Proper 22B/Ordinary 27B/Pentecost 19
October 7, 2012
Job 1:1, 2:1-10
Harold S. Kushner, a Conservative Jewish rabbi, was by all accounts a just, compassionate, law-abiding man. If there was someone who should have been favored by God and showered with blessings, it was him. His first-born son, Aaron, was not developing the way a child should – his growth was extremely slow and he remained very small. When Aaron was three, he was finally diagnosed with progeria – a rare genetic disorder. The doctor’s prognosis for him was shocking, “Aaron would never grow much beyond three feet in height, would have no hair on his head or body, would look like a little old man while still a child, and would die in his early teens” (Kushner 1981, 2).
Rabbi Kushner, along with his wife, was devastated. He had always believed in an unconditionally good, omnipotent God – how could something as unjust as this, inflicted on an innocent child, be allowed to happen in a God-ruled universe? In dealing with his family’s emotional struggles and his own, and dealing with all the well-meaning but hurtful advice that people give in matters such as Aaron’s, Rabbi Kushner decided to write a book. When Bad Things Happen to Good People was originally published in 1975. It went to the top of the New York Times best-selling nonfiction list and stayed there for several months. Today, it remains mandatory reading for helping professionals of all sorts, particularly pastoral counselors.
One of the books that gave Rabbi Kushner inspiration during his son’s all-too-short life was the Book of Job. I have to warn you: Job is my favorite book of the Bible. Consequently, because we have run of Job in the lectionary, you are going to be hearing a lot from me about Job in the coming weeks. Why Job? Why dwell on the terrible tale of a man crushed by misfortune, inflicted by a collusion between YHWH and Ha-Satan (Hebrew for, literally, “The Accuser”)? Isn’t there something more uplifting we could focus on?
I love Job because it takes a long, hard look at the phenomenon of human suffering – and the human and Divine response to it – and does not flinch. It does not offer easy answers, and it is not for the faint of heart, but it is a journey well worth taking. Since we are all guaranteed to encounter a measure of suffering in this life, I think it is time well-invested.
The first and second chapters of Job plant us squarely in a discussion of theodicy – a fancy seminary word for justifications of the fact that an allegedly loving and omnipotent God allows suffering to occur in the world. In the full text of Chapter 1, Ha-Satan has already been allowed to inflict misfortune on Job in the senseless slaughter of all Job’s children and flocks – but the upright Job persists in praising God. This excerpt begins with the heavenly beings coming (again) to present themselves before YHWH – among whom is Ha-Satan. The Lord brags to Ha-Satan (again) about Job, “Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man who fears God and turns away from evil” (Job 2:3). Ha-Satan sees the opportunity to up the ante against poor Job: “Skin for skin! All that people have they will give to save their lives. But stretch out your hand now and touch his bone and his flesh, and he will curse you to your face” (vv.4-5). YHWH accepts the challenge: ““Very well, he is in your power; only spare his life” (vv.6). Job is then smitten with boils from head to toe, but he still remains faithful: “Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?” (vv.10).
The image that this passage leaves us with is extremely disturbing. It depicts Job as the pawn in a rather cynical battle of the wits between YHWH and Ha-Satan. However, in Jewish theology – and throughout the Hebrew Bible – YHWH is seen as the author of all things: even evil. Commentators view the depiction of Ha-Satan in Job as being like God’s lead prosecuting attorney. Ha-Satan tests and interrogates creation to see if it will really live up to YHWH’s standards (hence the name “The Accuser”). Nonetheless, this vision is not a comforting one for someone who has suffered undeserved misfortune. If YHWH and Ha-Satan are really in collusion against humanity, then what point is there, really?
The experience of undeserved tragedy often leaves us feeling like this – like a small, insignificant pawn in a heavenly game over which we have no control. If that is where the Book of Job were to leave us, we would be up a creek without a paddle. Fortunately, the Book of Job does not leave us here – and neither does YHWH. So where do we go from here? Not to leave you hanging, but stay tuned next week and find out …