On Jung’s “Answer to Job.”

“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?  Tell me, if you have understanding.

Who determined its measurements—surely you know!” (Job 38:4-5).[1]

I have some serious reservations about the book of Job.  Not the kind of reservations that keep me up at night, but the kind that cause me to squint whenever someone recites the story to me in order to illustrate the incomprehensible mystery of God’s ways and the folly of attempting to understand the divine will.

Whenever I’m given this sort of gloss on Job, I resist it, because the upshot is inevitably, “You’ve got to accept injustice because, really, it’s for a purpose you can’t understand.”  Some people can accept this.  I can’t.  It seems to me that there’s something there that needs dealing with.  I’ve come back to Job periodically in my studies and in conversations, but I’d yet to encounter anything that really challenged the traditional interpretation of the text; all of the commentary I’d come across seemed to merely be trying to provide a new spin on the same old argument.  It was all the same to me—it was neither provocative nor enlightening.  Until recently, that is.  Sometimes it’s easy to forget that when you’re interpreting a text, you’re not doing it in a vacuum; you’re working from within a paradigm.  And paradigms can change.

I re-discovered Job not too long ago by reading it from within two different paradigms—Jungian and Kantian—which fundamentally altered my understanding of what the book could mean and what it could be saying about the nature of God.  (So that there’s no mistake, I want to make it clear from the outset that this isn’t an attempt to proselytize.  I’m going to be exploring philosophical interpretations of a text which happens to be religious.  I’m intentionally abstaining from endorsing anything apart from having an open mind.)

Sometimes, looking at something from a new perspective, one incommensurate with any others you’d previously considered, can change your life.  Even if you don’t necessarily adopt the perspective as your own, being able to understand it can be a catalyst for growth and understanding, for change.


That’s what this all comes down to.

But I don’t want to get too ahead of myself.  Before we really get started wrestling with this text, what we need is a barebones refresher of what happened to Job, to make sure we’re on the same page.  So, here goes:

“Job…[was] blameless and upright, [he] feared God and turned away from evil” (1:1).  He had ten children and many animals and servants (1:3).  And he lost it all.  God essentially took it from him.  God took everything upright Job had, and he did it on a wager.[2]

Job begins with God effectively bragging to Satan about Job’s goodness, to which Satan replied: “Does Job fear God for nothing?…You have blessed the work of his hands…But stretch out your hand now and touch [i.e., take from him] all that he has and he will curse you to your face” (1:9-11).  “Very well,” God says—“[A]ll that he has is in your power[,] only do not stretch out your hand against him” (1:12).

Satan sent nomads to kill some of Job’s animals and servants (1:13-15).  He burnt others (1:16).  He sent a wind to collapse a house on Job’s children, killing them (1:18-19).  But Job didn’t break.  “[T]ouch his bone and his flesh,” the accuser, Satan, said to God, “and he will curse you to your face” (2:4-6).  “Very well,” God said.  “[O]nly spare his life” (2:6).  Satan inflicted sores on Job from head to toe (2:7).  And even though Job’s wife commanded him to “Curse God, and die” (2:10), he still stood firm in his righteousness.

Job’s friends told him that his suffering was deserved for some inscrutable reason (e.g., “[Y]ou say, ‘My conduct is pure…’ But O that God would speak and open his lips to you…Know then that God exacts of you less than your guilt deserves” (11:4-6)).   To which, Job eventually replied, “[H]e will kill me; I have no hope; but I will defend my ways to his face…I know that I shall be vindicated” (13:15-18).  “[M]y lips will not speak falsehood…until I die,” he later said, “I will not put away my integrity from me.  I hold fast my righteousness and will not let it go; my heart does not reproach me for any of my days” (27:4-6).

