Partly my identification of this central theme comes from many readings and much meditation on the book. But there are also objective pointers in the text which may draw one to the same conclusion.
Characters in the Book of Job speaking about God
Both the first and last words spoken in the book are on the theme of how one speaks about God, neatly sandwiching the entire drama in the same encapsulated thought. The first words spoken are by Job:
“Early in the morning [Job] would sacrifice a burnt offering for each of [his children], thinking, ‘Perhaps my children have sinned and cursed God in their hearts’ “ (Job 1:5).
The central motivator to Job’s actions were how his children may have spoken, even privately in their hearts, about his God. This theme is duplicated in the very last words spoken in the book, uttered by God Himself:
“After the LORD had said these things to Job, He said to Eliphaz the Temanite, ‘I am angry with you and your two friends, because you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has. So now take seven bulls and seven rams and go to my servant Job and sacrifice a burnt offering for yourselves. My servant Job will pray for you, and I will accept his prayer and not deal with you according to your folly. You have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has’ “ (42:7-8).
So the first and last spoken words of the drama concern how one speaks about God. God even repeats the statement concerning how one speaks about Him, highlighting this theme even more distinctly.
The single testimony recorded from Job’s wife is also on the same theme:
“[Job’s] wife said to him, ‘Are you still holding on to your integrity? Curse1 God and die!’ “ (2:9).
One might wonder why the participation of Job’s wife is just one spoken phrase. Some infer that Job’s wife abandoned Job, but this is well beyond what the text says. Perhaps a more charitable interpretation is that the drama is not attempting to show Job’s wife as wicked (after all, would a righteous and blameless man like Job have chosen a life partner so poorly?) but that this comment was the one contribution she made to the theme of how one speaks about God.2
One fascinating consequence of seeing the central theme of Job as how one speaks about God, is that this classifies the book of Job, quite literally, as ‘theology’.3 Job is often termed one of the ‘wisdom’ books of the Bible, and I have no disagreement with that classification. Theology is the words we use to speak about God. This helps my appreciation of what wisdom is: it suggests wise men speak well of God, as Job did. Sometimes as theological students we can get distracted by our pursuit of formulating correct doctrine (itself a worthy venture). We can fall into the trap of focusing on speaking well about ourselves because we feel we have correct doctrine (I fear this happens in my own community) and lose sight of the true central issue of theology, which is speaking well of God.
Expositors of the Book of Job speaking about God
There is massive irony in identifying “speaking well of God” as the central theme in Job. Job is the book of the Bible, more so than any other, that prompts readers to speak ill of Him!
Even the expositors who report their findings after diligent study, rather than cursory reading, often find themselves energized to speak against God rather than for Him. Many non-Christian expositors seem to revel in the opportunity to use the book of Job as an opportunity to speak ill of the Biblical God. Since the template of three counselors comes to the fore in the drama, I’ll present three examples of humanist scholars’ considered opinions of the God they observe in the book of Job.
First: Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961), the famous Swiss psychologist and psychiatrist. He declares the Joban drama demonstrates the moral superiority of man above God. He sees the arrangement between God and Satan in the prologue as God internally debating the character of Job because He genuinely doubts Job’s integrity, concluding:
“The reason He doubts Job is because He projects His own unfaithfulness upon a scapegoat.”4
Similarly, Gilbert Murray (1866-1957), an English scholar renowned for his critique of classic literature, describes the opening contract in this way:
“The book begins with a mythological setting in which the story is represented as the result of a sort of bet upon the part of Satan that, though Job while prosperous is perfectly pious, he can be made to ‘curse God’ if he is sufficiently tormented and afflicted. The Almighty enters into the spirit of this atrocious proposal, and every type of torment is showered upon the innocent man. It is like torturing your faithful dog to see if you can make him bite you.”5
Finally, the American humanist philosopher Paul Weiss (1901-2002) openly rants against the whole plotline and the nature of the God he sees therein:
“In outline the story is rather simple. A childishly conceived God, a childlike God in fact, boasts about Job to His angel Satan as a child might about a dog… With a callousness, with a brutality, with a violence hard to equal in any literature, secular or divine, God, just to make a petulant point, proceeds to do almost everything the most villainous of beings could want… The inhumanity of the author (or of his God, if one prefers) has been almost matched by the insensitivity of those commentators who accept the prologue of the book of Job and do not feel a need to underscore an abhorrence of God’s project and performance.”6
Thus speak this triumvirate of celebrated thinkers and, while a disciple might be tempted to bristle at their invective, they are inevitable human reactions and ones from which any expositor of Job must not shrink to address.
Even the Christian expositors struggle to speak well of God in their appraisals of Job. They find it trivially easy to speak of God’s supremacy and might, for obvious reasons, since the story of Job well demonstrates the totality of control God can have in a human life. But is that the best we can do? Will the evidence in the book of Job truly allow us no better? I do feel a tinge of concern when the book — and in particular God’s speeches — are seen as solely demonstrating His superiority over man, rather than His care for him. Few expositors go beyond this level, at least from the text in Job. Many offer kinder thoughts on God once they incorporate the New Testament Scriptures into their analysis. Baird manages to offer the defensive support of God: “It is not that God hates Job. On the contrary, God cares for all, including Job.”7 And Balchin describes God from Job as a conditional friend: “A Friend [to Job]? Certainly. And a friend to us too, if like the ultimate Job we confess our ignorance of His ways and rest instead in faith in His mercy.”8
But even these seem hardly to form a pinnacle of praise. Should we conclude that, in all honesty, the text of Job does not give us sufficient reason to praise God? Or perhaps that to speak of His power is enough?
