Winter 1985, Vol. 37, pp. 314-325.

Rosemary Dewey:
      Qoheleth and Job: Diverse Responses to the Enigma of Evil

Both the Preacher and Job agonize over the gap between inherited wisdom about suffering and their experience of life, but with diverse personal consequences.

Sister Dewey, R.S.C.J., former provincial of the Religious of the Sacred Heart, Chicago province, completed her Master of Theological Studies degree in 1984 and works as assistant to the president of the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago.

AS daring as some of us might be, the known and the familiar are often more appealing than the pursuit of new adventure. This is true of the spiritual life, especially when God has been experienced as present, as bestowing blessings, as saving, as faithful and wise and just. Naturally, when the strange and unpredictable God seems to break out of these categories and acts differently from our ideas of how God "should act," chaos threatens and we long for the "good old days" when we felt secure in God and with God. At such times God may be calling for a different response: a letting go of preconceived notions of God's justice and wisdom, a relinquishing of a past which confines God to our limited experience and understanding. Perhaps God wishes to transform us, to bring us to a newer and deeper relationship of trust and surrender to the creator God who is all powerful and incomprehensible.

This longing for restoration to former security is reflected in the biblical books of Job and Ecclesiastes (Qoheleth). While there are similarities in questions asked and issues raised, Job and Qoheleth respond to them differently. These differences may be captured by the two concepts of restoration and transformation.

Restoration, according to Webster, means "a bringing back to a former position or condition," while transformation is defined as "an act, process, or instance of transforming or being transformed." Restoration in the wisdom literature of ancient Israel means that one views life and finds meaning in it within the structure of Israelite thought and tradition. Since order is of prime importance in the Israelite concept of creation and in their world view, all aspects of life, God's actions as well as humans', must fit into this order, which provides a certain logical framework for how one lives and views the world. The insistence on order, moreover, dictates how God and God's justice are viewed. Related to order and flowing from it is the theory of retribution (that is, good is rewarded, evil is punished).(1) So restoration in the world of Job and Qoheleth calls for a situation in which order exists, God's justice is evident, and the theory of retribution "works."

Transformation, on the other hand, indicates that a radical change has taken place. The old framework or structure no longer satisfies and is consequently discarded, set aside, so that there is an entirely new way of looking at the world and at life in that world. Both Qoheleth and Job challenged the Israelite world view or aspects of it, particularly the theory of retribution. Therefore, the possibility for transformation appears inherent in both of these pieces of Wisdom literature.

Before proceeding to a consideration of dominant themes, it might be well to admit that the viewpoint presented here will be one of a twentieth-century Western Christian. In other words, belief in life after death often makes it difficult, if not impossible, to enter into Israelite thinking, which, at least at the time of Job and Qoheleth, did not hold eternal life as part of their belief or world view. For many centuries, moreover, Western culture and Christian faith have abandoned the idea of retribution, at least in theory. I suspect there are still traces of it present in our mentality. Furthermore, culture influences our thought so that the current emphasis on growth and development may view restoration negatively. Psychologists would no doubt see restoration and development as in conflict, for a person grows into a new stage rather than back to a former one. Life is process. In growth, though externals may be restored, a person is in a new place and a certain transformation has occurred, even if it is minor. We speak of the desirability of having health or reputation "restored," but in general, transformation seems more attractive as a gift and more acceptable as a goal.


Various Wisdom themes appear in both Qoheleth and Job. The pursuit of happiness has always been the goal of human beings. Qoheleth shares this goal. However, happiness for him is not easily attainable. The Book of Ecclesiastes begins with the famous "vanity of vanities" (1:2), expressing a sense of hopelessness, discouragement, or frustration. With an autobiographical touch, Qoheleth continues in this vein, claiming that he had applied his mind "to see and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven" (1:12). He even "acquired great wisdom surpassing all who were over Jerusalem before me; and my mind has had great experience of wisdom and knowledge" (1:16). However, all this is "an unhappy business that God has given to the sons of men to be busy with" (1:13). And "in much wisdom is much vexation, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrows" (1:18). Qoheleth clearly states that knowledge and wisdom do not bring happiness. He turns, then, to pleasure. In the next chapter he describes all his great works and his prosperity: "So I became great and surpassed all who were before me in Jerusalem; also, my wisdom remained with me" (2:9). All of this, plus the pleasure he found in his work, "was vanity and a striving after the wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun" (2:11). His search for happiness seemed in vain.

