dotCommonweal

A blog by the magazine's editors and contributors

.

Elsewhere

 

Joan Acocella on the Book of Job

The story is bewildering, from beginning to end. How could God, being God, allow Satan to seduce him into destroying a good man? More important is the moral: that we have no right to question him for doing such things. (God, for all that he says from the whirlwind, never answers Job’s questions.) Furthermore, the Book of Job seems to claim that all wrongs can be righted by property. If everything was taken away from Job, the problem is settled by God’s giving it all back, mostly twofold—fourteen thousand sheep for his seven thousand, etc. As for the ten dead children, in this case Job gets only ten back, but the new daughters are more beautiful than any other women in the land.

For people who take the Bible seriously as an explanation of life and as a guide to right conduct, all this is mysterious. It is certainly not the first instance in which God inflicts appalling misery on his people. In Genesis, he killed everyone on Earth except those on Noah’s ark. But Job is highly individualized—a person like us. He is probably the character in the Old Testament we sympathize with most closely. 

Jonathan Chait on the "Heritage Uncertainty Principle":

One of the more amusing developments in the Obamacare debate has been watching conservatives turn from denouncing the health-care law for its lack of high-deductible insurance to denouncing the health-care law for its high-deductible insurance.... Insurance plans with low premiums and high deductibles were a major centerpiece of conservative health-care thinking. Until quite recently, conservatives seemed to believe that Obamacare prevented such plans from existing, which was totally false. As they’ve come into existence, conservatives have transitioned seamlessly into denouncing these plans for their horrible, high deductibles.

Episodes like this one have grown so familiar that they’ve lost all capacity to surprise. Conservative health-care-policy ideas reside in an uncertain state of quasi-existence. You can describe the policies in the abstract, sometimes even in detail, but any attempt to reproduce them in physical form will cause such proposals to disappear instantly.

Terry Eagleton on Denys Turner's Thomas Aquinas: A Portrait (subscription required):

From a Thomist standpoint, all being is benign. It is good in principle that there are hairdryers and tarantulas around the place. Evil is a kind of non-being. In men and women, it is the defective form of existence of those who have never really got the hang of being human. Human beings are sorely in need of redemption, as anyone who takes the trouble to read the newspapers can testify; but that redemption is not rudely foisted on them against the grain of their desires. On the contrary, their natures are hospitable to such deep-seated transformation, and yearn eagerly for it even when they are not entirely aware that they do. The moral life involves cutting through one dense swathe of false consciousness and pious self-deception after another in order to discover what it is we really, fundamentally desire.

Comments

Commenting Guidelines

As usual Joan Acocella writes a provocative essay. As far as Job is concerned too many  people have troule with the book. Why do we take it more seriously than Leviitcus which basically tells us that we are guilty of breaking God's commands even if we are not aware of them. Etc. Maybe Joan needs to take a modern course on Scripture. Why people get hung up on Job when Jesus provides the answer to theodicy is interesting. To a certain extent the book of Job needs to be taken with a grain of salt. But don't tell that to Lot's wife.  

A good article from Acocella; I'll use the Larrimore book when I teach, if can get my hands on it in time. You cannot read Job justly (i.e., through a lens that isn't cracked by a "Jesus solves everything" approach) and walk away believeing that the Gordian problem of theodicy is worked out in the text. Job should be treasured  for how it blasts away the pablum of its cousin in Wisdom, Proverbs. Acocella's observation that it is God who haunts the reader is apt. God may be revealed as beyond all human understanding, but at the same time the reader is left with the feeling that God is hardly inscrutable for all that: God does as God will. The problem is how to square the beginning (God being finicking over the legitimacy of Job's piety) and the ending (Job's repose) with everything that comes between (Job and God's fury); and, of course, should readers care, they are left to struggle with how to reconcile themselves to the fisher of Leviathan.

 

Job is one of my two favorite books of the bible.  (The other is Tobias.)

