Why Job in the Book of Job had to suffer

Based on the commentary of Rashi and narrated by Balaam, Job’s contemporary: "Righteous and wicked suffer alike, and there’s no difference, and that’s what I can’t tell, and will never be able to, because all people have a portion of both in them."  

Steve Apfel

Judaism Ancient papyrus with Egyptian hieroglyphs
Ancient papyrus with Egyptian hieroglyphs

Balaam's narration: Based on the midrash that Balaam, Jethro and Job were Pharaoh's advisor

If I am to follow my record in true prophetic fashion, I had better go on; and instead of leaping the days or the years, I will pass to the following winter. Fourteen moons after I left Pharaoh confronting the menace posed by the prolific Habiru (people who give me goose bumps thinking of them as Jacob’s fuse or God’s device) the covenant between God and Abraham is about to go into perpetual motion. The tribes are about to have cold water poured over their collective inebriation. They are on the cusp of finding out just what the Almighty meant by the brit bein habetarim, the covenant made with a deeply sedated patriarch. If there was another way to make the brit I can’t think of it. Even for a man with the fortitude and faith to pass all ten supreme tests, the fates decreed in the covenant were too cruel and protracted to expect Abraham to make a wakeful deal with his Maker. 

To get the bondage going, the provocative touch-ups I proposed took Pharaoh’s fancy: trap God’s Chosen, one step at a time, I said. Job – now there is a God-fearer who makes good sense – was the willing witness. My other colleague, Jethro the priest of Midian, had the temerity or the foresight to locomote out of the palace on his gangly legs in case he should commit to anything he’d later regret.         

Of ironic consequence about Job: one blustery morning at Charan market place, whom do I run into but a mutual friend of the magnate! Bildad a clansman of Shuah from the sons of Keturah, a wife of Abraham, was my distant cousin. He had come from Uz whence he’d gone to mourn with Job. I couldn’t get over what had happened – I haven’t yet. 

The brutality of the destruction of a man who was blameless and feared God! Job remember,  had dwelt in Babel when its people took council against God and built the Tower whose top reached into the heavens. Yet Job had given the idolatrous project a wide berth. Like Noah before him, Job was a righteous man in his times. He was rewarded measure for measure, and grew to be the man in the East envied by all. Exempt from the ups and downs of mortals was part of the mystique. God, it seemed, would always protect and never test Job. 

When deprivation and death dispersed the mystique like a puff of air, it was far from the normal bad luck story. Nothing was natural about the sequence of events from which the magnate emerged a pauper, infested with sores and prostrate in his mourning sackcloth on a bed of cold ash.

Job had learnt the worst lesson that life can teach – that it makes no sense to human beings.

To me certainly the case made none –or too little for clarity. It was why I invited Bildad for lunch. I wanted to understand how his friend came to grief. His was not the average misery that catches up with people of every rank and fortune. Nor, to my discernment, did cousin Bildad think so. He wanted from me self-assurance, an affiliation with what had gone on which my clients pay me to give them.   

I was wrong.  

I took him to the tavern where the staff knew me after the cruel episode, now four years old, leading to my father with his head clubbed in being found in a filthy alleyway. The name ‘Son of Beor’ had followed me, and with it attitudes and looks I had to fend off. The patron, the wife and the stubby waiter asked about the patch I had begun wearing over the blind eye. “Accident,” I said, lifting the patch to satisfy morbid curiosity. The patron, grown fat on his own rich Mesopotamian cooking, waved us on. 

With the windows shuttered to keep out cold blasts, the smell of cooking was not dispersed by the outer door constantly opening and closing. I recognised a few people who were having early lunch, and I bowed to them before sitting down. Some looked away, others nodded. I ordered a flagon of brandy because I wanted to give Bildad time to disclose more than details of what had happened there in Uz. No life is charmed. Blessing or chance had been with Job longer than normal, but they seldom endure. Before the year was out he learned the lesson to the bitter dregs. 

At the end of our long bench a young soldier sat with his girlfriend. I envied the simplicity of his happiness, or his misery, whichever it might be. Job’s ordeal, so my cousin told me, began with theft and fire and killing. Marauding bands from Sheba and Kasdim raided his livestock before putting the servants to the sword. Of any consolation, the adversaries were human. Not so the bolt of lightning that eradicated what remained after the raiders. A phenomenon is problematic – no prediction or precaution could have forestalled it. The freak occurrence wiped out Job. What God had given God took away, every last head.  The great magnate was no more. 

We were down to the dregs of brandy when Bildad revealed the next blow, compared to which the first had been a low-order calamity. Out of nowhere a sirocco wind collapsed the house where the children of Job were feasting together, crushing all ten sons and daughters beneath the rubble. 

Had the angel of death passed overhead? 

Often in life Job had asked friends, ‘Why are things the way they are? Why are they always perfect? As a precaution he sanctified the siblings daily. He rose before dawn to offer ten burnt offerings, in case any of them had despised God in words or deeds. Perhaps they had – too badly for roasted meat to appease the Almighty. The news, brought by the surviving servant, finished Job.

