Job – Speaking Truth to Power

Essay by Jay Wolin

Job is one of the most troubling books in the Bible for me.  It is the reason why I enjoy it so much.  This book asks the big question as to why there is evil in the world. Job also questions exactly what is our relationship with God? As profound as these questions are, the answers are even more disturbing.  When I read Job, I feel as if it is a story within a story.  It is as if I am watching a movie where I have previously read the script, and therefore know things the characters do not.  This book is a story of one man’s suffering, and throughout the book, the question as to whether individual suffering is brought on by our own evil actions is repeated again and again.  Yet we know from the very beginning of the book that this character’s suffering was brought on as a result of a bet by God.  The critical question I ask myself is why is this book included in the cannon of scripture?  I will focus on Job’s final reply to God (v.42.5-6) and the epilogue to help answer these questions.

Verse 42.6 is a celebrated verse by academics because it is so hard to translate that its meaning creates intense speculation and debate.  Is this repentance by Job, sarcasm or something else?   Preceding this verse, however, is Job’s assertion in verse 42.5 that his “repentance” is based on his seeing God. Job states “I had heard You with my ears, but now I see You with my eyes”.  This statement reminds me of the axiom my parents used to tell me, “I should believe nothing of what I hear and only half of what I see”.  Yet the reality is, at least in the text, God did not respond to Job’s charges.  Was it merely the presence of God that affected Job, or did God communicate in some other way to Job?  Many writings related to this verse want to focus on the Grace of God. 

Burton Cooper suggests, “In that vision of God, healing power must have been communicated. Job is healed of his hatred of life.” [1]   I think this is an apologetic reading of the story. There is nothing at all, in any of the text that indicates this interpretation.  In fact, although it states Job prays for his friends in verse 42.10, after verse 42.6 the text does not indicate that Job ever speaks again. Thus we have no way of knowing if he is healed of his hatred for life.  All we know is that his material possessions are returned.  In fact, one commentary states:

The text never says that Job was healed of his physical illness.  Perhaps it is assumed.  Since everything else was restored to him, probably, his health was also renewed.  But it is interesting to think about what difference it would make if Job was still sick, a chronic sufferer, even though living to 140 years and again thriving financially.   Would it have been enough for Job to be assured of God’s presence and care for him (as at the end of God’s speeches)?  Would that have sustained him even if his life had remained a constant battle with suffering?  It has been enough for many sufferers who have found that God was with them in the depths even though the suffering did not go away. [2]

I find it interesting that the issue of health was left out.  Was its absence purposeful?  Job subsequently did have 10 children, so he couldn’t have been too sick (unless he adopted the children because he was too ill to have birth children). Either way, there is nothing in the writings that indicates the state of Job’s attitude throughout the remainder of his life. I have read predominantly the same two translations of the last line of the book.  One is, “Job died old and contented”.  The other is “Job died old and full of days”.  The traditional reading of this is that he lived happily ever after.  Yet Simundon’s interpretation would give one pause as to what it would be like to live a long life with days full of pain and suffering.  All the material wealth in the world could not bring comfort to such a person. 

            I think the point that needs to be focused on though, is seeing God versus being taught about God.  The Oxford Bible Commentary questions whether:

his previous knowledge of YHWH was second-hand (obtained through rumor) or that he has just now really listened, in obedience to the divine command to hear, so that he is prepared to understand the meaning of the theophany, a seeing also. [3]

The Jewish Study Bible echoes this sentiment as well in stating, “Job suggests that before he had only indirect knowledge of God, but now he has direct knowledge.” [4]   Throughout the story, Job consistently asked to face God.  He knew he could not win a case against God, but he still demanded an audience. This viewpoint was foreshadowed in Verse 9.2-3 when Job states, “Man cannot win a suit against God.  If he insisted on a trial with Him, He would not answer one charge in a thousand.”  I think Job, as do many of us, just wants to know that there is a God; even if life does not appear just, we want to have some comfort that life is not just completely random.  We often are asked to accept things on faith.  I think verse 42.5 is indicating that to truly accept something in our hearts it must be something that we personally experience, not just read about in books.  It is the equivalent of reading a book about relationships compared to actually being in a relationship.  We can only truly understand relationships by actually being in a relationship with someone.  Reading books on relationships can help prepare us for the relationship, but we actually have to experience a relationship to understand it. Conversely, we can prepare for a relationship with God by reading and studying the Bible, but to truly accept God in our heart we have to experience a relationship with God.

