No single piece of literature has captured the mystery of human suffering as much as the Bible’s Book of Job. It is one of the most difficult yet most beautiful books of the Bible. It is the biblical equivalent of Shakespeare: hard to read but profoundly beautiful, and yet epically tragic. The book captures the human story of suffering and imperfection. It shines a light on how a very specific individual experiences pain and loss. At the same time, it also points out the enormous theological questions which come with suffering. Russian author Fyodor Dostoyevsky wrote of the book of Job that it is “one of the major dramatic tempers after Shakespeare.” Dostoyevsky said to his wife that the book made a “deep impression in [his] life.”
So, what is the story of Job?
The book starts off by stating:
There was a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job, and that man was sincere and upright, God-fearing and shunning evil. (Job 1:1)
No one epitomizes the question of suffering and reward in this world as much as Job does. Job is upright, always making sure he is righteous and kind to everyone. Later in the story, he will testify on his own behalf:
“Did I refrain from the desire of the poor, or did I cause the eyes of a widow to fail? Did I eat my morsel alone and did no orphan eat therefrom?” ( Job, chapter 31)
Nobody does good like Job. And indeed, God has shined kindness back onto Job. He was blessed with ten beautiful children, a great deal of wealth, and we are told that “the man was greater than all the children of the East.” Indeed, his path paid off. Do good, and good will come upon you. Job was the exact opposite of “when bad things happen to good people.”
If you can just imagine yourself going to ask Job during his period of prosperity why it is that bad things happen to good people, you would probably hear a very straight answer. Do good and get good. If you are suffering, Job would have told you, it is probably because you are not good enough. The proof? Job was doing everything exactly right, and everything in his life went exactly right, and even better… until the downfall.
Now the Lord said to the Adversary [Satan], “Have you paid attention to My servant Job? For there is none like him on earth, a sincere and upright man, God-fearing and shunning evil.”
Satan answers God by saying:
“Does Job fear God for nothing? Haven’t You made a hedge around him, his household, and all that he has on all sides? You have blessed the work of his hands, and his livestock has spread out in the land.”
Of course, Job follows God’s path. He sees everything going by the playbook of good things happening to good people, and he follows it!
Then comes the surprising turning point. God turns to Satan and asks him what he thinks of the righteous Job. God is clearly so proud of Job, a proof that humanity can transcend its animal instincts and achieve spiritual perfection.
Satan challenges God:
“But now, stretch forth Your hand and touch all that he has, will he not blaspheme You to Your face?”
Ironically, it turns out that Job doing everything so perfectly is what ends up getting him into trouble. Job is so righteous, plays according to the rules, and is so right about everything that God stops and says, what is up with this guy?
Satan is making a simple argument: When good things happen to good people, that invalidates their goodness. It is only our behavior in difficult times that can truly assess our faith and character. Our best—and perhaps only—character witness is how we behave when things go wrong. And so, to Job’s misfortune, God accepts Satan’s challenge.
Yet let us not forget what started all this trouble. God asked Satan what he thought of Job.
God asking Satan what he thought of the most righteous person in that generation is like asking Coca-Cola’s CEO what he thought of Pepsi. It would be like someone asking Soviet Prime Minister Nikita Khrushchev what he thought of his American counterpart, John F. Kennedy, during the Cold War.
It almost seems like God is feeding Satan his point, which is: what justice is there if everyone who played by the books is rewarded with good? What novelty is there to a world of cause and effect? What goodness is worth anything if it does not stand the test of time? Does doing good prove anything if good is always rewarded?
Satan gives the obvious answer. No. It does not. It really does not show much.
With God’s permission, Job suffers his first hit:
Now the day came about that his sons and daughters were dining and drinking wine at the home of their firstborn brother, and a messenger came to Job and said, “The cattle were plowing, and the she-donkeys were grazing beside them, and Sheba fell upon them and took them, and they slew the youths by the sword, and only I alone escaped to tell you.”
