"Hast Thou Considered My Servant Job?"

By John S. Tanner

John S. Tanner, “‘Hast Thou Considered My Servant Job?,’” in Sperry Symposium Classics: The Old Testament, ed. Paul Y. Hoskisson (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University; Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2005), 266–82.

“Hast Thou Considered My Servant Job?”

John S. Tanner

John S. Tanner was academic vice president at Brigham Young University when this was published.

“Hast thou considered my servant Job, that there is none like him?” the Lord asked Satan (Job 2:3). The same question might well be rephrased to us: “Have you considered the book of Job? There is none like it.” None indeed. Job is a unique book: uniquely disturbing and uniquely empowered to deepen our faith. Both its answers and its questions about the problem of suffering help clarify gospel truths and are themselves illuminated by the Restoration’s light. Well should Latter-day Saints consider the Lord’s servant Job—consider him often and well.

If you are like me, you can scarcely keep your mind off Job. His trials come to my mind almost daily as I read or hear or experience fresh instances of unaccountable misery—especially the suffering of innocent victims. The book of Job is as timely as today’s headlines telling of blameless children starving in the Sudan or beaten, raped, and murdered in Midvale. It is as timeless as the cry of the widow and the fatherless, whose collected tears over the course of world history would fill a great sea of grief. When life forces us “to feel what wretches feel” (King Lear 3.4.34), the book of Job stands as a permanent scriptural referent for our anguish. This power to sensitize us to suffering is alone reason enough to “consider Job,” long and hard. For in our quest to become more compassionate disciples of Him who “hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows” (Isaiah 53:4), it is good for us, like Him, to be “touched with the feeling of [others’] infirmities” (Hebrews 4:15).

No book in the Bible touches us quite like Job. That its power has been universally felt is evident by the countless references to Job from a chorus of sensitive voices over thousands of years: Augustine, Calvin, Kierkegaard, Kant, and Jung; Bacon, Blake, Pascal, Montesquieu, Milton, Melville, Dostoyevsky, and Goethe. These readers and many more, both great and small, have all, after their fashion, considered Job. Civilization’s wrestle with Job, no less than Jacob’s wrestle with the angel, has left the Judeo-Christian world forever changed. Even today, the book of Job frames the terms of discussion for certain fundamental and permanent questions with which every generation of believers must grapple.

Is Job History or Story?

One question with which many readers grapple as they consider Job is its historicity: Is the book of Job history or story? Personally, I am not persuaded that the answer to this question makes much decisive difference for the interpretation of the text. My own way of dealing with the question, however, is to adopt a compromise position. In the absence of clear pronouncements by scripture or Church leaders to the contrary, I accept the fact of Job’s existence. At the same time, I recognize that the text bears the marks of evident literary fashioning. It has, for instance, a definite three-part structure consisting of prose prologue, poetic dialogues, and prose epilogue. A prose frame thus encloses poetic dialogues. Its central poetic dialogues, moreover, are further neatly divided into three cycles of speeches, alternating between Job and each of his three comforters. I cannot conceive of these long, formal passages of poetry being transcribed verbatim from actual conversations. They are clearly literary constructions.

This does not mean, however, that Job is pure fiction. Both the prose narrative frames and the poetic dialogues may be based on the actual experiences of a real man—a good man who lost everything, was pressured to confess to hidden sins but maintained his integrity, implored God for answers and vindication, and finally received revelation and renewed prosperity. I personally think of the book as mixing both fact and fable. Some elements seem fabulous to me (e.g., the wager between God and Satan, the neatly symmetrical doubling of Job’s wealth at the end). But elements of fable do not prove that the entire text is fictional, any more than the existence of an actual king named Macbeth is disproved by the fabulous features of Shakespeare’s play. There may be much more fact behind even patently literary texts than moderns sometimes suppose. For many years scholars thought the city of Troy to be a fiction and ridiculed Schliemann when he went to dig for Homer’s “fabled” Troy—until he found it.[1] We need to be skeptical of our own modern skepticism.

