Chapters 1 and 2 of Job set the context for the book, setting up both Job and the readers of the story for the question, “Why does suffering happen in the world where a good God reigns? How can suffering and God’s goodness coexist?” It’s a question even the deepest thinkers have tried to probe, though they never quite arrive at a satisfying answer. The concern always is to protect God’s goodness and justice in the face of evil, suffering, or the like.
And we might be tempted to turn to Job to find an answer to our questions, to figure out such a perplexing issue. But when the reader comes to the end of the book, chapter 42, he realizes that we aren’t quite left with the answer that we were originally looking for.
Instead, after we have listened to God’s address to both Job and his friend Eliphaz, we merely find that we who came seeking a theodicy (a philosophical answer to suffering) are in the camp of the guilty with Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar: “My anger burns against you and against your two friends,” says Yahweh (the Lord), “for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has” (Job 42:7). From chapter 1 to chapter 42, the book has noted the righteousness of Job—before, during, and after the suffering. So what is it about Job?
Well, Israel would surely have been familiar with Deuteronomy, which spelled out the terms of the covenant: blessings for obedience and curses for disobedience (see Deut. 28). But the story of Job—who is not an Israelite but a man from Uz—at the very least serves to correct God’s people from interpreting the covenant, the Law, apart from relationship with the Lawgiver. In other words, one misses the point if he thinks only in terms of prosperity entailing obedience and suffering, disobedience. This is, at least in part, why the book of Job from beginning to end underscores Job’s righteousness amidst all appearances to the contrary (due to his terrible circumstances).
Over and against Job is the unrighteousness of Eliphaz, Bildad, Zophar, and then Elihu; their posture is represented well in Elihu’s words: “Bear with me a little, and I will show you, for I have yet something to say on God’s behalf” (Job 36:2). Speaking about God, defending his absolute justice, yet tending to leave speaking with God behind them: this is what characterizes these four men. And it is precisely what characterizes much discourse on theodicy.
Strikingly different is Job’s refusal to wax eloquent about God’s workings, as he instead cries out directly to God: “Oh, that I had one to hear me! (Here is my signature! Let the Almighty answer me!)” (Job 31:35). David Burrell writes, “Job is commended in the end because he dared to address the creator-God; his interlocutors are castigated for purporting to speak knowingly about that One. Speaking about something veers toward explaining, while speaking to someone can engage both in a relationship of exchange open to yet other forms of understanding.”
The last few chapters leave us readers perplexed at the book’s non-answer to the question of why Job suffers; rather, these chapters focus our attention on God, who cannot be sized down to a being who simply reacts to human workings. The conclusion also would leave us to recognize that in the midst of all our circumstances, living wisely means relating to God, eagerly awaiting God’s address, and calling out to him. Any other speaking about God is no different from the other four characters, who clearly think they have a control on the Creator.