For ten years, I taught a freshman course covering the first half of world history as an adjunct instructor at a small public liberal arts college. I knew that a good portion of my students had been raised in Protestant homes, and most were probably very active in their home churches. Because so much of early world history ends up being a class in comparative religions, I thought it only fair to give my students the following disclaimer on the first day of class: “I am the college teacher your preacher warned you about.” I knew that much of what I was going to cover about the origins of the world’s major religions, including Christianity, was going to be met with some resistance. A few students probably thought I was an agent of Satan. Having come out of a fundamentalist Christian background (Southern Baptist), I could certainly sympathize with that position.
What I thought would be particularly helpful was to spend quality time talking about a book from the Old Testament in the Bible, the work that is raised to the level of idolatry by so many pastors and their congregants. By looking at the book as both a work of literature and as holy scripture, I attempted to help them see some basic tenants of their faith from a different angle than what they were exposed to in church. I hoped to offer a bit more historical context too, helping my students understand the genesis of three of the world’s religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The book I chose is my favorite of the wisdom literature from the Biblical Hebrew tradition and one that I think is most representative of that tradition. This book does such a good job of exploring the complexity of the human condition, especially as it is impacted by faith. The book I selected was Job.
The major reason that Job is such a good book to teach to students who are familiar with Bible stories from church is because it presents all kinds of challenges to the traditional image of God and the accepted nature of God’s relationship to humanity. Here we have the story the takes off with a discussion between God and Satan about a man named Job. God is obviously very proud of Job, who seems to be the model of human creation. In a little chat with Satan, God says, “Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one on earth like him; he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil.” Of course, this is taken as a direct challenge to God’s adversary, Satan, who claims that Job is such a swell guy only because God is taking very good care of him. After all, Job is wealthy, has a large family, and performs purification rituals for his family even when he knows of nothing they have done wrong. He is described as the greatest man among all the people of the region.
So Satan decides to make a little bet with God, just to prove God wrong. Satan presents God with this challenge concerning Job’s welfare: “Stretch out your hand and strike everything he has, and he will surely curse you to your face.” And how does the creator of all the universe, including Job but also Satan and his minions, respond to this challenge? Does God dismiss it as petty? Does God make clear to Satan that God doesn’t need to prove anything to anyone? Well, no. Essentially God’s response to Satan is, “Oh yea? Is that what you think? Fine then! You’re on!!” In verse twelve of the Book of Job, we read: “The Lord said to Satan, ‘Very well, then, everything he has is in your power, but on the man himself do not lay a finger.’” The deck may be stacked in God’s favor, but still, God apparently likes to play the game! Who knew? And, the events that unfold after this exchange between God and Satan present us with a view of the deity that is both unexpected and just a tad disconcerting.