Saturday, March 28, 2009

Job 38-43: The Problem of Suffering, and Other Problems

So the Book of Job has been this long, long theological discussion about whether suffering is necessarily divine punishment, or if it might be either divine punishment or divine warning, or if it might just be something that happens randomly. Job and four of his friends have hashed this question out at great length without really getting anywhere, and when we left off last time I was excited to see that we would now get God's own words on this important question.

God on the Problem of Suffering

God's response, however, is not one either to satisfy those who would seek a relationship of dialogue with the Divine, nor even one that casts any light on the issue. Essentially, it's four chapters of sarcastic questions belittling Job for having thought to speculate on the nature of God.

Where were you when I laid the earth's foundation?
Tell me, if you understand.
Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know!
It goes on in this vein for four chapters. God describes the various things that he can do and Job can't, and points out that Job is nowhere NEAR as powerful and well-informed as he is. So, God's message on the question of suffering seems to be: "Shut up and stop asking questions."

The Narrative Conclusion

In Job 42, the storyline picks up where it left off in Job 2. Job apologizes all over himself for his presumption. Then, god tells Job's buddies that they have spoken of him incorrectly, and gives them instructions for making a sacrifice of atonement. To this extent, God seems to indirectly refute the notion that all suffering is divine retribution for sin.
Gerard Seghers, 'The Patient Job', early 1600s
Except, Job said that too at one point (although, see below), and God doesn't assign him any sacrifices. Indeed, God seems to be pouring on the rewards. Job is healed, his family comes around to visit, and in short order he has twice as much livestock as he did before. In the fullness of time, he has another seven sons and another three daughters, and -- this is stressed -- his second set of daughters is even prettier than the first ones were! So, Job's a lucky guy! I guess! And he lives to be really old.

Further Study

So I looked up Job in Peloubet's Bible Dictionary, copyright 1925, which Mrs.5000 purchased for me last weekend at an estate sale. (Mrs.5000 is freaking awesome.) According to PBD, Job "stands as the greatest poem in the world's great literatures." Hmm. Also, that "it is almost universally agreed that the basis of the Book of Job was an historical fact; that Job was a real man who underwent such severe trials and disasters that they made a lasting impression upon his age...." Hmm. "Every good man's life in the end is a success. With God's children there are no life-tragedies. There are dramas and lyric songs and epics, but no tragedies." Hmm.

So, I turned to the more modern Oxford Companion to the Bible. Here, we learn that Job "is not only a work of intellectual vigor; it is also a literary masterpiece that belongs with the classics of world literature." More usefully, the OCB summarizes some critical scholarship on Job. I am, apparently, not the first to notice that much of what Job says is actually an argument against what otherwise seems to be his main point. Most Job scholars apparently feel that the Book only makes sense with the speeches shuffled somewhat, so that chunks of Job's speeches are reassigned to various of his three buddies. I hope I am not too curmudgeonly to feel that a record of a discussion in which there is literally no way to keep the various lines of argument distinct from each other has some fundamental problems with its cred as a "work of intellectual vigor."

It is frankly silly to call it a "literary masterpiece." Although, who knows, it might sound amazing in Hebrew. In English translation, though, it is opaque, repetitive, confused, and dull. It is extremely interesting as a record of the thought of people who lived long ago, and no doubt that interest only increases for someone with real specialist expertise in Biblical scholarship. To the extent that the intent of the poem was "literary" as we understand the word, however -- something that seems awfully unlikely -- the most that can be said is that it is really, really, really old.

I am not just blandly naysaying the OCB here. Really, I think that it is important to call out anyone who declares a text this unapproachable and turgid to be overbrimming with literary merit. For when someone is told this, and then runs up against the brick wall of a text manifestly lacking in any kind of literary value as the term is commonly understood, their inclination may well be to dismiss the text -- the Bible, in this case -- as something unapproachable by any means. Or, they may just assume that they are not smart enough to appreciate great literary works, and as a result reject the possibilities of literature in general. In this way are lives made less rich.

