Everyone in this world experiences pain and suffering to some degree, some more than the others. Philosophers and theologians categorize such suffering as either Natural Evil (floods, diseases, droughts, accidents, etc.) or Human Evil (deception, cheating, rape, murder, etc.). Throughout human intellectual history, this question of random and rampant suffering, technically known as the Problem of Evil, has remained the most potent and sustained argument for the nonexistence of God. In the Bible, “the best-known wrestling with the problem of suffering comes to us in the book of Job.” (Ehrman, 2008, p. 162). In this paper we’ll look for a response from the Christian and Muslim scriptures to the question of human suffering through the story of Job, and examine it for validity and coherence.
Job is the central character of the Book of Job in the Old Testament. The story has a fairly simple structure, but most biblical scholars agree that the book, as it has reached us, is the result of two separate strands of literature, written by at least two distinct authors (Kee, Meyers, Regerson, & Saldarini, 1997, p. 255), spliced together (Ehrman, 2008, p. 163); prose folktale vs. poetic dialogs. Chapter 1 and 2 are written in prose. Job 3:1 through 42:6 is poetry that consists of a cycle of speeches between Job, Eliphaz, Bildad, Zophar, and later Elihu, followed by the dialogue between God and Job. From Job 42:7-14 the writing turns back to the prose style, in continuation and conclusion of the narrative folktale with which the book begins.
A person with like name, Ayyub (Arabic version of Latinized name “Job”; Hebrew Yov or Yovav), and somewhat similar story, is also mentioned briefly in the Quran, albeit with different theological presuppositions, and perhaps divergent conclusions.
The story has far-reaching theological implications and has been used by both sides; by religious people to support their theodicies, and by atheists and agnostics to advance the Problem of Evil (e.g. Epicurean paradox) to knockdown the arguments for the existence of an all-powerful and all-good God.
A Summary of the Story – According to the Bible
In the Christian intellectual history, the book of Job has been connected with the issue of theodicy. Alongside other philosophical issues that the book explores, the suffering of the righteous is certainly central to this work. In a most masterful manner, the book of Job portrays, in a profoundly humane way, the nature of human suffering. The reader is allowed to listen in and watch a range of reactions to Job’s fast deteriorating fortune. Most human societies, in general, have believed that good people usually profit within this world, but certainly in the afterlife; and that bad people usually suffer the consequences for their action within this life, but certainly in the life to come. Though some prominent Christian scholars and thinkers doubt the historicity of the character of Job (Lewis, 1964, p. 110), a Christian reader sees a confirmation of these beliefs in the story of Job.
Book of Job is accounted by most Christians among the Wisdom Literature but not under Major or Minor Prophets. The narrative framework of the book tells the story of Job as a very rich man who lives in the land of Uz[i]. He worships God sincerely and regularly, and most importantly, is a truly righteous person in the sight of God (Job 1:1). One day, in a wager between Satan and God, God solicits Satan’s opinion regarding Job. Satan – a heavenly being at God’s court – accuses Job of being loyal to God only because of the blessings he continues to receive from God. If God were to take away what Job has, Satan insists, Job would “curse You to Your face” (Job 1:11). As a response, God allows Satan to takeaway, first Job’s wealth, then his children, and finally his health. But Job does not curse God; not even after all these calamities befall him one after the other. Instead, he goes into mourning. He shaves his head, tears his clothes and says, “Naked I came out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return: Lord has given, and Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of Lord” (Job 1:20). In spite of all the pain and suffering, Job maintains his integrity. In the end of the folktale part of the story, Job’s patient endurance under duress is rewarded by God by restoring all his wealth. Job is also given ten new children and he gets to live a happy life till a ripe old age.