Nevertheless, the book of Job does not make as strong a claim to historicity as do most biblical texts. For example, all we learn of Job’s background is that he hails from the land of Uz—a region of uncertain identification and, consequently, no geopolitical consequence in the narrative. Apparently not an Israelite but a foreigner, Job is not given a genealogy, causing the Babylonian Talmud and later Maimonides to speculate that Job is a parable.[2] The tradition appears uncertain as to Job’s relation to historical books; this is indicated in the way it has been grouped at different times with various different Old Testament books. The book of Job has, however, always been accepted in the canon.[3]

Modern scholars classify the book of Job as wisdom literature (or hokmah), in concert with Proverbs and Ecclesiastes in the Bible, and with Ecclesiasticus (a.k.a. the Wisdom of Jesus Ben Sirach) in the Apocrypha.[4] Unlike prophetic and historical biblical texts, wisdom texts are less concerned with the unfolding history of a covenant people through time than they are with the timeless truths of the individual’s relationship to moral and religious principles. Wisdom literature, moreover, belongs to an international movement. Egyptian and Babylonian sages also composed prudential maxims (such as Proverbs) and skeptical reflections on life (such as Ecclesiastes). There also exist Babylonian and Egyptian dialogues about suicide and divine justice similar to those in the book of Job.[5] In short, Job seems not to lay the same claim to historicity as do, say, the great patriarchs or Israel’s kings and prophets; in addition, the text bears the marks of a historical genre or literary type known as wisdom literature.

Conceding all these reasons to be cautious about Job’s historicity, we still ought not dismiss him out of hand as fictional. For we recall that Job is referred to three times in other scriptures: first in the Old Testament (see Ezekiel 14:14), then in the New Testament (see James 5:11), and last in the Doctrine and Covenants (see D&C 121:10). (No mention of Job is made in either the Book of Mormon or the Pearl of Great Price.) The extratextual references that do occur in scripture, it should be noted, underscore the following specific details from the text: that Job was righteous (see Ezekiel 14:14); that Job was “patient,” which might better be translated “steadfast” (see James 5:11); and that Job suffered and was accused by his friends of evil (see D&C 121:10). None of these allusions absolutely guarantees the historicity of all the text’s details; none, for example, makes reference to a wager with the adversary. Nor do they even necessarily confirm Job’s historical existence, for in principle it is possible to allude to the patience or sufferings of Job without his being a real character, just as we might to the beauty of Adonis or the agony of King Lear.[6] Still, these extratextual references to Job ought to make Latter-day Saints hesitant simply to dismiss the notion of a historical Job. They lend additional credibility to Job’s existence and to essential facts of his story.

So, too, do most allusions to Job by Church leaders, according to Keith H. Meservy, who concludes that “the Brethren, also, when they have referred to Job, have regarded him as a real person.”[7] Granting this, however, still an element of cautious restraint is called for in extending this conclusion to the entire book of Job. Allusions to Job by the Brethren do not necessarily mean that every aspect of the text must be taken as literally historical.

The LDS Bible Dictionary seems to me to provide exactly the right focus on the book of Job by remaining silent about historical questions, by ignoring the prose prologue and epilogue altogether, and by concentrating on the profound questions raised and answers provided in the central poetic dialogues. Perhaps the Bible Dictionary should guide our attention as well, which perhaps for too long has been occupied with the text’s historicity rather than with the larger question of its meaning.

What Does Job Say about Retributive Justice?

The Bible Dictionary states, simply, that the book of Job “narrates the afflictions that befell a righteous man, and discusses the moral problem such sufferings present.” Whether Job is a particular man or an Everyman, whether the book of Job is history or, simply “his story,” the text still raises the same searching questions about “the moral problems such sufferings present.” Further, no one can doubt that Job’s essential story is true, painfully true, for Job’s predicament has been recapitulated countless times over in history all too real. Good people have suffered, do suffer, and this for no clearly apparent reason. Through Job’s experience, we explore our faith in a universe that operates under a system of rewards and punishments—a notion sometimes called the doctrine of retributive justice.

