Sympathizing with Job’s friends

After tending to her sick mother, New Testament scholar Kathleen Gallagher Elkins finds that Job’s friends are more relatable than they once seemed.

Photo by NEOM on Unsplash

I hung up the phone feeling heavy. I had listened to my mother talk about how much pain she was in, how she struggled with her feelings, how she was unhappy, and how she felt overwhelmed. She struggled with mental illness for my whole life, so this wasn’t new to me – but it was a bad day. And after fighting breast cancer for several years, things were getting worse. I hated to hang up, but I had to teach my classes. So, I told her I loved her and said goodbye, assuring her I’d check in later. I felt helpless and overwhelmed by the magnitude of what she was dealing with.

I taught Job that afternoon, as I do every semester in my Theological Foundations class. Students always do some of their best wrestling with this complex and beautiful text. When I teach it, I emphasize that the Bible doesn’t always give us the answers we expect (or any answers at all!). The Book of Job may not actually provide answers to the problem of suffering, but at least it gives us a chance to think through the problem. It’s a lesson plan I know well and always enjoy, even though the topic isn’t easy.

But this day felt different. The story of Job always feels profoundly unfair to me: Job’s suffering is a result of a bet between God and Satan, not because of anything that Job did wrong. Actually, the narrator emphasizes that Job did everything right! He’s “blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil” (1:1). And yet, he’s the one who is targeted. He does nothing wrong, but he loses all his property, his ten children are killed, and he contracts a disease that leaves sores all over his body. Just like my mom inherited bad brain chemistry and a predisposition for cancer, Job suffers through no fault of his own. Teaching this part felt the same as it usually did: the question that the book raises for me is the same one that millions of readers have asked. How could God be so unfair? I often encourage my students to empathize with Job in his suffering and to try taking the perspective of a variety of characters: Job, his wife, God, or an uninvolved outsider. But having just spoken to my mother who was struggling so deeply and having felt so powerless to help her, I had entered Job’s story from a different vantage point. On this day, I focused on his friends.

The Book of Job may not actually provide answers to the problem of suffering, but at least it gives us a chance to think through the problem.

When they hear of Job’s suffering, his friends go to console him (2:11). They don’t recognize him at first because he is so profoundly changed by his grief and his skin disease. They cry, tear their robes, and put dust on their heads. Then they sit silently with him for a full week “for they saw that his suffering was very great” (2:13). As I always tell my students: until this point, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar get an A+ in pastoral care. They are present; they empathize; they accompany someone who is in deep pain.

But then the friends start talking and, as I normally point out, this is when they screw everything up. They say trite things about a complex problem when they really should have stayed silent. But you know what I didn’t notice until this particular day? It’s Job who speaks first. Job is the one who breaks the silence. He says that his birthday should be taken off the calendar (3:3) and he should have died at birth (3:11). Job questions the futility of his existence and voices the deepest despair.

Photo of “Job and His Friends” by Ilya Repin on Wikimedia Commons

When they speak, his friends are responding to this despondent message. They hear their friend expressing the depths of human misery: he wishes he wasn’t even born, and they want to respond to this pain. Anyone with mental health first-aid training knows that certain crises need a response. Here, trained pastors would ask, “Are you thinking about suicide?” An indirect or half-hearted response here would be worse than no response at all.

When they do respond, Job’s friends don’t want to agree with him, of course, and they don’t exactly want to disagree either. It is Eliphaz the Temanite who responds first, starting tentatively: “If one ventures a word with you, will you be offended? But who can keep from speaking?” (4:1) It’s not easy to respond to someone who’s living in the wake of great tragedy or in the midst of deep depression. I often spoke to my mom feeling like Eliphaz does. Eliphaz doesn’t want to offend Job, but he feels compelled to say something to respond to Job’s incredible pain.

And the friends do say something: across dozens of chapters, they say that God must be just and the world must make sense! They try to reassure Job that no, things are not chaotic and wrong, even though they seem to be. This theology might seem right to us, but in many ways, it is not the theology of the Book of Job. In this book, God accepts a bet that hurts Job; so, Job’s suffering isn’t random, but it is hard to understand. Job insists that he is innocent, which the audience also knows from 1:1; but if that is true, wouldn’t it make God unfair? And if that’s true, then isn’t the world unbearably cruel? His friends don’t want to see that; perhaps they can’t see that or bear to consider it. But what Job sees is that he is a good person who has done nothing wrong, and yet, he’s lost everything. His friends see that he has lost everything and therefore, assume he must have done something wrong and that he must deserve this as punishment. Otherwise, who can bear living in a world that is this unjust and so profoundly unpredictable?

