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  • Writer's pictureDoug Weiss

Job

As any reader of these posts knows all too well, I am not a theologian nor am I as widely read as I would wish. Perhaps that I why I find the biblical story of Job such a difficult text to put into perspective. A sermon by our pastor put me in mind of my long-standing discomfort with this text and its lessons. For those who may not recall the story and only recall Job’s suffering, a brief summary may be helpful. It is after all a very long story.

At the beginning of the book, we are introduced to a wealthy man with a large family who is widely known for his piety and blamelessness. In other words, Job appears to have been living a life fully in consonance with God’s commandments. God boasts to Satan about Job’s faithfulness—surely a plot device for what ensues—but to my thinking inconsistent with what we are told of God, who certainly appears more human in this instant than divine. We then learn that Satan challenges God to a test, one in which he is allowed to torment Job up to the point of death to prove that he will inevitably curse God for his sorrows.


At once Job is visited by messengers telling him that his livestock, servants and his ten children have all died in stunning man-made and natural catastrophes, but we of course know these are the work of Satan. But rather than cursing God, Job passes the test and praises him in prayer. Unsatisfied, Satan presses his case and again God allows him to torment Job—afflicting him with sores and pains all over his body. In his pain, Job cries out repeatedly asking the age-old question, why, why are you allowing these terrible things to happen to me? Job’s wife encourages him to curse God, but he resists her bidding.


Shortly, Job is visited by three friends who have come to share his grief in silence for seven days as was the tradition. When the time of silence has elapsed Job cries out in his pain wishing he had never been born and questions what he has done to deserve his afflictions. His friends speak out in long poetic passages presenting the cases against Job and their faithless views on why he has been punished. Clearly this is the meat of the piece—the arguments humans advance in their misunderstanding of justice, God’s mercy, and blame.


Rejecting their arguments, Job retains his confidence in God but ponders whether he has in fact done evil and concludes that whether he has or not, he is not wise enough to plead his case before an inscrutable deity but ultimately asks for a reckoning --a trial in effect before God. When a fourth friend enters the scene, he too surmises that Job is deserving of pain suggesting it is one of the two ways that God communicates with Humans –through suffering or visions. When Job again rejects the counsel of his so-called friends, God appears from a whirlwind and calls upon him to respond to largely rhetorical questions designed to reveal what Job understands about creation and the author to enumerate God’s infinite power and blessings. In the concluding passages, although God is angered by the poor counsel Job’s friends have given him, he forgives them at Job’s intercession and rewards Job with health, long life, property and new children.


I am not the first and am certain I won’t be the last to struggle with this testament. For one thing it presents significant questions regarding pre-destination, free will, and God’s relationship to Satan. One might well ask why an all-powerful, omniscient God has need to prove anything –much less to the personification of Evil. Evil, scripture tells us, came into our world due to man’s fall from grace.


We humans question many things about our existence: why bad things happen to good people; why wicked and foolish people may lead charmed lives; why justice often does not appear to be served by man’s law or God’s. If the answer is that God is ineffable, that God’s ways and purposes can never be understood by us then we are rendered mere playthings, subject to capricious forces finding salvation only if we remain steadfast in our faith that the next world will bring our reward. That is what is preached from many pulpits and is consistent with the stark absolutism of fundamentalist belief.


I favor a more nuanced view. A loving God, one who places his son on a cross to be sacrificed for the redemption of human-kind seems an entirely different character from an old testament deity, weary of human faithlessness. How do we reconcile these two glimpses of a being that is indeed beyond human comprehension? Of course, I have no way of proving or even knowing God’s nature. But I do know a little about human beings and it seems quite evident that the very human author of the book of Job had a mission to instruct and glorify. Like all good authors he needed a character with whom we could empathize—he needed an antagonist—Satan, and he needed someone—or several someone’s to posit the litany of arguments we humans advance when we are looking for someone or something to blame for what is wrong in our lives.


My purpose in advancing this view is simple but borders on the heretical. I am not a biblical literalist. I do not subscribe to the view that every syllable is the word of God and I am uncomfortable with the fall back that although written by men—and subject to all of the issues of translation, historic and cultural bias, patronage and misinterpretation that vex scriptural scholars it is nonetheless divinely inspired. Perhaps God worked through men to reveal something of his nature—that is the conventional explanation. There are parts of the testaments that resonate strongly—that attain a wisdom and sense of truth which is indeed transcendent for me and in which I can place faith. In the same vein, there are stories—such as this one which convey equally important truths but in a manner that asks me to accept apparent contradictions and tests my God-given human intellect.


Draw your own conclusions. I am not advocating for anyone to subscribe to my position and I am prepared to change my view with enlightenment. For me, struggling with scripture is healthy. I never wish to simply accept without testing what I read and hear against my own experience of the world and I cannot ignore the –shall I say apparent flaws in scripture that suggest it too is the work of men—struggling as I do, to make sense of the world, life and our relationship with God.

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