Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Bible commentary regarding Job and suffering

Because it is so crucial that people correct their errors about how they perceive suffering here is commentary that you need to keep in mind regarding what is taught about suffering in the Book of Job. Job is often cited as the source of Christian understanding of suffering in the Old Testament, to supplement understanding the Passion of Christ related in the Gospels. That is somewhat true, but that is also misleading. Also many, both scholars and laity, have come to think of the Book of Job as “symbolic.” That is also a problem when that is the “first read” position. One must always read the Bible first and foremost as the literal, word for word God given truth, and only on second contemplation apply insight regarding symbolism and potential contemporary meaning and applications. The Bible IS the bible, the sacred scripture, precisely because humans are supposed to read the specific things that God has said, either directly or through the inspiration of the biblical authors, and in the process of reading and believing AS IS, then mine the words and meaning for additional, not substituting, symbolism.

This is an important point. The word of God is never purely symbolic. God understands that he is communicating with limited, material beings (humans). Thus God is literal and factual first and foremost. Symbolism is a tool used by humans to then grasp a larger, more abstract meaning from the facts, dictates, historical events and contemplations placed before him. When Jesus tells a parable, for example, one must believe that the people in the parable truly exist and truly did what Jesus said they did. Why: Because he selected those people and those events, and not others, for a precise reason when communicating with humans. Also Jesus, of course, was perfectly capable of knowing of actual personages and events that took place in history that others could not know of, and using those real events in parables. So one must believe literally what is in the parable first, and then later, upon pondering its “meaning,” use symbolism to transfer the significance of what transpired in the parable to understanding, interpretation, and contemporary application. If one does not first believe literally each and every word, and jumps straight to symbolism, one misses understanding why the specific people and events were selected to be part of scripture and guidance.

For example, assume that something in a parable happens to a man. “Modern” thinkers might try to be politically correct and say, “Well, those were sexist times. This parable could have happened to a woman too.” No, actually, that would not necessarily be true. The parable may have happened to a man because the man was the breadwinner, the wage earner. Thus one has to not be revisionist or symbolic, but hear the parable, note that it happened to a man, and then search for further symbolism, which may be, for example, that the breadwinner, the earner, is the symbolic protagonist. Thus one could apply that parable to modern day understanding not through gender symbolism but by understanding that the means of earning a living is central to the parable protagonist’s identity and thus part of God’s meaning in the interpretations and applications.

The same is true in the overly debated issue about whether God created the universe in seven “days,” whether those are earth solar days of twenty four hours each or symbolic days. One misses the entire point of God revealing creation as unfolding over a period of seven days, with the one day of rest, if one leaps immediately to the symbolic. There is a reason that God created the universe in seven days and thus there is meaning to his explaining it to Moses as such. So one must first believe that God created the universe in seven days, but leave open ended how long a creation “day” is to God. In other words, if one jumps immediately to thinking that the seven days is feeble human mythological lore based, rather than understanding that God means quite explicitly that he used seven equal length cycles of creation (and rest) one is not only mistaken but misses the entire point. God says seven “days” for a reason, not because seven is a “magic number,” and not because it’s something that he pulled out of his hat so that humans can “relate” to it. God is telling the truth, which is that he used seven equal length cycles of activity for the creation of the universe and resting. One way to think about it is that the universe is estimated to be about fourteen billion years old, and thus God could very well view his creation as being seven “days” “in the making” and “of age,” where each “day” is two billion years old. Thus the day of “rest,” the most recent two billion years, fits quite neatly with the arising of single cell life and later more advanced life on earth, all of which occurred in, yes, the past several billion years. God’s day of “rest” is allowing the forces of life he has created to now hum along at their natural pace based on physical and biological natural law. God is telling people the truth, and thus one must be cautious to not jump to imposed “symbolic” understanding before first believing and accepting what God has stated first, whether one understands all of the “how’s or why’s” or not.

In this context we can now properly approach understanding the Book of Job. The Book of Job records events that “really happened.” It does not matter that scholars pick apart scripture and identify, for example, pieces of ancient story or folktale embedded within scripture. That is because God will use what people already speak of and understand since he is talking to people with a cultural history, not new inventions kept sterile in a laboratory. So when someone points out cultural or mythical references embedded in Job, for example, that should only raise the confidence, not lower it, since it demonstrates that God is speaking to people who actually lived in a multi-cultural real world that was already comprised of both historic events and cultural or mythological context. For example, suppose Jesus appeared today at a book club discussion where the latest Harry Potter book was being discussed. Someone writes an article about Jesus’ appearance and what he said. Centuries later someone reads the article and says, “Whoa, that can’t be true. Harry Potter is a work of fiction, and if Jesus really appeared, he would not discuss a work of fiction.” That is upside down thinking of the wrong kind. Instead, the fact that Jesus discussed something hot in the contemporary milieu should increase the confidence, not decrease it. Likewise the observing of portions of scripture referring to pagan, cultural or mythological belief should strengthen the belief and understanding of the actual historical context of the events and the word of God not decrease it.

