The suffering of Job has caused many people to ask questions about the goodness of God. One question people often ask is whether God sends suffering for no reason. As people suffer and pray asking God for help and then their prayers go unswered, people ask, “is God insensitive to human suffering?” Many people tend to believe that God is responsible for everything that happens in the world, both good things and bad things. In the case of Job, God charged Job with speaking without knowledge, “Who is this that questions my wisdom with such ignorant words?” (Job 38:2 NLT).
Many scholars believe that the speeches of Yahweh (Job 38–41) do not address the issues Job raised in his dialogue with his friends nor do they provide an answer to Job’s desire to know why he was suffering. However, when properly interpreted, the speeches of God shed much light about Job’s suffering and the suffering of every human being.
God’s words to Job describe the many aspects of and the diversity of God’s creation. Thus, the proper beginning for understanding the speeches of God is by looking again at what God said about all that he created. At the end of his creation, “God looked over all he had made, and he saw that it was very good” (Genesis 1:31).
From God’s perspective, everything he created, “was very good.” But from a human perspective, not everything God created “is very good.” Where is the goodness of the wild creatures God created? Where is the goodness of a venomous snake? How about the goodness of a scorpion, the tarantula, and the black widow spider that has a more potent venom than the tarantula? God’s creation is good, but there are wild creatures in it. This good creation of God causes pain and suffering to humans. It is in the goodness and wildness of creation that one finds an answer to Job’s suffering and to all kinds of human suffering.
The First Speech of Yahweh
The first speech of Yahweh (Job 38:1–39:30) focuses on issues dealing with creation and the ordering of the universe, “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding” (Job 38:4).
In his work as the creator, God mentions that he created the sea, clouds, and darkness. God also said that he created snow, hail, light, winds, rain, thunder, lighting, dew, ice, and frost. In his speech, God mentions wicked people and the reality of death.
God also mentions the wild creatures he had created: the mountain goat, the deer, the wild ass, the wild ox, the ostrich, the lion, the horse, birds of prey, and the hawk. These are a few examples of the many animals that are part of God’s good creation.
The purpose of God’s speech is to correct Job’s perception of how God works in the world. Since Job believed that he had not sinned and because he believed that his suffering was the result of sinful behavior, then the reason for his suffering was because God was not a just God. This is the reason for Job’s denial of God’s justice in the world.
God’s questioning of Job was designed to show how wrong Job was about the way God works in the world. Not all suffering is based on sinful behavior. The way God cares for the animals shows that God is not cruel, but he is a God who cares for his creation, he cares for the animals, and he cares for humans. Thus, in order for Job to understand the reason for his suffering, Job must understand the nature of God’s creation and the way God works is accomplished in and through creation. God’s creation does not always act the way humans expect it to act and this is precisely what God intended for his creation.
As Fretheim writes, “In effect, human suffering, even suffering such as Job’s, may indeed occur in a good, well-ordered, and reliable creation, for that world is not a risk-free world! Indeed, being a part of such a world means that suffering can take place quite apart from sin and evil. This point may be linked with the primary cause of Job’s suffering in Job 1–2, namely, natural evil” (Fretheim 2005:235).
The Second Speech of Yahweh
In Yahweh’s second speech (Job 40:6–41:34), God calls Job “a faultfinder,” one who contends with the Almighty (Job 40:2). The Hebrew word for “contend” indicates that Job had a legal case against God. However, God says that whoever has a legal case against him “must respond.” And Job did respond. But when Job was confronted by God, he was humbled by his experience with God and he became unable to express his case to God, “Job answered the LORD: ‘See, I am of small account; what shall I answer you? I lay my hand on my mouth. I have spoken once, and I will not answer; twice, but will proceed no further’” (Job 40:3–5).
In his second speech, God continues his presentation of his work of creation, but first, he challenges Job’s perception of divine justice. God asked Job, “Will you discredit my justice and condemn me just to prove you are right?” (Job 40:8 NLT). Hartley writes, “Yahweh confronts Job with the major flaw in his accusations. In defending his own innocence so emphatically and lashing out so vehemently at God because of his suffering, Job has essentially charged God with acting unjustly. For a mortal to presume himself guiltless and to impugn God’s just governance of the world approaches the sin of presumptuous pride” (Hartley 1988:519).
God mentions two animals that he created, Behemoth (Job 40:15) and Leviathan (Job 41:1). The Behemoth is generally identified with the hippopotamus and Leviathan with the crocodile. Although these two animals can cause harm to humans, God considers them to be good and not evil. They are good animals because they are part of God’s good creation. Behemoths and Leviathans are good animals, but when they are beyond human control, they can cause hurt and suffering to humans.
