Bertrand Russell’s comment from his autobiography provide a way into the sermon – he said, “Three passions, simple but overwhelmingly strong, have governed my life: the longing for love, the search for knowledge, and unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind.”
Bertrand Russell’s search for knowledge is well known; his longing for love balanced his sharp intellect with a soft emotional side – for which he is not well known — his ‘unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind’ humanizes him. Pity may not be the best word – empathy or compassion sounds more appropriate – no one wants to be pitied, or to be seen as ‘pitiful,’ but we need all the compassion we can get.
The Biblical character Job, however, is a pitiful character – a fictional character, to be sure – a perfect portrait of a pitiful person.
The book of Job is the quintessential story of human suffering – it’s part of the collection in the Hebrew literature known as the Wisdom literature. What wisdom can we glean? What insights can we gather?
You know the story – you know, at least, that it’s about suffering – the ways we suffer in response to loss in our lives, and in response to being falsely accused.The story includes an infamous instance of blaming the victim.
So, what are the lessons from the Book of Job? They are the lessons that come to us from our human struggles, our personal experience with suffering – following a loss, for example, but all the ways we suffer, including the suffering we endure because of the fears that sit deep and whittle away the spirit, down inside of us, where the spirit meets the bone.
Let’s review the story of Job, and tie it into our time – especially connecting it to the second inaugural address delivered by President Obama last Monday: specifically the alliterative phrase ‘Seneca Falls, Selma and Stonewall.’
Biblical historians refer to Job as a poem, composed by several authors over the course of a few centuries, beginning about 3,500 years ago, probably in Sumaria.The latest edition of the book of Job is a happy ending, having been added only about 2,500 years ago.
The story opens with the simple statement: “There was a man in the land of Uz, whose name was Job; and that man was blameless and upright.”
That’s the most important line in the Biblical story of Job; he is referred to as ‘the most righteous man on earth.’ In other words, he’s a good man, an innocent man.
The story of Job is an attempt to justify the ways of God to man – and those ways of God include God’s allowing the innocent to suffer. No, not just allows the innocent to suffer, but in the Job story God causes an innocent man – God calls him ‘an upright and faithful man’ and he causes him to suffer as a means of putting him to the test, to see if he will remain faithful to God when underserved suffering is brought upon him, or whether he will curse his life, and by implication curse God.
The description of God in the book of Job is the perfect portrait of the God that has made so many atheists.
The story starts with Satan being taunted by God – God and Satan are having a kind of casual conversation and God holds Job up as a perfect person, a prime example of ‘a good man.’
Satan takes the bait. In response to God holding Job up as a great guy, Satan taunts God by telling him that Job is a good, blameless man because God has heaped such good fortune onto Job – Satan suggests that Job, who is an extremely wealthy man with a large, loving family and good health – picture Bill Gates – so Satan suggests that that’s why Job loves God, the founder of the feast, the giver of the gifts.
But take the feast away from Job and then see how he responds. Satan suggests a wager – he bets that Job will crumble under the weight of some suffering.
God takes the bait and the bet – together they put Job to the test.
The plan is to cause Job to suffer, to do whatever it takes to see if he will break, but just short of causing Job to die, since Job’s death would put an end to their little game.
God arranges it so that Satan takes the hit for Job’s soon-to-be suffering – Satan is the hit man, but God is the godfather, the cause.
Let’s taste a bit of the Biblical story with a passage from the first chapter that describes Satan’s evil work:
“One day when Job’s sons and daughters were feasting and drinking wine at the oldest brother’s house, a messenger came to Job and said, “The oxen were plowing and the donkeys were grazing nearby, and the Sabeans attacked and carried them off. They put the servants to the sword, and I am the only one who has escaped to tell you!”
While he was still speaking, another messenger came and said, “The fire of God fell from the sky and burned up the sheep and the servants, and I am the only one who has escaped to tell you!”
While he was still speaking, another messenger came and said, “The Chaldeans formed three raiding parties and swept down on your camels and carried them off. They put the servants to the sword, and I am the only one who has escaped to tell you!”
