Morality and God’s Choice, Part II: Job

(This is the 11th of 17 posts in my “200 for 200” challenge. Please continue to repost, link, and send your friends my way!)

For the previous post in this series, please click here.

The Book of Job is my favorite book in the Old Testament. There are some passages in the OT I like more (Jeremiah 31:31 and its surrounds, for instance), but taken as a whole, Job is where it’s at for me. The book gives an answer to the problem of theodicy that remains relevant today, along with shooting down some still-espoused misconceptions about how God works that plague simplistic theologies.

And it’s important to note here that I think that the Book of Job’s primary task is theodical. This is tangential to, but inextricably linked with questions of morality–specifically, the morality of God. Put simply, is a God who allows bad things to happen to good people a good and just God? That’s the question the Book of Job seeks to answer (or, as we’ll see, show us is simply beyond human ability to fully grasp).

When we look to the framework of the Book of Job, we’re reminded that we must view the question asked, broad and expansive as it may be unto itself, as a limited (and somewhat problematic) one when it comes to questions about God’s morality.

Remember that Job’s affair begins when “the Satan” (which should be properly read as a job title akin to “the accuser” rather than a personal name) presents himself (itself?) to the Lord and, sua sponte, God boasts about Job’s faithfulness. The Satan argues that Job is only loyal to God because he is well-blessed with life’s joys and comforts; at this God turns Job over to the Satan to be tested.

If we read this exchange literally, God does not come off in a great light. Instead, God is allowing suffering simply to win a bet, so to speak. But if we read it mythopoeically, which I think we must, the dialogue is simply a personification of an existential question–why does God allow bad things to happen to God people? Or, perhaps, what is the meaning of suffering?

That the angels present themselves to the Lord in the beginning of this text seems (to me, at least) to intimate some throwback to an earlier way of thinking, when Yahweh was viewed as a god in the pantheon of El rather than the supreme being God’s self, part of a “divine court” (in the monarchical sense of the term rather than the legal sense). If that is true (and I don’t have sufficient information to be sure), then: (1) it indicates an older origin for the Book of Job than when it was written down (already probable) and (2) it reinforces the idea that we should view the framework of Job as a mythological set-up for a theological investigation rather than a literal telling of what God did to Job (who himself, admittedly, probably never existed–but that’s not the point). This is all to say that the Book of Job only works as satisfying analysis of theodicy as allegory; taken literally, the Book of Job just makes a jerk of God.

I also want to point out the strangeness of Job’s reward at the end of the Book. Job’s old things are not restored to him; they are replaced. He is given a new family to compensate for the one taken from him, not given his formerly-living loved-ones back. This may have something to do with common afterlife beliefs (or a lack thereof) in the time that Job was originally created (or when it was recorded), but I have not done the research to make any useful comment on that, except to say that the history and nature of Jewish belief in an afterlife and/or resurrection is extremely complex, rich and varied, even today. It is well documented that the Sadducees in Jesus’s time appear not to have believed in an afterlife, but whether this could be fairly extended backward in time to the Book of Job is outside the realm of my own current scholarship.

It is tempting to read the Book of Job as concerning God’s sovereignty. After all, God’s appearance at the end of the text might be irreverently summed up as God asking Job, “Who the f*** are you to question me?” That line always brings a smile to my face, particularly when uncensored in teaching about this text. It certainly wakes up those who were drifting. Here’s a taste from the text itself:

“Then the Lord spoke to Job out of the storm. He said: ‘Who is this that obscures my plans with words without knowledge? Brace yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer me. Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? Tell me, if you understand. Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know! Who stretched a measuring line across it? On what were its footings set, or who laid its cornerstone–while the morning stars sand together and all the angels shouted for joy?'”

That question (whether or not using my paraphrase)–what authority or basis does Job have to question God–isn’t really about God’s sovereignty (though that follows later). Because of the mighty acts described, it’s tempting to think that God is comparing God’s power to Job’s, but a closer reading reveals that God is making the rhetorical point that Job lacks the comprehension and understanding necessary to make sense of the answer to Job’s question.

