What Does Job Learn?

The Book of Job is one of the ancient world’s most prized literary and philosophical treasures. Through a historical frame narrative and a series of philosophical speeches, Job presents the reader with a profound exploration into the reasons and nature of human suffering and the extent of human reason in contrast to the Divine. Of particular interest to the reader is whether Job’s perspective on God and himself develops throughout the work or whether his response to God at the end of Job (Job 40: 4-5; 42: 2-6) is not substantially different from his response at the beginning (Job 1:21; 2:10). 

The parallels between these two sections are readily apparent. In both, Job speaks twice: in the first case, he speaks after each episode of suffering; in the second after each speech made by God. In both, Job is commended for his speech: After his first answer, Job is said to have “not charged God with wrong” (1:22), and after his second response the author says, “In all this Job did not sin with his lips” (2:10). While Job’s first response to God’s speech is not commended, after his second response God commends Job, saying that unlike Job’s three friends, Job has spoken of God rightly (42:7). In both sets of responses, Job bears a posture of humility: in the first, regarding himself as a recipient of God’s wise providence, for good or ill; in the second, regarding himself as of small account compared to God’s wisdom. In these terms, it seems that the structure of Job presents a cyclical form of development, where Job begins rightly, strays in the middle of the book, and returns to his correct perspective at the end. But looked at another way, the end of Job presents a linear form of development in which his responses at the end represent a deeper form of wisdom than his commendable words at the beginning. 

At the beginning of the narrative, Job’s two brief speeches are particularly focussed on how to understand the disastrous events in light of God’s providence. After losing his wealth and children, Job responds by weeping and worshiping (1:20). His first response focuses on how he cannot fault God for taking away the very things God had previously given him (1:21). He entered the world naked, with nothing to claim as his own, so anything that he had gained was a gift; if God in his wisdom decides to take those things away, it is God’s prerogative. Furthermore, Job knows that he will leave the world with nothing, so what has happened to him is not substantially different than what will happen to everyone: all that they’ve been given will be lost at death. 

Job’s second response is similar to the first, with a slight variation. Job’s wife encourages him to “curse God and die” rather than hold onto his integrity, probably inferring that because she knows that Job is righteous, God must be unjust; thus, Job should curse God and die, for there is no hope for God to listen to him and there is no reason to continue serving him. Job responds by pointing out that God gives both good and evil, and we should not serve him simply because we hope to receive good from his hand, thus repudiating both his wife and also Satan (1:9-11). In this response, Job focuses not on what God has taken away, but what he has given, concluding that it is man’s responsibility to receive from God even bitter calamity and serve him still. Together, Job’s responses focus on how a wise and pious person should respond to the actions of God. 

In the middle section of Job, Job’s complaint moves beyond understanding how a man should act in response to God’s actions to a more evaluative perspective, seeking to understand whether or not his actions and God’s actions are just or coherent within the wise structure of the universe. In Job’s attempt to move from knowledge of how a person should respond to calamity to knowledge of justice, human integrity, and the wisdom of God, Job seems to lose his way. While he speaks few words in chapters 1-2 and proves himself righteous, he speaks many words in chapters 3-39, and proves himself ignorant of the deeper workings of God and the world. 

Thus, after God reveals himself in the whirlwind and counsels Job on his lack of wisdom, Job’s responses seem to indicate a level of wisdom and humility that he did not possess at the beginning. His responses focus not on what a person should do in light of calamity, but on his recognition of his own ignorance and smallness before God. “I am of small account,” says Job (40:4). He recognizes that he has spoken many words without knowledge of God or wisdom (42:3). Whereas in the beginning Job had only heard about God, leading him to think himself wise because he knew how to act, his face-to-face encounter with God reveals to Job that he is still utterly lacking in wisdom and knowledge (42:5), and thus his response is humble repentance (42:6), rather than simple acceptance of God’s providence (2:10). Thus, while Job’s actions and words at the beginning are commendable, by the end Job has gained a kind of knowledge and wisdom that leads to greater self-understanding as well as understanding of the Almighty. When the end of Job reveals that God did not merely restore Job’s possessions but doubled them, it indicates that Job also gained more wisdom at the end than he had at the beginning. 

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