Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Job and the God of good and evil

Job 2:3

Then ‘God’ said to the Adversary, Have you considered my servant Job, for there is no one on earth like him, a blameless and upright man who fears God and shuns evil, and still he maintains his integrity (cf. blameless), although you incited me against him to ruin him undeservedly.

Job 2:9-10

Then his wife said to him, Do you still maintain your integrity? Curse God and die! But he said to her, ... Shall we accept the good from God and not accept the evil?...


considered (lit., set your heart to)

maintains (lit., adheres to) ruin (lit., swallow)

undeservedly (the Hebrew word is often rendered graciously, but here used in a negative sense, without reason, capriciously)

curse (the Hebrew word often means to bless, but here again used in a negative sense)

Mekhilta De-Rabbi Ishmael, Tractate Bahodesh, chapter 10, comment on Exod. 20:23 (translation adapted from Jacob Lauterbach)

You shall not behave towards me in the manner in which others behave toward their deities. When good comes to them they honor their gods, as it is said, “Then they will offer a sacrifice to their fishing nets and burn incense in front of them. These have made us prosper, they will claim.” (Habakkuk 1:16) But when evil comes to them they curse their gods, as it is said, “And it will come about that when they are hungry they will be enraged and, looking upward, will curse their king and their God.” (Isa. 8:21) But you, if I bring good to you, give thanks, and when I bring suffering to you, give thanks. And thus David says, “[How can I repay the Lord for all his bountiful dealings toward me?] I will lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord.” (Psalm 116:12-13) “I found trouble and sorrow, but I called on the name of the Lord.” (Psalm 116:3-4) And so also Job says, “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away, blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21): for the measure of goodness and also for the measure of trouble.... “Shall we receive good at the hand of God but not receive evil?” (Job 2:9b)

As a general and unqualified statement, it simply is not true to say “God is good.”

Nevertheless, the goodness of God has been widely accepted as axiomatic in both Christianity and Judaism, despite Scriptural testimony to the contrary. There is, of course, the often repeated refrain in the Psalms, "The Lord is good, his kindness is everlasting." These are fitting words of praise and thanksgiving, offered up to God by his faithful worshippers. We should not, however, ignore the equally heartfelt words of distress and complaint, also found frequently in Scripture. Psalm 44 is perhaps the clearest antidote to a naive view of God's goodness.

God is good? To whom, under what conditions, and in what manner? For example, when the phrase "God is good" appears at the beginning of Psalm 73, the context both limits its scope and casts doubt on its validity: “Surely God is good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart. But as for me....” (Psalm 73:1-2a) To Israel, to the pure in heart. Do I mean to suggest that God is good only to Israel? No, that is not the point. What is the point? That the goodness of God is not universal in scope, that goodness and God should not be equated in the same way as, say, omnipotence and God. A limitation is given here. God is good? To whom? To the wicked? To the righteous? Actually the answer is more complex than a simple yes or no, as a reading of the remainder of Psalm 73 makes clear. Under certain conditons and in certain ways God may indeed be good to the wicked, or not good to the righteous.

“Surely” is parallel to “But as for me....” In other words, the author first states the teaching, what he has been told is true, then introduces reasons to doubt its absolute truth. His own observations of the real world almost led him to reject the teaching and abandon the path of purity: “Surely in vain have I kept my heart pure....” (v. 13) Why serve God, why seek holiness, why bother? As another witness to cruel and senseless destruction proclaimed, “There is no justice and there is no Judge.” (Attributed to Elisha b. Abuyah) That will get you excommunicated!

Another common but simplistic view suggests a trade off or balance between God’s power and his goodness, as two universal and seemingly contradictory attributes of God. What I question is the assumption that goodness is universal. To say, “God is good,” is no more a universal than to say, “God is love”: goodness, like love, is something that God does according to his own purposes, when and where and to whom he chooses. This is not a very appealing view of God, but what are we after? Do we want an imaginary God who appeals to our human sentiments, or do we want to speak the truth about God, i.e., the God we encounter in the Bible?

