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Fall 1996 · Vol. 25 No. 2 · pp. 44–53 

Job's Thirst for Righteousness: A Parable of Post Modernism

Randy Klassen


The Book of Job stands as a parable for the post modern age. Job faced an existential crisis which evoked the cry, “Is there a god I can trust? Speak to me!” Job’s crisis was brought on by loss. Our crisis is brought on more by active evil and the accompanying loss of meaning and purpose.

How long, O Lord?... Maranatha!

The issue of moral character is central to the story of Job: What does it mean to be in relationship with God? Where and how does one find God when everything swirls in confusion and uncertainty? The book of Job is the Old Testament functional equivalent of philosophical discourse: it pushes all conditions to the extreme, reduces the issue to its bare essentials, pursues arguments to their limits.

The story begins with Job depicted as the epitome of the righteous man: “upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil” (1:1). His faith is pure human faith—not bounded or elevated by the covenantal relationship with Israel. He is morally pure, living with a clean conscience before God and in his community. He blesses and is blessed. He is the epitome of ancient Hebrew {45} morality, the way of “goodness,” zedeq. 1

Job’s material wealth, his family, and his concern for the ritual and moral purity of his whole household (1:2-5) add to this picture of moral nobility. Job recalls his record of exemplary service in the civic affairs:

... I delivered the poor who cried,
and the orphan who had no helper.

The blessing of the wretched came upon me,
and I caused the widow’s heart to sing for joy.

I was eyes to the blind,
and feet to the lame.

I was a father to the needy,
and I championed the cause of the stranger.
(29:12-13, 15-16) 2

Job’s righteous behavior was also directed toward those whose behavior brought on such oppression. He engaged the systems which created and perpetuated social injustice. Directly and personally he confronted the evil which reduced the quality of life for the underprivileged:

I broke the fangs of the unrighteous,
and made them drop their prey from their teeth. (29:17)

Such a righteous person is rare. God himself points him out to the Adversary (satan) with parental pride: “There is no one like him on the earth” (1:8). It is therefore not surprising that Job becomes a test for the divine morality. Satan, reluctant to charge God directly, asks the loaded question, “Does Job fear God for nothing?” Can people conceive of right living as being its own reward? Satan insinuates that God has stacked the deck in his favor, implying that God’s righteousness is not as noble or great as it is made out to be. The ordeal he proposes will test the character of God’s zedeq. Will this finest specimen of God’s handiwork prove the integrity of both Creator and creature? The one thing which God has no control over, the thing which God must invite, is a response out of free will. Without that Job’s righteousness is nothing. 3

It remains for the three friends to raise the topic, righteousness (zedeq) specifically. They represent the wisdom of received tradition, dogma and convictions. They are not always right, nor are they always wrong. They present a naive morality, which when reduced to its bare essentials, reveals inherent and tragic flaws.



Eliphaz inntroduces us to the word “righteousness.” The thought is too weighty for mere humans to create. In dramatic form Eliphaz describes how he received it in a vision:

Can mortals be righteous before God?
Can human beings be pure before their Maker? (4:17)

Rather than expecting a “yes” or “no” answer, the force of the Hebrew can be captured in the paraphrase: “What?! Mortals righteous before God? Human beings pure before their Creator? Surely not!” This pessimistic vision undercuts every basis for hope in Job’s present experience, and even invalidates his previous life as one “blameless and upright.”

The apparition explains that God does not even trust his celestial (angelic) servants. How much less, then, are creatures of dust able to relate to God? The reality of human frailty, Eliphaz argues, should lead us to conclude that mortals cannot be right with God. This argument is rooted in the assumption that only perfection can relate to the perfect God.

The assumption is false. It fails to recognize that God’s zedeq is a giving righteousness, not one that exacts its due. God knows the frailty of his creatures, and addresses them with mercy, love, rescue, and salvation.

The ghost of Eliphaz’s vision asks the right question, but rules out the possibility of humans being truly right with God. Repeatedly and in different ways, Job and his friends return to the question:

Can mortals be righteous before God?
Can human beings be pure before their Maker?
(4:17;cf. 9:2; 15:14; 25:4; 35:3)

The debate involves a distinction between two Hebrew prepositions used in these verses to depict the relationship between God and mortals. The one (min) emphasizes divine transcendence (4:17), the other (‘im) divine immanence (9:2). The wording of the question as asked by Eliphaz distances God from the one who is seeking a right relationship with him. Eliphaz’s theology puts God out of reach. Job, on the other hand, speaks of a relationship ‘im God, a relationship of “fellowship and companionship”. 4 God remains within reach.

