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Job’s Controversial Innocence

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Mar 20, 2018

The Book of Job is a fascinating study of the Jewish grasp of the problem of good and evil in the period following the Babylonian Captivity. While the book teaches a valuable lesson, it is a somewhat negative one—that, in the first place, we cannot know whether someone has been good or evil based on their fortunes and misfortunes in this life; and, in the second place, we cannot resolve the problem of suffering by questioning the justice of God.

The spiritual and moral questions at the heart of the Book of Job are not answered definitively until the full revelation of God through Jesus Christ. In much of the Old Testament, there is a relatively primitive conception of material reward and punishment based on fidelity to the will of God in general and, in particular, to the Mosaic Law. There are only vague intimations of an afterlife with God; there are exhortations to those who suffer to “wait for the LORD”, who will surely make things right; and there is some skepticism about a person’s perception of his own goodness. But it was left to Christ Himself to solve, and dissolve, the problem of suffering.

In its own exploration of this problem, the Book of Job tells the story of a powerful, wealthy and genuinely upright man who loses everything through no fault of his own—his children, his health, his possessions—only to be reproached by his friends for stubbornly refusing to acknowledge his own guilt.

Fools All

Job has the better part of an argument which consists of two bad parts. He correctly asserts his innocence, in the sense in which his accusers would understand that term, but he has no very deep conception of what it means to be innocent before God. He does not acknowledge, with the Psalmist: “O God, you know my folly, the wrongs I have done are not hidden from you” (Ps 69:5); nor does he acknowledge the likelihood of unrecognized sins: “But who can discern his errors? Clear thou me from hidden faults” (Ps 19:12). No, in the face of a dramatic series of tragedies, he insists that he is innocent under the law, and he complains vehemently of the fundamental unfairness of his suffering, for he cannot put God in the dock and demand that He explain Himself.

But in the terms taken for granted in the book, Job really is innocent. Though by Christian standards his conception of goodness is severely limited, his friends prove themselves far more limited than he. Some commentators have made much of the distinctions among the arguments of the four friends who remonstrate with him, but they all make essentially the same case: (1) God does not punish the good; (2) God is punishing you; (3) Acknowledge the wrong you have done so that He may restore your fortunes. It is exactly this that creates the central problem of the book, for even by their own limited understanding of good and evil, Job’s friends are wrong.

Job has not transgressed against “the Law”. He has not failed to help the widow and the orphan. He has not permitted himself to be puffed up by the blessings he has received. Measured against the only understanding of God’s will that he can reasonably be expected to have, Job has been faithful. He appears to be suffering punishment but he is not guilty. And he wants with his whole soul to understand how this can possibly be right.

The Devil

The framework for the story (which is poetry, and self-evidently not to be read as history) is the Devil’s desire to prove to the LORD that those who are upright in accordance with the Law are faithful only because they enjoy immense favors. Deprive them of these, and they will revert to form and curse God. This, of course, is the dark side of the primitive grasp of both morality and the nature of suffering at that time. It is the perspective that turns everything on its head: If the blessings of goodness are to be understood in terms of earthly rewards, then let us see what such goodness amounts to if the rewards are withheld.

It is a fair point and a reasonable request. The predominant view of morality under the Old Covenant simply will not do as anything more than a stage along the way to a deeper understanding. St. Paul (who had the benefit of substantial developments in moral reflection since the Book of Job was written plus a dramatic gift of Divine grace) understood that the only possible working of “the Law” was unto condemnation. If goodness is merely a behavior conditioned by the interplay among law, reward and punishment—and nothing more—then goodness is nothing and we are all condemned. For we all sin.

Such depths elude Job, but this does not stop his fictional persona (nor the very real sacred author) from giving the lie to Satan. In accordance with the concepts of Divine law and punishment which were then broadly recognized, Job is suffering unjustly, and he knows it. But though he yearns to protest his fidelity and argue his case directly before God, he refuses to mock or repudiate God. Job understands himself to be a victim, in some sense, of a horrible mistake. But in one of the most beautiful passages in all of Scripture he warns his accusers and condemns not God but those (like Satan) who doubt Him:

“Oh, that my words were written!
 Oh, that they were inscribed in a book!
Oh, that with an iron pen and lead
 they were graven in the rock for ever!
For I know that my Redeemer lives,
 and at last he will stand upon the earth;
and after my skin has been thus destroyed,
 then from my flesh I shall see God,
whom I shall see on my side,
 and my eyes shall behold, and not another.
 My heart faints within me!
If you say, ‘How we will pursue him!’
 and, ‘The root of the matter is found in him’;
be afraid of the sword,
 for wrath brings the punishment of the sword,
 that you may know there is a judgment.” [Job 19:23-29]

Job’s acknowledgement of his folly

In the end, the LORD does answer Job “out of the whirlwind”. Referring to the last of Job’s accusers, God asks, “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?” And then to Job, “Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me. Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” (38:1-3; cf. chapters 38-40). God, in effect, tells Job that he has not even a glimmer of the wit required to understand the ways of God and, in that self-knowledge, he must rest content.

At the end of the book, God rebukes Job’s friends and accusers, making them depend on Job’s prayers to avoid severe punishment. He also restores Job’s fortunes two-fold. But we must remember that this is a story with a classic Old Testament moral (Be steadfast and wait for the LORD) and a classic Old Testament outcome (more goods, more friends, more children, more years, and a happy death). No reader should suppose that the loss of all of Job’s former children could really be made good in such a way.

No, the great truth of the tale is summarized by Job himself when, in two places, he gives a brief response to God’s questioning. The LORD asks, “Shall a faultfinder contend with the Almighty? He who argues with God, let him answer it” (40:2). And Job answers:

“Behold, I am of small account; what shall I answer you?
 I lay my hand on my mouth.
I have spoken once, and I will not answer;
 twice, but I will proceed no further.” [40:4-5]

And after God asks “Who has given to me, that I should repay him?”, for “Whatever is under the whole heaven is mine” (41:11), Job quotes the LORD’s own words and answers them:

“I know that you can do all things,
 and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.
‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’
Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand,
 things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.
‘Hear, and I will speak;
 I will question you, and you declare to me.’
I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear,
 but now my eye sees you;
Therefore I despise myself,
 and repent in dust and ashes.”

The Book of Job is a magnificent work. It establishes the foundational attitude necessary for the reception of what is still unimaginable: The full revelation of God in Christ.


Scripture Series
Previous: Two strong women of the Old Testament: Second, Esther
Next: The Psalms: Deep questions, with only hints for answers

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: John J Plick - Mar. 21, 2018 1:05 PM ET USA

    "The Book of Job is a magnificent work..." This is not said enough... When I discovered this Book during a period of great suffering I remember saying to myself that Job was the only human being that understood what life was all about! A flawed and limited perception to be sure... but it is indeed strange how severe suffering can magnify the effect of God's inspired writings!