            A different view of seeing God has been put forth by many who look at the story of Job as the transition from a monarchial, patriarchal God to a God that people have a more personal relationship with.  John Shelly quotes Andre Lacoque:

The real point of this book is a kind of parabolic juxtaposition of two images of God – El, the Almighty, omnipotent creator, versus Yahweh, the Redeemer of Israel.  Job and his friends, all non-Israelites appeal initially to El, but Yahweh is revealed, finally as the true and living God. [5]

The fact that Yahweh speaks and the fact that it is Yahweh, not El who speaks suggests that Yahweh is is not aloof and indifferent [6]

I think Lacoque presents an interesting theory.  As far back as the book of Genesis there have been different traditions that were edited together to form the Jewish Scriptures.  The traditional theory by Julius Wellhausen proposes that there are four traditions from which the Jewish Scriptures were drawn from.  Two of these are called the Yahwist (J) tradition and the Elohist (E) tradition.  According to Lawrence Boadt:

Sometime during Solomon’s reign, or soon after, an unknown author put together the Yahwist account from the viewpoint of the southern tribe of Judah, and to glorify the monarchy created by David and Solomon. When the nation split into a northern kingdom called Israel, they produced a second and revised account of the old tradition which used Elohim for God. They also stressed the role of the covenant of Moses over the role of the king, and avoided much of the Yahwist intimate language about God walking and talking with humans. [7]

I believe that the story of Job may have resulted from the tensions between the different schools of tradition.  In the story, the friends and Job consistently addressed God by names other than YHWH.  There was never an answer.  Finally YHWH responds.  Was this the transition from a patriarchal all powerful God to a more personal God, who walks and talks with humans?  Was this story meant to say that we humans have evolved,  that we need to realize that the time for the fable of an all powerful God who rewards the good and punishes the wicked had passed, and that YHWH is the one true God?  Was this story trying to tell the Hebrews that they were praying to the wrong God?  Could this be the reason that God had not responded for so long?  Is this what Job means when he states that now he sees God?   Maybe Job is accepting a different tradition of God that is passed down from the YHWH tradition of a more personal God versus other traditions. When looking back on Job’s undeserved suffering, Cooper goes one step further in clarifying the relationship between God and people by including Christian theology:

It is the cross that clearly finally breaks our old monarchial image of God.  It is the cross that clearly provides us with an image of a vulnerable God, an image of a crucified God, an image of a God who redeems us not by coercive power but by suffering with us in our suffering. [8]

Now I do not agree with Cooper’s assertions that the God of Job is suffering along with Job, however it did give me another insight.  Perhaps the story of Jesus (and Job) was created because the monarchial view of God we had was not sufficient anymore for humans. As humans progress, become more knowledgeable, and evolve, our experiences of good and evil were no longer satisfied with the simple answer of an all powerful God.   Maybe God comes up with new ways to guide us in the path of righteousness.  Maybe we are given new insights throughout the history of the world, as we become ready for them.  Maybe God has and is adapting to humans as we evolve.  I think if God is the God of Creation, than we are just that, a creation.  Not all creations are perfect.  Some have flaws, some break.  We are an improving creation.  I would make the analogy of a computer that can have more complex programs added as technology improves. Similarly, as we are evolving, we need a more complex understanding of the universe.  We are not perfect, and like a computer, we need new programs that will spark us to a new level of consciousness.  So if we are a creation of God, and we are filled with the spirit (spark) of God, we have the capacity to work towards eliminating evil within ourselves and the world we live in. I think William E. Hulme captured the essence of this concept when he stated:

