The Destruction of Leviathan by Gustave Doré (1865)
Job is an investigation of the problem of divine justice. This problem, known in theology as theodicy, can be rephrased as a question: “Why do the righteous suffer?” The conventional answer in ancient Israel was that God rewards virtue and punishes sin (the principle known as “retributive justice”). This assumes a world in which human choices and actions are morally significant, but experience demonstrates that suffering is frequently unmerited.
The biblical concept of righteousness was rooted in the covenant-making God who had ordered creation for communal well-being, and the righteous were those who invested in the community, showing special concern for the poor and needy (see Job’s description of his life in chapter 31). Their antithesis were the wicked, who were selfish and greedy. Satan raises the question of whether there is such a thing as disinterested righteousness: if God rewards righteousness with prosperity, will men not act righteously from selfish motives? He asks God to test this by removing the prosperity of Job, the most righteous of all God’s servants.
The book begins with the frame narrative, giving the reader an omniscient “God’s eye perspective” which introduces Job as a man of exemplary faith and piety, “blameless and upright”, who “fears God” and “shuns evil”. God is seen initiating the discussion with Satan and approving Job’s suffering, a device which serves three purposes: the usual explanations for suffering, that the sufferer has committed some sin of which he is unaware or that God’s actions are inscrutable, are eliminated; it makes clear that it is not Job who is on trial, but God’s policy of retribution; and the reader sees that God himself bears responsibility for Job’s suffering. The contrast between the frame and the poetic dialogues and monologues, in which Job never learns of the opening scenes in heaven or of the reason for his suffering, creates a sense of contradictory juxtaposition between the divine and human views of Job’s suffering.
In the poetic dialogues Job’s friends see his suffering and assume he must be guilty, since God is just. Job, knowing he is innocent, concludes that God must be unjust. He retains his piety throughout the story (belying Satan’s suspicion that his righteousness is due to the expectation of reward), but makes clear from his first speech that he agrees with his friends that God should and does reward righteousness. Elihu rejects the arguments of both parties: Job is wrong to accuse God of injustice, as God is greater than human beings, and nor are the friends correct; for suffering, far from being a punishment, may “rescue the afflicted from their affliction” and make them more amenable to revelation – literally, “open their ears” (36:15).
Chapter 28, the Hymn to Wisdom, introduces another theme, divine wisdom. The hymn does not place any emphasis on retributive justice, stressing instead the inaccessibility of wisdom. Wisdom cannot be invented or purchased, it says; God alone knows the meaning of the world, and he grants it only to those who live in reverence before him. God possesses wisdom because he grasps the complexities of the world (Job 28:24–26) – a theme which looks forward to God’s speech in chapters 38–41 with its repeated refrain “Where were you when…?”
When God finally speaks he neither explains the reason for Job’s suffering (revealed to the reader in the prologue in heaven) nor defends his justice. The first speech focuses on his role in maintaining order in the universe: the list of things that God does and Job cannot do demonstrates divine wisdom because order is the heart of wisdom. Job then confesses his lack of wisdom, meaning his lack of understanding of the workings of the cosmos and of the ability to maintain it. The second speech concerns God’s role in controlling behemoth and leviathan, sometimes translated as the hippopotamus and crocodile, but more probably representing primeval cosmic creatures, in either case demonstrating God’s wisdom and power. Job’s reply to God’s final speech is longer than his first and more complicated. The usual view is that he admits to being wrong to challenge God and now repents “in dust and ashes” (42:6), but the Hebrew is difficult, and an alternative understanding is that Job says he was wrong to repent and mourn and does not retract any of his arguments. In the concluding part of the frame narrative God restores and increases his prosperity, indicating that the divine policy on retributive justice remains unchanged.