And finally, without further ado, God responded: “Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me.  Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?  Tell me, if you have understanding.  Who determined its measurements—surely you know! [38:1-5]…Have you an arm like God, and can you thunder with a voice like his?” (40:8-9).  Subjected to the full force of God’s might, Job finally relents; he admits that, in questioning the justness of God’s treatment of him, “I have uttered what I did not understand…I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes” (42:3-6).  God is apparently satisfied with Job’s repentance.  And Job’s friends, who spoke wrongly of Job by blaming him for his misfortunes when he was blameless, God instructed them to make various sacrifices; and then he rewarded Job by restoring Job’s fortunes twofold.

The editors of The New Oxford Annotated Bible note that “the meaning and significance of the divine speeches continue to be among the most debated issues in the book.  Some interpret the speeches as a repudiation of a human’s right to question God.  Others understand them as a necessary correction of Job’s too limited understanding of the nature of the cosmos as a place where all suffering can be reduced to legal categories of guilt or innocence” (Coogan, et al. 727).  These two interpretations seem to me to really be two sides to the same coin: because our human understanding of the cosmos is limited, we have no right to question God.[3]  However, whichever interpretation you choose, the story still seems to be problematic.  Job first gives us glimpses of divine arbitrariness—God ruins Job’s life because of a bet??—and then, when Job bemoans the lack of divine justice he’s been shown, God replies, essentially, that Job had no right to inquire into things he couldn’t possibly understand, being a creature of such limited comprehension and power.  Yet, after Job relents, after he admits that he did not understand, after he acknowledges God’s power, God rewards Job for the very same thing he had just given Job a thorough dressing down for, i.e., for taking God to task for being unjust; this is illustrated when God said, to Job’s so-called friends, “My wrath is kindled against you…for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has” (42:7).[4]

What kind of sense does that make?  What kind of picture of God does this paint? It seems to me, at first blush, to paint a portrait of an unjust, petty, gloating, and inconsistent deity.  But surely there’s got to be something here, some better explanation than a variation on the traditional “God tested Job, and Job complained without understanding the mystery of God’s ways” interpretation.  I say this because even though Job is not privy to God’s rationale, we readers are—and what we’ve seen isn’t pretty. (We’ll recall that Job’s plight resulted from a wager.)

A “theodicy,” loosely defined, is an attempt to understand or explain God’s logic when it seems like what we think we know about God, as a just and benevolent deity, is irreconcilable with what we know to be the case about the way the world works.  A theodicy, for example, would attempt to answer the question of why a benevolent God allows bad things to happen to good people, or how a loving God could possibly have created hell as a punishment for the transgressions of creatures he purports to love.

In his essay, “On the Miscarriage of All Philosophical Trials in Theodicy,” Immanuel Kant describes two different types of theodicy: doctrinal and authentic theodicies.[5]  A doctrinal theodicy is an attempt to understand God’s will by looking at divine revelation (i.e., religious texts) in conjunction with the events occurring in the world; an authentic theodicy is an attempt to interpret God’s will through the use of reason alone.  Kant, of course, endorses the authentic theodicy, and he uses the book of Job to elucidate what an authentic theodicy would look like.

We’ll recall that when Satan inflicted various misfortunes on Job, Job’s friends attempted to explain Job’s seemingly unjust suffering; Kant’s take on this is as follows: “Job’s friends declare themselves for that system which explains all ills in the world from God’s justice…although they could name [no crimes] for which [Job] is guilty; yet they believed they could judge…that he must have some weighing upon him, for his misfortune would otherwise be impossible according to divine justice” (25).  Kant points out that Job’s friends in fact had none of the knowledge they purported to—they had no idea why Job was being punished, but they figured, based on what they thought they knew about God based on religious texts (e.g., that he is just), God must be punishing Job for a good reason, thus Job must have done something to deserve it.  This, Kant said, was a doctrinal theodicy.  In contrast, Job made use of reason, the same reason “through which we form our concept of God…as a moral and wise being,” to determine that he really was being treated unjustly (ibid.); and if God is moral (i.e., just), then Job was right to demand an explanation for this conflict.   This, Kant said, was Job engaging in an authentic theodicy (ibid.).