First came the loss of his workers and cattle, but as if that wasn’t bad enough, more misfortune followed:
This one was still talking, and another one came and said, “A tremendous fire fell from heaven and burned the flocks and the youths and consumed them; only I alone escaped to tell you.”
Now, Job’s possessions—his source of livelihood—are gone. Nevertheless, badness just kept on coming:
This one was still talking, and another one came and said, “Chaldeans formed three bands, spread out on the camels and took them, and slew the youths with the sword, and only I alone escaped to tell you.”
Now, Job’s means of transportation and personnel were lost.
Then came the worst of all:
While this one was still talking, another one came and said, “Your sons and daughters were dining and drinking wine at the home of their firstborn brother, when, behold, a great wind came from the other side of the desert, and struck the four corners of the house; it fell upon the youths, who died, and only I alone escaped to tell you.”
Job has now lost his own children, the worst thing any parent can imagine. Most parents would rather lose their own life and have their child spared. Job endures the unimaginable blow of losing all of his children at once. But Job still stays the good guy that he is so devoted to being. Job says words that have since then recited at millions of funerals around the world, words used to this day:
“From my mother’s womb, I emerged naked, and I will return there naked. The Lord gave, and the Lord took; may the name of the Lord be blessed.”
To Satan’s dismay, Job sticks to being as good as you can possibly expect. Perhaps he didn’t yet process what he had been through. Maybe he is still experiencing Kübler-Ross’s first of five stages of grieving—denial. Perhaps Job’s faith is indeed ironclad. Either way, Satan’s argument has been refuted. The test of reality shows a man keeping his faith even in the face of profound adversity.
As those who have been through tragedy know all too well, there is a point at which you can no longer imagine things getting worse. It is that point at which you have focused all your attention on your current predicament. Things are just so bad and previously unimaginable that getting worse is just not an option. Job was probably laser-focused on his situation and on maintaining his faith; he must have thought this was the worst possible situation. Except then, things got worse.
Now Satan replied to the Lord and said, “Skin for skin and whatever a person has he will give for his life. But, stretch forth Your hand now and touch his bones and his flesh, will he not blaspheme You to Your face?”
Satan does not see Job’s faith in the face of tragedy as carrying much meaning. If anything, according to Satan the current situation proves nothing about Job’s faith but rather shows that the test was not hard enough. As long as Job’s body is in full command, of course, he will have faith. What meaning can there be, Satan argues, to a faith based on the blessing of life and health? Job knows full well that his body is a gift from God. Job knows God sustains his body. Why would he not remain good?
And so, God agrees to take things a step further.
And the Lord said to Satan, “Here he is in your hands, but preserve his soul.”
God gives Satan permission to strike Job’s body as long as his life is not taken.
And so, Satan goes not just for illness but for irritation.
Now Satan departed from the presence of the Lord, and he smote Job with severe boils from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head.
Job’s own body is struck with boils. You can just imagine Job sitting there, penniless, childless, and now with terrible boils itching all over his body. He must have been close to his edge, if not far past it.
Finally, cracks show in Job’s faith. His wife senses Job feeling on the edge and tells him, “Do you still maintain your sincerity? Blaspheme God and die!”
Job’s wife knows what he is thinking. A man whose entire life was dedicated to playing by the book suddenly ends up in such a horrific situation? How can anyone follow this book if this is how the book’s most perfect follower is treated?
And yet, we are told:
Despite all this, Job did not sin with his lips.
It is hard not to see the implication here. While the Talmud states that “Job did not sin with his lips(Talmud Bava Batra 16B), his heart was already cracking. Even he, an icon of ironclad faith, was no longer able to sustain his belief. Satan’s mission, which in a way was God’s way of testing the system of justice in this world, was almost accomplished.
Then come Job’s friends. Job’s friends are no less important to the story than Job himself is. Job’s friends sit with him. They sit with him in silence. One can just imagine they had the feeling we have felt when going to visit the home of someone who has just lost their young child or a young child who has just lost their parent. There is really nothing to say.
