Formations 06.28.2015: A Conversation about Suffering

Job 1:6-21; 2:7-10

William Blake, Job’s Tormentors, 1793

William Blake, Job’s Tormentors, 1793

It was in college that I first really began to take my faith seriously. Though I was brought up in the church, it took the experience of leaving home and having to rub elbows with people from many different walks of life for me to get off of “auto pilot” and strive to make my faith my own.

For some reason, around that time I became fascinated with the book of Job. I don’t recall any particular hardship or setback in life that would have drawn me to that book. Chalk it up to the eagerness of an earnest young believer trying to make sense of the world—and foolish enough to think he could do it!

I had heard numerous ideas about the message of Job, some of which were naturally contradictory. I really felt like I had to get Job “straight,” so one night I stayed up and read the whole thing from beginning to end.

Do you know what I discovered? First, that there really is no better way to experience the flow of a biblical book than by reading it straight through without stopping.

Second, I discovered that I didn’t have a clue what the book of Job was supposed to teach me! Though I couldn’t have put it into words then, twenty or thirty more years of reflection lead me to wonder if that is, in fact, the point. Why do the innocent suffer? Why is it that God sometimes seems absent when we need God the most? People have wrestled with these questions for thousands of years.

This kind of wrestling is good for us, though. If God had spoon-fed us the kinds of simplistic answers we seem to crave to the deepest questions of human suffering, I doubt they would satisfy us for long. There would always be a “Yes, but…” or a “What if…?” threatening to topple our theological towers.

Instead, the book of Job treats us to a conversation. More than that, it gives us a full-on debate that forces us to come to terms with our place in a vast and dangerous universe.

Pious platitudes don’t count for much when we’re sitting on life’s ash heap. But the kind of honest questioning we find in Job can help us come through suffering with our faith intact.

Discussion

• How comfortable are you with unanswered questions? When have circumstances stretched this comfort level?
• How might today’s passage speak to those who are suffering their own difficult ordeals?
• What should we make of Job’s fatalistic approach, willing to accept both good and bad from the hand of God? Is this an appropriate response to suffering today? Explain.

Reference Shelf

Why Do the Innocent Suffer?

The singe word that serves as the title to this book in the Hebrew canon is ’yob, “enemy.” It is a word that provides not only the name of the central character of the book, Job, but also the central theme of Job’s relation to God. The issue is stated bluntly in 13:24: “Why do you hide your face from me and count me as your enemy (le ’oyeb)?” For Job, God seems hidden, painfully absent in a time of crisis and need. It is a response Job understands to be appropriate when directed toward opponents and violators of God’s will, but not towards those who, like Job, are “blameless and upright” (cf. 1:9). Thus Job’s anguished cry raises the question that the whole of the book that bears his name strains to answer, “Why?” Why do the innocent suffer? And why does God seem absent when they do?

As if to insist that attention not be diverted from this all important theological issue to questions of lesser importance, the Book of Job gives little attention to matters of historical detail. Nowhere is the author of the book or the date of its writing identified. It is often suggested that the author belonged to the intellectual elite of the day, perhaps working out of the same wisdom tradition responsible for such books as Proverbs and Ecclesiastes. Despite some rather certain connections with this tradition, however, it is clear that both the themes of Job and the literary styles that carry them cannot be restricted to any one tradition. With respect to date, a postexilic setting is usually recommended, thus suggesting that the kinds of questions Job raises are to be associated primarily with the period following the destruction of Jerusalem in 587/6 B.C.E. when the stabilizing institutions of society and religion could no longer support the full weight of theological assumptions. Yet it is clear from extrabiblical texts that the problem of innocent suffering did not emerge for the first time either in the Book of Job or in the land of Israel. Texts from Sumeria, Babylonia, and Egypt, the oldest dating to the beginning of the second millennium B.C.E., suggest that by the time of the writing of Job, considerable attention had been devoted to this most fundamental issue.

Joseph L. Trafton, “Job, Book of,” Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, ed. Watson E. Mills et al. (Macon GA: Mercer University Press, 1990), 455.

Sitting Among the Ashes

The satan strikes Job with “loathsome sores” that cover his body “from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head.” The extent of his affliction is clear—it is the whole of his body that now suffers. He must now contend with a personal pain that corresponds with the loss of all of his children and all of his possessions. Further, it is clear that the narrative depicts an affliction that is physical, not mental. The physicality of Job’s pain is important, not only here, but throughout the book where repeated, although imprecise, references will be made to the various ways in which Job’s body, his corporeal being, manifest the breakdown in his relationship with God (e.g., 7:5: “my body is clothed with worms and dirt”; 16:16: “my face is red with weeping”; 30:30: “my skin turns black and falls from me”). What is not clear from this brief summary of Job’s affliction is the precise identification of Job’s malady. The Hebrew word for “loathsome sores” (sehin) is a general term for skin disease that may be rendered in a variety of different ways: “running sores” (NEB); “severe inflammation” (NJPS); “severe boils” (NAB). The imprecision must be accepted as part of the narrative art of the presentation. Enough has been disclosed to make clear that Job suffers a devastating physical affliction, which the satan brings to him—with God’s permission and “for no reason.”

Job’s response to this affliction is noticeably different than in 1:20-21. He responds physically but not verbally. He acts, but he does not speak. He takes a potsherd and scrapes himself. From a practical standpoint, the scraping offers a counterirritant to soothe itching skin. The Septuagint says that Job took a potsherd “to scrape away the pus.” But the symbolism of this act may be more important for the story than any literal therapeutic effect it may have. Job takes a shard, a broken piece of pottery remaindered from something that once was whole, and with brokenness he scrapes his brokenness. The symmetry suggests that Job finds an identity and hence a kind of solace in connection with that which is no longer whole and complete. The broken comforts the broken; a place of discarded bits and pieces becomes home for one whose life is shattered and torn. The syntax of the Hebrew further indicates that Job was already “sitting among the ashes.” The indication is that Job has been in the traditional posture for mourners since the conclusion of Scene 3 (1:13-22). The text does not specify the location of this place, although most interpreters assume that the ash-heap or the “dung-heap” (LXX: koprias) is a public place outside the city where society consigns the rejected and destitute. 
Job’s wife enters the scene in v. 9 and speaks her one and only line in the book of Job. Her statement to Job is curiously ambiguous and invites multiple interpretations. Her first words repeat almost verbatim the words of God in 2:3: “still you are holding fast (hazaq) to your integrity (tummah).” Most interpreters take this to be a question and suggest that it carries negative, even sarcastic, overtones: “After all that has happened, do you still hold on to your integrity, even though it is patently futile and meaningless to do so?” (cf. NRSV). The Hebrew text, however, may just as legitimately be taken as an assertion, not a question. In this reading, the statement may mean that Job’s wife, like God, has looked on as he has endured his trials, and now she too affirms that Job is a truly righteous person whose fidelity to God remains as strong as ever.

Samuel E. Balentine, Job, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2006), 61–63.

Darrell Pursiful is the editor of Formations. He is an adjunct professor at Mercer University and an active member of the First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia.

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