So yes, when reading Job one must believe that God was conversing with “sons of God” (angels) who “came to present themselves before the Lord” when “Satan also came among them” (Job 1:6). God is telling people something about himself, which is that the angels do present themselves (converse and dialogue) with God as his children, and that also Satan has access to discussion with God. This is HUGE to accurate understanding of how the universe and the heavenly realm are in reality, not in imagination. Therefore when one reads the scripture one must always recognize the factual basis for what is occurring first and foremost, and then secondarily glean for additional applicatory and symbolic meaning. For example, one could read that one passage and have the initial fact based information gathering, which is about God’s relationship to the angels, the fact that they gather and discuss things, and that Satan is able to address God at will. Once you understand those facts one can have some symbolic “How do I better understand and apply this to my current life” “symbolic” thinking. One constructive way to do so is to understand that God demonstrates that one should have an “open door” policy. In other words, just because Satan refused to serve and was cast out of heaven does not mean that he cannot approach God or speak to him. Therefore one could understand that symbolically as a lesson and role modeling that humans should never close off dialogue with their “enemies” or those who will not serve. You would not derive that accurate secondary symbolic lesson and meaning if you did not believe literally the events that God through his sacred scripture authors provides. If you let your mind run ahead of yourself and view it all as “symbolism,” you would view the presentation of the angels and of Satan before God as “window dressing” to “explain” the “story” that you are about to hear, and that is totally false, misleading and limiting. Rather, you need to understand that it occurred exactly as presented, and then contemplate further meaning and symbolism based on the opening facts and context. It is obviously important to understand that Satan can (and does) approach God in dialogue because that is repeated later in the Gospels, when Satan approaches Jesus in order to tempt him, and also the fact that demons all recognize Jesus and his true nature on sight. So it is important to accurate theological and worldly understanding to recognize that God continues to allow Satan to approach him and to address him.

As one who wanders the earth, “patrols it” as he phrases it, Satan can see the hand of God upon people of special blessing. Thus when God brags with a loving and paternal tone about the piety and uprightness of Job, Satan is quick to respond that he knows that God has a special hand of grace upon Job. Satan quickly itemizes the ways that God has favored Job, not through supernatural means, but by blessing the work of his hands: “You have blessed the work of his hands, and his livestock are spread over the land” Job 1:10. Let us look at this one example of blessing. We know that raising livestock is fraught with risk. Animals must be kept fed, watered, treated of disease, protected from predators, sheltered and otherwise cared for. A single drought can wipe out flocks or herds if no water can be obtained, as we even see in modern times when cattle raisers have to slaughter or sell their herds in drought afflicted areas. Satan can see that not only is Job just fortunate to live in fertile areas where the work of his hands on the livestock pays off, but that God also is exerting some special blessing and protection: “Have you not surrounded him and his family and all that he has with your protection?” Job 1:9. Thus this is not some magical kingdom where animal disease and predation does not exist, and where food and water flows freely. Satan observes that other people have problems and suffering, who do not have God’s special protection, and thus posits that if God withholds his protection and lets nature take its course with all its hardships that Job will turn against God.

This is CRUCIAL nuance to understand. Read carefully Satan’s observation and challenge: “But now put forth your hand and touch anything that he has, and surely he will blaspheme you to your face” Job 1:11. Modern misinterpretation of how God “works” has actually put a reversal into common thought. People tend to think of those who are blessed as being “touched” by God. But here Satan is observing, correctly, that Job is not “touched” by God but he is protected by God, protected from the ordinary hardships of life. In other words, normal unprotected life is fraught with the potential for loss, risk and therefore suffering. God protects Job from many of those life boundaries where suffering occurs. I explained in my previous post on this subject that suffering is the encounter of boundaries that are the reality of life, boundaries such as death, illness, accident and loss. Some people encounter these boundaries quite often such as, for example, people who live in a war zone. Thus there is in a war zone ample exposure to suffering because one is constantly forced against a boundary in life, such as being killed, wounded, maimed and deprived of freedom or material sustenance. So Satan observes that God has given a special protection, a buffering, to Job and has not allowed much of the reality of the risk of life to touch Job and his family and his livestock. Thus Satan challenges God to allow his touch to fall on Job, which means to withdraw the special protection that he has given Job and allow the natural boundaries of life that can touch him to fall on him.

