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.

28 thoughts on “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!”

    1. The problem is you are reading the bible from a modern albeit limited human perspective. If you want to understand what the bible means you should try a reading it with a good bible teacher; someone who is familiar with the actual language of the time, the idioms, the culture, and the true lessons intended.

      1. Isn’t God supposed to be objective? You seem to be taking a morally relative position, which is not Christian. Why did God design his message so it couldn’t be understood unaided by humans? Why can’t we understand God without help?

        1. Because you have to believe that God exists and that He will reward those who diligently seek after Him before you can come to Him with any sort of integrity. Otherwise you’re just playing philosophical games.
          Secondly, because God is God and He will be God in the hearts of those who worship Him, therefore you can’t come to Him without His help.
          Finally, if Adam’s sin has any consequences then it puts us in the position where we are in darkness unless God brings light to us.

      2. AMEN!!!!!! I agree. You have to understand the background, the culture, and the time frame of this story in order to fully understand it.

  2. 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.

    1. The book makes it clear that Gos had a plan and Job’s response to God’s revelation is the point: “I had heard about God but now my eyes have seen Him and I repent in dust and ashes.”

        1. It is a good question. God responds, in a way, to Job’s complaints though not directly. Job had suffered and He wanted an audience before God. When He finally gets that audience, God’s approach is to question Job. “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Dress for action like a man; I will question you, and you make it known to me. Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” (Job 38:1-4) After Job endures two chapters (38-39) of questions, He has no answers. Another two chapters of questions (40-41) and then Job responds. “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted. . .Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. . . I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.” (Job 42:2-6 with the repetition of God’s questions left out)

          In one sense, Job’s sufferings no longer matter, they are insignificant compared to the glory of God and the experience Job has standing in front of the Almighty. He had heard about God and spend 35 chapters arguing with His friends about the problem of evil but none of that matters now that He has seen God with His own eyes. He has seen God and forgotten that He was suffering. He repents and worships God. Surely this is the point. This is exactly the point of interest in the bet between Satan and God. Satan contends that people only worship God because of the blessings or advantageous they get from God. In the end, Satan loses this bet, in fact it becomes exceedingly clear that men worship God because God is so glorious, beautiful, powerful, etc. They worship Him for who He is, not for what they get from God. What satisfies men’s inner longings is a glimpse of God’s glory!

          On the other hand, the more subtle point of the book is that suffering was necessary for Job to have this encounter with God. There is an eternal purpose for suffering, we just don’t see. The suffering was necessary for God to make His point to Satan. Of course, Job is not just a pawn in this cosmic bet; the outcome rests on the response of Job’s heart! Will He embrace God in the midst of suffering or will He turn from God and curse Him? The outcome hangs in the balance until God shows up to reveal Himself to Job in a special, intimate way. Of course when God shows up this is NO lovey-dovey, meek and mild God who comes before Job as if He had done something wrong and had to explain the bet to Job and ask Job for forgiveness. NO WAY! This is the mighty maker of the universe, who does no wrong and owes nobody anything! There is a whirlwind, thunder, lightening, and then God speaks with authority!

          Job still has a choice, will He look on God and reject Him and continue to blame Him? What will he say to God? “You’re arbitrary, you’re mean, and you make people suffer without reason. I’ve suffered without cause and you owe me something, and you have to make my life better! I won’t worship this sort of God!” That seems to be modern man’s response to this book, but that is not Job’s response. No, this God is too wonderful for words. His ways are perfect and far above Job’s understanding. “I spoke of things I did not understand! I repent in dust and ashes!”

          By the way, even if you think this is just an ancient myth, a fable, with no basis in reality, it’s still good literature! In fact I would content, on a literary basis, this is one of the greatest works of literature ever! If you think there is no rhyme or reason to Job’s suffering, you’re not reading very carefully. Surely, the problem of evil and suffering is a perennial topic of human interest! Surely, a reader can see that the author of Job deals with that topic both in a sensitive way: Job is a righteous man who carefully voices his complaint to God and askes for an audience with the almighty. And in a sober and deep way. The book denies any simplistic way of dealing with the problem of evil: Job’s friends are clearly condemned for their neat and tidy explanations of the problem (Job is suffering just retribution for some sin). Yet the book doesn’t give a full answer, it leaves men with some mystery about evil, suffering and the will of a Holy God.
          Besides, I think this blog makes my point. My first comments on here are two years old and yet people are still coming back here to debate the meaning of this book.

  4. I like all of the above comments and attempts to make sense of Job.
    I liked your post on this one too Robert. I found it funny, quirky and bluntly observant, as usual.
    I’m still enjoying reading through these.
    I was going to attempt to have a crack at reading through the bible myself again but then remembered how hideous and boring it is so I’m much happier to read your take on it, and taking apart of it. You are thorough and entertaining enough to keep things interesting.
    What I keep being unable to fathom, is why on earth people would worship such a psycho?! It’s all documented in the bible for them to reference and still people will believe and worship. I don’t get it and I doubt I ever will.

