The ‘Book of Job’: Experiencing Reality as Suffering


By Charles Mathewes, Ph.D., University of Virginia

The Book of Job raises quite a lot of interesting questions. For one, in this book, very little happens in terms of action, but a lot of words are spoken. For another, there is the role of the comforters, as well as the conversation that Job and God have. The book is a reflection of how faith is to be observed in adversity.

Painting of Job with his family.
Job and family were prosperous before Satan decided to test his devotion to God. (Image: William Blake/Public domain)

The Basic Story of The Book of Job

In a nutshell, here’s what happens in the book. Satan returns to God’s court. Satan, in the Book of Job, is seen as an angel who is used at times by God for certain activities. He tells God, “I have been up and down and to and fro upon the Earth.” God says, “Did you see my wonderful servant Job who’s fantastic?” Satan said, “Of course I saw him, but there’s no way in the world Job would be so nice if you made him suffer.” God says, “You are crazy; go and try.” So Satan goes down and inflicts a series of sufferings on Job.

Job then sits, basically, having lost his children, having lost his industry, his wealth, his home, in his silence. Then, his friends come and try to console him; but, after their consolations fail, after he refuses their consolations, he is told by his friends and his wife to curse God and die. He refuses, but he still complains to God; and finally, out of the whirlwind, God speaks to Job and tells him effectively “my ways are not your ways,” and it is better just to accept what has happened.

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The Universality of Job

Interestingly, the figure of Job seems outside of the major narrative of the people of Israel in the Hebrew Bible. All the Book of Job itself says of him is that he was “a man in the land of Uz”, who “was blameless, upright, fearing God and turning away from evil”.

There’s something about the universality of Job’s condition. He is not marked out as a member of the people Israel; he’s simply a human. What’s interesting about the book in general is that in some important ways, it seems to be a story about why you shouldn’t try to solve evil; why you shouldn’t try to investigate why these things happen to you.

It’s not that there aren’t important questions to ask; a question you might want to ask is: If Satan is doing God’s work, then is God letting evil happen or is God actively doing it?

This is a transcript from the video series Why Evil Exists. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

The Role of Job’s Comforters

The comforters who come to help Job play a huge role in the story, and what they are trying to do in a sense is find some explanation for Job’s suffering. What the comforters are doing is standing in the role of the readers themselves of the Book of Job, as the readers are almost certain to want to offer some kind of explanation for why this has happened to Job.

Painting of Job's friends who visit to comfort him.
Job’s friends come to speak with him during his affliction. (Image: Ilya Repin/Public domain)

So much of the Book of Job is consumed by their words and Job’s replies to them, so much so that people sometimes actually ignore those words; they think that they’re just getting in the way. They’re clouding the action of the Book of Job because they think that nothing happens there; that’s just people talking; that’s not very important.

Not so. The action is happening in those words; in some important way, it is precisely Job’s rhetorical duels with the comforters that are the most important part of the Book of Job, for those duels establish Job’s faithfulness; his refusal to accept glib explanations.

Dealing with Loss

The Book of Job actually speaks to a pretty common experience that people can have. If bad things happen to you, a lot of people feel an enormous pressure when they talk to you to find some consolation that will actively remove the pain and the loss and the suffering you feel. Sometimes those attempts are much more about making the consoler feel comfortable in the situation.

The person devastated is devastated, there’s no quick fix for them. The Book of Job is, in important ways, the first time in the Bible where the human predilection to offer words where no words are going to be useful is brought to the surface and examined and found wanting.

Learn more about looking for hope in the face of evil.

The Wisdom of Job

Is Job’s a useful story, one that has wisdom we can pass on? Or is the story of Job’s suffering only helpful to those who have already suffered, as Abraham has?

One of the great puzzles of a lot of these texts, is that it’s not clear that the people who most need to hear the lessons they want to convey, are able to actually apprehend them. It might only be after the experiences have happened that you can finally understand what the text was trying to communicate to you in the first place.

If we think of the Book of Job as a ‘wisdom text’, perhaps it is saying that real wisdom—at least some of the most important forms—may only be acquired through intimate, first-personal experience, particularly in terms of suffering; that there is no easy way to learn of reality except through suffering it.

Common Questions about the Book of Job

Q. What causes Satan to inflict suffering on Job?

Satan inflicts suffering on Job in order to test God’s assertion that Job would never abandon his faith in Him.

Q. What does the Book of Job mostly consists of?

Most of the Book of Job consists of words of consolation by Job’s friends and his replies to them.

Q. What role does Job’s comforters play in the story?

Job’s comforters play a huge role in the story, and what they are trying to do in a sense is find some explanation for Job’s suffering. What the comforters are doing is standing in the role of the readers themselves of the Book of Job.

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