We live in a world that is profoundly unfair sometimes.

But it turns out that they do. And we do. We live in a world that is profoundly unfair sometimes. What’s maybe most troubling is that Job’s experiences are not a result of humans choosing evil but God allowing Job’s pain. It’s hard to face a world in which some of the suffering we experience comes randomly, cosmically, and through no fault of our own. But, miraculously, we keep on going. Job keeps on going. So do his friends. Sure, they get reprimanded by God (“My wrath is kindled against you … for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has” [42:7].). But God promises that if Job prays for his friends, his prayer will be heeded. And God accepts Job’s prayer on their behalf (42:9).

The so-called “happy ending” of Job isn’t really that happy. But it is meaningful. After God yells at Job for several chapters about more things that Job doesn’t understand (“Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?” [38:4] “Do you know when the mountain goats give birth?” [39:1]), Job responds briefly. Job says, in short, “God, I know that you can do anything. I didn’t understand what was happening, or why, and I still don’t” (see 42:1-3).

And maybe the most important line of the book, which is also notoriously hard to translate: “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear but now my eye sees you. Therefore, I relent and take pity on dust and ashes” (42:5-6). Job doesn’t get an answer to why he has suffered and neither do his friends. In the end, only God and Satan know the full story – and the audience. What Job does get is God: not a God who comforts him or tells him why, but a God who appears out of the whirlwind and changes Job’s perspective.

The so-called “happy ending” of Job isn’t really that happy. But it is meaningful.

It turns out that this profound suffering that Job has experienced is not all there is in the world. There are mountain goats who give birth and there are storehouses of hail. Does that help Job feel better? Probably not. Does it mean that his suffering doesn’t matter? No. Does it mean that my mom’s suffering didn’t matter? Of course not. But it does mean that there are other things happening. There is rain in a place where no one lives. There are beasts that humans don’t fully understand. There is more to this messy creation than humans. And yet, even in his theophany, Job feels empathy for those other humans: “dust and ashes” can be read as a euphemism for humankind. So, his final words are that he sees God and that he pities humans. Having seen how it all works and having been given a glimpse behind the curtain, Job feels bad for humanity. We live, we suffer, we never get to know why, we are changed by the experience, and then we keep going.

And Job does keep going: he gets everything back doubled. His loved ones “ate bread with him in his house” and comforted him “for all the evil that the Lord had brought upon him” (42:11). He ends up with ten children again. He does not get 20 children, even though his other fortunes were doubled. Perhaps this is a reminder that even though camels and sheep are replaceable (or in our context perhaps: cars and clothing are replaceable), our loved ones are not. And then Job dies, “old and full of days” (42:17). The latter days of Job were blessed more than his beginning (42:12). This sounds like a story that a prosperity preacher would love, but Job still lost his ten children. He still had to witness how profoundly unfair the world is, and he still had to receive a non-answer from God. So, he may have been blessed, but he was also changed. Like Israel, née Jacob, we could imagine that Job limps, too. Perhaps his blessing is that he lived through all of this and was still able to accept comfort from his loved ones. Perhaps his blessing is that he “spoke rightly of God” (42:7). Every theologian hopes for that blessing. But this is not a happy ending.

In the end, what Job gets is this: losing everything, contending with his friends, wrestling with God, some vindication. It’s not much, when you see it listed out that way. But maybe it is something that the rest of us could hope for. What Job does is survive. He survives something unthinkable and lives to wrestle with it for the rest of his days. And that wrestling, we hope, is not for nothing. My mom didn’t survive. After dealing with metastatic breast cancer for six years, she died. It was hard to accompany her on that journey.

From the perspective of Job’s friends, I see how hard it is to be with someone when they are suffering.

From the perspective of Job’s friends, I see something new in his story: I see how hard it is to be with someone when they are suffering. I see how hard it is to avoid saying the wrong thing. I see how hard it is to be a comforting, calming presence without attempting to fix the pain or tidy up the theology.

When my mother experienced the pain of Job, I did not hope to say the right thing. I just hoped to avoid saying the wrong thing. When sitting with someone who is suffering, I hope that God will forgive me for inevitably speaking wrongly. I hope that the Job in my life will pray for me when I have not spoken rightly. I hope I trust people to name their own experiences and not try to theologize them away. And I hope that after I do not speak rightly, I still get to eat bread and show sympathy and comfort for all the evil that the Lord has brought.

Author’s note: My thanks to Tom Bolin for his help with the translation questions in Job 42 and for many other Job-related conversations.