The Book of Job, an extended meditation on the mystery of human suffering, is itself a mystery. What are we to think of the defence which Job makes of his integrity before God and before his three friends? Why does Job repent of his words at the end of the book when these same words are praised by God Himself?
This article will argue that contemporary exegesis of the Book of Job has been unable to find satisfying answers to these questions, and that to answer them it is necessary to return to the traditional Christian exegesis of this book as found in the Fathers of the Church and synthesized by St Thomas Aquinas in his Expositio super Iob.
Ancients on the patience of Job
The Bible itself contains two references to Job outside the book which bears his name. In the book of Ezekiel, God says to His People, ‘even if these three men, Noah, Daniel and Job were in it [Judah], they would deliver but their own lives by their righteousness’ (Ez. 14:14). St James in his epistle says, ‘you have heard of the patience of Job, and you have seen the purpose of the Lord’ (Jas. 5:11). Thus Scripture itself affirms the virtue of the man Job, though without passing an explicit moral judgement on the ‘complaints’ which he made to God about his undeserved sufferings.
St Clement of Rome, in his first epistle to the Corinthians, written some time in the first century, makes use of the example of Job in order to encourage his readers to obey their legitimate authorities.1
St Hilary of Poitiers (c. 315-67) also praises the virtue of Job. In his Tractatus super Psalmos, he refers to Job as inculpabilis, blameless.2
St Ambrose of Milan seems to have been the first Father of the Church to write extensively on the life of Job. In his De Interpellatione Iob et David, written perhaps about the year 383, he presents this virtuous Gentile as a model for the believer in his Christian warfare.3 By his endurance of his trials, Job shows himself a spiritual athlete, and is eventually crowned by the agonotheta, or master of the contest, in person. St Ambrose states that so far from falling into sin in the midst of his sufferings, Job actually grew in virtue by means of them: Job was ‘stronger when sick than when well.’ However, St Ambrose does allow that Job must have committed some of the venial faults from which no man is free. So with regard to the words, Non peccavi, he explains that Job is protesting his freedom from serious sin, not from all the smaller failings to which human nature is prone: Quod condicionis est non negat, writes the Bishop of Milan, quod impietatis est repellit.
St John Chrysostom (c.347-407) wrote a long series of homilies on the Book of Job, of unknown date. Until recently dispersed among homiletical catenae and unedited manuscripts, they have now been critically edited and form two volumes of the series Sources Chrétiennes.4 Chrysostom’s principal concern is the character of Job himself, whom he regards as a divinely appointed model of virtue (I,16). Job’s words, he affirms, are such as are suitable to a man grievously afflicted but loyal to his Maker. He behaves as a true philosopher (I,18), but without falling into the error of ‘insensibility’ (1,21). In saying that his suffering is excessive, Job does not accuse God of injustice, but simply denies that he has merited it by his sins (XII, 11). His complaints, says St John, should be compared to those of certain psalms, and are no more to be condemned than these are (VII, 7&13). Even if some of his words seem ‘shocking’ (XXXVIII, 1), they are spoken from simple ‘discouragement’, not from blasphemy or wickedness (III, 1), and in any case do not express his real self (X, 1). Job shows piety when he speaks of the works of the Most High (XII, 1), restraint in cursing only the day of his birth (III, 4) and humility in waiting until the end of the dispute before enumerating his acts of mercy (XXXI, 7). Finally, much of Job’s vehemence in complaining to God comes from his very zeal for the divine honour – he is afraid lest his continued sufferings should lead him to sin and grieves lest his own condition should be a source of scandal for others (XI, 4).
St Augustine of Hippo mentions the person of Job briefly in the City of God. Speaking of the proper way to respond to misfortune, St Augustine contrasts Job with the Cato the Younger, darling of the Stoics. Cato’s hardihood in choosing suicide rather than submission to a monarch is an example of false courage; Job’s readiness to suffer any temporal affliction rather than sin by following his wife’s injunction to self-slaughter is an example of true courage.5
Towering over all other patristic writings on Job is the monumental Moralia in Iob of St Gregory the Great.6 When speaking of the literal sense of the book of Job – most of the commentary bears on its non-literal meanings – St Gregory concentrates, like St John Chrysostom, on the personal integrity of the man Job. He remarks that just as the stars appear one by one in the night sky, so in the Old Testament the different virtues are gradually revealed by the different saints: longanimity by Noah, obedience by Abraham, chastity by Isaac, and, by Job, patience (Preface, VI, 13). Throughout his commentary, St Gregory insists that Job could not have sinned in his words; otherwise, one would be making the devil victorious in his combat with God, and also contradicting God’s own words in praise of Job’s speeches (e.g. Preface, III, 8; Book XXXV, 9). If Job repents when the Almighty appears to him, it is for interior movements of impatience which he had not wholly checked, and for the ‘sins of his youth’ of which he speaks earlier in his discourses (Jb. 13, 26). This explanation, however, while convincing in itself, may still lead us to wonder why Job specifically repents of his words (Jb. 42:3). For an answer to this, as well as for a corroboration of the patristic testimony to Job's holiness, we can turn to one of the less well-known works of St Thomas Aquinas.
