“I read the book of Job. I don’t think God comes out of it well.”
One time there was a man named Moses. Moses would go on to become a great prophet among his people and lead them out of slavery. Moses was a wise man. He attained 49 of the 50 levels of understanding. But, he had a question and the question haunted him all his life. As a young man Moses had noticed that his kinsmen were suffering. He could see that good things – wealth and honor and royalty – were often bestowed on bad people and bad things happened to good people, like his kinsmen who were in slavery. He wanted to know why.
Moses had access to the wisest of Pharaoh’s counselors and the very best of Hebrew teaching too. But he did not understand this one thing. He asked God, “Show me your ways” But God said something to the effect of, “Look, you can’t know that. I am my own man and I do what I do.” So, Moses was left with his question.
Most everybody has asked a question like that. It’s a mystery that we haven’t been able to answer. Jesus must have known that it was an enduring question because he also gave a non-answer in the Sermon on the Mount when he said, “God makes the sun to shine on the just and on the unjust, and God also sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” In other words, there is no answer.
The Book of Job is Moses way of working out his own questions while trying to give some comfort to those who got the short end of the stick in what seems to be a cosmic mishegoss. In the complexity of the story you can see the depths to which Moses wrestled with this question. And, of course, many of us know how it keeps us up at night too. We flatter ourselves with the idea that we are the good people to whom more good things should happen and that other people, those who are not like us, should perhaps bear some of the burden of the bad things. We want to know why God can’t be more just, like we would be if we were God.
But, we are not God, and this is the point that The Satan makes. “Of course, Job praises you,” he tells God, “You give him everything he wants.” And this kind of praise has rolled on through the centuries right to our very day. How many times have you heard the prosperous proclaim, “I am blessed, God is good.” Well, sure, God is good when you have everything you want. But, the implication is that those who appear cursed are not in God’s good graces. They must have sinned, right? Otherwise they’d be “blessed” too.
The Book of Job puts the lie to this sort of thinking. Job maintains his innocence even while his friends – the voices in Moses’ head – tout a more conventional theology. They really tried hard to make Job’s situation fit into their own views of the world. But, was Job really so innocent? The tentacles of popular culture and conventional thinking are long and sticky. The writer tells us that, despite everything, Job did not sin with his lips, so he didn’t say anything amiss, but it doesn’t tell us what he was thinking. Maybe Job agreed with his friends, but he didn’t say so.
It is very interesting that the writer said this, “…he did not sin with his lips” because it lets us in on the fact that even Job had his doubts. We have to ask ourselves how the myths and beliefs of our own world influence what we believe, even if it’s not what we say we believe. Culture, our friends, our churches… they all tell us things that we may know are not true. Some of us were raised in theological traditions that are at odds with what we believe now, what we want to believe, but those tentacles are long. If the righteous Job had doubts, I think we can admit that we do too.
In the end, Job reaches the 50th level of understanding, and it is most unsatisfactory. Using YHUH as God’s name to emphasize the quality of mercy, Job says, “YHUH has given, YHUH has taken away, blessed be YHUH.”
As we face an uncertain future, which seems to be the only sure thing, we can do so knowing that God is present, God is merciful, and God is compassionate, even when God is not particularly just.
Linda McMillan is a struggler with no answers trying to make sense of the senseless here in Bangkok.
Some Notes of Possible Interest
The Revised Common Lectionary will give us a reading from Job for the next four weeks. It is a difficult book, even the Hebrew used is unique in Bible writing. These notes may help you through the coming week’s readings.
It is a rabbinic tradition that Moses wrote Job, but there is good reason to believe it was written in the 6th or 7th century BC long after Moses. So, nobody really knows for sure.
Job is also mentioned in the Talmud as living at times other than Moses. The Rabbis go to great lengths trying to ascertain when Job actually lived through various interpretations of the Tanakh.
*Bava Batra 15a-15b1
1. Job was a contemporary of Moses
2. Job was a contemporary of Isaac
3. Job was a contemporary of Jacob
4. Job was a contemporary of Joseph
5. Job was a contemporary of David
6. Job was among those who returned from the Babylonian Exile
7. Job was a contemporary of the Judges
8. Job was a contemporary of Ahasuerus
It is hard to know when the book of Job was written, though it is agreed that it is very old.
Since the story lacks any historical context and no historic individuals are mentioned, it is very hard to date.
The Talmud (redacted at about 500 CE) has several versions. The Talmud (Bava Barta 14b) says it was written by Moses, but then on the next page (15a), rabbis Jonathan and Eliezer say Job was among those who returned from the Babylonian Exile in 538 BCE, which was about seven centuries after Moses’ supposed death.
I like to think that Moses wrote the story to answer his own questions and as a comfort to his own kinsmen who were suffering under slavery and that the story was drug out again, for the same reason, during the Babylonian captivity. It is clearly based on a folk-tale making the rounds. I don’t think Job, or Iyov in Hebrew, was a real person, but it’s a great story and helps us understand the problem of evil.
The question of why a good God lets bad things happen is called theodicy. It’s not a very common word and about the only reason to use it is if you want to impress somebody. But, it does often work for that. Even though it’s a Greek word it was coined by Leibniz. Leibniz was German.
Some people think that Job was both a Torah scholar and an advisor to Pharaoh.
We really have to let go of this idea of the devil as a heavenly personage in rebellion against God. In this book The Satan is presented in a more realistic light as a member of the heavenly court. He is the accuser. That is his job. In the Hebrew Bible “Satan” never appears without the direct object. It is The Satan, like The General, or The King, or The Slave. It’s a function, not a person.
The Satan accused Job of the worst sin of all, putting on a religious face of faithfulness and obedience to get the blessing of God. Job proved that he was faithful and obedient even when God appeared not to bless him.
In this week’s reading we see that Job praises God in the midst of his troubles, next week he will lament his losses. Praise is not the only appropriate answer to trouble. Praise and lament are two sides of the same coin. They go together.
It is interesting that God told the satan that he could torment Job, “But do not touch his life,” and yet Job was left with more than his own life. Included in one’s own life is his spouse and his friends. The satan couldn’t touch Job’s spouse because to lose a spouse is the same as losing your own life. Same for a friend.
Job also appears in the Koran as one of the 25 prophets. It says he was steadfast and an upright worshipper. It’s pretty much the same story except that the friends are replaced by brothers and his wife stays by his side throughout the ordeal.