If a survey were taken as to which book of the Bible least fits in with the rest, there is little doubt that the winner would be the book of Job (pronounced Jobe). Ironically, or perhaps consequently, this book has also generated the most interest among philosophers, theologians, and other assorted thinkers, as a window into the Biblical mindset concerning the central questions of life. Job is not a historical narrative. Nor is it a poem. It doesn’t quite fit into the wisdom literature, but neither is it a prophetic work. It stands alone, as a story/parable asking an age-old question, and providing an answer that is so elusive that nobody can really be sure what it is and whether it actually fits in with the rest of the Bible.
Job is shrouded by such a fog of uncertainty that even the Rabbis of the Talmud were unsure when to place its composition. Opinions within the Talmud range over a period of almost 1000 years (from around 1300 BCE to around 400 BCE). There is debate over when Job lived (ranging from the time of Abraham about 2000 BCE to the return from the Babylonian exile around 500 BCE). There is even one view that suggests that Job never existed but was the main character in a Biblical parable.
The story of Job centers on the seemingly unfair suffering of a man who was the epitome of righteousness, and his complaints about the lack of divine justice in the world. The purpose of the book is to answer the eternal question of why do the righteous suffer while the wicked prosper. The question is obvious, at least to the Biblical mind, but the answer is highly open-ended.
The plot begins with a heavenly discussion between God, surrounded by His hosts of angels, and the Satan (Jews pronounce this word to rhyme with ‘cotton’ as opposed to the Christian pronunciation; to Jews this is not the devil, a freewheeling force of evil, but an angel of God whose unique task is to challenge the faith of human beings), who has been buzzing around the world doing his thing. The Satan manages to convince God to let him challenge the righteousness and faith of Job by striking him with a series of disasters. Job holds his own through the loss of his property and his family, but cracks in his faith begin to surface when his skin becomes afflicted with boils. He seems on the verge of surviving even this torture until three friends arrive to comfort him. After much silence between them, Job finally ‘curses his day’.
The next 30 chapters take us through a whirlwind debate between Job and his three friends. Job’s friends insist that his suffering is due to his sins, while Job counters that he has not sinned and therefore the suffering is unjust. Finally, a fourth younger friend arrives and, after criticizing the first three for unfairly accusing Job of sinning, proceeds to explain why Job has been forced to endure this suffering. When he finishes, God Himself enters the discussion and seemingly confirms the answer of this fourth friend and expands on it. The book ends with God chastising the three friends for their incorrect answers to Job, and praising and rewarding Job for his response to the incident. Job, not surprisingly, lives happily ever after, building a new family and regaining more than his original amount of property.
The core problem that countless rabbis and philosophers have wrestled with is clear: what is the ultimate answer to the question of why the righteous suffer? A secondary problem is why Job, of all people involved, is praised and rewarded when he was the one who seemingly failed the challenge of the Satan and cursed his lot in life? Furthermore, why are Job’s three friends taken to task for simply pushing the standard Biblical viewpoint that all suffering must be due to some sin on the part of the sufferer? The answer to these questions could zero us in on the meaning and purpose of suffering and perhaps, how to endure the inevitable pain that accompanies life.
Job, like his friends, could not envision a divine justice system in which a person suffers for no fault of his own. His friends claimed that Job must therefore be guilty of some sin that warranted the suffering. Job, in maintaining his own innocence, could think of no explanation other than that God let things go a little haywire. Job’s reaction is not so unusual. Nor is it heretical. It is the familiar position of all who have rejected the conclusion that everything is under the strict hand of divine scrutiny and that every human action warrants a corresponding divine reaction. So what is the alternative? Well, there is the nebulous spiritual force that used to be known as ‘fate’ – an unworshipable power that makes things ‘happen’ - because that’s the way they had to happen.
What exactly is fate and where does it fit into the Biblical scheme of things? This is not an easy question to answer since there are so many Biblical expressions, seemingly at odds with each other, concerning how God runs the world. In the book of Job, however, we see the power of the ‘Satan’ - an apparently semi-independent force that simply needs approval from God to go off and wreak havoc. The Satan does have a divine purpose - testing Job’s faith - but Job and his friends certainly don’t see that as a justification for human suffering. Perhaps Job identified the Satan’s power as the power of fate. Is this what happens when God ‘looks the other way’? Or is the Satan really God’s agent, doing the dirty work that God prefers outsourcing? The text is frustratingly unclear. What is clear is that human beings, even the best of the lot, sometimes simply cannot take it anymore and must lay out their gripes before the Almighty.
