An Atheist Reads The Book Of Job: God Responds But Doesn’t Answer

So after the debate I covered last time between Job and his 3 “friends” (if you can call them that) there is a shift in the Book of Job. The first post was about questions of morality and why bad things happen to good people and in this post God shows up to give his response.

The group is joined by Elihu, who begins by saying he had stayed quiet due to his young age, but feels he cannot stay quiet any longer. He condemns both Job and his friends before launching into a speech six chapters long. Despite criticising the friends he basically says the same things as they did, essentially that God is great. There’s lots of poetic descriptions of what God does and can do, although after a while he starts to ramble. God crushes the wicked and elevates the righteous. Thus he implies that if Job is suffering it is probably because of his sins.

However, Elihu makes a lot of claims that are clearly untrue. First of all, we know that Job has done nothing wrong and there isn’t being punished. But Elihu also gives graphic descriptions of how evil men are destroyed and forgotten, which isn’t the case. The world is full of people who commit horrific crimes and get away unpunished. Take war crimes for example, where people pillage, rape and massacre and only rarely are punished. Nor do unbelievers suffer as Elihu claims, to the contrary, some of the richest countries in the world are Scandinavian nations which are also some of the least religious in the world.

One strange thing is that despite the book taking the form of a debate, no one actually speaks to one another. Each character gives a long speech with their thoughts, yet they don’t reply to each other or reference what the other says. It’s as if they are writing letters rather than speaking or the speeches were compiled separately. This is most apparent with Elihu who appears, gives a speech and then disappears. There is little in the Book of Job to give an indication that’s it’s a true story (such as a time and place) even by the lax standards of the Bible.

Suddenly God speaks out of a whirlwind. This caught me by surprise because there was no mention of a whirlwind or any reason why God takes this form. Everyone seems to disappear without a word except for Job who is left alone to face God. God inexplicably makes no mention of the bet or his thoughts on the debate that was ongoing. The previous 37 chapters are completely ignored.

Strangest of all, God is furious at Job and begins insulting him. He demands to know “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the Earth?” He goes on to imply that Earth has foundations and a cornerstone and demands Job tell him the measurements. This is strange because the Earth doesn’t have a foundation (which surely a God would know . . . it’s almost as if this book was written by ordinary people without divine knowledge). Even if this was true it’s incredibly unfair, of course a human can’t measure up to God, by definition nothing can. No mortal is comparable to an all-powerful immortal deity.

God gives a massive speech about how powerful he is

“Or who shut in the sea with doors when it burst out from the womb,

when I made clouds its garment and thick darkness its swaddling band,

and prescribed limits for it and set bars and doors,

and said, ‘Thus far shall you come, and no farther,

and here shall your proud waves be stayed’?

“Have you commanded the morning since your days began,

and caused the dawn to know its place,

that it might take hold of the skirts of the earth,

and the wicked be shaken out of it?

. . .“Have you entered into the springs of the sea,

or walked in the recesses of the deep?

Have the gates of death been revealed to you,

or have you seen the gates of deep darkness?

Have you comprehended the expanse of the earth?

Declare, if you know all this. (Job 38:8-18)

It’s uncomfortable to read this speech for a number of reasons. Firstly, most of what he says is untrue. No one shut the doors on the ocean because they don’t exist. But more than the empty claims is the attitude God has. He keeps hammering home the point that he is powerful and Job is worthless. He keep boasting about his glory and emphasising how worthless Job. It’s like watching an adult bullying a small child, the difference in power makes it cruel. Job has lost everything and it is just spiteful to further mock him, especially seeing as it’s God fault that all of this happened. This is not the God of love and mercy, this is an arrogant and vain God, who only feels big by pushing down everyone else.

