So let us begin with an ancient story. We may better understand the story if we think of it as having five parts, and it is important to know that it is an archetypal story of suffering in its many forms. It is the very old story of a man named Job who lived in the mythical land of Uz.
Once upon a time, there was a man named Job who was unceasingly careful not to offend his deity whose name was Yahweh. Job was very wealthy and blessed with seven sons, three daughters, seven thousand sheep, three thousand camels, five hundred yoke of oxen, five hundred female asses, and a great many slaves. Having such wealth and prestige, he was looked up to by the people of his region. Taking nothing for granted however, and concerned ongoingly that his sons or daughters may have slipped up and committed a sin in some way, thereby displeasing Yahweh, Job would regularly offer a sacrifice to his deity in behalf of each of his children.
Then something very strange occurred in the council of gods in heaven, over which Yahweh presided. One of the council's members, Satan, came into the meeting, having been away for some time traveling around. He likely was investigating what was taking place among the mortals on earth in order that he could report anything suspicious to Yahweh, who promptly asks Satan where he has been. Satan answers simply, perhaps with a suggestive gesture indicating more than his words, "From roaming the earth and strolling about here and there." Yahweh takes the bait and asks if he had noticed his scrupulously moral and pious servant Job. Now the game is on, for Satan challenges Yahweh's rather smug implication that his servant Job was above reproach.
Satan rather sarcastically asks if Job's religiosity really is not due to his currying and receiving favor from Yahweh. Satan provokes Yahweh with the taunt, "Remove Job's possessions, and you will see that he will curse you to your face"!
Yahweh is up to the challenge. After all,it is Job's life and Yahweh's ego on the line. So Yahweh ups the ante and tells Satan he can go ahead and take everything away from Job, but with the reservation of not touching his body. No sooner does Satan receive this go-ahead than it is done. Through one catastrophe after another, Job's fortunes are devastated, his livestock stolen, children killed, and property destroyed.
However, Job stood steadfast and did not curse God. And once again Yahweh convened the council of gods, to which Satan made another appearance. Yahweh seems not to be able to avoid boasting just a little and takes a dig at Satan, although not too flattering for Yahweh himself, "Even though you incited me to attack Job [Notice that Yahweh admits Satan got under his skin!], he did not compromise his integrity." "Ah yes," says Satan, "but if you rack his body with disease, then you will see him turn against you."
And sure enough, once again, Yahweh's ego seems to be incapable of withstanding Satan's taunt. Once again, Yahweh gives the go-ahead: "Job is in your power, just don't kill him"! This time, Satan inflicted Job with sores all over his body, from the soles of his feet to the crown of his head.
Still Job did not curse Yahweh even though Job's wife encouraged him to do so and die.
While Job was sitting in his ash heap, scraping his diseased skin, three of his neighbors approach to help their old friend. Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar sat in respectful silence for seven days and nights, waiting for Job to speak first before they would begin their agenda. And their agenda will inflict Job with yet one more calamity. His friends are convinced that they know the cause of Job's misfortunes. In brief it is this: Job has sinned and deserves the punishment of his deity [Now with the different names of El, Shaddai, Elohim, and Eloah. I will say more later about the different names used for Job's deity.]. The friends begin somewhat gently in persuading Job that he needs to own up to his sin(s) so that El can forgive him and restore his fortunes. Job will have none of it. He honestly cannot recall any sin, so deep has been his piety, so controlled and perfectionistic has been his observance of strict obedience to El.
Job finds this whole episode of his friends offering their support to be preposterious. So sure are the friends of their religious convictions, however, that they do not give up. Their assaults increase in tone and substance. At first, they try flattery. Eliphaz says:
Think how you have corrected many,
strengthened weak hands.
Is not your religion your confidence,
your hope and the integrity of your ways?
If it were I, I would ask for El,
to him commit my cause.
Job responds with respectful restraint:
Instruct me, and I'll be quiet.
How have I erred? Make me understand.
Indeed! And help us understand as well. For we know that Job is innocent of the sin his friends suspect has angered their deity. Still his friends continue on through a cycle of three exchanges; each of his would-be friends accuses Job, and after each accusation Job responds to them.
But not just to them. Job finally becomes so worked up that he takes on El as well, but not before he labels his pious accusers as "whitewashers of lies," "troublesome comforters," and blowers of "windy words."
Then Job turns to his deity in confusion, in a plea for intercession, a demand for a hearing, and finally in anger as he asserts to Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar:
... just know that El behaving crookedly
circled his net around me.
