Sunday, February 8, 2015 - Click here for the Readings
Who is Job, and why does he think life is a drudgery?
Job was a legendary figure in ancient Israel. The Book of Job recounts the experiences of this individual, whom we are told from the opening chapters, was a “blameless and upright man who feared God and avoided evil.” The narrative begins with God holding court in Heaven--since ancient societies were structured as absolute monarchies, God was depicted as being a King on a throne, ruling over all creation. (We think of the opening line of nearly all Jewish liturgical prayers, “Blessed are you, Lord God, King of all the Universe...”)
As you have probably seen depicted in both period pieces about European monarchies, or fictional works like Game of Thrones, the ruler sits on a throne in a large room, with various counselors, advisors, and elite members of society milling about. One particular member of ancient courts was known as “the satan,” which translates as “the adversary,” or “the prosecutor.” For the ancient Jews, the satan was not a proper name, but a title, like District Attorney or Secretary of State. (Only over many centuries did it evolve into the Christian understanding of a particular being, the devil, who personified evil and rebellion against God.)
The role of the satan, as portrayed in the Hebrew Scriptures, was to test humans on behalf of God. The Book of Job begins with God boasting about the righteousness of Job. “Have you noticed my servant Job?” God asks the satan. “There is no one on earth like him, blameless and upright, fearing God and avoiding evil.” The satan challenges God as to the depth of Job’s holiness, countering that, well, of course Job acts in a such a manner... God has blessed him abundantly, with many offspring, a large herd of animals, a successful business, good health. Take all those things away, the satan insists, and we’ll see whether Job is still singing God’s praises. Confident in his servant’s faithfulness, God tells the satan to go ahead and strip Job of these many blessings. So, one by one, the good things in Job’s life are taken from him... his herd of animals (which represented all his earthly wealth) was slaughtered by foreign marauders. His children (life’s greatest joy) were all killed in a natural disaster.
And, eventually, Job himself is afflicted with “severe boils from the soles of his feet to the crown of his head.” Any one of these calamities would have constituted an unimaginable source of suffering for Job... to lose all his earthly possessions... to have his young children taken from him... to be suddenly accosted by severe illness... But to undergo every one of them simultaneously represents an unthinkable level of human pain and misery.
Job’s response to these horrific events? “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I shall go back there. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord!”
By the time we come to today’s first reading, in Chapter 7, Job is feeling a bit less upbeat about everything. His wife and friends have importuned upon him to curse the God who would deliver such devastating evil upon him. And understandably so. In ancient times, life’s fortune was considered to be a direct reflection of a person’s righteousness. A man whose flock multiplied, whose lands brought forth a bountiful harvest, who prospered in his business transactions, was esteemed to be blessed, by God, for his fidelity to the Law. Contrarily, a person who was beset by illness, cursed with drought or pestilence, or unlucky in other matters, was seen as someone whom God was punishing for unholy behavior. For God to punish Job--a man admired by all as being holy and upright--was for God to violate God’s own laws of cosmic justice. It represented the apotheosis of injustice, and God should be called to answer for this crime.
Eventually, Job does cry out for answers, and his visceral, powerful lamentations form one of the most gut-wrenching and beautiful pieces of poetry that humanity has ever put to paper. Job expresses anguish to a degree few of us could comprehend. His own moaning is complemented by an extended dialogue with several friends who challenge him on various points, and at the end of the Book, the Lord Himself comes face to face with Job for a final accounting of all that has happened.
So what does this have to do with us?
The Book of Job is a part of the Ketuvim, or “writings,” which constitues the third and final portion of the Hebrew Scriptures, known as the Tanakh, or TNK. Torah, the first books, deal with God’s Law. The Nevi’im, or “Prophets,” detail the history of the people Israel as they fail to live up to the guidelines of the Covenant, as laid out in Torah. And the Ketuvim includes several genres of literature, such as the history books, which lay out how David unified the tribes of Israel and established the Kingdom of Israel, as well as the so-called “Wisdom” books, among which Job is counted. The Wisdom books, which also includes Proverbs, do not deal with the people Israel, directly, so much as they do human life and themes common to all persons, like raising a family, maintaining relationships, and, perhaps most pervasively, how to make sense of human suffering and evil things happening in the universe.
If you were to read through Job’s lamentations, you would, no doubt, think of moments in your own life in which you felt acute anguish and abandonment by God. You would, almost certainly, resonate with Job’s cry to God later in Chapter 7, “Why have you made me your target? Why should I be a burden for you?” Job presses his case repeatedly, demanding to know what he has done to deserve such horrible treatment, while many who are more evil than he go about their business, apparently unpunished.
Job’s suffering cuts to the very core of his being. The verses that comprise the middle of the book unveil one of the most profound explorations of theodicy (theodicy is the technical term for the question of how an all-good and loving God can permit evil to happen) in all of human history. Throughout his torment, Job repeatedly wishes aloud that he had never been born, or that, if he is going to continue to experience such agony, that God simply end his life, and so end the torture.
This central theme of how an all-good and all-loving God can allow such horrible things to happen to His creatures is not one that has gone away in the many centuries since this book was originally written. How and why the God about whom we sing, “How great thou art!” and “Lord I Lift Your Name on High!” is the same God who permits a hurricane to destroy an entire city, an aggressive form of leukemia to afflict children in the pediatric cancer ward, and seemingly ceaseless violence in any number of war-torn societies around the world. How can this be? How can we reconcile the guiding principle that God made us to love us and be happy, with the lived experience that, for many, life is, as Job attests, “a drudgery”?
The deeply unsatisfying truth is that we cannot come to an adequate answer with respect to this perpetually vexing question. Such is a central thesis of Wisdom literature in the Bible... humans cannot know the mind of God. Mere mortals, limited as we are by finite capacities for reason and understanding, cannot comprehend the workings of the Lord. Instead, we are called to two primary responses: (1) deep and abiding faith that this all-knowing and all-merciful God really DOES have a plan and purpose to these happenings; and (2) that each of us may be used as instruments of healing and consolation in the lives of those undergoing such suffering. There is perhaps no more urgent mission given to us as believers than to ask, “How can I be a source of comfort for this person who is in pain?” It is a question we are compelled to ask in our own lives on a daily basis.
Questions for Reflection
1. Have you ever experienced great suffering, personally? Did you question why God was allowing it to happen? How do you process its place in your life?
2. Have you ever witnessed someone else suffering in front of your eyes? How did you try to be a source of healing for that person?
3. Do you know anyone right now who is in need of healing? How do you think you can be an instrument of love and comfort for him/her? What do you do when you feel powerless?