Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Job: I’ll Take That Bet!

This is one of the most famous pieces of work in the Bible: the Book of Job. I’m sure most of us know it in its basic outline. Job is the most faithful of God’s people in all the world, but Satan claims that Job is only faithful because he has a good life. So Satan visits all kinds of horrors on Job in an effort to get him to curse God. When Job remains faithful, God eventually rewards him. That’s the simplistic version that I, and probably many others, got in Sunday School. The story as it actually appears in the Bible is a bit more complicated than that, of course.

For one thing… it’s forty-two chapters long! And the vast majority of that is long-winded, almost indecipherably poetic speeches given back-and-forth between Job and some friends.

But let’s jump in here at the beginning. The book opens by telling us all about Job, who is a wealthy man with seven sons and three daughters. And Job loved himself some God, to the point of offering extra sacrifices on behalf of his kids, just in case they had any nasty thoughts about God when he wasn’t looking. Then, after introducing us to Job:

Job 1:6 Now there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before Yahweh, and Satan also came among them.”

Hey, look! It’s Satan again! This is, what, his third appearance in the Bible and it still hasn’t told us who the hell he is! And speaking of uncertainty… who or what are the “sons of God?” Is Satan one of them, or are we to take the wording “Satan also came among them,” to imply that he showed up in a gathering of the sons of God even though he wasn’t one of them? And I thought God only had one son. Are these sons of God also one and the same with God just like the most famous son of God? Are these the same fellows who were screwing around with the pre-Flood women and creating Nephilim? This one sentence raises so many questions, and we aren’t even into the story yet!

Spoiler alert: the story answers none of those questions.

Anyway, God notices Satan and asks what he’s been up to. When Satan replies that he’s just been wondering around the world seeing what’s what, God goes “Hey, did you notice Job? Ain’t he just the best?” Satan, though, is unimpressed and says “Feh! He only loves you because he has such a great life. I bet if you let me fuck with him a bit, he’d curse you in no time!” To which God replies “I’ll take that bet!”

So they establish the ground rules of the wager, which are that Satan can do whatever he likes to Job’s possessions, so long as he doesn’t touch Job himself. Then Satan skips on over to the Job homestead, where he arranges to have all of Job’s livestock and servants killed or stolen. Then he kills all of Job’s children by knocking a house down on them. Unsurprisingly to anyone who’s been paying attention to the Bible thus far, servants and children are in the category of possessions.

Job reacts as anyone would: by tearing off his clothes, shaving his head, and praising God.

Sometime later, there’s another gathering of the sons of God, and again Satan joins the crowd.

Job 2:3 And Yahweh said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant, Job, that there is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil? He still holds fast to his integrity, although you incited me against him to destroy him without reason.”

Are we firmly established that Job is an innocent pawn in the game between these two?

Anyway, Satan argues that a man can put up with losing everything he has, so long as his person remains safe. So God tells Satan he can do anything he likes to Job, so long as he doesn’t kill him. With the new rules in place, Satan skips off to afflict Job with painful sores all over his body. And despite his wife’s urging him to curse God and die, Job remains steadfast.

Next we’re introduced to Job’s three friends, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar. These fellows hear about Job’s misfortunes and decide to go visit him and try to comfort him. They arrive at Job’s house, and then they all sit around silently for seven days waiting for Job to say something.

Finally, Job starts speaking. And this is where the language starts getting very dense and poetic. There’s basically a long conversation between Job and his three friends (with a fifth guy named Elihu cropping up toward the end just totally out of nowhere) that takes up the vast majority of the book. I’m going to do my best to summarize, but I warn you that I’m not a big reader of poetry. So fully expect that I’m going to miss a lot of nuance here.

Also, most of Job’s dialogue is complaining and much of his friends’ arguments will later be declared irrelevant or wrong by God. So… I’m not sure that it matters how much nuance I lose. So this will be a really condensed version.

Job: “I wish I was never born!”

Eliphaz: “You always encouraged others when their lives sucked, so whining now is kind of hypocritical. Anyway, God makes the truly innocent prosper, so you’ve probably done something wrong. You need to just accept this rebuke and turn back to him.”

Job: “No, really, I’m innocent! I’ve always been completely faithful! I just wish God would kill me now so I don’t have to suffer anymore!”

Bildad: “Y’know, your kids probably earned their deaths through their own sins. But if you’re innocent and plead with God for mercy, I’m sure he’ll make the rest of your life all wonderful and stuff.”

Job: “I’d love to plead my case with God. But how can I? He’s too great for me to argue with, and there’s nobody in heaven to intercede on my behalf. And andyway, we know good people suffer and bad people prosper. So what good would it do? If only he’d show up and tell me why he’s doing this to me!”

Zophar: “Listen to you and your whining! You deserve worse than you got!”

Job: “Hey! You’re no better than me! I know as well as you do that God gives favor and destruction where he will, but I’ve done nothing wrong! I don’t see why I should keep silent about it. I’ll plead my case with God, hope that he’ll tell me why he’s done this, and hope for a bit of mercy before I die.”

Eliphaz: “I don’t think you really fear God, or you’d shut your yap and start praying. In my experience, wicked people are miserable even when they seem to prosper, so you’re better off not complaining anyway.”

Job: “Dude, you suck at this consolation thing! If even my friends treat me like this, I really do have no hope!”

Bildad: “I’m telling you, man, bad shit happens to bad people.”

Job: “What the hell is wrong with you? It’s not bad enough that God has destroyed my life, but you gotta keep tearing me down, too? Someday I’ll stand redeemed before God, but you’ll receive his judgment for being such dicks.”

