I just finished reading the book of Job, again. Often we talk about the book of Job as a book about suffering. Someone may have told you that if you want to understand human suffering, Job is where to should look. However if you have ever read Job- all the way through- it is a very unsatisfying discussion of suffering. Job’s questions about suffering, why good people suffer and the evil don’t, are never answered. The first time I read the book, I found that quite annoying.
There is quite a bit of tedious reading, Job and his friends go on and on and on. By the time we reach the end of the book we are ready for God to speak and settle the question. When God finally speaks the “answer” seems to be “I’m God and you’re not. You can’t know, so deal with it.”
I never liked it when my parents told me, “Because I said so.” I don’t particularly like it when God says,”Because I said so” either. It’s quite frustrating. So what’s going on here?
The book of Job is an example of the Bible using humor to make a serious point. The book of Job begins with God and the Satan (not the devil, just one of the heavenly council) making a bet over Job. God makes bets with the Satan?? It doesn’t do us any good to take that scene seriously. Better to treat it as the set up for the joke. Sort of like, “A priest, a rabbi and a minister walk into a bar…”
Then for chapter after chapter we have some very heavy reading. Job’s friends argue at excruciating length that God punishes the sinner and blesses the righteous. That was how people believed things worked. And we find that idea in Torah and the Prophets. It is biblical.
Job argues that he has done nothing wrong. He has not sinned, he has kept God’s commands and he does not deserve to suffer. Job also points out that there is truly no correlation between evil, righteousness, blessing and suffering. All you have to do is look around. It is obvious.
This argument goes on and on, and around and around. There are three speeches for each of the three friends, with Job replying to each of them. Then, when surely we are finished, how can there be anything left to say? Elihu pipes up with his two cents, six more chapters worth. Will it ever end? Its stultifying and frankly ridiculous. And perhaps, precisely the point. Those of us who love to argue theology are perhaps being teased, just a bit.
God’s reply to Job seems like it ought to be the last word in the book, but it isn’t. What could possible come after God’s response? The book of Job has another chapter after God’s big speech. After the entire book seems to undercut the age old idea that good people have good things happen to them and bad people are punished, Job has everything and more restored to him! What??? I thought we just discovered that there wasn’t cosmic cause and effect. No karma, as some might say.
This is, I think, God’s big joke in the book of Job. After all the mind numbing back and forth between Job and his friends- about good and evil, blessing and suffering. After God and Job talk and the answer seems to be God’s ways are not our ways and we simply won’t understand why God does what God does. After all that, Job is declared to be in the right and he gets everything restored to him.
We read that and think, Wait a minute! I thought you said that’s not how things work. It’s as if God says back to us, “No, I said you wouldn’t understand. See you thought you understood, but really you don’t understand.” The joke is on us, the reader, and it leaves us unsettled and perhaps a bit upset. Sometimes all we can do is laugh.