Though God was not finished with him. To put the seal on complete ruin and humiliation He smote the down-and-out griever with a skin disease that would have tested the faith of an Abraham. 

Whew! I was astounded that Job had the will to live. My favourite detail from our audience with Pharaoh: even as he is now pleading with Heaven to put an end to his life, I remember the hearty magnate standing at Pharaoh’s throne in his silken camelhair robe, over a snow white undergarment fastened at the waist by a gold-brocaded belt and buckle stamped with the legend, ‘House of Job.’ 

“A man must do...What?” I said to Bildad. “I mean for God to pitilessly chastise him until he screams out, ‘May the day of my birth be dark. Why did I not die from the womb?’ For what horrific sin did God punish our friend?”   

Bildad made a feeble effort to look sober. “That’s what we tried to get out of him,” he said thickly. “He wouldn’t confess to anything.”  

“Nothing wrong with that– wouldn’t you be in denial in his place?”

Bildad got to his wobbly legs, and using his palms on the table as an anchor, he craned forward, “Good day, Balaam. I’ve got errands to do.”

“Stay, Bildad. I may be in a position to help.” I laid a hand on his hairy knuckles to keep him. With a look of bewilderment he gazed around the tables as though he was trying to fit me in. 

I summoned the compact waiter. He never had to ask for my order because I let him bring the Speciality of the Day. It was capon off the bone today, coated in flour and egg yolk. Hungrily we ate, not curtailing for a moment a wolfish intake of Job’s reversal of fame and fortune.           

I said, “You referred to other mourners.”

 “Oh, I keep thinking everyone knows. The wife sent word to three friends. Like me the others were not....” He put away the fork and jabbed a thumb down, making a joke in Nuzi – not a dialect I understood. 

“Do I know them?” 

“Eliphaz, a grandson of Esau, and Zofar from Naamite. We told Job the same thing. If God is just then evil befell your family because you have guilt on your soul. We didn’t spare his feelings.”

I dabbed my mouth to suppress a smile. “Exalted company,” I said. “Well, I should think you brought a lot of comfort to the mourner.” Oddly he contradicted me.      

“So we might have done. The wife, however – that wife! By the time we arrived she had driven rebellion into his skull. ‘Life in your condition serves no one.’ She meant herself, Balaam: Job had nothing more to give her. ‘Renounce your faith and blaspheme and die rather than endure the prolonged poverty and pain of a devoted servant of God.’ I tell you, Abraham wouldn’t have stood up better to her belittlement. ‘The Lord gave and the Lord took’. 

“Job said that?  Heroic, Bildad. He passed a test that God never gave to anyone I can think of.” 

Bildad said, “Listen to the clarity after all he had lost. ‘God gave me the children and the property and He has the right to take them back. I acquired them; therefore they did not belong to me. I was born naked and I will return to the earth naked.’ If only he had kept it up!” 

“To have such brave words to say! He was always a model of correctness and faith. But what did Job feel? Bildad, there’s the question. Even a donkey feels resentment when made to suffer.”  

He leaned back and shook a finger at me. “You’re too clever, Balaam” he said. “True – lips don’t have to get their words from deep down feelings. I happen to be able to tell you what Job’s feelings were. At heart he blamed the constellations. His fate lay with the star sign he was born under. I heard him curse the star on the day he was born for ruling events in his life. It would be better had he blamed God. Idolaters give the stars power over events. At heart Job renounced God. He blasphemed!” 

I agreed – a victory for the werewolf spouse. Would Job be spared prolonged suffering, as she’d hoped? God terminates the life of a sinner quickly – a painless punishment. But the whole idea of reward and punishment is full of pitfalls. Simpletons and children like a story which turns Destiny, the oldest enigma of the world, into something a person can control. Be good to get blessings, be bad to get punished. How easy it makes life. 

Our waiter stopped by.“Another flask, Bildad?” 

He slid the empty one at the waiter. “We warned Job about blasphemy,” he said, immune to the grim look of the waiter. 

“The man’s overworked, if you ask me, I said when he had moved on. “As for our friend, he’s landed in a fix I wouldn’t wish even on the Israelites in Egypt.”

Bildad cleared his throat. I had the odd sense that, like one of my servants, he was waiting  for me to scold him.  

I said, “If Job is righteous, as he thinks he is, then what’s his punishment for?” 

Bildad looked around at new patrons who had joined our table. “Will you be taking revenge for your eye?” he asked. 

“I shall bide my time. Revenge will come when and where it suits me.” And I thought of what had become of the greatest man in the East.

“The sufferers,” Bildad said, “that’s what I’m here for. They send for me when they are suffering.” He raised eyes bleary from a diseased liver and said harshly and hopelessly, “I’ve never been any good to contented people, Balaam.”

“Don’t talk nonsense.”   