So I cried "Violence!" but got no answer,
called for help but got no justice.
Job pleads with his silent, absent deity to step forth so that he might be confronted with Job's case and innocence:
"Oh that I had someone to hear me"!
And, then, Job utters words that will stand among the most poignant words in literature in the face of extreme suffering:
For I know that my avenger lives somewhere, and
he must someday come forward on earth though
this may be only after my skin has been hacked away.
To these pleading words, I will return later, because my thesis in this writing turns around this echoing summons.
In this part we hear grandiose pronouncements from a young bystander, Elihu, who showers condescension on Job and the three friends alike. Elihu is long-winded and sophomoric in his four speeches that ridicule Job for being unintelligent, dishonest in his
refusal to confess his sin, and blasphemous toward El whose great power and justice Job simply does not understand and which Elihu will "explain." The fact that Job was not made to see these things by Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar demonstrates their incompetence in Elihu's mind. Taking the position of moral superiority and theological certainty, Elihu appears not to notice, or care about, the silence of Job who by this time must be quite at a loss of words for response either to his three would-be friends or his brash young would-be spiritual advisor.
Finding no trace of compassion in Eliphaz, Bildad, Zophar, or Elihu, we hope for Job that surely Yahweh [Note how the name for Job's deity changes once again back to Yahweh.] will intervene and set things right, maybe ask forgiveness, and restore some sense of justice to this sordid escalation of suffering. But no. Yahweh does finally appear in what has been described as a storm or whirlwind, only to pile more grief on Job's poor head.
Consider the magnitude of Job's suffering, the themes that fall out in this story -- death, disease, injustice, catastrophe, the loss of everything precious to him, the seeming meaninglessness of it all,the utter loneliness of his predicament, the absence of an opportunity to express his grievances and receive a fair hearing. Imagine also what it is like to carry those experiences in one's head and have no one to validate what one is thinking and feeling. In fact, Job's deep suffering has actually been shoved aside in favor of the condemnation of having sinned and displeased his deity.
Now his deity appears. As the story is told, the name of the deity in this part is once again "Yahweh." But Yahweh offers no comfort, no understanding, no redress of wrongs. Yahweh is bellicose and sarcastic:
Who is this obscuring my intentions with
his ignorant words?
Brace yourself like a fighter;
I am going to ask questions and you are to inform me!
Not quite what we would have hoped for, this brutal absence of a comforting bed-side manner. And it gets worse. Yahweh serenades long and eloquently about his greatness, avoiding any reference to his vulnerability that let Satan get under his skin.
Yahweh talks about his creation of the earth and a lot about the animals he created, with special attention to the ostrich, horse, lioness, mountain goats, hawks, and wild oxen, as well as the mythological Behemoth and Leviathan. This boast of power seems to be directed toward intimidating Job and disqualifying his suffering as something unimportant. In other words, how could Job think that his questions of suffering could possibly compare to Yahweh's claim for omnipotence? As if to say to Job, "Match this," Yahweh speaks sarcastically,
One who brings the deity to court should fight!
Has the critic thought up an answer?
To this hostile question, Job very wisely says about the only thing he can:
My words have been frivolous: what can I reply?
I had better lay my hand over my mouth.
The exchange between Job and Yahweh will end with Job's lament:
I take comfort in dust and ashes.
Job realizes there is nothing further to be gained from a deity who shows no understanding of human suffering at the point of life's extremities.
The story then takes an unexpected turn in its conclusion. To our surprise, and for reasons we are not given in the story, Yahweh tells Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar how angry he is with them for not having spoken correctly about him as Job had done. Yahweh commands Job to offer prayers for them, which he does. Then, finally, we are assured that Job's fortunes have been restored and even doubled. Once again he is given seven sons and three daughters, while his holdings grow to fourteen thousand sheep, six thousand camels, a thousand yoke of oxen, and a thousand she-donkeys. Job lived for another one hundred and forty years before he died.
The incongruity of this story's ending hangs with questions in our sensibilities. We do not understand the inconsistency of the deity who suddenly provides a fairy tale ending for a story of tragic suffering.
Footnote: The text of JOB may be found in the Hebrew and Christian Bibles. I have largely depended upon THE NEW JERUSALEM BIBLE. Additional sources from which I drew liberally in quoting from the text of JOB included Good (IN TURNS OF TEMPEST), Pope (THE ANCHOR BIBLE), and Scheindlin (THE BOOK OF JOB).