Boring as the Book of Job is, it is a perfect allegory for our modern-day faith. For far too many of us, our faith is basically lip service. Our churches are social clubs, hangout spots. When life throws us a catastrophic curve, as it did Job, our first response is to blame God for it. How could a loving God allow this?! Well, sister, have you ever read Job...? Of course, the ultimate story of unfair suffering at God’s direction is the story of Jesus Christ, a sinless Man Who was nonetheless tortured and left to die. It amazes me how we Church Folk tend to miss that point.
Most of us know the story of Job. God makes a bet with the
devil, offering up Job as a model of righteous devotion, and
permits the devil to afflict Job in terrible ways as a test of
Job’s faith. I personally find this to be a completely hokey
scenario inconsistent with how God is otherwise portrayed in the
bible. I consider the story of Job to be allegorical, a poem
crafted from diverse sources rather than an accurate history of
an actual person. Several texts from ancient Mesopotamia and
Egypt offer parallels to Job, and while it is impossible to tell
whether the author of Job was influenced by any of them, their
existence tells us that he was the recipient of a long tradition
of reflection on the existence of inexplicable suffering.
Drown me in email as you like, the whole idea of God deliberately allowing suffering just to prove something to Satan makes no sense to me. I mean, who is Satan that God should have to prove Himself? Or, is God so bored that this is all He has to do all day? The notion of the Book of Job being allegorical shouldn’t really alarm anyone. I mean, if you believe there was an actual man named Job and that the Book of Job is an actual historical record, that belief doesn’t threaten me. For all I know, you may be right. There are those who do not believe in a literal Moses, who allegedly wrote the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible) including the parts about his own death. Was there a literal Moses? Yes, I believe so, probably. Are the books of the Pentateuch an accurate historical record? Well, I believe yes and no. Much like The Book of Job, I believe much of what is attributed to Moses was either written or edited by others. At the end of the day, my position is this: whether these men actually existed or not, whether the record is a literal history or not, makes absolutely no difference in terms of what we learn from these scriptures or what God is trying to tell us through them.
Many scholars agree the Book of Job was not originally written in Hebrew and that its author was not necessarily an Israelite. It is generally regarded as a parable and not a literal history, although most Church Folk I know take this book literally. The earliest known manuscripts come from what are known as the Masoretic Texts, the authoritative Hebrew text of the Jewish Bible for Rabbinic Judaism. Modern scholars consider the Masoretic Texts suspicious as they were heavily edited by a tribe of Israeli zealots known as the Masoretes between the 7th and 10th centuries CE. The Authorized King James Version of the Holy Bible contains a great deal of Masoretic Text and, despite what most Church Folk vehemently claim, the Authorized KJV is hardly the most accurate version of the bible (the New King James Version has corrected many of those mistranslations and the New International Version was translated from later-discovered texts such as the Dead Sea Scrolls which pre-date the Masoretic edits).
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 cannot be sensibly understood as a consequence of bad choices and actions, and unmerited suffering requires theological candor. Christianity began interpreting Job 19:23-29 (verses concerning a “redeemer” whom Job hopes can save him from God) as a prophecy of Christ, although the major view among scholars is that Job’s “redeemer” is either an angelic being or God himself. With Job appropriated as a witness to the coming Christ, the predominant Jewish view became “Job the blasphemer,” some rabbis even saying that he was rightly punished by God because he had stood by while Pharaoh massacred the innocent Jewish infants. [Wikipedia]
At a boilerplate reading, the Book of Job is deadly dull. Next to, perhaps, Numbers and Chronicles, Job is one of the most coma-inducing, deadly dull books in the bible. Most of it is written in poetic parallelism. It is repetitious. It is borrrrring. He’s married to a typical Church Lady whose investment is in church while not trusting God. He has friends who were cool with his relationship with God until Job got sick, at which point we realize the trio of friends (modeled precisely like a classic Greek Chorus in Shakespearean literature) were, perhaps, indulging Job’s faith without taking it particularly seriously. Job’s sickness seems to prove to all involved that God is a liar if not an invented fiction, and Job is repeatedly encouraged to abandon God as God has obviously abandoned Job.
This happens every day in the Bronx. In Miami. In Chicago. For no reason you can imagine, you’ve lost your job. Your test results come back positive. You child is run over in the street. You’re a good Christian. You don’t cheat on your wife. You don’t smoke, don’t drink. You faithfully pay your tithes. You can’t imagine how God could allow these things into your life. But you rebuke the devil and you pray and you pray and your form prayer groups and prayer circles and they pray and they pray, but the situation not only does not improve, it gets worse. Doubt inevitably appears: can this whole Christian thing simply be a ruse? A racket? A self-reinforcing delusion? You friends gather around but say nothing helpful—after all, what can they say? And you see, now, how shallow their faith is because your own is beginning to buckle under the strain. Your wife, your husband, encourages you as much as they can, but they, like your friends, are clearly doing their best to comfort you but obviously think your quaint trust in God to be sadly misplaced. Maybe she doesn’t say, “Curse God and die,” but her own faith was never more than surface glitter to begin with. She’s not a Christian, she’s Church Folk, and Church Folk are absolutely useless in a clutch because their relationship with Christ—if any—is incredibly shallow. Crisis will expose the truth about our faith.
Numerology and Prophecy: Divine perfection, holiness, completeness of order. The mysteries of God.
A Numbers Game
Boring as the Book of Job is, it is a perfect allegory for our
modern-day faith. For far too many of us, our faith is basically
lip service. Our churches are social clubs, hangout spots. When
life throws us a catastrophic curve, as it did Job, our first
response is to blame God for it. How could a loving God allow
this?! Well, sister, have you ever read Job...?
If you look at the book of Job more like poetry and less like history, the book makes a lot more sense. It has been widely and often extravagantly praised for its literary qualities— “The greatest poem of ancient and modern times," according to Tennyson.
Job is rifled with mysterious numbers, usually sevens and threes which, in Christian numerology symbolize the number of completeness and perfection (7) and “divine perfection” or “holiness” (3), and which add up to the number ten, which symbolizes the completeness of order. Job had seven sons and three daughters, seven thousand sheep, three thousand camels, five hundred yoke of oxen, five hundred female donkeys (1,000 signifies “immensity” or “fullness of quantity,” preeminently in the Book of Revelation). He had three friends (later four, which, in Christian numerology represents “the world,” preeminently in the Book of Revelation) who sat with him seven days and nights. His ordeal lasted likely ten days. What do these numbers mean? Many scholars look for some secret code in Job which may have become distorted by editing and revisions through the generations.
I’ve heard Church Folk joke, when asked how they’re doing, “Oh, I’m hanging in there like Job.” Brother, you’re nothing like Job. And that’s a good thing. We should stop tempting God by speaking such things into existence.
Of course, the ultimate story of unfair suffering at God’s direction is the story of Jesus Christ, a sinless Man Who was nonetheless tortured and left to die. It amazes me how we Church Folk tend to miss that point as we blame and curse God for our own suffering or for that of our loved ones. God sentenced His own Son to unthinkable suffering to atone not for His sin but for our own.