Why Was God So Cruel to Job?
A lot of answers have been given for this one. Some point to the enormous reward Job gets at the end of the book1, whereas others might mention that ‘the adversary/accuser’ (Heb. ‘ha-satan’) is not to be thought of as the devil of later Christian thought, but just a particularly clever member of the heavenly court2 (these ideas among others). These are both true, though I would hope they are still considered morally unsatisfactory for most readers. I would like to suggest a different perspective on where the theology of Job lies.
It begins with the disjointedness of the book hinted at by the varied portrayal of Job’s character, the varied use of God’s names and the very brief role of the satan, among others3. This has led many to believe that “[t]he book consists of a much older tale, into which has been inserted the Dialogue between Job and his friends (3-27, 29-31), a wisdom poem (28), the speeches of Elihu (32-7), and the reply of God (38-42:6).”4 Or, “[t]he assumption underlying this commentary is that a poet used an existing popular story as the framework for exploring the possibility of disinterested righteousness and the different answers to the problem of innocent suffering.”5
And so we can quite reasonably suggest that the Prologue (where the afflictions occur) was not intended to be taken as historical or of theological interest by the author of the Dialogue. It was taken from an earlier story as a framework for the real theological meat of the book, which comes in the middle. The emphasis is not on the story, but on the discussion – the genre is not narrative but debate and framing narrative. This explains the disjointedness of the story (particularly the change in Job from a submissive character in ch. 1-2 to an indignant protester in the rest of the book) as well as, for example, the blamelessness of Job (an idea many evangelicals would be unwilling to concede!). After all, if the book were simply a narrative of God testing Job, it would seem as if the answer comes as early on as 2.9-10, with the rest of the book seeming superfluous. Rather, the Prologue gives a setting and a hypothetical reason for the suffering which Job and his friends contemplate on in the Dialogue. “But after the Dialogue, is it any longer possible to take seriously the details of the Prologue, to base one’s theology in the consent of God to Satan’s test? For the whole point of the Dialogue is that it is thoroughly agnostic about the origin of suffering. The author doesn’t know and so cannot answer why men suffer unjustly…All the prologue does, then, is to explain how a certain situation arose – Job’s wretched state. But while it reserves for God his ultimate omnipotence in that he is made to give consent to Satan’s experiment, it is not intended as a theological explanation of the origin of evil…the Prologue of Job has no subsequent influence on the story.”6
All this suggests to me that the Prologue, where Job is gravely afflicted by God and the satan, was not to be taken as historical, even less so definitive for explaining the reason for a historical Job’s afflictions or for explaining the origin of evil. Indeed, much of the point of the subsequent Dialogue is rooted in the belief that righteous men often suffer inexplicably, but that they will also be vindicated. There seems to me, therefore, no Biblical warrant to believe that a Job (less still a historical Job) was afflicted in the way Job 1-2 suggests.
1. “The conclusion to the book…is a fairy-tale ending in accord with the beliefs of the times. Job receives the maximum reward that man can have on earth and can go peacefully to Sheol.” Phillips, Anthony. God B.C. 68-9.
2. Ibid., 55.
3. For example, the ignorance of Elihu by YHWH, the interruption of Job’s final speech with a poem in ch. 28, the conflict between 40.5 and 42.1-6. Crenshaw, James L. The Oxford Bible Commentary. 331.
4. Phillips, Anthony. God B.C. 55.
5. Crenshaw, James L. The Oxford Bible Commentary. 331.
6. Phillips, Anthony. God B.C. 69-70.