(If anyone "needs to take a modern course on Scripture," it's a person who compares Job to Leviticus and thinks people are "hung up on Job.")

Abe, i will defer you on the analysis of Job in the literature. I still maintain that Job is not great theology. Jesus does solve the problem of theodicy. My point is that people revel too much in job and not enough in what Jesus solved. Namely as God's son who himself suffered and gave us an example. 

Gerelyn, You may go with your usual sarcasm. Whether you make sense is open to question. Nice of you to make a third person reference. Mirabile dictu. How a person who cries out for respect may be short in how to show it. 

Would someone explain more about how questions of theodicy - unjust suffering in this life - are answered by Jesus, because I don't really see it myself, unless the answer is 'wait until after you're dead and then everything will be so great that you won't care anymore that, for instance, your child died of starvation'.

Hi, Bill:

I hope you'll find time to read the article.  (And the book of Job.)  

Thank you, Crystal.  

 

God's horselaugh in the book of Job explains it all:  "Ha ha!"

 

Acocella's piece is indeed stimulating, and the questions go on. There are places in the Divine Comedy in which the journeying Dante finds himself baffled rather like Job. Virgil answers many of his questions, but some he can't, and says in effect, "Wait till we get to Beatrice, and she will solve them." But though she herself does answer many, she doesn't answer all, and in the end sounds rather like God at the end of Job: Who are you to try to judge the Lord by your own all too human canons?

Surely part of the Book of Job's wisdom is precisely this: that we must not surrender to the temptation of trying to confine God by our human predilections. Liberal Protestantism all too often makes God sound like a card-carrying member of the ACLU (not true of good Calvinists, like Marilynne Robinson); and many Catholic leaders over the centuries have a long history of dressing God up in the human and intellectual clothing of the late Roman empire, or Renaissance princely states.

As someone -- Rowan Williams??? -- recently remarked, "we don't decide who goes to Heaven. God does."

Rowan Williams - grrr  ;)  Not who I would choose - hated his take on what prayer is supposed to be ... "The point of praying is to open yourself up to God so God can do what he wants with you. You come with empty hands, as silent as you can be and say, 'Over to you'. So you could say the function was to make you the person God wants you to be – in the full awareness that that might not be quite the person you think you want to be." ... http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/andrewbrown/2010/sep/30/religio...

Who are we to question God about the bad stuff that happens here on earth?  We're the people the bad stuff is happening to!    It was Jesus who often described God as a "person", as a loving father, so don't blame that on the Protestants.

 

Bill, I generally don't think of most biblical books as offering theologies, at least not explicitly or primarily. What do you think is the theology of Job, and why is it bad? I certainly don't understand how Jesus solves the problem of theodicy.

Abe, Jesus suffered the most ingnominious death. Here he is the face of God on earth. Not only is he given the most humilitating way to die, crucifixion. He dies a the disgrace of a common criminal. Finally, he feels abandaoned by God in his final hour. Is there anything worse than that on this earth? So no matter what happens. The holocaust, a child bludgeoned to death, children dying of ill health and starvation---is not worse than this. Jesus accepted his faite. "Father into your hands I commend my spirit."  And of course, Crystal, the resurrection makes everything all new and perfect. This is why Paul exhorts: "Rejoice always. Again I say rejoice." The answer to theodicy is Christ is Risen.

Joan Acocella gives the reason for the problem for the book of Job. 

"The story is bewildering, from beginning to end. How could God, being God, allow Satan to seduce him into destroying a good man? More important is the moral: that we have no right to question him for doing such things. (God, for all that he says from the whirlwind, never answers Job’s questions.) Furthermore, the Book of Job seems to claim that all wrongs can be righted by property. If everything was taken away from Job, the problem is settled by God’s giving it all back, mostly twofold—fourteen thousand sheep for his seven thousand, etc. As for the ten dead children, in this case Job gets only ten back, but the new daughters are more beautiful than any other women in the land.

