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The Old Testament Book of Job is thought to be a meditation on the so-called problem of evil: “Why do bad things happen to good people?” (Rabbi Harold Kushner)

It is odd then that the book provides no real answer to that question. Is it possible we’ve missed the point entirely?

In Job, a just and righteous man enjoys family, wealth and respect. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, he loses everything. His children are killed, his wealth is wiped out and his body is covered with boils.

Three old friends hear of Job’s plight and travel a great distance, ostensibly to comfort him. Job’s dialogue with these so-called ‘comforters’, with a young man traveling in their party, and later with God himself constitutes the long dramatic poem that forms the bulk of this book.

Job is organized in a ‘call and response’ format. First Job states his complaint:

“Perish the day on which I was born…may that day be darkness…may it not be counted among the days of the year…why did I not die at birth?…I have no peace nor ease; I have no rest for trouble has come!”

From here on a comforter will speak and Job will reply. Eliphaz and Bildad speak three times each, Zophar twice. Job delivers a total of 9 answers (once answering the same speech twice).

What is striking about this dialog is that it really isn’t dialog at all. Both sides continually repeat their positions but they do not seem to hear or react to one another. One is reminded of contemporary American politics. The debaters talk at, not to, each other, and the so-called ‘answers’ seem scripted.

This lack of true dialog frustrates all 4 participants. As the conversation continues, they get more and more exasperated. Why can’t he/they understand what we/I am saying?

Perhaps it is because the two sides do not share a common philosophical framework. Each side bases its argument on certain assumptions which (it turns out) the other side does not share.

The comforters offer a model of the world that is algorithmic (if A, then B), deterministic (A causes B), and moralistic. The will of God consists of a collection of moral precepts, rules (611 of the 613 precepts of the Torah perhaps). A violation of any of these rules triggers punishment.

The comforters’ model does make room for divine mercy and forgiveness but even that is accessed algorithmically. Say this or do that and God will forgive you.

“In your place I would appeal to God, and to God I would state my plea…For he wounds but he binds up; he strikes, but his hands give healing…See, this we have searched out; so it is! This we have heard, and you should know.”

In other words, do not mount a defense but throw yourself on the mercy of the court. Job takes issue with this advice on two counts. First, he protests his innocence:

“…I have not transgressed the commands of the holy one.”

Job is like a defendant who rejects a plea deal because it means confessing to a crime he didn’t commit, even though he invites a much stiffer sentence by doing so.

Second, even more than mercy, Job wants justice. He wants the right to state his case before God.

“I would speak with the Almighty; I want to argue with God. I will defend my conduct before him.”

Interestingly, for all their theistic protestations, the comforters do not need God for their model to work. A machine, a zombie or a computer would do just as well. Anything that can coordinate outputs with inputs will suffice.

Job’s model, on the other hand, is absolutely reliant on God’s agency. Job’s God is no Turing Machine. Rather his God weighs the totality of a situation, consults empirical evidence, and then judges based on the application of certain eternal values:  Justice, Mercy and Love, for example.

God is not content to observe passively the algorithmically determined course of history. Like Hercules at the Augean Stables, he wants to intervene to change that course.

Job is an early ‘observer of the human condition’, perhaps even a philosopher of the Absurd. The world is neither fair nor just; bad things happen to people for no apparent reason.

“My days are swifter than a weaver’s shuttle; they come to an end without any hope. Remember that my life is like the wind…As a cloud dissolves and vanishes, so whoever goes down to Sheol shall not come up. They shall not return home again; their place shall know them no more.”

The comforters, on the other hand, would agree with Leibniz: this is the best of all possible worlds. God ensures that things are as just and fair as they possibly can be.

Therefore, if Job suffers, it can only be because he has sinned. Nothing is random, nothing is unjust (except sin itself).

“What innocent person perishes? Where are the upright destroyed? As I see it, those who plow mischief and sow trouble will reap them.”

“For not from dust does mischief come, nor from the soil does trouble sprout. Human beings beget mischief…”

Suffering is not part of the natural order of things. It results directly from transgressions of the moral code.

