Most people’s superficial knowledge of Job comes from the basic story illustrated within Chapters 1-2 where Job loses everything and then in Chapter 42 where everything is restored. The 38 chapters in between contain an incredibly rich, incredibly complicated, incredibly difficult to read poem that captures a debate between Job and three of his friends about why Job is suffering, God’s role in that suffering, and how one should respond and interpret suffering generally.
Job is inserted at a particular point in the Old Testament narrative. In the Christian version, it follows Esther, preceding Psalms, but it actually resides outside of time and place. Job is arguably not a part of the covenant Jewish people, though his book stands prominently within their sacred text. Much of the Old Testament connects personal and national righteousness to happening and a thriving life and nation. Israel desperately wants to understand its destruction to Babylon and believes it’s come from their own wickedness. The Old Testament makes that case pretty clearly. Job’s argument is different, that suffering often has no clearly understandable cause. Job is righteous but still loses everything anyways.
In the very first chapter, within the span of three verses, Job loses everything, all of his possessions, all of his children. Neighboring tribes steal his possessions. Fire reigns down on his sheep. A wind blows his house down killing all of his children. In chapter two, he loses his health. His wife, who shares much of his burden, suggests that he curse God and die. All of this comes, inexplicably from a wager between God and the adversary to see if Job would endure through inexplicable loss. Chapter two ends, when three of his friends come to comfort him. When they discover they cannot even recognize him, they weep and mourn, tear their clothes and sit with him for seven solid days in silence.
Job 3: Job breaks his silence
Finally and abruptly, Job breaks the silence. Here the narrative transitions from prose to poetry, pulling the reader into the emotional space of someone in deep pain, wanting reprieve that only death can bring, cursing the day he was born. Why did he not die at his birth (v11) he wonders. Death seems to be his only reprieve, the place where prisoners are at ease and even the wicked cease in troubling (v17, 18). His groaning is his bread, his roars pour forth as water. The phrases pour out poetically. Job here seems to be following the advice of his wife, or perhaps he despairs because his friends have nothing to offer him.
Job 4-28: The Grand Debate
Job’s eruption starts an incredibly long, emotional and escalating debate between him and his friends. These men seem to have a notion of a God who rewards the righteous and punish the wicked. They trust in a just world and a just God, with rules that make sense. None of them truly understand Job’s suffering and that suffering seems to push their understanding of God. They don’t give up what they think without a struggle. The wrestle begins.
Chapters 4-5, Eliphaz jumps in, encouraging Job to keep the faith and to trust in a God of justice.
Chapter 6-7, Job responds saying that his calamities are beyond what he can bare. He’s already at his breaking point. Pretty much immediately, Job loses faith in his friend’s ability to sustain and support him. In every response, Job shifts from his friends to confront God and bemoan his fate.
Chapter 8, Bildad makes an attempt, wondering that while Job is righteous, perhaps his children did something to warrant their fate. He suggests that he can learn something through his suffering and to trust in God.
Chapter 9-10, Job wonders if God even cares. Perhaps God doesn’t even hear him. He points out that God wounds him without cause and that this happens all of the time. God destroys the blameless and the guilty. Why, he wonders, if God created Job, why would he treat him in this way?
Chapter 11, Zophar wonders if Job is really so innocent. Perhaps there is some indiscretion Job does not know about and that if God would help him see it, Job can remove it, perhaps finding the healing and recovery he seeks.
Job 12-14, Job responds. He knows what they know. He complains that his friends are incompetent and demands to talk to God himself. If a man dies will he live again, he wonders? (14:14)
Job 15: Eliphaz jumps in again, warning Job that his speech betrays his sinfulness that his lips testify against him. Are not God’s consolations enough? God is just, the wicked man is in torment all of his days.
Job 16-17, Job again dispairs, his face is red with weeping (v16-17). He wonders if he’s lost all hope. (17:15)
Job 18, Bildad is inexplicably offended. Does Job think of them as brutes? He assures him the light of the wicked will fail. Again testifying of the justice of God.
Job 19, Job continues to dispair. Their words crush him, humiliate him. They all know God is at fault. He demands their pity. He testifies that redemption will come (19:25)
Job 20, Zophar jumps in yet again, again testifying to the justice of God. The joy of the wicked will be brief and it will perish.
Job 21, Job just asks his friends to listen to him. They are wrong, the wicked prosper all the time.
Job 22 – Eliphaz jumps in, wondering about Job, accusing him of his own guilt, pleading with him to stay close to God, to be wholehearted and good things will eventually come.
Job 23-24 – Job’s strength is spent. He wants to make his case to God but cannot find him. At this point, Job’s lens widens and realize the world is full of unjust and unnecessary suffering.
Job 25 – Bildad jumps in yet again. Saying that Job has got this wrong. All of humanity is guilty. No person is right with God.
Job 26 – Job stays firm. He condemns the help his friends give him. Until his death, he will affirm his integrity. He knows the truth. He is innocent and does not deserve what’s happening to him.
Job 29-31: Job’s Closing Remarks
In 29, Job remembers how good he had it earlier in his life. In 30, he laments his suffering. He’s become a byword, derided, condemned, no hope, just darkness. in 31, he affirms his innocence. He’s always been good, he’s cared for the poor, has been watchful of his actions, never taken for granted the blessings he has. His case is clear. He’s suffering and he does not deserve it.
Job 32-37: Elihu Jumps In One Final Time
At this point, Job finishes, he friends give up, but then Elihu, whose been listening to this exchange, realizing it’s coming to an unresolved conclusion jumps in and for six solid chapters makes his case. God is greater than man, God cares for us, remembers us, speaks to us, but we so often refuse to hear him. God is just if we would only commit ourselves to service. God is greater than we know. This argument is left without a response from Job.
Job 38-41: God comes in a whirlwind to respond to Job
Finally, finally, after all of that God appears in a whirlwind, but he ignores the entire argument, never addresses Job’s questions or demands. Instead, he pummels Job with questions. Who is he? Where was he when the universe was created? What does Job even know? Can he even begin to impugn God’s justice? He points to the leviathon and the behemoth, two beasts in nature, uncontrollable and beyond understanding, who can tame them? No one. The world is big, complex, massive, much bigger than Job’s world.
Job 42: Job’s Concession and the Epilogue
None of Job’s questions were answered but nonetheless Job’s interaction with God has deepened his knowledge. There’s something more there to learn. Job drops the case.
Here God condemns Job’s friends. Among all of them, only Job spoke truth. The story ends with Job regaining his friends, his health, he gains new possessions and has more children. But in the end, like the rest of us, Job dies.