What do Quakers say about the dilemma provided in the biblical Book of Job?
Mark Larrimore’s The Book of Job: A Biography (Princeton University Press, 2013) focuses the reader’s attention on the experience of injustice, the success of the wicked, and the suffering of the innocent in human experience. It is a universal human experience. Humans have tried to explain it, with varied results.
This book is a biography of the Book of Job as a story, in the sense that it is a description of the life of Job in its varied interpretations in the Western tradition. It is clear from this interpretive catalogue that Job has collected and documented a diversity of interpretations.
How do we better understand that mystery at the edge of our perception of reality in the face of the suffering of the innocent and the triumph of the wicked?
Job does not know. The author of Job does not know. The Jewish tradition and the Western Christian tradition of interpretations of the Job do not know. Do we? Is there something offered in our Western Christian tradition to help Quakers?
Yes, Job is a challenge for Quakers as well. If one says the meaning of Job is this and another says it is that, what can Quakers say? Is there something offered in the Quaker tradition to resolve this uncertainty?
This is a cafeteria book. The reader is hungry. None of the offerings are satisfactory. All the offerings are partial.
Mark Larrimore’s book is a catalogue of the history of the interpretations of the Book of Job over 1,500 years. Pope Gregory1 (5th century) was the first significant commentator, followed by Maimonides2 (12th century), Thomas Aquinas3 (13th century), John Calvin4 (16th century), David Hume5 and Voltaire6 (18th century), William Blake7 and Emmanuel Kant8 (19th century) and Elie Wiesel9 (20th century). None provided a sustainable answer.
We are still accumulating suggested responses to explain and counsel Job in the resolution of the dilemma posed by the Book of Job. Proposed solutions have included:
- Amorality Recognition: The world has no morality. The world makes no moral sense. God is amoral. God exercises amoral power.
- Atheism: This injustice dilemma is real and evidence that God does not exist.
- Avoidance: God is not to be challenged. Be distracted from the injustice issue. Focus on other matters, like the poetry and style of the Book of Job.
- Bitterness: Complain to others about the unfairness of the punishments.
- Denial: Deny any personal guilt and hold fast to consistent life practices in the face of the punishments.
- Diversity Tolerance: Acceptance of the many equal, but inconsistent, interpretive views, including those of the agnostic, relativist and the latitudinarian.
- Doubt: Uncertainty about the nature of misfortune. Injustice is a mystery.
- Indifferent: God has limitations. God is uncaring and unwilling to remedy injustice.
- Unjust Reality: God is not just.
- Inscrutable: God and God’s justice are beyond human understanding.
- Limitation: Doubt the infinite scope of God’s capacity. The nature of God’s power is limited. Deny God’s omnipotence.
- Obscurity: We humans are too ignorant to understand God’s nature and justice. Human sight is veiled. This is a vague recognition of God’s higher and inscrutable justice.
- Passivity: Accept injustice and submit to the penalties.
- Protest: Show resentment at the injustice of the punishments.
- Rebellion: “Curse God and die” as Job’s wife counsels is tinged with resignation in the face of injustice.
- Resistance: Resistance can be real, pretended, or silent.
- Restoration: Demand deep reparations and restoration. Personal property and real estate restoration do not provide an adequate solution
- Silence: Neglect and ignore the bad things in life.
- Sin: Confess the guilt. Job must have sinned in some way in the past and deserved the punishments.
- Unable: God is incapable to fix injustice. Impotence in the face of injustice.
- Unrelated: God has no relationship with individuals and is not responsible for injustice.
This is a suggestive list of the diversity of the interpretations of the Book of Job, but even this list here is not complete. Larrimore outlines these interpretations and others as clearly as any book available. His catalogue is an excellent tool for reflection on this powerful theme.
Larrimore provides a critical evaluation of the Book of Job and the origin and development of the text of the document. There are many questions about the document, including the authorship, the origin date, location of the story, and textual corruptions in transmission, all of which are helpfully addressed. These issues do not distract attention away from the fundamental human dilemma described.
This is a small book in size, but it provides all we need for thinking about the dilemma. The author provides extensive endnotes and a helpful index.
The Book of Job holds us in fascination. The human experience it describes is not easy to ignore. The story is amoral. The defense of God’s goodness may seem a less immediate issue for the 21st century so far, because people make less reference to God as a direct cause of misfortune and give more recognition to human agency in the cause, mitigation, and cure of injustice harms.
What does the Quaker tradition and current Quaker experience contribute in a response to the human obstacle of rewarded wickedness and the defeat of righteousness?
Currently, based on my life experience, the experience I see of my community, and my current understanding of the testimony of my tradition, I choose doubt and resistance through mitigation and reparations (see above).
Is there some other source of authority to bring to this matter? I could be mistaken or naïve.
What can you say?
Your answer can inform my understanding and my conforming practice in my daily life.
1 Pope Gregory the Great, Morals on the Book of Job (5th century)
2 Maimonides, The Guide for the Perplexed: Book III, chap. XII (12th century)
3 Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on the Book of Job (13th century)
4 John Calvin, Sermons on Job (16th century)
5 David Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (18th century)
6 Voltaire, Candide (18th century)
7 William Blake, Illustrations of the Book of Job (19th century)
8 Emmanuel Kant, “On the miscarriage of all philosophical trials in theodicy” (19th century)
9 Elie Wiesel, Messengers of God [reviewed in Kirkus Reviews] (20th century)
“The Lord Answering Job out of the Whirlwind,” Illustrations of the Book of Job, object 15 (Bentley 421.14), William Blake (1826) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons