I was interested in reading today about an increase in people praying during the current pandemic as well as people buying and reading the Bible. Times of crisis often compel us to turn to God, and that’s a good thing. The Bible has much to encourage us in life and is a rich source of comfort and strength in times of need.
In light of this, I’ve heard some people link the COVID-19 pandemic with the story of Job, so I thought it would be timely to revisit this ancient book.
Delving Into Job
Job is probably the oldest book in the Bible dating back to the first part of the 2nd millennium BC. Moses likely discovered the book while he was in Midian (NW Arabia near the land of Uz where Job is said to come from) and sent it to the enslaved Hebrews in Egypt to bring them hope and encouragement in their suffering.
There are two interpretations we need to be wary of when it comes to understanding Job. First is the view that Job addresses the question, “why do people suffer?” Ultimately those who hold this belief will tell you we don’t know why, that God is sovereign and we shouldn’t question God. Mere mortals need to do the best they can in dealing with life’s suffering.
The second view is taught by the Word of Faith preachers. The key verse for this interpretation is Job 3:25, “What I feared has come upon me; what I dreaded has happened to me.” Job, they say, was in fear not in faith and so he left the door open for Satan to kill his kids, ruin his businesses and take his health. If that’s the case, we’re all in trouble – who doesn’t fear something from time to time? If fear leads to God giving permission to Satan to destroy our property, family, and health, then none of us would fare well.
Where Views Lead
It’s this belief that has led to much condemnation and unkindness amongst Christians. You’re sick, it’s your fault. You must have sin in your life. If you just had enough faith, you’d be healed. It’s interesting to note that these statements are a summary of the words from Job’s miserable comforters. At the end of the story, God censures Job’s friends “because you have not spoken the truth about me, as my servant Job has.”
Conservative theologian, John Piper, proclaims this view in his latest book, Coronavirus and Christ, when he writes, “some people will be infected with the coronavirus as a specific judgment from God because of their sinful attitudes and actions.”
Neither of these views of the story of Job is satisfying or accurate, as we’ll see as we delve into this marvellous story. The ultimate question posed in Job is, “Do you worship God because God is God, or do you worship God because God is good?”
Delving Into Chapter One
Job chapter one sets the scene. There’s a heavenly board meeting, and the sons of God ha Elohim bane (not angels) came “to present themselves before the Lord, and has satan also came with them.” Has satan (pronounced huss sa-tarn) is not Satan, but rather one of the lesser gods. Satan didn’t come onto the scene until much later in Judaism and Christianity.
Monotheism, belief in one God, didn’t originate until the 14th century BC in Egypt. It didn’t become a lasting fixture in the world until the adoption of monotheism by Hebrews in Babylon. The Bible’s older documents reflect a belief in many gods. The first commandment is an attempt by God to nudge people away from polytheism: “You shall have no other gods before me” (Ex. 20:3). Elohim was to be the preeminent deity among the many gods.
The Lord asks, has satan, “where have you come from?” At this time, I must point out that the Book of Job is a poetic play. It may have been based on a true story, but much poetic license and metaphor are used. Of course, the Lord wouldn’t need to ask has satan where he’s been because the Lord is all-knowing. Now back to the story.
God is the one who brings Job into the discussion by asking, “Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one on earth like him; he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil.”
Has satan contends that Job only worships God because God has blessed and protected him and his family. But God, “stretch out your hand and strike everything he has, and he will surely curse you to your face.” God agrees to the bet but sets a limit on has satan, “everything he has is in your power, but on the man himself do not lay a finger.” The rest of chapter one tells of the destruction of Job’s children, his animals, and servants. Job’s response is to worship God.
Delving Into Chapter Two
Chapter two is almost a carbon copy of the first chapter, it just happened “on another day.” God once again brings up the matter of Job like he’s just itching to have another bet with has satan. Job “still maintains his integrity, though you incited me against him to ruin him without any reason.” Really? Does God really lack self-control? See why it’s crucial to interpret Job as a dramatic play?
“Skin for skin!” has satan replies. “A man will give all he has for his own life. But now stretch out your hand and strike his flesh and bones, and he will surely curse you to your face.” God agrees, take his health, but don’t kill him. Nice!
Job was afflicted with “painful sores from the soles of his feet to the crown of his head.” Job maintained his integrity. He didn’t worship God this time, but neither did he curse God, even though his wife suggested he did. Mrs. Job often cops a bad rap, but consider what these poor women has just gone through. She would have been in deep grief over losing all her children in one day. We need to cut her some slack.
The three “friends” arrive, and a bad day turned much worse. No one said a word for a week, and then “Job opened his mouth and cursed the day of his birth.” And who can blame him?
The next chapters record the discourse between Job and his three miserable comforters. After a while, a fourth guy arrives, Elihu, who contradicts the other three and then opposes Job. This is the Bible answer man, you know, that annoying person who knows everything? He sounds so spiritual, and yet …
Finally, in chapter 38, the Lord re-enters the picture sounding a bit like the parent who asked their child to do something. The kid asks for a reason, and dad replies, “because I said so, because I’m the parent” or something equally as unsatisfying.
It’s not until we get to the final chapter that things begin to become evident. Job’s been right all along, the four friends who’ve been saying things like “some people will be infected with the coronavirus as a specific judgment from God because of their sinful attitudes and actions,” are told they are wrong.
One of my favourite Bibles is The Jewish Study Bible. It gives a terrific understanding of the Hebrew language, culture, and knowledge of Scripture, and some interesting insights into Job. In the Hebrew language, Job’s speech to God (42:1-6) is considered satire rather than submission. Job is disappointed and disgusted with what has happened to him and is annoyed with God.
Modern Day Interpretation
If I were to write this out in plain English, the interaction between God and Job would go something like this …
Job – Why did I suffer? Where were you when I was experiencing all this, God?
God – You can’t question me, I’m God.
Job – That won’t cut it with me. I am not satisfied with that excuse.
God – You’re right.
I know that our modern Christian mindset finds it very difficult to imagine God in this way. But that’s the climax of this incredible poetic play:
- God can handle human anger with suffering, even when it’s directed at him.
- God can handle our scrutiny about suffering. It’s perfectly fine to question God.
Job is rewarded for holding his ground, and God vindicates him. The moral of the story is this: keep worshiping God no matter what. “Do you worship God because God is God, or do you worship God because God is good?” A timely reminder in this or any other crisis.