Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Job: the case for and against God

Job says some shocking things about God.

He oppresses me without mercy, says Job. He won't let up for a minute; he won't even give me time to spit. And the attention he gives me is unwelcome: constantly judging, constantly weighing, constantly condemning. Why did you create human beings, says Job, if all you plan to do is criticize them to death and then leave them in the world of the dead?

One of Job's friends claims that "no innocent person ever died young." But Job knows that isn't true: in this topsy-turvy world, the wicked prosper and the innocent suffer. The wicked grow old amid wealth and family; they're surrounded by music and dancing, by children and grandchildren; they die peacefully in their beds; they're honored with monuments after they die. Even if the courts tried to bring them to justice, they wouldn't be able to; somehow the wicked would get away with it (again). If God didn't make things turn out this way, who did?

For every Hitler who commits suicide in the midst of cataclysmic failure, there's a Stalin or Mao or Pol Pot who dies at a ripe old age, "full of bread." For every low-level worker who loses her job and her children's medical coverage, there's a CEO who gets a spectacular bonus for laying her off.

Remember that God agrees with Job, not with Job's friends. There is no cause-and-effect relationship between holiness and prosperity, or between evil and calamity.

Remember as well, from the beginning of the book, that Job's troubles are the result of a bet that God made with the Accuser: that despite his calamities, Job would remain faithful.

And remember also that even though Job is restored to health and fortune at the end of the book … his children are still dead. (So are most of his servants and cattle.) What did they do to deserve their fate? Did they experience the horror of dying in a collapsing building just so God could win his bet with Satan?

To understand the true horror of this, it's important to remember that there's no place in Heaven for "the children of men" in the Hebrew Scriptures. With very few exceptions, the books of the Hebrew Scriptures regard the Place of the Dead — Sheol — as a comfortless, gray, unending prison house filled with gibbering shadows: not unlike the world of Hades in Greek mythology. Those dead children aren't curled up in Abraham's bosom: they're gone.

Speaking of God's bet … some thoughts about Satan. This is clearly not the horned devil of my childhood. The Hebrew, as I understand it — I'm certainly no expert — is really ha satan, The Accuser, a description or a title of office rather than a proper name. He's a member of the heavenly court (or as the Hebrew literally says, "the sons of God" who gather in his presence), and he has a role to fill: a prosecuting attorney rather than a tempter. His goal is to prove to God that not even Job can remain faithful in the face of terrible suffering.

Christian translations of Job typically call him Satan, and I think there's a school of conservative theological thought that sees the suffering of humanity as something inflicted by Satan as a way of trying to drive people away from God. This probably owes more to the influence of Manichaeism than to anything in the Hebrew Scriptures. It's certainly not what's going on in Job: Satan here is an underling acting under God's direction. He proposes the bet, but there's no suggestion that he would attack Job without God's permission.

Of course it doesn't make much difference either way. God doesn't come off very well whether Satan is his Prosecuting Attorney acting under his personal supervision, or an independent agent of Evil bent on the destruction of humanity. In the one case God is shockingly cavalier about the suffering about to be inflicted on one of his most faithful servants; in the other he's a weakling.

In any case he doesn't sound like the loving, compassionate, humane God I was taught to believe in as a child. The interesting thing to me is that even with all this, Job never curses God (as his wife advises him to do early on): he's only asking for a chance to speak to God face-to-face and make his case. He finally gets his chance — but he never really gets an answer. Rather than justify his actions to Job, God wilts him with a magnificent blast of self-praise from the heart of the whirlwind.

On the other hand …

According to Job, this is only one side of the coin. Job says some other things about God as well — that's he's all-powerful, unknowable, sometimes even undetectable, and wise beyond comprehension. And while the speech God gives at the end of the book is no answer to Job's accusations, it is a thrilling hymn to transcendence. For me, it doesn't lose any of its power from the current state of science: unlike the ancient Israelites, we do know where the storehouses of snow are kept, and we have harpooned Leviathan and put a hook through the nose of Behemoth. But that's a collective phenomenon. On an individual level, all it takes is one massive lightning strike close by, or maybe even a good strong gust of wind, to remind you how small we are in the great scheme of things.

And I have to say also that for me, the sense of awe isn't diminished by trying to take the larger collective view anyway. Whether scientists are looking for black holes at the outer edges of the universe or looking for bosons tucked away in the structure of an atom, my mind remains blown: there is an impenetrable, inexplicable mystery to existence that only increases with each discovery.

I had a friend once who kept a picture of our galaxy on his office wall. In one small corner of the outermost spiral of stars, which represented the Milky Way, there was a small "X": "You are here." He worked for a politician, and he wanted to keep his perspective.

It's not an either/or situation. God treats Job badly and he is a transcendent, awe-inspiring being, and we remain weak and clueless. Job seems to be saying that surrendering to the mystery may be the only option we have that won't make us crazy.

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