Tuesday, January 11, 2005

God and the Tsunami Redux

William Safire follows my lead and heads straight for the book of Job.

It was written some 2,500 years ago during what must have been a crisis of faith. The covenant with Abraham - worship the one God, and his people would be protected - didn't seem to be working. The good died young, the wicked prospered; where was the promised justice?

The poet-priest who wrote this book began with a dialogue between God and the Satan, then a kind of prosecuting angel. When God pointed to "my servant Job" as most upright and devout, the Satan suggested Job worshipped God only because he had been given power and riches. On a bet that Job would stay faithful, God let the angel take the good man's possessions, kill his children and afflict him with loathsome boils.

Yep. That's the crazy thing about Job. It was a wager between God and Satan. "Have you considered my servant Job?" When God pointed out what a moral and upright man Job was, Satan claimed that Job loved God only because God "put a hedge around him," protected him, and blessed him.

As Philip Yancey writes in Disappointment with God (which I plugged earlier),

Satan scoffs that God, unworthy of love in himself, only attracts people like Job because they're "bribed" to follow him. If times ever get tough, Satan charges, such people will quickly abandon God.

So God allows Satan to take it all away -- property, possessions, and loved ones -- and leave Job broken, destitute, and alone.

It was all a bet.

Yancey writes that this is one of those rare times in scripture where we're allowed a peek into the supernatural realm. That thing that we long for -- to know how the world is run -- is provided in Job (albeit it's only a brief glimpse, and a partial one at that). And we may not like what we see.

But Yancey notes that there are actually two wagers present in Job. There is the obvious one between God and Satan, but there's another wager.

The second wager, reflecting the human viewpoint, is the one that Job himself engaged in: should he choose for God or against him? Job weighed the evidence, most of which did not suggest a trustworthy God. But he decided, kicking and screaming all the way, to place his faith in God.

So Job took Pascal's Wager, in a sense.

Safire writes:

The point of Job's gutsy defiance of God's injustice -- right there in the Bible -- is that it is not blasphemous to challenge the highest authority when it inflicts a moral wrong. (I titled a book on this "The First Dissident.") Indeed, Job's demand that his unseen adversary show up at a trial with a written indictment gets an unexpected reaction: in a thunderous theophany, God appears before the startled man with the longest and most beautifully poetic speech attributed directly to him in Scripture.

Frankly, God's voice "out of the whirlwind" carries a message not all that satisfying to those wondering about moral mismanagement. Virginia Woolf wrote in her journal "I read the Book of Job last night -- I don't think God comes well out of it."

The powerful voice demands of puny Man: "Where were you when I laid the Earth's foundations?" Summoning an image of the mythic sea-monster symbolizing Chaos, God asks, "Canst thou draw out Leviathan with a hook?" The poet-priest's point, I think, is that God is occupied bringing light to darkness, imposing physical order on chaos, and leaves his human creations free to work out moral justice on their own.

Job's moral outrage caused God to appear, thereby demonstrating that the sufferer who believes is never alone. Job abruptly stops complaining, and -- in a prosaic happy ending that strikes me as tacked on by other sages so as to get the troublesome book accepted in the Hebrew canon - he is rewarded. (Christianity promises to rectify earthly injustice in an afterlife.)

I don't know if I agree with Safire that God leaves his creations to "work out moral justice on their own." (Mainly because I'm not exactly sure what he means by that.)

But I've always felt that the "happy ending" of Job seems "tacked on." The triumph of Job is not that he endured many trials and ended up more blessed than he was before, although that is how Job is often read by people -- as a story about perseverance through hardships. Instead, the triumph of Job is that when he got to see God face to face -- when he heard God's reply -- Job understood in his own frail human way that there's a whole 'nother realm out there that he can't even begin to understand. The triumph of Job is his decision that even though God could squash him like a bug, Job would continue to trust in him. Job learned that God is there.

The happy ending is a distraction. I might even call it a cop out. When Job confessed "I know that my redeemer lives," he was still in the midst of his suffering. The next time you sing the hymn that begins and ends with those words, consider it as the cry of someone enduring great hardship. Consider it as the cry of someone who has just had his world destroyed by a tsunami. And recognize it as the confession of someone who is placing his faith in God, even though he may be kicking and screaming all the way. The sufferer who believes is never alone.


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