Summary: The answer to Job’s anguished question of "Why?" does not come in words but in presence.
I met Janet at a party, several years ago, the kind of combination business/social gathering where people talk shop, and network, and make superficial small talk. It’s the sort of event I usually avoid if at all possible, but of course it wasn’t always possible. Anyway, for some reason Janet started telling me about her life. Real stuff, not just where do you live and how did you get into this line of work. Janet had had two children. The little girl died of SIDS just before her first birthday, and a couple of years later her son had meningitis, suffered brain damage as a result of the high fever, and got permanently stuck at the mental age of 4 or 5. Her husband found that he couldn’t handle the stress and walked out. Janet’s mother, who moved in with them to help care for the boy while Janet worked, had recently begun exhibiting the symptoms of Alzheimer’s. Her company was undergoing restructuring, and Janet wasn’t sure she’d keep her job through the next round of layoffs.
What do you say when you hear a story like that? I probably made some sort of soothing meaningless noises, "Oh, how awful, oh my word," that sort of thing. I think I may have said something like, "What are you going to do?" Because what she said next is the part I’ll never forget. She said, "Oh, I’ll manage. I’ll survive. I always do; I’m strong. My priest said that I should consider it a compliment; he said that it’s only because I am strong that God has allowed these things to happen to me." And then she said, "I stopped going to church after that. If that’s what God is like, I’d rather not have anything to do with him."
Well, can you blame her? What kind of a thing is that to say to someone suffering as Janet had? Of course she felt safer going it alone.
And yet I know where her priest got his theology from. He got it from the beginning of the book of Job. "In the land of Uz there lived a man whose name was Job. This man was blameless and upright; he shunned God and feared evil." [Job 1:1] But then only a few verses later the scene suddenly changes to the heavenly courts, and we overhear a conversation between YHWH, the God of Israel, and a nameless figure called "the adversary," the Hebrew word SaTaN. YHWH is boasting of Job’s piety, saying, "Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one on earth like him"... and Satan replies, "Does Job fear God for nothing? Have you not put a hedge around him and his household and everything he has? You have blessed the work of his hands, so that his flocks and herds are spread throughout the land. But stretch out your hand and strike everything he has, and he will surely curse you to your face." YHWH said to Satan, "Very well, then, everything he has is in your hands, but on the man himself do not lay a finger." [Job 1:9-11\2]
So, you see, the terrible things that happen to Job in the next verses do, indeed, appear to have happened precisely because Job was good. By the end of chapter 2 Job has lost his wealth, his children, his health. He’s lost his wife’s respect, his good name in the community, most of his friends, and his patience is understandably beginning to wear a little thin.
And all this as a result of a cosmic wager God has on with Satan.
Is this the same God who sent Jesus to die on the cross so that we might come to know him?
I don’t think so.
It happens all too often, I am afraid, that people take the wrong bits of Scripture to build their theology out of. Don’t get me wrong. I believe what Paul says in his 2nd letter to Timothy, that all Scripture is "useful for teaching." It is. It’s not appropriate to throw away the bits of Scripture that we don’t like, or don’t understand. But we also have to take the Bible as a whole, and try to see how the pieces fit together, and appreciate the different ways the authors use to get their point across. I am not saying that the prologue to Job is untrue. What I am saying is that it is highly colored and somewhat simplified in order to make a completely different point.
Let me explain what I mean. You all know the story of the Good Samaritan, right? Where a man was attacked by bandits on his way from Jericho to Jerusalem, and was helped by a passing Samaritan. Well, now, what would you say to someone who thought that the point of the story was that the Jericho road is dangerous and you should always have an armed guard when traveling to keep from getting attacked? You’d think they’d missed the point, right? The setting - the road from Jericho, and bandits, and all the rest of the detail - is just a framework for the lesson Jesus is teaching on loving your neighbor.