Job isn’t a straightforward book, by any means. I don’t think it’s meant to be a history, more a meditation on suffering, injustice and faith. I remember being told once that the book of Proverbs is the book of down-to-earth wisdom, which essentially says, ‘this is the way to live. Follow it, and you’ll be all right.’ Ecclesiastes and Job are the books of reflective wisdom, which say ‘we’ve tried it. It’s not that simple.’
At the end of a rough week, where (among other things) I’ve watched and prayed as a wonderful, kind, saintly lady was dying of cancer and looked into the eyes of a man carrying his 24-year old son’s coffin, I can’t say that I’m thrilled by the prospect of a few days with Job. But perhaps it’s what I need to be reading.
I don’t know quite what to make of the first couple of chapters, with Satan being allowed to torment the innocent Job to see how far he can push him without Job giving up on God. As I’ve said, I don’t think it’s meant to be about an actual person in history, but that doesn’t answer the questions that arise. After all, at least Job survives, unlike his children and servants! I think it’s best to see this scene-setting as simply that – setting up the situation as one of clearly undeserved suffering. Perhaps what it can add to our human experience is the clear picture that while our suffering is allowed by God, that doesn’t mean that it’s actively caused by God, or that it is his will. It doesn’t sort out the whole question of why innocent people suffer, but then it’s only meant to be a starting point for a story that will reflect on that question.
I also remember being told (in a wonderful series of sermons at Wycliffe Hall by David Atkinson) that Job’s friends were probably fresh from theological college – knowing all the ‘right’ answers but not yet knowing when not to give them. Eliphaz starts the ball rolling, with an abstract theology, that God sends blessings to reward the righteous, and suffering to punish the sinful. Therefore, as Job is clearly suffering, it follows logically that he must have sinned. All he needs to do is be grateful to God for the alarm call, search his conscience and repent.
If only it were so simple. I have a feeling that we’re going to find over the next few days that in the face of suffering, pre-packaged answers, however good the theology behind them, aren’t going to be much help. Life is more complicated than that.