I have been reading the Book of Job during the COVID-19 pandemic. Uncertainty, upheaval, and disruption of human life stimulates people to ask questions during such times. Many turn to Holy Scripture for answers. However, my reading of Job during the Covid-19 pandemic revealed that the Bible is not interested in simplistic answers.
First, the Book of Job (and the Bible) does not offer philosophical explanations for the purpose of evil, suffering, and pain, or a defense of God’s existence and goodness. It is not wrong to form philosophical explanations. The Bible assumes God’s existence and the reality of evil, suffering, and pain rather than offers explanations. God is viewed as benevolent, good, and righteous. Bad things happen. Humanity runs amuck by Gen 11. Most of the evil recorded there is due to the misuse of human free will. God is sorry and deeply grieved that humankind was created (Gen 6:6). While God, humans, and malevolent forces are viewed as the causes of evil, suffering, and pain in the Bible, the story that runs from Gen 12 to the Book of Revelation is more focused on how God acts to redeem the world and humanity than it is on how God’s goodness and love can be reconciled with evil, suffering, and pain.
Second, the Book of Job (and the Bible) does not give us simplistic spiritual formulas. Leviticus 26 and Deut 4 serve as the background for the dialogue among Job, his three friends, and Elihu. The foundational belief of Job and his friends is the formula derived from the Law that blessings come to those who obey the law of God and curses come to those who are disobedient. Job’s friends insist that Job must have sinned and is being cursed by God. However, this view is challenged by Job 1–2, which points out that Job was blameless, upright, feared God, and eschewed evil. He even cared about the sinful actions of his children. Simplistic formulas like “God’s in control,” “good things come to good people,” and selective proof-texts from Scripture do not sufficiently attend to the complexity of counternarratives within Scripture itself. We should consult the whole range of the canonical witness when seeking to formulate the biblical view of anything, including why God allows bad things to happen.
Third, the Book of Job attributes the origin of evil, suffering, and pain to a malevolent spiritual being called “the Satan” who receives God’s permission to inflict pain and suffering on Job, within limits. Thus, the reader knows something Job does not. Many biblical scholars think that Job is a poetic story rather than a straightforward historical account. An import principle of biblical interpretation is that the reader should attend to the genre of the text at hand. Therefore, we should not read the entire Bible or the Book of Job as if it were only written in propositional truth statements or literal language. Malevolent forces may be behind some evil, suffering, and pain. However, it a mistake to assume that this is an explanation for all evil, suffering, and pain. Furthermore, I doubt that Job would be comforted if he knew the “why” behind his suffering and pain.
Fourth, while the Satan was wrong about Job (1:8–12), he was right about many of us humans. Many of us serve God for what we get out of it, even if we do not buy into the false narrative of the prosperity gospel. The Satan charged that Job did not serve God for nothing. His claim was that Job served God for the blessings he received. Take them away, and Job will fold like a house of cards. As the story reveals, Job did not fold. He was steadfast even in his suffering, lament, and questioning. Job serves as a spiritual example. He revered God even when the people and things he loved were taken from him.
Finally, the Book of Job (and the Bible) affirms that it is not impious to question God. The most prominent characters in Scripture dare to question God. Abraham questioned if God were right to destroy the righteous with the wicked when told of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen 18). Moses questioned whether it is right for God to destroy the people who worshipped the Golden Calf (Exod 32). David became angry with the Lord when God struck down Uzzah for trying to protect the Ark from falling (2 Sam 6). Most of the psalms are psalms of lament and confront God directly with strong and persistent questioning. Jeremiah wrote a whole book called Lamentations. Habakkuk wonders why the wicked prosper while justice is perverted. In addition, Jesus cries out in agony, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt 27:46). Job and those who question God are in good company.