Job understands that this is nuts! Isn’t it obvious that virtue is no assurance of prosperity and that wickedness is no guarantee of misfortune.

“Yet the tents of robbers are prosperous, and those who provoke God are secure…”

“It is all one…Both the innocent and the wicked he destroys. When the scourge slays suddenly, he scoffs at the despair of the innocent. The earth is given into the hands of the wicked…”

“Why do the wicked keep on living, grow old, become mighty in power? Their progeny is secure in their sight…Their homes are safe, without fear, and the rod of God is not upon them…They live out their days in prosperity and tranquilly go down to Sheol. Yet they say to God, ‘Depart from us, for we have no desire to know your ways!”

In the movie Yellow Submarine, the hero (aka Jeremy Hillary Boob, Phd) says, “Be empirical, look!” But the comforters are not empirical; they do not look.

Instead, they reject Job’s conclusions. Like modern day preachers who tell grieving parents that their child’s death is the result of God’s ‘master plan’, Job’s friends insist that there is some moral justification for the world’s apparently amoral condition.

For the most part, the comforters are content to impute undefined sins to Job as explanation of and justification for his sufferings. After all, Job’s sufferings are prima facie proof of his guilt. What need have we of further evidence?

“Does God pervert judgment, does the Almighty pervert justice?…Behold, God will not cast away the upright; neither will he take the hand of the wicked.”

By his third speech, however, Eliphaz’ frustration gets the better of him and he manufactures details of Job’s wrongdoing without the slightest hint of evidence:

“You keep your relatives’ goods in pledge unjustly, leave them stripped naked of their clothing. To the thirsty you give no water to drink, and from the hungry you withhold bread… You sent widows away empty-handed, and the resources of the orphans are destroyed.”

Initially, Job refutes his friends by denying his guilt:

“My foot has always walked in his steps; I have kept his way and not turned aside.”

“God has given me over to the impious…although my hands are free from violence and my prayer sincere.”

“…Till I die I will not renounce my innocence. My justice I maintain and I will not relinquish it; my heart does not reproach me for any of my days.”

“…I rescued the poor who cried out for help, the orphans, the unassisted…”

Perhaps anticipating Job’s assertion that he is innocent of any specific wrongdoing, the comforters have built a ‘Plan B’ into their argument:

“How can any mortal be blameless, anyone born of woman righteous? ”

“How can anyone be in the right against God or how can any born of woman be innocent?”

Misfortune is a form of God’s judgment. God cannot be wrong so no matter what the accused may say, and even believe, God has to be right.

Surprisingly, Job admits the logic of this argument:

“How can anyone be right before God…I am innocent but I cannot know it.”

It is impossible to know for certain that one has not violated, perhaps unknowingly, some divine statute.  It might seem at this juncture that the comforters have won the argument; but now Job has a more important argument to make. This debate is not about Job’s specific guilt or innocence. It is about the nature of justice itself.

“Even if it were true that I am at fault…it is God who has dealt with me unfairly.”

Even if you accept a theory of ethics based on moral law and even if you accept that Job, knowingly or unknowingly, has violated that law, you still cannot argue that his sufferings are just.

“Let God weigh me in the scales of justice; thus he will know my innocence!”

Justice demands that God weigh the totality of Job’s actions and intentions. His wrath may not be triggered mechanically by a single misstep. By any measure, Job’s sufferings are disproportionate to any possible crime. Mercy (one of the eternal values, above) would not permit God to impose so severe a punishment.

Here is where Job’s argument diverges most radically from that of the comforters. Their ethics are linear, Job’s are holistic. Job sets out an alternative theory of ethics based on values rather than morals.

“Even now my witness is in heaven, my advocate is on high…that justice may be done for a mortal with God: as for a man with his neighbor.”

Job is holding God to a higher ethical standard than the one applied by the comforters. Judeo-Christian ethics require a person to forgive his neighbor’s trespasses and resist the temptation to exact vengeance. If this is ethically binding on human beings, why not even more so on God?

Fundamentally, Judeo-Christian ethics are based on values, not morals. The exhortation to “love your neighbor as yourself” is found in all four Gospels; but it originated in the Old Testament Book of Leviticus. It is one part of the so-called Great Commandment which is said to sum up the 611 specific precepts of the Torah.

