Is the book of Job a tragedy or a comedy? The answer may seem obvious to you. This, of course, may be a tragedy: Job suffers both great loss and great physical pain. Many people die. Children die. Like almost all tragedies, the book is about suffering and its meaning or lack thereof.
Or maybe it seems obvious that it’s a comedy. The book has a classic comic form. It might not be exactly funny, but it’s set in a simple and even naive setting, with a happy ending just to make sure you get the hang of it being a comedy.
There is a tension between the comic and tragic elements of Job. Some scholars have dealt with this by noting the lack of unity in the text. They point out that there are deep contradictions between the Job of the prose prologue and epilogue and the Job of the rich poetry in between. Perhaps, they surmised, the author took a traditional folk tale widely known to his audience, opened it up, removed the middle, and inserted his own words. So, while interesting, the framework story of the prologue and epilogue is of little interpretive value. It may give the book a sense of comedy, but only as an unintended consequence.
I prefer a different response to this dilemma between comedy and tragedy: I believe that it is a question of understanding the history of the setting. The frame story is not an uncritical retelling of a popular tale, but rather a very sophisticated parody of a tale, written by the author of the poetry. It cannot be cast as a frame around a painting. Understanding the frame’s story as a parody brings greater clarity to the comedic elements of the rest of the book. No, we’re not supposed to laugh, but comedy can be a powerful way to deal with pain.
Readers have long wrestled with the contradictory, cruel, and perhaps insecure God at the center of Job and particularly the setting story. Is this God ready to inflict suffering on innocent people because of a cosmic contest? This God plays with human suffering? Are we supposed to take this God seriously?
The answer – via parody – is both yes and no.
In the frame story, God has a conversation with a character called ha satan. Right from the start, there is something strange in this conversation. It’s a little too casual and familiar. God acts very differently in Job than in other biblical scenes of divine counsel (1 Kings 22, Isa. 6, Zech. 3, Dan. 7). God basically says, Hey ha satan, what’s up? How’s it going? To which ha satan responds, Ahh, not much, just hanging.
The very presence of ha satan is revealing. The word means adversary or accuser, and an accuser implies an accused. We often assume that Job is the accused, which allows us to blame the figure of ha satan for everything that happens to Job. However, a careful reading of the text clearly indicates that God is the object of the accusation: “Then Satan answered the Lord: ‘Does Job fear God for nothing? Have you got [God] not put a fence around him and his house and everything he has, on all sides? You have blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have multiplied in the land” (1:9-10).
What is God accused of? Create a system where God essentially bribes people for their piety. Job is not the accused; he is the test case chosen by God because he is innocent. A test, by the way, that Job passes with flying colors.
In the second scene of the divine counsel (2:1-6), we find two more disturbing elements indicating that the frame story is much more than an innocent folk tale. While the second divine council scene repeats much of the language of the first, there is a significant change in 2:3. “The Lord said to Satan, ‘Have you thought of my servant Job? There is no one like him on earth, a man of integrity and righteousness who fears God and turns away from evil. It still persists in its integrity, though you incited me against it, to destroy it for no reason.
The idea that anyone, even a divine being, can incite God leaves me speechless, but it doesn’t stop there. The text says that God was instigated by ha satan to destroy Job “for no reason”. The wording is the same as in the previous scene. Does Job fear God “for nothing”, “for no reason”? Yes, Job does. Did God destroy Job “for nothing”, “for no reason”? Yes, God does. Who then is the figure of greatest integrity? It’s Job.
Then, even though God clearly stated that Job’s test was for no reason, under ha satan’s pressure, God agrees to test Job again. It is quite capricious and seriously disturbing. The second test is authorized when God answers ha satan: “Very well, it is in your power; only to spare his life” (2:6). The word translated “power” is best understood as “watch,” a noun most often associated with God’s oversight of mankind. Here, it seriously looks like an abdication.
Read carefully, the prologue takes a very dark turn. His apparent innocence or naivety is actually quite toxic. The God of the prologue is not the God of Isaiah 6, who sends Isaiah to beg the people to return and be healed. This is not the God of Daniel 7, who sends visions to Daniel to show God’s ultimate power and control over the forces of evil. No one, really, has a god like this. Why worship a wayward, insecure deity who tests humans for no reason?
In turn, should Job’s prompt acceptance of his loss be emulated or viewed with suspicion? Perhaps it would be better not to be so “blameless and upright” if it means becoming a test subject in God’s defense of God.
Wait, God has to defend God’s character? Yes, according to Job 1. In the prologue we do not see the author’s vision of God, but rather a parody of a vision of God found in the author’s religious world. And, we might add, in ours.
Sometimes I imagine the author of Job looking at us and shaking his head. What he meant to make fun of, we take seriously. The book of Job pokes fun at the hollow piety found in his world and ours. It is the idea that believers are required to act with false patience and accept suffering as “God’s will”. This view erroneously imagines that removing pain from our circumstances is more accurate than expressing legitimate anger. He imagines that difficult questions lead to lack of faith and that to question God is to invite destruction. She ends up insisting on conformity which leads to spiritual abuse and distorts the human soul.
It is not the faith that the author of Job wants for us.
If we understand Job as a parody, then we know that the author wants to go beyond the many platitudes about suffering that abound in human society. The book of Job thus addresses two powerfully important issues in the life of a believer. First, in the context of faith, human suffering is ultimately a problem of God, not a human problem. Job is an exploration of the nature of God written by someone who isn’t afraid to parody God, or at least human versions of God. He subverts the theologically simplistic and harmful views of God that he has seen around him. He is holding a mirror as if to say, “Look at yourself, and look at the God your words create!” The author understands that it is only when we confront our assumptions that we are able to engage in an honest conversation.
Second, the book explores how we as believers can suffer with integrity. Suffering is inevitable; how we experience suffering is our choice. The next time you read Job, pay attention to how often integrity issues occur.
Does Job maintain his integrity by refusing to curse God and die, as his wife suggests? Or does he lose his integrity through his passively patient acceptance of whatever happens to him? Does he lose his integrity by refusing to admit his sin, as his friends claim? Or does he maintain his integrity by refusing to submit to a theology that leaves no room for his experience? Is it a sign of a loss of faith if, in the midst of great suffering, you wish you had never been born? The hope of death? Cry out to God? Question the goodness of God?
Some would consider these responses downright culpable. But if you look beyond the first two chapters, you will find that Job does all of these things.
The Book of Job comes across as a parody of fragile faith and platitudes. His rich poetry grows richer; its contradictions begin to make sense; his capricious God can be interpreted and not simply feared. The implications of this reading may not be entirely clear, but they at least allow us to return to the book of Job and be surprised.
A version of this article appears in the print edition as “A Wayward and Insecure God”.