The Problem. For well over 100 years biblical scholarship has sold and successfully marketed the notion that Job is about a man with a faith problem in search of a God of Justice whom he has always believed in but who has suddenly let him down, with disastrous consequences. Put differently, what he has always believed as ‘gospel’ and sacrosanct is no longer working for him. The traditional description is unlikely to have much traction in today's congregations, never mind the general public, but for most people the alternative way of putting it might just strike a chord.
Since no satisfactory 'answers' are forthcoming and the book overall offers no obvious solution (Job simply has to come to terms with a God who behaves like that) the general result is rarely satisfying. But what happens if we begin in a different place, change the focus and explore what the friends have to offer, which often receives scant attention but is every bit as much a part of the story as Job's dilemma.
In this way ‘the problem of Job’ takes second place to ‘the problem of his three companions’ which immediately opens up a different set of interesting possibilities. Who are these ‘friends’? Where are they coming from, and why? What do they have to offer and how do they set about doing it? Crucially, are they still around? If they are, where do we find them and are they being any more successful, either in terms of finding a solution or the more immediate purpose which is to help Job. Probably not, but these are questions to keep in mind as we move through the text.
So just for a moment put to one side the familiar traditional interpretations. Job never questions the doctrine which the friends put forward and the view he grew up with that there is a link between loss and suffering on the one hand and human behaviour on the other. Nor does he argue for the quality of his own life. The nearest he gets to it is to challenge the issue of proportionality. He may not be perfect, but surely he has never been wicked enough to merit what he is getting.
On closer examination it seems doubtful whether Job really has any complaint against Yahweh or divine justice. 'Oh that I knew where I might find him' sounds more like a desire to meet him — he may not 'explain' but at least he would 'understand' and nobody else seems to — rather than a desire to find him and thump him. It is true that when they eventually meet a certain amount of agro boils over, but that is hardly surprising in view of all that has gone before and it quickly subsides as they get down to more serious business.
Job’s problem is not so much with God as with a whole way of life, the experience of being let down as it collapses before his eyes, and God is the focus for his despair. Starting from there, Job’s problem is that of someone who has to come to terms with the fact that something they have always been taught, always believed and built their life on (faith) no longer works and Job is shattered. For him, God is the epitome of everything he had always treasured and his last hope when everything else has gone. Any qualified counsellor would have spotted this but apparently none seems to have been around and the three friends are clearly on a different mission.
(It is also worth noting en passant that he never had a problem as long as it seemed to work — after all, it made him wealthy and prosperous.)
From here, Job (the book) is not history nor Job the only example. He is still around and to a degree there is a piece of him in us all. Examples might range from someone who can no longer believe in the resurrection or the afterlife as traditionally taught, or come to terms with women priests and gay relationships (never mind marriage), to professional politicians unable to cope with any parliamentary system other than the one they have always known, (even to the extent of trying to impose it on countries where it is totally inappropriate), party leaders who cannot cope with the fact that in today’s world the old traditional parties no longer function satisfactorily (no more in France than in England) or ecclesiastics prepared only ever to recognise one particular form of churchmanship. The list is endless.
The Solutions. So what have these three friends to offer and what do they hope to achieve? Their purpose is ‘to console and comfort’ the man, not to offer solutions (2:11) only to find that if anything Job was worse at the end than at the beginning. But what they say, and how and why they say it merits attention.
All three clearly have different and very fixed ideas before they begin but there is no joined up thinking, no interchange as the story proceeds and no rational development of an idea or satisfactory conclusion. All we have is three locked boxes none of them providing any evidence that they are listening or even trying to understand Job. Do they want to, or are they more interested in peddling their own wares and hoping something will turn up?
Summary of Speeches
Eliphaz. A righteous man should not commit to despair.The universe is run on moral lines and bad things don’t happen to good people. Success rewards the good. Failure marks out the wicked.
Bildad. The rule of Yahweh (‘Yahweh’ offers an openness and avoids some of the familiar connotations associated with ‘God’) is that destiny is measured according to merit — we get what we deserve.
Zophar. A simpler approach to life’s problems. Nothing you can do about it. Job doesn’t know how wicked he is but perhaps if he were to stand beside God he would find out.
Job’s Response. Bildad may be right, but what he says is totally beside the point. Even if Bildad is right why is Yahweh so fickle? (And is Job venting his wrath on his friends because he can’t get at Yahweh?).
Job then proceeds (chapter 16) to question their authority and their arrogance. He knows all that. He learned it in his cradle. He’s always believed it (and probably preached it). The problem is it has suddenly stopped working for him. What he is questioning is an underlying philosophy of life. The change of phrase enables us to move on not only beyond ‘God‘ (with its accompanying problems) but also beyond Yahweh (dismissable today as a Hebrew/Jewish problem) to the fundamental problem of life (which many would want to call ‘God’) and so facilitated a greater openness of interpretation for the benefit of those who have no problem with God as much as for those who do.