For Qoheleth, joy is God's imperative for man, not in any anemic or spiritualized sense, but rather as a full-blooded and tangible experience, expressing itself in the play of the body and the activity of the mind, the contemplation of nature and the pleasures of love. Since he insists that the pursuit of happiness with which man has been endowed by his Creator is an inescapable sacred duty, it follows that it must be an inalienable right.(2)

Qoheleth's search leads him to see that life is full of contradictions. He believes "that there is nothing better for them [human beings] than to be happy and enjoy themselves as long as they live; also that it is God's gift to men that every one should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil" (3:12-13).

Qoheleth cannot resolve the contradictions that he finds in life, for, like him, a person can be gifted by God with wealth, possessions, and honor, lacking nothing, but "God does not give him power to enjoy them" (6:2).

Job, too, sought happiness. But there is throughout the Book of Job a different tone. The first folktale section (1:1-2:13) opens with a picture of a very good man, "blameless and upright, one who feared God, and turned away from evil" (1:1). This man, Job, had what seemed the perfect number and distribution of children (seven sons and three daughters) and so many animals that he was considered "the greatest of all the people of the east" (1:13). He is God-fearing and faithful. Although the word "happiness" is never mentioned, this description of Job depicts a man who, instead of searching like Qoheleth, has arrived. God also attests to Job's goodness, claiming "that there is none like him on earth, a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil" (1:8 and 2:3). However, after the Satan's conversation with God (1:6-12), Job's situation begins to change dramatically. His children are killed; he is stripped of his possessions; and he is covered "with loathsome sores from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head" (2:7). His search begins, but it is different from Qoheleth's. Job's concern is not centered on finding happiness in wisdom or knowledge, in possessions or pleasure, but rather in the recognition of his integrity. He calls upon God, challenges God to vindicate him. His speech in chapters 29 and 31 lightly touches his request that his former situation be restored (29:2). The emphasis, however, is much more on proving his fidelity and the extraordinary goodness of his life. He wants, he demands, that "the Almighty answer me!" (31:35). He needs desperately to have God recognize his integrity (31:6). The wealth and prosperity were only indicators of that integrity. So it is the vindication of his righteousness which really matters to Job.

What one searches for and what one expects will, I believe, affect the possibility of restoration or transformation. Though similar in their world view and in their beliefs, Job and Qoheleth differ in the focus of their search for happiness.

Related to this search is the way in which these two men viewed God. What seemed to be the image of God, the relationship with God in each case? This will be extremely important vis--vis restoration or transformation. It is clear that Qoheleth believes in God. As a son of Israel for whom the word of the Torah, the Prophets, and the Sages were second nature, Qoheleth could not doubt the reality of God for an instant. To say that the world exists is the same as saying that God exists. He consistently attributes power and sovereignty to the God of Israel (2:24-26; 3:10-15; 5:19; 7:13-14). God is also judge (3:17-18; 11:9-10). The predominant attitude of Qoheleth in relation to his creator is one of fear (3:14; 5:7; 7:18; 8:12-13). This fear meant approaching God in awe and wonder, not in belittling slavishness. And it was in keeping with his tradition: "Qoheleth's counsel is the classical exhortation of the Yahwistic wisdom tradition. Fear God!"(3) While these may be little indicators of a personal relationship with God, there is certainly no hint of disbelief. Qoheleth's God may have "made everything beautiful in its time" (3:11), but God also "has put eternity into man's mind, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end" (3:11). Humans are incapable of understanding the acts of God (7:14; 11:5). While God is puzzling and unknowable, Qoheleth insists on believing and resignedly accepting "the business that God has given to the sons of men to be busy with" (3:10). So God was certain for Qoheleth, but his God was a distant one, a ruler of the universe who tended to be indifferent in relation to humans.

Job too clings to his belief in the existence, the power, and sovereignty of God. Despite the incredible misfortunes which befall him, despite abandonment by his so-called friends and seeming abandonment by God, Job never totally loses faith and hope (although he comes close to despair) that God can set things right and vindicate him. In one way, Job is similar to Qoheleth; neither can understand God. What Job was experiencing in his suffering did not make sense; it did not fit into the scheme of things, that is, the theory of retribution. However, Job's response is different from Qoheleth's. Instead of resignedly accepting his suffering, he consistently calls upon God to hear his case. If only Job could find God, "I would lay my case with him and fill my mouth with arguments. I would learn what he would answer me and understand what he would say to me" (23:4-5). As is the wont of many of us, Job tries to deal with God in human fashion; he summons God to court: "There an upright man could reason with him and I should be acquitted forever by my judge" (23:7). However, God appears inaccessible to Job: "Behold, I go forward, but he is not there" (23:8).

