Is God Fair in the Book of Job?

For my daily quiet time last night, I was reading Nahum 2:10-13. Here, the prophet talks about God killing off some young lions, who represent the predatory Assyrians.

The passage reminded me of Job 38:39-40, in which God asks Job, “Can you hunt the prey for the lion, or satisfy the appetite of the young lions, when they crouch in their dens, or lie in wait in their covert?” (NRSV).

There are at least two ways to interpret Job 38:39-40. One approach is to present God as someone who takes care of his creation. In this scenario, God is saying this: “Job, you have been saying that I do not love you or the most vulnerable of society, and that I don’t care about all the injustice in the world. But I am a loving God. I take care of my creation. I feed the lions, for Pete’s sake! And so you have to believe me when I tell you that I love you. Sure, there are things that you do not understand, but I have a plan. You’ve got to trust me.”

And another approach is to present God as someone who is all about power, not justice. In this scenario, God says this: “Look, Job, you rant about me being unfair, as if I am restricted by your puny definition of justice. The fact is that I do some pretty strange things that no one can comprehend. You bemoan the fact that I allow these predatory human beings to stomp all over the poor? Well, guess what? I’m also the one who gives the predatory lions their prey. I do strange things, and I don’t have to answer to anyone’s standards or expectations. I am God, and I have the power. And, if I ever want to share with you my purposes, then I will, but I most likely won’t, since you wouldn’t understand them anyway.”

I have a hard time viewing God as arbitrary or devoid of moral principles. God is not like the devil. Even in the Book of Job, God is a creator rather than a destroyer. He has a moral standard, which is why he rewards Job for his righteousness at the beginning of the book. So to suggest that God is only about power is going too far.

But, at the same time, is God just in the Book of Job? If your definition of justice is God giving people what they deserve, then the answer is “no.” Job is righteous. Job says so, and (more importantly) God says so. Yet, Job experiences suffering that he does not deserve. And so God is not exactly being fair in his treatment of Job.

So God is not all about power, but neither is he all about justice. Does that make God totally arbitrary? I don’t think so, for God can have a reason for any of his actions that deviate from strict justice. In this case, God wanted to test Job to see if Job would curse him. God’s goal was to determine if Job was truly righteous or was merely acting out of his own self-interest. After all, Job’s service to God had also served Job rather well, since God had continually rewarded him for all his good works.

Maybe God wanted to show the Satan that his (God’s) assessment of Job’s character was correct. In this case, God’s goal would have been to establish the validity of his own judgment, both to the Satan and also to the readers of the Book of Job. This would fit a lot of the Bible, in which God is concerned about his reputation.

Or perhaps God’s aim was to find out for himself if Job was truly righteous. “But God already knew Job’s heart!” I can hear people saying. Indeed, there are biblical passages about God knowing the thoughts and ways of human beings (see Psalm 139:1-4). But that is not the message of all of Scripture. After all, God says after he tested Abraham, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me” (Genesis 22:12). Here, God tests Abraham to find out for himself if the person he’s chosen is truly pious. That implies that he was not absolutely sure before the test. And that appears to be what’s going on in the Book of Job.

But what is the purpose of the test? Does God test us to determine if he will continue to love us? If we fail the test, will God then ditch us? Based on the testimony of all of Scripture, my answer is “no.” God tested the Israelites with manna to see if they would follow his Sabbath instructions (Exodus 16:4-5). They didn’t, and God did not ditch them. Rather, he rebuked them and went over the command with them one more time. God promised to send false prophets who would promote idolatry, and his goal in that was to see if the Israelites truly loved him (Deuteronomy 13:1-3). After the Conquest, God left some Canaanites in the Promised Land “for the testing of Israel, to know whether Israel would obey the commandments of the LORD, which he commanded their ancestors by Moses” (Judges 3:4). Well, the Israelites failed those tests big time, for idolatry was a huge part of their day-to-day life. Did God abandon them? No, but God did get an idea about what to do next. When he saw that they had failed the test, he gave them what was necessary for their spiritual growth: discipline.

And the same appears to have been true of Job. You know, the Book of Job somewhat strikes me as less than smooth, to say the least. Here’s what I would expect if I were reading it for the first time: God blesses Job for being righteous, Satan says that Job is only righteous because God pays him to be that way, God allows Satan to afflict him, Job stays true to his faith, and God rewards Job in the end (to the shame of Satan). Instead, the book reads like this: God blesses Job for his righteousness, Satan challenges Job’s integrity, God lets Satan afflict Job, Job complains about God and life in general, God rebukes Job, and God rewards Job at the end. Many scholars would seek to end the discussion by dividing Job up into sources (e.g., the narrative, Job the Patient, Job the Impatient, Elihu, etc.). But what does the Book mean when we look at all of the sources together? For me, we see a story of God testing Job to see how he would act, and then working to correct any weaknesses or misconceptions that Job may have. God does for Job what the Psalmist requests in Psalm 139:23-24: “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.”

So is God all about power in the sense that he does things without a good reason? No. But is God always fair? Not necessarily, since he doesn’t always give us what we deserve. But he does give us what we spiritually need. So, in my opinion, God is not obsessed with power or strict justice, but he is about righteousness, and that is good for us.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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2 Responses to Is God Fair in the Book of Job?

  1. Anonymous says:

    You might be interested in this online commentary “Putting God on Trial: The Biblical Book of Job” ( as supplementary or background material for your perspective on the Book of Job. It is written by a Canadian criminal defense lawyer, now a Crown prosecutor, and it explores the legal and moral dynamics of the Book of Job with particular emphasis on the distinction between causal responsibility and moral blameworthiness embedded in Job’s Oath of Innocence. It is highly praised by Job scholars (Clines, Janzen, Habel) and the Review of Biblical Literature, all of whose reviews are on the website. The author is an evangelical Christian, denominationally Anglican. He is also the Canadian Director for the Mortimer J. Adler Centre for the Study of the Great Ideas, a Chicago-based think tank.

    Robert Sutherland


  2. James Pate says:

    Thanks for the link, Robert. Yeah, that’s what Job wanted–a fair trial.


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