Job argues that God is simply greater than human beings. The barrier to communication with God lies not in inherent human flaws but in God’s strength and a power which make his ways mysterious and overwhelming. Here is the reason for Job’s despair. He desires to address God directly, personally, yet sees little hope for open conversation (9:16,17).


Job envisions only one way out of his moral predicament: God would need to submit himself to a court of law. Presumably, if God oversees the righteousness of human judgement, God must also be bound by the same rules of morality. And so Job begins a process of calling God to trial (see 13:13-19), since he is confident that a fair trial would establish his innocence and integrity.

But is he?

And how can one, even one such as God, act as both accused and judge? In calling God to trial, Job is setting up a win/lose situation; one party must be declared “in the right” (righteous), and the other “in the wrong” (wicked). But this leads to theological madness. For Job knows that he himself is in the right. God, the guarantor of righteousness, the hope of the oppressed, must as a result of this court case be declared in the wrong. The inconsistency is inconceivable to Job, as it is blasphemous to his friends (15:4-6, 13). In response Eliphaz parodies Psalm 8:4 in a pessimistic evaluation of the goodness of creation and human nature (9:15b-16).

Bildad echoes Eliphaz: if celestial creatures (Eliphaz refers to the angelic, Bildad to the visible) are not pure in God’s sight, how can human beings, who are “maggots” and “worms” (25:5-6)! Their all-pervading pessimism denies goodness in nature, human or otherwise. This undercuts any possibility of discussion with Job, for he is convinced of his former life as one “blameless and upright,” and he will hold fast to that conviction.

Elihu steps on stage when Job’s three friends have exhausted their arguments and his patience. Elihu is angry with Job because he “justified (zadqô) himself rather than God” (32:2; 35:4). This god must be the god of the friends’ scathing dogmatism. Their god is predictable (and increasingly vindictive) in his retribution. The righteousness of Job is indeed greater than the righteousness of such a god.

Elihu uses the z.d.q word family frequently and prominently. The intent of Elihu’s speech is to find redeeming (not retributive) value in Job’s present suffering. In the process he makes a distinction between divine and human righteousness. The noun spelled zedeq refers to the righteousness from above, directly worked by God; the noun spelled zedâqâh denotes a righteousness from below, one worked out in human relationship. 5 Elihu accuses Job of claiming zedeq, using the more elevated and, in the context more elusive and accusing, term (35:2). Elihu himself will only ascribe zedeq directly to God (36:3). But the righteousness in question (as also wickedness) is a distinctly human affair.

If you [Job] have sinned,
what do you accomplish against [God]?


And if your transgressions are multiplied,
what do you do to him?

If you are righteous, what do you give to him;
or what does he receive from your hand?

Your wickedness affects others like you,
and your righteousness (zedâqâh), other human beings. (35:6-8)

Elihu’s words have the same effect as the arguments of Eliphaz and Bildad: they remove God’s righteousness from the human scene. But where the friends saw only a gulf between God’s rightness and the rightness of the rest of creation, Elihu contends that bird and beast have a positive relationship to God and to humanity in that they are “taught” by God (12:7-8). God is larger than the human world of morality. Elihu contends that in calling God to trial Job falsely assumed that human righteousness is the standard of judgement.

Finally God himself storms into the conversation. He summons creation as his witness in a dizzying pageant of natural phenomena, of flora and fauna. They display the order by which God directs their existence.

How is this spectacle an “answer” (38:1, 40:6) to Job? First, it is an answer in that the Lord chooses to respond to Job. Job will not determine the nature of the trial, God faces his accuser directly. God has responded to Job’s plea for a hearing and a answer.

The symbolism of “answering” is potent. It arises out of the importance of the spoken word, a fundamental reality in the OT world-view. 6 If language in general is the primary vehicle of being, then “response, answer” is the vehicle of relationship. To receive an answer from God is a sign of being in a right relationship with God: when I was “a just and blameless man,” says Job, “I called upon God and he answered me” (12:4). For one who is a close friend of God, such a relationship is reciprocal. Job, yearning for his restoration, says “You [God] would call, and I would answer you” (14:15; cf. 19:7; 23:3-5; 30:20).

Answering gives the other dignity. It acknowledges the other’s presence and concerns. An answer (Antwort) presupposes an active engagement with a previous statement or situation (Wort). Thus Elihu was angry with the friends for condemning Job without “answering” him, without truly meeting him in his own experience (32:3). 7 Now, the Lord himself answered Job. This is the recognition which Job had demanded. The bare event of God’s speaking with Job is itself an indication that the ordeal is coming to an end.

The second way in which the Lord’s words are an “answer” to Job lies in the actual content of the response. Image after dazzling image illuminates the truth that God is larger than the human world of morality. These visions of “life, the universe, and everything” are bewildering—but true. While the {49} grandeur of it all may confound the modern reader, the response to Job’s question is clear: humanly-perceived morality is not the final arbiter of righteousness.