Eliphaz. Job’s attitude only strengthens Eliphaz’s resolve. His gentleness (in his earlier speech) turns nasty. He tries to frighten Job with the lot of the wicked. Deep down the wicked are unhappy, but the fact that he supplies no evidence for his assertion suggests that he is convincing himself, if not Job.
Job’s counterattack. Furious, Job now pulls out all the stops and goes for the whole philosophy they are peddling leading to extreme pessimism. They came to comfort and console. Their attitude simply made him sick.
Bildad. Taunts Job for behaving like a child. Throwing all his toys out of the pram. Not only that, but for treating them as if they were utter fools. The whole philosophy of the centuries is not going to change to suit him. Anyway, the unbelievers have an awful life.
Job. These ‘friends’ still don’t understand what he is trying to tell them. They see it as Yahweh’s punishment. Job defends his innocence, not least on the grounds of proportionality. For him, right now, God (the philosophy, the system, however you describe it) is just plain unjust. Nowhere does Job seem to argue with them or suggest that what they are arguing is wrong. What niggles is that they don’t appear to appreciate that his problem even exists or why it has suddenly become a problem for him. No wonder the man is distraught which may explain why ‘I know that my redeemer . . .’. rings a bit hollow as traditionally used but makes a lot of sense more as a pious hope that it will all come right in the end than as a declaration of his conviction. In spite of all they say (chapter 27) the wicked do prosper . The whole philosophy is unbalanced, doesn’t hold water and if this is how things are divinely ordained then Yahweh is unjust.
Eliphaz. Hard as nails. Shallow theology. Doesn’t matter to God either way. That’s how it is. Job must ‘repent (of what?) to get the ‘fruits’ he has hitherto enjoyed without repentance. Humility is called for.
Small wonder Job sinks further into despair. ‘Oh that I knew where I might find him!’. But where can I turn?’ The emphasis is on ‘him’. These beggars are no use but if only he could get to Yahweh that would be different. With their ‘God’ (philosophy) there is no hope as Job refuses to give up and soliloquises on ‘the good old days’ with chapter 31 as a direct challenge to Yahweh to come out of his hiding place.
Yahweh’s Confrontation. Yahweh’s majesty in creation, including animals and the rest of nature. Not only Job, but the whole of humanity is put in its place with a bigger picture with nothing to suggest Yahweh’s love or predilection for humanity. Yahweh’s response is not with answers or solutions but (like many a good counsellor) with yet more (and different) questions. Job’s dignity is respected but (like many a good preacher) he makes Job think, see things in a different way and holds his feet to the fire until he does.
Job. If you start where Job started and where the three friends were this is a nil response. It does nothing to answer the question, but it makes Job a changed man. Previously Job may have ‘heard’ but now he has ‘seen’ (42:5). Now he knows that ‘his redeemer lives’. He has thought, heard and seen for himself. Matured. Grown up. Left his friends miles behind.
Like Jonah with his gourd, Job finally comes to see that he is not the centre of the universe and maybe the things he has always valued so highly are not as important as some of the things he neglected . Job has come to see his place in the world compared to the rest of God’s creation, not a million miles away from what we are all having to learn today in the light of climate change, etc.
The Restoration. On this view, the restoration of all that he had lost (a problem for many literalists who see it as unreal) makes good sense. Whether it could have happened in real life is beside the point. Whether life was ever as rosy as the opening chapters suggest is equally unrealistic. What we have here is perception, not reality. To the onlooker (the reader) everything in Job’s world may appear to have returned to normal, but Job discovers (or is about to discover) that it is not so. The children may return but they will not be identical with the children who were taken away. With a changed Job and children who have been away will come different responses all round and one would love to know what the family will look like by the time they get to the next generation.
For the three closed boxes we now have an open window, if not a door. The genie is out. Hope is born as a tight rigidity gives place to a space for growth and development all round.
Postscript on Characterisation
It is worth asking where these three got their ideas from and trying to find some parallels for similar sources of questionable wisdom in today’s world.
Eliphaz. Mildly mystical — stresses the transcendence of God. His authority is on the supernatural, examined in the light of human experience.
He is the one who ‘knows’, is crystal clear and sticks to it even if he has no evidence and all the facts point in the other direction. (eg the biblical literalist or the flat-earthers).
Bildad. Relies on accumulated wisdom and bolsters his argument with quotations from it.
He is the one who tries to deal with the problem but misses the whole point of what the problem is. The counsellor who 'never listens because he knows the answer’. (eg a nominal Anglican or Free Church traditionalist).
Zophar. Rational — devout person. Possibly lives in the same thought-world as Job.
The non-attached, non-aligned ‘jobsworth’ who just gets on with the job. No problems, no questions please. Let’s go. Maybe a young hothead or a senior person with some vested interests. (eg the new-church pioneer who thinks all you have to is plant churches and make converts).
Group discussion to work through the same problems, responses and questions What works? What doesn't? And in the relationship who blinks first and who doesn't blink at all?