By Guest Blogger Dr. Sonya Cronin
Among the many things that make the book of Job unique is its function as the “go to” place in the Bible for why bad things happen to good people. Typically ignored, as it is both uncomfortable and difficult reading, this book becomes most pertinent when suffering becomes a personal reality.
The Problem of Innocent Suffering
The book opens with a conversation between God and the Satan (not yet a proper name, but the Hebrew literally translates to “the Accuser”). God himself brings up Job when he is conversing with the Accuser as one who is “blameless and upright.” The Accuser however challenges this devotion, suggesting instead that Job would curse God if God were to withhold his blessing and protection. Within two chapters, everything that Job owns is taken, all his children killed, and his health and well-being overturned.
There is a lot of material in Job worth discussing. For example, the Accuser/Satan clearly has access to God in heaven and, even more troubling, is that he is allowed to wreak havoc in the lives of the people of God. There are other issues as well. The biblical text is clear that Job is blameless in every way. So, although we would like to attribute some “hidden” sin to Job to make this theologically difficult situation better, the Bible has precluded us from doing that. Even more problematic is that while two of the events that contribute to Job’s grief are caused by man, i.e. the Sabeans (1:15) carry off his oxen and the Chaldeans (1:17) steal the camels and kill the servants (thus for a moment we are able to suppose that this situation could involve the evil, free will of man), the other two events (including the one that kills Job’s children) are natural disasters, which are harder to distance from direct the hand of God. And while all of these things are important for discussion, I would like to explore two aspects of Job that are often missed: the arrival of Job’s friends, and Job’s restoration at the end of the book.
Often times when we think of Job’s friends, we think of the dialogue in the middle of the book, chapters and chapters of theological discussion where the long-winded friends try to explain to Job that there must be sin somewhere in his life, as God does not allow evil to fall on the sinless. We, the omniscient readers, know (due to chapter one) that is not the case. Thus, if we even take the time to think of these friends, we tend to dismiss them as pompous individuals, who thankfully are put in their place at the end of the book. I, however, would like to cast them in different light.
By the time Job’s friends come on the scene, Job has lost all his possessions, all his children have died tragically, and an unsavory sickness consumes him. The only one left to him is his wife, and many have suggested that she is left to him not because of God’s compassion, but because she can actually make his suffering worse. He has taken a position outside the city, sitting in the dust, and scraping his wounds with a piece of broken pottery. He is a dirty, oozing, and disgusting mess. Certainly, the most obvious conclusion based on the theology of the day is that Job has clearly sinned against God and is earning his just reward.
With this background in mind, in the first biblical mention of Job’s friends, we are told,
Now when Job’s three friends heard of all these troubles that had come upon him, each of them set out from his home—Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite. They met together to go and console and comfort him. When they saw him from a distance, they did not recognize him, and they raised their voices and wept aloud; they tore their robes and threw dust in the air upon their heads. They sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great.
Job’s friends came because they “heard.” Word of tragedy travels fast in any community. Despite potential contagion and the danger this posed to themselves, they shared his suffering (remember, Job was not at home, but outside on the dust heap, presumably in part to contain the illness). Job was unrecognizable. They sat with him while he scraped his wounds; they shared his dust; and they wept for their friend. They were silent for 7 days and 7 nights (yes, a biblical number, and a long time). They saw his suffering was great, and in compassion, kept silent.
I think this is an important biblical understanding regarding true friendship. The dialogue in the middle of the book tells us that the friends thought that Job had some sort of sin in his life causing the calamity; it was the only thing that made sense. However, they didn’t come to judge him; they came to console him. Even the best of friends can be wrong in their limited understanding of our lives and our relationship with God, but their compassionate love towards us overshadows their wrong assessments.
…look for Part 2 in the next post…