Many commentators detect in the book of Job an implied challenge to the doctrine of retributive justice. We see this doctrine debated many times between Job and his interlocutors, as in chapters 20 and 21 where Zophar asserts the standard line that the “triumphing of the wicked is short” and Job answers that the wicked often enjoy long life, “spend their days in wealth, and in a moment go down to the grave” (Job 20:5; 21:13). This searching examination of rewards and punishments in Job is often seen as challenging Israel’s prophets’ and historians’ unshakable faith in a system of retributive justice. To read the oracles of judgment pronounced by Isaiah, Jeremiah, Hosea, Amos, and like prophets is to encounter absolute confidence in retributive justice. Likewise, to read Deuteronomy is to confront history whose contours are shaped by a covenant whereby God metes out blessings and cursings according to the principle of retributive justice: “Behold, I set before you this day a blessing and a curse; A blessing, if ye obey the commandments of the Lord your God, which I command you this day; And a curse, if ye will not obey the commandments of the Lord your God” (Deuteronomy 11:26–28).

In Latter-day Saint scripture we see this same historical thesis operating in the Book of Mormon. I call it “Lehi’s theme” because Lehi first received the covenant that his posterity will prosper or suffer in the new land according to their faithfulness (see 2 Nephi 1:5–10), though a similar promise of rewards and punishments had been given to the Jaredites well before Lehi (see Ether 2:8–12). Book of Mormon history is covenant history par excellence. It insists that the history of the promised land is one of divine punishments and rewards hinged on the obedience or rebellion of the Lord’s covenant people.

Modern revelation also confirms a correlation between blessings and obedience, punishment and transgression. For example, “I, the Lord, am bound when ye do what I say” (D&C 82:10), and “There is a law, irrevocably decreed in heaven . . . upon which all blessings are predicated” (D&C 130:20). These and similar modern oracles provide the basis for our belief that God today still enters into covenants, as He did with Abraham. They lend further weight to faith in divine rewards and punishments.

How can we understand the book of Job in connection with the doctrine of retributive justice? Can Job help us understand the true nature of our belief about the correlation between suffering and sin? I believe so. Perhaps these few points might suggest how:

First and foremost, the book of Job makes clear that suffering is not necessarily a sign of punishment. As the Bible Dictionary states, though “the book of Job does not entirely answer the question as to why Job (or any human) might suffer, . . . it does make it clear that affliction is not necessarily evidence that one has sinned.” This is a great comfort, for many people blame themselves when tragedy befalls them. When a child is accidentally killed, when cancer strikes, when a job is lost—our immediate response often is, “what have I done to deserve this punishment?” Job implies that there can be “no fault” tragedy.

Second, Job warns us against trying to reason backward from peoples’ external circumstances to the condition of their souls. To do so traps us in a logical fallacy of an “if-then” argument called “affirming the consequent.” If-then sequences are not reversible: If A then B does not permit the reverse conclusion, B therefore A. If a man is a millionaire, then he may buy a Mercedes, but if he buys a Mercedes, he is not necessarily a millionaire. Or, to apply the same principles to Job, if a man is wicked then he may (and ultimately will) suffer, but if he suffers he is not necessarily wicked. Sinfulness may result in suffering, but suffering does not necessarily imply sinfulness. The same holds true for the corollary: virtue may result in prosperity, but prosperity does not necessarily imply virtue. You cannot reason backwards from the fact of prosperity or suffering to the state of the soul, as Job’s comforters try to do. “Affliction is not necessarily evidence that one has sinned,” the Bible Dictionary wisely concludes.

Third, Job implies that neither prosperity nor suffering can be easily or routinely interpreted. It may be that suffering is the blessing and prosperity the trial. From personal experience no less than from scripture, we know that prosperity may test our faith while suffering may ready us for salvation. As Francis Bacon said, “Prosperity is the blessing of the Old Testament; Adversity is the blessing of the New.”[8]

And fourth, the book of Job may serve to remind us that individuals often live out personal tragedies quite apart from the general prosperity and happiness of the larger community. Job addresses itself to the plight of a particular individual, not a covenant people. Most of the Old Testament and Book of Mormon promises, on the other hand, pertain to an entire covenant community. If we look carefully at the Bible or Book of Mormon we can find many instances of good individuals who, like Job, suffer. Think, for example, of the martyred women and children Alma and Amulek witnessed burn to death, or of the wives and children forced to feed upon the flesh of their husbands and fathers just before the final destruction of the Nephites (see Alma 14:7–11; Moroni 9:7–8). Complicating an oversimplified view of history is the knowledge that “the Lord suffereth the righteous to be slain that his justice and judgment may come upon the wicked” (Alma 60:13; compare Alma 14:11).