Job’s friends do the best that can be done under those circumstances: they come and visit. The drama of their visit conveys just some of what Job’s pain must have looked like.
Now they lifted their eyes [and looked] from afar, but they did not recognize him; so, they raised their voices and wept, and each one rent his robe, and they threw earth on their heads towards heaven.
Imagine that. The enormity of Job’s pain was so clear; his friends could see it from afar. The pain, the sense of betrayal, the bitter tears, and utter humiliation were all so appalling his friends broke into immediate tears. They could not bear the scene of their once wealthy, healthy, and happy friend sitting in utter agony and disease. They tore their clothing and put dust on their heads. As if to say they too, can no longer be part of a world of order and orderliness.
Job’s friends then go and sit with him. You can imagine them sitting on the floor during a warm Midwestern summer, sweltering and feeling his pain with him. The rabbis of the Talmud state ( Ibid) that if a person is to have friends, those friends should be like Job’s friends. For seven days and seven nights, they just all sit together, in utter silence. Imagine the sympathy and caring those friends had for each other.
Why are the details about Job’s friends so important to the plot? Why are the friends mentioned so often throughout a book that is supposed to impart to us such a major lesson in theology and theodicy?
It is so we realize that it is not just on Job alone, but also on his friends play a pivotal role in the books theological message. Job’s friends don’t just play a fundamental role in the plot, but also in what the book is coming to teach us. The book of Job is not just a theological book dealing with the question of theodicy and why bad things happen to good people; it is a book on how to deal with inevitable adversity and pain.
Perhaps even more important than the lessons this book is going to teach us about theology and God are the personal lessons of how to live through tragedy and how to be supportive of those who are going through it as well. Sitting in silence around their impoverished, tragedy-struck, ill and itchy friend, Job’s friends remain in supportive silence. They come to teach us the power of sympathy. The book is teaching us a lesson: never leave a friend to suffer alone. As 19th-century scholar John Churton Collins put it: “In prosperity, our friends know us; in adversity, we know our friends.”
Having the comfort of friends at his side, Job’s tongue loosens up. Little by little Job finds words for his feelings and begins verbalizing what is going through his mind. The cathartic stage has begun.
Job begins cursing the day he was born, wishing death upon himself, and lamenting the very miserable life he has been assigned. One can just imagine Job—a man who once had so much to be happy about, the man who saw joy and happiness in so many aspects of his life—now consigned to a life of misery and bitterness. Job was not given a gradual preparation for his fate. He wasn’t first assigned to poverty, then loneliness, and then illness. It just all came crashing down on him like a ton of bricks. Life did not prepare him for this in any way, and death appears to him like the only way out of it.
I cannot help but be reminded of the great recession of 2008. I was in my early 20s when financial markets started crashing. News of executives who’d lost everything committing suicide was an unfortunate daily occurrence. Later research done by the University of Oxford now estimates that a staggering more than 10,000(!) people committed suicide following the great crash and the recession that followed it in 2008. The fast fall from having everything to a perceived nothing led people to look away from what they had, and believe that they had nothing to live for, often ignoring health, beautiful families and friends, and many other blessings they had in their life.
Like much for the thinking that took place following the crash of financial markets, Job figures he has nothing to live for.
There is no justice, Job argues. There is no reason to live. Life is cruel, arbitrary, and filled with endless pain and difficulties. Is there really a point to this world? Is life really worth going through? Does this world really have anything to offer to someone in Job’s situation? Job is abysmally depressed. He cannot see anything positive about life. Everything has lost its value to him. Nothing is really worth it.
I once heard a radio interview with a woman who survived the horrors of the German concentration camps during the time of the Holocaust (1939-1945). After she had shared her experiences and what she had been through, the host asked her if there was a message she wanted to share with young people, people who had not seen themselves what those horrors looked like.
“Yes,” she said. “Sometimes the most beautiful thing about life is being able to just see the blue sky, breathe the air, or see a flower in the distance.” This woman, whose life must have been hell during those years, learned that sometimes we need to recognize the beauty of the simplest things. Deprived of any means to enjoy life, she insisted on recognizing life’s independent beauty and hoped to impart that to others—something I will never forget.
