Empathy by Design: Job’s Closet Drama and The Reader-Response

Brook Johnson
9 min readOct 27, 2020


If the Book of Job were ever dramatized in its entirety, it would undoubtedly be one of the longest and most tedious productions in theatrical history. This is due in part to the lengthy and highly repetitive speeches that form the majority of Job and convey the book’s primary message: God’s people must live by faith, even when they don’t fully understand God’s will. But Job’s literary form as a closet drama indicates to the reader that Job’s characters may not be the only focal point of discussion. The dramatic crux of the book, namely, Job’s misfortune and ensuing despair, anger, and confusion, is entirely relatable to the average reader who has likely confronted the existential challenges embedded in the problem of evil. The locus of drama, on my view, resides partly with the reader’s empathetic response to Job’s suffering set against God’s mysterious purposes. In this essay, I will argue that Job’s closet drama highlights the corollary drama in the text which occurs between the reader and God.

The Book of Job opens with connotations to ancient folklore: “There was a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job” (ESV, 1:1). It is apparent in the first sentence that Job is serving a literary purpose broader than the possible historical source. Northrop Frye and Jay Macpherson consider Job an “ancient folktale” which has been spliced together with a poetic expansion of the primary themes (184). For this reason, the narrator records the story from an objective, omniscient framework as he characterizes Job: “That man was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil” (1:1). Job’s numerous children and possessions are counted, and from this catalog of obvious abundance, the narrator concludes: “this man was the greatest of all the people of the east” (1:2–3). His honourary title and accompanying material blessings establish Job’s archetypal role as a Torah abiding man of God. The narrator depicts Job’s righteousness through his preemptive ritual atonements for the sins his children might have committed during their parties (1:5). Job’s righteousness is enlarged to such an extent that he is rendered an almost unrelatable figure, a mythological wonder. It is worth noting that the limited characterization the narrator gives to Job allows the character to “stand-in” for the reader as a model of praiseworthy conduct before God. Job’s status as “blameless and upright” will become a useful framework during his trials, as it grants the reader permission to safely identify with Job while he laments, grieves, and protests.

Satan’s entrance into God’s presence introduces conflict to Job’s life. Without prompting, God asks Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job?” (1:8). God seems to deliberately set Job up for a satanic test. Satan’s words act as a rejoinder to God’s assessment: “Does Job fear God for no reason?” (1:9). Satan instigates a test for God, implying that Job only fears God because of his relative safety, material blessings, and children — not God in himself. It will later become evident that Job’s wife, three friends, Elihu, and Job himself never conceived of God allowing such an act. The reader is forced to reconsider the possibility that God’s seemingly bad acts are incomprehensible from our finite epistemic position.

Job’s material possessions and children are taken from him, but his reaction to the tragedy is biblically exemplary: “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord” (1:21). Job’s dual antithesis represents a model biblical worldview, one that is neither pessimistic nor optimistic but grounded in the reality of God’s goodness complemented by an acceptance of God’s sovereign will. Job’s suffering has made him relatable, but his impeccably balanced worldview still alienates him from the average reader. Satan’s next attack will decimate Job’s life with the unintended side-effect of providing the reader with someone to voice their earthly trials and enter into dramatic conflict with God.

Satan believes Job will curse God if his health is taken away, “Skin for skin!” (2:4). The narrator illustrates Job’s full-body affliction of “painful sores” with a gruesome, searing image to thoroughly draw the reader into Job’s desolation: “he took a piece of broken pottery with which to scrape himself while he sat in the ashes” (2:8). The reader is offered a grim portrait of God, one who afflicts without a discernable cause and often for an inscrutable purpose. Job’s wife speaks not only to Job but to the reader: “Do you still hold fast your integrity? Curse God and die” (2:9). Here the reader is invited to embrace nihilism. Job’s three friends arrive to comfort Job and grieve for him (2:12). They “sit” with Job “seven days and seven nights” before losing their patience (2:13). Job’s friends want to solve his problems — not listen to him lament. This is characteristic of most people the reader has likely encountered. Job’s scandalous affliction and alienation from God and his closest relations direct the reader towards empathy with Job.

In Ch. 3, the Book of Job truly becomes a closet drama as the dramatic features of Ch.’s 1–2 are replaced by speeches for the next 40 chapters. Job curses the day of his birth and begins his series of laments and protests against God’s cryptic act. I will suggest that Job’s speeches guide the reader into deeper empathy for Job and overall antipathy for the ignorant words of Job’s three friends and Elihu. Job voices his blackest thoughts:

Why did I not die at birth,
come out from the womb and expire?
Why did the knees receive me?
Or why the breasts, that I should nurse? (11–12)

Job employs a chiasmus conjoined with erotesis to fully encapsulate the vanity of life now that everything has been taken from him. Samuel Balentine notes, “The key word throughout is ‘Why?’… The question, typically addressed to God, is heavily laden with protest and accusation” (115). Job’s rhetorical questions are also directed to his friends and a sympathetic audience who may concur with Job that there are no earthly answers to otherworldly questions. His first speech concludes with a mini-catalog: “I am not at ease, nor am I quiet; / I have no rest, but trouble comes” (3:26). The min-catalog builds to a climax that unambiguously expresses the atrocity of Job’s life. Job’s subsequent speech describes his particular qualitative experience of suffering:

But the night is long,
and I am full of tossing till the dawn.
My flesh is clothed with worms and dirt;
my skin hardens, then breaks out afresh. (7:4–5)