The behavior of machines is based on rules. If the cosmos is a machine, then a rules based ethic (moral code) may govern. But not a universe where free will, motivated and guided by eternal values, dominates!

Who has free will? At a bare minimum, human beings…and, if he exists, God. Where do the eternal values that motivate and guide free behavior come from? They can only come from that God. So, according at least to Thomas Aquinas (4th Proof), God has to exist. But we’re getting a bit beyond the Book of Job now.

One thing we can say for certain about Job is that he believes in God:

“As for me, I know that my vindicator lives, and that he will at last stand forth upon the dust…and from my flesh I will see God.”

Free actors, who make decisions based on the application of values, make those decisions very differently than do machines. They are not ruled by specific inputs or even by inputs generally. Rather they weigh inputs and make value based decisions based on those inputs and on consideration of the consequences of potential outputs. Free actors decide on appropriate outputs by evaluating their consequences in light of eternal values.

Those decisions are not determined. We are free to weigh inputs and values differently in different situations. There is no one right (or wrong) formula. With freedom comes judgment.

Job understands this and he bases his argument on it.

“So mortals lie down, never to rise. Until the heavens are no more, they shall not awake, nor be roused out of their sleep. Oh, that you would hide me in Sheol, shelter me till your wrath is past, fix a time to remember me!”

Job appeals to God as a child might appeal to an angry parent.

“If a man were to die, and live again, all the days of my drudgery I would wait for my relief to come. You would call, and I would answer you; you would long for the work of your hands…My misdeeds would be sealed up in a pouch, and you would cover over my guilt.”

Here Job demonstrates unimaginable bravery. He appeals to God based on the entirely unproven hypothesis that God loves him: “You would long for the work of your hands.”

By extension, if Job is loved by God, then it follows that his “misdeeds would be sealed up in a pouch” and his guilt covered over.

So what does Job want? An end to his suffering? Yes, but more than that, he wants a fair trial!

“Would that I knew how to find him, that I might come to his dwelling! I would set out my case before him…he himself would heed me!”

“Slay me though he might, I will wait for him; I will defend my conduct before him.”

“Oh, that I had one to hear my case: here is my signature: let the Almighty answer me! Let my accuser write out his indictment!”

In the best Old Testament tradition, Job is not afraid to argue with God, and his arguments explore all possible registers. He appeals to God’s ego:

“Oh, remember that you fashioned me from clay! Will you then bring me down to dust again?”

“Your hands have formed and fashioned me; will you then turn and destroy me?”

He appeals to God’s ‘compassion’ which is slightly different from his ‘mercy’:

“If I should sin…you would not absolve me…Why then did you bring me forth from the womb?”

“Why do you not pardon my offense, or take away my guilt? For soon I shall lie down in the dust and should you seek me I shall be gone.”

Compassion is a personal quality, actually an interpersonal quality; mercy can be merely algorithmic. (Consider Pilate’s practice of pardoning a prisoner at Passover.)

Job challenges God’s motives and his sincerity: “…you seek for guilt in me and search after my sins, even though you know that I am not wicked.”

He even tries to shame God: “I have become the sport of my neighbors: ‘The one whom God answers when he calls upon him, the just, the perfect man’, is a laughingstock.”

All of this must have mystified Job’s comforters. That a man would contend with God over ethics…unimaginable! Even more so that a man would argue with God as if God was subject to the same values and emotions that humans are.

To the comforters, God is effectively a machine and the world is created in his image. Human beings cannot control their actions; they may sin without knowing it and be punished accordingly. To Job, God is a ‘person’ and the world he created is therefore personal as well. Human beings have free will; they should be judged based on their intentions and even then according to mercy as well as justice.

So we have heard the morals based arguments of the comforters and the values based arguments of Job. But we’re not done yet! We haven’t heard from the comforters’ young companion, Elihu…and we haven’t heard from God.