There is a uniquely human view of reality, which carries the burden of moral urgency. 8 This is appropriate and right for humanity. It was Job’s way of life as a zaddîq, one who lives rightly before God and in community. God’s morality is based not on urgency, but on eternity. 9 It transcends (and often baffles) human morality. Such wisdom cannnot be comprehended by mortal minds. The Lord’s answer creates an acute awareness of the differences between the divine wisdom and its human approximation.

Human righteousness must include morality, but the larger question of righteousness is a question of relationship. Job, in his final confession, admits:

I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear,
but now my eye sees you. (42:5)

The ear denotes secondhand knowledge. It stands for received tradition. The eye represents a direct witness. It stands for firsthand experience. The “answer” was so vivid that it was something “seen.” 10 This insight represents the restoration of relationship which Job knew was appropriate for one “blameless and upright.” Here, then, in visible form is Job’s vindication, the declaration which said that he was in the right.

Job had created a dilemma, by invoking the mechanism of a legal trial. The Lord confronted this matter directly. Job’s trial could not be held, for it presumed that God’s actions could be judged on the basis of human morality. The Lord challenges Job:

Will you put even me in the wrong?
Will you condemn me that you may be justified? (40:8)

Even this act is an act of grace, which displays something of the Creator’s righteous dealings with his creatures. The Lord challenges only the legal basis for declaring Job innocent, not the larger question of Job’s integrity throughout his ordeal. This allows Job to retreat from his double-bind situation with a minimum of humiliation. God will not permit himself to be judged in the wrong; but he does not mete out a harsh justice to those who (wrongly) charged him thus. Even in the form of the rebuke, the Lord is gracious: the rhetorical question reproves with gentleness.

The story of Job concludes with his restoration. His public vindication occurs in that God instructs him to intercede on behalf of his friends. God’s {50} self-appointed defenders receive atonement, while Job himself is elevated to a position of mediation between the friends and God. This action demonstrates God’s righteous behavior to all parties. This was God’s way of declaring that Job was in the right.

Job, for his part, continues in right relationship, shown in his willingness to intercede for the friends who vilified him. The restoration of his family and wealth is not a “reward” for Job’s perseverance. God’s righteousness is distributive, not retributive. Job never deserved these added blessings, but accepted them with the same dignity with which he received the news of tragedy at the beginning.


Relativism and Revelation

Job’s thirst for God ultimately needed a word from God. Job, his friends, and Elihu had reached an impasse. Their conflicting versions of reality could not resolve the existential crisis that engulfed Job. Job called to God, and God broke through the impasse. Unless God speaks into our confusion, there is no way out of total relativism of morality, culture, or philosophy. Unless God speaks a word into our world, humankind will remain in relative darkness. God’s truth illuminates the chaos of our broken world. Without the anchoring doctrine of divine revelation, the Christian community will not be able to weather, let alone minister to, a post modern world. The story of Job encourages us to maintain that there is a Center that holds. There is a Unity that transcends human constructs of reality, a Unity that speaks and responds; above all, a Unity (“hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one...”) who has revealed himself in the person of Jesus Christ (Col 1.17).

Righteousness and Relationship

“Righteousness,” as it is used in the O.T., is a relational term. It describes behavior appropriate to a given relationship. Righteousness arises more out of personhood than principle. The kind of relationship determines what is right for a given context. Job clearly illustrates the nature of righteous living, in several different contexts: For the wealthy and the prestigious, the “haves” of society, it means to take special care of the “have-nots.” 11 For those who are oppressed by inexplicable situations of evil or chaos, who cannot understand why they have lost everything, or never had anything to begin with, it means to examine one’s life, to cling tenaciously to one’s integrity, and to continue in passionate dialogue with the Lord of one’s life. For those who have suffered and are restored or elevated to new dignity, it means to continue to work for the atonement of all, friend or enemy. Job’s final example of gracious intercession is perhaps the hardest of all to follow.


Optimism or Pessimism Towards God as Creator

The Book of Job, as we maintained, is not really about the question of unjust suffering. It is about the relationship between God and humanity. The question of “unjust suffering” implies that suffering must fit into a moral scheme, that suffering is either just or unjust. The fallacy of Job’s friends was that suffering is always just. Their conviction of the retributive force of God’s righteousness was directly proportional to their pessimism regarding the possibility of goodness in God’s creation, whether of cosmic or human nature. Is there a connection? It seems so. The greater the gulf, moral or ontological, between Creator and creature, the easier it is to assume that the creature is not worth rescuing or relating to. The unspoken assumption is that clouds provide a lofty and inspiring sight (see 35:5); maggots and worms, on the other hand, feed on the rot of the earth, the marks of scourge and scum. Why bother engaging them in a relationship? They must somehow deserve the lowly station in which they are found. And thus the idea of retribution is propagated.