If we can go no further than to speak of God’s omnipotence and supremacy, do we really speak well of God? God presents Himself in Scripture most commonly as a Father, which prompts those who are parents to consider by experiential comparison. Which father would be happy if the kindest thing any of his children ever said about him was merely that he was the one in control? A comment like: “My dad’s word is law in the family. What he says for us children goes.” This may reflect appropriate deference, but if the comments that the father received during the lifespan of his children never rose higher than this, would he truly be happy? And if not, why do we expect our Father to be pleased if we can say no better?
I find that the central plotline of the drama is one which enables us quite readily to speak well of God, without wresting the text, introducing extraneous ideas, or downplaying the intensity of Job’s suffering. We will see God acting in a caring manner throughout, even though the price of the Satan’s sin, exacted from the righteous man, is severe. God has a Supreme plan underway which all characters, and the careful observer, will ultimately applaud.
Job speaking about God
By contrast to so many who simply read of Job’s hardships, Job himself, who had to actually endure them, manages to speak that which is right about God. We’re prompted to wonder: what exactly was that? Perhaps already we can identify the key features.
First, Job’s God is inscrutable.
“But if I go to the east, he is not there;
if I go to the west, I do not find him.
When he is at work in the north, I do not see him;
when he turns to the south, I catch no glimpse of him.
But he knows the way that I take;
when he has tested me, I will come forth as gold” (23:8-10).
Job’s God is unfathomable, yet Job also trusts He will not deliver injustice (although we will need to add caveats to that later).
By contrast the three counselors, whose pride I will suggest occupies the office of the Satan, have a reducible, predictable God whom they can confine according to their theology. As a result they see themselves as in a position to impart wisdom, not receive it.
Eliphaz the Temanite:
“I myself have seen a fool taking root,
but suddenly his house was cursed.
His children are far from safety,
crushed in court without a defender…” (5:3,4).
Bildad the Shuhite:
“When your children sinned against him,
he gave them over to the penalty of their sin” (8:4).
Zophar the Naamathite:
“If you put away the sin that is in your hand
and allow no evil to dwell in your tent,
You will be secure, because there is hope;
you will look about you and take your rest in safety” (11:14,18).
Job had questions about God; the three friends asserted they had all the answers. The inscrutability of God is actually a necessity to a genuine faith, for else we have simply brought God down from heaven and made Him one of us, by proclaiming we know His will and understand all the mechanisms by which He will effect it. This God must fail, for he is only ourselves, and we have centuries of social and environmental evidence of how hopeless we are at governing this planet. Atkinson comments:
“There is an unhelpful decisiveness in some aspects of Christian faith which gets in the way of meeting God in depth. There is an attempt to have everything buttoned up and secure. There is a defensive need to be sure. The book of Job, instead, brings us face to face with the living God, and invites us to live in his light with all our logical gaps, untidy edges and struggling faith.”9
We study Job in this work with genuine and unapologetic intention to gain as many answers as we can. But we do not intend to abandon humility. If we believe in a “God,” then by definition not all of His qualities and strategies will fit inside our minds. To think we can ‘know God’ is the epitome of the beast of human pride (a beast which will figure prominently in the analysis which follows) and repeats the fundamental sin ofEden in grasping at equality with our Maker (Gen 9:4).
The second key feature is that Job spoke of gifts from God even at time of loss. Job was never so small-minded in the appreciation of his experience of God that the only things he remembered were those that had most recently occurred. Thus, even directly after the impact of the complete series of disasters is brought upon him, he is able to reflect:
“‘Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?’ In all this, Job did not sin in what he said” (2:10).
Amid the destruction of flocks and herds, the loss of life of his servants and even his children — even the complete debilitation of his own body, Job managed, from within the crumpled carnage of his life, to speak well of his God.
The question is: shall we?
1. This verse draws special attention from Hebrew scholars. A group of scribes known as the Sopherim, working as early as the 4th century BC, apparently made a series of changes to the text out of supposed reverence for God. In Job 2:9 they changed “Curse God and die” to “Bless God and die,” which the Hebrew text contains to this day. [The Hebrew word in 2:9 is ‘barak,’ meaning ‘bless’ (J. Strong, “A Concise Dictionary of the words in the Hebrew Bible with their Renderings in the Authorized English Version,” in “Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance,” 1997, Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, MI, USA, 24).] These “Emendations of the Sopherim,” were preserved by the later Masoretic stewards. I adopt the protocol favored by nearly all the translators, of overturning the Sopherim’s alteration and using the English phrase “Curse God and die” to return to the original.
2. As for her comment itself, I don’t believe she is recommending forsaking God; but rather desperately seeking any form of release for the husband she loves. I believe she spoke in a high state of emotion describing her love for Job in excess of her commitment to God. This is not a common view, but I believe this is where emotionally remote ‘armchair analysis’ of her commentary naturally leads to a condemnation of her, where a more empathetic view might not. Even if her hyperbole was not wise, and it was not, I believe her comment was made from a strong sense of loyalty to Job, and her own intense empathetic pain at his condition.