What about the answer to Job’s questions? God’s response, which is the Biblical response to this eternal question, is crucial. It is essential. It is interesting that in no way does God (or the fourth friend who apparently ‘got it right’) give the standard expected answer – that it will all get squared away in the world to come. This answer, powerful and reassuring as it is, really comes from somewhat later in Jewish history. As we shall see in a coming section, it probably emerged sometime during the rebellion against the Greeks associated with the Hanukkah story. Back in the times of Job this answer may not have sufficed, as it frequently doesn’t suffice today. Does a promised reward in heaven really justify the Holocaust? Maybe to some it does - but not to all.
So what is the answer? In spite of the multitude of different approaches rabbis and philosophers have suggested, perhaps the words themselves suggest a rather simple explanation. God answers Job (38:1,4) ‘from the storm’ with the challenging question, ‘Where were you when I laid down the foundations of the earth? Tell me if you know (enough) to understand?’ The next four chapters reiterate this theme: 'You are just a human being, you are not God. There is so much you do not know. Your so-called understanding is a mere drop in an infinite sea of knowledge. Do you really believe that you can second-guess my motives and delve to the depths of my grand plans? How can you honestly expect to fathom the reason for all the pain and suffering in the world, or even in your own life, when you don’t even understand the reason of why things fall to the ground, or why living things want to keep on living, or why you want answers to questions like these?'
'Job, you poor, ignorant man, who demands reasons for matters that he cannot hope to understand, how can I help you through this storm of misery, pain and suffering? The answer is that although you cannot understand everything, I understand everything. If it is of any consolation, you have hit on one of the deepest and most essential questions of human existence. Perhaps knowing that there is an answer will be enough for you to go on, to survive this storm. Job, all I, God, can say to you, who are not God, is ride out the storm.’
‘Job, for you and all those who will follow after you with this question, I can only tell you that there is meaning to your suffering. It may not be something that you can fathom or accept, but it there is meaning nevertheless. In fact, your suffering may be a greater source of meaning than a life devoid of suffering. You, who have suffered, understand some of the complexities of life and how it does not work out as it should or as you would prefer. You, who have suffered, have seen and felt the profound question that permeates human existence. You, who have experienced life’s ups and downs, can attest to the fact that whatever answers there may be do not answer all the questions. This alone is worthwhile. If you are looking for an answer it means that you are searching for meaning.’
Is there anything practical that comes out of this story? Can this answer be rattled off to one who has lost a young child to cancer, to the victim of a rape, or to a Holocaust survivor? For one thing, the answer certainly cannot be ‘rattled off’. It is the ultimate in chutzpah for one who hasn’t undergone some seemingly senseless suffering to shoot off some cookie cutter, paint-by-the-numbers pat answer to explain away the agonizing pain of another who has. The answer must be experienced if it is to have any effectiveness.
Why do the righteous suffer? Why does life have to have so much pain? Nobody knows. Nobody can know. Job’s friends’ easy mechanical answer may have some truth to it, but it didn’t do a heck of a lot to ease Job’s pain. Job, on the other hand, represented all of us who have blindly trekked on through the storms of life with nothing to spur us on other than the humbling knowledge that we don’t know the whole story. We face this great mystery of life, taking blows that would fell an angel and keep getting up for more. We want to give up, to give in to the anger and the frustration and the pain, but we don’t. There is an ironic greatness in that, a greatness that all too rarely gets written in the books about human achievement. Yet it is the greatest of human achievements precisely because nobody will ever understand what we all went through, other than ourselves. One can almost hear God telling his servant Job that he might consider the words that will be written 2500-odd years later by two Jewish guys named Simon and Garfunkel that will echo this sentiment:
In the clearing stands a boxer and a fighter by his trade
And on his face he bears reminders of every blow that struck him
Till he cried out in his anger and his pain
‘I am leaving, I am leaving’
But the fighter still remains...
Food for Thought
Almost anybody who has suffered in life is bothered by the question that plagued Job. Is it really enough to say that whatever answer there is cannot be fully comprehended by the sufferer? Is there a better answer? Is there no answer at all?
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Date: 08/29/16 at 05:21:07
Perhaps if we understood the purpose of suffering we could come to terms with it and it would no longer be suffering- unable to fulfil its purpose.
Perhaps to be human is not to accept suffering, despite our faith that it has a purpose, to cry out to G-d for it to end and keenly appreciate the inherent injustice.
Perhaps one of the explanations, which we cannot accept (as sufficient), which we may not accept, is the tremendous growth that blossoms specifically as a result of suffering.