God’s Names in Job: Does God Suffer With Us?

The book of Job has regularly posed a problem for Christians in nearly every generation because it presents, quite starkly, the suffering of a “blameless” man for no reason ever explained to him, by a God who seems far more interested in winning a bet with Satan and browbeating Job with odes to His own grandeur than in comforting His good and faithful servant in the midst of an overwhelming distress that even God understands to be “without cause” (2:3).

Because of this troubling narrative, many people have left the book of Job with the impression that it implicitly characterizes God as a distant and fickle sadist or megalomaniac. One can find a most piquant and efficient representation of this sentiment in Thomas Lux’s poem, “Job’s Problems” in which Lux opines:

Job’s Problems

were really one problem: the God he chose
was capricious, cruel, cold, and a windbag . . .1  

Similarly embarrassed and scandalized by this seeming void of divine empathy, Marcionites—both witting ancient and unwitting contemporary ones—see Job’s God as an Old Testament monster we can be relieved to be relieved of in the New Testament.

Given this understandable (but profoundly wrong) reaction to Job’s God, it should come as no surprise that contemporary preachers rarely preach from the book of Job, and when they do, their sermons tend to focus on the frame story and the riches that finally came from Job’s perseverance rather than on the befuddling lack of resolution or explanation in the dialogues (and really in the book as a whole). This whitewashed riches-to-rags-to-riches exegesis offers an only slightly improved prosperity gospel than its Olsteenian competitors—and embraces, ironically, the central folly of Job’s mistaken friends.

But we do not miss only the main problem of the book of Job, we also tend to overlook Job’s main prize. We tend to think God rewarded Job with double riches/children in the end,2 but I believe Job’s real prize, though he probably didn’t fully realize it until after the story ended, was a share in the redemptive suffering of Yahweh in Jesus.

I think a central clue to this focus on divine empathy (or lack thereof)—along with its vindication of God in Job and Job in God—lies in the peculiar ways Job’s author employs God’s various names, both in the narrative frame and the dialogues. But first, we must overcome a major obstacle to this clue: its near invisibility in English translations.

An English Obstacle to a Hebrew Mystery

Though translation issues of this sort rarely pose any major problem for English speakers, in the case of Job, the English thoroughly obscures an extremely arresting, and potentially significant, feature of the book—its peculiar use of God’s various names.

For instance, did you know that Job is the only character in the dialogues who ever calls God by His proper, personal, covenant name: Yahweh? Or did you know that 42 of the 583 total Old Testament uses of the name Eloah (the singular form of Elohim) are found in the dialogues of the book of Job? This is a strikingly disproportionate amount of use in one book for such a rare divine designation.4 Also, did you know that one of Job’s friends, Bildad, only ever refers to God with the name El—the most generic and abstract name for “god” available?5 Meanwhile, the trustworthy, omniscient narrator of Job only ever uses the two names Elohim and Yahweh to refer to God (but prefers Yahweh). And God, in his closing dialogues, refers to Himself with almost every possible variation of His name found in the book of Job except for Yahweh—His proper, personal name.

None of this is readily apparent in the English. English-speaking readers have no way of knowing which of the three names for God (El, Eloha, or Elohim) is translated “God” at any given time in the book of Job (or the rest of the Old Testament). Additionally, we are less likely to understand the extreme significance of the name Yahweh in the book because the English replacement (“Lord”) feels almost as generic to us as “God.” Most of us don’t notice the near absence  of God’s personal name in the dialogues.6

I think this does much damage to our interpretation of Job, because I believe the extremely peculiar way the author of Job uses God’s names is central to the solution of one of its central questions: how can God be just when He afflicts the blameless? I think one of the keys to this question lies in the names for God most absent from the dialogues (though not the narrative frame story) of Job—Elohim and Yahweh. Let’s look at how the Old Testament uses God’s names, and what each of these names reveals to us about God.