Sadly, the tendency is to not care about such issues until the undeserved comes to us personally, and then objectivity is thrown aside. When a matter becomes personal we seek someone to blame, and, of course, God is the first target. For example, my father was defeated by diabetes and my mother was cruelly destroyed by dementia. Why God? Why indeed, for what do we expect, that God should intervene and stop all physical conditions and their natural consequences? Where is the blame then? Not with God, but also not with my father or mother, for they were subject to the same physical limitations as the rest of us. Did they contribute to the onset of their illness? Who can say, and what does it matter: why must we find someone to blame? They went “the way of all the earth” (I Kings 2:2), all human beings will meet their end, some sooner, perhaps only a few days after birth as with my only sister, some later, as with my two grandmothers who lived on into their 90s. My sister was just as blameless as my grandmothers.

On the other hand, don’t fall for the line that suffering has beneficial results, that we learn from our experience of suffering, that suffering improves us. Tell me, what did my mother learn from dementia? How was her life improved? Please tell me! She was devoted to God, she loved to praise the Lord, and that too was taken from her. So when I said, cruelly destroyed, I meant just that, without casting blame toward heaven.

A more balanced view is called for: God as Sovereign is ultimately responsible for both the good and the evil in the world, ultimately responsible but not directly culpable, just as the owner of property is ultimately responsible (or liable) for any harm that comes as a result of how the property is used. The owner may have no direct involvement in wrongdoing yet bear responsibility anyway. So we read: “The earth and its fullness belongs to the Lord, the inhabited world and those who dwell in it.” (Psalm 24:1) However, if we say that God is omniscient and omnipotent, then the analogy falls short of explaining the extent of God’s responsibility. The property owner may be unaware of and/or powerless to prevent harmful consequences, but can God use that excuse?

Job doesn’t think so. When the innocent are destroyed while the wicked gain unjustly, Job lays responsibility with God: “If it is not he, then who is it?” (9:24b) God is fully aware and fully capable of protecting the innocent and bringing the wicked to justice, so if events point in the opposite direction, who but God can bear responsibility?

Job was correct to complain to God, even bitterly, and when his friends made excuses for God, to counter their claims: “Will you speak falsely (i.e., lie) on God’s behalf? Will you speak deceitfully for him? Will you show him partiality? Will you argue the case for God?” (13:7-8) Job spoke bluntly, “God has wronged me!” (19:6) He wanted his day in court to challenge the Almighty.

He was, however, wrong to repent “in dust and ashes” (42:6), as if God had clarified anything with the verbose exposition (chapters 38-41) of his great power and wisdom! Job was right the first time. When Job questioned God’s justice (cf. 40:8) he did so with wonder and awe, with reverence for God’s greatness, not with insolence or unbelief. “With [God] are wisdom and power; to him belong counsel and understanding.” (12:13) “He stands alone, who can oppose him? He does whatever he pleases.” (23:13) Job simply asked for an explanation, to be shown how the evil he suffered could be reconciled with God’s justice. In the end he didn’t get a fair hearing! God’s response was to intimidate and overwhelm Job, to win the argument through terror and bluster, not truth.

Do I then condemn God as unjust, capricious, a cosmic bully who confuses power with truth? Not at all. I just reject the words attributed to the Almighty by the author of Job. God’s response to Job evades the responsibility of God for both the good and the evil in his universe, and brushes off Job’s specific concern with justice.

The problem of evil has two sides. On the one hand, God cannot escape responsibility with excuses or bluster volunteered by those who, well intentioned, seek to vindicate the One they love and serve. On the other hand, the problem of evil is also manmade: it is the problem of religion that all too easily turns into superstition. Especially for those who hope for a personal relationship with a good God, disappointment turns praising into cursing, and suffering turns faith into bitterness.


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