St Thomas' Expositio super Iob is a commentary on the literal sense of the book.7 Unlike St Gregory the Great and St John Chrysostom, the angelic doctor's principal concern is not the character of Job himself but the doctrinal dispute between Job and his friends. Job is maintaining, says St Thomas, that the proper time for the divine retribution of just men and sinners is not in this life but after death; his friends maintain that divine retribution is found principally or even exclusively in this present life. However, Aquinas does take care to defend Job’s behaviour and speech against the charges which the three consolers bring. Job is a man ‘perfect in virtue’ (Prologue, 69-70). He is pure and innocent insofar as a man may be so, having kept himself from all mortal sins and having nothing gnawing at his conscience (9, 660-3; 16, 263-6; 17, 30-2). More particularly, he is free of all the crimes which his friends postulate in his past life and of which they accuse him in his present distress, namely blasphemy, pride, despair, hypocrisy, greed and useless anger (4, 6-9; 8, 327-9; 13, 225-6; 15, 19-46, 321-8 and passim).
Why then, according to St Thomas, does Job repent at the end of the book? It is because Job realises that his manner of speaking of God was imperfect and in some respects at fault. The substance of Job’s words was perfectly correct: God does principally reward the just and punish the wicked in the next life. It is for this reason that God praises Job’s words and reproves his friends’ (Jb 42:7). Moreover, Job did not rebel against this providential order – he maintained himself in true interior submission to the divine will. However, goaded as he was by his friends’ reproaches, he sometimes let his words go beyond due bounds, with the result that his ill-disposed friends falsely supposed him to doubt God’s justice. Hence, though Job himself was not proud, some of his words ‘seemed to savour of presumption’ (38, 10-13; 39, 350-1). On the other hand, whilst Job’s fault was light, his friends committed the serious sins of teaching false dogmas, slander and even ‘accepting the person of God’ that is, justifying Him solely by reason of His power and without being truly convinced of His justice (13, 94-103; 42, 61-2). This is why they are condemned at the end of the book and only reconciled to God through Job’s intercession.
The traditional exegesis of the book of Job thus presents its hero as a true model of the Christian virtues of patience and submission to God’s will. Not only does Job possess these virtues in the days of his prosperity, he maintains them in the teeth of adversity. He is free from sin – not, indeed, from all those venial faults from which a man may only be liberated by a wholly exceptional gift of grace, but nevertheless a saint; beatus Iob, as St Thomas Aquinas likes to call him. His very piety leads him to reproach himself strenuously for these venial faults when he at length sees them clearly in the light of God’s presence.
Moderns on the patience of Job
The 20th Century has seen a new interpretation of the character of the man, Job. According to this new exegesis, Job is essentially a rebel, who renounces his former submission to God’s will in order to defend his own justice. In his dialogue with his three friends, he puts into question the very notion of a loving Providence, and rages against the injustice of his lot. It is only after the appearance of the Almighty, according to this interpretation, that Job once more submits his will to the will of God, and confesses God’s justice. A few quotations may serve to sketch this new interpretation.
Cardinal Daniélou, in his little book, The Just ‘Pagans’ of the Old Testament, has this to say about the virtues of Job:
Two other French authors, both prominent exegetes, develop Daniélou’s remarks. Fr Jean Lévêque, a Carmelite priest, declares in his magisterial two-volume work, Job et son Dieu:
The same is true of the Job portrayed by André Chouraqui in his translation and commentary of the biblical book, entitled Iyov. Describing Job’s transition from his seven days of silence to the discussion with his three friends, Chouraqui remarks, ‘Thus does Iyov [=Job] pass into the darkness of rebellion’.10
This view of Job as essentially a rebel is not limited to French authors. It is apparently shared by The New Jerome Biblical Commentary. In their article ‘Job’, Fr Mackenzie and Fr. Murphy O’Connor have this to say about the patience of Job:
Nor is this picture of a Job in conflict with his Creator limited to professional exegetes. In a rare foray by an analytical philosopher into Old Testament studies, Eleanore Stump takes issue with St Thomas Aquinas’s portrait of Job. Her essay, Aquinas on the Sufferings of Job, argues that Job doubts the divine goodness, thus putting himself into a state of conflict with God, and she finds the Angelic Doctor guilty of a strange insensitivity for failing to see this.12 In a separate essay, the same author draws an explicit contrast between St Thomas’s understanding of the Book of Job and the view of it which a ‘modern’ will take. Whereas St Thomas sees it as a debate on the manner in which God exercises His Providence in the world, modern readers will understand it as a debate on the very possibility of justifying the ways of God to men. In this debate, argues Professor Stump, Job denies that God has the right to permit sufferings as execrable as his own.13
This portrait of Job as a rebel seems to have become the ‘orthodox’ position for today’s exegetes. Two books published quite recently by a leading Catholic publishing house, confirm this. In Job: The Power of Hope, François Chirpaz affirms, ‘Job tells God that He has no right to make a creature endure the sufferings which He is making Job endure’.14 Similarly, in Job, the Man who spoke well of God, W. Vogels remarks, ‘For the most part, Job is an example of rebellion and of impatience’.15 Certainly we have come a long way from the Iob inculpabilis admired by St Hilary of Poitiers.
