There is an apparent contradiction between Deuteronomy and Job. In Deuteronomy, it seems that you always get what you deserve. But Job flatly denies that.

For example, this is how Ronald E. Clements, writing in the New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, describes the ‘theological thought world of the deuteronomists’, as displayed in Deuteronomy 28:1-44:

Retribution for good to those who obey and for ill to those who disobey is the key feature. We hear the confident deuteronomic doctrine that God is wholly just and fair in all dealings with the people of Israel. … Israel can remain assured that it receives from God only what it deserves.

Similarly, in his reflections on Deuteronomy 28, Clements writes:

Those who obey the law will be blessed and will achieve happiness and prosperity (Deut 28:2-14); conversely, those who disobey the law will be cursed and will suffer misfortune and ruin (vv. 16-44). Such is the deuteronomic doctrine of retribution that governs both the law book and the written story of Israel’s history shaped by its doctrines. God is a God of justice, and divine retribution is inevitable.

He continues:

Yet if a doctrine of retribution is true, it is certainly not the whole truth about life and cannot therefore be made into a universal truth that is always valid. Evildoers often do not get their deserts, and correspondingly very good people may suffer horrendous misfortunes. The book of Job is the richest biblical exploration of the doctrine of retribution.

This certainly raises the question as to whether such a ‘doctrine of retribution’ – apparently so central to the theology of the Book of Deuteronomy – is, in fact, true. Indeed, for Clements, the barbarity of Deuteronomy 28:47-57 has precisely this effect:

Although the simple doctrine of retribution is still held on to, it is already evident from the horrifying instance of cannibalism that the doctrine had worn extremely thin! … [These verses] raise the question whether a simple teaching that evil and misfortune are a consequence of disobedience to God’s law is really enough to explain the facts of the real world!

It would be tempting to resolve the apparent contradiction by appealing to the final judgment. Justice will prevail, ultimately, in the resurrection.

This is clearly true, but I don’t think it really helps. Deuteronomy appears to envision a much more immediate outworking of justice. Obedience leads to blessing, not in the distant future, in eternity, but in the immediate future.

Some people are willing to face the apparent contradiction head on. Here is how a Lutheran pastor, John Petty, expresses it on his blog:

The book of Job is a direct contradiction of the Deuteronomist. Job is punished for no reason at all. His friends—good Deuteronomists!—try to convince him that he surely must have done something. Otherwise, he wouldn’t be being punished.

Similar comments can be found elsewhere (1, 2).

But is there an alternative approach?

Rob Barrett thinks there is. Writing on Deuteronomy in A Theological Introduction to the Pentateuch, he questions the assumption that Deuteronomy reflects a simple doctrine of retribution:

Quite often [the ideas of blessing and curse] are reduced to a tit-for-tat proportional response by Yhwh to good and bad actions by individuals, sometimes labeled ‘retribution theology.’ Yhwh does nothing so trivial; after all, this would reduce Israel’s existence to a series of mechanical exchanges (153-4).


Blessing and curse in Deuteronomy are national and absolute, not individual and proportional (154).

What, then, is going on with the blessings and the curses, if it is not a simple matter of retribution?

First, what about the blessings?

Blessing is no mere incentive to obedience but enables Israel’s distinctive life with Yhwh (153).

In other words, the blessings are not God’s response to Israel’s obedience, but they enable Israel to obey, and to fulfil their vocation.

Second, what about the curses?

Yhwh’s curse is a tool for devastating disloyal Israel and, through destruction, restoring them to loyalty (153).

In other words, the curses are not merely a response to Israel’s disobedience, but they have a purpose in mind: Israel’s restoration, so that their vocation can be fulfilled.

Both the blessings and the curses, then, need to be understood within the specific context of God’s plans and purposes for Israel. It is not a simple matter of retribution. And this means there is no contradiction between Deuteronomy and Job. Job is concerned with the general lack of justice in the world: why do innocent people suffer? But Deuteronomy is concerned with God’s specific plans for Israel – plans to bring blessing to a specific nation, through whom all the nations on earth would be blessed (ultimately, through Jesus).