Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Job 13: Will you plead God's cause?

There are so many delicious details in Job that it's hard to pick one and turn it into a blog-sized posting. There's the full-time feasting schedule undertaken by Job's children--seven sons, seven feasts per week (1: 4). Repeat ad infinitum, or ad nauseam. There's the Adversary's diabolical, untranslatable reply to God following Job's first punishments: "Skin for skin" (2:4). (What?) There is God's diversionary speech from the whirlwind in chapters 38-42: "Pay no attention to your scabrous sores and dead children. Check out my Leviathan! Isn't he huge?"

Suffice it to say, if you haven't gotten to Job--the Bible's most daring book--read it. And then read it again. And then read it again. And don't merely rely upon the very brief precis that I'll provide, well, right now:


Job is a very righteous man from Uz. Where? (We probably don't know where Uz is, but it might be another name for Edom, a land immediately adjacent to Israel.) In the heavenly court, God points out Job's righteousness to a curious member of his entourage, ha-satan, the Adversary (frequently misunderstood as the Devil). For more on why this "Adversary" isn't a leather-winged, fire-breathing god of Hell, see, um ... anyone who's ever written any serious Biblical scholarship on the book of Job. Take my word for it: the story's so much more interesting if the Adversary is not the incarnation of evil, but a guy with a really good question.

That question is as follows: could Job be righteous only because God protects him--or "hedges" him in, as the translation suggests? Said differently, isn't Job good to God because God has been good to him? And do we want devotional behavior that's little more than a quid pro quo? God allows the challenge and lets the Adversary visit increasingly horrific trials upon Job to test his spiritual mettle: first Job loses his stuff, then his servants are killed, then his children are destroyed (murdered, if you aren't so faint of heart). Impressively--or is it stupidly?--Job falls down on his knees and "worships" God even in the wake of this sequence of disasters.

As if all this isn't enough, God then allows the Adversary to infect Job with a disease that makes his skin erupt in pussy boils. (That the text suggests that a bad case of eczema is a culminating punishment--after the disastrous loss of ten children--is one of its dark ironies.) Job's reply is still maddeningly respectful: "Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?" (2:10) The implied correct response to this question is, of course, yes. But many a reader has by this point been given pause.

What follows is about three dozen chapters of poetic discourse between Job and three "friends" (2:11) on the nature and cause of Job's suffering. (The fourth friend is Elihu, but most suggest his argument is an unhelpful rehashing of what precedes it, so I'll ignore it here.) For the detailed in's and out's of the discourse, one must read the text. And as I write above, the in's and out's are worth the effort: many suggest that we have no greater example of ancient Hebrew poetry than Job, and much of the beauty survives translation. However, the discussion essentially boils down to the following: Job's friends argue that his suffering is deserved--the result of some sin, known or unknown. (Of course, none of the speakers know that his suffering is, ironically, the result of his righteousness--Another of the text's stark ironies.) Job allows for such a possibility, but indirectly defends himself by asking only that he be shown his sin: "Make me know my transgression and my sin" (13:23). A reasonable request, it seems.

Which sneaks in the back door to Job 13, the ostensible focus of this entry. After surviving three servings of excoriation from his self-righteous "friends" (and with friends like these ...), Job gives a stirring reply. (And here I switch from the NRSV translation--my usual default--to the Jewish Publication Society's beautiful rendering.)

Will you speak unjustly on God's behalf?
Will you speak deceitfully for Him?
Will you be partial toward Him?
Will you plead God's cause?
Will it go well when He examines you?
Will you fool Him as one fools men?
He will surely reprove you ... (13:7-10)

And indeed God does reprove them! Though it is Job who issues some wallpaper-peeling challenges to God (again, read the text!), it is the three blowhards--who ostensibly defend divine justice--who receive God's final condemnation: "My wrath is kindled against you and against your two friends," God seethes in 42:7 (NRSV again), "for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has." This message seems clear: you may question God as severely as you like (whether or not your questions are answered). Just don't presume to speak for him.

But let's be simpler still. The moral of Job is "Question God." Such questions are, in the book's parlance, "right speech." And Job does not ask benign questions like why is the sky blue? Is a duckbilled platypus a platypus or a duck? Why was the radical reconstruction neither radical nor a reconstruction? Why does McDonald's give you six chicken nuggets when Wendy's only gives you five? Why do goats mate in the springtime? (Okay, it actually does ask the last question, but I'll leave that for later.)

The questions Job poses are much starker: What is the purpose of evil? Why do I suffer when I try so hard to be good? Why can't God understand my pain? Is it possible that I could be more just than God? Why can't God be more like me? Can I take God to court if I feel if he has treated me poorly?

Weighty matters. And for some of the devout, blasphemies. But not for the book of Job. For Job, these are the questions we should ask--and these are the questions God rewards Job for asking. Even if that reward is new kids. (New kids? We'll save that for later, too.)

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