Trauma and Belonging in the Book of Job

Rev. Isabelle Hamley, PhD Blog

Job is one of those characters, and books of the Bible, that people either love or hate. “Patient Job,” as he is often called, is a difficult figure. He suffers great misfortune, sees his life crumble around him, and struggles to make sense of life in the midst of death, pain, and trauma. This is as much as we all agree on. But what else you think happens, depends on how you read the book. Job is often nicknamed “patient Job,” and held up as a model of patient endurance in the midst of suffering, and patient waiting for God to restore him. Some find this helpful as a model; others (like me) find it disturbing and damaging. Fortunately, the nickname is not part of the story we read in Scripture. The nickname flattens out a complex, wonderful character whose journey through trauma is not straightforward, and whose story asks uncomfortable questions of God, life, and the universe.

So let’s have another look at what happens to Job. Job is a servant of God; he lives a good life. And at the beginning, Job and his friends seem to think that there is a strong link between doing good and getting good things in return. The universe they live in is ordered, predictable, and safe. They think they understand God. The problem with this kind of universe is: what you do when things go wrong. If blessings are a reward for good behaviour, then suffering and misfortune have no explanation apart from one that blames the person who suffers. You can only belong to the faithful people of God when things go well. If things go wrong, you are out… You must be doing something wrong in some way, or your character must be deficient and you need to learn lessons. This is the essence of what Job’s friends try to tell him.

A suffering person who is also a faithful believer has no space in these friends’ lives, their imagination, or their faith. Unexplained, random suffering disrupts their little world. If people can do right, be faithful to God, and still suffer, then their world is much less predictable and safe than they thought. It could happen to them, too. And so the friends are faced with only two options: either they rethink their entire faith and ideas about the world, or they blame Job, somehow finding explanations that shoehorn God and Job into their mechanistic, ordered idea of the world. I think that the reason we speak about “patient Job” is the same reason as the friends’: Job’s story is still uncomfortable today. It is much safer to believe in an ordered, logical, predictable universe than one in which anything might happen to any of us. It is much easier to think that things always happen for a reason, than to accept that accidents happen, and that bad things can be just that—bad. And maybe, it is also easier to think that if I struggle with life, if bad things happen to me, it is somehow my fault, because then there is the possibility that I could do something to change or avoid it. The choice before Job, and the choice for us as readers, is whether to accept that a lot of life is simply not in our control, and that God cannot be manipulated, cajoled, or coerced into bringing us the lives we desire. This is hard—and this is one of the things that can make communities of faith difficult places in times of struggle. If our community of faith holds a narrative that they largely deserve their blessings for their faith and faithfulness, then it inevitably leaves those who do not share their blessings out in the cold, in a place of blame, or rejection, or confusion. This kind of narrative quickly makes those who do not “fit” realise that they no longer belong, and unbelonging adds to the trauma and distress of their experience.

Fortunately, the book of Job is a good book, and one that helps us as people of faith to explore our own failings (like Job’s friends) and our own responses to what happens in our lives. Job is often reduced to a caricature, a thin version of a person because of his initial response: “The Lord has given, the Lord has taken away, blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21). But this is only Job’s initial response. It is a liturgical, theological response. Job, faced with a catastrophe so incomprehensible, reaches for words that are familiar, words that connect him to the faith he shares with others. At one level, this is a response that seeks belonging and connection at a time of trauma. Trauma shatters our images of the world, it makes us feel disconnected, and takes away our sense of order and safety. Within trauma, Job reaches for the safety he once had. At one level, this is a really important response for us to recognise: all of us need words, gestures, stories to reach for in times of struggle. Yet at another level, the words he reaches for paper over the cracks. Job is not engaging with the depth of his pain or trauma—yet. In terms of grief, he is in the denial stage. He cannot engage with what has happened. This is Job’s first response—and yet often, in church, this is where we stop! But there are another forty-one chapters to go!

When Job’s body starts to fail—a natural bodily response to the immense trauma he is facing—this moves Job to a different place. He asks, “Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?” This is a question, not an affirmation like his first statement. There is a note of ambiguity or uncertainty here. What is the faithful response to his experience? Doubts are creeping in, moving him away from the traditional, liturgical speech of his community. He is starting to separate into a place of diminished belonging. 

When familiar words are not enough, Job simply falls silent—for an entire week, and his friends simply sit with him. Job’s friends get bad press, but that isn’t entirely fair. They sit with him, in silence, for a week! It takes deep bonds of love and friendship to give a friend this much unhurried space and time, without trying to coax them into speaking, or moving forward faster than they are ready to do. Job’s friends here model what it is to weep with those who weep. They model the possibility that those experiencing suffering and trauma can find a place of belonging. And it is Job, not the friends, who breaks the silence. The friends do get it wrong as things go on, but initially they take their cue from Job and sit with him, in shock and in deep empathy.