And so what do we see happen to Job when God agrees to withdraw his protection? Natural forces and suffering are no longer kept at bay away from Job. It’s not like Satan (or God) now torture Job and send supernatural forces against him. Satan does not chase after Job with a pitchfork. Rather, the mundane sufferings that everyone else has now befall Job. Job’s livestock was carried away by raiders and some of his herdsmen were slain. This is hardly a supernatural event or a torture to induce suffering. This is the withholding of especial blessing and protection that God had given Job. Demons didn’t poof into appearance and carry off the livestock and slay the herdsmen, ordinary maraudering “Sabeans” did (a people from southern Arabia). At the same time “lightning has fallen from heaven and struck the sheep and their shepherds and consumed them” Job 1:16. Again, everyone knows that lightning is a natural phenomenon that is a very real danger at all times, it is not a “weapon of Satan” or a means by which God “smites.” The recent fires in Australia are a reminder that fires caused by lightning strikes are a constant danger and certain areas, such as Africa, lose people to lightning quite regularly. Neither God nor Satan “sent” the suffering of lightning to Job; it fell because God had withdraw his especial protection that had shielded Job from it previously.

Even as Job is absorbing those two dreadful events two more befall him. More raiders, this time Chaldeans, raided his camels, seizing them and slaying those who were tending to them, except for the one who survived as a messenger. Again, notice this is not supernatural or smiting; these are well known raiders (the messenger did not have to explain who they were, obviously Chaldean raiders, like the Sabeans, were a well known risk). But Job no longer had God’s especial protection against them, and thus he was now exposed to the same risks, and potential for suffering, as everyone else was already. The worst suffering came when Job hears from the one survivor that “a great wind came across the desert and smote the four corners of the house” of Job’s eldest son, killing all within, which were Job’s sons and daughters Job 1:18-19. Again, this is not some strange and weird phenomenon sent by either Satan or God, but as we see in the news everyday of hurricanes, tornados and straight line winds, a risk of life, and thus loss and suffering, that previously God had protected Job with his especial blessing from. Now Job was exposed to all of the potentials of loss and suffering as everyone else, and it all happened at once.

One must recognize, as I have constantly taught in my blog, that God is far from distant, far from being uninvolved, but experts day to day a comfort and protection that people simply no longer realize, clearly see or appreciate. Without God’s constant presence, inspiration and protection, life would truly be unbearable. I’ve explained the “guardian angel challenge,” which is to understand how miserably alone and alienated, unbearably so, people would feel if the invisible and silent guardian angels disappeared, if God withdrew them from their place alongside humans. Guardian angels are there from conception and attachment in the womb, providing a sense of comfort, reality, and an expectation of love and companionship even from the very beginning of a human life. It is like the oxygen in the air; you do not see it or work to sort it out consciously from the nitrogen and others gases in order to breathe just it, but you would sure notice it, and die, when it is absent.

The Book of Job describes actual people and actual events and is included in the sacred scripture so that people understand how God and the universe actually work. Life is good with potential for much prosperity and joy, but life is by nature full of limitations, of boundaries of time and loss which then are endured and suffered. God protects all people to some extent through the work of the Holy Spirit constantly among them, but God also gives especial protection to some, and those people and nations are called “blessed.” The Book of Job describes two things: 1) A reminder of the reality of life and suffering and that neither God nor Satan “cause” suffering, but instead God can protect people amidst the reality of suffering and 2) That suffering is redemptive in the sense that one can ultimately overcome all the natural suffering of the worldly life if one never turns one’s back to God. Job is NOT a torture textbook. Waterboarders and other torture advocates should not rejoice that the Book of Job shows that suffering is “good” or a useful object lesson. Any idiot can realize that if you simply read what the Book of Job actually is saying, as we have done here in just these few lines of the first chapter.

When Job hears about the four calamities that have befallen him this is what happens:

Then Job began to tear his cloak and cut off his hair. He cast himself prostate upon the ground, and said,
“Naked I came forth from my mother’s womb,
And naked shall I go back again.
The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away;
Blessed be the name of the Lord!”

In all this Job did not sin, nor did he say anything disrespectful of God
(Job 1:20-22).

You can read the rest of the Book of Job, now, with better understanding of its meaning. In it Satan suggests that Job is faithful to God because his body has not been afflicted, and so God withdraws his especial protection from Job’s body and Satan “smote Job with severe boils from the soles of his feet to the crown of his head” (Job 2:7) yet still Job remained faithful even though his wife urged him to “curse God and die” (Job 2:8). Nice wife, huh? But Job refuses to turn his back on God or to say anything sinful: “We accept good things from God; and should we not accept evil?” Job 2:10. Chapters 3 through 37 are then speeches whereby Job and his friends explore faith and wisdom and try to discern the meaning of what has befallen and God’s ways. Job and his friends, far from cursing God, more fully understand the both the perils and the grandeur of natural life, of God’s ways, and the blessings that are offered from the hand of God, and how bereft, but still full of faith, humans are when God withholds protection. That is the entire point of the events of Job being included as sacred scripture, not a “suffering is good” torture textbook, as some New Agers and others have ignorantly suggested. For example:

Behold, God rejects the obstinate in heart;
He preserves not the life of the wicked,
He withholds not the just man’s rights,
But grants vindication to the oppressed
(Job 36:5-7).

