Do you find the book of Job confusing? You’re not alone.
First, we get a conversation between God and Satan. It’s about the only passage in the Old Testament that doesn’t have an earthly setting. As a result of that conversation, Job suffers staggering losses, losses no sin of his can explain.
Then three friends show up to comfort him. Some comfort.
The anonymous author casts the main part of the book as a debate. The friends insist that no one suffers at God’s hands without having committed some grievous sin. Job insists on his innocence.
Then, some kid comes along and gives his opinion. He functions as the human judge of the debate and sort of sides with the friends.
When God finally shows up, he still withholds from Job knowledge of the bet with Satan. He serves as the divine judge of the debate, but none of his comments seem related to it at all. He sides with Job and blesses him with twice what he lost.
It’s great literature. The author gives each character a distinct personality. But what are we to make of it?
Satan’s bet in the book of Job
Satan, the accuser of the brethren, can’t make any of his accusations stick. From Genesis to Revelation, the Bible exposes him as a vicious loser.
Here, he claims that no one serves God without expecting to get something in return. He challenges God to strike Job and take away all his riches.
God declines. “Behold, all that he has is in your power, only do not put forth your hand on him” (Job 1:12 NASB).
Job does not sin in response. But instead of admitting defeat, Satan insists that God should strike Job and take away his health. Again, God bids Satan do it himself, but forbids him to kill Job. Job still doesn’t sin by cursing God.
The debate between Job and his three friends
The scene shifts to Earth. Who are these people? When and where did the debate take place?
Who was Job?
The first verse of the book of Job identifies him as “a man in the land of Uz.” Genesis 22:21 mentions Uz as the eldest son of Abraham’s brother Nahor.
It seems reasonable to equate the land of Uz with the place where Uz settled and established his tribe. It was located somewhere east of the territory Israel occupied after the exodus.
The Bible doesn’t identify Job’s tribe, although the natural inference is that he descended from Uz.
But notice: in that case he was not a descendant of Abraham through Isaac and Jacob. God had promised to be Abraham’s shield (Genesis 15:1). Therefore, he could not have afflicted such devastation on an Israelite.
Yet Job clearly believed in the God of Israel. These facts indicate a very early setting for the story, perhaps during the time when the descendants of Israel were captive in Egypt.
Who were the other characters?
Eliphaz the Temanite probably descended from Teman, a grandson of Esau.
Bildad the Shuhite probably descended from Shuha, a son of Abraham by Keturah.
The Bible mentions no Naamath from whom Zophar could be descended. He probably also represented a family related to Abraham but not descended from Jacob.
Elihu the Buzite, the human judge who appears in chapter 32, probably descended from Uz’s younger brother, and therefore from Nahor.
In other words, it appears that the three friends descended from Abraham, but from rejected lines not part of the Abrahamic covenant. Yet the story took place early enough that remembrance of Abraham’s God remained in these families.
Job and Elihu descended from Abraham’s nephews. Abraham’s niece Rebekah married his son Isaac. So they were related to Abraham’s family. None of the characters, therefore, were party to the covenant. Neither were they Canaanites destined for ruin.
I won’t try to summarize the debate or Elihu’s response. Everyone was partly right about God and partly wrong. None had any clue of the reason for Job’s suffering.
It dismays me when someone tries to make some kind of doctrinal point using a verse from the debate or Elihu’s response to back it up. The Bible, to be sure, is God’s word, but it accurately quotes other persons, including people who actively opposed him. No one should base doctrine on what various people of the Bible spoke in partial truth or error.
Job angrily answered his three friends, but not Elihu. Some commentators commend Elihu for having greater wisdom than the friends. Others dismiss him as a windbag. I’ll just observe that he didn’t call attention to himself. He ended with a stirring call to attention to God.
Job remained silent. God could finally get a word in edgewise.
God shows up
Lots of people read God’s response with disappointment, even exasperation. He comes on at first glance like a bully. But let’s look closer.
He begins by asking, “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?” (Job 38:2). Elihu had twice accused Job of speaking without knowledge.
God seems to be starting where Elihu left off, approving the general content of his speech. But certainly not the pomposity!
And the three friends likewise darkened counsel by words without knowledge. God would address them later.
He asked Job, “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” (Job 38:4). No human yet existed. No human can know God’s plan or have a right to question his judgment. But after some more questions about decisions made at creation, God asks, “Have you ever in your life commanded the morning?” (Job 38:12).
Adam was supposed to learn how to rule the earth as God’s viceroy. He rebelled instead. All his offspring are born into his sin—and forfeited the right to do anything God asked Job about. Maybe in heaven, everyone will have a turn commanding the morning!
As to God’s questions about weather, the Bible frequently records adverse weather as a tool of God’s wrath. He mostly turns it against Israel’s enemies, but occasionally against Israel at times of most willful rebellion.
Every syllable of Scripture testifies to God’s love and mercy. God reveals wrath against ungodliness. That wrath protects his people from vicious enemies of God. And like a shepherd’s rod and staff, it nudges his wayward people back to the fold. If you don’t see God’s love in the book of Job, study until you find it.
The end of the story of Job
I won’t try to summarize the rest of God’s answer. It consists mostly of questions no sinner can answer. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). Job sinned. It’s just that his sin doesn’t explain what he suffered. Job is a type of the best of humanity––not good enough to question God.
Job first responds, “Once I have spoken, and I will not answer; even twice, and I will not add more” (Job 40:5).
God isn’t finished with his questioning. Finally, Job answers,
“I know that You can do all things,
And that no purpose of Yours can be thwarted.
‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’
Therefore I have declared that which I did not understand,
Things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.”
‘Hear, now, and I will speak;
I will ask You, and You instruct me.’
“I have heard of You by the hearing of the ear;
But now my eye sees You;
Therefore I retract,
And I repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:2-6)
Job’s friends represent the best religion has to offer. So God addresses Eliphaz as their leader: “My wrath is kindled against you and against your two friends, because you have not spoken of Me what is right as My servant Job has” (Job 42:7).
Make no mistake: God did not endorse a syllable of what Job said during the debate. He commends only Job’s answer to him. Eliphaz and friends could have joined Job in repentance. I envision Job on his face in worship and the friends still sitting or standing, staring into space.
God gave Job twice what Satan stole. And never did let him in on the cosmic role he had played in showing Satan as a loser.
Photo credits: Illustration from Sweet Media from Wikimedia Commons