How God is portrayed, then, is quite different in the two books of Job and Ecclesiastes. Part of the difference has to do with the form of the two works and the ways in which the two men are presented. Qoheleth is the observer, the teacher. He may show some frustration and bewilderment in relation to God, but Qoheleth and God are depicted as impersonal and distant. Job, on the other hand, is very much flesh and blood, upright and blameless and quite vulnerable. He is in the thick of oppression, not simply observing it from afar. For the most part, his God is distant until the Yahweh speeches in chapters 38-41. However, there remains a sense of Job's personal relationship with God in the midst of his suffering and God's apparent absence. Furthermore, in the past God was experienced as caring. The way in which Job calls on God to hear him and the vehemence of his accusations and pleas presume a personal relationship which is absent in Qoheleth.


It is difficult to separate the image of God in Job and in Qoheleth from the predominant theory of retribution. This image presumes the justice of God. In Job, traditional views on divine justice are presented fully. So also is the traditional doctrine of retribution. By claiming to explain fully the existence of evil, this doctrine builds on a weak and inadequate premise from which misleading and erroneous conclusions are often drawn. These erroneous conclusions certainly hold true in the case of Job. The author-poet of the book cleverly uses the "friends" of Job to present again and again this traditional Israelite belief that God will not reject a blameless man, nor take the side of evildoers. There is momentary hope when a fourth man, Elihu, appears. But he also denounces Job (32:12), argues for order in the universe, and defends the justice and transcendence of God (34:10-27; 36:1-23). Elihu may depict a more caring and merciful God and certainly one who is powerful, majestic, and in control of the world (36:24-37); but his speeches do not vindicate Job nor do they totally refute the theory of retribution.

Job himself does not begin by refuting the theory, as theory. Rather he regrets his existence: "Let the day perish wherein I was born, and the night which said, 'A man-child is conceived"' (3:3). And later he asks that "it would please God to crush me, that he would let loose his hand and cut me off" (3:9). But as the arguments of the three friends grow stronger, Job can only protest more that he is innocent, that he is a "blameless and upright man." In doing this, Job is refuting the retribution theory, not by observation from afar, but from within his own experience. His situation is so painful and bewildering that he not only pleads with God but also complains "in the bitterness of my soul" (7:11). Job is not reticent with God. He protests angrily: "If I sin, what do I do to thee, thou watcher of men? Why hast thou made me thy mark? Why had I become a burden to thee?" (7:20). Later he becomes even stronger. In the beginning of chapter 9, he blames God for anarchy in the world and goes so far as to accuse God, not of powerlessness in the face of chaos, but of capriciousness in the use of power. God is even accused of violence, oppression, and injustice (16:7-14; 19:1-13). Given Job's experience and extreme suffering, it is no wonder that he challenges retribution. His soliloquy in chapters 29-31 presents a summary of his defense. He has acted justly, has helped the poor widows, the blind, the lame, the wayfarer. He has not placed his trust in his wealth nor been false to God in any way. Truly the theory of retribution falls apart in Job's case.

In the Yahweh speeches in chapters 38-41, God confronts Job with a magnificent description of the power, majesty, and transcendence of the creator God who is in control of the universe. In some of the most beautiful and startling poetry of the Old Testament, the world of nature is shown to be a world of order; and retribution is related to order. Because of his own experience, Job had accused God of injustice and chaos. But after God's speeches, Job admits: "Therefore, I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know" (42:3). These Yahweh speeches neither explicitly defend God's action in relation to Job nor refute the theory of retribution. Instead they present a magnificent universe created and controlled by a God who is beyond human comprehension and who cannot be forced into human structures of logic and justice. In the face of this, the theory of retribution is shown to be inadequate to explain suffering and evil in the world. Yahweh remains a God of mystery.

The Book of Ecclesiastes also challenges the theory of retribution. In keeping with the character and tone of the book, Qoheleth's challenging lacks passion, perhaps because there is no sense that Qoheleth is the one who is suffering. He does observe that "under the sun that in the place of justice, even there was wickedness and in the place of righteousness, even there was wickedness" (3:16). He is aware of "all the oppressions that are practiced under the sun" (4:1). He even goes so far as to say that: "Surely oppression makes the wise man foolish" (7:7). Furthermore, the logic of retribution fails to explain prosperity and adversity: "In the day of prosperity be joyful, and in the day of adversity consider God has made the one as well as the other, so that man may not find out anything that will be after him" (7:14). According to Qoheleth, "there are righteous men to whom it happens according to the deeds of the wicked, and there are wicked men to whom it happens according to the deeds of the righteous" (8:14). So while he does not altogether deny the principle of retribution, he cannot disclaim its inadequacy. One wonders whether, if Qoheleth had suffered the misfortunes of Job, he might have been stronger in his challenges.