 “If people want to avoid trouble they go to you. When they get into trouble I’m the one they go to for comfort. Don’t mind me, Balaam, it’s that dark house I’ve come from – it got me down.”  

Of course, I thought, of course – He was affected by more than the calamities on one family. He had risked stumbling on truth – the truth that gives no explanation for suffering. Could I tell him? Would he like or hate me for it? I knew the truth. Righteous and wicked suffer alike, and there’s no difference, and that’s what I can’t tell, and will never be able to, because all people have a portion of both in them.   

I said, “From what I’ve heard Job understood that his troubles were not a coincidence – one calamity followed another. What could he blame if not his unlucky stars? He chose the lesser evil. Did he blaspheme? A prickly predicament for anyone! He had to either believe that God entrusts the constellations with supervising the world, or believe that God was wrong to punish a righteous man. Of the two is there a better one?” 

“I don’t know,” Bildad said. “I can tell you, though – Job attributed another heresy to God, who created the constellations and allowed people to be born under foreboding signs that were bound to cause them trouble. That’s not all. He argued that it is beneath the Almighty to look after His lowly creatures. Divine Providence over man, he said, is not possible. On the one hand, God’s infinite superiority precludes being interested in the problems of this man or that man. On the other hand, if a man were to change his behaviour, it would make God change His knowledge of that man. How proper is it to believe in such a thing? Job alleged that God knows nothing of our deeds, good or bad. His own deeds seem to support him. He got up every morning in the dark to trudge off to his fields to slaughter a fatted calf. A servant strung the carcass over the flames on Job’s own altar. Every day he knelt to God, ‘Lord, pardon my sins. Pardon the sins of my family. Pardon, pardon, pardon...Was a lifetime of honest work and pure devotion not good enough for God Almighty?” 

“How did you get over the difficulty? What did you tell him?”

“I? What could I tell him other than what I hold to be true. The children perished in their banqueting house because the daily feasts led them to levity which led to God expel them from the world.”

“A little harsh, Bildad?”

“I think not. After explaining why his offspring all died, I comforted the father. Job’s reward will come if he seeks God with sincerity and not hypocrisy. The loss he suffered will be small compared to the blessing that God will give him to make up for it. If indeed Job did not sin, God must have made him suffer to reward him all the more. The prosperity that he’ll enjoy at the end will be greater than it had been before calamity knocked him flat.” 

I hummed. Did Bildad not see that he had piled inconsistency on top of Divine judgment that was over-rigorous? Is it really how he understands Providence: The prosperity of the wicked is for their punishment, while the tribulations of the righteous are for their good? Can two identical happenings – the wicked and righteous are made to suffer – lead to different results? Like a wild storm that blows off both the fruit and the leaves from a tree, so God in a rage chastises both the wicked and the righteous. It cannot be. 

“There are all kinds of people,” Bildad said when I made the point to him. “There are people who do all kinds of evil which God rebukes with all kinds of punishment. Think about that.”

“You asked Job to think about it?”

“Balaam, he thought like a heretic. The saga of the wrongly punished. He doesn’t fear Divine Justice since he’d done nothing to be punished for the sake of humbling and frightening him into being an obedient, brain-dead beast. And he made up a new rule. I never heard it before. It is better to deny Divine Providence than to attribute injustice to God. He has a clever answer to everything. He berated me, he berated Eliphaz and Zophar. Why do we continue to hammer him for sinning and rebelling? Even if he had transgressed it was not proper for God to be heavy-handed with the rod – especially if whatever Job was guilty of had not been deliberate. To err is human to forgive is divine.   

Could I reveal what I knew, I wondered? Could I tell a friend that I’d led Job astray? I’d given bad advice. What use would it be? I am wiser now – I suspect the cause of Divine anger. We are expected to intervene, to frustrate some painful decree. We are judged favourably if we do, or harshly if we don’t – whatever the outcome of the decree. I insisted that God had hardened Pharaoh’s heart. The bitter bondage would be implemented, like it or not. Let it go. Let God do what He had to do. I should have known better. 

I overlooked the lesson with the sale of Joseph by Jacob’s other sons. It was decreed that they would sell Joseph. Doing so, they sinned, and were punished. I had put a stumbling block before the blind – my fellow councillor at Pharaoh’s throne. And Job lost everything because he took my lead. 

“I’m a wizard paid by clients to nullify adversaries, Bildad. A troublemaker. The one adversary I have no power to nullify is God.” And looking away I heard Bildad laugh miserably, Ho! ho, ho.”           

Steve Apfel is an economist and a cost accountant, but most of all a prolific author of non-fiction and fiction, published in many journals and sites. Steve’s books include:Hadrian’s Echo: the whys and wherefores of Israel’s critics’; The Paymaster’ (novel;); ‘A bias thicker than faith (collection of essays, due out this year); and ‘Balaam’s curse’ ( biblical novel in progress). This article on the Book of Job is taken from ‘Balaam’s curse’, and is based on the commentaries of Rashi and others.