Job does not feel the same inspiration. He expresses regret for the day of his birth and wishes he had never existed.
While Job does not speak out against God, his friends hear the implied criticism. Job’s lost hope for life is, to them, a sign he has lost faith in justice. Job, who used to believe so strongly that good things happen to good people, can no longer believe that. The system no longer works for him. If doing good does not bring you good, why live at all, is Job’s implicit argument.
Job’s friends do not remain silent in the face of what they perceive to be Job’s onslaught against a just God. Yes, they are sympathetic to Job and his fate. Yes, they love him and feel his pain. But can they really stand by as Job decries the very concept of a just God? Can they stand by even as Job pronounces the meaninglessness and purposelessness of this world which they see to be so meaningful? Should they allow Job to express his blasphemous positions without defending the very God they believe to be so just, kind, calculated, merciful, and good?
Job’s friends decide to stand up for God. For the glory of God, they start defending Him. Job’s friends make a mistake that tends to be committed by well-intentioned people; they get caught up with what they see as good and don’t realize the harm they are causing.
Tragically, the phenomenon of people “protecting God” while hurting others’ feelings is all too common. Many, if not most, of the qualms people have about faith in the face of adversity, do not come from anything religion has ever said about suffering; they come from what religious people can say, at times, about our individual suffering. I have heard of parents who have just lost their children, people who have lost spouses, and children who have lost their parents, being told, “This must be an atonement for a sin.”
A person is sitting and grieving for the child they just lost, and you assert that they lost the child to atone for a sin? Do you really believe that? And if you do, do you really think this will bring comfort to a grieving parent? And yet, people say these things. Mostly because they are nervous and don’t know what to say, but also because they are afraid. They are afraid that maybe something similar will happen to them, and so to distance themselves from a scary event, they try and find things that will connect the event to elements outside of them and their own life.
They also feel like Job’s friends; they feel like they need to “defend” God, inflicting emotional pain and causing lasting damage. When people hear such insensitive, outrageous, and inappropriate words spoken in the name of religion, they check out. “If this is religion,” they think, “then I am not a part of it.” After all, who would want to belong to such a punishing, insensitive, and insensitive belief system? Nonetheless, this is the path Job’s friends take. They decide to “defend” God.
Job’s friends tell him it is impossible for a good and just God to hurt someone. It must be, they tell Job, you have sinned. After all, they argue, would God really punish someone if they had not sinned? Job is relentless. He is convinced of his integrity and righteousness and argues to his friends that, indeed, he, Job, has not sinned. The debate turns somewhat team-based. Job’s friends are fierce defenders of God, which means it must be that either Job or someone in his family has sinned. Job, on the other hand, is a fierce defender of himself. He knows he did nothing wrong. He knows that he is good, carries no blame, and has only virtue to him.
Job’s defense of himself is similar to our own initial responses when something bad happens to us. We are in shock. How can God do this to us? Really? Are we that bad, God? Do we really deserve this? What could we have possibly done to justify such a horrible fate? We see tragedy as an assault on our character. Are we, not good people? What have we done to deserve this?
These questions are amplified many thousandfold when it is a child, near and dear to us, whom we see suffering. Is it really possible that the child, or anyone, did anything to deserve this suffering? Is there any imperfection in the world that can account for this kind of suffering?
Had we sat there on the floor in a round circle with Job and his friends we would probably not be too sympathetic to the argument that it is an only imperfection that leads to suffering. We would be enraged, as was Job.
There he is. He has just lost all of his children, his wealth, means of transportation, and personnel; his body is filled with blisters and boils, and all he has is a piece of dried clay to scratch his skin with. All this while his own friends patronize him to his face and explain to him why everything God does is with justice and in response to iniquity.
Interestingly, the rabbis of the Talmud(Bava Metzia 58b) take the case of the friends’ response to Job’s suffering as being the very legal definition of verbal abuse.