For people who take the Bible seriously as an explanation of life and as a guide to right conduct, all this is mysterious. It is certainly not the first instance in which God inflicts appalling misery on his people. In Genesis, he killed everyone on Earth except those on Noah’s ark. But Job is highly individualized—a person like us. He is probably the character in the Old Testament we sympathize with most closely. (David is his only competition.) Therefore, his struggle to go on believing in God is something that theologians and moralists have had to think about."

But what she does not get is that Job is a story written by more than one person and the author appears to be making a point about the human condition. The author's use of property is way to explain to the audience how Job is compensated since the people of that era thought the way. 

Again Jesus answers the question of Job by being dealt the worst hand and accepting it as the will of God and indeed triumphing overt death and all the ills of the human condition. He has indeed made all things new. 

No question faith enters here. but there is no rational contradiction. 

Abe, aren't the four evangelists more theologians than historians?

Bill, Acocella spends quite a bit of time discussing the textual issues with Job, so there's no reason to understand that she doesn't understand the authorship issues. That Job is compensated is obvious, but also obviously pat--it does not make the book easier to digest, but the obvious.

Truly and honestly, what you say about the suffering of Jesus makes no sense to me. I'll be blunt: it makes me feel rather sick. No: Jesus' suffering does not outstrip "the holocaust, a child bludgeoned to death, children dying of ill health and starvation." So far as I can tell, it doesn't even outstrip the suffering of Job. And I still do not understand how the resurrection somehow cleans away all of that suffering like a cloth on a dry erase board. It sounds like what one of Job's would-be comforters would say. No rational contradiction? Prior to its being rationally troubling, it's just downright emotionally confusing.

I think there are people who have suffered more than Jesus did and for longer periods of time.  But even if we grant Jeus suffered more than anyone ever has, how does that help someone who is suffering?  It isn't Jesus' suffering that saves the world, but his resurrection.

 Abe, Jesus suffered the most ingnominious death. Here he is the face of God on earth. Not only is he given the most humilitating way to die, crucifixion. He dies a the disgrace of a common criminal. Finally, he feels abandaoned by God in his final hour. Is there anything worse than that on this earth? So no matter what happens. The holocaust, a child bludgeoned to death, children dying of ill health and starvation---is not worse than this. 

Bill, I hope you're not serious.  I don't see how you can think the suffering of one man for one day is worse than the suffering of millions of men, women, and children for years.  If you're that unfamiliar with the holocaust, I hope you'll educate yourself.  Maybe start with the children -- the twins used for "medical" experiments, e.g.  

If you had to choose between three hours on a cross or four years in a slave labor camp, which would it be?  Golgotha or Auschwitz?  Who felt more abandoned, Jesus or the people clawing the walls in a gas chamber?  

 

It's hard to think of anything more futile than debating who suffered more, but to this attention must be paid:   Christ chose to suffer.   He could have opted out.

I agree that comparing suffering will rapidly grow absurd, but that doesn't mean I will accept Christian nonsense that inflates the sufferings of Jesus to eclipse that of all others. So what if Jesus chose to suffer? Is that supposed to be an answer to Job... or anyone else who suffers? Yes, let us pay attention to that, because I think that the entire "economics" of Jesus' suffering just makes theodicy even more complicated. A stumbling block, like Paul says--but maybe nothing more?

Do you know who would probably have a few words to say to Jesus and his voluntary suffering? The ram on Moriah.

 

And did Jesus choose to suffer?  He chose to live life in a way that might have gotten him arrested/killed, but that's not the same thing.  He asked in prayer to *not* have the bad stuff happen, even though he agreed to accept it if it couldn't be gotten out of.  I find the Catholic idea of the worth of suffering just incomprehensible.

