Cultural literacy in our corner of the world requires at least some knowledge of the Biblical story of Job: the saga of one man’s suffering—representing the struggles of everyperson; the story of Job’s patience, and the limits of patience!
The story implies that there are good, appropriate ways to respond to another person’s grief and suffering, and there are inappropriate ways of responding. Job’s friends did both; reminding us that we all do both. We’re capable of being helpful and we’re capable of making matters worse, even when our best intention is to be helpful, kind and caring.
By looking at how Job’s friends failed we might learn to avoid the basic pitfall in our most important relationships.
How can we be of help to a friend who is going through a difficult time?
The catastrophe we call Katrina brought Job to mind. Katrina, like all natural disasters, is the age-old story of human suffering, endurance, and the limits of endurance. As a mythological character, Job provides a powerful a symbol of great suffering, and, if you look closely, he reminds us of other essential human ingredients. Two of those ingredients are the need for humility and appreciation.
Before reviewing the story of Job, let me remind you of the widely-read book by Rabbi Harold Kushner: When Bad Things Happen to Good People. He wrote it in reaction to a personal tragedy–his son Aaron had premature aging, which took his life. This tragedy provoked a crisis of faith for Rabbi Kushner. He said he wrote the book for people “who have been hurt by life,” to help them find a faith system that helps them to get through their troubles, rather than making things worse. He had to create a new faith system for himself—that’s what a crisis of faith is; it’s a turning point; a change.
The story of Job was written as a poem about 2500 years ago. Scholars tell us that it was actually two or three poems pieced together, little by little. It is as timeless universal and as the struggle to be human, which is why it has endured for twenty five centuries.
It’s about the ways people have wrestled with God or the gods; it’s about the idea of divine justice and mercy; it’s about the question of fairness and unfairness, and so forth.
It’s also about our human response to the suffering of others—it’s about compassion; but it’s also about inappropriate responses to the suffering of others—it’s about blaming the victim. It’s about what it means to be a friend to someone who is in the midst of great suffering, in the midst of loss.
Let’s look at the story–see if anything new has been added since the last time you looked.
The story opens: “There was a man in the land of Uz, whose name was Job; and that man was blameless and upright, one who feared God, and turned away from evil.”
Job was not Jewish—indeed, he belongs to no particular tribe. He’s meant to represent the universal man…a human being. All the basic aspects of what it means to be human are in the story. Job was a good man. His suffering is shocking; human suffering is always shocking; it’s a blow to the mind; it throws things off balance; it upsets the equilibrium. It’s frightening.
Job was extremely wealthy; in addition to his seven sons and three daughters he had 7,000 sheep, 3,000 camels, 500 yoke of oxen, and 500 she-asses, and very many servants. The story says that he was the wealthiest man in the kingdom.
God and Satan have a conversation and God says to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job, that there I none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil?”
Satan answers, “Does Job fear God for nought? Have thou not put a hedge about him and his house and all that he has on every side? Thou hast blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land. But put forth thy hand now, and touch all that he has, and he will curse thee to thy face.”
The plot is set when God answers Job: “Behold, all that he has is in your power, only upon himself do not put forth your hand.”
The story of Job is scandalous in its portrayal of a god who takes a good man and causes him great suffering simply to win a bet with Satan—to prove a point.
So, with God’s explicit approval, Satan gets to work to destroy everything Job has, in about the same time it took the water to fill New Orleans.
First he destroys all his livestock, which represents his material wealth; bigger than the stock market crash of ’29—a different kind of stock. Then Satan sends a natural disaster to slay all of Job’s children. Job responds: “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return; the Lord gave and the Lord has taken away, blessed be the name of the Lord.”
The poet says, “In all this Job did not sin or charge God with wrong.”
Notice: Job’s losses come from two kinds of disasters: man-made and natural. We call to mind the disaster of 9/11 and the hurricanes.
Once again, God brags to Satan about ‘my servant Job.’ So Satan says, “Skin for skin! All that a man has he will give for his life. But put forth thy hand now, and touch his bone and his flesh, and he will curse thee to thy face.”
Satan pushes the point: a man can endure the loss of loved ones and wealth, but if he loses his health he will crumble.
“And the Lord said to Satan, ‘Behold, he is in your power; only spare his life.”
