Three well-heeled theologians walked into a bar to meet with a peer who had fallen on hard times and was facing a harsh legal sentence. It was the bar of justice, and they came as friends of the court. Each had prepared a brief designed to convince their peer that his adversary was in the right and that he needed to plead guilty and make a deal. They argued that he could not successfully resist the arguments of the prosecution. His adversary had power, public opinion, and tradition on his side. The outcome was a given. Fortunately, the adversary had a reputation for just dealing and could be counted on to be fair. Conventional wisdom urged confession and an appeal for mercy.
Rather than acquiescing, their friend simply reiterated his innocence and indicated that he planned to bring a countersuit for wrong doing against the adversary. And although each of his argued extensively in defense of the adversary’s charges and insisted that Job sue for peace, he remained adamant. He had been wrongfully charged and would have his day in court. His adversary must acquit him and restore the honor and position he deserved.
Job stood his ground because he knew what he knew. There was a mazeway in place to lead one from birth to death with respectability and honor. God had given guidelines to follow for success: safety, security, and prosperity grew out of living a socially and religiously sanctioned life. Conversely, failure to walk a disciplined and conformed life attracted Divine retribution. God generously blessed the worthy while those who were marginal, destitute, or at risk for abuse were suffering because they had earned God’s punishment by their moral failures. Life’s rules were clear, the universe rational, and God functioned predictably as the scorekeeper and dispenser of justice. By so doing, God provided the continual motivation for right actions through on-going interventions with rewards, punishments, and corrections. In short, people received what they deserved and the way things are is the way things should be.
Job also knew that he was innocent of wrongdoing. He knew that his actions merited reward and that he was not receiving what he deserved. He was a benevolent patriarch: he had ruled according to law, shown compassion to the needy, respect for social mores, and demonstrated his devotion to God. As such, he had earned God’s protection and blessings, not calamity and dishonor. Yet something had gone terribly awry. God, the Grand Patriarch, the One whose job it was to keep justice in the world, had not delivered justice for him. Job would call God into account and demand that the wrong be righted.
Job’s peers were aghast at his heresy. Job’s charge that his misfortune revealed an error or lack of Divine justice went against community wisdom and religious orthodoxy. Everyone knew that God was a meticulous referee of human affairs who watched over all things, and saw that people reaped the results of their actions. The status and security of an individual (family) provided a window into the Divine judgment on conduct and character. God is just and does not make mistakes. To claim that one’s suffering was undeserved was to deny that the world as it is reflects the will and judgment of a just, all-powerful, all knowing, and all-controlling God. It cast a question over the rightness of all things.
Their view of God and the world had made perfect sense and had been reconfirmed daily for Job the upright and prosperous patriarch. He had ruled righteously and so all went well, until the day that it didn’t. It was as he was suffering innocently that his personal experience disconfirmed the accepted and tidy view of the just order. While he prospered, the theology of merited blessing explained the world that he knew: but then the day came when he didn’t, and it didn’t. And that was when Job had to wrestle what he thought he knew about God, and when he began to fall out of step with his community.
Job was able to withstand his peers reasoning and theological arguments because his personal experience created a rupture in his belief structure. His personal pain made it impossible to support his previous ideology: all was not as it should be. Rather than abandon accepted theology entirely, Job tried to frame his situation as a remediable glitch, a single wrong to be righted, and so he began his campaign for personal vindication.
It was only as Job continued to suffer without reason that he noticed the extent to which others were suffering innocently as well. It was then that the prosperity of oppressors began to trouble him. Only then did he notice that the world could not be divided neatly between the deserving and undeserving, each receiving their just desserts. Only after losing the privilege and status that he had assumed he had acquired as reward for his merit did he grasp that there is not necessarily a correlation between personal worthiness and success. But old worldviews and entrenched theology die slowly. He simply launched an expanded complaint about the quality of God’s care for humanity rather than rethinking his vision of God and the role of humanity in the suffering he saw.
