Bible Study | March 25, 2022

Bildad misunderstands

Job bowed down with three friends sitting nearby
"Job and his three friends" by James Jacques Joseph Tissot

Job 8:1-10, 20-22

Scholars have long recognized the connection of Job to ancient wisdom’s focus on a predictable act/predictable consequence sequence. Sages inside and outside Israel observed that the relationship between action and consequence defined much of life.

For wisdom, this principle of justice was foundational in all aspects of life, including human behavior. Hence, if I want friends, I must act toward others as I want others to act toward me. If I want to have enough to eat, a place to live, and a mobile phone, I must work hard and earn money. If I want to remain healthy, I must eat well, exercise, and get enough sleep.

It is easy to see that the book of Job has its feet rooted in the world of wisdom. The sages insisted that God consistently acted to ensure that justice was done. God responded fairly and justly based on a person’s behavior. If Job acted wisely and justly, then he would receive a just response from God. This was the perspective of Job’s friends.

For the most part, Job agrees. But he does not agree that the disasters that have befallen him resulted from foolish or wicked behavior. Job insists both to his friends and to God that he did not deserve the disasters. He maintains that he is an innocent and righteous man.

Job is not simply a wisdom narrative. His friends insist that Job’s poetic blasts at God prove that he deserved what happened to him. In fact, his rage against God echoes not wisdom but the complaint psalms, such as the one Jesus quoted: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?” (Psalm 22:1).

Repeatedly, Job’s outbursts employ the language of anger and anguish found in the Psalms. Rather than a complaint psalm, the sages turned to a wisdom psalm like Psalm 1: “Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, or take the path that sinners tread, or sit in the seat of scoffers. . . . They are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither. In all that they do, they prosper” (vv. 1, 3).

Bildad, one of Job’s friends, points to Job’s attacks against God as troubling enough to warrant divine punishment. Job charges: “It is all one; therefore I say, [God] destroys both the blameless and the wicked. When disaster brings sudden death, he mocks at the calamity of the innocent” (Job 9:22-23).

Suffering and justice

Most folks inside and many outside the church and synagogue know the story of Job. People who have read the biblical book, and even some who haven’t, picture Job as a good person who suffered dreadfully even though he didn’t deserve it.

Parents who have lost children, children who are abused, people of color who are victims of discrimination and violence, and many others feel the stabbing, aching pain of undeserved attack and painful suffering. Clearly the pain and suffering of Job calls us to recognize and respond to undeserved pain and suffering wherever we see it.

In addition to the suffering of the innocent, a conversation between God and Satan in Job 1:6-12 points to another issue: Does Job revere God for nothing? As the story opens, God begins the conversation by affirming Job’s goodness and innocence: “There is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man who fears God and turns away from evil” (v. 8).

Satan points out that God has blessed Job’s work with food, family, wealth—everything a person might want. Would Job be faithful if he weren’t so richly rewarded? How will Job react if his goodness does not receive the reward he believes divine justice ensures? Disaster strikes Job again and again. Would Job still believe life is governed by a just God?

Bildad remains convinced that a just God’s justice does define life: “Does God distort justice? Does the Almighty distort what is fair? . . . If you will seek God, appeal to the Almighty. If you are pure and without fault, certainly God will act on your behalf, restoring you to your rightful place” (8:3, 5-6, writer’s translation).

Whatever we may think of Bildad, he does not attack Job for past sin. However, Bildad insists that we must always remember the sacred relationship between act and consequence.

Thus, Job can change his future by changing his behavior! Bildad maintains that Job’s future health, wealth, and family depend on changing his behavior now. A good future emerges with wise and just behavior.

Bildad today

We often criticize Bildad for his speech directed at Job, but we don’t get around to addressing the issues. Obviously, there is much truth in wisdom’s dogma. We recognize that respectful and wise actions are more likely to result in rewarding relationships than mean and foolish behavior. The future is affected by wise or foolish behavior. But does it always happen as we expect?

Bildad assumes a clear and consistent relationship between suffering and its cause. Experience teaches us that such an absolute relationship does not exist. Good actions are not always rewarded, nor are evil actions always punished. Sometimes the unprincipled flourish and the moral languish. We echo the psalmist: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Nevertheless, quite often we do act as if we can glean the cause from the result. The son of a family friend became addicted to drugs. No one ever said it directly to the parents, but the talk around the edges suggested that the son’s problem was likely the result of poor parenting. They referred to a familiar wisdom proverb: “Train children in the right way, and when old, they will not stray” (Proverbs 22:6).

Unfortunately, parents can increase their own suffering by assuming they are to blame for their children’s problems. Parents do make mistakes. But adult children may try to escape their own responsibility by blaming their parents.

Bildad makes a second assumption that we need to consider. Does God generate natural disasters to punish wrongdoers? Mentioning that assumption usually prompts a negative response: No, of course not!

Our generation has faced a viral pandemic that has killed millions around the world. Often, we try to figure out who is to blame. Some suggest this pandemic was brought by God to punish the United States for specific sins or general godlessness. The same response followed Katrina, the hurricane that killed almost 2,000 people in the area around New Orleans. Pandemics and other disasters do happen, but not as a tool of divine judgment. God sent Jesus not to destroy, but to deliver.

Finally, there is a third assumption: Bildad assumed that we can control God. If we do well, God will reward us. If we sin, God will punish. If it weren’t for the predictable relationship between behavior and result, why would people be good?

Jonah’s anger came from the realization that he could not control God’s response. Both Jonah and Nahum insisted that the horrific torture Assyria inflicted on Israel required divine punishment. Jonah raged because he “knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing” (Jonah 4:2b).

One of the hallmarks of our faith is that God, in Christ, promised to respond to sin and evil out of the uncontrollable mystery of divine compassion. We cannot control God.

Gene Roop is president emeritus and Wieand Professor Emeritus of Biblical Studies at Bethany Theological Seminary. He is an ordained minister in the Church of the Brethren.