Righteousness does not insulate us from suffering or assure us of material rewards. As Christians, we need not look only to Job to confirm this fact. The supreme proof of this is Christ, who suffered more than has any man. The mortal Messiah intimately knew poverty, pain, hunger, thirst, fatigue, betrayal, and agonizing death (see Mosiah 3:7). If the Lord, who was perfect, had to endure affliction, should we, who are imperfect, expect to be spared from it? As the Lord reminded the Prophet Joseph, “The Son of Man hath descended below them all. Art thou greater than he?” (D&C 122:8). The only reward for righteousness that the Lord holds out unfailingly to individuals is peace in this life and eternal life in the life to come—and even this peace must be found amid persecutions, not in the absence (see John 14:27; 15:20).

How Is Job about Man’s Relationship to God?

These and other insights into the problem of evil may be drawn from Job. In my opinion, however, the book is not primarily a repository of philosophical or theological answers as to why God permits suffering. The book of Job is not a rational “theodicy,” a term coined by the German Enlightenment philosopher Leibnitz, nor does it pretend to be.[9] Theodicies are philosophical attempts to reconcile the goodness and omnipotence of God with the brute reality of human suffering—or the so-called “problem of evil.” I’m convinced that strictly speaking, the book of Job’s central concern lies not with the philosophical problem of evil but with the personal problem of despair; not with God’s relationship to evil but man’s relationship to God out of the midst of “evil.” Job’s sense of godforsakenness is the real problem he must endure and overcome. To put the matter succinctly, the problem Job treats involves relationship; the answer it provides entails revelation. The book of Job teaches us how to endure suffering, not the reason for it.

Let me explain. If we look at the text, we observe that Job is never told the reason for his afflictions. We also note that the text devotes but a few brief (albeit vivid) verses to the description of Job’s physical pain. To be sure, Job’s boils are deeply etched upon our memories, but they are not the main source of his suffering. In fact, Job endured physical pain in silence. When he finally cried out, after abiding seven days and seven nights in complete silence, Job complained not of boils but of betrayal: “Wherefore is light given to him that is in misery, and life unto the bitter in soul” (Job 3:20). It is as if Job’s cancerous skin disease ate its way inward during his long week of brooding, ulcerating his spirit until he became “bitter in soul.” However difficult to bear, Job’s physical pain was most embittering for what it seemed to him to betoken: a violated relationship with God.

Job’s relationship to God remains the focus throughout the dialogues. Physical affliction forms but the occasion, not the main topic, of the ensuing dialogues, which make no further reference to Job’s specific personal losses or boils. Instead, Job’s friends come with glib explanations about why Job suffered. Their pious advice—accept your suffering, Job, as punishment for your sins—not only provide him cold comfort but, if accepted, would have perverted Job’s absolutely honest relationship with the Almighty. To follow their counsel would have forced Job to live a lie by confessing to the Lord that he felt he deserved his affliction—which he did not, and should not feel. Such “comfort” exonerates God by charging man with depravity, so that no matter what happens to man, the pious religionist can always say, “God exacteth of thee less than thine iniquity deserveth” (Job 11:6). One sees why defenders of original sin have found so much fodder in the speeches of Job’s self-righteous friends.[10] Such easy explanations for suffering have continued to be foisted on believers by overly simplistic doctrines of retributive justice and depravity. In consequence, many innocent victims have been pressured to confess to the lie that they merit their misfortune—that whatever evil befalls them is less punishment than they deserve.[11]