Zophar: “Insulting us doesn’t change anything. God punishes the wicked, perhaps through their children after they die, even if they’re allowed to prosper briefly.”

Job: “Bullshit! The wicked seem to do just fine, and you know it. Why should they care if God punishes their children? They’ll be dead and won’t know about it anyway. He should punish them directly.”

Eliphaz: “OK, look, maybe you really have been completely faithful to God. But you’ve probably been shitty to other people, and that’s the reason you’re being punished now.”

Job: “If only God kept office hours, I could go and convince him that I am innocent of that too. And even so, we know there are people far worse than me who seem to prosper anyway.”

Bildad: “Don’t know why you think that matters. God is perfect, so next to him no mere man can measure up.”

Job: “Oh, big help you are! That doesn’t get me one step closer to knowing what I did wrong. I’m telling you, I can’t think of a damn thing, and I won’t lie and claim I can! I’ve been faithful to God, and kind and generous to my fellow man. Yet here I sit, held in contempt by even the lowest and worst of people because God tore me down. If only God would tell me what I have done wrong, I would bear my punishment gladly!”

Now at this point Elihu jumps in. It’s suggested that he’s been sitting here listening to the whole prior conversation, even though (unlike all the other characters) his presence is never mentioned up until he starts speaking. Just another little example of poor storytelling.

Elihu: “You’re all so full of shit! Just listening to you makes me sick! All this blathering on about trying to figure out what Job did wrong, when the truth is God does tell you. You should be searching for his signs. He instructs you in dreams, and through your suffering, and the signs contained in natural disasters. You’re just too ignorant or proud to see it. God is just. If God hasn’t responded to you, it must be because your complaint is unjustified.”

Then, out of nowhere (well, technically, “out of the whirlwind” whose arrival is never mentioned), God starts talking to Job. Here it is! The Big Guy himself! Finally, we’re going to get the explanation! The very reasoning of the divine creator of all the universe. It will be inspiring! It will be so brilliantly insightful that we will be left in awe and wonder, contemplating the breadth and beauty of his amazing plan.

Are you ready? Here’s God’s divine reason for why he allowed all this awful stuff to happen to poor devoted Job!

God: “I’m bigger than you, I’m stronger than you, and I’m smarter than you. Plus, I made everything – including you and a whole lot of beasts that can totally kick your ass. Until and unless you become as awesome as me, you have no right to ask me questions or expect answers. So sit your whiny ass down and shut up!”

There’s a great deal of grandly poetic language that goes with all of this, and a lot of the imagery is quite good and impressive. I suggest you read it, really, starting at Job 38:1. Christians love to focus on the imagery and poetry itself without focusing too much on the message. But at its heart, it is a “might makes right and I’m the mightiest,” argument.

Job’s response: “Yes, sir. Thank you, sir. May I have another, sir? Now that I see you in person I see how incredibly impressive you really are, and I’m a worm ever to have questioned.”

God then turns his attention to Job’s friends.

Job 42:7 After Yahweh had spoken these words to Job, Yahweh said to Eliphaz the Temanite: ‘My anger burns against you and against your two friends, for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.”

Remember that Job’s friends had argued that God punishes the wicked and godless, and supports the godly and innocent. We’re told that none of that is true, and in fact it kinda pisses God off to claim that it is.

So after demanding a burnt offering from them, God allows that he will listen to Job’s prayer that he not punish the friends for lying about him. Oddly, no mention is made of Elihu in any of this conversation. Given that Elihu seems to appear and disappear from the story without any references before or after, it makes me wonder if he was an afterthought added in to fill out the arguments sometime after the original story was written.

Anyhow, with all of this done…

Job 42:12 And Yahweh blessed the latter days of Job more than his beginning. And he had 14,000 sheep, 6,000 camels, 1,000 yoke of oxen, and 1,000 female donkeys. 13 He had also seven sons and three daughters. 14 And he called the name of the first daughter Jemimah, and the name of the second Keziah, and the name of the third Keren-happuch. 15 And in all the land there were no women so beautiful as Job’s daughters. And their father gave them an inheritance among their brothers.”

So in the end, God gives Job twice as much wealth as he’d had before, along with replacement children who are even better than the children he’d had before. Because, y’know, people are replaceable commodities that way, just like farm animals. What parent wouldn’t gladly trade their children in for a better-looking set?

It’s interesting that in the middle of all the debate between the human characters about God’s motivations, we as the readers already know the reason that all of this happened. Because God was settling a bet with Satan. And that fact is never addressed again after the opening scene of the story. God certainly didn’t cop to it when he finally showed up to put an end to the debate.

All in all, the Book of Job attempts to address a certain formulation of the Problem of Evil: “Why does God allow (or cause) bad things happen to good people?” And the answer it seems to come up with is “You may never find out the reasons, which may be (and even very probably are) quite petty and stupid. But that doesn’t matter because there’s fuck-all you can do about it, so you might as well accept it.”

Phew! That was a long post, and took me a long time to finish it! Job really is a much longer book than I’d realized, and it’s a very difficult read for someone used to more prosaic material. But because it’s a single coherent story, I figured it deserved to be addressed in one post even if that meant a really long one. I hope you think that was the right choice.

Anyway, when next we come back, I’ll be tackling Psalms. That should be interesting, since it’s really just a collection of prayers, songs, and poems with no unifying story. But I think I have a viable idea for how to tackle it. So until then, take care and be well!