Story helps us ponder evil

An open bible sitting on a rock.
 on October 1, 2014

One of the problems with a monotheistic worldview is the problem of evil. In polytheism, people simply assign the presence of evil to one or more of the gods. But if you believe in an all-powerful, all-loving God, how do you explain the presence of evil? Who is responsible for the presence of evil in the world?

The Book of Job is one of the biblical books that attempts to tackle this question. The story presents Job as a man who did no evil. He was sinless in the eyes of God, and then he lost everything. This story is probably one of the most difficult books in the Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible) to understand. Let us look at it in some detail.

God and his angels were discussing humans, and God pointed out the goodness of his servant Job. One of the angels, called the Satan, challenged God, maintaining that Job was only good because he had been so richly blessed. So God allowed the Satan to strip Job of all of his wealth and family. This he did, and still Job remained faithful. Next, the Satan was allowed to cause Job to be covered with sores, but Job remained steadfast in his faith. Then, three friends arrived on the scene, to comfort Job in his afflictions. This all happened in the prologue to the story, which is written in Hebrew prose (Job 1:1-3:2).

Before we continue with this story, it should be pointed out that the Satan is not the Devil in a red suit and a pitch-fork, which we picture in our Christian theology. That Devil does not exist in the Hebrew Bible. That was a Christian attempt to explain the presence of evil in the world. The Satan in Job was an agent of God, acting with God’s permission.

When we look at Job’s three friends, or comforters, my only comment is, “With friends like these, who needs enemies!” The dialogue he has with his friends and later with God is written in Hebrew poetry. The story progresses with each friend accusing Job of sinning and thus deserving his punishment. He suffers because of his moral behaviour. Each time, Job assures his friends that he does not deserve the punishment.

Then a fourth friend, Elihu, appears and he takes the argument one step further. He talks about the power of God and how God only punishes evil behaviour; God does not afflict the righteous. There is no other explanation for Job’s suffering: he must have been sinful. This theology was in keeping with much of the Hebrew Bible. The prophets warned the people that their sinful nature was going to lead to God’s punishment. Indeed, the explanation for the defeat of Jerusalem and the Exile, as written by the Deuteronomistic Historians, was because the people had sinned against God and this was their punishment. God even used their enemies as his agents of this punishment! So Job’s comforters were in good company. But they were wrong!

Job demands a chance to appeal to God, and finally God appears. God’s reply comes in chapters 38 to 41. He asks Job a series of rhetorical questions that contrast the power and wisdom of God with that of Job. God argues that since Job was not present at the creation of the world and does not understand the workings of the universe, he has no right to demand an explanation. God does not give Job a straight answer except to say that we cannot know the ways of God. Bad things do happen to good people. That is the way of the world. We cannot insist that God must act in a certain way. That would be to limit God, and God cannot be limited. God maintains that Job’s friends are wrong in their understanding of evil.

Job is vindicated in the epilogue (42:7-17). Here, the author reverts to Hebrew prose, and Job has all of his wealth, health and family restored. The unknown author of the Book of Job maintains that we cannot know the will of God.

We cannot identify the author or the dating of this important book. It may have been written around the sixth century BCE or even later. The story was probably based on ancient folklore that was prevalent in the ancient Near East.

This book is a fascinating read, addressing the problem of evil in the world. It may be one of the most important books in the Tanakh. I invite you to read through it, contemplating your thoughts about the problem of evil in a world created by a good God, a God who is all-powerful, all-knowing and all-loving. Enjoy the dialogue.


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