Early in the text, there is a strong focus on Job not sinning by what he says about God. In particular, I love the advice he gets from his wife: “Are you still maintaining your integrity? Curse God and die!” (2:9). The implication is that, if Job says that God does not have the right to treat him as God has, that Job will be speaking a lie and defying God and thus be subject to divine punishment.

Job walks a fine line in his responses, one that is important for us to consider carefully. Repeatedly, Job calls God “Almighty.” He acknowledges God’s power directly (30:18) and God’s omnipotence (“Does he not see my ways and count my every step?” 31:4).

He says, “…how can mere mortals prove their innocence before God? Though they wished to dispute with him, they could not answer one time out of a thousand. His wisdom is profound, his power vast. Who has resisted him and come out unscathed?” (9:2b-4).

And, “How can I then dispute with him? How can I find words to argue with him? Though I were innocent, I could not answer him; I could only plead with my Judge for mercy. Even if I summoned him and he responded, I do not believe he would give me a hearing. He would crush me with a storm, and multiply my wounds for no reason. He would not let me catch my breath but would overwhelm me with misery. If it is a matter of strength, he is mighty! If it is a matter of justice, who can challenge him? Even if I were innocent, my mouth would condemn me; if I were blameless, it would pronounce me guilty” (9:14-20).

Throughout the Book, Job never questions God’s sovereignty. In fact, it is part of the basis of his desire to question God: because God has the power to do things differently, to choose not to afflict Job, Job can ask why God has chosen to do so as a moral question. He cannot oppose the answer, but he can ask why.

This in essence, gets right to the heart of–and then past–Divine Command Theory. Job’s position, essentially, is to acknowledge that no one can oppose the will of God and that God, as sovereign over all things, has the authority to establish what is and is not “righteous.” But this does not answer the question of whether God plays by God’s own rules or exempts God’s self from them.

The answer the Book of Job gives is a complex one. Job’s “friends” (Bildad, Zophar and Elihu) repeatedly reshift the blame back to Job or his family. Surely, Job’s suffering is the result of some secret sin he has committed and not confessed. But the narrator tells us that Job is “blameless,” Job repeats this assertion, and even God confirms it in the conclusion of the story, so the friends’ argument fails absolutely.

This kind of ad hominem attack to “save” God’s righteousness from human inquiry is still a common retort in questions of God’s morality–it is easy to blame the complainant’s own unrighteousness as the reason for his suffering. The best part about it: rejection of this argument requires the assertion (as Job makes) that one is without fault and absolutely righteous. For those of us who are not literary figures but actual people, this approach simply isn’t tenable.

But the ad hominem attack is as much a logical fallacy when made on God’s behalf as it is in any other circumstance. Even God decries its use, commanding at the end of the text tat the friends make sacrifices and ask for Job’s intercession with God for forgiveness for not “speaking the truth” about God.

So the Book develops this tensive relationship between fundamental ideas: no one has the authority to try to judge God, but God also rejects that God needs to be protected from moral scrutiny by humans. This is the first of the reasons that this series is titled “Morality and God’s Choice;” it seems that God has made God’s self available to moral questioning–or at least asking why–even though God has no duty to–and man has no authority to–do so.

This paradoxical relationship plays out in what I would call the two answers that God gives to Job in response to his questions. In the first answer, Chapters 38 and 39, God gives the answer I first described above–that Job lacks understanding sufficient to grasp why God allows the good to suffer. In the second answer, Chapters 40 and 41, God exerts God’s authority–the same authority Job’s been asserting throughout that makes God ultimately immune from the judgment of mortals.

But God’s words in Job are just part of the whole argument made by the Book’s writers. God’s rejection of the arguments of Job’s friends is an admission that bad things happen to good people–something experience readily confirms. This in and of itself sets up (or rather acknowledges) the complexity of the question of God’s morality–how do we parse out the morality of God allowing certain things to happen and when God actively wills certain things?

Here’s where the order of God’s two answers becomes important, because it changes the intent and meaning of God’s insistence on God’s authority from a rejection of questioning to a reassurance made to creation. When God begins by explaining that Job can’t understand the complexities of the moral questions he is asked, God finishes by explaining that God is, in fact, in control of all things and, therefore, Job’s faith that God is Good (the real reason he is blameless, I would argue) is well placed.