In relation to the theory of retribution and its call to righteous living, both Job and Qoheleth present a challenge. The former is more impassioned in his argument against retribution, but the potential to stray from traditional Israelite theology is present in Qoheleth. In the various themes found in Job and Qoheleth, moreover, still other similarities can be found. But are they alike or different in relation to restoration and transformation? I will attempt to look at this question first in relation to Qoheleth, then Job.

As background to the issue, however, it is important to look at the situation in general, that is, to locate the Books of Ecclesiastes and Job in the light of Israelite theology and, even beyond, in the light of human tendencies.

As to the theological hazards, we draw attention to the desire of all religions to possess eternal security for itself and to provide everlasting truths for its adherents. This problem arose for Israel from the way election led to divine promises to partial fulfillment, partial fulfillment to the expectation of a never-changing status quo. In other words, the fulfillment that has come from God must be divine; and if it is divine it must be unchangeable.(4)

This, then, is the background for Qoheleth's author. Yahweh, the compassionate God of Israel, had saved the Israelite people from Egyptian oppression and led them to the promised land. Yahweh had, through the Davidic monarchy, given them security and prosperity. This God was one of justice, power, and fidelity to the covenant. Fidelity to Yahweh and the covenant would assure Israel of continued blessings; infidelity would cause suffering, punishment, and eventual downfall. This fidelity/infidelity, goodness/wickedness was applied to the individual so that the cause/ effect theory of retribution was part of that "never-changing status quo," and to challenge this principle was to challenge related concepts such as divine justice and order in the universe. Qoheleth was questioning the very basic structures of Israelite theology. This indeed was dangerous.(5)

Experience was important in Wisdom thought, but experience also caused problems for Qoheleth, the wise preacher. He seems to have been steeped in the Wisdom tradition. He reflects the need for order, the pursuit of understanding, the strong belief in, and fear of, God. He even sometimes argues for retribution. Not only can Qoheleth not find happiness either in knowledge or wealth, but he looks around and sees that some of the "everlasting truths" of his tradition do not fit reality. The good are not always rewarded nor are the wicked always punished. Retribution is not reflective of his experience of life. And God seems to reward and punish arbitrarily. So Qoheleth challenges, somewhat tentatively, a basic tenet of Wisdom thought. It is as if he approaches an inviting swimming pool, tiptoes up to the edge, feels the water on his toes, maybe even splashes his face with the luring water; but then he retreats back to his safe perch to observe the pool, the world, the puzzles of life. He does not change his expectations of God or of life. He regrets that he cannot understand God. He does not like the oppression and injustice that he sees. He calls into question the world view that he has grown up in. But in the end, his resolution is to enjoy the God-given gift of life. His faith in God remains firm. In a spirit of resignation, he seems to practice what he preaches: fear of God.

So Qoheleth, by opening the door to challenge the existing Israelite theology and tenets of the Wisdom tradition, may be accused of revolt. Yet he seems to succumb and retreat back to the safety of the status quo. Thus, Qoheleth may have exhibited the potential for transformation, but in the end he chooses the security of restoration in the sense that he seems to prefer to remain within the traditional view.

It is said that "Job and Qoheleth mark the apex of dissent in the Old Testament."(6) As we have seen, Job is disturbed by his situation, not only because of his personal suffering, but also because his experience calls into question his world view. The arguments for order, divine justice, and retribution are clearly presented by his visitors. The reader, however, knows of the conversation between God and the Satan. So these arguments fall flat when placed side by side with the experience of Job. Yet there is no indication that Job sets out to change the boundaries of his world view. It is precisely his adherence to the traditional theology which causes him pain. His former wealth and prosperity were clear signs that he truly was blameless and upright. After the first chapter, the signs change and seem to show the opposite about Job. He, like his wife and friends, knows that the external situation is supposed to indicate goodness or wickedness. But in his case, retribution is shown to be more than inadequate; it is untrue. There are times when Job is near despair, and he pleads for death. He never denies God, but he certainly calls God's justice into question. Part of Job's suffering comes from having experienced a caring God in the past, who now, in his misery, seems to have deserted him. Job becomes angry with God and challenges not only divine justice but order in the universe. Job goes deeply into the revolt against the status quo. He, unlike Qoheleth, plunges into the pool and comes out transformed. But this transformation is effected not by Job but by God.