The story is somewhat different in the poetic part which constitutes the major portion of the book. Here we find a Job who is bitter against God. In his anguished state, Job repeatedly pleads with God to come and explain his meaningless and unjustified suffering. He curses the day he was born (chap 3) and even wishes he was dead (6:8-9). Upon hearing of all the suffering that has come upon Job, three of his friends, Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar come to console him (A fourth, Elihu, first begins talking in Chapter 32 and plays a significant role in the dialogue; however, his arrival is not described in the text). His three friends insist that Job’s suffering must be a punishment for some sin that he must have committed, but Job strictly maintains his innocence. His fourth friend (or a bystander) Elihu, after repeating much of what was already said, criticizes both sides of the argument, and finishes by praising God’s care for nature. Throughout their speeches, the friends take the “classical” view of suffering, i.e. sinners get what they deserve (Ehrman, 2008, p. 163). God finally appears to Job out of a whirlwind but instead of providing an explanation, overpowers him, and states that much of what God does cannot be understood by humans. God also criticizes Job for talking so much with such little knowledge. Job repents for his desire to make a plea before God. Even to the end, Job does not understand why he suffered. He felt bitter but he never rejected God and remained faithful and convinced that one day God would rescue him from all the unexplained and undeserved misery.
The book of Job is usually dated in the 5th to 4th centuries BCE, but seems to be an adaptation of an earlier Akkadian writing from around the year 1000 BCE. The book of Isaiah, which dates back to 8th century BCE, mentions “the suffering righteous servant” in chapter 53[ii]. Similar oral folktales could have existed much earlier than that in the Mesopotamian tradition. Other examples of ancient works similar to the Book of Job include the Sumerian poetic easy “A man and his God”. Although, there is no direct evidence that the unknown authors of the Book of Job were directly dependent upon any Babylonian literature, Job closely resembles, in both content and themes, with the “Babylonian Job” in Ludlul Bel Nemeqi, Babylonian Theodicy (a poem also known as Babylonian Ecclesiastes) and Dialogue of Pessimism (Kee, Meyers, Regerson, & Saldarini, 1997, p. 255).
As the book has come down to us, the narrative framework seems to be incomplete. The ending makes no mention of Satan, and implies that Job’s friends have already spoken – which they do in the poems but not in the narrative part (Kee, Meyers, Regerson, & Saldarini, 1997, p. 253). Close analyses of the two genres – narrative prose and poetic dialogs that make up this book – show that the name of God is different between the two parts. God is referred to as Yahweh in the prose sections and as El/Eloah/Shaddai in the poetic part (Ehrman, 2008, p. 164). Furthermore, Job’s attitude is drastically different in the two parts of the book. In the prose narration, he is a patient sufferer; in the poetic part, he is defiant and combative (Kee, Meyers, Regerson, & Saldarini, 1997, p. 253). Thus God’s response is also different towards the two Jobs: commending in the prose but rebuking in the poetry. Clearly, the two authors had different and contradictory understanding of the question of suffering (Ehrman, 2008, p. 162).
What is the moral of the story? The prose folktale suggests that God deals with us according to our merit, whereas the whole point of the poetic dialogs is that is not the case. God is neither bound to deal justly nor does God need to explain anything to us mere-mortals. Under the first perspective, suffering comes to us all as a test of our sincerity. In the second viewpoint, suffering is a mystery beyond human comprehension (Ehrman, 2008, p. 164).
Other Old Testament (OT) authors are keenly aware that innocent people suffer. The History part of the OT is replete with such examples. In David’s story alone we find Abner being murdered by Joab (2 Sam 3:22-34), Tamar being raped by her half-brother Amnon (2 Sam 13:1-22), David arranging for his most loyal general Uriah’s death (2 Sam 11:14-25). The list goes on. In face of all this, the Book of Job seems to be “an attack on the simplistic view that all suffering is deserved and that the universe is a moral universe”. The authors could have been the “wealthy, educated and philosophically sensitive Jews” who were “suffering from the post-exilic Judah” (Kee, Meyers, Regerson, & Saldarini, 1997, p. 256).
The book of Job thus offers a complex picture of God. Rather than deciding that He does not have to prove anything to Satan, God chooses to get entangled with Satan for His own glory, and takes his loyal worshiper through a most terrible and miserable ordeal. God does not even explain his role to Job. Instead, God challenges Job’s right to question the integrity of Divine Justice (40:8). In the end of this wisdom story, the ultimate question that seems to be the primary focus of the story remains unanswered: why do we suffer?