God’s Names in the Old Testament

The very first biblical use of any name for God comes in the very first verse of the Bible, when a singular, completed-action verb “created”7 is performed by a plural noun “Elohim [lit., gods (e.g., Gen. 31:30, 32; 35:2; Ex. 12:12, etc.)].” From that point on, Elohim shows up quite regularly in the Bible—usually connected to God’s position as fearful Judge and all-powerful Creator of the whole universe. In fact, but for one other name, Elohim is the most common name for God in the Old Testament. That other name for Israel’s God, which is overwhelmingly favored in all genres of the Old Testament, is Yahweh.8

Yahweh is God’s own personal name designated for use by the People of Promise. Whereas Elohim is more often connected to God’s universal relationship to His creation as Creator, Yahweh implies a more personal relationship between God and His people. As Berkhof summarizes:

It is especially in the name Yahweh, which gradually supplanted earlier names, that God reveals Himself as the God of grace. . . . The name points to the unchangeableness of God. Yet it is not so much the unchangeableness of His essential Being that is in view, as the unchangeableness of His relation to His people. . . . It stresses the covenant faithfulness of God, is His proper name par excellence, Ex. 15:3; Ps. 83:19; Hos. 12:6; Isa. 42:8, and is therefore used of no one but Israel’s God.9

We may often think of Yahweh first being given to God’s people through Moses from the burning bush (Ex. 3:13f), and that is certainly where we first explicitly hear its meaning (“I am who I am”). But it is not the first place it appears in the mouths or the ears of believers. In fact, Eve is the first person recorded using the name Yahweh, when she responded with faith to God’s promises concerning her “seed” (Gen. 4:1; cp. Gen. 3:15). This special name began to be used generally among Eve’s children around the time of Enoch (Gen. 4:26). Additionally, Yahweh is the covenant name God gives Himself for Noah’s use (e.g., Gen. 9:26) and Abraham’s (Gen. 15:7). Moses is told to use the name Yahweh, with the explanation that this is the name of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Ex. 3:15). God adds, “This [Yahweh] is my name forever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations” (Ex. 3:15b).

Every other name used for God, like the English “God,” is generic and can, and often is, used in reference to other gods. Especially susceptible to this is the name “El” which is so generic as to require further descriptive modifiers (e.g., “Most High” or “Almighty”) or clarifying context to avoid confusion with other local pagan Ancient Near Eastern gods (e.g., El the father of Baal and husband of Asherah—often pictured as a bull).

“Lord” or “Master” was often used of other gods as well, and its connection to Baal worship had become so regular in the days of the prophets that God said He would eventually remove the name from the lips of His people altogether (Hos. 2:16).

Use of God’s Names in Job

Given the overwhelming preponderance of the use of Yahweh in the Old Testament, it should surprise us to see that the only character in the book of Job who uses God’s special name in the dialogues is Job himself, and he uses it only one time during his speeches (Job 12:9), and in only one other—albeit extremely significant—place in the whole book (three times in Job 1:21). No other character with dialogue uses Yahweh at all, not even God. The twenty-seven other uses of Yahweh in Job belong to the narrator.

Further, other than the uncannily proliferated singular abstract noun Eloah, the vast majority of references to God by Job and his friends use the quite generic El (“God”) or El-Shaddai (“God the Almighty,” sometimes simply “the Almighty”). The plural Elohim is used by every character except Bildad at least, but only, once10 and is the only other name aside from Yahweh used by the narrator.

What Do the Uses of God’s Names in Job Mean?

The upshot of the names for God used by the characters in the book of Job, including by God in His dialogues, is two-fold: they refer almost exclusively to God’s unique power to create and sole prerogative to rule. God has two speeches at the end of the book, and they follow this two-fold characterization related to creation and providence.

Ultimately, Job’s God cannot be questioned on His use or disposal of His own creation, because He truly is Elohim the Creator, El the Almighty, and Eloah the One and Only God. But as far as Job’s friends are willing to tell, God is nothing more than this. God rules as the Mighty Creator, and no one, neither angels nor humans, can thwart or even question Him.

Job himself finds it hard to see God as more than this, though he believes what he does not see until the end. Job, unlike his friends, consistently (and finally) calls for a meeting with God to “argue” his “case” (13:3, 15; 18; 23:4, 7). Job asks for and hopes in a mediator between the transcendent God and finite human beings (9:32–33; 19:25; 33:23). None of the names of God used by Job’s friends, or Elihu, include this hope in “meeting” with God. None of their names are covenant names. Their relationship to God, unlike Job’s, has no covenantal contours, but only creational or judicial. Their explicit relationship derives from creation and judgment, but not redemption.

Why Job’s Friends Were Wrong

It is quite clear that Job’s friends erred greatly concerning the character of God, because God said so (42:7–8). Even still, we must determine for ourselves exactly how they erred in their speeches. I believe their use of God’s names contains a clue to their error.