If torments are afflicting a person, if illnesses are afflicting him, or if he is burying his children, one may not speak to him in the manner that the friends of Job spoke to him: “Is not your fear of God your confidence, and your hope the integrity of your ways? Remember, I beseech you, whoever perished, being innocent?” (Job 4:6–7). Certainly, you sinned, as otherwise, you would not have suffered misfortune.
You can just imagine if Job was enraged before, how much more upset he is now. There he is, suffering. His heart racing with anger, rage, and pain. Outwardly, Job’s skin is bleeding, injured, and irritating him to no end. He thought it couldn’t get worse, and it did. His own friends tell him the reason for his pain is his own sins; he, the righteous Job, has no one to blame but himself. The man who so convinced of his own righteousness hears that his astonishing suffering is a result of his own sins.
I cannot help but be reminded of the heart-wrenching story of a kind, giving, devout, and gracious woman who fought cancer heroically. After three long years, she died at the age of forty, leaving several children at home. Friends, family members, and people from around the community came to offer their condolences to these orphans. Some of the visitors, thinking they were doing a good thing, told the young children that it was possible their mother died because there was always something she could have improved in her charity, modesty, and kindness.
They meant well. They meant to say she didn’t die because of a horrible sin, but perhaps because of imperfection. And yet, their words were cruel and insensitive. To explain to someone who is suffering that it is their sins that have caused the suffering is exactly what Job’s friends did. It usually comes from a place of good intention, but it is reckless, inappropriate, cruel, and remarkably painful to those who hear it. This is exactly the pain Job felt.
Job does not shut himself down. He fights back. He argues. He debates. He strikes back at each one of his friends’ arguments to no avail. Job and his friends are in gridlock. Then, after 38 chapters of long arguments that make up the bulk of the book of Job, the moment Job has been waiting for so much arrives: God answers back.
Finally, as if out of a movie, at the right time and the right place, God appears to Job and his friends. All the arguments between Job and his friends got them nowhere, but the moment they were all waiting for arrived. “Then the Lord answered Job from the storm…”
God speaks to Job but also to his friends. To me, the words God says to Job’s friends carry an equal, if not more powerful, lesson than his words to Job.
Now it came to pass after the Lord had spoken these words to Job, that the Lord said to Eliphaz the Temanite, “My wrath is kindled against you and your two companions because you did not speak correctly, as did My servant Job. And now, take to yourselves seven bulls and seven rams and go to My servant Job and offer up a burnt offering for yourselves, and Job My servant will pray for you, for I will favor him not to do anything unseemly to you, for you did not speak to Me correctly, as did My servant Job.” (Job 42:7-8)
Job had very strong words for God. He was frustrated. He even questioned God; he was outraged and felt like he had been wronged. Job’s friends stood firmly by God. They defended him. They argued on His behalf. And yet, when God speaks up, His anger is directed at Job’s friends. Why? Why at Job’s friends, God’s “defenders,” and not at Job, the one who questioned God?
God understands why Job was angry. He understands why he was frustrated. Having lost all of his wealth, his very own children, and taken ill, Job had plenty to be angry about. What God does not accept is the lack of sympathy on the part of Job’s friends. This carries with it perhaps the most powerful message of the book: it is OK to be angry. It is OK to be upset. It is OK to have questions. It is not OK to lack sympathy.
This teaches us a double lesson. A lesson about the legitimacy of questions and a lesson about the illegitimacy of indifference. The book elaborates on Job’s frustration and anger at God to let us know how legitimate frustration can be when we go through difficult times. The book then also recognizes that—in the name of religion—people can hurt us when we deal with our suffering. God speaks to let us know that. A special message is delivered for the purpose. God wants Job’s friends to know that even though they may have the most noble intentions, not being sympathetic enough to suffering is unacceptable.
Imagine the emotional buildup Job must have gone through between the time God appeared and the time God concluded His message. After all that pain, after all that anger, after all the uncertainty, God has finally arrived. The Almighty has finally revealed Himself, ready to answer all of Job’s questions! You can just imagine Job’s heart racing with anticipation. Will all that uncertainty be resolved?