But Job refuses such false wisdom and stoutly maintains that, even weighed in the balance scales of ordinary justice (see Job 6:2; 31:6), his suffering is disproportionate to any sin that could be laid to his charge. Repeatedly, Job cries out for an encounter with the Lord in order to bring God into the docks and prove his own innocence: “O that one might plead for a man with God, as a man pleadeth for his neighbor” (Job 16:21); “Oh that I knew where I might find him! that I might come even to his seat! I would order my cause before him, and fill my mouth with arguments” (Job 23: 3–4); “Oh that one would hear me! behold, my desire is, that the Almighty would answer me” (Job 31:35). Though heaven might kill him for so doing, Job vows to entrust his life in the hands of a God whom he believes prefers honesty to hypocrisy, while maintaining the injustice of his suffering before God’s very face: “Wherefore do I take my flesh in my teeth, and put my life in mine hand? Though he slay me, yet will I trust him: but I will maintain mine own ways before him. He also shall be my salvation: for an hypocrite shall not come before him” (Job 13:14–16). Such is the shocking boldness of Job before his friends and his Lord, and such is his stunning trust in a God who, Job knows, does not want man to come before Him as a hypocrite, feigning to comprehend suffering that he cannot fathom.

In such speeches as these, we glimpse a man whose relationship with the Lord is as powerfully felt as it is powerfully tested—and, to repeat, the text’s central concern lies in man’s proper relationship to God. The text propounds few, if any, theoretical reasons for suffering, though the so-called comforters advocate many. Rather, it offers a memorable example of how to suffer suffering. Recognizing that man’s relationship to Deity is central, we can better sense why Job stands both condemned and approved by the Lord in the final chapters, while the comforters stand merely condemned. Out of the Lord’s mouth, Job is described as both one who “darkeneth counsel by words without knowledge” (Job 38:2; see also 40:2–8), and also one who has “spoken of me the thing that is right.” By contrast, of Eliphaz and Job’s other two dogmatic friends, so smugly doctrinaire, the Lord says only, “My wrath is kindled against thee, and against thy two friends: for ye have not spoken of me the thing that is right” (Job 42:7). Thus, the text reminds us that one can say something that is formally wrong but personally right (as did Job), and something formally correct but personally wrong (as did the comforters). The relationship of the speaker to the speech matters utterly.

How Is Job about the Need for Revelation?

We can learn much from Job’s “friends” about how to comfort those suffering tragedy-induced crises of faith. We learn that it is not enough to have all the right answers. We must also speak the truth in love.[12] We learn that we risk divine condemnation when we cease to comfort and start to accuse. Joseph Smith taught that those who accuse place “themselves in the seat of the Satan.”[13] Truly, the very word “devil” derives from “diabolos,” meaning “accuser, calumniator, slanderer, traducer.”[14] Further, we learn that the only abiding comfort must come from the Comforter. The solution to a sense of godforsakenness is, obviously, the revelation that God has not forsaken us. Again, the problem in the book of Job is one of relation; the answer is one of revelation. Job is a wisdom text about the limits of wisdom.

The comforters’ failure to reason Job out of his anguish provides a striking illustration of the impotence of human wisdom alone to solve a Job-like crisis. The advice of Job’s first comforter, Eliphaz the Temanite, typifies the posture they all adopt. You were ready, Eliphaz reminded Job, to encourage others in their suffering: “Now it is come upon thee, and thou faintest; it toucheth thee, and thou art troubled” (Job 4:5). Suffering is not arbitrary, this dogmatist continued, but constitutes a sure sign of divine judgment upon sin, for “who ever perished, being innocent? or where were the righteous cut off?” (Job 4:7). Further, if suffering is divine correction, Eliphaz reasons, then “happy is the man whom God correcteth: therefore despise not thou the chastening of the Almighty” (Job 5:17). Although the Temanite momentarily entertains the possibility that the Lord’s judgment may not be so easy to read, for the Lord “doeth great things and unsearchable” (Job 5:9), in general Eliphaz remains certain that if you live righteously, the Lord will deliver you from famine, war, and destruction, and you will die peaceably of old age: “Thou shalt come to thy grave in a full age, like as a shock of corn cometh in his season” (Job 5:26).

All these points may have elements of truth, but they are also untrue. Why? First, they were uttered without compassion. “To him that is afflicted pity should be shewed from his friend,” Job protests (Job 6:14; compare 19:21). Next, they were glib. Those who suffer are not happy, at least not until they have been allowed to be unhappy first. And last, they are counsels based on human reason about suffering in general—upon hearsay, as it were—not upon revelation about Job’s particular predicament. This is clear when Eliphaz proudly discloses the source of his knowledge as he concludes his counsel, seeming to speak for all the comforters: “Lo this, we have searched it, so it is; hear it, and know thou it for thy good” (Job 5:27).