We know that God ultimately rebuked Job for attempting to demand answers to matters that are necessarily inscrutable to us, being the lower beings we are.  However, under Kant’s interpretation, God perceived Job’s challenges to be honest (albeit unwise), in contrast to Job’s friends, who appeared to God to be dogmatic and pretentious (ibid.).  In other words: “[O]nly sincerity of heart…honesty in openly admitting one’s doubts; repugnance to pretending conviction where one feels none…these are the attributes which, in the person of Job, have decided the preeminence of the honest man over the religious flatterer in the divine verdict”  (ibid., 26).  Job says, “Till I die I will not remove mine integrity from me…” (27:5-6); Kant finds Job’s stubbornness to be a sign of Job’s commitment to justice, and to the moral order, even if it brings him into direct conflict with his faith, i.e., with God.  Kant contends that Job, in subordinating his faith to his morality, exemplified a faith which “is of a pure and true kind, i.e. the kind of faith that founds not a religion of supplication, but a religion of good life conduct” (Kant 26).  So, according to Kant, Job’s faith in God was founded on morality, as discerned through reason, rather than his morality being the byproduct of his faith.  And God found this pleasing.

In the end, Kant’s thesis was that our theodicies should not attempt to provide ad hoc solutions to the problems we see in the world; we shouldn’t alter our notions of what is just and unjust because we assume that the world operates in a just way.  That is using reason to rationalize away difficulties rather than using reason to honestly confront them.  Though God’s motivations for punishing (or testing) Job were inscrutable, God much rather preferred Job to honestly and sincerely engage with the justness of God’s actions, rather than have Job’s friends insincerely toe the doctrinal line by asserting that what happened to Job must be right merely because God did it (or explicitly endorsed it).

Kant’s interpretation encourages us to use our reason at all cost, even if it brings us into conflict with our faith.[6]  In fact, Kant said, God is pleased when we interpret his will through the use of reason.  This is evinced when God rewards Job but not Job’s friends.  Still, Kant’s exegesis of Job leaves me cold because we’ve still got no reconciliation of two antithetical ideas, i.e., that God values justice, yet he allowed Job’s life to be destroyed, not on account of any wrong conduct on Job’s part, but merely to prove to Satan that Job was loyal.  Kant takes us a long way toward accepting that there is something, not inscrutable, but flat out unjust about the way God treated Job.  But we still don’t understand how God could act unjustly (by punishing Job for no reason other than to test him) and then purport to value justice (by rewarding Job in the end for speaking rightly). Kant didn’t resolve this tension; but that wasn’t his project.

Carl Jung took the premise that God was clearly unjust and he ran with it.  By the time the book of Job was written, Jung said, there were “already[] many testimonies which had given a contradictory picture…of a God who knew no moderation in his emotions and suffered precisely from this lack of moderation.”[7]

“Insight existed along with obtuseness, loving-kindness along with cruelty, creative power along with destructiveness.  Everything was there…Such a condition is only conceivable either when no reflecting consciousness is present at all or when the capacity for reflection is very feeble and a more or less adventitious phenomenon.  A condition of this sort can only be described as amoral” (ibid.).

Jung said that it was clear from various Hebrew texts that God made “pressing demands” that his people placate him “at any price” (573).  Jung said this revealed God to be a personality which needed to affirm its existence in relation to an object, which suggests that God has a lack of self-reflection: “It is as if he existed only by reason of the fact that he has an object which assures him that he is really there” (574).  In other words, God created people in order for them to be conscious of him so that he might have some affirmation that he exists.  That is why God needs man and why, when his “assembly…stop[s] the applause[, there is] a state of high excitation, with outbursts of blind destructive rage, then a withdrawal into hellish loneliness and the torture of non-existence, followed by a gradual reawakening of an unutterable longing…” (575).