The consequences of the new exegesis
The ‘new exegesis’ of the Book of Job poses some serious problems. After all, to renounce one’s submission to God’s will, to entertain persistent and voluntary doubts about the divine goodness, to affirm seriously that one is more just than God, are all mortal sins. The new exegetes may not themselves use the terminology of mortal and venial sin – indeed some of them seem rather to admire Job’s putative stance than otherwise – but the implication of their words is that Job committed grave sin in speaking to God and to his friends. There are two objections to this.
First of all, it is contrary to the Epistle of St James. The remark made by the New Jerome Biblical Commentary that the Greek word used by the Apostle James to describe Job’s behaviour means not patience but steadfastness seems to be special pleading. What sort of steadfastness, after all, would be praised by Scripture if not the steadfastness in virtue of the just man in time of trial? And this is the very definition of patience. Pace Fathers McKenzie and Murphy O’Connor, whenever the phrase ‘the patience of Job’ entered the English language, Job was certainly celebrated in the Church for his patience many centuries before King James’s committee of translators set to work. The Fathers of the Church are sufficient proof of that.
Secondly, if Job were indeed an example of rebellion and insubmission to God’s will, why would he be praised so highly by the Almighty at the end of the book? Contemporary exegesis has two separate and incompatible explanations for this. Some exegetes affirm that Job is praised for ‘speaking the truth as he saw it’, and for not repressing his instinct to criticize the Almighty for his sufferings. So Vogels declares, ‘Job always spoke of God “correctly”, with justice, in that he was always correct, just and honest with himself’.16 Against this it is sufficient to remark that the notion of a rebellion against God made praiseworthy by its sincerity is a Romantic notion (one thinks of Blake’s admiration for the Satan of Paradise Lost), and entirely foreign to the biblical mentality.
Other exegetes therefore offer a different explanation for the praise which Job’s words receive. According to these commentators, the Job who is praised at the end of the story is not the Job who rebelled against the Most High during the long, central part of the book. On this view, the original story of Job consisted of just the Prologue and the Epilogue, and a later author used this as a framework into which he inserted an extended meditation on divine providence. Fr Levêque, for example, declares:
Apart from the implication that the Book of Job is a mere fiction – an idea expressly repudiated by St Gregory the Great and St Thomas Aquinas –, this explanation creates difficulties of its own. If an author had wished to depict a man wavering in his faith and in revolt against God, why would he have chosen as a framework a popular narrative so ill-suited to his purpose? Would a literary genius capable of inventing chapters 3-41 of the Book of Job have been at the same time so incompetent as to let the Most High praise a man for rebelling against Him? This explanation of God’s praise of Job, as well as lacking any foundation in manuscript evidence or in Jewish or Christian tradition, seems to be as implausible as that which would make of Job a Romantic or existentialist hero, à la Blake or Camus.
Conclusion – return to tradition
We have argued that the conclusion to the Book of Job, and the Epistle of St James, imply that the man Job did in reality possess the qualities for which he is praised in Christian tradition. Therefore any exegesis of this biblical book which makes its hero an example of religious doubt or defiance must be seriously mistaken. In other words, to find a coherent interpretation of the Book of Job, it is necessary to rejoin the tradition of the Fathers of the Church.
This tradition, as we have seen, does not affirm that Job was entirely free from blame of any kind, and innocent of even the smallest venial fault. But it does affirm that Job possessed all the virtues – including faith and patience – to a high degree, and that he did not lose possession of these virtues when tested by God. To suppose otherwise is to fall into the error of Eliphaz, Baldad and Sophar, who let themselves be fooled by appearances into imagining that Job’s ‘complaints’ were incompatible with a humble and devout heart.
 This exegesis is not entirely new. It is also found in the rabbinical tradition. See Judith R. BASKIN, Pharaoh’s Counsellors : Job, Jethro and Balaam in Rabbinic and Patristic Tradition, Chico, Ca., Scholar’s Press, 1983
6. Morals on the Book of Job in “A library of Fathers of the Holy Catholic Church, anterior to the division of East and West: translated by members of the English Church”, t. 18, 21, 23 and 31, Oxford, 1844-50.
12. E. Stump, “Aquinas on the sufferings of Job”, in Reasoned Faith: Essays in Philosophical Theology in honour of N. Kretzmann, ed. E. Stump, Ithaca & London, Cornell University Press, 1993, p. 328-57.