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Composed sometime between 500 and 300 B.C., the Book of Job examines justice in the physical world from the point of view of a belief in one Creator.
To a certain extent the Book of Job takes up where Plato leaves off. Here God is not simply the sum total of virtue—Plato’s “Good.” God is the Creator, a cognitive Being aware of each individual life and intimately concerned for His creation.
If we put aside the numerous disputes over composition and textual integrity, we can see in this masterpiece of world literature some issues of justice not raised in the dialogues of Plato. For example, Job examines the critical dilemma of how we can maintain and sustain belief in a just God when we are daily exposed to the appearance in the physical world of seemingly arbitrary acts of cruelty, corruption, and blatant injustice.
This is the heart of the great human question of theodicy: How can a just, merciful God allow us to suffer so much?
A didactic poem of dialogue “imbedded in a prose tale,” the Book of Job recounts the story of a man who has long remained the emblem of human patience and humility in the face of untold suffering and apparent injustice. The story begins with an account of Job as his tribe’s prosperous and respected chieftain. But Satan contends that Job’s exemplary fidelity is the result of Job’s prosperity in life, not real certitude or conviction. God responds to this cynicism by giving Satan permission to test Job, wagering with Satan that Job will demonstrate the depth of his belief.
After a series of disasters that deprive Job of his possessions and most of his family, he is grief stricken, but he still praises God. Not satisfied, Satan proposes that Job suffer injury to his person, and God, still confident, gives Satan permission to inflict on Job a loathsome disease.
Job’s wife can take no more. She tempts her husband to despair and to curse God. Three friends, who have ostensibly come to comfort Job, state that his misfortune is a punishment from some wrongdoing, and they accuse him of some concealed act of irreligion or iniquity. Convinced of his own innocence, Job rejects their accusations. But as his anguish mounts, Job at last pleads with God to speak to him directly that he might understand the reason for this plight.
Eventually God does speak to Job as a voice from a whirlwind. In lengthy, powerful speeches, God catalogues examples of His creative authority and omnipotence. He then asks rhetorically if Job has such power—the capacity to control the forces of the universe or the wisdom to understand the complex laws governing the stars, the animals, or the weather. Job humbly confesses that he has no such ability.
After a further vision of God’s might, Job understands God’s infinitely lofty station, and he enthusiastically attests to God’s power and majesty. His faith has been restored. In an epilogue, God condemns the three friends, gives Job twice what he had before, returns his family, and gives him twice the normal life span.
In the New Testament, James praises Job as an example of steadfastness, as do Muhammad in the Qur’an and Abdu’l-Baha in Paris Talks:
Those who declare a wish to suffer much … must prove their sincerity; those who proclaim their longing to make great sacrifices can only prove their truth by their deeds. Job proved the fidelity of his love for God by being faithful through his great adversity, as well as during the prosperity of his life. – Abdu’l-Baha, Paris Talks, p. 51.
But at the crux of the story, for our purposes, are Job’s response to injustice and the story’s ending.
Of course, the Old Testament portrait of God literally debating with Satan is generally accepted as mythological tradition, in the same way that we accept the story of Adam and Eve as symbolism or allegory, not as literal history. Thus when the tests come upon Job, they come from Satan. But in the same way that the Baha’i writings interpret scriptural allusions to Satan as symbolic portrayals of the temptation to accede to the ego or to give in to our baser instincts, possibly the author of the Book of Job has intended a similar meaning. Therefore, the tests of Satan may represent Job’s inner turmoil, his temptation to rebel against faith and belief, especially as others urge him to do so.
Job’s response to Satan’s testing is human but noble: He never denies his faith or despairs of ultimate redemption. Most important, he does not accede to his friends’ assertion that the torment is somehow deserved. Job knows that the reasons for his afflictions, whatever they may be, have nothing to do with retribution from God for any behavior on his part. He is confident of his own goodness—and of his Creator’s. He is human and feels pain, but he never denies his faith in God. For this he is rewarded with more than he had before:
And the Lord restored the fortunes of Job, when he had prayed for his friends; and the Lord gave Job twice as much as he had before. . . . And the Lord blessed the latter days of Job more than his beginning … – Job 42:10.
But while Job prospers in the end, we are left with a theological enigma, to say the least. True, Job becomes the emblem of fidelity and steadfastness, but in what sense has a vision of a just God or a just physical reality been revealed?
While in the conclusion of the story justice seems to be accomplished on the physical plane of existence, it may well be that Job’s ultimate redemption represents an otherworldly, spiritual experience. After all, the story is a poem replete with symbolism and imagery. Therefore, even as the initial debate between God and Satan may be symbolic, so the rest of the story may be as well. The final restoration of Job’s riches may thus represent a celestial reunion, an otherworldly reward for Job’s exemplary patience in this life. Also, the extension of his life may allude to the continuation of his life in the realm of the spirit.
So the story of Job focuses not on justifying God’s ways to man, but on proclaiming forcefully that inasmuch as this life has the essential purpose of causing us to develop spiritually, even the righteous are tested. The Baha’i teachings explain the meaning of Job’s life in just such a context:
What trials, calamities and perplexities did he not endure! But these tests were like unto the fire and his holiness Job as like unto pure gold. Assuredly gold is purified by being submitted to the fire and if it contain any alloy or imperfection, it will disappear. That is the reason why violent tests become the cause of the everlasting glory of the righteous and are conducive to the destruction and disappearance of the unrighteous. – Abdu’l-Baha, Tablets of Abdu’l-Baha, Volume 3, p. 655.
After Job’s passage through the fire of tests, he no longer acts blindly or unconsciously. His understanding, and therefore his faith as well, become firmly grounded in the lessons he has learned from his tests. He may not have a complete vision of God’s plan for himself or for humankind, but he does realize profoundly that the suffering he has endured has resulted in his own spiritual development.