How do you respond to Job 1:21?

“…the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.”

This passage is often quoted as the proper attitude pious people should assume in the face of tragedy, with the implication that all tragedy is the Lord’s doing. This teaching lands hard on the ears of parents who have had their children abducted and people who have endured a myriad of other similar tragedies.

Compatibilists often soften its harshness by saying that God “allows” tragedies such as those Job suffered for a greater good. But as Calvin and others have admitted, if God indeed ordains all things, speaking in terms of what God “allows” or “permits” is an equivocation.* Certainly if Job 1:21 is used in support of compatibilism, we must admit that the Lord himself “takes away” children when they are abducted just as he “gives” children when they are conceived.

In my estimation, this usage of Job 1:21 (as well as other compatibilistic sounding texts in Job, e.g. 14:5–6) is fundamentally misguided. The most interesting thing about the all-determinative theology that Job expresses in 1:21 and throughout his dialogues with his friends is that there is nothing to suggest that the author of Job was actually condoning this theology.

True, the narrator acknowledges the unblemished character of Job after he utters this statement (1:22), and Yahweh commends Job for speaking truth from his heart, in contrast to his friends (42:7). But this is not the same as endorsing Job’s theology.

Much of the theology that Job expresses throughout his dialogue with his “friends” is clearly not theology that the author of Job is advocating. Indeed, Job’s expressed view of God is often that of a cruel tyrant who controls everything in an arbitrary fashion. “When disaster brings sudden death,” Job exclaims,

[God] mocks at the calamity
of the innocent.
The earth is given into the hand of the wicked;
He covers the eyes of its judges—
If it is not he, who then is it? (Job 9:23–24,
cf. 21:17–26, 30–32; 24:1–12)

And again,

Why are times not kept by the Almighty?
and why do those who know him
never see his days? (Job 24:1)

From the city the dying groan,
and the throat of the wounded
cries for help;
yet God pays no attention to their prayer.
(Job 24:12)

Would anyone recommend this opinion as the proper attitude of pious people? Clearly not. Yet it is in line with Job’s sentiment that the Lord simply gives and takes away, regardless of a person’s moral stature.

Job’s depiction of God is even harsher when he considers the injustice of his own state. For example, to the Lord Job cries out,

Your hands fashioned and made me;
and now you turn and destroy me (10:8).

Bold as a lion you hunt me;
you repeat your exploits against me…
Let me alone; that I might find
a little comfort. (10:16, 20)

You have turned cruel to me;
with the might of your hand you
persecute me. (30:21)

And to his “friends” Job claims,

…God has worn me out;
he has made desolate all my company.
And he has shrivelled me up…

He has torn me in his wrath, and hated me;
he has gnashed his teeth at me;
my adversary sharpens his eyes
against me. (16:7–9, cf. 11–17)

With violence he seizes my garment;
he grasps me by the collar of
my tunic… (30:18)

Are we to believe that these are sentiments the author of this work is recommending to his readers? Doesn’t the god Job describes in these passages sound more like “a roaring lion… looking for someone to devour”—in other words, “your adversary the devil” (1 Pet. 5:8)? Far from condoning this impious theology, I submit that the point of this work is to expose its inadequacies.

When Yahweh appears at the end of this work to set the record straight, he corrects the thinking of both Job and his friends (chs 38–41). The Lord doesn’t acknowledge that he was the one behind Job’s sufferings, as Job claimed, or that he was justly punishing Job, as his “friends” claimed. Rather, God silences both Job and his “friends” by revealing how little they (or any human) know about the cosmos he has created.

They know nothing of the vastness of creation (chs. 38–39) and cannot contend with cosmic forces such as Behemoth (ch. 40) and Leviathan (ch. 41). Nor do they know anything of what transpires in the heavenly realm (chs. 1–2). In the end, the reason why suffering is meted out in what seems like an arbitrary fashion remains a mystery to humans. God does not give Job an answer. But the mystery attaches to the vastness, complexity, and warfare state of creation, not to God’s character.

This is why Job acknowledged that he “uttered what [he] did not understand” after his confrontation with God (42:3). His “friends” were wrong in reducing the complexity of creation, and therefore the mystery of evil, down to one variable: Job’s character. But Job was also wrong in reducing the complexity of creation and the mystery of evil down to one variable: God’s character. The truth is that the complexity of creation, and therefore the arbitrariness of suffering, cannot be reduced to any level that we humans can understand.

In the light of all this, I suggest that we ought not to take Job’s sentiment that “the Lord gives and the Lord takes away” (1:21) any more authoritatively than we take his sentiment that “God pays no attention to [the] prayer” of wounded victims (24:12). Job was admirably expressing the truth of his pain, but in his pain he was not consistently expressing truth. To discover the proper attitude that believers should take in the face of unjust suffering, we need to center our attention on the person and work of Christ. He never encouraged accepting evil as coming from God. Instead, he taught us to revolt against it as coming (ultimately) from Satan.

*Calvin writes, “why shall we say ‘permission’ unless God so wills?…I shall not hesitate, then, simply to confess with Augustine that ‘the will of God is the necessity of things,’ and that what he has willed will of necessity come to pass…” Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. J. T. McNeill, tran. F. L. Battles (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960) 3.23.8.

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