Such smugness is roundly condemned in the book of Job. All of us who are called upon to comfort those working through their own personal Job-like trials should take note not only of the comforters’ failure to solve Job’s problem but of the Lord’s divine displeasure with them. Even Elihu, the fourth and final comforter, whose speeches echo those issuing from the whirlwind, had no impact on Job and, in my opinion, stands under the same divine disapproval as the other comforters.[15] For reason alone cannot solve Job’s crisis, which is a crisis in his relationship with God. Job makes no reply to Elihu, but well might he have responded to the arrogant young man in the language of a character in a novel by Charles Williams: “As a mere argument there’s something lacking perhaps in saying to a man who’s lost his money and his house and his family and is sitting on the dustbin, all over boils, ‘Look at the hippopotamus.’”[16] The point is that Elihu’s answer remains “mere argument;” the Lord’s is a revelation.

As a personal revelation from the Lord to the long-suffering, steadfast Job, the voice from the whirlwind had authority and meaning that no merely human voice could match. Apart from what the Lord said, simply the fact that he spoke at all, and spoke directly to Job, relieved the man of Uz’s deepest need—his hunger for reassurance that God has not forsaken him. Intellectual answers can never provide this knowledge. Kenneth Surin recently observed that “for those who experience godforsakenness there can be no answer except the stammeringly uttered truth that God himself keeps company with those who are oppressed.”[17]

This is very wise, but it does not go quite far enough. To human utterance must be added the witness of the Spirit. We can testify to the truth that the Lord loves and pities His children in the midst of their sharpest sorrows. We can offer scriptural and personal insights about the various purposes served by suffering. But only the Lord can confirm His continuing love through the voice of the only unfailing comforter, His Comforter. This revelation is, ultimately, the sine qua non for resolving a Joban crisis. It is the essential comfort every Job requires. Not “mere argument;” not philosophical theodicies; but the revealed reassurance that the Lord has not forsaken us in our suffering, however obscure this may seem in our distress.

The book of Job, then, is at bottom about the need for personal revelation. Revelation is the key to human crises of faith brought on by suffering. This interpretation, little recognized in biblical scholarship, fits LDS theology, which stresses the need for both general and personal revelation. Again, the Bible Dictionary touches upon this distinctively Latter-day Saint interpretation of the book of Job: “There is a mystery in the incidence of suffering that only a fresh revelation can solve.”

What Does Job Imply about God’s Equity and Love?

There is indeed a mystery in suffering. Job is overwhelmed by mystery in the theophany as the enigma of his own suffering is engulfed by the larger mystery of creation. Job never does receive an answer as to why he suffered; nor, often, do we. It remains inexplicable, mysterious. Yet one can overstate the mystery. Beyond the mystery, Latter-day Saint readers must affirm the continuing presence of divine justice and love. Overemphasis upon the Lord’s transcendence and sovereignty can sever Him from the concept of equity. A good instance of this misreading may be seen in an article by Matitiahu Tsevat. Tsevat draws the figure of a triangle, labeling the three corners for God (G), Job (J), and Retributive Justice (R). Job’s dilemma, argues Tsevat, stems from his inability to reconcile G, J, and R; the theophany overcomes the impasse by eliminating R: “He who speaks to man . . . is neither a just nor an unjust God but God.”[18] Others have made similar unwarranted claims. For example, the eminent authority on wisdom literature, James Crenshaw, writes of the theophany that “the putative principle of order collapsed before divine freedom.”[19] In the same spirit, but more colloquially, Robert Frost portrays a droll character of the Lord returning to thank Job for “releasing me from moral bondage to the human race. . . . I had to prosper good and punish evil. You [Job] changed all that. You set me free to reign.”[20]

