The Book of Job is one of the most lucid presentations of the problems I’ve been writing about, and it is a story which is easy to tell:
Job is an upright and just man, rich, and with many children; Satan (not the personification of evil from later tradition, but merely one of the many who populate God’s divine council) notices this and makes a wager with God that the only reason Job is so pious is because nothing bad has ever happened to him, and God agrees to let Satan do whatever he wants with him; Satan sees to it that Job’s children are all killed, that all his money is lost, and that he himself is stricken with horrible diseases, but does not die; amidst Job’s mourning, three of his friends appear, and the bulk of the book is taken up with their arguments: Job’s, that his suffering—let alone those of his children and wife—are not deserved, and his friends’, that what happens to human beings is related directly to their actions, so therefore Job must deserve all of it; near the end of the book, God speaks to Job from a whirlwind, merely saying that the answers Job seeks are beyond his comprehension; Job’s friends are scolded by God for their erroneous assertions, and then Job is praised, and is given double the riches he lost, and ten more children.
For most, God comes off horribly in this story, first in his awful wager, and then in his “answer” to Job’s suffering.
Yet the literal belief in a transcendent God, coupled with the expressive limitations of language, and the human inability to deal with uncertainty, can’t help but result in such a ridiculous kind of God; and within such a frame-story, such literal beliefs and limited language can’t help but make Job’s reception of new children and some money as equally ridiculous, as if loved ones can be so easily replaced, and the destruction of human effort dealt with so cheaply.
But take away the frame story of the wager, and God’s whirlwind speech, and what do we have? A prosperous man whose children are killed, riches are taken, and whose body is stricken with horrible diseases; some time later, after much mourning and difficulty, Job is back in business, and he and his wife have had other children.
In this scenario, none of the suffering experienced by Job, his wife or children, or those who worked for him, are inflicted by a mischievous Satan, or specifically “permitted” by God. It is simply what happened.
In this scenario, Job and his wife, and then Job and his friends, go through a terrible time together, arguing and then arguing some more.
In this scenario, at some point Job and his wife decide to start over again.
In this scenario, there is no need to seek out divine forces behind the good things that happened to Job before, the horrible things that happened after, or the good things that happened again.
In this scenario, this is simply what many of us experience every day in smaller ways, and what many people in poor or war-torn regions of the world experience the equivalent of, all the time.
In this scenario, a ridiculously literal and human-like God is not there to criticize or mock, and we are instead left with one family suffering horrendously, and living through it the best they can.
So why, then, the frame story? Focusing on God is just scenery, after all, but the need for it is understandable: it moves our eyes away from the horrible fact that, to all appearances, most of our suffering is undeserved, and onto something much more attractive: finding someone to blame. It moves our eyes away from the reality of suffering and onto the unanswerable question of why we suffer; and even worse, it pretends to answer that question. All the while, the reality of suffering is ignored.
But the reality of suffering is perhaps the most awful realization to have, and it is worth dwelling on for a moment. Because regardless of how it happened, Job’s children were all killed one day, everyone who worked for him or depended upon his wealth were also either killed or made destitute, and Job and his wife were left poor and childless.
So much theological talk is spent on the idea of justice, but after awhile it’s hard not to come to the conclusion that there just isn’t any. Yes, Job had some more kids and got rich again, but that doesn’t erase the deaths or mourning that went before. As the families of murder victims often admit, while they do want the murderer to die, even that execution won’t bring back their loved one. There is no actual justice.
And this is simply writ large everyday, in every situation of suffering: there is no justice for any child or spouse who is abused, for anyone at all who is murdered, or caught in a larger war, or killed by accident. There is no justice. There is punishment, but the reality of the unjust act—the abuse, the rape, the murder—is never sponged away. It still happened, and there is no changing it.
Just think about that: somewhere, a child is hit by an adult. Even if this only happens once, there is no way to undo the abuse done to the vulnerable by the powerful. And on up to any historical event, where huge numbers are murdered, are victims of genocide, or of foreign governments and armies. Even if this enemy is eventually defeated, even if their leader is finally killed, there is no justice here: rather the injustice, for the moment, has merely stopped. There is no way to undo the displacement, suffering, and murder of millions and millions. As it has been said simply enough: “Anyone who has been tortured remains tortured,”[i] and “I know no human act that can erase a crime.”[ii]
There is no justice. It simply isn’t there, and it never has been, except apparently in an afterlife, the hope for which only makes us despise the world even more, and perhaps even hope for death.
The question is not whether God or the world are “just” in any human understanding of the word, but of why we ever imagined they were.
Abraham is said to have told God, “If You desire the world to continue there cannot be strict justice; if you insist on strict justice, the world cannot endure.”[iii] Meanwhile, an otherwise sensible Rabbi, in response to a Roman questioner on why God does not provide for the poor if he does indeed love them, responded, “So that we may be delivered through them from the penalty of Gehinnon.”[iv] That people should be poor so that those who are not poor can gain merit by helping them presents a more horrifying world than one which acknowledges there are no answers.
And so the real horror of Job is that there are no answers. If God or the devil actually are behind anything, or if there actually is some relationship between our actions and what happens to us, we have no ability to comprehend or convincingly explain either possibility.
About all we can do is take this knowledge of our limitations and apply it with humility and empathy.
Certainty does not exist here. Justice does not exist here. But that does not mean that meaning cannot exist here.
Religion is entirely about learning how to treat others not with fairness or justice, but with compassion and love; religion is entirely about giving people what they need, not what they deserve. And this is also the case with the experience of everyday life. There is simply no reliable or coherent way to ever interpret material or political events of any kind, as the result of divine pleasure or displeasure.
When we stop trying to blame God, or pretend that God or religion has anything to do with the limitations of reason as we experience them, the harder work of simply living in a difficult world (and helping others to do the same) is that much closer.
[i] Jean Amery, quoted in Primo Levi, The Drowned and the Saved, 25.
[ii] Primo Levi, The Drowned and the Saved, 137.
[iii] Quoted in Abraham Cohen, Everyman’s Talmud, 17-18.
[iv] Quoted in Abraham Cohen, Everyman’s Talmud, 220.