While he was still speaking, yet another messenger came and said, “Your sons and daughters were feasting and drinking wine at the oldest brother’s house, when suddenly a mighty wind swept in from the desert and struck the four corners of the house. It collapsed on them and they are all dead, and I am the only one who has escaped to tell you!”
At this, Job got up and tore his robe and shaved his head. Then he fell to the ground in worship and said:
“Naked I came from my mother’s womb,
and naked I will depart.
The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away;
blessed be the name of the LORD.”
In all this, Job did not sin by charging God with wrongdoing.
So, there it is – natural disasters, which cause so much suffering, like hurricane Sandy, and man-made violence, like Sandy Hook elementary school – the unspeakable suffering brought about by the evil or insanity – the potential for violence in the hearts of humans.
At first, Job suffers without complaining, so God is, of course, quite pleased with Job, throwing it in Satan’s face, rubbing it in Satan’s face and bragging some more about his servant Job. So Satan takes out his ultimate weapon of mass destruction, attacking Job’s health. The story says that Satan inflicted:
“…loathsome sores from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head, and (Job) took a potsherd to scrape himself, and he sat among the ashes.”
Job says, “For the thing which I greatly feared is come upon me, and that which I was afraid of is come unto me.”
At this point Job’s wife approaches him and she says, ‘why don’t you just curse God and die,’ and get it over with!
Job tells her that she sounds so silly, he asks, rhetorically, ‘shall we receive good at the hand of God, and shall we not receive evil?’
This is what the early Christian writers called ‘the patience of Job.’
Job is alone, sitting in his grief over the loss of his children, the loss of his wealth, and the loss of his health, when three friends approach and they realize that Job’s grief is too deep for words, so, the story says, they ‘sit in mournful silence with Job for seven days and nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was so great.’ (This is where the practice of Sitting shiva comes in.)
They sit with him for a week without saying a word, and if they had been smart they would have left at the end of that week. But they didn’t. They blew it!
After seven days Eliphaz says, “If one ventures a word with you would you be offended?”
What a question! What a set up! Beware of a friend who prefaces a remark by saying, “I hate to tell you this.” The best response is, “Then don’t!”
Eliphaz proceeds to tell him that he, Job, must confess his sins – he says that Job must have done some pretty bad things to deserve the enormous suffering that God visited on him. Job just asks them to leave him alone. He says his suffering was bad enough, but he told his friends that they only made it worse.
Another of his friends said, “God is not only just, causing suffering only when it is deserved, no more, but God is also merciful, so you, Job, deserved even greater punishment!” Confess – if Lance Armstrong can do it, so can you!
Think about it: from their point of view, if Job could receive undeserved punishment or suffering, then they, too, were vulnerable, and they didn’t want to believe that, so they blamed the victim for fear of becoming the victim!
This is the place where well-meaning but cruel clerics say that the baby died because ‘God needed another angel in heaven,’ at which point those in mourning have to remind themselves of the commandment against murder!
Job does, eventually, cry out to God in protest, cursing the day he was ‘delivered from his mother’s womb,’ wishing he had never been born, wanting only to die! Satan smiled.
God’s voice comes over the heavenly loudspeaker, out of the whirlwind, and gives Job a good old-fashioned tongue lashing, reminding Job that he didn’t create everything, belittling Job he says, “where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth, where were you when I taught the eagle to fly and gave the horse his strength,” and so forth.
Job apologizes, saying to God, “I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know…I heard of thee by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees thee; therefore I despise myself and repent…”
What a strange thing to say! But, of course, God is pleased with Job’s confession. He orders Job’s friends to give Job ‘seven bulls and seven rams,’ a fine for having failed to comfort Job, the world’s first malpractice suit!
A happy ending to the book of Job was added – it says, “…the Lord restored the fortunes of Job…and gave Job twice as much as he had before…and after this Job lived a hundred and forty years, and saw his sons, and his sons’ sons, four generations. And Job died, an old man, and full of days.”
So, what are the lessons, if any, from the Book of Job?