Satan inflicts Job with ‘loathsome sores from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head.’
“Then Job’s wife says, ‘Do you still hold fast your integrity? Curse God, and die.”
Satan appears in the Job story not as a demonic figure which later traditions portray, but as ha-Satan, which translates to ‘the Adversary,’ the one who argues with angels as one of them, not an outsider; he’s one of the ‘sons of God.’
In the Job story, God and Satan are pitted against one another as equal contenders, both with supernatural powers–one represents the creator god, the other represents the destroyer god.
The story doesn’t mention the afterlife; it focuses on the quality of this life…joy and sorrow…loss, grief, humility and appreciation.
One of the central features of the story is Job’s visit from his three oldest and dearest friends: Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar. They hear about Job’s suffering, they get together and pay him a visit. As they approach Job’s mansion, they see him sitting outside on the ground on a pile of ashes. They don’t recognize him, at first, he has changed so much since they last visited. They approach him. They weep with him. Then they sit with him for seven days without saying a single word. Quite amazing. So far they have succeeded as friends—this is what a good friend does: he shows up, he sits silently when his friend is suffering.
This may be where the rabbis got the idea of sitting shiva, from the Hebrew word for seven. Sitting shiva is not Biblical; it’s not a commandment; it’s rabbinic—that is, invented by the rabbis.
Finally, after seven days of silence, Eliphaz says, “If one ventures a word with you would you be offended?” This is a kind of warning to Job. Here it comes! The modern version of this might be a preface like, “I hate to tell you this.”
Eliphaz gives Job a sermon. He defends God by telling Job that God is just. He says that Job must have done something to deserve his terrible and terrifying punishment. Then another friend tells Job that God is not only just, but merciful, so Job deserved worse punishment.
Job is enraged. In addition to the suffering brought onto him by all his losses, his friends ‘blame the victim.’
Why do they blame Job? It’s really quite simple: they want to continue to believe that ‘it won’t happen to me.’ This is a typical example of what we call being ‘defensive.’ They are defending themselves against the possibility of changing their own minds. This is what we do.
Job says, in his anger, “Miserable comforters are you all!”
He declares: “I am blameless! It is all one: therefore I say, he (God) destroys both the blameless and the wicked. When disaster brings sudden death, he mocks at the calamity of the innocent.”
Job is simultaneously both a believer and an atheist. God’s presence is incontrovertible in his mind, but God’s moral integrity is lacking. He knows the Creator ‘is there,’ but he refuses to ‘believe in him,’ in the sense of trusting him to be just.
One doesn’t have to search far to hear echoes of Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar today. For example, a rabbi in Israel, responding to Katrina said God brought the storm because President Bush favored Israeli withdrawal from Gaza.
Several Christian clergy have said that Katrina was sent by God as a punishment for sexual misconduct in New Orleans. Muslim clerics have said that the storm was sent by Allah as a punishment to imperialistic America. Even the Dali Lama has made unfortunate statements about Katrina being a function Karma–how our past lives are brought to bear resulting in this storm and the suffering it brought.
Like Job’s friends, everybody defends his or her basic belief system; it is not tolerable to do otherwise; to do otherwise is to change one’s own mind.
So Job’s friends failed him when they spoke out of their own need, and not his. They were preaching at him, in the worst sense of that word. It wasn’t a pretty picture. That is to say, it isn’t a pretty picture—when it happens to us.
Sometimes a good friend must be willing to deliver a difficult message, responding, for example, to a friend who is abusing alcohol, drugs, gambling or sexual misconduct. A friend is able to hold up a mirror and speak sincerely out of concern for his friend.
Alan Alda, in his wonderful autobiography Never Have Your Dog Stuffed says, “Real listening is a willingness to let the other person change you.”
Job’s friends were not willing to be changed by him. They tried to avoid their own crisis of faith by preaching at him. Isn’t that always the case?
But Job is changed; first his world was turned upside down by his tragic losses, including his loss of health. Then he lost his friends. The story says that the voice of God came ‘out of the whirlwind.’ He lost his faith. What happened to him went against everything he believed–about life, about God, about justice and fairness and mercy. He was pushed to the edge of his ability to remain sane.
The story of Job comes to a long conclusion when the voice of God says, “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the world; did you give the horse his strength; did you teach the eagle to fly; do you visit the storehouse of the snow,” etc.
