Weekend Reading: interlude

As an interlude in the tale of Abraham and his family, I remember a different book.

In the middle of the Jewish Scriptures, in the section dedicated to poetry and wisdom, is the tale of a man named Job.

The setting of Job, and the people named there, doesn't belong in the narrative of Abraham and his descendants. However, they may be part of a different branch of Abraham's family tree.

Job has some similarities with Abraham: a wealthy man, a man who communes with God. He has at least one difference: a large family.

The core of Job's story is very simple. Job is both very wealthy, and known by many as a man in good standing with God. In one day of tragedy, Job's wealth is destroyed by military raids and weather catastrophes. His children die when a fierce windstorm strikes the house they are in.

Some time later, Job falls ill in a very painful way. Three friends travel great distances to commiserate with him. They also spend some time asking each other why this series of troubles had come on Job. Eventually, the men all make a sacrifice to God, and Job sees the restoration of his health and much of his wealth.

...except this simple story is embedded in a framing narrative, and has an incredibly long discussion session built into the middle.

At the beginning, God Almighty is in a place of power and authority. (Analogous to a mighty king sitting on a throne, with many servants and ministers standing before Him.) God is discussing the matters of men with the lesser beings present in His court. God is especially pleased with Job.

One of those beings, the Accuser*, stands and claims that God is running a protection racket.

The accusation is simple: Job doesn't have a righteous heart; he is buying protection by pretending to be a good person. God is giving protection, as an enticement to be good.

God considers the accusation, and gives the Accuser permission to harm Job's wealth and family. (Thus the first day of catastrophe mentioned above.) Job falls into deep sorrow, and laments the lives lost and fortune destroyed. But Job doesn't charge God with doing an injustice.

Later, the same sequence plays out again. This time, the Accuser mentions that Job is still healthy.

God considers, and gives the Accuser permission to harm Job's health.

The Accuser does so. Again, Job is sorrowful. He even wishes that he'd never been born. But he doesn't say that God, the creator of all that is good, had done an evil thing.

Most of the rest of the narrative is the discussion between Job and his friends, and a final statement from God.**

Job insists that he is in the right, and that God would make things right once Job can find a way to present his troubles before God.

Job's friends take a different approach. With different explanations (a spiritual visitation, the wisdom of the ancients, the history of other worshippers of God), each argues that Job has something to repent of.

After three cycles of discussion, Job and his friends fall silent.

Another voice speaks into the story here, re-hashing the arguments made by the others. (Except Job and friends appear not to recognize or interact with the young man who breaks in here...is this a result of three Jewish commentators finding a fourth opinion among them?)

Once all the discussion has settled, God speaks to Job. Not to his friends, but directly to Job. Instead of explaining the discussion that had happened between God and the Accuser, God explains that Job is lacking Divine perspective and authority.

Job replies with a quick admission that he didn't really know what he was talking about...and God goes on, to describe two mighty animals--perhaps symbols of powerful spirits worshiped by other men--and further emphasizes that Job was mistaken, but not sinful...and Job's friends spoke wrongly about God.

Thus, Job and friends worship God by making a sacrifice. (I presume this is when Job is healed...)

And Job's extended family gathers to celebrate, everyone brings a small donation of money for Job. Afterwards, Job's family and fortunes are restored to better than before.

The story seems impossible, but still real.

Was there ever, anywhere in the history of humanity, a man who was so righteous that God would brag about his righteousness? If that man existed, was the riches-to-rags-to-riches cycle such a simple, clean story?

Yet everyone in Job's family (and Abraham's family) had heard stories of people suffering undeserved harm. Everyone knew that God was the source of all that is good, yet also knew that evil happened in many ways, to most men. Even to men who were righteous before God.

It's a reminder of a metaphysical problem that is as old as humanity itself.

* "The Accuser", often rendered phonetically as "Satan". Just in case anyone is wondering where that name came from.
The same spiritual being shows up as an Accuser before the throne of God in a vision recorded by the prophet Zechariah.
He is also given credit as a source of temptation in one segment of the narrative of the life of King David.
Much later, Jesus uses "Satan" as one of several synonyms for the enemy of the followers of God.

Notice that here, and elsewhere in Jewish and Christian scripture, Satan is not equal-and-opposite of God. He is subordinate to God's authority, and plays a role that is a blend of trickster and troublemaker.

**This discussion feels like something that is the result of many tellings and re-tellings of the story. The arguments that are presented are very polished statements, given as extended poetic monologues. Most of the possible points of discussion that could be raised in Job's case are raised by one of the friends, or by the fourth commentator at the end.

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