Yet like Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar, we still seem to labor under the impression that the law produces repentance, that morality comes out of moralizing, and that change in character comes through threats of consequential punishment.  God answered none of Job’s questions.  In fact he indicated that they were the wrong questions, based upon erroneous and even presumptuous preconceptions.   Instead he involved Job in experience of knowing him through his creative activity. [9]

A quote attributed to Mother Theresa that says “ I know God promises not to give me more than I can handle. I just wish he didn't trust me so much.”  I think the story of Job (and Jesus) is a transition of God giving us more to handle, more to think about, more to digest than we previously had.  We can now understand (see) more than we previously had.  The old methods of learning of Job’s friends would no longer do.  People had to start evolving to the next level of consciousness, so the human computer can continue to improve.

            Due to its difficulties in translation, Verse 42.6 has had numerous translations applied to it which can lead to various interpretations of the entire book of Job. The translation from the Jewish Study Bible is, “Therefore I recant and relent, Being but dust and ashes.”  The translation from the NRSV Bible is “Therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.”  In my research, I have come across over 25 different translations of this verse.   Most analysis of this verse from a Christian perspective seem to view Job as experiencing God’s Grace.  I think this is typified by Cooper’s analysis that “he does experience God’s holy and healing presence. He discovers that in the presence of God’s love his complaints can find their resting place.” [10]   I think Cooper and many other Christian commentators are imprinting their theology in this type of analysis as opposed to the original purpose for which it was written.

Gustavo Gutierrez uses the translation, “I repudiate and abandon (change my mind) about dust and ashes.” [11]   He goes on to state:

The phrase dust and ashes is an image for groaning and lamentation; in other words, it is an image befitting the situation of Job as described before the dialogues began.  This, then, is the object of the retraction and change of mind of which this key verse speaks.  Job is rejecting the attitude of lamentation that has been his until now.  The speeches of God have shown him that this attitude is not justified.  He does not retract or repent of what he has hitherto said, but he now sees clearly that he cannot go on complaining. [12]

Using the translation “about dust and ashes,” as opposed to, “Being dust and ashes” or, “in dust and ashes,” gives the verse an entirely different analysis.  Additionally, I have often seen the translation “on dust and ashes”.  This last translation seems to refer back to Job verse 2.8 where it states Job “sat among the ashes”.  The word ashes tend to indicate ruins, and I think in the context of verse 2, clearly the life he previously knew was in ruins, so this interpretation makes sense.  The phrase dust and ashes seems to indicate insignificance and ruin.  This phrase was also used by Abraham in Genesis Verse 18.27, as Abraham is comparing himself to God.  If as Gutierrez suggests, Job is repudiating dust and ashes, and if as I believe dust and ashes represent our insignificance and ruin, then Job is repudiating human insignificance and ruin.  Job is saying we should stand up to God or any power even though there are consequences. Job’s lamenting and his complaining, is what brought God to Job, is what confirmed Job’s beliefs, and is what changed his condition from the unnecessary pain and suffering put upon him by God (power).  Therefore I think Gutierrez, although he may have the correct translation, has the analysis exactly backwards, and is trying to create an analysis to support his theology.

