(continued from January 29, 2016)
If you tell students that the Book of Job illustrates how human beings are easily dispensable to God, who is quite willing to use them to prove a point, they don’t exactly embrace this vision too comfortably. Nevertheless, it is difficult to read this story and not come away with a less-than-flattering description of God’s nature. When God turns Job over to Satan, the evil one goes to work quickly. In short order, all of Job’s livestock and servants are killed, along with ten of his children. Poor Job tears his clothes and shaves his head in mourning, but he still blesses God in his prayers, which prompts Satan to return to God to increase the stakes. To further prove how strong Job’s faith really is, God allows Satan to inflict physical torment on the poor guy. Afflicted with horrible skin sores, Job is in so much misery that his wife encourages him to curse God, give up the struggle, and die. Still Job stands fast and continues to honor God.
You can push a person so far though, and Job comes close to reaching his limit. His close friends offer him philosophical rhetoric to bring him comfort and to explain his horrible predicament, and they even try to convince him that he must have done something to anger God — repent and all will be well. One of his pals, Elihu, explains that physical suffering helps the victim to comprehend God’s love and forgiveness when he finally is well again, knowing that God has rescued him from misery. Again, what a disturbing view of God’s relationship to humanity! Job doesn’t buy it. He is confident in his righteousness and refuses to admit to uncommitted sins. Still, he grows weary and finally gets a bit demanding of God, and goes so far as to express his wish that he had never been born. From an ancient Hebrew perspective, this just may be where he crosses the line and prompts God to blast him with what could be the best poetry in the Bible, even though much is certainly lost in the translation.
Out of a mighty whirlwind, God poses a series of blistering, rhetorical questions to Job, most of which begin with the phrase “Where were you . . . ,” which are designed to show Job how ignorant he is of the majesty of creation and how magnificent God truly is. After he picks himself up out of a heap, good old Job admits to the limitations of his human knowledge, a response that apparently pleases God. According to many Biblical scholars, the original story (which is one of the oldest in the Bible) ends at this point. However, in the Biblical narrative, the plot continues, and God returns Job’s health and even more property than he had before. God blesses Job with new children and gives him an extremely long life as an added bonus. Of course, one could argue that property can easily be replaced, but ten children? In the end, God won the bet and proved Satan wrong, which is the most important thing to remember, right? As I stated before, a tad disconcerting.
The reason that the Book of Job is so important in Hebrew literature, or any literature for that matter, is because it creatively explores the age-old question of why an omnipotent God allows good people to suffer. After all, Job isn’t selected as the pawn in this contest between God and Satan because he is bad, but because he is the best. For modern Christians, especially those who espouse the prosperity gospel so popular in America, Job’s story presents quite a quandary. If you follow God’s commands and live a life of righteousness, you just may come to ruin as a reward for your faithfulness! Somehow I doubt Joel Osteen preaches from Job very often — I could be wrong.
Considering that the ancient Hebrews had no concept of personal eternity and were convinced that, as God’s chosen people, they were fulfilling God’s plan for creation and living up to their side of the covenant with God, this story becomes somewhat more palatable for the modern reader. The Hebrews were commanded by God to be fruitful and multiply, to spread across the land, and to bear witness to God’s preeminence among all other deities. There is no room in this arrangement for the wish of never having been born. The survival and well-being of the individual was vastly overshadowed by the importance of the survival and fruition of the Hebrew nation. The suggestion is that human beings should not dare question God’s divine justice because they cannot possibly appreciate its complexity.
What I find particularly fascinating is how the Book of Job serves as an excellent foreshadow for the coming of Christ and his sacrificial death to save humanity. Jesus wasn’t chosen to face horrible agony because he was a rotten sinner. Jesus was sent by God to suffer because he was the spotless lamb. With all respect and deference to the modern descendants of the Hebrew nation and culture, the story of the New Testament messiah conveniently “resurrects” the suffering servant, who even has his own moments of doubt and questioning in the garden. This is the same Jesus who charges those who profess to love him to take up their cross and follow him. I guess you could say that’s just part of the deal.