The book of Job is a somewhat under-explored part of the Bible, and definitely heavy going. The first and last sections are straightforward enough, but in between are around forty chapters of indigestible argument that goes round and round in circles and never reaches a conclusion. To be sure, there are a few highlights: the hymn to wisdom in chapter 28, and a short series of nature poems in chapter 39 that would rival any of David Attenborough’s commentaries. But reading the rest of this book is like panning for gold; the valuable nuggets are hard to find amongst all the grit.
The book deals with the problem of suffering: if God is good and just, why do bad things happen to good people? The brief story line sets the scene. Job is a very good man – as good as a man can possibly be – and yet he suffers as much as any man can possibly suffer (short of dying). As a result, he starts to question everything that he has previously believed.
The whole scenario is actually rather unsettling. Does God really need to ‘experiment’ on poor Job, in order to prove His point? It is an extreme (and probably hypothetical) situation that serves to raise an important issue: what is the point of being religious? Do we believers worship and serve God because that is simply the right thing to do, or because of what we expect to get out of it? To put it bluntly, do we do what we do for love, or are our motives purely mercenary?
The first thing to note is that Job and his friends are portrayed as non-Israelites. This means that they know nothing of the great act of deliverance from Egypt that pervades the rest of the Old Testament and gives context to the sufferings of the Jewish people. They have a simple but well worked-out theology: they believe in an all-powerful, holy, infinitely wise and good Supreme Being who rewards righteous people and punishes the wicked. This is all fine – until, like Job, you find yourself on the receiving end of undeserved misfortune. And what misfortune! To lose all his wealth is bad enough, but then comes the news that his family has been wiped out in a freak accident. And on top of it all, he is then struck down with a painful and disfiguring illness. Men have killed themselves over less.
Then along come three of his friends, who try to counsel him but succeed only in rubbing salt into his many wounds. Believing, as they do, that suffering is a divine punishment for sin, they try to convince Job that what has happened to him proves that he is a wicked man who needs to repent in order to enjoy God’s favour again. Since this is not true, Job is pushed even further into depression and despair. In trying to make sense of his situation, he meditates on the relationship between himself and God – and comes up with some surprising insights. He may not get any answers, but at least he is asking the right questions…