Elihu has been silent throughout the comforters’ 8 speeches and Job’s 9 replies; but now that the debate seems to have run its course, Elihu offers a fresh perspective:

“If you sin, what do you do to God? Even if your offenses are many, how do you affect him? If you are righteous, what do you give him, or what does he receive from your hand? Your wickedness affects only someone like yourself, and your justice, only a fellow human being.”

Elihu accepts Job’s personal understanding of God but he rejects Job’s brave assumption (above) that God loves him or cares about him or even notices him.  Elihu’s argument must have been the hardest for Job to hear. It challenges Job’s bed rock belief that God is involved with him. Elihu is almost taunting Job. Some comforter he turned out to be!

While Job urges God to behave like a human being and be guided by shared ethical values, Elihu argues that God behaves exactly like a human being, selfish and indifferent. Elihu’s argument debases both God and man.

Elihu ends his monologue with this: “The Almighty! We cannot find him, preeminent in power and judgment, abundant in justice, who never oppresses. Therefore people fear him: none can see him, however wise their hearts.”

Ethically and theologically, Elihu is a nihilist. He fits comfortably in the tradition of the Epicureans, the Deists, Nietzsche and the Death of God Theologians.

Job does not respond to Elihu…but God does! The moment Elihu finishes, the Lord appears!

First God presents his credentials: “…Where were you when I founded the earth?…Who determined its size?…Who shut within doors the sea?…Have you ever in your lifetime commanded the morning and shown the dawn its place…Have the gates of death been shown to you, or have you seen the gates of darkness?…What is the way to the dwelling of the light?…What is the way to the parting of the winds?…Who has begotten the drops of dew?…Have you tied cords to the Pleiades, or loosened the bonds of Orion?’”

Then, buried in God’s first speech, is a challenge: “Do you know the ordinances of the heavens; can you put into effect their plan on earth?”

Job has waved eternal values in God’s face and urged him to act on them. God affirms Job’s values but challenges Job to implement those values himself. In effect God is saying, “If you think it’s so easy, do it yourself!”

The Lord’s 2nd speech builds on that challenge:

“Let loose the fury of your wrath; look at everyone who is proud and bring them down. Look at everyone who is proud and humble them. Tear down the wicked in their place, bury them in the dust together; in the hidden world imprison them. Then will I too praise you.”

The Lord then speaks at length regarding two of his creations, Behemoth (Hippopotamus?) and Leviathan (Sea Monster?). First of Behemoth, “whom I made along with you…See the strength in his loins, the power in the sinews of his belly.” But the Lord ends by asking, “Who can capture him by his eyes, or pierce his nose with a trap?”

The Lord continues on to Leviathan: “Can you lead Leviathan about with a hook…can you put a ring in his nose…Will he then plead with you, time after time, or address you with tender words? Will he make a covenant with you that you may have him as a slave forever? Can you play with him, as with a bird? Can you tie him up for your little girls?”

Let’s sum up:

  • The comforters believe that events succeed one another algorithmically and that the matrix of events is ultimately the product of God’s will…and therefore fair.
  • Job counters by demonstrating the manifest unfairness of events in the real world. He exhorts God to intervene, citing certain eternal values (e.g. justice and mercy).
  • Elihu does not dispute Job’s value based ethics but insists that God is indifferent to those values and indifferent to Job himself.
  • God affirms Job’s values and confirms Job’s perception of injustice in the world. Obviously, the world is a complex organism, not a machine. For that very reason, reliance on divine intervention is insufficient. There is an element of ‘freedom’ in the world that God can’t or won’t compromise. Instead, God turns the tables on Job and urges him to use the guidance offered by the eternal values to alter the course of historical events himself, always conscious of the limited extent to which he can do that.

So the Book of Job is not fundamentally about the problem of evil at all. That is merely the back drop for something much more important. The Book of Job is about a clash of ethics, ontologies and theologies. Viewed this way, the book comes to an unmistakable and unequivocal conclusion:

There are eternal values that guide God and should guide men. Following that guidance does not guarantee a fair outcome in every instance…or even in many instances. Rather it an ethical imperative binding on God and man. We are up against it in this world but God is in it with us and together, we’re in it to win it!

#god #culture #aletheiaessays #moralsandvaluesinjob


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