    1. In Genesis 1:26 God is quoted : “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. ..” Some of our puzzlement about the Bible becomes clearer if we hypothesize that people were also making/imagining /visualizing God in their image. He is a father, sometimes loving, sometimes tyrranical. A king, just or unjust…and so on.
      A second aid to understanding is the hypothesis that there really are other ‘intelligent’ beings around us but our vision system is not set to the wavelengths that would enable to see them (usually). These beings often are more knowledgeable and powerful than we are. Some we would regard as good — some not so good. And sometimes they intervene in human affairs. When one does, he may pose as an angel, or as “God”. The Bible is basically a record of some of these encounters and their consequences. It would seem that one of beings decided to be “the God of Abraham ” etc
      These usually not visible beings are often referred to as angels, spirits, gods (and, sometimes, demons ).
      There are thousands of books about them but one I would recommend as a starter is ‘The Vengeful Djinn: Unveiling the Hidden Agendas of Genies’ by Rosemary Ellen Guilty and Philip J. Imbroglio ♡

      1. Fixing typo: the author is Rosemary Ellen GUILEY. I hope this gets past the presumptuous pain-in-the-ass spellchecker program. If it still insists on mis-spelling her last name as ‘Guilty’ just replace the t with an e (:

        1. Why not ? Its good to be open minded. I like the theory that there might be entities like that. Not exactly around us, but it might be one talking to abraham. Bible doesn’t explain demons either. What of they are one of those entities? Possessing people and speaking ancient tongues. There are many possibilities.
          Thet could have time travelled or exist in different dimension, or maybe exist as vibrations, that can possess matter and use people to speak and show them visions and dreams.
          (i made all of that up, i have no idea what the truth is, but Abraham’s god for sure something if he exists. He managed to make three major religion of the world, and isreal a disputed land)

    2. I hear your point on not wanting to read it again. Allow me to suggest that we acquire this one key first and that is, the 5th and 6th verses of the book of James with more emphasis on verse 5. I’ll suggest further that we internalize that verse and should you choose to prefix it with, “ God, if you really exist, then…” and begin at Genesis all the way through.

  5. When I read the book of Job, I thought it was a criticism of God and his nature. People often assume the religious love God, and that he’s all loving, caring, etc. instead of just a powerful creature because enlightenment thinkers basically told us too. I think the Book of Job is really interesting because it feels deeply unsatisfying. It makes us angry that good people suffer, and God doesn’t really justify it.

  6. So… there are quite a few things I could respond to, but I would encourage you to read a little more carefully. If you are surprised that God shows up in a whirlwind, did you not get the foreshadowing of Elihu as he sees the approaching storm?
    Here’s the dramatic setting:
    • In Job 36:27, Elihu starts talking about rain
    • In Job 36:29 he speaks of the spreading of the clouds and the thunder
    • In Job 36:30 he speaks of the lightning
    • In Job 36:33 he speaks of the movement of the cattle who sense a storm
    • In Job 37:2 he says, “listen closely to the thunder of His voice”
    • He begins speaking of the thunder and the lightning
    • In Job 37:8 he mentions the animals running for cover
    • In Job 37:9 he almost points at a storm coming from the south
    • He talks of a vicious storm cloud moving about, hurling out lightning, rain, thunder, even ice and snow.
    • In Job 37:14 he says, “Listen to this, O Job, stand and consider the wonders of God.”

    On another note: how far have you gotten in your reading of the Bible? I think you’ll find the answers to your problems with Job (and whether God approves Him or is chastising him) in the New Testament. Have you read that far?

      1. The answers are there, you just down see them. It’s like talking to a child. If the child isn’t really interested, they won’t understand what you are saying, they will hear, but not listen. In order to understand the Bible and get the answers you are looking for, you must first be interested, then you must understand the context, the background, and the culture at that time. Also realize that the Bible is not written in chronological order, meaning it doesn’t go in order of events. You have to understand the order and timeline of each part. Only after you know and understand this can you truly read the Bible and find the answers you seek.

  7. Can I ask by what standards are people categorized to be good or bad? And from where are those standards derived? Can the source of those “standards” stand alone and not be contested? And if yes, who or how can the veracity of the examiners/examination be decided upon? It is really good of us to want to prove and to disprove God’s existence but can we really disprove Him? Should He exist, He being the Originator of everything we know to exist, then we’re safe to say that He owns everything and can do whatever He chooses to with His property. Should He choose to single out a chosen and hold him up to be an exemplar by testing him, He being the owner thereof, who then is truly able to contest that? The book of Job does give us some insight into that truth.

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