Many considered the major theme of the Book of Job to be the search for the meaning of suffering. Job asks the "why" of suffering. The answer is mystery, the incomprehensibility of God and God's ways. In the theophany in the Yahweh speeches, God does not argue in self-defense. He shows order in the universe and control of it. Job is transformed by the revelation of God. This utter incomprehensibility of the divine creator awes Job: "Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know" (42:3). Recognizing his human limitations, Job repents "in dust and ashes" (42:6).

Another aspect of Job's transformation lies in his image of God. At the heart of a conversion experience is the inevitable need to smash the idols we have of a God who must fit our categories. Job had been unable to conceive of a God who would not reward an upright person. An eminently just God, perhaps one holding a balance scale, appeared to be Job's image. Instead Job is confronted with majesty, with a God whose ingenuity awes Job and forces him to abandon his idol. He must allow God to be God, not made in the image of human rationality or human limitation. Transformation calls for a letting go of old images and allowing the incomprehensibility of God to shape new ones. Death of the old brings new faith in this mysterious God that Job has encountered and by whom Job has been transformed.

James Fowler, in Stages of Faith, makes an interesting statement in relation to structural stage change in faith development: "A structural stage change represents a qualitative transformation in the ways faith appropriates the contents of religion or ideological traditions."(7) Job has to abandon some of the traditional Israelite concepts. His suffering and the theophany no longer allow him to explain divine justice.(8) His world view, his theology, has been cracked wide open, allowing God to enter. This is Job's transformation.

The difference between Qoheleth and Job is their different relationships with God. The personal relationship of Job allowed him to question, to be angry with God. Job was not fighting with a concept, but with a person, allowing him to accept that person, God, without having all the answers to his questions.

Secondly, Job had a profound, painful, and personal experience of suffering. If Qoheleth had this also, it is not evident in the Book of Ecclesiastes. Being tested by God is one of the ways that we humans give meaning to suffering. The transformed Job knew, not by logical argument but by suffering, that retribution was not the answer. He could not defend God's justice. He had expected God to live up to his standards. He had challenged God unsuccessfully. The incomprehensibility of God had convinced Job of the transcendence of his God, yet God's power overwhelmed him. Defeat became victory. Job was transformed.

The adventure and call for each of us, then, is to let go of the secure and perhaps comfortable past, whether it be a type of prayer, a way of thinking about God, an answer to the mystery of suffering, a comforting friendship, a successful ministry, or good health. It is to let go and launch out into the deep without looking back and longing to be restored to the familiar, to what might be humanly logical but is also humanly limited. Then we can hope for conversion because we have not boxed God into our categories and structures. And we, like Job, can be transformed.


  1. One commentary on Job states that "the doctrine of retribution is one of those requirements of the human mind which God cannot fail to satisfy without appearing unjust. Between human deeds and their reward or punishment there is a connection which God has willed" (E. Dhorme, A Commentary on the Book of Job [London: Nelson & Sons, 1967], p. cxxviii.
  2. Robert Gordis, Koheleth - the Man and his World (Bloch Publishing Co., 1955), p. 119.
  3. Dianne Bergant, Job, Ecclesiastes (Wilmington, Del.: Michael Glazier, 1982), p. 255.
  4. Donald Senior and Carroll Stuhlmueller, The Biblical Foundations for Mission (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1983), p. 87.
  5. Walter Brueggemann refers to the dangers of going beyond boundaries or not pushing to these boundaries, and the difficulty of knowing how far to go and when to stop. It would be risky for an Israelite to think of changing boundaries, of deviating from tradition. See Brueggemann, "Scripture and Ecumenical Life-Style," Interpretation 24 (1970), 3-19.
  6. J. Crenshaw, "The Human Dilemma and Literature of Dissent," in Tradition and Theology in the Old Testament, ed. D. Knight, (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1976), p. 241.
  7. James Fowler, Stages of Faith (New York: Harper & Row, 1981), pp. 275-76.
  8. I am, in one sense, ignoring the Epilogue, for I believe that transformation already took place in Job's response in chapter 42. The Epilogue merely vindicates Job in the eyes of others, and his submission and repentance are not dependent on the restoration of goods and reputation.