Working within his cultural religious schematic, Job summoned God to the bar of justice and charged Him with dereliction of duty on the grounds that God had failed to vindicate/protect/reward the innocent and thwart/punish the evildoer as a righteous patriarch or over-lord must to ensure proper behavior. He brought forth not only his own case but also his new observations concerning the plight of the vulnerable and the unrestrained actions of the wicked. Clearly, God was not doing his duty: He needed to restore justice to the world. God needed to do a better job of being God.
Surprisingly, God answered the summons to court, but He did not respond according to either Job’s or the others’ expectations. He could not, because the God that appeared was not the god that Job called. The God who responded to the complaint was not simply an enlarged version of Job himself, a Grand Patriarch, a Ruling Man who enforced morality and order among humans. The God who arrived at court was the great I AM. The One who came to reason with Job was an iconoclast, and He challenged Job’s vision as small and anthropocentric.
The upright but confounded Job was graciously met by the One who stands beyond all human constructions and symbols pointing to the Great Mystery that is both transcendent and the imminent. The God who met to correct his servant was the Great Heart of Everything: the Original Wisdom, Power, and Spirit that could not be contained but had spilled forth as an irresistible force that sparked the universe into a living, singing entity. This Great One presented Job with a vision focused on the cosmos and the generous Life-giver who established the laws of the planet that made it inhabitable, filled it with great wonders and a rich diversity of creatures, and continued to sustain the entire creation in love. Job’s attention was directed to the Great Power everywhere present, blessing and engaging with life, provoking its fruitfulness and wellbeing.
It was only after Job had been privy to this vision that God challenged him to reconsider his theology and anthropology and then rethink his complaint. Where was God at fault? What lack could be found in the creation in which humanity had been placed? Had God not provided for all of the creation? How may it be said that God is derelict in His duty as long as the forces of nature are upheld and the many and diverse creatures receive his care? Can a charge of dereliction be lodged legitimately against God while one stands in the midst of a rare and beautiful planet, all the while sustained by God’s will and power?
Yet what of Job’s charge that God was responsible for the suffering of the innocent and the proliferation of the wicked because He had failed to regulate of human behavior through the systematic application of Divine sanctions? Interestingly enough, God response to the charge was both brief and terse. God acknowledged that Job had had his eyes opened and was newly aware of ongoing injustice. The injustice and suffering offended him as a righteous person, as it should. Well and good, so why did not Job do something about it instead of critiquing God for affairs transpiring among humans? “Will you even put me in the wrong? Will you condemn me that you may be justified? ... Your own right hand can give you victory” (40:8,14).
Much to the collective surprise of His hearers, God relocated the responsibility for justice from His court to that of humanity. Having shown humanity what is right and given us dominion on earth, He assigned community organization and administration to us. Humans have the power to shape societies in such a way as create safety nets for the inhabitants, to encourage just and compassionate dealings, to evaluate and then eliminate institutional structures that perpetuate inequality, and to erase traditions, prejudices and beliefs that create injustice. God signaled Job that He would not assume human responsibility to ensure that right relations are regarded, nor would He be held responsible for the conscious decisions that humans make to benefit some over others. Where humanity encounters distressing situations, it is humanity’s job to change them.
This does not mean that God is indifferent to human affairs or that He has abandoned the suffering, with whom He is always present. The gracious Life-giver will continue to call us to move towards life, surround us with blessings based on His gracious generosity rather than our merit, and invite us to see Him in the wonders that surround us and in the faces of each other. What He will not do is dole out His blessings based on merit to provide the motivation for “good behavior.” God will be God, and leave to us room to be responsible human beings. It is up to us to choose life and create shalom, the community worth dwelling in.
It is recorded that Job dropped his case and resumed his life without further complaint, satisfied to be a human being living within a universe wondrous beyond comprehension, created and sustained by an unspeakably gracious Power. We can only assume that he determined to let God be God while he exercised his own power of choice to live as a blameless and upright human. And things ended well for him.
Ginger Hanks Harwood is a recently-retired Professor of Religious and Theological Studies who served at La Sierra University's H.M.S. Richards Divinity School.
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