A Summary of the Story – According to the Quran
The Quranic account of Ayyub (Job) is so brief that it is hard to summarize it any further. However there are a few points that can be inferred safely.
Out of the four cursory references (4:163, 6:84, 21:83, 38:41-44*), the first two Quranic references only mention Ayyub by name among other prophets and messengers, indicating that he, too, was among the chosen and guided prophets of God, and that he was among the progeny of Noah. Besides this, not much information can be derived. The latter two references, however, deliver a bit more information. As is common with the Quran, this information needs to be unpacked very carefully and logically, without getting swayed by the known biblical account.
The third time Quran mentions Ayyub, i.e. 21:83, the story begins directly from Ayyub’s reaching out to God in supplication while in extreme distress. Ayyub’s words of prayer are quoted but without any mention of Satan, or Satanic role in bringing misery. The verse seems to be stressing Ayyub’s acknowledgment of God’s care and mercy. As a response to Ayyub’s beseeching prayer, God tells us, in the first-person speech, that He removed the distress that had overcome Ayyub, and provided him with more blessings. But also, more importantly, the lesson of the passage seems to be in the end of the verse; God informs us that this is how He showers His grace and blessing upon those who turn to Him.
In the fourth and final passage (38:41), there is an elusive reference to the “evil one” (Lit. Satan) responsible for Ayyub’s condition, but does not provide any further details. What was the exact nature of this responsibility? Elsewhere Quran categorically tells us that Satan has no power over us beyond “malicious suggestions” (e.g. 15:42, 58:10). As Maududi speculates, is it those evil-whisperings that Ayyub is referring to here? (Maududi, 1949, pp. 340, Note 42). This could be a good research question but is somewhat off the scope of our present concern. That being said, the focus of this passage also does not seem to be a theodicy. When God listens to Ayyub’s distressed supplication, instead of magically curing him, God gives him a plan-of-action; do this and you’ll get this. With God-given knowledge, Ayyub now digs up a water-fountain at the specified location and benefits by its healing power. This seems to be according to God’s pattern, commonly referred to in the Quran as the Sunnah of God. We see a similar patter, for example, in the story of Mary, mother of Jesus. During the pangs of childbirth, Mary reaches out to God in distressed supplication, and God gives her a plan-of-action; move the branches of this tree, gather the ripe dates that fall, and drink from this fountain. This seems to be the primary lesson here: God will guide us in this earthly sojourn, but it will be upon us to put our trust in God and take the appropriate action. Again, according to the standard Quranic style, God seems to be bringing this point home via a moving example.
Encountering such passing references in the Quran to a full-blown story that preexisted in the earlier scriptures and even in pre-biblical folklore, one is naturally forced to raise the question: Is it assumed that the listener/reader of the Quran has prior knowledge of the story of Job? The answer seems to be yes, because without that background information, the four scattered and brief references do not make much sense. But if a positive answer is to be accepted, the question becomes: what was the source of this story in Arabia? Which version of the story was the common Arab of 7th century familiar with? We know from the Dead Sea Scrolls (Targum of Job 11Q10[iii]: dated 150 BCE – 70 CE) that the text was somewhat different from as now known. What moral and theological conclusions did the Arabs derive from the story they knew?
Ali, in his commentary of the Quran, says the following about the comparison of the story of Job between the Biblical account and the Quranic version:
Of all the Hebrew writings, the Hebrew of this book comes nearest to Arabic. The account given in the Biblical sources and the image that it projects of Prophet Job is decidedly different from that found in the Quran and the Hadith, which present him as a prophet and a brilliant example of dignified patience becoming of a great prophet of Allah ever trustful in Him and His promises. Nothing could be further from the truth than saying that he lost his peace of mind or resorted to curses during the period of his trial. Job is the pattern of humility, patience and faith in Allah. It was with these weapons that he fought and conquered evil.
Considering 21:83, one cannot help but notice that there is no mention of the biblical wager between Satan and God to test the loyalty of Ayyub towards God. Also, the focus of this brief passage does not seem to be the philosophical “Origin of Evil” but rather instruction into profitable behavior through practical example. Here was a guy during times past just like anyone of us today, who was met with extreme distress and hardship in life, and here’s what he did that profited him. What should I do when I’m in a similar situation? That’s the question, it seems, this verse is trying to address.
