January 4, 2005

Don't Ask?

There's been lots of discussion of theodicy (whether God is just, and if so, why is there evil in the world). In thinking about it, I was reminded that the Book of Job in the Hebrew Bible addresses just this question -- why do the just (and the innocent) suffer.

When Job finally complains to God, God answers him out of the whirlwind. He's very poetical, but a bit long-winded, so I'll only reproduce the first part of the answer, from chapter 38:
Then the LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind, and said,
Who is this that darkeneth counsel by words without knowledge?
Gird up now thy loins like a man; for I will demand of thee, and answer thou me.
Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? declare, if thou hast understanding.
Who hath laid the measures thereof, if thou knowest? or who hath stretched the line upon it?
Whereupon are the foundations thereof fastened? or who laid the corner stone thereof;
When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?
Or who shut up the sea with doors, when it brake forth, as if it had issued out of the womb?
When I made the cloud the garment thereof, and thick darkness a swaddlingband for it,
And brake up for it my decreed place, and set bars and doors,
And said, Hitherto shalt thou come, but no further: and here shall thy proud waves be stayed?
Hast thou commanded the morning since thy days; and caused the dayspring to know his place;
That it might take hold of the ends of the earth, that the wicked might be shaken out of it?
It is turned as clay to the seal; and they stand as a garment.
And from the wicked their light is withholden, and the high arm shall be broken.
Hast thou entered into the springs of the sea? or hast thou walked in the search of the depth?
Have the gates of death been opened unto thee? or hast thou seen the doors of the shadow of death?
Hast thou perceived the breadth of the earth? declare if thou knowest it all.
Where is the way where light dwelleth? and as for darkness, where is the place thereof,
That thou shouldest take it to the bound thereof, and that thou shouldest know the paths to the house thereof?
Knowest thou it, because thou wast then born? or because the number of thy days is great?

It goes on for some time, and it's all great poetry (and gets into exotic zoology a couple of chapters later).

Job basically responds, "Sorry I asked, Boss," God forgives him, and restores Job to wealth, but doesn't bring his dead family members back.

God seems to be saying that Job shouldn't ask the question we've been discussing, either because God is all-powerful and, therefore, how dare Job question him, or because from Job's inconsequential position in the universe, he can't possibly understand the ways of God.

As this appears to be a parable, the restoration of Job to wealth is particularly unsatisfying, even if it is a happy ending of sorts. The dead in the tsunami will never be restored to wealth in this world, nor will Jewish or Christian martyrs, children who die of cancer, and so forth. To make an analogy to the Book of Job, we either must posit their restoration in another world, or satisfy ourselves with the hope that their countries will be restored to prosperity. Although to an American individualist like me it's not very satisfying, it's a common Biblical theme, for in that Book divine justice often applies to peoples as much as to individuals.

It's also interesting that we today purport to answer at least some of God's questions to Job. To mix cultures, is that a kind of hubris different from Job's questioning? And are we therefore reaping, or will we reap, the whirlwind for our Babel-like insolence in trying to be like God?

Lots of questions. Little time. But rereading Job is worthwhile in any event.

Update: Changed "book 38" to "chapter 38."

No comments: