“If God is God He is not good. If God is good He is not God” – Archibald MacLeish
“I have heard of thee by the hearing of the ear: but now mine eye seeth thee.”- Job
If taken literally, Job is a very difficult book and in fact quite likely to lead someone away from rather than toward faith. Here’s a quick summary of the story:
Satan goads God into making a bet over what paragon-of-virtue Job might do if his wonderful life takes a turn for the worse. God takes the bet, and quite literally all hell breaks loose in Job’s life. All his children are killed; he loses all his worldly possessions; he contracts an excruciatingly painful and disfiguring disease; his wife abandons him emotionally if not literally, and his prayers for understanding go unanswered. Then his friends show up and try to offer sympathy by suggesting answers for Job’s plight. Since God is all-powerful and all-just, Job must have done something really wrong to deserve his fate. Job insists on his innocence, and says that if it were possible, he’d take God to court to prove it. After many long chapters of speeches by Job and his friends arguing for their differing positions, God shows up and berates both Job and his friends. He berates Job’s friends for assuming Job must be guilty, and he berates Job for demanding answers. God “blesses the latter part of Job’s life more than the former part” by giving him twice as much in the way of sheep, cattle, oxen, and donkeys, and by giving him additional children to replace the ones who died at the beginning of the story. Those relatives and friends who had abandoned him return, bearing monetary gifts, and everyone lives happily ever after.
If taken literally, I have several problems with Job’s story First of all, I don’t think God is in the business of making wagers with Satan, especially when said wagers would involve torture. Secondly, the fact that Job had seven more sons and three more daughters does not replace the ones that died. Anyone who has ever lost a child will attest to that. And what of Job’s wife, who I assume was post-menopausal by this time? What of the ten dead children? Were they just collateral damage? Finally, Job never gets the answers he desperately seeks as God never tells him about his behind-the-scenes bet with Satan. It’s as if God answer to Job’s “Why?” is a resounding “Because I said so.” If I were reading this story for the first time, thought it was literally true, and expected insight into the nature of God and suffering, I think I’d be more impressed with Job’s behavior than with God’s.
Fortunately for my faith journey, I think the story of Job doesn’t need to be taken literally. I think it’s a story, not a “historical document”, and stories can be true without being factual. They are free to tackle serious issues in ways that essays and lectures can’t. I think that’s why Jesus told so many of the stories we call parables. It isn’t necessary to believe that the story of the Prodigal Son literally happened in order to understand the point Jesus was trying to make about the nature of God.
So what is the point of Job? I think the point is that there are many things in life for which there are no easy answers. Job’s friends have a rigid understanding of God that does not allow for bad things to happen to good people. Job’s experience tells him that is not always true, and he will not accept platitudes or pat answers. Instead, he argues with his friends and dares to question God openly, directly and honestly. Rather than squashing Job like a bug for heresy, God rewards him with an epiphany. Job has a quantum leap in his understanding of and connection to God that does not erase his pain, but transforms it.
There are no easy answers for many of the problems we will face in life. Bad things will happen, and along with death and taxes, suffering is inevitable. But God is with us, even when we think he is absent or silent, and he seems to have a preference for honest doubters over those who think they have all the answers. And for me, that’s good news.