So, we can summarize the thrust of the argument in the Book of Job as asserting that God, ultimately, is both all-powerful and good. Not because God has to be good, but because God chooses to be. It may sometimes be difficult for us to see or understand that, but this is an important aspect of our faith in God, and a reason that Paul relates faith, hope and love so closely. Our faith in God is in–and borne out by–God’s love for us, without which we could have no existential hope.

I would argue that we see God personally rejecting divine command theory through the narrative of Job; that this twists the expectations set up by the literal reading of the story is, in my mind, ironic, poetic and funny.

As a conclusion, I’m going to repeat the ideas that will carry us forward in this series. First, God does not need to rely on God’s sovereignty to protect God’s self from moral questioning, because God is good by all measures and therefore needs no defense. Second, there is, impliedly at least, some righteousness in asking God why–so long as we accept the limits of our understanding. We see this not only in the allegory of Job, but also with Jacob wrestling with God. There is relationship here, an honest desire to be closer to (and or blessed by) God, and this presents a rival source of righteousness to blind and unquestioning obedience.

As we move onward, we’ll look at how we might see how God’s actual morality and justice, not just by fiat but by conscientious and loving Will in action, reveal themselves. We’ll look at what the Incarnation says about God’s morality. And we’ll look at what God’s choices mean for us in the way we consider the morality, justice and righteousness to which we are called in Christ.

 

 

Ceci n’est pas un dieu.

One of my favorite paintings is “The Treachery of Images” by René Magritte, pictured below.

TreacheryofImages

Knowing that I’m an existentialist thinker and theologian, it should be clear why. If you do not read French or are not familiar with this painting, the text translates to, “This is not a pipe.” If your kneejerk response is, “Yes it is!” let it sink in another moment. You cannot smoke tobacco from this picture on a screen (or canvas). You cannot hold it in your hand or put it to your lips. It is not a pipe; it is a picture of a pipe. The two are neither fungible nor synonymous. If you’re working on home repairs and someone asks you for a flathead screwdriver and you give them a picture of one from a catalog, it’s not going to be a good day.

Hence the title of this post (in English: “This is not a god.”). For many fundamentalist or conservative evangelical Christians, the Bible is treated as if it is part of God–as if it is God. Or at least as if it should be treated as an absolute on par with God. Nowhere are the Scriptures proclaimed to be a part of the Trinity.

Theologian Karl Barth warned against making an idol of the Bible; this conflation of God and Scripture is exactly what he meant. I’ve often referenced in other posts his argument (with which I vehemently agree) that we ought to interpret all Scripture through the lens of the Living God, who is clearest to us in the person and life of Jesus Christ.

Scripture is either a living thing or a dead thing. By way of reference, many legal jurists approach the United States Constitution as a “living document.” That is to say that, when the Supreme Court makes a new ruling of law based upon Constitutional language, it is “discovering” a new way in which an old text manages to relate to modern legal needs and issues. This is perhaps the most amazing aspect of our Constitution–that despite its age it continues to apply to legal issues never foreseen by its drafters with relatively little change to its language over time. For instance, the Fourth Amendment continues to be applicable to searches conducted by cellphone intercepts and drone surveillance as it was to physical stops and searches in the 18th century.

So, when I say that the Bible is a living thing or a dead thing, I mean that either: (1) the Bible continues to be applicable to our lives in the present even though culture and society and the nature of human life has changed drastically from Biblical times (and partially because modern life and the long sweep of history have given us new lenses through which to understand the Bible); or, (2) the meaning of the Bible is not susceptible to any interpretation except that intended at the time it was first set to papyrus, vellum, parchment or whatever other medium was used to record the initial text (to the extent that we could ever hope to understand that original intent being so far removed from that time period).

Bear in mind that Jesus (described by John as the Living Word) tells us that “[God] is not the God of the dead but of the living” Matthew 22:32b.

I think, then, that we must view the Bible as a living text which we must interpret through the use of reason, our experiences and the revelation of God (which we would most likely interpret as the person of the Holy Spirit in such a case) acting upon us as we read. Admittedly, this is a patently Methodist approach (at least in terms of dogma), but I am sure that this idea is not restricted to merely one denomination–particularly because it seems to be so self-evidently truthful and there are so many intelligent theologians in other denominations (or perhaps none at all).