Trauma had robbed Job of speech, and of the language and stories that had helped him belong. But now he moves into another mode: anger. He curses the day of his birth, and wishes to be dead. The Bible does not sugarcoat the effect of trauma; it does not gloss over the reality of despair. Job is as low as it gets, and feels so alone, alienated, and in pain that he wishes all connections with friends, family, and God to cease. He wishes for darkness alone (there was no clear belief in an afterlife, or heaven, at the time the book was written). Suffering isolates, it cuts off bonds of fellowship and can make people feel that they are alone and simply do not belong. But Job is not alone, even as he feels he is. His friends, however misguided, are still with him. And God is the silent, hidden presence, talked about but not visible as a participant throughout the dialogues.

Job rants and raves and complains and takes God to task for the next thirty-five chapters! There is nothing meek or patient in these chapters. Job rebels against all that he used to believe about the world being ordered, and blessings being an answer to good behaviour. Job is lost in a world that he no longer understands, he cannot see order or safety, and he complains bitterly to God and his friends that he is innocent and should never have suffered. His friends try to retrieve their former beliefs, and to impose order on Job’s inner chaos. But this attempt will not, and cannot work, because, as the readers know, the problem is with the idea that God and the universe are ruled by mechanistic principles of reward and punishment. These ideas are simply not reflective of reality; but further, they would tie God to human concepts, make God malleable to human will, and ultimately, would snuff out God’s freedom to act. A mechanistic universe is one in which grace—pure, free, and undeserved—cannot emerge. A mechanistic universe is one where relationships are mostly transactional, rather than freely entered in out of love. Job and his friends have to learn that they do not belong with God because they behave in certain ways, but because they are loved, and wanted, and cherished. And once they learn this, they can also learn to belong with one another more freely, and make space for life to fall apart without it threatening everything.

The end of the book is often misrepresented, too. Often it sounds as if God finally turns up and simply quashes Job’s objections with a display of his power. But God’s words go far beyond this. God’s words come out of the whirlwind. It was a great wind that had brought Job’s misfortunes—a wind that destroyed the house his children were in and killed them all. God does not appear in a calm place, in a place of restoration and invite Job there. God appears in the midst of the whirling, frightening, traumatising chaos that Job is experiencing, and God speaks of the wider order of the world. God both affirms that God is in control and that there is order in the universe, which God cares for as he cares for animals. God gently refutes Job’s assertion that there was no care in creation. But God does not rebuke Job, or tell him he was wrong for being angry. Nor does God give a cerebral explanation for Job’s suffering. God simply invites Job to know him better, and to see the good of creation as something that is just as real as the pain and chaos. God invites Job to see him as much bigger than the God Job started with.

It is this encounter with God that changes things, but the change is subtle. Not everything goes back to normal. Nothing can replace Job’s lost children. His faith seems less self-assured and certain at the end—there is less talk of piety and sacrifices. But there is much more belonging: Job is invited to make sacrifices to atone for his friends’ words, which were “not right.” God’s command to Job is not to return to a life of incessant worrying about doing the right thing; instead, God makes sure that Job and his friends can move towards a restoration of relationships, so that the bonds of belonging can help Job move out of the desperate isolation of trauma. The picture of Job at the end is one of community: he has friends who comfort him, and he rejoices in family in a way he never did at the beginning of the book.

The most interesting feature of the end is the small detail regarding Job’s cherished daughters: they are named and given an inheritance—a recognition typically reserved for sons in that culture. Now that Job has moved out of a universe in which everyone’s situation in life is understood as what they deserve, space is made for new relationships. He can love and bless daughters as much as sons. God’s gift to Job is not a restoration of his riches, but a welcome into free, loving and gracious relationships. Job has been given the gift of belonging—with friends, with family, and with God.

Cover photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash


Isabelle Hamley

Isabelle is an Anglican priest, currently working directly with the Archbishop of Canterbury. She has previously held posts as a parish priest, university chaplain, and lecturer in biblical studies. Before ordination, she worked as a university lecturer and as a probation officer, combining her two passions—theology and working with people who struggle with life. She’s passionate about the Old Testament because it speaks into the messiness of life with both hope and realism, and for its relentless focus on justice. She is a regular contributor to BBC Radio 4, and writes and speaks regularly on matters of public theology. She is married to Paul, an environmental scientist, and they have a teenage daughter who is easily the best theologian in the family. Her latest book, edited in collaboration with Chris Cook, explores what resources the Bible offers to talk about mental health.