I am so glad that the book of Job is included in the Bible for a number of reasons.
It is great literature.
It helps people understand why there is suffering and how to deal with it.
It warns us not to jump to conclusions about those who do suffer.
It provides an example of faith in the face of suffering.
It helps us to get our relationship to God in perspective.
The book of Job is part of a body of Wisdom Literature, which falls outside of the timeline of the biblical plan of salvation for all the nations. Job has a literary structure, which sets the scene and then open up into a dialogue between Job and his “Comforters” (who actually offer no comfort at all!) God speaks into the situation and the writer adds a conclusion. The dialogue is in moving poetic form, which, if it is impressive in English must be even more so in the Hebrew.
It strikes me that if students and educators could get past the paranoia about it being religious writing and appreciate it for its literary merit, it could be more regularly included in curricula at high schools and universities. In fact the Bible as a whole is rich in its structure, storylines, allegories, allusions, idioms and vocabulary. It has contributed in often unrecognised ways to our language and common wisdom and has been regularly mined for its plots even in modern films and TV programs. In short, it is integrated into our culture, and for the better!
Through the replies given by Job’s friends the book of Job answers part of the question about why people suffer. Their arguments amount to this: All people have done something wrong and Job is suffering because he has sinned against God and needs to confess it. They are, of course, right that suffering exists because of sin, but the story makes it plain from the start that Job is a very righteous man and is suffering in spite of it. He is not suffering because he has sinned!
The reader already knows why Job is suffering. It’s something going on in heaven between God and Satan, but Job doesn’t know – and never finds out! It is at this point that faith is called for, both in Job and in the our contemporary world, where people suffer inexplicably.
Now saying, “We don’t know why you are suffering but you just have to trust God,” may sound both glib and a cop-out. But when you read God’s address to Job in chapters 38-41 and let the truth of it sink in, you cannot help but realise that the Creator knows immeasurably more than we do, and has the complete trillion-piece jigsaw of humanity, as we stand puzzling over a handful of pieces. There will, inevitably, be parts of that puzzle that we could not understand, even if they were explained to us. (I should note at this point that the reason given – almost a wager between God and Satan – would to me be most unsatisfactory if I were Job and God had explained it to me. It is why I think that this is just an example, serving the purpose to illustrate that we don’t know much of what goes on in the spirit world, as it affects our physical world.)
Too often we can be like Job’s friends, looking for someone to blame for why people suffer. Indeed sin may, alongside other explanations, be the reason. But the story of Job prompts caution. We cannot always know the real reason and should not jump to conclusions.
AN EXAMPLE OF FAITH
In the extremities of suffering Job is not entirely without fault. He is accused of discrediting God’s justice (40:8) and he admits to speaking of things he didn’t understand (40:3), but they were not the causes of his suffering. Job never turns his back on God. He never gives away his faith. He persists and argues and challenges God to front up and at least present the charges. He continues to engage with God, even while God appears to be totally absent!
In a world where many abandon their faith, blaming God, when something goes badly wrong, the story of Job informs and challenges us to hang in there.
But it’s not a blind faith. In fact blind faith is somewhat foolish. Faith depends on knowledge of the person in whom you place your faith and an understanding that they are indeed trustworthy. God has not left us without evidence of his character and faithfulness both in the things he has made and in the revelation of his dealings with humankind throughout history, recorded in the Scriptures. God has revealed himself most clearly in Jesus Christ, and his love for humanity is demonstrated in Jesus’ death on the cross for the sins of the World. It is the weight of this witness and the evidence in the lives of believers through the centuries, which provide the foundation for entrusting ourselves to the God who is trustworthy.
GETTING GOD IN PERSPECTIVE
To be true to the text of Job it would be better to consider ourselves in perspective. The thrust of Job’s and God’s statements lead us to see that God is so unimaginably great that he is unchallengeable. His knowledge, wisdom and insight, his power and creativity leave us looking very, very small by comparison. I think of this when I hear people railing at God for one thing or another, confident that they have somehow, through their own philosophy, reduced The Creator to a figment of the imagination or at best a morally inferior failure. The book of Job teaches that we know hardly anything. And in fact scientists today tend to concur (to date we’ve only explored about 5% of the oceans and Caleb Scharf in an article called ‘This is what we don’t know about the Universe’ -Scientific American, 4th March 2014,- concluded, There’s an awful lot we don’t know (far more than just the examples here). But the point is not to get despondent, because this ignorance is a beautiful thing. It’s what ultimately drives science, and it’s what makes the universe truly awe-inspiring. After the hundreds of thousands of years that Homo sapiens has loped around, the cosmos can still elude our fidgety, inquisitive minds, easily outracing our considerable imaginations. How wonderful.