But does the theophany in Job in fact reveal a God cut loose from justice, order, or morality? LDS theology, certainly, does not endorse such absolute divine sovereignty, which from a human vantage appears indistinguishable from caprice. Nor does the climax require the collapse of divine justice so the Lord may reign sovereign. We believe that the Almighty Himself subscribes to law (see Alma 42:22). Our innate demand for fairness, order, law, and justice doubtless is a legacy from our divine parentage. In the words of the eminent Jewish scholar Abraham Herschel, “Even the cry of despair—There is no justice in heaven!—is a cry in the name of justice that cannot come out of us and be still missing in the source of ourselves.”[21]

Traces of divine law—higher perhaps than man’s human wisdom can reach, but still within divine control—are everywhere inscribed in the revelation Job receives from the whirlwind. Tellingly, the theophany’s imagery recalls that of Genesis 1 when the Lord imbues form and light upon that which was “without form, and void,” and dark (Genesis 1:2). The very first question the Lord asks Job requires both him and us, as readers, to remember that God is the great Artificer of all earthly and cosmic order: “Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? . . . When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?” (Job 38:4, 7). This is the God of Creation, not the voice of a mercurial being who rejects the “putative principle of order.”

Nor is it the voice of one detached from justice. As we have seen, the Lord’s equity reaches so deep that it penetrates beneath the superficial morality of the comforters and the sometimes reckless cynicism of Job to honor the one who is most truly faithful. This is the voice of one who looks not on the outward appearance “but looketh on the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7).

It is, furthermore, the voice of a being who clearly continues to care about human suffering. That the Lord responds at all assures us that He is not a deus absconditus, as Job feared (Job 23:1–9), but a God who condescends to reveal Himself to mankind in its darkest hours of need. As the great Job scholar Samuel Terrien so eloquently phrases it: “A God who concerns himself for man is a God who loves. There is not love without sharing and a God who loves is a God who suffers. Underneath the high notes, a De Profundis of God’s own agonies is audible.”[22]

Here Terrien adumbrates what is also a distinctively Latter-day Saint view regarding the Lord’s outlook on the “problem of evil”; namely, that evil is a problem for Him too. In any world of both natural law (where apples and parachutists fall according to the same law of gravity) and of agency (where people are free to do good and evil), suffering will occur. But on the whole, Heavenly Father neither wants nor wills suffering. In fact, He grieves over it: the heavens thunder and they weep in emotional solidarity with the innocent who suffer (see Moses 7:29–40). Enoch wondered how this can be so: “How is it that the heavens weep” (Moses 7:28). But he finally came to share the Lord’s view of human misery: “Wherefore Enoch . . . looked upon their wickedness, and their misery, and wept and stretched forth his arms, and his heart swelled wide as eternity; and his bowels yearned; and all eternity shook” (Moses 7:41). Surely, as we respond to the invitation to consider Job, this is our faith about God’s nature: that though we do not fully comprehend all His ways, He is just and good.

Job is a provocative and profoundly rewarding book—one that, as we have seen, both clarifies gospel principles and is itself best understood in the light of modern revelation. It is a book that refuses to offer us ready answers to the so-called problem of evil, for it acknowledges how inexplicably cruel life can be. At the same time it points to a way of enduring. In Samuel Terrien’s fine phrases, it proposes “not a speculative answer . . . but a way of consecrated living;” it presents to us a world that is “not [wholly] intelligible, but [is] livable.”[23]

And Job teaches even more. It says something unforgettable about honesty in our relationship with God; something about compassion in comforting those in spiritual distress; something about tentativeness in offering them ready explanations. Finally, it says something about the absolute need for revelation to solve the problem of faith that encompasses the problem of understanding. As Latter-day Saints, we should welcome a text that finally throws us back, just as it does Job, upon the necessity of seeking understanding through personal revelation from an often inscrutable, but nevertheless living and loving God.

Notes 


[1] For a highly readable, popular account of Schliemann’s biography, see C. W. Ceram’s Gods, Graves, and Scholars, trans. E. B. Garside and Sophie Wilkins, rev. 2nd ed. (New York: Bantam Books, 1967), 30–67.

[2] E. Dhorme, A Commentary on the Book of Job, trans. Harold Knight (London: Thomas Nelson & Sons, 1926; Trans. & Rpt. 1967), xv.

