There is hope for a tree
Q: I am in a study group at my Church and this week we were studying Job. I am a faithful reader of your column and am curious how the Jewish faith interprets this story. Is it a story of just how great suffering can be? God is still there even when He takes everything away from you? I'd appreciate your thoughts. -- V
A: I will periodically devote some space in my column to explaining God's message to us in each of several books of the Bible. Your kind question from your Church group allows me to begin our Bible-Books-read-in-the-shadow-of-God with the Book of Job.
Job was probably written about 2600 years ago. Set in the land of Uz its topic is what theologians call theodicy, which means the attempt to explain how an all-powerful and all-knowing and benevolent God could allow righteous people to suffer. In the case of Job, a righteous man, his suffering is the result of a bizarre wager God makes with Satan, the devil. Satan bets that the only reason Job has not abandoned and cursed God is that he has never suffered. God disagrees and accepts the wager. Job is impoverished and all his children and servants die. Then he is stricken with a terrible disease, but all the while Job does not curse God. He famously says what have become the last words spoken at a Jewish funeral, "God has given and God has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord." (Job 1:21). He sums up his theology of acceptance of everything God gives or takes from us in our lives, "Shall we receive good from God and shall we not receive evil?" (Job 2:9-10)
So, there you have the first lesson of the Book of Job: everything God has given us is just on loan to us and God can recall the loan at any time. We own nothing. Everything is a gift. Even suffering is a gift because it teaches us courage and it teaches us to have hope and courage even in our darkest days. This approach to Job as the teacher of piety no matter what sufferings besiege us is taken up in the New Testament reading of the Book of Job as we see in the Epistle of James (James 5:7-11).
Job's piety is then rudely disrupted by three friends: Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar. Their message to Job is that a good and all-powerful God would never punish the innocent and therefore Job must not be innocent. He must have sinned and thus provoked the just punishments he is suffering.
In "J.B.," a modern interpretation of the Book of Job set in a circus tent, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1959, the poet and playwright Archibald MacLeish, has the Satan character Nickles, a balloon vendor, taunt the God character, Mr. Zuss, a popcorn vendor, with the rhyme, "If God is great, He is not good. If God is good, He is not God. Take the even take the odd. I would not stand here if I could." Either God is a well- meaning weakling or God is an all-powerful demon. Faith cannot survive either choice.
Although Job never actually renounces his faith, he does become angry at God whom he accuses of abandoning his creation.
God finally interrupts Job's ranting against God's injustice with two famous speeches from the midst of a whirlwind. The heart of these speeches is found in chapter 38.
"Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell me, if you have understanding.