of Leviathan in chapter 41, even God struggles to battle such a beast. If Leviathan is a symbol of chaos, as sea serpents often are, the picture that is depicted that even God has a difficult time of keeping chaos in check.
What we end up seeing then is two fold. On one hand, we see that humans are created with limitations. There is a distinction between God, the creator, and humans, a creation. Because of this, there are things that are beyond human understanding. On the other hand, God goes beyond these limits. God has a more full understanding of creation. Yet, as with humans, there are limitations as well.
The limitation on God though appears to be self imposed. Because of the commitment that God has for human freedom, God limits Godself. God will not compromise the human freedom to choose between good and evil.
That does beg the question as to whether or not God could intervene in particularly gruesome examples of evil, such as the Holocaust. However, that does cause another problem. At what point would God draw the line in interfering?
The problem is if human life is of such a value that God would compromise human freedom for thousands of life, is it not of such a value to compromise for one life? After all, for those loosing their loved ones, those lives are of just as much value.
It is not just for human freedom that God limits Godself. It is for all of creation. God allows God’s creation to become what it was created to be. At the same time, creation is interconnected, as well as dynamic. Because of this, there is the potential risk. There is also the potential for much more.
With creation being dynamic, as well as interconnected, there is a sense of creation being a continual ordeal; a long-term project. So again, we see that potential for risk, and a sense of chaos. This chaos allows God, as well as creation, such as humans, to be creative.
In the end, the answer that Job, as well as the reader is led to, is that suffering is simply a part of creation. That to understand suffering, one must also understand the nature of creation.
For creation to be a long-term project, and for humans and God to be able to creative, there must be a level of chaos in creation. This chaos, or we could say disorder, leads to the potential of suffering. Creation is not risk-free, but can be dangerous.
So God must limit Godself in order to insure that this level of chaos, or the potential for creativity is kept. Yet, this chaos is also part of creation, and by default, is good.
Now, the explanation that suffering is simply a by product of creation is not an easy answer. People want to believe that there is a reason, some purpose behind the evil that happens. According to Job though, there is not always some grand reason. Sometimes, bad things simply happen because that is how creation works.
There are no answers to why humans suffer that will satisfy all people though. In an explanation that portrays life as arbitrary, as does the argument in Job, there will be people who reject it because they do not want to live in a world that seems arbitrary.
At the same time, the argument that the author of Job makes, suggests that God is not all-powerful. This is a sacrifice that the author does make.
In seeing that God as not being all-powerful, the author makes a trade off. Instead of an all-powerful God, the author gets a God who is all good. One can not have both, and thus a decision must be made.
The book of Job then does something else that is important. It gives a new perspective regarding God. Comparing the God that we see in the prologue, to the God that we see in the divine speeches, there is clearly a difference. This could very well suggest that human perception of God does change. Instead of a God that is all powerful, we see a God that is good, yet limited.
This perception of God is also loving. The divine speeches begin in a manner that Job claims would never happen: God meeting with Job in a fair argument. The very fact that God would do such a thing, suggests that God was there listening. It portrays a God who loves Job, and wants to be known to Job. God is not some distance figure who does not care, but one that is right there.
More so though, God is one who is willing to listen, and encourages questioning. God does provide a response to Job. It may not be the response that Job wanted, but his questioning is vindicated by God responding at all.
The author supports this even more though by challenging the conventional wisdom of their time and writing this work. In two ways then, the reader gets encouragement to question one’s traditions, as well are beliefs. And even though we may not come to the conclusion that we want, or find the response we were looking for, it is still worth the effort.