God’s presentation in Job rubs a lot of people wrong. Christians look at the book as an inspiring story of a man’s faith, but there’s a real problem that Hashem’s followers need to address: Here is this perfectly nice, righteous, family man, and God lets Satan ruin his life–and murder his children–over a bet. To many skeptics, this book is proof that the God of the Old Testament is not only harsh, but is downright sociopathic.
So let’s address that, and see how looking at the Bible in its original context, as its first audience would have, helps us to really appreciate this incredibly powerful and important–yet unread and misunderstood–book.
Job is a Play, Not a History
The first thing we need to understand about Job is its genre. While most Evangelical Christian commentaries take it for granted that Job reports a historical event, the book itself is not written in the genre of ancient history. This is evident just by looking at the English text of your Bible: Do we really believe that Job and his friends all broke out into perfect verse when they debated? Of course not! Therefore, while it is possible that Job was based on real events, it’s not certain, and the actual written debate would be heavily edited from the original even if it were.
The rabbis report a baraitha (a tradition dating at least to the second temple period) that Job was written by Moses, but this was disputed, with the date of authorship ranging from the time of Joseph to the time of Joshua (Babylonian Talmud, Bava Batra 15a). Rabbi Sh’muel bar Nachmani is reported to have said that Job never existed at all, in other words, that the book is a piece of fiction written to deal with spiritual and moral issues. Others argued that Job was a real person, but admitted that the book was nevertheless a fictionalized account of his life.
Job is actually written in the form of an ancient morality play. It is very similar to a 17th Century BCE play known as the Ludlul Bel Nemeqi, though Job is a dialogue instead of a monologue and comes to some different conclusions about the nature of suffering and evil. Since we’re not even sure how much of it is based in a real event, those claiming moral outrage against God due to Job are on the level with those who made death threats against Stephen King because a fictional villain killed a fictional dog.
But, that doesn’t totally take away our responsibility as believers to address the problem of Job. After all, even though it is in the form of a play, we have it in our canon because we believe it presents a correct representation of God’s character and a truth perspective on the problem of evil and suffering.
So let’s talk about that “bet” by putting it into context.
Satan (“the Accuser”) shows up in God’s heavenly court, saying that he’s been wandering around on the earth. Since accusing people of sin is his job, God asks if he’s found any fault with Job, pointing out Job’s righteousness. Satan responds by saying, “That’s only because you’ve protected him and given him so much, but if you took it all away, he’d curse you to your face.” This, in the ancient world, is what is known as an honor challenge, and it HAS to be answered. As J.P. Holding explains:
Many ancient societies (and we shall see below, certain modern social groups) engage in a process known as challenge-riposte. The scene of such processes is public venues in which two persons or groups have competing honor claims: “…the game of challenge-riposte is a central phenomenon, and one that must be played out in public.”  The purpose is for each party to try to undermine the honor, or social status, of the other in an exchange that “answers in equal measures or ups the ante (and thereby challenges in return).”
You can argue about the “maturity” of engaging in challenge-riposte all you want, but it is the background against which Job was written, and it explains both the Accuser’s challenge and God’s response. God’s options:
- Refuse the challenge, and simply deny the Accuser’s claim. However, this leaves the honor challenge unanswered, and makes it look like God has no real confidence in Job’s true righteousness and faith.
- Destroy the Accuser for his temerity. This actually makes God look worse than taking option 1, since it answers a moral question with brute force.
- Let Job be tested. This is the only response that proves that God was right about Job’s character in the first place, upholding not only God’s honor, but Job’s as well! And if Job proves as faithful as God claims, then it is the Accuser who is shamed.
Job as a Heroic Figure
If we look at this in light of the whole doctrine of Satan’s fall (which is almost certainly presuming a bit much, but let’s run with it for a moment), then Satan could have set up this honor challenge specifically to try to gain more followers among the heavenly host. If God refused the challenge, then he would be shamed and Satan would gain honor, and thereby gain more authority in the eyes of any angels (the Sons of God who were also present) who were still on the fence, likely causing them to fall. Likewise, if God accepted the challenge, but Satan succeeded in breaking Job’s faith, it would prove that God wasn’t truly omniscient, which would also have the effect of shaming God and honoring Satan. Even if the Accuser here is not the Satan of the New Testament, the idea of a cosmic rebel is found throughout the Bible. An unanswered challenge even from a third party would undermine Hashem and possibly cause more to be deceived by that Rebel.
So we see that far from being just a “bet” in which God takes Job’s life and those of his family as nothing more than playthings, it’s actually a very moving and heroic tale in which Job’s sufferings, by virtue of him trusting God even when he lost everything and Heaven was silent, take on cosmic significance.