If you approach the Book of Job expecting a literary masterpiece, I absolutely, positively guarantee you that you will be utterly disappointed. If you approach it expecting a real muddle of a theological discussion, you will probably be able to glean some ideas from among its chaos. I hope, having had this warning, you fare better than me. Please report back!

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Job 32 - 37: Elihu Puts His Two Shekels In

Job and his three pals have been arguing for 30 chapters, and after last week's reading they were pretty much argued out. Nobody has convinced anybody, so there's an awkward pause in the conversation. This gives a young guy who has been sitting nearby a chance to speak.

His name is Elihu, and he's been keeping quiet out of deference to his elders. Now it all comes spilling out, five chapters worth, although the first chapter is really just a long apology for jumping into the conversation. He is frustrated that Job's three friends haven't been able to refute his arguments, and hopes he can do better than them.

He starts off in Job 33 with a new line of argument. Job has complained throughout the book that God is remote and uncommunicative, but Elihu argues that God is speaking all the time, just not directly.

For God does speak -- now one way, now another
though man may not perceive it.
In a dream, in a vision of the night,
when deep sleep falls on men as they slumber in their beds,
he may speak in their ears
and terrify them with warning,
and keep him from pride,
to preserve his soul from the pit,
his life from perishing by the sword.
Or a man may be chastened on a bed of pain
with constant distress in his bones,
so that his very being finds food repulsive
and his soul loathes the choicest meal.
What this boils down to, as far as I can see -- and again, in the twisty poetry of Job, I often can't see much -- is first, that God speaks to us in dreams and visions. Personally, I find this unlikely, since my dreams are usually pretty dull affairs on the order of "I was in this house where I used to live, but people I didn't know at the time were there too!" But whatever. And after that, we're right back into the argument of "God gives people worldly blessings and punishments according to their behavior, which is the same idea that the three pals have been beating to death all through the chapter and which Job, except for a brief bit in Chapter 21, hasn't done a very good job of arguing against.

Towards the end of his speech, Elihu makes the further argument that the very natural order is in a sense the voice of God. Well, maybe not the natural order so much as weather: lightning, storms, thunder, clouds, winds, Elihu says, all speak for the power and majesty of God. Wanting to speak to such a power, as Job does, he thinks foolish:

37:19 "Tell us what we should say to him;
we cannot draw up our case because of our darkness.
20 Should he be told that I want to speak?
Would any man ask to be swallowed up?
21 Now no one can look at the sun,
bright as it is in the skies
after the wind has swept them clean.
22 Out of the north he comes in golden splendor;
God comes in awesome majesty.
23 The Almighty is beyond our reach and exalted in power;
in his justice and great righteousness, he does not oppress.
That last clause is kind of problematic, though, in that it doesn't follow from what came before. "Really powerful" does not mean, or even really imply, "righteous," as anyone living at any period of history would have to know. This may be an example of why I find is so hard to tell what is going on in the arguments of Job -- they don't seem to be conducting their discussion within the same general framework of logic that a modern dude like me is used to. It's a poem, too, so who knows how important the theological discussion is supposed to be relative to it creating a pleasant effect in the original. Sometimes I have wondered if the whole chapter is not just so much ancient hot air, but then I know that many books have been written about the theology of Job, so there must be SOMETHING in here that is eluding me.

Just to check if there was something obvious I was missing, I checked with the Wiki, which is never wrong. Elihu, it says:

contradicts the fundamental opinions expressed by the 'friendly accusers' in the central body of the text, that it is impossible that the righteous should suffer, all pain being a punishment for some sin. Elihu states that suffering may be decreed for the righteous as a protection against greater sin, for moral betterment and warning, and to elicit greater trust and dependence on a merciful, compassionate God in the midst of adversity.
...and yeah, that sounds about right.

After Elihu's speech, who should enter the conversation but God himself, with a speech that takes up most of the rest of the Book. That seems like it will be worth treating on its own, so we'll break here for now.