The combination of concrete details and metaphoric imagery draws the reader into a vicarious impression of physical agony and voyeuristic horror. The intensity of Job’s expression of pain mingles an appeal to sympathy with justifiable outrage at God’s apparent violation of the Torah’s prescription. Moreover, Job is not the only one who has, at times, desired to leave this world on account of immense suffering and hardship:

… I would choose strangling
and death rather than my bones.
I loathe my life … (7:15–16)

Job’s macabre words engender empathy and identification, as the reader recognizes that even “blameless and upright” men attend to despair. The final connection that occurs between the reader and Job leads to the corollary dramatic conflict between God and the reader. It arises with regard to Job’s unanswered prayers: “I cry to you for help and you do not answer me; / I stand, and you only look at me” (30:20). Job’s words have effectively become the reader’s words. If there is any universal complaint among humans that provokes drama between the reader and God, it is surely unanswered prayers. Job’s intentional design brings the reader into empathetic relations with Job and compels the reader to face the true drama between themselves and God’s enigmatic will.

In sharp contrast to Job’s sympathetic portrait, his three friends are ironically useless. Balentine comments on their religious perspective dependent upon “truths deeply embedded in Hebraic traditions that address the issue of suffering and divine justice” (159). However, the speeches delivered by Job’s three friends and Elihu are deeply mistaken because they presuppose Job’s sinfulness. When Eliphaz presumes to offer biblical wisdom, he actually utters folly in Job’s context: “Remember: who that was innocent ever perished? / Or where were the upright cut off?” (4:7). The dramatic irony here is patent. Both of Eliphaz’s rhetorical questions can be answered in opposition to their intended conclusion. Eliphaz treats the Torah’s prescriptive blessings as if they hold true in every scenario, which is the inverse of wisdom and thus the height of foolishness. Bildad is similarly frigid with his careless reasoning: “If your children have sinned against him, / he has delivered them into the hand of their transgression” (8:4). The implication that Job’s children deserved to die, even though Job offered continual preemptive atonement, is the height of cruelty. Zophar goes further with his reckless assertion: “Know then that God exacts of you less than your guilt deserves” (11:6). Zophar treats Job’s guilt as if it was already beyond reasonable doubt. This is wholly ironic given the information available to the reader and represents a hopelessly simplistic view of the Torah’s prescription. Elihu’s presumption of wisdom renders him the most egregious offender of the four: “Job opens his mouth in empty talk; he multiplies words without knowledge” (35:16). Elihu condemns Job for speaking without knowledge, and yet his speech borrows heavily from that of his three elders who also spoke without knowledge. Naphtali Meshel points out that “Eliphaz has not been in on the divine council either, [sic] and so speaks useless, windy words” (55). The sheer length of their combined speeches only prompts derision from the reader. There is nothing to empathize with in Eliphaz, Bildad, Zophar, and Elihu’s sterile orthodoxy.

God’s rebukes Job, his three friends, and Elihu with the short phrase: “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?” (38:2). God begins his interrogation of 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!
Or who stretched the line upon it? (38:4)

God’s abundant use of erotesis anticipates Job’s inability to respond. Wesley Morriston comments on God’s appeal to mystery: “The book of Job moves back and forth between these two poles: between the idea of a God who cares about the doings of particular men like Job, and the idea of a God who is almost too big, too mysterious, too wholly other” (356). Morriston thinks the Book of Job, with “only partial success,” teaches the two competing concepts. I think Morriston is partly correct. Job and the reader are confronted with a God who is a maximally great being, one that their finite human minds cannot fully grasp. And yet, the success of Job’s teaching lies in its insistence upon humility. Job’s admission of humility exemplifies the type of behavior the reader may wish to imitate: “I have uttered what I did not understand, / things too wonderful for me, which I did not know” (42:3). The full extent of God’s will must remain beyond the reader’s ken. This is the epitome of the book’s primary message: God’s people must live by faith, even when they don’t fully understand God’s will.

The Book of Job’s closet drama invites the reader into Job’s world. A stage play directs the audience’s attention away from themselves and into contemplation of the actor’s drama, but the closet drama allows for both Job’s characters and the reader’s private conflict with God to emerge with equal recognition. Job is faced with God’s essential nature: “I am who I am” (Ex. 3:14). The totality of the reader’s drama involves a challenge to follow God on his terms. Job’s closet drama is thus a graphic illustration of Habakkuk’s revelatory prophesy: “the righteous shall live by his faith” (2:4).

Works Cited

Balentine, Samuel E. Have You Considered My Servant Job? Understanding the Biblical Archetype of Patience. University of South Carolina Press, 2015. EBSCOhost, ezproxy.mytyndale.ca:2443/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=nlebk&AN=872518&site=ehost-live&scope=site.

Frye, Northrop, and Jay Macpherson. Biblical and Classical Myths: The Mythological Framework of Western Culture. University of Toronto Press, 2004. EBSCOhost, ezproxy.mytyndale.ca:2443/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=nlebk&AN=467939&site=ehost-live&scope=site.

Meshel, Naphtali. “Whose Job Is This? Dramatic Irony and Double Entendre in the Book of Job.” The Book of Job: Aesthetics, Ethics, Hermeneutics, edited by Leora Batnitzky and Ilana Pardes, De Gruyter, Berlin/Munich/Boston, 2015, pp. 47–76. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctvbkk23h.7.

Morriston, Wesley. “God’s Answer to Job.” Religious Studies, vol. 32, no. 3, 1996, pp. 339–356. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/20019827.