Job was put in his place. He gained humility. In the end, the story says, he got everything back double. Why ‘double?’
The rabbis who wrote the Midrash took the Biblical stories and imagined what some of the characters were thinking, or what they might have said. Midrash is commentary on the stories in the Bible.
In that spirit I’ve summarized what I think Job would say if he could tell his own story:
“It was a nice day. An ordinary day, for me, since I have such a good life. I’m used to the day being a nice day. I woke after a good night’s sleep, just as the sun was coming up, and walked the fields, my fields, where the servants were already at work taking care of my livestock.
My family was safe and sound. The night before we had one of those family gatherings for which we’re famous in these parts; my seven sons and three daughters were there; my devoted wife was clearly in charge, ordering the servants about with her special charm.
After my morning walk I went to the house just as breakfast was being served. It was a great meal, but I was careful not to eat too much bacon—I’m watching the cholesterol.
Before the morning meal had ended my world came crashing down around me. A servant came to report that the Sabeans and the Chaldeans invaded my land, taking all the herds and killing the servants.
No sooner had he completed his report than another came and reported that a great storm had come crashing on to my eldest son’s house, where the entire family had gathered and all were lost.
What I feared had come upon me. The strange thing is that I wasn’t aware of that fear until tragedy stuck.
I tore my garments and put ashes on my head and prayed: ‘The Lord gives, the Lord takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.”
That night I slept, embracing my grief, but at peace with the world and at peace with my God.
I woke feeling miserable, and I realized something was wrong; boils began to appear all over my body; I was racked in pain; I could hardly move. I sat in the ashes scraping my sores with a potsherd—a fragment of broken pottery, a symbol of the brokenness of my life.
My wife came out and saw how miserable I was and she amazed me when she said, “Why don’t you just curse God and die!”
I said, “You foolish woman! Shall we receive good at the hand of God and not receive evil?”
But in truth it was the final blow. I couldn’t take any more; my spirit was broken.
As I sat there in total dismay I saw my three friends coming toward me, and I welcomed their company. They sat silently with me for seven days. Imagine! Not one of them uttered a word, but they didn’t abandon me. They were real, true friends.
My livestock was gone—my wealth; my children were taken from me, my wife turned from me, but at least I had my friends. They were the last remnant of my former self.
After seven days they speak. Eliphaz says, “If one ventures a word with you would you be offended?” He proceeds to accuse me of some secret sin. He says that God is a just God, so I must have done something to deserve this punishment.
“You’ve got to be kidding,” I thought to myself. “This is the final blow!”
“Look, Eliphaz, you don’t understand; I’ve done nothing wrong. That’s not what this is about. It’s not about punishment for some secret sin. What could I have done to deserve this?”
Then the other guys chime in, telling me to confess my sins, and one of them says, “God is not only just but merciful, so you must have deserved even worse punishment.”
I asked them to leave. The last remnant of my former good fortune was gone for good: my friends failed me, miserably. I told them that if I was in their place and one of them was in my place, I would know how to be helpful; I would know what to say, what to do.
I chased them away.
Then I cried out to God, demanding justice, and a voice comes out of the whirlwind and puts me in my place. It was God himself, and he says, “So, Job, where were you when I laid the foundations of the world? Did you give the horse his strength? Did you teach the eagle to fly?
“Have you commanded the morning since your days began?”
“Have you entered the storehouses of the snow?”
“Is the wild ox willing to serve you?”
“Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you will answer me.”
I responded, “Look, I’m just a little guy in this big drama; I shouldn’t have complained.”
He never told me why he made all those bad things happen to me; but he certainly made his point! He put me in my place. There are some things beyond my understanding; there’s no rational explanation. So I kept quiet and listened.
Then the strangest thing happens. He tells my three friends to apologize to me, to sacrifice seven bulls and seven rams and come to me with the burnt offering.
He gives me all of my wealth back, double. I had twice as many sheep, cattle, and oxen; and I got my children back.
You know, it was like a bad dream. Maybe it was a dream, after all.”
Job’s friends failed because they responded defensively, protecting their old ideas about God and justice and mercy.
May we learn to sit with friends and loved ones in their pain without imposing our needs during those difficult times.