Next: "We'll hear it straight from the horse's mouth" sounds pretty sacriligious, but I'm having a hard time coming up with any other way of saying it.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Job 22-31: They Keep Arguing

So when we lost saw Job, he had just made a rather powerful observation. His friends, you'll remember, have been giving him what-for because his misfortunes are, to their eyes, clear evidence that he is being punished by God for something. They want him to 'fess up, so that he can be forgiven by God and put an end to his run of bad luck.

After asserting his innocence all this time, Job argued in Chapter 21 that this whole theory of divine retribution is undermined by an obvious observation: a lot of time, the wicked do really well in this life. If God was really handing out rewards for good and bad behavior, you would expect to see fewer happy evildoers.

I was curious to see how this would affect the subsequent argument, and am disappointed to find that.... it doesn't. They just continue as before. Eliphaz makes responds by directly accusing Job of some hidden wickedness -- he must have done something wrong to merit his punishment, after all -- with no response to what the man has just said.

As for Job, he just continues to complain that he has no way of making his case directly to God. His problem is not the loss of his family, fortune, and health, he claims; it is the remoteness of God from his creation. You can imagine many of his statements having been underlined in the Bibles of many an Existentialist in the 1950s and 1960s:

...if I go to the east, he is not there;
if I go to the west, I do not find him.
When he is at work in the north, I do not see him;
when he turns to the south, I catch no glimpse of him.
(23:8-9) faint the whisper we hear of him!
Who then can understand the thunder of his power?

In Chapter 24, he seems to brush again on the problem of unpunished evil in a long passage about pain and suffering in the world, which starts with something like a procedural complaint:

Why does the Almighty not set times for judgment?
Why must those who know him look in vain for such days?

But then, in the second half of Job 27, he seems to be making exactly the same arguments his friends have been making against him. He describes at some length how the evil will be punished by God -- in this life! This baffles me. If this was just a record of a long, rambling conversation, we wouldn't necessarily expect the participants to cling to a consistent point of view all the way through. But this is the Bible, and presumably there is supposed to be some kind of theological lesson at the heart of this conversation. Up until now, I thought the point was that divine reward and punishment should not be expected to happen in our reality, or in "real time" as it were. But now Job has argued both sides of the issue, and I'm confused.

Could it be that the book of Job just isn't intellectually consistent? And if so, is that an intentional ambiguity that's supposed to mean something, or is it just, perhaps, a flawed or confused piece of writing? The later seems unlikely, as you'd expect someone to have noticed incoherence sometime in the Bible-assembling process. Maybe all will become clear later.

As an aside, Job's friend Eliphaz asks a very interesting set of questions at the outset of today's reading, questions that cut to the heart of the relationship between God and humanity.

Can a man be of benefit to God?
Can even a wise man benefit him?
What pleasure would it give the Almighty if you were righteous?
What would he gain if your ways were blameless? (22: 2-3)

Here, again, is the prevailing theme of Job: that God is so remote, so different, so unlike us that any attempt at understanding him -- or perhaps even of pleasing him through rightous and obedient behavior -- is doomed to futility. Interesting and provocative, but Eliphaz does not seem to grasp the implications of what he has said, and the idea is not developed any further.

Next: I continue to wade through Job.

Friday, March 06, 2009

Job 12-21: With Friends Like Jobs'....

So last time, we got the basic story of Job in one and a half chapters, and then saw Job argue about his situation with three of his friends for the next nine and a half chapters. The next ten chapters continue this conversation, as Job's buddies -- Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar -- continue to hector him, and he continues to rail back at them. It's all dialog, this "interior poem" of the Book of Job, and I imagine most of it being shouted accusingly between our hero and his erstwhile pals.

The buddies continue to reiterate, and re-reiterate, and re-re-reiterate, their basic argument: that God punishes the unjust and evil, and therefore Job's punishment must be based on some wrongdoing. They want him to come clean, make atonement, and humble himself before God; if he honestly does this, they think, his punishment will be lifted.