God continues to boast of the power he has over animals and goes into a strange digression about ostriches and how they supposedly abandon their eggs and don’t care if anything steps on them. Not only is this not true (ostriches do care for their eggs) I’m not sure how it’s relevant. God goes on to boast that he created Behemoth, a creature that doesn’t exist. God demands to know if Job can catch a Leviathan (another creature that doesn’t exist) and goes into detail demanding if he can make it obey him. God resembles the Wizard of Oz, he gives the appearance of great power but most of his boasts are empty. There are no foundations of the Earth, no doors barring the ocean, no Leviathans or other mythical creatures, so God’s claims that he has power over them are meaningless. Whoever wrote this book knew very little about the real world (I’ll leave it to believers to decide if it is God or humans who are misguided).

Earlier Job had declared his extreme desire to present his case before God, but now that he has the opportunity, he is silent. In fairness, it’s hard to blame him. He is a man who has lost everything and is now being lambasted by the most powerful being in the universe, so I can’t blame him for being intimidated. He apologises and grovels before God, which is presumably what God wanted.

“I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.” (Job 42:6)

God suddenly changes his tone and declares that Job was right all along. He then turns around and denounces the friends who have not said what is right as Job supposedly has. This makes absolutely no sense as they were defending God, while Job was the one condemning him. Despite the fact that he had just spent two whole chapters criticising Job, God praises him and restores everything he lost. In fact his property and herds are doubled, his brothers and sisters come back (from the dead?) and he gets new children. The new children are really beautiful which I guess is supposed to make up for the deaths of his previous children, but the world doesn’t work like that. You can’t just forget the deaths of your children just because you got new ones. The fact that God had them and the servants killed can’t just be wished away.

So what is the moral of the story?

The Book of Job is interesting and strange because for the first time, the Bible tries to grapple with ethical questions instead of just condemning non-believers to death. The problem is that it completely fails to answer the question. Why do bad things happen to good people? Job’s friends said it’s because of sin, that God is just so only the evil suffer. Yet God denounces them for saying this. Job claims he is innocent and God unjustly punishes the innocent which is pretty much blasphemy, yet God endorses it. God himself flies into a rage at the thought that anyone would question him, implying that he is so powerful that no one has the right to question him. But might doesn’t make right and blind obedience to God just because he is powerful is the logic of a slave obeying a tyrant, not the relationship of love that religions talk about.

So we don’t get an answer in the end and it’s hard to see what message we are supposed to take from the Book of Job. The moral seems to be that we suffer at the whims of God and Satan and there is no justice. Those who defended God were wrong and those who condemned him were justified. We don’t even learn the result of the bet between God and Satan, making Job’s suffering seem pointless.


Filed under Religion

4 responses to “An Atheist Reads The Book Of Job: God Responds But Doesn’t Answer

  1. The whole point of the book of Job is baffling. What scriptural lessons are being proffered? That children are replaceable (they were back then, so many died)? The primary rule of scripture is don’t piss off Yahweh? That Yahweh is an all-powerful, all-knowing schmuck who is often wrong but doesn’t notice because He is right by definition?

    The Jews consider Job to be the last book of their Bible and claim it is basically God giving humanity the kiss off” in the form of “Piss off!” In their Bible, God shows up less and less and less and finally steps off stage in Job “That’s all folks; yer on yer own!”

  2. Chris T

    The Book of Job reminds me of the movie Trading Places. But makes less sense. And God is capricious, unjust, interfering, power crazy and abuses his power. More like Saddam Hussein than Barack Obama. Not sure I want to belong to this spiritual Iraq.

  3. I suppose the only sense I could make of this is if the God-Man relationship is seen as equivalent to that of an adult to a small child. But exaggerated and confused. The behaviour, requirements and indeed temper tantrums of adults will often be inexplicable to a young child, but nevertheless the child is on the whole better off obeying the adult, simply because he knows far far more about the world, its dangers etc. that the child does. So the child has to forbear the seemingly irrational behaviour of the adult, and simply have faith that the adult is right, knows what he´s about, even though this is way way beyond the child´s present comprehension.

    That´s my best shot, but I agree, it´s really pretty rubbish.

  4. Maybe the author of Job wanted to tell us suffering is pointless.

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