The following was written in partial fulfillment of the requirements of Dr. Heath Thomas's Old Testament II class at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.
The book of Job has most commonly been read as theodicy, i.e. as a defense of God’s goodness in the face of human suffering and the existence of evil in the world. This reading has a number of difficulties, not least in that though the characters in the book raise this question, neither God in his appearance nor the narrator offer an answer to it. Indeed, the final shape of the book is such that the reader has some understanding of why Job suffered as he did—but only some. God’s reasons for acting in the particular ways he did remain hidden, and (more importantly) the answers we see in Job’s specific case are clearly not applicable to every case of human suffering.
One possible way out of this problem is to approach the text from a different angle. Supposing that Job was not written as a theodicy, but as an exploration of an entirely different need, how might we read the book more profitably? One suggestion is that the central issue in the text is how Job might move from a position of ritual mourning back into a position of ritual life—and this approach does indeed yield significant exegetical fruit.
All of Job’s troubles experienced in the first two chapters of the book warranted his entering a state of ritual mourning: he experienced calamity in the loss of his possessions, the death of his sons and daughters, and the onset of a skin disease. The Levitical law proscribed the kinds of mourning an Israelite would undergo under each of these circumstances, and none were trivial. Though Job as a non-Israelite would not have lived under the Levitical law, he did live in a culture that embraced that pattern of ritual mourning in response to these problems, and the Israelite audience would have recognized his behavior as such. Thus, in Job 1–2, we see Job respond to his great calamity by tearing his clothes, going out of the town and sitting on the trash heap, and scraping his skin with a shard of pottery. These were not merely expressions of his grief (though, to be sure, he was grieved) but symbolic statements that he had entered a state of ritual death in a period of mourning.
Job now needed a way to move back to ritual life, the ordinary state of affairs. Culturally, “comforters” were the means afforded him for this end, and this explains the efforts of Eliphaz, Bildad, Zophar, and (eventually) Elihu. Each in his way sought to help Job come to terms with his loss, become right with God, and return to ordinary life. Since the three each embraced both the so-called “retribution principle” and its corollary—that God rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked, and that accordingly prosperity and suffering are indicators of righteousness and wickedness respectively—they all tried to convince Job that he ought to repent of his apparent sin.
Notably, however, none could persuade Job of any sin warranting such suffering as he endured, and moreover the book agrees with Job: the narrative prologue first chapters tells us that Job was “blameless and upright” and that “in all this [his initial response to loss] he did not sin.” Job’s bitter response midway through the book (“Miserable comforters are you all!”) makes perfect sense in this context: they were not relieving him of his state of ritual death, for their words offered no way forward. Thus, Job increasingly turns away from answering his friends to pleading with God to appear and answer him, though as Job acknowledges, no one can contend with God. Still: even against the largely accurate answers Elihu provides in chapters 32–36, Job was unmoved. He needed something else.
When God appears, he does not answer Job’s questions, but neither does he accuse him of sin. Rather, he shows Job his wisdom, and how greatly his wisdom exceeds Job’s understanding. This, it seems, is what Job needed in order to move from mourning back to life. He is able to say, “Before, I had heard of you, but now my eyes have seen you,” and this is what triggers his return to normal life at the end of the book. Moreover, his statement of repentance in Job 42 makes a great deal more sense this way: he now turned away (“repented” in the bare sense) from dust and ashes—not repenting of some unnamed sin in dust and ashes. Indeed, this (the common reading) would hardly make sense, given that Job immediately puts off his dust and ashes and returns to his life. Job was able to move from ritual death to ritual life because he had encountered God. As a result, Job did return to all the ordinary parts of life. Whereas the mourner was forbidden from feasting, worshipping, and sexual activity, Job participates in all three in the conclusion of the book. His friends and family come and eat with him. He offers sacrifice for his friends. He fathers more children.
Thus, taking Job in light of ancient near eastern mourning ritual helps us understand the book’s message and structure far more clearly than taking it as a theodicy. The text does not seek to answer why God allows evil. Indeed, it inverts the question: who are we to think we could understand? In Job we have instead a recognition that the only thing that will really satisfy the soul of one experiencing the deep suffering that life brings is an encounter with the living God. The only thing that could move Job from ritual death to ritual life is the only thing that can move us from spiritual death to spiritual life—not mere academic knowledge of facts about God, but encountering him as one who may be known.