Kant posited that while God, at the end of Job, was displeased at Job’s attitude, he was ultimately satisfied with Job’s fixation on justice; Kant did not reach the issue of inconsistency on God’s part.  In contrast, Jung suggested that God, in later rewarding Job and acknowledging that Job spoke rightly to him, performed an about-face, a complete 180; Jung said that God indirectly acknowledged that he was wrong: “Yahweh raises himself above his earlier primitive level of consciousness by indirectly acknowledging that the man Job is morally superior to him and that therefore he has to catch up…Had he not taken this decision he would have found himself in flagrant opposition to his omniscience” (640).  (To put it another way: God should have known that he was treating Job unjustly; but God didn’t, which is why he took issue with Job questioning him.  A lack of knowledge or insight is clearly at odds with omniscience.  Therefore, God was wrong, and if God was to preserve his omniscience, he had to correct course, and admit that Job was right.)

The upshot of God’s epiphany, Jung said, is that, to balance the cosmic scale, viz., to right the wrong God committed by allowing Job’s life to be ruined, God must become human to atone for his behavior—which he does by becoming human and subjecting himself to the same kind of brutal treatment he effectively inflicted on Job (640).  Jung thus situates Job as a crucial point which marks the change between the god of the Hebrew Bible and the god of the New Testament.

Jung’s interpretation of the book of Job thus sets the stage for a radical reinterpretation of God’s nature.[8]  In Jung’s eyes, God is a being which created because he had needs; he needed to be seen and acknowledged in order to affirm his existence.  But despite his omniscience, God is not perfect; he had obscured from himself certain things (e.g., the nature of justice) which he only revealed to himself later through acting unjustly and being taken to task for it by one of his creations.

I began this essay by explaining that a theodicy is a way of reconciling the troubling things we see in the world with the divine characteristics of God—it seems to me that, though Jung was certainly trying to present a consistent image of God, what he’s given us is no theodicy—Jung was not working with a concrete and immutable conception of God, whose justness needs to be reconciled with the injustices Job suffered; rather, Jung was re-defining God’s very nature based on the evidence in the texts.   Jung was suggesting that we take a step back from what we think we know about God and consider alternatives—maybe God is omniscient and infinite and omnipotent…But that doesn’t mean he’s always just, or is always making use of his omniscience, or that he doesn’t get caught up in the moment without considering the bigger picture.  It’s an idea that makes some sense to me intuitively.  After all, why is it, exactly, that God needs to be flawless?[9]

Jung was apparently given a lot of grief for his Answer to Job; but writing and publishing it was an act of courage.[10]  I find some comfort in the idea that God is an imperfect entity that can change, can evolve, that cares enough to recognize that he’s got some things wrong, and wants to work to make it better.  In my eyes, that’s just about the most we can expect of human beings when they’re at their best.  And if God has got some of our failings, so be it; what matters is that he’s got our best qualities too, and in the end, in his case, the righteous qualities win out.[11]  I wish I could say the same for humanity.

Kant said that no one is above justice.  Not even God.  I buy that.  Jung, taking things a step further, suggested that God had been unjust.  And because no one is above justice, God, if he was to evolve as an entity—the way we all strive to, or should strive to—he needed to recognize that he’d made a mistake.  And he needed to fix it.  In Jung’s view, he has.

Jung took the book of Job and managed to use it as a springboard to reconcile the paradoxical presentations of God in the Judeo-Christian tradition, and he also managed to give a plausible reason for the fact that we exist at all.  The price of admission, however, is that we sacrifice the idea that God is flawless.

If we acknowledge God’s imperfection, yet innate goodness, we’ve freed up a lot more theological avenues to explore.  And if we’re able to at least consider such unconsidered possibilities, we can open up whole new worlds; and we might just find one worth living in.


[1] The Scripture quotations contained herein are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A., and are used by permission.  All rights reserved.