For most of this section, Job continues to counter is the same way he did in the earlier chapters. He protests his innocence, and argues that the actions and motivations of God are inscrutable. In so doing, he gets in some good digs at his friends (and perhaps at all of us):

Men at ease have contempt for misfortune
as the fate of those whose feet are slipping.
Despite his insistence of the unknowableness of God's motives, however, Job is persistent in asserting that God is unfair in not communicating with him. I desire to speak to the Almighty and to argue my case with God, he asserts (13:3), frequently crying out for the same. Indeed, he seems less bothered by his misfortune -- his loss of property and standing, the death of his family, his personal afflictions -- than by God's refusal to explain any of this to him.

Only grant me these two things, O God,
and then I will not hide from you:
Withdraw your hand far from me,
and stop frightening me with your terrors.
Then Summon me and I will answer,
or let me speak, and you reply.
How many wrongs and sins have I committed?
Show me my offense and my sin.
Why do you hide you face and consider me your enemy?
Will you torment a windblown leaf?
It's interesting that, despite an almost total submission to the acts of God, that Job is all but scolding God for not communicating and explaining his actions.

Though I cry, "I've been wronged!" I get no response; though I call for help, there is no justice. (19:7)
But Who's Right?

This is not easy reading -- I continue to wrestle with it -- but its existence as an open discussion about the nature of God and God's role in the world is highly interesting. We haven't really seen anything like this before in the Bible. The closest we've been was in the books of Moses, when God was laying out the long list of laws to govern human behavior, but this is a very different sort of discussion. For one thing, it is highly ambiguous. It seems like we are supposed to think that Job is right, or at least righter than his three friends, but this is never really spelled out.

And, from everything stated in the Bible up to this point, it is hard to fault the friends. Throughout the histories, God is forever rewarding or punishing people (or whole nations) by making good things or bad things happen to them here on Earth. Writers of all the previous books of the Bible have had no problem with ascribing people's fortunes and misfortunes, even their deeds and misdeeds, to God's rendering judgment on their behaviors. By that reasonable standard, the friends are right.

Except, we know from the way the story is set up that Job is an innocent. We know that God has allowed his tremendous misfortune not as a punishment, but merely as an experiment. This certainly gives weight to Job's assertion that the ways of God are inscrutable. Whether Job is in the right in his demands for an explanation for his sufferings is an open question. I can't tell whether this is considered unseemly arrogance, or whether he is perfectly free to demand all he wants, secure in the knowledge that God has not the slightest obligation to pay his demands any attention.

Job 21: Let's Look at the Evidence

Finally, Job gets empirical with his friends. He points out something that, as much back in the day as now, must have been pretty obvious: the theory of divine retribution from evil is all fine and good, but anybody who has been around the block a few times knows it doesn't work. If things work the way you say, he points out:

7 Why do the wicked live on,
growing old and increasing in power?
8 They see their children established around them,
their offspring before their eyes.
9 Their homes are safe and free from fear;
the rod of God is not upon them.
10 Their bulls never fail to breed;
their cows calve and do not miscarry.
11 They send forth their children as a flock;
their little ones dance about.
12 They sing to the music of tambourine and harp;
they make merry to the sound of the flute.
13 They spend their years in prosperity
and go down to the grave in peace.
A little later, he implies his friends are being naive yokels for thinking like they do:

28 You say, 'Where now is the great man's house,
the tents where wicked men lived?'
29 Have you never questioned those who travel?
Have you paid no regard to their accounts-
30 that the evil man is spared from the day of calamity,
that he is delivered from the day of wrath?
Now I don't know about you, but this seems like a slam dunk of an argument to me. We'll find out what Eliphaz and his posse have to say in response next time on Michael Reads the Bible!

Next Time: What Eliphaz and his posse have to say in response!

p.s. Ever wondered about the phrase "by the skin of my teeth"? Well! In Job 19:20, Job notes that he has escaped with only the skin of my teeth, and a footnote indicates that this means his gums. In other words, he has survived, but with all of his teeth having been knocked out or having fallen out of his head.