Forrest Curo posts regularly on QuakerQuaker. In response to Forrest’s comment on our review of The Book of Job: A Biography, reviewer Larry Spears invited him to contribute the following blog post. (Forrest has also published this piece on his own blog, A Poetic Theology.)
I’ve been asked to write a piece about the Book of Job — a story which has intrigued and defeated the greatest intellects of Western Civilization for thousands of years now.
It comes to us in the form of a story because there are things people simply don’t ‘get’ when one states them baldly; but we know it possesses meaning; and generally we try to extract that meaning into one bald statement or another; isn’t that just like us?
The story is particularly rough on great intellects because it isn’t susceptible to any purely intellectual mode of understanding, except as a paradox.
It’s said that “The opposite of a great spiritual truth will often be another great spiritual truth,” so paradox — the realization that Job triggers a question in us with no satisfactory answer, that behooves us to confess bewilderment and go home — is one logical response.
There’s more to it than that; the question of God’s justice (or injustice) is clearly essential to any human being who knows we live under God’s jurisdiction. Can we trust God not to throw a whirlwind at us for no apparent reason?
Job’s real message is that it’s the wrong question, an inappropriate question.
An uppity question? — That’s one way to read God’s huffing and puffing towards the end; but that’s not satisfactory either. “Because I’m bigger than you and I say so!” is an answer people are bound to outgrow, to rebel against or use to draw all the wrong conclusions: ~“That’s not okay for us, but profound when God says it!” or, conversely: “If God throws His weight around this way, it’s okay for His Humble Servant Me to behave like that!”
Okay, we’re allowed to ask about Justice and Injustice — Job himself does so repeatedly — but what we really need to know is, “What is God like?”
God has formed us within a world where pious souls and atheists can both look around and find their beliefs confirmed.
But God is implicitly real in the story of Job; and Job’s neighbors not only fail to answer his complaints with their pieties; God appears in Person to refute them, rebuke them and tell Job he’d better pray for them.
And the Devil? The Devil is also real within the story. He is not the well-known Christian Devil, rebelling against God and doing great harm to us in that endeavor — nor is he God’s absolutely-evil counterpart from Zoroastrian theology — but he is a personage drawn from Persian influence all the same.
A ‘satan’, in the ancient Persian Empire, is an undercover cop assigned to test and promote loyalty to the regime. He’ll buy you a drink or two, encourage you to get silly, make a few witty remarks about ‘that clown Cyrus’ and wait for you to respond in kind. If you aren’t careful, you’ll wake with a hangover in the morning, inside a jail cell, while your drinking buddy will be outside in his judge’s robes, heating the irons for a little judicial inquiry.
‘Satan’, in this story, is God’s agent for exposing disloyalty. He’s not acting on his own; his little bet with God (whether he can corrupt Job) is the sort of friendly banter you might still find today when public defenders and prosecutors go out to lunch together.
In this story, it’s also quite possible that ‘Satan’ embodies certain doubts Job himself is trying to resolve. “Do I really love God? Or am I just feeling that way because He’s blessed me so much? Do I even know He’s real, or simply an illusion I can believe in because I’ve been so lucky?” Job isn’t just excruciatingly pious and conscientious; he wants to Know!
Couldn’t God simply tell him? “Hey, I’m real.” Well, yes, but why should Job believe him? — “Aren’t you just an hallucination? A figment? Why should I believe what You say?” It wouldn’t be a satisfactory answer, because it isn’t God who needs to know, but Job.
“The Kingdom of God is spread out upon the world, but men don’t see it” (Gospel of Thomas, Saying 113) People faintly intuit a spiritual foundation to the world, to that juncture where their own consciousness and all the stuff ‘out there’ meet; but this isn’t a thing that operates within our human notions of reason or goodness or anything else. It’s everything we truly are, yet it’s alien to everything we think we are!
People spend years, lifetimes under one or another spiritual discipline, because they’re seeking an answer that can’t be grasped by themselves, the way they are. They get frustrated, they sometimes crack (and sometimes, as in the song, some light seeps in that way).
So a Zen teacher may have two sticks, one to shock people through the more typical obstacles — and a thicker, heavier stick for the most stubborn blockheads. God does His best to clue Job in, but it takes the heavy duty industrial whacker to get through.
And then Job gets it: “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear; but now my eye sees you!” (Job 42:5 ESV)
May we all find an easier path!