To do otherwise than to treat the Bible as a living text that must be interpreted–with the help of the Living Word of God in Jesus and the Spirit–devalues the profundity of the Scriptures and the ways in which disparate texts written over several centuries so often hang together so well (and, when they contradict, force us ultimately to the identity of Jesus for the answer). Thinking of the Bible as a dead, immutable thing, is in some sense a rejection of Paul’s claim that it is “God-breathed and … useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness…” 2 Timothy 3:16.

And paradoxically, thinking of the Bible as simple, literal and in need of no interpretation or evaluation inherently puts it on a level with God–the only thing in all Creation that is absolute. Though he rarely does, Jesus speaks plainly when he says that he is, “the way, the truth and the life” (John 14:6). This is not prescriptive language (as it is often assumed); it is descriptive language–a statement of fact. Because, as the beginning of John tells us, all things that are (that are not God) were created through Jesus as the Logos, Jesus is inherently the truth that stands behind all Creation and its meaning and purpose.

When we say things like, “God said it; I believe it; that settles it,” (nearly always employed as a conversation-killer after asserting a typically unquestioning and literal interpretation of Scripture), we elevate the Bible to the status of God. Never were the two intended to be equal; we should not equate one with the other. The Bible was co-created by man and by God; God is uncreated. The Bible seeks to bring the reader into relationship with God, but it is not that relationship.

Interestingly, this same argument has been going on in Islam–although overtly and avowedly–since at least the 9th century. Without delving too deeply into the details and nuance (which I’m not qualified to do), the Sunni majority in Islam (to the extent that it’s fair to say that all of Sunni Islam is a monolithic construct–which is to say not very) believes that the Qu’ran is uncreated and co-eternal with God. On the other hand, Shia Islam (subject to the same caveat applicable to Sunni Islam) believes that the Qu’ran is created by God and thus subordinate. As mentioned above, I am sure that there is much nuance here with which I am woefully ignorant, but the allegory with Christian approaches to the Bible should be readily apparent.

To take us full circle in this post, we must remain cognizant that we do not confuse the depiction with the thing it represents or communicates. That is, we must remain aware that the Bible’s value comes primarily from its tendency to draw us into relationship with the Living God rather than its ability to simplify and define existential realities for us. Is there truth in the Bible? Very much. Is it always easy to get to? No; we must have faith in God to bridge the gap.

This is understandably a very uncomfortable thing–such a position necessarily introduces ambiguity and insecurity into our understanding of theological principles. On the one hand, the Bible does seem to be clear about the most important aspect of God: love. It is also clear that by the pursuit of sacrificial love we will come to better understand the Living God. And in that sense, our theological niceties are mere luxuries in the face of following Jesus; at best our doctrines and dogmas are explorations of what it means to love God and our neighbors.

At the same time, such an approach must necessarily create within us a sense of theological humility–an epistemological pessimism that should help us to avoid putting our theological convictions ahead of actually loving one another. When we see the Bible as God, or as equally positioned with God, we may use it to justify some extremely unloving behavior. Again, let us not confuse the appearance of faith, piety and love with the things themselves.

History and Historicity

I wrote in a recent post about some of the difficulties with issues of history and historicity in the Old Testament I’ve had in preparing for my impending journey to Israel. Having had some time to clarify my thoughts, I thought I’d share them.

First, I want to focus on an exemplum of my thoughts and then I’ll speak more generally. Let’s begin with the Bablyonian Captivity. Or, rather, a little bit before that.

In 1 Kings 18, the prophet Elijah confronts Ahab, the monarch of the Kingdom of Israel, on Mount Carmel in a rather memorable set of contests. Really, Elijah is confronting the worship of Baal in the Kingdom of Israel here, but Ahab is culpable for allowing the Israelites to stray from the worship of Yahweh alone.

