Although considered the oldest book of the Bible, the Book of Job was probably recorded around the same period as the Book of Daniel and the Book of Isaiah, during what’s known as the period of Exile. During this time period a number of Israeli tribes were taken captive by Babylon (Daniel, in fact, is one of these captives). At the time it was recorded many in Israel would have identified with Job. Like Job, the Israelites felt their current lot in life was unfair, that the scale of life was imbalanced. From their perspective, God shouldn't have handed them over to their enemies, just as Job shouldn’t have been handed over to Satan.
Before considering Job’s suffering, I’d like to reflect on the imbalanced scale in my own life.
Last week I volunteered a lot of my time. I spent three and a half days helping my father-in-law replace the roof on his greenhouse, which is over a square acre in size. This was dangerous work. We had to walk the gutters between the peaks of the greenhouse roofs that were three stories high without harness or support. The slightest breeze could have easily swept the giant piece of plastic from the house and us with it. Then, yesterday, after helping my father-in-law, I went to my father’s and helped butcher turkeys. I’m not complaining, I enjoyed the hard work. It made me consider, however, the debts we owe one another.
We have a saying, Dad and I, that volunteer work among friends and family is “money in the bank”, meaning when you volunteer for friends and family the other is in your debt. Thinking about this, however, I realized that the balance of father and my father-in-law was pretty skewed to their side. I owe them so much that no amount of volunteer work on my part could ever satisfy my debt. This is true for many of us, we owe a tremendous amount to our parents or parent figures. For some, however, with irresponsible parents, the scales are imbalanced in the opposite direction, their parents actually owe them. And, it’s entirely possible that these irresponsible parents will never be able to atone for their mistakes. In general, however, I think it’s true that the youth carry a debt that will never be returned. It’s only because of the grace of our parents or past generations that we are free to live ordinary lives.
At best, our parents and our inheritance, encourages us to live on, using what’s been given us. Through their mercy, we are freed from our impossibly large debt and blessed to transcend the gift given.
A mark of maturity is the recognition of life’s imbalance and the necessity of grace. We must confess that we owe others and forgive others who, sometimes, will not be capable of fulfilling their debt to us. In light of this imbalance, grace seems to be essential.
What does this have to do with the Book of Job? Job tells the tale of how a blameless man comes to appreciate the inherent imbalance in life, demonstrating that valuable lessons can be found through honest grappling with the pain and suffering created by this imbalance. The way Job wrestles with pain, suffering, and the unfairness of life ushers in a fuller understanding of God. We see maturity in Job’s example.
The Book of Job reveals Job’s journey towards maturity in three different respects:
The first two can be found if we compare the list of Job’s belongings given at the beginning of the book and the list provided at the end, or, more accurately the way these two lists differ. The first difference concerns the place of women. In the list found at the end of the book, Job’s daughters are named and it is stated that they, like their male counterparts, are entitled to an inheritance. This would have been revolutionary for the time. Daughters, under the law of Moses, were not entitled to an inheritance and ignoring the law of Moses was heretical. Not only does Job go against God’s law, but, he also contradicts his representative on earth, Moses.
The second difference relates to the place of slaves. The first list is weirdly accurate: it gives the exact numbers of all of Job’s belongings, but, for reasons we can only speculate, it simply states that he had many slaves. Yet, in the list found at the end of the book, the numbers of all his belongings were multiplied—except when it came to slaves. Slaves, in fact, weren’t mentioned at all. Thus, in the world Job inherits after his suffering there are no slaves. Both these developments indicate that he has wrestled with his suffering in such a way that he now better understands the plight of the women and slaves.
A third way the Book of Job reveals the fruits of Job’s struggle involve the place of youth. It’s undeniable that youth are given a favourable position in the Book of Job. During this historical period, youth, being considered the property of their parents, didn’t have a legitimate voice. In the Book of Job, however, their voice is heard and respected. In fact, at times the youth are given the voice of God, speaking God’s truth (just as an aside, Paul too reiterates this emphasis emphasizing in Ephesians, and elsewhere, the importance of children, women, and slaves). Job is, essentially, made to listen to the youth.
Through suffering, Job comes to better understand and empathize with the vulnerable, the oppressed, and the poor. Through suffering and poverty the kingdom of heaven is revealed to this rich man. As a result, he is moved to stand up for the downtrodden, to defend, to protect, and to enable them: he listens to the youth, he gives women their inheritance, and frees all his slaves.
The Book of Job ends by discussing how Job is better capable of seeing and hearing God. Through the actions that result from Job wrestling with suffering and pain, this renewed relationship with the absolute—justice, mercy, grace, and ultimately, God—is concretely filled out. In other words, for Job, a closer relationship with God looks likes a better understanding and respect for the least amoung us.
Pain, suffering, and sacrifice cannot be justified, they’re unjust and irrational, but there are better and worse ways of dealing with them. Following Job’s example, it is possible to wrestle something good out of suffering. If we are moved as Job is, “our sufferings may become part of the very birth pangs of the new creation, the kingdom of heaven. In Paul’s startling phrase in Colossians 1.24, we might even ‘fill up in [our] flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions.’”*
* My analysis of Job follows the one found Nik Ansell’s excellent article on Job 1:1ff and 42:12-15 in Third Way Magazine (Sept, 1996: p20).