Job’s friends did not accurately understand how God related to Job and humankind because they affirmed only part of the truth. They assumed God related to humankind the same way He related to angels or creation—of which relations they were also mostly ignorant. For this reason, their errors about Job and God amount to an intertwined single error, namely, that God only ever stays in heaven as an impartial judge and never involves Himself personally in the struggles, and certainly not the nature, of humankind or creation. In short, Job’s friends believed God was incapable of incarnation.

I believe this single error rests mainly on incorrectly viewing an emphasis as an exclusive truth. When one elevates part of the truth to being the whole truth, one embraces falsehood. As illustrated by their exclusive preference for the singular, generic, or abstract names for God,11 Job’s friends viewed God as almost exclusively transcendent, self-sufficient, and impartial—even mechanical—in His dealings with humans and creation.

This half-truth permeates their dialogues. Eliphaz replies to Job first, and his view of God focuses on impartial judgment and singular transcendence: “Can mortal man be in the right [righteous] before God [Eloah]? Can a man be pure before his Maker?” (Job 4:17). With this, Eliphaz begins his replies with a word of “wisdom” from a spirit in the night who seems fixated on the futility of mortal life and God’s judgment of angels and humankind.12

God’s remoteness from the mortal realm and the perfect mechanical relationship of deed and consequence become the barely varied theme of Job’s friends from there on. Following Eliphaz, Bildad includes even the relationship between repentance and forgiveness in the deed-consequence relationship (Job 8:3–7), as if God’s unchanging nature is a natural force rather than a personal character. Following Bildad, Zophar emphasizes God’s transcendence and unfathomability: “Can you find out the deep things of God? / Can you find out the limit of the Almighty? / It is higher than heaven—what can you do? / Deeper than Sheol—what can you know?” (Job 11:8).

Of course, we can call none of these things categorically wrong. As Job says, “Who does not know such things as these?” (Job 12:3). Yet, though they contain no error in themselves, they also do not encompass the whole truth, and therein lies the problem. Job’s friends mainly erred in preaching a half-truth as an exclusive truth. Such an error should strike us as peculiarly Satanic. Satan has lied with half-truths from the beginning. Even the demons believe God is one (James 2:19), but can the demons (or even the angels) understand a tri-personal and covenanting God—a redeeming God? God is not only one, and we can see from the book of Job what a troublesome problem such unbalanced over-emphasis can create.

What Job Requires: God is Not Merely Transcendent or One

A merely transcendent God is not personal, and He does not share in the suffering and trials of humankind. A single-person God cannot send a Son or be a Father, and a merely transcendent God does not reveal Himself through His Spirit in and to flesh. So a merely transcendent God is not the God of the Bible, and even unbelievers have criticized this Deistic conception of God quite correctly. For instance, the famous pragmatist William James had these devastating words to say on the merely Absolute or Transcendent God:

You cannot redescend into the world of particulars by the Absolute’s aid, or deduce any necessary consequences of detail important for your life from your idea of his nature. He gives you indeed the assurance that all is well with Him, and for his eternal way of thinking; but thereupon he leaves you to be finitely saved by your own temporal devices.

Far be it from me to deny the majesty of this conception, or its capacity to yield religious comfort to a most respectable class of minds. But from the human point of view, no one can pretend it doesn’t suffer from the faults of remoteness and abstractness. . . . It substitutes a pallid outline for the real world’s richness. . . . The prince of darkness may be a gentleman, as we are told he is, but whatever the God of earth and heaven is, he can surely be no gentleman. His menial services are needed in the dust of our human trials, even more than his dignity is needed in the empyrean.13

It is easy for us to see this, and to answer James’s (and perhaps Job’s) central complaint. The answer is quite simply Jesus, the suffering God-Man. But we must never forget that Job and his friends did not have the luxury of living in the light of Jesus’ death and resurrection. They lived in its shadow. Yahweh had not yet revealed His mystery in Jesus. Job’s friends didn’t have John 1:1f or James 1:2, and they extrapolated from what they knew into what they did not know. Job also extrapolated from ignorance (and God challenged him on this ignorance—e.g., Job 38:2), but Job’s correct knowledge of his own blamelessness gave him an advantage over his friends. He knew the possibility of the Suffering Servant—before Isaiah 53 and before Calvary—because he saw the reality of it dimly in himself. He held to the truth of what he had heard of God’s personal character and what he knew of his own character until he finally saw in Yahweh what he had only before heard (Job 42:5).

