The book of Job seems at first to concern the trial—and trials—of a human named Job. In the prose introduction, the satan—acting more like God’s prosecuting attorney than God’s divine adversary—charges Job with an inauthentic piety that is enabled and abetted by excessive material blessings from Yahweh (Job 1:9-11, Job 2:4-5). God and the narrator judge Job not guilty as he responds to the traumatic events that overturn his life (Job 1:22, Job 2:3, Job 2:10). But in the ensuing poetic dialogue, Job appears to his friends and to many readers as guilty of impropriety, if not of impiety, as he stubbornly insists upon his innocence. He even puts God on trial, using legal language and an imaginary courtroom to articulate some of his grievances against God. Nevertheless, at the end of the book God judges both that Job has spoken what is right about God, and that his friends have not (Job 42:7-8).
For some readers, the courtroom is the primary metaphor that gives Job’s complaints and hopes an overarching coherence. But an over-emphasis on Job’s use of legal language can neglect Job’s complaints about the limitations of the legal metaphor and his use of other symbolic codes. But why does Job turn to legal language and the courtroom metaphor at all? The answer requires a proper understanding of Job’s primary complaint. Job both complains about God’s disruptive presence and laments God’s frustrating absence. While these grievances seem contradictory, God consistently functions in Job’s speeches as a force that keeps Job from being at one with himself. The problem is neither God’s overwhelming presence nor God’s abyssal absence, but rather that God prevents Job from achieving a stable sense of self. Lacking this, Job cannot relate to any one—including God—as one to another.
For example, after reporting that he reclined in his bed for comfort and ease (Job 7:13), Job says, “You terrify me with dreams and frighten me with visions, so that my throat chooses strangulation” (Job 7:14-15a, my translation). Job’s own throat turns against him. He seeks rest but suffers nightmares. God is responsible for dividing Job against himself. Job’s forensic language becomes most prominent in chapter 9, as he proclaims his innocence but details numerous obstacles to justice (Job 9:14-24). In Job 9:27-29, even Job’s attempts to forget his troubles plunge him into a state of anxiety, and he consistently identifies God as the cause of his self-defeating division.
The courtroom promises a triadic structure in which Job and God can relate to each other through a third party’s mediation. Through the law, one may achieve a sense of identity as well as of responsibility and whether one has lived up to it. Job imagines that he might achieve a sense of himself and show God’s guilt if he can only take God to court (Job 9:2-3, Job 9:27-35, Job 10:1-7). He wishes for judgment from an arbiter, umpire, witness, or mediator (Job 9:32-35, Job 13:18-23, Job 16:18-22, Job 19:23-27). But as often as Job expresses this desire, he concludes that it is impossible. Readers must wonder whether Job has any hope that he deems possible.
Even if Job does not use legal language and the social space of the courtroom to articulate his deepest hopes, he certainly uses such rhetoric to communicate the problems that God causes him so that others can recognize that these problems deprive him of justice.