Does God Punish Those Who Do *Right*?

Here’s the link to this article by Bart Ehrman.

March 15, 2023

In my last post I began discussing the dialogues at the heart of the book of Job, where Job’s friends declare that hs is simply getting what he deserves because he is so sinful, and he defending himself by saying he has done nothing to deserve this.  It turns out he’s right.  But why then is he suffering.  Here is how the dialogue continues, as the “friends” intensify their attacks on his morals and Job stands firm in declaring his righteousness.


Sometimes the friends bar no holds in accusing Job, wrongly, of great sin before God, as when Eliphaz later declares:

Is it for your piety that he reproves you,

and enters into judgment with you?

Is not your wickedness great?

There is no end to your iniquities.

For you have … stripped the naked of their clothing.

You have given no water to the weary to drink,

and you have withheld bread from the hungry…

You have sent widows away empty handed,

and the arms of the orphans you have crushed.

Therefore snares are around you,

and sudden terror overwhelms you.  (22:4-7, 9-10)

That word “therefore” in the final couplet is especially important.  It is because of Job’s impious life and unjust treatment of others that he is suffering, and for no other reason.

For Job, it is this charge itself that is unjust.  He has done nothing to deserve his fate, and to maintain his personal integrity he has to insist on his own innocence.  To do otherwise would  be to lie to himself, the world, and to God.  He cannot repent of sins he has never committed and pretend that his suffering is deserved, when in fact he has done nothing wrong.  As he repeatedly tells his friends, he knows full well what sin looks like – or rather, tastes like — and he would know if he had done anything to stray from the paths of godliness:

Teach me and I will be silent;

make me understand how I have gone wrong.

How forceful are honest words!

But your reproof, what does it reprove?…

But now be pleased to look at me;

for I will not lie to your face.

Is there any wrong on my tongue?

Cannot my taste discern calamity? (6:24-25, 28, 30)

In graphic and powerful images Job insists that despite his innocence, God has lashed out at him and attacked him and ripped into his body like a savage warrior on the attack:

I was at ease, and he broke me in two;

he seized me by the neck and dashed me to pieces;

he set me up as his target;

his archers surround me.

He slashes open my kidneys, and shows no mercy;

he pours out my gall on the ground.

He bursts upon me again and again;

he rushes at me like a warrior….

My face is red with weeping,

and deep darkness is on my eyelids,

though there is no violence in my hands,

and my prayer is pure. (16:12-14, 16-17)

With violence he seizes my garment;

he grasps me by the collar of my tunic.

He has cast me into the mire,

and I have become like dust and ashes.

I cry to you and you do not answer me;

I stand, and you merely look at me.

You have turned cruel to me;

with the might of your hand you persecute me. (30:18-21)

Job constantly feels God’s terrifying presence, which he cannot escape even through sleep at night.  He pleads with God to relieve his torment, to leave him in peace just long enough to allow him to swallow:

When I say, “My bed will comfort me,

my couch will ease my complaint,”

then you scare me with dreams

and terrify me with visions,

so that I would choose strangling

and death rather than this body.

I loathe my life; I would not live forever.

Let me alone, for my days are a breath….

Will you not look away from me for a while,

Let me alone until I swallow my spittle? (7:13-16, 19)

In contrast, however, those who are wicked prosper, with nothing to fear from God:

Why do the wicked live on,

reach old age, and grow mighty in power?

Their children are established in their presence,

and their offspring before their eyes.

Their houses are safe from fear,

and no rod of God is upon them…

They sing to the tambourine and the lyre,

and rejoice to the sound of the pipe.

They spend their days in prosperity,

and in peace they go down to Sheol. (21:7-9, 12-13)

This kind of injustice might be considered fair, if there were some kind of afterlife in which the innocent were finally rewarded and the wicked punished, but for Job (as for most of the Hebrew Bible) there is no justice after death either:

As waters fail from a lake,

and a river wastes away and dries up,

so mortals lie down and do not rise again;

until the heavens are no more, they will not awake

or be roused out of their sleep. (14:11-12)

Job realizes that if he tried to present his case before the Almighty, he would not have a chance: God is simply too powerful.  But that doesn’t change the situation: Job is in fact innocent, and he knows it:

God will not turn back his anger…

How then can I answer him,

choosing my words with him?

Though I am innocent, I cannot answer him;

I must appeal for mercy to my accuser.

If I summoned him and he answered me,

I do not believe that he would listen to my voice.

For he crushes me with a tempest,

and multiplies my wounds without cause…

If it is a contest of strength, he is the strong one!

If it is a matter of justice, who can summon him?

Though I am innocent, my own mouth would condemn me;

though I am blameless, he would prove me perverse. (9:13-20)

In this, Job is prescient.  For at the end of the poetic dialogues God does appear before Job – who is innocent and blameless – and cows him into submission by his fearful presence as the Almighty Creator of all.  Still, though, Job insists on presenting his case before God, insisting on his own righteousness and his right to declare his innocence: “[M]y lips will not speak falsehood; … until I die I will not put away my integrity from me” (27:3-4).  He is sure that God must agree, if only he could find him to present his case:

Oh that I knew where I might find him,

that I might come even to his dwelling!

I would lay my case before him,

and fill my mouth with arguments.

I would learn what he would answer me,

and understand what he would say to me.

Would he contend with me in the greatness of his power?

No; but he would give heed to me.

There an upright person could reason with him,

and I should be acquitted forever by my judge. (23:3-7)

Would that it were so.  But unfortunately, Job’s earlier claims turn out instead to be true.  God doesn’t listen to the pleas of the innocent; he overpowers them by his almighty presence.  Still, at the end of the dialogues Job throws down the gauntlet and demands a divine audience:

O that I had one to hear me!

(Here is my signature! Let the Almighty answer me!)

O that I had the indictment written by my adversary!

Surely I would carry it on my shoulder;

I would bind it on me like a crown;

I would give him an account of all my steps;

like a prince I would approach him.” (31:35-37)

This final demand receives a divine response.  But not before another “friend” appears to state still more forcefully the “prophetic” case against Job, that he is being punished for his sins.  Elihu son of Barachel appears out of nowhere and enters into the discussion, delivering a speech that separates Job’s demand for a divine audience and the appearance of God himself on the scene.  In this speech Elihu rebukes Job in harsh terms and exalts God’s goodness in punishing the wicked and rewarding the righteous.

My next and final post on Job will discuss the denouement of these back-and-forths, one of the most stunning passages of the entire Bible.

Author: Richard L. Fricks

Former CPA, attorney, and lifelong wanderer. I'm now a full-time skeptic and part-time novelist. The rest of my time I spend biking, gardening, meditating, photographing, reading, writing, and encouraging others to adopt The Pencil Driven Life.

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