Conclusion

So, to return to the central problem of Job: Does God feel our pain? Is He sympathetic, even empathetic, to human suffering? Can God suffer with us? I think the answer the book of Job gives to the question is both yes and no. It is yes because God in the person of the Son suffers with Job in the person of Christ into whom Job was united by faith. From the beginning, Yahweh drew the reputation of Job into His own reputation (Job 1:8). The reader must understand this: Job had to be proved blameless, or God would have been proved a liar. Yahweh, the covenant God, had made it so the vindication of His own name depended on the vindication of Job’s character! So much for a distant Clock-Maker.

But the answer of Job to the possibility of divine empathy is also no because God’s transcendent justice and untouchable holiness demands a complete separation of His absolute holiness from our uncleanness. God’s justice requires an impartial, even detatched, destruction of wickedness. In order for both of these things to be true, God must be both transcendent and immanent, sender and sent, judge and defendant, priest and sacrifice. Therefore, I believe it is proper to say that God suffers with us, and it is also proper to say that God cannot suffer anything at all. And I think it is most proper to say these two things as much at the same time as possible.

Jesus resolves this seeming contradiction in Job (and the whole Bible). The book of Job anticipates, but, of course, could not yet contain this solution at the time of its publication, much less at the ancient time these events transpired. In Job’s ancient time, a veil covered the mystery of Christ. The personal, covenantal, revelational name Yahweh intimated that mystery, however, and thus Job held to it. Job managed to resist the urge to premature certainty, and he clung instead to hope and faith instead of sight. Because of this, Job succeeded concerning God’s character where his friends utterly failed, although all of them had to cope with the relative paucity of divine revelation up to their time.

Yahweh invited Job to share with Him in the revelation of salvation. Job knew, because he regularly sacrificed innocent victims for his and his children’s sin (Job 1:5), that salvation could not be accomplished without innocent suffering. He never knew this suffering would be his own. And he didn’t know how it could be God’s. But we do.

Not only do we have the frame story of Job to give us some explanation for how Job and God collaborated together to destroy the works of Satan, but we also have the narrator repeating God’s covenant name of faithfulness in our ears over and over again, even when the characters basically refuse to speak it. So we have no excuse. We should know what Job and his friends knew of God’s plan in a Messiah Redeemer, which was very little, but we should know still more. The single God (Eloah) has three persons (Elohim); He is the almighty Creator and Judge (El-Shaddai), but He is also the Father and Covenanting God, unchangeable in His faithfulness and grace to His people (Yahweh). In fact, Yahweh Himself has saved us in the person of Jesus: “You shall call his name Jesus [lit., ‘Yahweh Saves’], for He will save His people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21).

Of all the human characters in the book of Job, only Job had even an inkling of this. Only Job knew God as Yahweh, and trusted in Him to answer and to save. Namely, Job trusted that God could and would come down from heaven. Job’s suffering prefigured our sharing in God’s righteous suffering in Christ (Rom. 8:17; 2 Cor. 1:5; Col. 1:24; Phil. 3:10; 1 Pet. 4:13). It was a foretaste of God’s future revelation of Himself in the simultaneous delivery of both impartial justice to His Suffering Servant and empathetic grace to and co-suffering with those who trust in Him even unto death (Job 13:15). But we must remember that only Elohim can both send and suffer. And only Yahweh would.

******************

Job and His Friends, by Ilya Repin
oil on canvas, 1869

Appendix: Instances of God’s Names in the Book of Job by Speaker

Elohim

Narrator: 1:1; 1:22; 2:1, 3; 32:2

Job: 1:5; 28:23

Servant of Job: 1:16

Wife: 2:9

Eliphaz: 5:7

Zophar: 20:29

Elihu: 34:914

God: 38:7

Yahweh

Narrator: 1:6, 7, 8, 9, 12 (x2); 2:1 (x2), 2 (x2), 3, 4, 6, 7; 38:1; 40:1, 3, 6; 42:1, 7 (x2), 9 (x2), 10 (x2), 11, 12

Job: 1:21 (x3), 12:915

Eloah

Job: 3:4, 23; 6:4, 8, 9; 9:13; 10:2; 12:4; 16:20, 21; 19:6, 21, 26; 21:9, 19; 27:3, 8; 27:10; 29:2, 4; 31:2, 6

