Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Dipping into the book of Job

6 Now on a certain day when the sons of God came to stand before the Lord, Satan also was present among them. 7 And the Lord said to him: Whence comest thou? And he answered and said: I have gone round about the earth, and walked through it. 8 And the Lord said to him: Hast thou considered my servant Job, that there is none like him in the earth, a simple and upright man, and fearing God, and avoiding evil? 9 And Satan answering, said: Doth Job fear God in vain? 10 Hast not thou made a fence for him, and his house, and all his substance round about, blessed the works of his hands, and his possession hath increased on the earth ? 11 But stretch forth thy hand a little, and touch all that he hath, and see if he blesseth thee not to thy face. 12 Then the Lord said to Satan: Behold, all that he hath is in thy hand: only put not forth thy hand upon his person. And Satan went forth from the presence of the Lord.

The conversation presented in Job between God and Satan is sometimes described as God "making a bet" with the fallen angel: God speaks, as it seems, only well of Job, and Satan speaks only to cast doubt on Job's character. Here, however, is the Thing: God knows Job and Satan perfectly, and Satan knows God and Job (and himself) only imperfectly. Given that God knows Satan perfectly, what is the purpose of His asking: "Hast thou considered my servant Job ... ?"? Here in the beginning of the book, as when the whirlwind blows in Hus, God asks questions to cause an effect. So here, at the beginning, let us consider this question carefully:
You have walked round about the earth and walked through it, so you know my servant Job, that there is none like him in the earth, a simple and upright man, et.c.; but say now: what do you think of him?
and the answer Satan gives — he must twist it, but he cannot deceive God — Satan says: "outwardly he may seem all right, but how can he show what he's made of if he has never endured trial?" Satan puts the answer upside-down, of course, accusing God of molly-coddling this "simple and upright man" — as if any inner failings Job might have and their hidden-ness are the result of some fault or unfair dealing on God's part.

Some folks, of course, decide they agree with Satan's insinuation on this point. If that were the intent of the Author, then we should probably excise the book; some folks, as it happens, find a middle ground of believing that the Author intends otherwise, but nonetheless is too realist for his own good, and that the text ends up arguing against the Author more than for. Myself, I rather think something else is going on.

Let us consider Job ("have you considered Job?"): he is wealthy, which suggests he has some practical capability; and he certainly acts in public "simple and upright" and avoids evil, and he even offers sacrifice on his children's behalf just in case they have sinned. Is he a good man? Well Aristotle and [Batman Begins'] Rachel Dawes would suggest "it's not who you are underneath, but what you do that defines you" ... (who am I lifting this parallel from? I read it in a blog quite recently... sources would be credited! I'm a sloppy and reluctant thief!) or, less poetically as that other film imagined C. S. Lewis would paraphrase the Poetics, "plot is character". Unto his neighbours, Job is a good man. So far so good. Here's a harder question: is he God's friend? Is he fit for heaven? Or, put it another way: why does Job avoid evil? It is good to avoid evil, but even a good thing can be done for poor motives! And why does he offer sacrifice against his children's potential sins? It might be that he truly loves them and sincerely petitions God's forgiveness and grace for them; but it is also possible that Job does these works superstitiously, from scrupulosity, rather than for love.

And, even if we agree with Aristotle and Ms Dawes, let us not imagine that what one speaks in his heart is part of who and not what one does: an act of the inner will is no less an act than is walking.

Well, if Plot is Character, Job endures material hardships, looses his family, and sins not, then is subject to sickness in his body and sins not, and then falls prey to Good Intentions... note that God speaks to Job direct, but Satan does not: rather, Job's friends come and speak with him a while. And then does Job cry out and curse the day he was born.

It would be foolish, vicious, to say that all sufferings are earned. It would even be foolish to say that Job's sufferings are earned, or that his weakness caused his wife and children to die. It would be misunderstanding the book even to think that all suffer for the same reasons in the same way as Job — the same is not even true of all who suffer in this book. The book, Job, is not about why sufferings come. It seems rather about how there are worse things than pain.

And it also contains a promise, that God does not wish us to ultimately end in pain.


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