Another element of drama in God’s revelation is the transformation of the character Job has gone through. At the beginning of the book of Job, we are introduced to a completely different man than we see now. At the beginning of the book, we see a downtrodden Job. A man suffering in silence, agonizing and expressing his bewilderment at what God has done to him. Job is perplexed. Job wonders. His forehead is bent, and the palms of his hands are wide open as they turn upward, demanding justice and understanding. By the end, Job is an articulate, ferocious, curious, and active participant in the discussion, highlighting how even in misery, being able to talk things through, express what we feel, and be among friends can pull us out of the poisonous feelings of loneliness.
So who is right? Is it him, or is it them? After ferociously arguing with each other, the tension can be felt in the air. God is revealing Himself when it feels like the tension can be cut with a knife.
In a counterintuitive way, God begins by questioning Job’s credentials:
“I will ask you and [you] tell Me. Where were you when I founded the earth? Tell if you know understanding. Who placed its measures if you know, or who extended a line over it? On what were its sockets sunk, or who laid its cornerstone? Do you understand [everything] until the breadths of the earth? Tell if you know it all.” (Job 38)
Job began his arguments by concluding that there cannot be any order to this world, it is all happenstance and chaos. God does not explain how or why things happen. God just points to the vastness of creation, to its detail and complexity. He assures Job that just as he, Job, cannot fully understand the secrets of creation and the universe, he cannot understand the secrets of the way it runs.
In the next chapter, God continues to highlight the complexity of the universe using the animal kingdom to portray its brilliance:
“Did you give the horse his strength? Did you clothe his neck with fierceness? Is it because of your understanding that the hawk grows a wing, that it spreads out its wings to the south? Or is it by your order that the eagle flies high, and that he lifts up his nest?”
God points out to Job that He alone has created this universe. God emphasizes that there must be a good reason for everything. That nothing is chaotic or purposeless. Everything is premeditated and part of a complex and multifaceted plan. Often, people cite this as the ultimate message of the book of Job. Your question: why do bad things happen to good people. The answer? Because the world is created and exists with such great complexity that there is no way we can understand all of it.
But why? Why? Why did God have to do this? Does God not have a better answer for poor Job? Could God not give Job a clearer answer about the reason or justification of such profound suffering through which Job was struggling so hard?
Some see God’s response as a “non-response.” This is why even great thinkers like Eli Weisel understand that Job had not accepted God’s answer.
To make things even more difficult to understand, God (in chapter 40) seems to reprimand Job for asking the most obvious question in religious history: why do bad things happen to good people?
Now the Lord answered Job and said, “Will one who contends with the Almighty make himself master? He who argues with God, let him answer it.”
God does not show appreciation for Job’s question or for Job’s difficult circumstance. God casts doubt on Job’s question and Job’s legitimacy to even ask that question.
Job, being the do-gooder he is, immediately accepts God’s message:
Now Job answered the Lord and said: “Behold I am of small account; what shall I answer You? I put my hand to my mouth. I said one [thing], and I will not answer, and two, and I will not add.”
Job backs off immediately. But that’s still not enough for God.
Now the Lord answered Job from a tempest and said: “Now gird your loins like a man; I will ask you, and [you] tell Me. Will you even make void My judgment? Will you condemn Me in order that you be justified? Decorate yourself now with pride and excellence, and clothe yourself with glory and beauty.”
Why? Why is the only word that comes to mind when looking at God’s response to Job. Here God had the opportunity to lay out the exact answer to the greatest question of all times! God could have said it as it is. He could have revealed to humanity the answer to the most difficult religious question it has ever encountered. How beautiful would it be if God took this opportunity to impart this wisdom to Job and, thereby to humanity as a whole? Why didn’t God do it? Is it to suggest that there is no answer, as some read this passage? Does this reinforce the answer that there is no reason for suffering? Does this chapter support those who argue indifference on the part of God?