Gutierrez goes on to state that:

Job realizes that he has been speaking of God in a way that implied that God was a prisoner of a particular way of understanding justice.  It is this whole outlook that Job says he is now abandoning. [13]

I don’t agree with this analysis either.  Since we know that Job actually did not do something wrong or deserve this suffering, I think the point being made is God does not utilize or practice justice, according to our understanding of it.  However, I think it shows the point that power corrupts justice.  If we truly believe that Job was innocent, as we are led to believe in this story, then clearly there was an injustice from the human perspective.  I think the point being made is that we cannot subjugate our ideas of justice merely because powerful forces tell us to.  In the end, God said Job was right and the friends were wrong.  This is not the same as saying that God was wrong.  The message is that humans need to stand firm for their beliefs and for justice and help those in need or the innocent will be destroyed by injustice.  I think the story that needs to be told is the story of Job’s forgiveness of his “friends.”  This story is reiterated in modern times in the story of Nelson Mandela who worked with his former captors to find peace and justice instead of seeking revenge.  This is a story of speaking the truth to power if injustice reigns and suffering the consequences for doing so.   Terrence Tilley in responding to Gutierrez’s book indicates:

For Gutierrez, the suffering of this innocent one was educative, but Job learned nothing.  He only unlearned his belief that vice and punishment, virtue and reward, were connected in God’s world.  God gives no direct answers from the whirlwind, but at best, shows that if there be any control in the world, Job doesn’t exercise it [14]

Tilley takes an even harsher approach.  He states, “he is a victim, tormented by God and made a scapegoat by his comforters.” [15] Continuing on this same path, he quotes Elaine Scarry:

There is a…cruel bond between physical pain and interrogation that further explains their inevitable appearance together.  Just as the interrogation, like the pain, is a way of wounding, so the pain, like the interrogation, is a vehicle of self betrayal. [16]

Was Job so overwhelmed by an overpowering force that he meekly complied so as not to vent any additional wrath from God?  By merely reading the text there is no way to determine what the answer is.  Reading the text as a story, it certainly appears that God bullies Job.  Murray Haar wrote a Midrash on the Book of Job imagining that Job:

remembered that when it had come time for him to stand face to face with the Almighty he backed down before God.  In the end, Job realized that he had submitted to God, not out of wisdom or renewed faith, but out of fear. [17]

I think we have learned submitting to fear leads to dangerous results.  For me one of the messages of Job is to stand up to injustice even if it means death.  Yet in the end of this story, Job is vindicated.  Possibly the message here is that in the face of overwhelming power, we need to use the response of nonviolent protest to appeal to the conscience of those in power.  Haar goes on to ask, “Can a God stand in awe and silence before such stark madness and still claim to be God?” [18]  Yet God did eventually make an appearance in this story.  I think the question to ask is, if we as humans are not willing to fight for life, why should we expect God to step in to help? Perhaps because humans continually do not stop injustice, that is how the human notion of Grace from God evolved. Until we can understand the consequences of our actions, we have this inner need to find forgiveness for our actions.  This concept of sacrifice and grace is still looking at Job with the foreknowledge of Christian theology.  Although, I think Christian theology may have evolved from the story of Job, I do not believe that is what this passage is meant to convey. 

There is a quote attributed to Virginia Woolf where she says, “I read the book of Job last night - I don’t think God comes well out of it.” [19]   .  This quote of course, raises the question again as to why would such a story would be included in the cannon of Jewish Scriptures. Much of the analysis surrounding the Book of Job focuses on the message of why there is evil in the world.  If all things come from God, and God creates only good things, than how can there be evil? The superficial answer based on the story of Job is that God causes it randomly and capriciously.  I think most people experiencing life come to the conclusion that there is evil in this world. So the axiom would be if God creates all things, and there is evil, than God creates evil.  As a religious person, the concept that God creates evil does not balance with my intuitive belief of God being good.  I think Dr. Wayne Dyer looks at this quandary in a unique way.  His point is that “evil comes about the more we distance ourselves from God. [20] ”  I thought this concept interesting, but clearly that is not the message of the story, as Job had committed himself fully to God.  The real message of the story goes back to the creation of the universe.  I think what Job tells us is that we are all connected within the universe.  I think it is very purposeful that Job is from another country.  It is meant to show that God of Israel, is the same God in Uz.  That people in Uz face the same quandaries as people all over.  Although they have used different forms of the name God, there is only one God; all people are part of one universe and connected to each other. Perhaps when people realize this and join together, that we will experience peace and harmony in this world. 