The trajectory of this insight takes us to the current sensitivity towards environmental concerns. This is a major marker of our present cultural paradigm shifts. Job’s insight challenges us to seize the day in proclaiming the goodness of God’s creation. The constancy and finely tuned balance of the cosmos, and our earthly biosphere in particular, is the original evidence of God’s rightness. In pointing to this reality, we might lay the groundwork for a more thoroughly biblical understanding of God’s righteousness as blessing, not retribution.

Divine and Human Morality

The message of the book which brings us to fear God, both in trembling and adoration, is the realization that God is greater than human morality. Perhaps there is no better summary than in C.S. Lewis’s famous words about the Christ-figure of Aslan: “Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. but he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.” 12

Job’s God is not a “safe” deity. But he remains God. He deals righteously, but in a mode different from our own human notions of morality. Our conscience is our only possibility for maintaining our own integrity in the face of an apparently hostile God. But our conscience is a double-edged sword. Ever since we ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, our sense of morality has been blessing-and-curse. Admittedly, with it we have at least partially “become like God.” We are able to live with moral sensitivity. But we are also predisposed to despise that same sensitivity, to sear it, to pervert it and turn it towards greater and greater evil. And since we have not yet eaten from the tree of life, we are forced to bear the burden of an {52} urgent morality, cut off from the perspective of eternity. We are condemned to seek moral solutions within the limitations of our human world-views. This burden, as Job discovered, allows us to follow the dead-end trail of questioning God’s rightness towards us, of putting his righteousness on trial.

While the metaphor [of divine trial] provides the vehicle for the hero to challenge and confront God as the apparent administrator of justice in the earth, the answer of God throws into question that same metaphor as a serious vehicle for relating to God. The human tendency to find necessary laws by which to comprehend God’s ways or control his favor is revealed to be foolish. 13

A Right Response to “Unjust” Suffering

Job’s friends stood by their conviction that Job’s suffering was just. Job maintained that his suffering was unjust, and he demanded a fair hearing from God. Elihu attempted to create a third category for suffering. He viewed the fruits of suffering, rather than its roots. Thus, suffering might become a vehicle of divine revelation (33:14-15, 19). This is helpful, but it is not the heart of the work. The truth is that suffering often has neither cause nor result worthy of the pain itself. Some suffering cannot be justified. Yet there is always the possibility that the sufferer be justified: be placed in a right relationship with God. This is a relationship which cries out, which continually cries out for an answer. Sometimes the Lord will answer. But the faithfulness and integrity of the righteous person is ultimately measured, not by the quality (or timing) of the Lord’s answer, but by the perseverance of this cry. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness . . . .”

It is hardly a coincidence that the joyous cry of the earliest Christians, maranatha “Come, Lord!”, is the mirror image of that most profound word of Hebrew lament: “How long, O Lord?” The persistence of the cry from the depths is the sign of faithfulness to one’s relationship with God. It is the last mark, when nothing else is left, that the sufferer can remain “in the right” with God.



  1. See Gerhard von Rad. Wisdom in Israel. London: SCM, 1972, p. 75, n. 2.
  2. Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version.
  3. See Archibald MacLeish. “God Has Need of Man,” in N. Glatzer, The Dimensions of Job. New York: Schocken, 1969, p. 285.
  4. Bruce K. Waltke and Michael P. O’Connor. An Introduction to Biblical Hebrew Syntax. Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 1990, 11.2.14b.
  5. See G.A.F. Knight. “Is ‘Righteous’ Right?” Scottish Journal of Theology 41 (1988).
  6. Robert Alter. The Art of Biblical Narrative. New York: Basic Books, 1981, pp. 69-70.
  7. See von Rad, p. 222.
  8. Stuart Lasine. “Bird’s-Eye and Worm’s-Eye View of Justice in the Book of Job,” JSOT 42 (1988): 30.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Stephen Mitchell. The Book of Job. Berkeley: North Point Press, 1987, p. xx.
  11. See, for example, Walter Brueggemann’s analysis, “Theodicy in a Social Dimension,” JSOT 33 (1985): 3-25.
  12. C.S. Lewis. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Middlesex, Eng: Penguin, 1950, p. 75.
  13. Norman Habel. The Book of Job. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1985, p. 57.
Randy Klassen studied under Elmer Martens at the Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary, Fresno, California, and is currently associate pastor at the Coaldale Mennonite Brethren Church in Coaldale, Alberta.

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