In Chapter 38-41 God directly addresses Job and much of what God says to Job is not just for him but obviously as a reminder to the subsequent generations of God’s total control. Again that is quite different from causing suffering. In Chapter 42 Job replies to God, repenting the doubt that had crept into his heart, and the Epilogue recounts how God restored all that Job had, including becoming father to ten children. “After this, Job lived a hundred and forty years; and he saw his children, his grandchildren, and even his great-grandchildren. Then Job died, old and full of years” (Job Epilogue).

If you read the Epilogue and note all that is restored to Job, once again, be reminded that God is not using supernatural powers. Job regains what he has through the natural way of having a healthy body and life, prosperity with his livestock, and fruitfulness with his wife. God does not raise Job’s previous children from the dead; Job must learn happiness again the way everyone else does, by believing in life and fathering more children with his wife. God restores the especial protection and blessing upon Job so that he is able to prosper and find joy the natural ways, not supernaturally, but with protection restored against much of the woes of life that he endured when he was without God’s protection. Job did not “get his stuff back” because he had “suffered enough.” That is one of the most ignorant and cruel modern “interpretations” I have ever encountered. The Book of Job is crystal clear that people are not meant to suffer, but that suffering is a condition of life that is the response to loss, and that God not only comforts the afflicted but God can and will bless and protect people and nations against the natural suffering of life. The entire point of the Book of Job is what happens when God withdraws his hand of protection, NOT God or Satan “sending suffering” and that “suffering is needed,” like it is separate phenomenon of life to be measured and doled out.

In fact, the Bible clearly warns against humans causing suffering in other humans. The Ten Commandments not only warn against physical harm but also the mental harm of “coveting.” Further, the image that is used in the Law is that the seeing should not put stumbling blocks in front of the blind. Humans are NOT to cause suffering in other humans. The Book of Job describes what happens when God allows nature to take its course, so to speak, by withdrawing his protection and allowing the continual risk of natural loss and suffering to afflict Job, but neither God nor Satan “send suffering.” If they do not do so then certainly humans better wise up and realize that they are strictly forbidden from being suffering “allocators.” Redemptive suffering refers to making the best out of natural suffering and offering it up for some purpose when it is encountered. Before Job is restored God demands that his friends offer up a sacrifice to God (an actual sacrifice of bullocks and rams) to repent for any doubt or lack of support they expressed, particularly because they had not “spoken rightly concerning me” (Job 42:8). After they make the sacrifice God accepts Job’s intercession with him on his friends’ behalf. You see, it’s not like God needed fourteen bullocks and rams in heaven, or that people have to grovel in return for speaking falsely about God. They have to, however, be re-sanctified and returned to the fold, and recognize their responsibility towards each other. The friends of Job had a responsibility to speak accurately and devoutly about God to Job, and Job gained the responsibility of being able to intercede for his friends with God in their shortcomings. The penance sacrifice by the friends and the intercession by Job for the friends are preludes to the restoration of Job because they reinforce first of all the relationship and rulership of God but also the importance of the mitigation of suffering among humans, human to human. The friends should have been more faithful to God and more supportive of Job to ease his suffering. Likewise Job, even in his suffering, intercedes for his friends who were at least there with him in his pain.

Evangelical Christians are often the ones who really understand and “get” the message of the Book of Job. This is true even though what many of them say is often misunderstood and sounds like they believe in a capricious and cruel, smiting form of God. But that is because the listeners do not really understand the Book of Job as I have laid it out and explained it here. When Evangelical and other Christians worry that natural disasters, such as Hurricane Katrina, are punishment from God, people leap to the same erroneous assumptions as they often do about the Book of Job, which is that God or Satan “send” “suffering.” But listen carefully: most Evangelicals and other Christians who say this are referring specifically to the “withholding” of God’s blessing and protection. That is totally accurate and that is what the Book of Job warns against and demonstrates. Life is perilous and fraught with the potential of loss and accompanying suffering. God can and does protect individuals and nations from some of the suffering they would otherwise endure. It is the withholding of God’s blessing and protection that people should fear, and it has happened a great deal in these recent times due to sin, hubris, willful ignorance and wickedness. God can, does and will withhold his blessing and that is what Evangelicals worry and warn about when they see linkages between natural and other disasters and disbelief and turning away from God. So before you jump on the back of someone who worries that Hurricane Katrina is “God’s punishment,” think about what I have explained. God does not send the suffering, but God sure has a vital role in protecting people from the suffering of the natural order, and you do not want to slap that hand of God away when it has been offered.

I hope that you have found this helpful. Repent.