Although God created these animals, God does not micro-manage their behavior. As Fretheim writes, “God did not create a risk-free world, and that world included animals, though majestic in their own right, that could harm human beings. God’s creation is filled with good creatures that entail risks for human beings quite apart from questions of evil. Human beings are created as finite, with limits of strength, intelligence, and agility, including an inability to bring under their control every creature that God has made any more than they could bring all the wicked in the world to their just end” (Fretheim 2005:236).
God and the Problem of Suffering
Job and his three friends presented several reasons for Job’s suffering. They said that Job’s suffering was a punishment for his sin. Job’s suffering was a form of divine discipline, it was a test of his faith, and even a way of improving Job’s character.
God’s speeches do not provide an answer to Job’s suffering and yet, the speeches provide some help in understanding human suffering. The reason for human suffering “has to do with the nature of the world that God has created” (Fretheim 2005:238).
In his speeches, God speaks of the seas, the wild animals, the rain, lightning, ice, darkness, evil people, and even death. All of these things, in the good world God created, can bring hurt, pain, suffering, and even death to human beings. From Job’s perspective, his suffering was not caused by Satan. It was caused by wicked people and by natural evil. Evil people, the Sabeans and the Chaldeans, stole Job’s animals and killed his servants. A great wind that came from the desert destroyed the house in which Job’s children were celebrating and killed them.
The writer of Ecclesiastes wrote, “I saw something else under the sun. The race isn’t won by fast runners, or the battle by heroes. Wise people don’t necessarily have food. Intelligent people don’t necessarily have riches, and skilled people don’t necessarily receive special treatment. But time and unpredictable events overtake all of them” (Ecclesiastes 9:11 GWN).
“Time and unpredictable events overtake all of them.” Job and his friends tried to explain Job’s suffering in terms of God’s goodness and God’s justice. God, however, focused his dialogue with Job on the complexity of his creation. Fretheim writes, “For Job to understand his suffering, then, would be to recognize that God neither created a risk-free world nor provided danger-free zones for the pious to be kept free from any harm. And God will not micromanage such a world to make sure no one gets hurt; God will let the creatures be what they were created to be” (Fretheim 2005:237).
In the good world God created, there are evil people who can bring untold harm, pain, and suffering to human beings, but, as Fretheim writes, “God’s approach is not to intervene and annihilate every wicked person. . . . And so, these creatures that contribute to disorder in God’s creation, whether human or nonhuman, are part of life and God will not ‘fix’ things by ‘uncreating’ them” (Fretheim 2005:236).
The elements of creation, such as wild animals or meteorological events such as hurricanes and tornadoes, can cause chaos, not because they are evil or because they are enemies of human beings. These created elements cause pain and suffering to humans because they are part of God’s good creation. Human beings live in a world where wild animals act as wild animals and hurricanes and tornadoes cannot be controlled. It is for these reasons that human beings are touched by the calamities caused by these created elements, and the result is much hurt, pain, suffering, and unmeasurable loss, even though they live in the good world God created.
It is true that God could have created a world where human would never experience pain, but pain is part of creation. After the man and the woman rebelled against God, God said to the woman, “I will greatly increase your pains in childbearing” (Genesis 3:16 NIV). God was not introducing pain into the world; he increased the pain the woman would have in bearing children.
We live in God’s good world, but pain and suffering is a reality in the good world God created, but as Fretheim writes, this “is a price, sometimes a horrendous price, which creatures pay for the sake of having such a world; but it is also a price that God pays, for God will not remove the divine self from that suffering and will enter deeply into it for the sake of the future of just such a world” (Fretheim 2005:237).
God said, “As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease” (Genesis 8:22). There is order in the good world God created but as Fretheim wrote, “Yahweh makes a world whose dependable orders breathe with flexibility, willing for freedom to exist as the condition for worth to arise. In the world Yahweh has created, it is possible for a righteous, innocent person such as Job to suffer terribly. . . . To participate with God in a world whose life arises from generosity and issues in ordered freedom, leaves one open to undeserved suffering. That suffering arises as part of the price of participating in a world ordered by the power of [God]” (Fretheim 2005:245).
Many of the ideas for this post were taken from Fretheim’s excellent book, God and World in the Old Testament.
For all nine lessons on this series, visit my post on Studies on the Book of Job.
My book, Job and the Problem of Suffering deals with the problem of suffering and God’s awareness of human suffering. You can buy my book on Amazon.
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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Fretheim, Terence E. God and World in the Old Testament. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2005.
Hartley, John E. The Book of Job. New International Commentary on the Old Testament. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988.