[2] Biblical scholars believe the book of Job was composed sometime between the seventh and fourth centuries BCE.  The beginning and end of the book are written, conspicuously, in prose, in contrast to the rest of the book, which is written in verse; there are also some stylistic inconsistencies in the various speeches characters give.  These quirks have a variety of possible explanations: multiple authors; one author, multiple sources; one author whose work underwent significant editing; etc.  (Coogan, Michael, et al., “Job.” The New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocrypha. 3rd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 726.)

Job is going to be treated here as a unified and cohesive text because that is the traditional way that it has been approached—and, frankly, if we’re willing to chop off the prose framing device (i.e., the beginning and end of the book) and make some other adjustments, many of our difficulties will dissipate.  However, the real challenge to me is resolving the paradoxes in the book, not cutting them out because they may have been added later, possibly by someone else.

[3] The two interpretations are not necessarily inextricably linked; it’s possible that we have no right to question God irrespective of our capacity for understanding, because, e.g., God is more powerful than us.  This “might makes right” interpretation presents its own difficulties, of course.

[4] As Coogan, et al. put it, “Job is judged…to have spoken ignorantly about God, yet he is judged here to have spoken correctly about God; Job was right about his innocence and the fact that his suffering came from God” (773, n. 42.7-9).

[5] Kant, Immanuel, “On the Miscarriage of All Philosophical Trials in Theodicy.” Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason. Trans. Wood, Allen and Di Giovanni, George. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 24.

[6] For Kant, conflict is not necessarily a bad thing, because, as he is well aware, some conflicts cannot be resolved—particularly because they are beyond our comprehension; these are good conflicts, Kant says, because the only authentic and intellectually honest thing to do such disputes is admit that we’re necessarily ignorant about some things and to accept what we believe…on faith. Kant’s method is appealing because, in casting doubt on not just what we know, but on what we can know, we we’re able to carve a niche for faith about those things which we can’t know for certain.  This is a theme that we find Kant returning to, particularly in the early pages of his seminal Critique of Pure Reason where he lays out his motivation for undertaking the project.

[7] Jung, C.G., Answer to Job.  Trans. Hull, R.F.C. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001), 560. (Citations refer to section numbers.  Kindle edition.)

[8] Interestingly, Jung retains the idea of God as omniscient, which makes it a bit paradoxical that God would be lacking this insight which he learns only through the process of mistreating Job and having Job stand up to him.  Jung has a response to this paradox: “[God] never consults his omniscience.  We can only explain this on the assumption that Yahweh was so fascinated by his successive acts of creation…that he forgot about his omniscience altogether…[creating] the most diverse objects…should have caused God infinite delight” (634).  In other words, God got caught up in the act of creating and he lost sight of some things he otherwise had the power to know.

[9] Many obviously have floated answers to this question, but it’s an issue that’s beyond the scope of this paper.  I only mean to suggest here that maybe God doesn’t need to be flawless and that we can get what we need from the concept of an imperfect God.

[10] Jung later said, “I have suffered enough from incomprehension and from the isolation one falls into when one says things that people do not understand.  If the Job book met with so much misunderstanding, my ‘memoirs’ will have an even more unfortunate fate.” Jaffe, Aniela.  Introduction. Memories, Dreams, Reflections.  By C.G. Jung.  (New York: Vintage Books, 1989).

[11] Working within a Christian perspective, righteousness “winning out” culminates in the incarnation.  It should be noted that Jung’s interpretation is significantly at odds with traditional Christian theology: while Christ’s sacrifice serves a similar function in both Jung’s framework and the traditional dogma (i.e., Christ’s crucifixion, from both perspectives, saves us from God’s wrath), Jung’s version of Christ saves us not because we need to atone for our sins, but because God, having learned something about justice over time, in particular through his interactions with Job, is assuring us, through the incarnation and crucifixion, that justice shall reign from here on out (e.g., Jung 682).

All original content copyright 2013 by Lon K. Montag.  Excerpt freely, but please acknowledge the source.


Leave a comment

Filed under Philosophy: Theory & Practice

Comments are closed.