You may recall the book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, by Rabbi Harold Kushner. His son Aaron died of a premature aging syndrome – an ironic illness which speeds up the natural aging process, as if his son’s life was on fast-forward.
The book title is often misquoted as ‘why bad things happen,’ or ‘why bad things happen to good people.’
Kushner acknowledges that ‘when bad things happen to good people,’ we ask ‘why does God allow the innocent to suffer?’
In the Biblical story, Job’s friends hold to a traditional belief: that suffering is the result of sin. Israel is said to suffer because of its sins. Believers in the traditional Hebrew God say that God is omnipotent – He created the world and continues to rule the world…and to ‘set the rules,’ and those who break God’s rules will suffer for their sins.
The portrait of God in the book of Job is responsible for making many thoughtful people atheists.
A rabbi critic of Kushner, Rabbi Yitchok Kirzner, said, “He (Kushner) concluded that to maintain his belief in God he must reject either God’s benevolence or His omnipotence. He chose the latter course. God, in Kushner’s view, created the world and provides the foundation of moral principle. But He cannot quite control the world He created. He hopes for our good and He sympathizes, as it were, with us in our pain, but He is powerless to do anything about it.”
He says, “Kushner’s book not only fails to provide any comfort, it also is profoundly un-Jewish. Each of his main arguments runs counter to the traditional Jewish approach to the subject. They reflect accepted modern views far more closely than they do anything written in classical Jewish sources.”
Damning with faint praise he says, “Kushner does argue that even if our suffering is random, it can be a means of personal growth and a means of deepening our sensitivities.”
The basic lesson in the Book of Job is that we suffer in a variety of ways, some more than others, and our suffering is part of the natural order of things – Nature, not God, not Satan, not caused by a curse from a shaman.
In his Second Inaugural Address President Obama references ways we’ve suffered, suggesting, I think, that we are ‘deepening of our sensitivities,’ so as to stop causing unnecessary suffering. For example, he refers to ‘our gay brothers and sisters,’ and he mentions Seneca, Selma and Stonewall, reminders of the suffering so many endured in the past.
Seneca is a reference to the historic women’s rights convention held in 1848 in Seneca Falls, New York.
Selma points to the 1965 the march from Selma to Montgomery, the turning point in the civil rights movement – the march grew out of the voting rights movement, thus linking Selma to Seneca.
Stonewall is a reminder of the turning point in the gay rights movement brought about on June 28, 1969 by the gay community’s response to police harassment at Stonewall Inn, the gay-friendly bar in Greenwich Village.
The book of Job is about suffering and the end of suffering; it’s about the subtle suffering brought about by our fears: ‘what I feared has come upon me,’ Job says.
We know that all kinds of bad things can happen but we have to avoid being paralyzed by living in fear of them.
The lessons in the book of Job are tied, however indirectly, to the lessons in the history of turning points in the struggle for freedom and justice: Seneca, Selma and Stonewall are three turning points, woven into a single fabric – the fabric is humanity and the long evolution from savage to civil.
“Three passions, simple but overwhelmingly strong, have governed my life: the longing for love, the search for knowledge, and unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind.”
Closing words: (Author Unknown )
Be gentle with one another
The cry comes out of the hurting heart of humanity.
It comes from the lives of those battered
With thoughtless words and brutal deeds;
It comes from the lips of those who speak them,
And the lives of those who do them.
Be gentle with one another. . .
Who of us can look inside another and know
What is there of hope and hurt, or promise and pain?
Who can know from what far places each has come
Or to what far places each may hope to go?
Our lives are like fragile eggs. . .They are brittle. . .
They crack and the substance escapes. . .
Handle with Care!
Handle with exceeding, tender care, for there are
Human beings, there within.
Human beings, vulnerable as we are vulnerable;
Who feel as we feel, Who hurt as we hurt.
Life is too transient to be cruel with one another.
It is too short for thoughtlessness.
Too brief for hurting.
Life is long enough for caring,
It is lasting enough for sharing,
Precious enough for Love.
Be gentle with one another.