The Old Testament’s Book of Job plays out like a kind of courtroom drama, with God as the judge, Satan as the prosecutor and Job’s friends as the jury. The twist here is that the jury reaches its verdict after the sentence has already been handed down. Job’s guilt or innocence is only nominally in question, and the outcome is never in doubt. In keeping with the topsy-turvy nature of the trial, the jury believes that justice can only be served by returning a verdict appropriate to the punishment that has been meted out -- a verdict the judge promptly overturns, throwing the whole proceeding into disarray.
No one knows who wrote the Book of Job or where and when it is supposed to have taken place. Scholars believe it may be the oldest book in the Bible, although they don’t really know when it was written. Its protagonist isn’t even a Jew, yet he displays stubborn fealty to a Jewish God who seemingly does nothing but abuse his trust. According to the story, Job is a “blameless and upright man,” which proves to be his undoing. God dangles this fact in front of Satan (literally, “the accuser” in Hebrew), who counters that Job is faithful only because he is obviously God’s fair-haired boy. “But put forth thy hand now, and touch all that he has, and he will curse thee to thy face," Satan taunts. God unaccountably accedes to this proposition and invites Satan to do his worst. With breathtaking dispatch, messengers arrive to inform Job that his worldly possessions, his servants and his sons and daughters have been taken away from him. When touching all that he has proves insufficient, Satan secures God’s permission to attack his person, and the hapless Job winds up sitting on an ash heap covered with sores.
With Job cursing the day he was born, jury deliberations can now begin. Three of Job’s friends – Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Naamathite – arrive to commiserate and then stick around to try to persuade Job that he must surely deserve all the misfortunes that have befallen him. (A fourth friend, Elihu, shows up briefly toward the end to join in the fun.) Their role is neatly captured by one of William Blake’s illustrations for the Book of Job, showing the trio standing side by side and pointing accusingly at their friend. The caption reads: “The Just Upright Man Is Laughed to Scorn” – an inscription borrowed from Job’s bitter characterization of his own plight. He is adamant that he has done nothing to deserve the treatment he has received, which only causes his friends to redouble their efforts to argue otherwise.
Why are Job’s friends so quick to turn on him? If they are acquainted with him at all they must know he is a good man. God himself has attested to his good character, although not within their earshot. Yet when Job refuses to falsely incriminate himself, his friends do not hesitate to do so on his behalf, accusing him of things that are patently untrue. Clearly, more is at stake here than the guilt or innocence of one man. If Job is innocent but is punished anyway, then God himself is effectively on trial. Job’s friends would never acknowledge it, but that is the subtext of much of what they say. “Does God pervert justice?” Bildad remonstrates. “Or does the Almighty pervert the right?” To entertain such a thought is to call into question the whole system of divine justice.
When I got started in the insurance business long ago, I learned about “acts of God,” a term of art used for death and destruction caused by forces beyond human control, such as floods, earthquakes and hurricanes. Those like Job who are victims of an act of God have very little recourse. The long and short of it is that you can’t sue God, although a few have tried. A Nebraska state senator filed suit in 2007 seeking a permanent injunction against the Almighty for having caused “widespread death, destruction and terrorization of millions upon millions of the Earth’s inhabitants.” The case was tossed out because court papers could not be served on the defendant. Similarly, a rabbinical court convened at Auschwitz to put God on trial for allowing the Holocaust to happen. The court ruled unanimously against God, then adjourned for evening prayers.
Job never disputed God’s right to have his way with him. After losing everything he had, he declared, "Naked I came from my mother's womb, and naked shall I return there; the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord." Job appears resigned to his fate -- but not entirely. He feels he is at least owed an explanation for his misfortune. This is never forthcoming. But when the Lord at last speaks out of the whirlwind, Job receives indirect acknowledgment that he is indeed blameless. God turns to Job’s friends and lambasts them for their obtuseness: "My wrath is kindled against you and against your two friends; for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.” Their ham-handed efforts to see that justice is served after the fact are entirely beside the point. Acts of God are not about justice – a lesson that people never seem to grasp. Has there ever been a TV evangelist who can resist the temptation to blame the victims when some natural disaster befalls them? But as Job comes to realize, suffering does not lend itself to tidy explanations. “I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know,” he acknowledges. There are those who are content to mark suffering down as a mystery and leave it at that. But Job’s suffering has opened another door for him. “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear,” Job tells the Lord, “but now my eye sees you.” For him, suffering is no longer a mystery; it is a revelation.