Monday, January 3, 2011

Job: with friends like these

I've been spending a fair amount of time lately reading the Bible. In some ways it's an unusual activity for me: I'm an agnostic, and I like to believe I'm agnostic on principle (I don't believe it's possible for human beings to know the Truth, with a capital "T", about anything). But I came from a deeply religious family, and although the spirit drained out of the experience for me, the emotion never did.

So here I am, reading the Bible. I finished the New Testament (for the eighth or ninth time) a few days ago. I've only read the Old Testament a couple of times. But I figured it was time for me to start writing down some of my thoughts as I go along, if only to help me remember them.

I decided to start with Job, because I've read the Torah and the historical books and the Prophets more often than the Writings, so it made sense to read through the Writings first and then go back and pick up the other things again. (I'm using the term "Writings" for the sake of convenience; I realize it has a slightly different meaning when referring specifically to the Jewish scriptures.)

All this by way of introduction to the Book of Job. I'm going to try to keep my observations simple and concise (good luck with that) and will try to focus on one topic per post. The topic for today: Job's so-called "friends."

Job insists, over and over again, that he's a righteous man, that he's innocent, that he's honored God and kept the commandments. They insist he's lying. They don't say it in so many words, but the point is clear. You must have done something, they keep saying to him. God only punishes the guilty. If you're being punished, it's because you did something wrong.

At one point, one of Job's "friends" says to him: the reason your children are dead is because they were sinners. (Can you imagine someone trying to console a parent by arguing a child's death was simple justice?)

Job continues to insist on his righteousness, so his friends up the ante. Maybe from a human standpoint you're virtuous, they say, but God is God, after all; even the angels in heaven are impure compared to God.

But the interesting point in the book, and the thing I never realized in all those decades of hearing about Job, is that Job is right. How do we know he's right? Because God agrees with him. Job told the truth about me, God says to the friends, and you didn't. He threatens to punish the friends for lying about God until Job agrees to accept a penitential sacrifice on their behalf.

So what are we to make of this? In another post, I'll talk in more detail about what Job actually says about God. Right now, thinking about the friends, it's clear the author of Job doesn't put much stock in the kind of conventional religious wisdom that dominates our airwaves. The religious leaders who insist that disasters befall cities because (a) they endorse gay rights or (b) they have a heretical religion, or whatever, either haven't read Job or haven't taken it to heart. God explicitly disavows a cause and effect relationship between virtue and prosperity, sin and suffering, and rejects the teachings of people who insist on such a relationship.

And in fact there is a glaring contradiction right in the middle of the friends' "advice." Surely, they tell Job, at some point you took advantage of widows and orphans. At some point you enriched yourself at the expense of some poor innocent.

But how can that be? If the virtuous all prosper and the guilty all suffer, and one of those people Job supposedly took advantage of suffered as a result ... that person must have been guilty -- and therefore deserved it.

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