The four-hundred and fifty prophets of Baal are asked to pick between two bulls brought to the mountain, to cut it to pieces and to smoke if over a fire; Elijah–as Yahweh’s sole remaining prophet–will do the same with the other. Then they will each call upon their respective gods and see who “shows up.” As the Baalite priests beseech their god, they get no response. With memorable taunts (Maybe your god is sleeping and needs to be awakened? Maybe he’s traveling? Maybe he’s busy defecating?), Elijah insults Baal’s prophets until it comes time for him to beseech Yahweh. When he does, the Israelite God sends his “fire” down to earth to light the prepared wood, burn up the bull carcass and the stones, soil and water prepared around the altar. After this, the priests of Baal are slaughtered by the gathered people.

I’m not actually interested in the historicity of this particular story but in what it tells us about the culture of the time (Ahab’s existence is attested outside of the Bible and he was probably king of Israel around the middle of the 9th Century BCE). As we find in the cultures surrounding Isreal-Palestine at that time, gods were viewed to be local; they were the gods of particular cities or nations. We see this explicit in other places even in the Bible, where the Isrealite God states that “he” is the God of Israel (hence the epithet “Israelite God,” I suppose).

What’s happening between the lines in this passage in Kings is a divine turf war. Baal (which is a title that means “lord” and which is borne by several distinct deity figures and used generally to mean “a god”) is a god of the Phoenicians in the city of Tyre. If you look on a map of Biblical Israel, you’ll see that Tyre is on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea (on an island, actually) just a short journey north from Mount Carmel. The question being answered by Elijah’s story is, roughly put, “If Baal is the god of Tyre, and Yahweh is the god of Israel, and they’re both geographically close to one another, which has dominion in the middle ground?” Clearly the answer is Yahweh.

I mention the above passage because it sets us up for the real point about history and historicity in the Old Testament that I want to make in this post. When in the (very early) 6th Century BCE the Babylonians under Nebuchadnezzer sacked Jerusalem and deported the Israelites to Bablyon, a crisis of faith occurred. Again, as a brief aside, this event is attested in the historical record outside of the Bible. If the Israelites were to worship the God of (the nation/land) Israel, how could they do that when they’d been transported to Babylon, the land of the Babylonian gods.

And here comes the prophet Ezekiel. In the verses that open the book that bears his name, Ezekiel tells us that he has a vision of God while among the exiled Israelites in Babylon “on the banks of the Kebar River.”

In this vision, as the Biblical historian Cynthia R. Chapman says, “God gets wheels.” Literally; Ezekiel sees God enthroned upon what I can’t help thinking of as a super-high-tech, four-likeness-of-living-creature-powered motorized wheelchair. That strange image aside, the point of the vision is that the God of Israel is mobile, that God is personally and actually present with the Israelites even in their exile. As a side note, my NIV says that Ezekiel is taken back to the “Kebar River near Tel Aviv”–this should be read as Tel Abib (in modern-day Iraq) by the Chebar River.

Hearing about the underlying spiritual-cultural concerns with regards to these (and other) Old Testament passages did much to “resolve” my problem of “historicity” in the OT (for purposes of this post, I have left aside all of the issues of the construction of the Old Testament text–whether discussion of the three hypotheses of its construction or the timing of its creation).

What I find here is something that makes much more sense to me than either extreme of the historicity debate–humans writing stories of their evolving understanding of and relationship with God. These stories are neither entirely myth nor entirely history; they are stories that draw upon historical experience (and the religious issues raised by that experience), mythological content that may or may not be based in fact (I’m not worried about the answer to that), revelation of the nature of God from God (there’s that spirit-breathed bit), and human reactions and struggles in response to that revelation.

I see this especially as the Israelite understanding of the nature of God breaks free from social precedent and evolves from polytheism to henotheism to true monotheism.

In some ways, what we have in the Old Testament is the macrocosm of Jacob’s struggle with God at Penuel–a back and forth between God and man that may defy explanation but results in relationship.

Does that make interpreting the Bible difficult? Absolutely; I don’t have an answer for you on how we best sort God’s intent from the voice of the writers from the historical record from the cultural context, etc. But I’m certainly willing to say that it’s not supposed to be easy. I can’t imagine that God would decide not to directly appear before all people in an unmistakeable way (which, to be clear, God hasn’t) and yet make Biblical interpretation something as simple as looking at words verbatim.

In the near future, I’m going to return to the Babylonian captivity and the Book of Job to talk a bit about theodicy in Christianity.