I believe that God here is imparting to us an incredibly powerful message: when you are suffering, focus on moving forward. No matter how unjust things seem, no matter how difficult they are, you are responsible for pulling yourself up. You need to fight. You need to make sure that you move forward in the most effective and positive way. Even when things are so bad it seems like you can’t do anything about it, there is still something that we can do. We can always fight back. It can be with working to make the best out of our situation or even just having a resilient mindset; you must fight for yourself.
The lesson of the Book of Job is that questions are legitimate. Anger, frustration, upset are to be expected when bad things happen to us. The lesson to our friends, family, clergy, and everyone around us is a lesson of sympathy: be as sympathetic as possible. No one is doing God a favor by telling someone in pain why they deserve that pain. No one has a monopoly on the question of pain. We all must have a monopoly on giving sympathy.
The book of Job imparts to us that we will not move forward by harping on questions of theodicy and that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer to the question of suffering. There is an order to this world. There is a design behind everything. We won’t get all the answers in this world, and that’s fine. What is most important is that we move forward.
Another possible lesson of the book is the idea that good for good would invalidate good. Job did good because good came his way. Character and good deeds mean most when done for no reward. The deeds that matter most are altruistic ones that do not depend on the potential for reward. Job was faithful to God as long as things went his way. Once they didn’t, he questioned God. No one should be tested the way Job was tested. Yet perhaps it was God’s way of telling Job how real good should be done—regardless of how rewarding we think it may be. We must do good for the sake of good.
The power of this is seen in Job’s behavior. After hearing God’s answer, despite the lack of clarity, Job decides to move forward. For someone who was so angry and stuck in the same place, Job does a magnificent job in just moving forward. Most of us would not.
Another thing evident in Job moving forward is the power of being spoken to. Job is moving forward not just because he gets the content of the answer, it is because Job has God revealing Himself and talking to him. Job is soothed. Sometimes what hurts us most about suffering is our loneliness and alienation. It is like when someone suddenly smacks us on the back as we walk calmly down the street. At first, we can be jarred, shocked, and deeply hurt. When we turn back and see it is the good friend we haven’t seen in a while that the pain is replaced with joy. We know no one meant to hurt us, it was just a friendly tap on the back.
When we suffer, it often comes with a great deal of pain and alienation. “How could this happen to me of all people?”, we may ask ourselves. Once Job hears God speak, that is enough. He knows he is no longer alone.
I spoke to a woman who is bound to a wheelchair and cannot even turn over in bed at night without the help of an aide. She told me, “Rabbi, you know what hurts me most? It’s when people don’t see me as a person. They see me for my illness.” The isolation of the illness hurt her more than anything.
When Job heard the voice of God, he knew God cared. It didn’t matter so much what God said, as much as that God had said it.
When we suffer in our own lives, we will probably not hear the voice of God. This is why we need to remind ourselves that even though we don’t hear it, His voice is there. If there is one thing that all major religions agree on, it is that God is compassionate and cares about each and every one of us. God cares. The pain we are going through is not random, arbitrary, or indifferent, nor are we the only ones feeling it.
Whether we are in a hospital bed, a wheelchair, a doctor’s office, or just sitting at a coffee shop, we need to be able to hear that voice that says, “I care.” The voice that says, “I hurt when you hurt.”
Jewish tradition teaches that when a person sits and sheds tears of pain, God is shedding tears with that person. Since God is non-corporeal and has no body, this does not mean wet tears are coming out of the eyes of God. What it does mean is that God does hurt when we hurt; God sympathizes with every bit of our suffering. God told Job that the world is complex and that we don’t always understand it, but just by speaking to him, God also told Job: I care.
Ahinoam Jacobs is a Bible teacher in Israel. Tragically, she lost her daughter Rotem at the age of seven. Needless to say, a horror like this changes a person’s perspective on everything. It also changes your outlook on the Book of Job. Jacobs was deeply distressed when people would give her theological explanations as to why she had gone through a tragedy of such epic proportions. When mourning and hurting, Jacobs realized we need time to process things on our own. No outside source will help us solve what we are going through. We need time to question. We need time to wonder. There is no answer that can tell a mother of a beautiful seven-year-old girl why she lost her daughter. Nothing. Questions need to be asked and need to be legitimized. We don’t always need an answer.