But with the background knowledge of the Book of Job, it seems that the Quran is missing the whole point here. The real intellectual question is “whence evil?” not “what to do when trapped in evil”. Like Buddhist thought, is the Quran sidestepping the real question? A surface comparison with the Book of Job might suggest so, but on closer inspection, it is evident that Quran does take up the “Origin of Evil” question at other places, e.g. 2:30-39; it just does not seem to be the focus here.
Both stories, in the Bible and in the Quran, are told beautifully. Although the intellectual focus, social context and intended audience is different, both stories have played a major role in formulating understanding and evoking action of the believers in the two religious traditions.
Elsewhere, Quran presents itself as guardian, explainer and protector of the earlier scriptures (5:48, 10:37). What parts does the Quran agree with and what subtle points does the Quran correct in the story as received in the Book of Job? This seems to be a potentially fruitful question for further research.
* Ref – Job in the Quran (Ali, 2008):
We have sent thee inspiration, as We sent it to Noah and the Messengers after him: we sent inspiration to Abraham, Isma’il, Isaac, Jacob and the Tribes, to Jesus, Job, Jonah, Aaron, and solomon, and to David We gave the Psalms. (4:163)
We gave him (Abraham) Isaac and Jacob: all (three) guided: and before him, We guided Noah, and among his progeny, David, Solomon, Job, Joseph, Moses, and Aaron: thus do We reward those who do good. (6:84)
And (remember) Job, when He cried to his Lord, “Truly distress has seized me, but Thou art the Most Merciful of those that are merciful.” So We listened to him: We removed the distress that was on him, and We restored his people to him, and doubled their number,- as a Grace from Ourselves, and a thing for commemoration, for all who serve Us. (21:83-84)
Commemorate Our Servant Job. Behold he cried to his Lord: “The Evil One has afflicted me with distress and suffering!” (The command was given:) “Strike with thy foot: here is (water) wherein to wash, cool and refreshing, and (water) to drink.” And We gave him (back) his people, and doubled their number,- as a Grace from Ourselves, and a thing for commemoration, for all who have Understanding. “And take in thy hand a little grass, and strike therewith: and break not (thy oath).” Truly We found him full of patience and constancy. How excellent in Our service! ever did he turn (to Us)! (38:41-44)
Ali, A. Y. (2008). Meaning of the Holy Qur’an. Amana Pub.
Ehrman, B. D. (2008). God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question–Why We Suffer. HarperOne.
Kee, H. C., Meyers, E. M., Regerson, J., & Saldarini, A. J. (1997). The Cambridge Companion to the Bible. Cambridge University Press.
Lewis, C. S. (1964). Reflections on the Psalms. Mariner Books.
Maududi, S. A. (1949). Tafheem-ul-Quran [Urdu] Vol 4. http://www.scholaris.com/pdf/quran/038%20Surah%20Sad.pdf.
[i] Usually, this is located in Edom (Lamentations 4:21), towards the south-east of Israel. This implies that Job is not an Israelite (Ehrman, 2008, p. 164). Edom is an alias for Esau the son of Issac (Genesis 25:30).
[ii] Tradition ascribes the book to Isaiah himself, but for over a hundred years scholars have divided it into three parts: Proto-Isaiah (chapters 1-39), containing the words of the 8th century BCE prophet and 7th century BCE expansions; Deutero-Isaiah (chapters 40-55), a 6th century BCE work by an author who wrote under the Babylonian captivity; and Trito-Isaiah (chapters 56-66), composed probably by multiple authors in Jerusalem shortly after the exile. (May, Herbert G. and Bruce M. Metzger. The New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocrypha. 1977).
[iii] This small scroll found in Cave 11 has a large portion, in Aramaic, of the last seven chapters of the Book of Job. Twenty-seven small fragments deal with parts of Job 17:14 to 36:33. It represents, along with the small fragments of Leviticus and another scroll of Job also found in Cave 4, the oldest existing text of the Hebrew Bible.