Habs Kung on theodicy

        "It is in suffering particularly that God can be shown to be the One whom Jesus proclaimed; as we saw, the Father of the lost. This God is himself the answer to the question of theodicy, to life's enigmas, to suffering, inustice, death in the world. As Father of the lost, he is no longer God transendent and remote, but a God close to man in incomprehensible goodness, generouusly and magnanimously pursuing him through history, in darkness, futility and meaninglessness, inviting  him to dar to hope , mercifully sustaining him even in his remoteness from God.                                               Nowhere did it become more clearly visible than in Jesus' life and work, suffering and death, that this God is a God for men, a God who is wholly on our side. He is not a theocrtical God, creating fear, "from above, "but a God friendly to men, suffering with men "with us below." It is scarcely necessary  to insist that we are talking her in metaphors, symbols, analogies.  But what is meant is understandable enough and it is now clearer than ever that the God manifested in Jesus is not a cruel, despotic, legal-minded God , but a God encountering man as redeeming love, identifying himself in Jesus with suffering man.                                                                                                       Where does this become clearer than in the cross, confirmed and endowed with a new significance by the resurredtion? Nowhere did it become more clearly evident than in the cross that this God is in fact a God on the side of the weak, sick , poor, underprivileged, oppressed, even of the irrelgiious, ummoral and ungodly. He is a God who--unlike the pagan gods--does not take his revenge on those who sin against him; who does not permit himself to be paid or bribed by those who want something from him; who does not envy men their happiness, who does not demand their love and then let them down in the end. He is aGod who lavishes his grace on those who do not deserve it. Who gives without envy and never disappoints. .....It follows from all this that the cross is not to be understood as a sacrifice demanded by a cruel God. In the light of Easter it was understood as quite the reverse, as the deepest expression of his love....A love, that is , which cnnot be defined abstractly but only with referernce to this jesus. .....And this then is the reson why, according to Paul, nothing--absolutely nothing---can separate him  from this love of God manifested in Jesus Christ. And Paul shows in his own life that this theodicy is not merely theological theory but can be lived and proved in practice. "

On Being a Christian Pages 434-435. Hans Kung

Much better than I explained it. 

Crystal --

I agree that athe usual explanation (which is even found in Scripture) that Jesus paid for our sins by suffering in our place makes no sense in the light of the rest of the New Testament.  IT makes God the Father into some sort of monster.

But if we view the problem as one simply of justice v. injustice (God's causing innocents to suffer unfairly) then the dogma of Heaven can be seen as a solution, if we see Heaven as a *compensation* for innocents having suffered unfairly.

 Consider the innocent children.  It seems to me that if, before being born, I were told I could choose between suffering unfairly v. not existing in the first place, I would surely choose existence plus the suffering, especially if I knew that Heaven was possible at the end.  In other words the enjoyment of life exceeds the pain, at least it seems to for most sentient creatures.  

But the problem is that this is NOT true of ALL sentient creatures, so we're still left with a God who gives some creatures more pain than they deserve and not sufficient compensation to make their lives just.

That too has a possible solution -- a Heaven not only for the innocent people who suffer unfairly, but some sort of Heaven or other compensation for the innocent sentient animals.  

This doesn't solve the metaphysical issues.  But the thread isn't about them

Ann,

Yes, Keith Ward says that the afterlife is necessary to religion as the only way to really make sense of such an unjust world.  We're all pretty good at coming up with ways to explain why a good God lets bad stuff happen - in a way that makes me sad and angry because we try so hard to keep God the good guy, even in the face of our own and our loved ones' ssuffering.  I've never read an explanation that is satisfying, though, and I've really looked for a good one.  Here are a couple  ...

David Bentley Hart's "The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami" ...  http://www.amazon.com/The-Doors-Sea-Where-Tsunami-ebook/dp/B001E9732Y ...  and his article "Tsunami and Theodicy"  ...  http://www.firstthings.com/article/2007/01/tsunami-and-theodicy--27

And Marilyn McCord Adam's book "Horrendous Evils and the Goodness of God" ... http://www.amazon.com/Horrendous-Goodness-Cornell-Philosophy-Religion/dp...

Here's a video of her on the subject  ...  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R5UNiPoZDsE&feature=share&list=PLUwpbayMe...