Eliphaz: 4:9, 17; 5:17; 15:8; 22:12, 26; 24:12

Zophar: 11:5, 6, 7

Elihu: 33:12, 26; 35:10; 36:2; 37:15, 22

God: 39:17; 40:2

El

Eliphaz: 5:7; 15:4, 11, 13, 25; 22:2; 22:13,16 17

Bildad: 8:3, 5, 13, 20; 18:21; 25:4

Job: 9:2; 12:6; 13:3, 7, 8; 16:11; 21:14, 22; 23:16; 27:2, 9, 11, 13; 31:14, 23, 28

Zophar: 20:15, 29

Elihu: 32:13; 33:4, 6, 14, 29; 34:5, 10, 12, 23, 31, 37; 35:2,17 13; 36:5, 26; 37:5, 10, 14

God: 38:41; 40:9, 19

Almighty (Shaddai)

Eliphaz: 5:17; 15:25; 22:3, 17, 23, 25, 26

Job: 6:4, 14; 13:3; 19:22; 21:15, 20; 23:16; 24:1; 27:2, 10, 11, 13; 29:5; 31:2, 35

Bildad: 8:3, 5

Zophar: 11:7

Elihu: 32:8; 33:4; 34:10, 12; 35:13; 37:23

God: 40:2

Maker

Eliphaz: 4:1718

Elihu: 32:22; 35:10; 36:3

Holy One

Job: 6:10

Redeemer/Avenger

Job: 19:25

Adonai (“Lord”)

Job: 28:28

  1. Thomas Lux, “Job’s Problems,” New and Selected Poems: 1975–1995 (New York: Mariner Books, 1997), 152.
  2. Lux correctly points out the inadequacy of Job’s material reward, but completely overlooks the real reward.
  3. That’s 72%.
  4. All fifty-eight instances of Eloha: Deut. 32:15, 17; 2 Kings 17:31; Isa. 44:8; Hab. 1:11; 3:3; Psa. 18:31; 50:22; 114:7; 139:19; Job 3:4, 23; 4:9, 17; 5:17; 6:4, 8–9; 9:13; 10:2; 11:5–7; 12:4, 6; 15:8; 16:20–21; 19:6, 21, 26; 21:9, 19; 22:12, 26; 24:12; 27:3, 8, 10; 29:2, 4; 31:2, 6; 33:12, 26; 35:10; 36:2; 37:15, 22; 39:17; 40:2; Prov. 30:5; Dan. 11:37–39; Neh. 9:17; 2 Chron. 32:15.
  5. Two times in his first dialogue, Bildad combines El with Shaddai—trans., “Almighty” (8:3, 5).
  6. Many translations put “Lord” in small caps when it is used to translate “YHWH,” but this still obscures the personal nature and covenantal significance of the name.
  7. The verb here is bara, a third-person, masculine, singular Qal perfect verb meaning “(he) created.”
  8. Elohim occurs 2,602 times in the OT; Yahweh occurs 6,828 times!
  9. Louis  Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 49.
  10. Elohim is used by the narrator five times (1:1, 22; 2:1, 3; 32:2), by Job twice (1:5; 28:23), by Job’s surviving servant in 1:16, by Job’s wife in 2:9, by Eliphaz in 5:7, by Zophar in 20:29, by Elihu (though this is in a quote attributed by him to Job) in 34:9, and by God in 38:7.
  11. These names are not in themselves inappropriate names for God, however. God used them as well (Eloah—39:17; 40:2; El— 38:41; 40:9; 40:19; Elohim—38:7).
  12. It seems fairly apparent that Eliphaz was visited by Satan or another demon with this piece of “wisdom” in order to stack the deck against Job. The dialogue certainly reeks of demonic accusation and despair.
  13. William James, “What Pragmatism Means,” from William James: Essays and Lectures, ed. by Richard Kamber (NY: Routledge, 2016), 39.
  14. Attributed by Elihu to Job.
  15. Additionally, it’s possible that Job’s use of Adonai in 28:28 has Yahweh behind it (cf. Prov. 9:10).
  16. Attributed by Eliphaz to Job.
  17. Attributed by Elihu to Job.
  18. Attributed by Eliphaz to Night Spirit (possibly/probably Satan).

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