Who Caused Job to Suffer — God or Satan?

And the Lord said to Satan, “Behold, he is in your power; only spare his life.” (Job 2:6)

Ilya Repin, “Job and His Friends,” 1869
Ilya Repin, “Job and His Friends,” 1869 (photo: Public Domain)
  • Job 2:7 (RSV) So Satan went forth from the presence of the LORD, and afflicted Job with loathsome sores from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head.
  • Job 42:11 . . . all the evil that the LORD had brought upon him . . .

This is a very clear and straightforward example of God permitting a thing (God’s permissive will, as opposed to his perfect will), while the Bible says that he did it; see also Job 2:3: “. . . you moved me against him, to destroy him without cause.” 

It’s the Hebraic expression of God’s providence, and (technically) of what is called anthropomorphism: the 50-cent word which means “condescending to the limited understanding of man by explaining things about God in a non-literal fashion.”

If we want to discover the literal truth of what was going on at a far deeper spiritual level, the beginning of the book explains it, in its narrative. God permitted Satan to afflict Job:

  • Job 1:12 And the LORD said to Satan, “Behold, all that he has is in your power; only upon himself do not put forth your hand.” . . .
  • Job 2:6 And the LORD said to Satan, “Behold, he is in your power; only spare his life.”

Again: sometimes the Bible states that “God did x,” but what it really means at a deeper level is that “God did not will x, but rather, permitted it in his omniscient providence, for a deeper purpose.”

I have explained the same sort of (analogous) thing in the case of the Bible saying that “God hardened Pharaoh’s heart” which — when closely analyzed — is really Pharaoh hardening his own heart, and God permitting it in his providence. Thus the Bible says (in this specific sense) that God did it rather than Pharaoh. For example:

God “Causing” Pharaoh’s Heart to be Hardened

  • Exodus 4:21 And the LORD said to Moses, “When you go back to Egypt, see that you do before Pharaoh all the miracles which I have put in your power; but I will harden his heart, so that he will not let the people go.
  • Exodus 7:3 But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, . . . (cf. 7:13-14, 22; 14:4, 8)
  • Exodus 9:12 But the LORD hardened the heart of Pharaoh, and he did not listen to them; as the LORD had spoken to Moses. (cf. 10:20, 27; 11:10

Pharaoh Hardening His Own Heart

  • Exodus 8:15 But when Pharaoh saw that there was a respite, he hardened his heart, . . . (cf. 8:19)
  • Exodus 8:32 But Pharaoh hardened his heart this time also, and did not let the people go. (cf. 9:7, 34-35)

In other words, when Scripture describes God as hardening Pharaoh’s heart, it is non-literal, and means that he permitted him to harden himself, in his own will. But when it describes Pharaoh as the cause, it’s literal; hence, no logical contradiction, because they are different senses.

A second analogous example is God being described as killing King Saul, when in fact Saul committed suicide:

  • 1 Samuel 31:4 Then Saul said to his armor-bearer, “Draw your sword, and thrust me through with it, lest these uncircumcised come and thrust me through, and make sport of me.” But his armor-bearer would not; for he feared greatly. Therefore Saul took his own sword, and fell upon it.
  • 1 Chronicles 10:13-14 So Saul died for his unfaithfulness; he was unfaithful to the LORD in that he did not keep the command of the LORD, and also consulted a medium, seeking guidance, [14] and did not seek guidance from the LORD. Therefore the LORD slew him, . . .

The (real) prophet Samuel had appeared to Saul after he sought a medium, and proclaimed to him God’s judgment and impending death (1 Sam 28:16-19). In other words, the Lord had withdrawn his usual protection of the Israelites in battle (metaphorically described as “the LORD will give Israel also with you into the hand of the Philistines”). Protection only applied when the king and his followers were obedient to God’s commands. If they weren’t, they were on their own and were usually defeated.

So in this way, yes: God in a sense “killed” Saul. But in a more literal sense, on the human level, he was severely (perhaps mortally) wounded by the Philistine archers (1 Samuel 31:3), then decided to fall on his own sword. The most immediate causes were the archers and Saul himself. In any event, it’s not a contradiction once the different senses intended are understood.

As a third analogy, St. Paul in Romans 1 talks about people rebelling against God and becoming more and more “senseless” and of a “base mind”. The text goes back and forth between asserting that people did so in their free, obstinate wills (1:18, 21, 25, 28, 32), and also that God “gave them up” (1:24, 26, 28). Again, it’s the language of God’s permissive will and providence. But the primary cause and fault clearly lies with the wicked human beings, who chose to be so:

  • Romans 1:24-26 Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, [25] because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed for ever! Amen. [26] For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. . . .
  • Romans 1:28 And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a base mind and to improper conduct.

This is biblical thought and ancient Near Eastern Hebrew thinking. This is why we apologists do what we do! We’re here to educate and assist believers in better understanding the Bible and their Christian faith, and to demonstrate to atheists and biblical skeptics that their cynical opinion of the ancient Hebrews as clueless idiot-troglodytes is infinitely far off the mark.