None of it really works for me.

Bill, the Kung passage seems to be full of all sorts of declarative statements about God with nothing much to support them; they are lovely, but seem wholly empty to me. I note that this tends to be the case when Christians start talking about what the cross "is" or what it does. I think that there has to be some sort of prior submission of the heart and intellect to the sentimet behind those sorts of statements before they can be accpted, because on their own, they seem like a scrabbling after a solution.

Ann, needless to say, I recognize that you above all acknowledge the problems in your "heaven as compensation" schema. I doubt that there is a cargo cult in the South Pacific with a more nonsensical theology than that sort of idea.

Abe, is what you are saying is that you are not a believer? Apparently we are talking about matters of faith here. I know that many of us on this blog are not only lapsed Catholics but do not believe in Jesus Christ. Certainly one does not have to be a believer to discuss Christianity. But it helps one to  understand whether a person believes or not. It is true that one barely had a choice before the enlightenment to be an atheist it is important now to say so if you are an atheist. In the kindest interpretation one must admit that one's belief does color one's reason. 

I believe that Jesus Christ reconciled humanity to God. Not as  a demand from God. But rather God reaching out to wo/men. God cannot prevent free will creatures from doing evil. But s/he does help us  get through the evil that others do. The crucifixion and resurrection brings a new day to all. Kung beautifully summarize the genrorosity of an all loving God. Ultimately it is a matter of faith. Above reason but not contradictory to reason. 

Crystal -

About keeping God as the Good Guy -- If you'll notice, in Job Yahweh doesn't claim to be a Good Guy at all, at all.  He just keeps bragging about how *powerful* He is.  Job accepts this as a reason why he should retain his respect for Yahweh.  But at the end of the book God *shows* His justice and generosity, and His willingness to compensate for suffering.  He actually *punishes* Job's friends for not telling the truth about what He appears to be, for trying to make excuses for HIm when the facts obviously seem to condemn Him.  And then He blesses Job, the truth-eller!  And He compensates him generouly for his suffering.  

God's rewarding Job's truth-telling is a great lesson for us, I think.  It teaches us that we should always tell the truth about theological and moral matters, even when our thoughts are extremely surprising.  (The older I get the more I think that God is the Great Surpriser -- consideer, for instance, the incarnation and the resurrection!)  

Once again the utility of Wittgenstein's saying-showing distinction.  So often what is shown is more important than what is merely said.  Not that the moral and metaphysical problems dont' remain in the problem of evil.  But we can see from Job that the issue is not as simple as we might think at first, not as simple as we *can* think at first.

I think Marilyn McCord Adams is interesting, but doesn't succeed.  There are some other first-rate philosophers into the subject lately, e.g., Alvin Plantinga.  But I think he's position is just the warmed-over "best of all possible worlds" of Leibniz.  Not that I think that Leibniz is wrong, his argument is just not sufficient to eliminate all of the problems.  

No, I don't expect an answer in this life, and maybe not in the next one. But I do think that the philosophers have helped somewhat to dispell certain aspects of the problem.  It takes some effoert, however, to pursue their writings.  And in the end is not wholly satisfactory.

Crystal -

About keeping God as the Good Guy -- If you'll notice, in Job Yahweh doesn't claim to be a Good Guy at all, at all.  He just keeps bragging about how *powerful* He is.  Job accepts this as a reason why he should retain his respect for Yahweh.  But at the end of the book God *shows* His justice and generosity, and His willingness to compensate for suffering.  He actually *punishes* Job's friends for not telling the truth about what He appears to be, for trying to make excuses for HIm when the facts obviously seem to condemn Him.  And then He blesses Job, the truth-eller!  And He compensates him generouly for his suffering.  

God's rewarding Job's truth-telling is a great lesson for us, I think.  It teaches us that we should always tell the truth about theological and moral matters, even when our thoughts are extremely surprising.  (The older I get the more I think that God is the Great Surpriser -- consideer, for instance, the incarnation and the resurrection!)  

