Here’s what many people know about the book of Job.
1. Job is on trial.
2. The book is primarily about suffering.
3. Job’s hope for a redeemer foreshadows Christ.
4. God puts Job in his place at the end of the book, telling Job that God is God and Job is decidedly not.
All of those points, however, according to John Walton and Tremper Longman are quite mistaken.
In How to Read Job they tell us that actually:
1. God is on trial, not Job.
2. The key question is not suffering but whether God operates by the retribution principle; that is, does God run the world with a one-to-one correspondence between right behavior and blessing as well as between wrong behavior and punishment?
3. Job is looking for someone to vindicate him as righteous, not someone to redeem him for his wrongdoing.
4. Instead of overwhelming and intimidating Job at the end of the book, God is saying, “Since I am a wise and powerful God, you can trust me even when you don’t understand what’s going on.”
One key the authors use to unlock the book of Job is the backdrop of the ancient near eastern view of gods and the world. The book of Job in many ways stands in contrast to the thinking of Israel’s neighbors.
In other ancient near eastern religions, people served the gods (who had needs) and were in turn blessed by them. In contrast, Job asserts that he serves God without thought of reward (the main challenge in Job 1:9) and continues to do so even when all blessings are removed. While Job is right that the retribution principle does not hold, Job’s mistake is calling God to account, demanding that he be vindicated as righteous. If God submitted to Job’s demand, he wouldn’t be a God worth worshiping.
So if the book of Job does not explain suffering, what can it do for us? Walton and Longman offer a number of points. Here are two. While there is such a thing as natural consequences, Job comforts sufferers by showing how wrongheaded it is to think that when someone suffers it is always a punishment. As Christians we should not pile spiritual or psychological condemnation on top of the pain that suffering people are already experiencing by saying they must have some sin to confess. Rather we support those who suffer.
Nor should we think God can be manipulated–that is, if we act or pray according to a certain formula, he must respond. A God who could be controlled by us in that way wouldn’t be much of a God. Rather God is worthy of our worship. He is blessed, whether he gives or takes away.
What we think we know about Job may be wrong, but this brief and very valuable book is a welcome antidote.