Without question, in this story, God caused Job to suffer unjustly.  When Job became afflicted, Job was abandoned by his entire community.  His three friends who came to comfort him tried to convince him that he was the cause of his own suffering.  Yet in the end, his riches and wealth were restored.  His family and “former friends” each gave him gold.  I think it is interesting that the phrase “former friends” is used.  It clearly indicates they are not longer his friends.  The message is clear that in a time of crisis you find out who your true friends are.  His material fortunes were restored through his forgiveness of others, and through the help of the community.  As Walter Brueggemann observes:

Job is given his reward as a just man through the social process.  Indeed this human, communal action is stated as a response to God’s evil.  God may do evil, but redress is done through social process.  To be sure, this human action is matched by and corresponds the divine blessing (v 42.12) But the divine blessing cannot substitute for social process.  It is the work of the human community which makes Job’s experience of God’s justice possible. [21]

It is clear that even with his former wealth, Job fought against the social ills of his time.  Possibly he was punished for this by the people in power who wanted to keep a subjugated class of society. Yet he remained a strong advocate for the poor and suffering, and eventually he was vindicated as more and more people recognized the injustice done to him.  I think more mainstream people in society are willing to change when they see injustice befalling people similar to them.  If there is injustice against the poor in society, most of society turns away. People only pay attention to injustice when they feel it is possible that it could happen to them.   I think the message of Job is that society has to realize that injustice by those in power needs to be recognized, no matter who is affected.  Justice can only be restored by the community joining together.  The community had a choice to help Job at the beginning but abandoned him out of fear.  In the end, they joined him and helped him.   The book of Job shows how human suffering or awareness of suffering and injustice can lead to social transformation.  As Brueggemann also states:

Theodicy as a crisis occurs when some – usually the sufferers – no longer accept that reading of evil, that assignment of suffering, and insist that evil be perceived differently and suffering be distributed differently.  When evil is perceived in new ways, then the distribution of social power must be done differently to redress the unacceptable arrangements….Theodicy which includes only the moral, natural and religious, and excludes the social, fails to address the ways in which evil is not a cosmic given but a social contrivance. [22]

Even though a Cosmic God did this Job, Brueggemann is arguing that we as humans create the environment in which evil is allowed to flourish.  This is really quite a revolutionary reading of Job.  Brueggemann points out that evil is viewed differently based on one’s position in the social process.  I view this perspective similar to the concept non duality of all things.  There is no actual good and evil, just a continuum of human actions and perceptions, and that for justice to be relevant, it needs to be applicable to all, both the poor and wealthy alike.  The message is that humans need to be transformative in their dealings with injustice.  They must be able to reach out beyond their own view of the world.  We need to be able to view the world not just from the society from which we are in, but try to understand the perspective of others.  We need to understand the perspective of people who are starving while we overeat, the perspective of those jailed for their political views while we have the right to free speech, and the perspective of the devout Unitarian versus the devout Catholic.  In looking at the transformation of Job in the story, I think Brown makes an astute observation indicating that, “Instead of offering sacrifices on behalf of his children for fear that they have sinned, Job gives his three named daughters an inheritance along with their brothers.” [23]   This action shows me that Job has learned that substance of actively helping his children is more important than the ritual of praying for them.  In the time this was written, daughters were not given inheritances.  Therefore the story indicates that we have to transcend societal mores to do what we deem in our heart is the right thing to do.  In the end, what Job is repudiating and repenting from is tradition.  By looking upon God, Job has seen the falsity of relying on ancient traditions and rituals that are not longer valid.