[3] Dhorne, Commentary, vii–xii.

[4] Bernhard Anderson, Understanding the Old Testament, 2nd ed. (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1966), 487–521.

[5] See, for example, “Dispute over Suicide” [Egyptian], and “I Will Praise the Lord of Wisdom” and “A Dialogue about Human Misery” [Babylonian] in J. B. Pritchard’s standard collection, Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, 2nd ed. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1955).

[6] I disagree with Keith Meservy that an allusion by the Lord to a fictional Job would constitute a cruel mockery of Joseph’s nonfictional suffering. The Lord’s purpose here is simply to remind Joseph that things could be worse, not to verify Job’s existence (see Keith Meservy, “Job: ‘Yet Will I Trust in Him,’” Sixth Annual Sperry Symposium, January 1978).

[7] Meservy, “Job,” 29.

[8] Francis Bacon, “Of Adversity.”

[9] Immanuel Kant recognized this and therefore excepted the book of Job in his 1791 essay “On the Failure of All Attempted Philosophical Theodicies,” trans. Michel Despland (Montreal: McGill—Queens University Press, 1973), 283–97. The book of Job does not fail as a theodicy, Kant claims, because it does not approach the question of evil philosophically but puts the whole discussion on an entirely different plane.

[10] We should remember that the dark vision of depravity the friends sometimes unfold, such as that in Job 11:6 or in 15:14–16, form planks in arguments framed with the intent to prove all men sinners (and hence worthy of punishment). They do not represent either the book of Job’s or the Lord’s view of human nature.

[11] The book of Job provides a classic instance of what we now call “blaming the victim.” For the seminal treatment of this phenomenon, see William T. Ryan, Blaming the Victim (New York: Random House, 1972).

[12] See Russell M. Nelson, “Truth and More,” On the Lord’s Errand, address given at the Brigham Young University Annual University Conference, August 27, 1985.

[13] Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, comp. Joseph Fielding Smith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1938), 212. See also Hugh Nibley’s discussion of accusing in “Brigham Young and the Enemy” (Provo, UT: FARMS Report, 1972), 12.

[14] Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. “devil.”

[15] The young man Elihu is not mentioned until late in the drama (chapter 32), and no one responds to him. His speeches about God’s wonderful works and unfathomable ways in some respects anticipated the theophany. For these reasons, most commentators see his discourse as a later interpolation in the text, a later scribe’s effort to give Job a proper answer from a human companion.

[16] From War in Heaven, quoted by Samuel Terrien in Job: Poet of Existence (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1958), 238.

[17] “Theodicy?” Harvard Theological Review 76, no. 2 (1985): 246. Surin argues that the problem of evil must locate itself in the victim’s “space,” and not presume to answer the question from a purely “cosmic” vantage. I concur with Surin that the book of Job takes the side of the sufferer. The sympathy the text displays for Job—evidenced by God’s commendation—is also asserted in a fine recent essay by Rene Girard, who argues that in casting Job as scapegoat, his comforters take a satanic stance, while the scripture sides with the victim, Job (see “Job et le Bouc Emissaire,” Bulletin du Centre Protestant D’Etudes, 6 [1983]: 3–33).

[18] “The Meaning of the Book of Job,” in Studies in Ancient Israelite Wisdom: The Library of Biblical Studies, ed. James L. Crenshaw (New York: KTAV Publishing House, 1976), 373.

[19] Old Testament Wisdom Literature: An Introduction (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1981), 125.

[20] “A Masque of Reason,” rpt. in The Voice out of the Whirlwind: The Book of Job, ed. Ralph E. Hone, rev. ed. (San Francisco: Chandler Publishing, 1972), 261.

[21] Poet of Existence, 241. On the whole issue of the Old Testament image of a suffering God, see Terrence E. Fretheim’s The Suffering of God (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984), and also Kazoh Kitamori, Theology of the Pain of God, trans. M. E. Brachten (Richmond: John Knox Press, 1965).

[22] “Introduction and Exegesis to Job,” Interpreter’s Bible (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1954), 3:902; Poet of Existence, 248.

[23] Essays on Biblical Interpretation, ed. Lewis S. Mudge (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1980), 86–87.