Once again the utility of Wittgenstein's saying-showing distinction.  So often what is shown is more important than what is merely said.  Not that the moral and metaphysical problems dont' remain in the problem of evil.  But we can see from Job that the issue is not as simple as we might think at first, not as simple as we *can* think at first.

I think Marilyn McCord Adams is interesting, but doesn't succeed.  There are some other first-rate philosophers into the subject lately, e.g., Alvin Plantinga.  But I think he's position is just the warmed-over "best of all possible worlds" of Leibniz.  Not that I think that Leibniz is wrong, his argument is just not sufficient to eliminate all of the problems.  

No, I don't expect an answer in this life, and maybe not in the next one. But I do think that the philosophers have helped somewhat to dispell certain aspects of the problem.  It takes some effoert, however, to pursue their writings.  And in the end is not wholly satisfactory.

Site manager --  FYI, I just got that "are you human" message again.

I think tha "are you human" message comes up when I accidentally click "Save" a couple of times instead of once - the site is sorta asking if I'm a Spambot.  Usually, it posts my comment anyway and lets me go about my business after showing the message.

Perhaps it is mere ignorance on my part, but I always have thought that Job was a very archaic story, something left in oral (and finally written) tradition that offered some perceived merit, but is not really of a kind with the rest of the Hebrew Scriptures.  We find it dfficult and odd because it is story from th Old Times, when God and Satan could stroll together andconsder together this odd experiment featuring mankind. I have never understood ho it came to be included in the canon of the Hebrew Scripture.

Mark L

Mark L. --

I've read that Job was not originally a Hebrew work at all, but most likely a Syrian one.  For me and many others it's among the most valuable books in the Bible.  I don't think its argument, if it can be called an argument, is primitive at all:  it uses the very contemporary distinction of Wittgenstein's, the distinction between saying and showing.  Or, rather, it very cagily *shows* the distinction.  And it's main point, besides that God is so great He is bound to be mysterious, is that justice will prevail.  Plus there is the lesson that God punishes those who do not tell the truth about the problem and rewards those who do.

I'm with Ann on this, if I understand her correctly.   How can theodicy be a stumbling block for anyone, if temporal suffering is the path to eternal joy?

Mark P. --

Umm.  .  .  , what I was trying to say was that in spite of the apparently insoluble problem of evil some progress has been made with solving it -- but not enough.  For instance, Augustine argued (following an earlier Roman) that evil hasn't been created because evil is not a reality -- on the contrary, it is a *lack* of a reality, of some good that ought to be inexistence.  For instance, when we choose to sin our will lacks the relationship to some good that ought to be.  (There are problems with that too, but it does avoid having to think that God created moral evil.

I *believe* that suffering can help towards Heaven, but I don't understand how, except that when we suffer for the sake of others we send a particularly strong message of love.

 

Job is a tought text, but it is not archaic, and I am not sure who would claim that it is Syrian.

Mark, is "temporal suffering is the path to eternal joy" even Catholic teaching?

Bill, I do not believe that "Jesus Christ reconciled humanity to God" or that the "crucifixion and resurrection brings a new day to all." I also do not beleiev that those tenents really address Job's quandry anyhow.

Thank you, Crystal. It's comforting not to feel totally alone in questioning the "traditional" explanations of how suffering is really a good thing (really,it is - you've got to believe us), even if it's a bad thing. Much of the this theology comes across as rationalization - at least to some of us.

Abe--

Yes, granting poetic license, I do understand that to be Catholic teaching, but I will defer to the experts.

Abe  --

It was many, many years ago that I saw Job attributed to a Syrian.  Sorry, I forget who was involved in the dispute --  some Jewish scholars were upset by the claim.

I haven't read Tobias recently, but I wanted to give a shout out to Jonah.  Would like to see a dramatization, with John Cleese playing Jonah.  I think it's the most humorous book in the Bible.

thought the above would post indented under Gerelyn's of 1/17, 1:36pm.