Saturday, February 9, 2013


The Lord said to Satan:

"Have you considered my servant, Job?"

And thus Job's troubles began.  I am certain Job would have preferred to remain anonymous.  Alas for Job, he was "considered."

Let's consider Job's friends.  They come to comfort him as he sits on a pile of manure scraping his sores with pieces of broken pottery.  Job's friends have been criticized for their inadequate pastoral care, but they shouldn't be.  They are doing their best.  They are offering the best that theology can offer to poor blameless Job.   It is just that from Job's perspective their theology is wanting.

Job, his suffering, and his reflection on his suffering present a crisis for Job's friends.  Job presents a crisis to the entire community.   Because of his suffering and his refusal to submit to the community's theology, he is a threat.   Job should be a good boy and allow his experience to be subsumed under the theology of the community.   He should just repent or be quiet about it.

But Job will not repent.  He will not be silent.

The story of Job is not about Job or God.  The story of Job is about how a community wrestles with a crisis of meaning.   What happens when someone's suffering causes the foundations for meaning to shake?   Job's suffering is a threat to the community's meaning.   Suffering people must be explained away.   Whether this explanation is theological, psychological, or sociological, the explanation must serve to make us feel safe in light of the suffering of others.

Suffering without cause, that is suffering that could happen to me, is unacceptable.  I will invent psychological, sociological, or theological solutions to explain the suffering individual away and therefore retain for myself the illusion that as long as I do x or don't do y, I won't experience that same fate.  Job's friends try to convince Job that God must have had a reason for Job to suffer.   The readers of this wonderful story know the reason.   The reason Job suffered is because God was bored and used Job to make a bet.   Hardly admirable behavior for a deity.  

In modern terms, the reason for suffering is just as fickle.   People make up all kinds of reasons and suggest all kinds of causes for suffering.   Upon examination, suffering is not the result of sin as some Christians have claimed or because of desire as some Buddhists have claimed.  Suffering is not the result of karma as the New Age practitioners claim.   Suffering is not the result of failing to raise your children correctly or for failing to habituate to the seven habits of highly successful people.

Suffering is the result of time and chance.   It is better to be lucky than good.  That answer is hard to take.  We want to blame someone or something for it.   The reason we need to do that is the vain hope that suffering will not be visited upon us if we pray hard enough or believe hard enough or engage in some other pious activity, at least enough.

Job's friends represent the community confronted with a dilemma, a righteous sufferer.   That impossibility required them to blame the victim for his suffering.   They could not give up the idea of a just God.   They could not give up the idea of an intelligence, of an agent who will respond to their prayers.   To keep that belief, the sufferer must somehow be blamed.  His prayers must not have been adequate.   He must have done something wrong.

The truth is a bit more mundane.   Life is time and chance.   The best you can do is ride it out and be kind. 

Remember the story. God has a bet with Satan.   In this wager, God allows Satan to torture Job and bets that no matter what suffering is inflicted upon Job, Job will not curse God.   What a great guy this God is, right?   In actuality, God is a psychopath.    He allows Satan to kill and to torture for his own egocentricity.   Satan has Job's servants, livestock, and family killed by violence, fire, and wind and for good measure, he gives Job a case of boils.     

Job's nameless wife entreats Job to curse God and die.   This is little more than a suggestion for Job to kill himself honorably.   Why Job's wife isn't considered to be a suffering agent alongside Job is likely a result of patriarchal prejudice.   In any case, Job decides not to kill himself.   His three friends come to comfort him and to encourage him to repent of his wrongdoing which they believe is the cause of his suffering.   Neither does Job repent.

Job demands answers.  He doesn't get them.

Finally, God speaks to Job directly from a whirlwind.  In this speech, God does not come clean.  He does not tell Job the truth.  He only speaks about his power.  He is great.  Job is puny.  Therefore Job has nothing to say to God.   Might makes right.   The NRSV has Job respond to God's pompous bluster in 42:1-6:  

Then Job answered the Lord:
‘I know that you can do all things,
   and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.
“Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?”
Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand,
   things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.
“Hear, and I will speak;
   I will question you, and you declare to me.”
I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear,
   but now my eye sees you;
therefore I despise myself,
   and repent in dust and ashes.’ 

In this translation, Job, is a cowering sycophant.   This is not Job. This repentance of Job makes no sense given the narrative we have witnessed for the past 41 chapters.   The God of the story of Job is not worthy of repentance.  This God made a wager and never tells Job the truth.   He provides nothing but bluster.   He may be able to put a fishhook in Leviathan, but he can't tell the truth.
Not only does Job's response not make sense, the Hebrew also is unclear.   A translation that makes more sense of the Hebrew and the context is from Jack Miles in his wonderful book, God:  A Biography.  Here is Miles' translation of that critical portion of the story in which Job responds to God's pompous bluster from the whirlwind:

Then Job answered the Lord: 
“You know you can do anything.  Nothing can stop you.   You ask, ‘Who is this ignorant muddler?’ 
Well, I said more than I knew, wonders quite beyond me. 
‘You listen, and I’ll talk,’ you say,  ‘I’ll question you, and you tell me.’ 
Word of you had reached my ears, but now that my eyes have seen you, I shudder with sorrow for mortal clay."

In Miles' translation, Job does not repent.  The truth is that God is less moral than Job.  God has power but no justice.   God may be great, but he is not good.   Job, ever the seeker for justice, knows now that he sees and hears for himself that God is incapable of justice.    Job shames God.  God therefore rewards Job.  That is how the story ends with God learning a lesson.   While God may have won the bet over Satan, he loses the larger wager to Job.   God, the character, grows from his encounter with Job.  It isn't enough to be powerful, he must also be just. Now we have a story that makes sense.

For the author of Job, the idea of philosophical atheism would not be possible.   For that author, there must be an agent who created this world.  The question is whether or not this agent is friendly.   Job's story shows that he is not friendly.  He is fickle.   Confronted with this agent, Job can only weep for humanity, for "mortal clay."

There is no justice in this universe except that which we human beings are able to dispense ourselves.  If there is an intelligence it is no better than time and chance.   The author of Job knew that.   His interpreters, perhaps until Jack Miles, have not known that.    Because of piety ("God must be good"), the church and the guardians of scripture misread the story in the same way that Job's friends falsely accused Job.   In both cases, theology required them to marginalize the human experience of suffering.

That said, Job carries on.  He does not kill himself.     He doesn't not settle for pious answers or for his community's theology.  He seeks truth, faces it, shudders, and lives.

Thus, I consider that Job is my hero.

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