            I believe the character of Job is a symbol for humanity.  God has given us the power to create true justice, and we have not.  We have too often abandoned the Jobs of the world who suffer.  Yet there has been progress. By continually reviewing such universal stories of justice and injustice, we will remember deep in our souls that God demands of us to remember Job, and demands us to be like Job.  We should shout against injustice, to speak the truth to power no matter the consequences, and to not be swayed by fear from our beliefs.  In the end, it is the truth that counts and it is the truth that God recognizes, as he did with Job.  We need to continually challenge ourselves, humanity, and God so that we can reach our fullest potential and enlightenment.


[1] Burton Z. Cooper, "Why, God: a tale of two sufferers," Theology Today, no. 42 (January 1986): 432

[2] Daniel Simundson, The Message of Job (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1986), 149-150.

[3] The Oxford Bible Commentary, ed. John Muddiman Barton, John (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 352-354.

[4] The Jewish Study Bible, ed. Adele and Brettler Berline, Marc (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 1561.

[5] John Shelley, C, "God's Bet and Job's Repentance," Review and Expositor, no. 89 (Fall 1992): 543.

[6] "IBID, 543-544.

[7] Lawrence Boadt, Reading the Old Testament (New York: Paulist Press, 1984), 94-95.

[8] Burton Z. Cooper, "Why, God: a tale of two sufferers," Theology Today, no. 42 (January 1986): 434.

[9] William E. Hulme, Dialogue in Despair - A Pastoral Commentary on the Book of Job (New York: Abingdon Press, 1968), 145-146.

[10] Burton Z. Cooper, "Why, God : a tale of two sufferers," Theology Today, no. 42 (January 1986): 426.

[11] Gustavo Gutierrez, On Job (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1928), 86.

[12]   IBID, pg 87

[13] IBID, pg 87

[14] Terrence W. Tilley, "God and silencing of Job," Modern Theology 5, no. 3 (April 1989): 264.

[15] "IBID pg 261

[16] "IBID, pg. 261

[17] Murray Haar, "Job after Auschwitz," Interpretation, no. 53 (2004): 267.

[18] "IBID, pg 268

[19] Barbara Brown Taylor, "On not being God," Job Review & Expositor 99, no. 4 (Fall 2002): 613.

[20] Dr. Wayne W. Dyer, The Secrets of the Power of Intention (Hay House, Inc, 2004) [CD-ROM].

[21] Walter Brueggemann, "Theodicy In A Social Dimension," Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, no. 33 (O 1985): 19.

[22] "IBID, pgs 7-8

[23] William Brown, "Introducing Job," Interpretation 3, no. 53 (July 1999): 235.



Boadt, Lawrence. Reading the Old Testament. New York: Paulist Press, 1984.

Brown Taylor, Barbara. "On not being God." Job Review & Expositor 99, no. 4 (Fall 2002): 609-613.

Brown, William. "Introducing Job." Interpretations 3, no. 53 (July 1999): 228-238.

Brueggemann, Walter. "Theodicy In A Social Dimension." Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, no. 33 (O 1985): 3-25.

Cooper, Burton Z. "Why God? A Tale of Two Sufferers." Theology Today, no. 42 (January 1986): 423-434.

Dyer, Dr. Wayne W. The Secrets of the Power of Intention. : Hay House, Inc, 2004. CD-ROM.

Gutierrez, Gustavo. On Job. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1928.

Haar, Murray. "Job after Auschwitz." Interpretation, no. 53 (2004): 227-267.

Hulme, William E. Dialogue in Despair - A Pastoral Commentary on the Book of Job. New York: Abingdon Press, 1968.

The Jewish Study Bible. Edited by Adele and Brettler Berline, Marc. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

The Oxford Bible Commentary. Edited by John Muddiman Barton, John. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Shelley, John, C. "God's Bet and Job's Repentance." Review and Expositor, no. 89 (Fall 1992): 542-546.

Simundson, Daniel. The Message of Job. Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1986.

Tilley, Terrence W. "God and silencing of Job." Modern Theology 5, no. 3 (April 1989): 257-270.

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