In her book (Hiddat Hayisurim, cited by Tamar Yaffe in her essay Ma Li Ve’leIyov) Jacobs argues that the book of Job is more about the man than about God. It is a book about the strength of the human spirit. The Job we meet at the beginning of the book is not the same Job we meet at its end. At the beginning of the book, we meet a Job who doesn’t know that God cares and is therefore broken. Shattered. At the end of the book, we find a Job that has seen God really cares. He knows that there is a reason to move forward. He knows his friends were wrong when they blamed him for his own suffering. He knows that he must focus on the future.
The Book of Job ends on a positive note. Chapter 42, the last chapter in the book, concludes:
Now the Lord returned Job’s captivity when he prayed for his friends, and the Lord gave Job twice as much as he had had before. Now all his brothers and all his sisters and all his previous acquaintances came to him and ate a meal in his house, and they bemoaned him and consoled him concerning all the evil that the Lord had brought upon him, and they gave him each one one piece of money and each one one golden nose ring.
Job gets to see the hard way that when he bounced back and he became luckier, the number of people wanting to associate with him grew. As much as Job’s four friends may have spoken to him harshly, they were there for him no matter what. As Ralph Waldo Emerson put it, “Bad times have a scientific value. These are occasions a good learner would not miss.” Job learned who his friends were. At the same time, Job also taught us a valuable lesson: don’t hold your hard times against other people. Move on and forgive. Remember who you true friends are, but make space for those who have not done the same.
Job’s fortune continues to shine:
Now the Lord blessed Job’s end more than his beginning, and he had fourteen thousand flocks and six thousand camels and a thousand yoke of cattle and a thousand she-donkeys. And he had fourteen sons and three daughters. And he named the first Jemimah, the second Keziah, and the third Keren-hapuch. Nowhere in the land were women as beautiful as Job’s daughters to be found, and their father gave them an inheritance among their brothers. Now Job lived thereafter one hundred and forty years, and he saw his sons and his sons’ sons for four generations. Then Job died, being old and sated with days.
Job had a good life that helped make up for all the suffering he had been through. Not everyone has that happy end, though. What is the lesson of Job’s comeback? How about those who don’t see the full rebound that Job sees? Here are two possible takeaway messages from the story of Job’s happy ending, though there are probably many more:
The first lesson we can learn is to always entertain in our minds how things can get better. Even if it is sheer imagination, do not give up hope. Try to envision yourself talking to the devastated Job, describing to him how better days are yet to come. Explain to him how he can rebound one day. Imagine the disbelief he will show, and try and convince him. The same is true for your own life. Do not give up hope. Try and imagine all the amazing ways in which your situation can improve. In some situations, it is much harder to do this. Yet there is always a way in which things can improve. Let hope trickle through the despair and see how things change for the better. There is a Jewish saying: “Think good and it will be good.”
While studies have shown the counterintuitive truth that pessimists live longer than optimists, there is a reason for that. Pessimists tend to take all the health precautions that they need to. They take medical tests and seek the care that covers all the negative outcomes. This is not to say that a negative attitude is healthy, but it is to say that precautions are important and consequential. So let us take all the precautions we need to take and, above that, keep an attitude of positive thinking.
Secondly, when contrasting “good times” with the “bad times,” we are often most remembered for what we have done in the “bad times.” Job’s happy life can be summarized in one simple paragraph. He had a great life. And yet his struggle is described in 41 full chapters in the Bible, read by billions of people thousands of years later. As humans, we value struggle. We want to look up to those who overcame hardships with courage. So even as we fight to eradicate hardship from our own lives, let’s try and make the most of the time we are destined to spend in hardship.
This article is from Rabbi Elchanan Poupko’s upcoming series and book on why bad things happen to good people and coping with adversity.