Job and the problem of evil.

(My classes start again tonight and I am really looking forward to being the first presenter of the semester. What follows is my presentation on Job to lead discussion).

The Book of Job appears in the Bible’s Old Testament and is written in the form of a didactic poem set in between a prose prologue and epilogue. As Northrop Frye points out, it is neither a comedy or tragedy in the classical sense, but instead takes the form of a Platonic Symposium whereby a problem (in this case the question – “why do bad things happen to good people” or “why does evil exist n the world”) is approached through a number of perspectives represented by the different speakers. Because of its poetic form, the Book of Job is believed to be an earlier literary work, probably 4th or 6th century BCE, later inserted in the bible.

While the Book of Job asks a single obvious question, the themes it deals with are complex and include challenges to concepts of the nature of evil, free will, faith, compassion, blame and innocence, and the nature of God. Trial imagery is very prevalent throughout – Satan translated literally to “the adversary” and not the Devil of the later Judeo-Christian tradition – Job frequently relies on the language of justice in pleading his case to whoever is listening.

So back to the central question, the Book of Job is one of the most widely-known texts in the western tradition to explore the whys of suffering in the world. For, as Epicurus postulated in his riddle – if we are to perceive God as good, and all-powerful, how do we reconcile this with the suffering that happens in the world and the evil that befalls each of us. Logically broken down it looks like: 1) If an all-powerful and perfectly good god exists, then evil does not. 2) There is evil in the world. 3) Therefore, an all-powerful and perfectly good god does not exist.

Philosophically there are several possible answers to this – as Voltaire explores in Candide, the doctrine of Optimism is one such answer. That is, while something might appear evil in our narrow and immediate view, in the broadest possible context it will turn out to be the best possible thing that could happen. We see some of this perspective among Job’s friends who come to debate with him the meaning of his struggle. Another way of dealing with this question is to recognize that God is not the most powerful being and that the forces of evil are at least as powerful. But in the story of Job it is clear that his suffering only happens because God allows it — he gives permission to satan and sets limits on what he is allowed to do to Job as part of a wager. A third possible way to deal with this conundrum is to allow for the possibility that God is not omnibenevolent and/or constrained by human morality. That is, God may contain both good and evil, which is significant because it confers in humans the very significant gift of free will. Evil gives humans the ability to make moral choices and thus engage with the world as free beings. Of course, this falls apart to some degree when considering those things over which humans have no choice (such as natural disasters or the calamities which befall Job) but at the same time we can see these things as tests, and it is in our free-choice responses to privation and hardship that our morality is tested.

This, I think is the underlying message of the Book of Job – this third option.

The discussion questions I created for this reading (below) correspond to a number of thoughts I have had while reading the text and so I would like to go through some of the key passages quickly which correspond to these questions.

Chapter One: This is the central challenge to free will. Satan essentially saying to God that men do not submit to faith of their own free will but only do so out of fear or desire for reward. This is a challenge that God can not let rest, and it is on this which the story of Job is predicated.

Chapter Three: Job’s lament begins and I think we need to recognize that Job does not suffer quietly throughout his tale. He questions. He complains. He exhibits all the characteristics of a free being. And without this questioning, there would be no revelation at the end of Job. Essentially I think this points to doubt being integral to true faith and true choice of one’s religious following.

Chapter Four: Here we find the question – “can any mortal be righteous before God?” – according to Genesis and the Garden of Eden story – no. This is one of the questions for discussion.

Chapter Thirteen: Job challenges the faith of his friends. “Do you believe that by parroting what you believe to be God’s will you deceive him as to your own faith?”

Chapter Sixteen: Job asserts that we can not understand nor judge the sufferings, nor the lives of others. “If I were in your place I could do to you what you are doing to me easily.”

Chapter Twenty-two: I have some questions about this chapter – are these accusations against Job or examples of sins all men commit when Eli’phaz says “Is not your wickedness great? There is no end to your iniquities. For you have exacted pledges of your brothers for nothing, and stripped the naked of their clothing. You have given no water to the weary to drink, and you have withheld bread from the hungry. The man with power possessed the land, and the favored man dwelt in it. You have sent widows away empty, and the arms of the fatherless were crushed.” If these are accusations, Job never counters them except….

Chapter Twenty-four: This is where we find the universalizing of suffering and Job speaks to the suffering of all men, those much worse off than he has been in his life. This is an essential leap to morality – that is empathy and compassion for others even in the midst of the most terrible suffering to the self. This is fully realizing humanity, this is the moral response.

Chapter Thirty-One: Here Job says If I have done this sin or that sin let me be judged. The list includes falsity, adultery, lack of empathy for the suffering of others, worship of money and material things, disrespect and contempt of others and mistreatment and theft of land. I again have questions about this – is Job saying that these are the central sins, or is he saying that each of us sin in small and large ways that we are not aware of all the time?

Chapter Thirty-Eight: Here we have the appearance of God whose voice speaks from a whirlwind. Essentially he says “do you have any idea what it is like to be me?” He speaks to creation and the beauty and cruelty that exists throughout nature in Chapter 39. Finally in Chapter 41 he speaks about the creation of and ability to control Leviathan, a most fearsome monster described in some detail.

Discussion Questions:

  1. At the beginning of the Book of Job there is some question as to whether humanity is able to exercise free will in relation to God and faith. Satan essentially says that there is no such thing if people live in fear or desire for reward – and so Job is tested. What does this story ultimately tell us about free will?
  2. How are God and satan distinguished in their punishments of Job?
  3. Is Job “innocent”? Does anyone live a “blameless” life?
  4. How is Job’s test like Abraham’s from Genesis? How does it differ?
  5. In Chapter 31 Job carries out a long list of sins “If I have” – basically asking to be punished if he has committed any of them. What is the purpose of this as he is not acknowledging that he has committed any of them. Is he suggesting that these are the central sins for which we might be judged by God? Is he suggesting that everyone carries out these sins in small ways and might not recognize what they have done?
  6. What is Leviathan meant to represent at the end of the book. Obviously he is a fearful sea creature, but why does God go on at length about his ability to invoke this monster?


One Comment on “Job and the problem of evil.

  1. Pingback: Individual suffering for the common (but not lowest common denominator) good. | Red Cedar

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