Job 42:1-6, 10-17
October 28, 2018
When I introduced the book of Job three weeks ago, I mentioned the word “theodicy.” It comes from the root words for God and suffering. The basic question of theodicy is: Why does God cause people to suffer?
And the book of Job presents a variety of possible answers to this question:
• Human suffering is direct punishment for personal sin.
• God uses suffering to test human faith and prove our loyalty.
• From the perspective of Job’s children and servants we could conclude that God causes some people’s suffering in order to fulfill a life lesson for another person.
• Or, from the passionate, poetic middle of Job, we could conclude that it’s none of our business why God causes suffering and how dare we even ask.
Here’s another potential answer that Walter Brueggemann*, among other scholars, points out: Human suffering is not caused by God, but is, in fact, caused by humans.
It is true that we have this mythical frame story around Job of a sort of divine court hearing where the Prosecutor is accusing Job of unrighteousness and God inflicts suffering to provide evidence of Job’s righteousness. Yet if we look beyond the divine court context, we see that at least some of Job’s suffering is directly related to human activity: the Sabeans, enemy people, steal Job’s oxen and donkeys and kill many servants, and the Chaldeans take his camels and kill more servants.
Brueggemann writes that “the issue of theodicy for Israel is not an interesting speculative question, but is a practice of social criticism of social systems which do or do not work humanely, and of the gods who sponsor and guarantee systems that are or are not just.” He’s saying that the question of why we suffer is not an abstract philosophical question; questions about suffering actually serve to evaluate our social systems and reveal their justice—or lack of justice.
Now if we’re going to get into the dicey territory of talking about how humans cause suffering, we need to be clear about what that means. It does not mean that there is a one-to-one correlation between individual sin and divine punishment—or even between individual sin and that individual suffering negative consequences. Some people who steal money get caught and go to jail; others just get to live their lives with more money than they used to have. Our actions do have consequences, but not always consistent or just consequences.
The book of Job speaks clearly against this simplistic idea of an individual’s suffering being a direct result of that individual’s sin. What Brueggemann suggests is that human suffering in general can often be linked to sinful, unjust, social systems.
There are, to be sure, a number of unjust social systems operating in our world and in our own community right now. Considering the state of things and, yes, the upcoming elections, and, of course, the biblical text, I want to focus on the violence-producing system of nationalism. This system is evident in our text from Job. God did not invent national identity—the Sabeans and Chaldeans and Israelites—on the spot in order to have a way to inflict suffering on Job. These nations with their hostilities already existed. The greed and animosity and violence and desperation that fueled marauding armies was a well-established phenomenon of the time. Because these nations had established that other nations were enemies, the Sabeans and Chaldeans felt empowered, entitled, possibly even obligated, to do harm to someone who was “other”—in this case, an Israelite. Nationalism dehumanizes people from other places, thus allowing oppression and violence against those others.
It is rampant in the United States today. It is rampant in the news this week.
• The president has bragged about being a nationalist.
• Many of our fellow citizens are whipped up into a fearful, angry frenzy about a “caravan” of South and Central American migrants headed toward our borders. And instead of viewing these human beings with compassion, many are presenting them as enemies of the United States, determined to invade our nation and destroy our way of life.
• A man sent 13 pipe bombs to people and institutions he considered political opponents. The stickers on the van of the man who sent the bombs makes it clear that he aligns himself with exactly the kind of nationalism promoted by the president. It is a narrowing of allegiance and a broadening of violence—not even everyone in the nation is one of “us,” but only a small group who support my exact ideology. Everyone beyond that is a target.
• And just yesterday a shooter opened fire at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, killing 11 people. The man who went into a place of worship and started shooting regularly refers to immigrants as “invaders” and has accused Jewish people of helping the “invading” migrant caravans.
In these last two cases, while the violence itself was perpetrated by an individual, it was encouraged and fostered by social systems—systems that encourage creating categories of “us” and “them;” systems that dehumanize “them” and normalize, even valorize, violence against “them.” From the wars of the ancient world, to the Holocaust, to contemporary prejudicial violence, nationalism is one system that does not work humanely; it is a system that promotes injustice and leads to significant human suffering.
What we have a hard time grasping in our hyper-individualistic context is that suffering and justice, sin and righteousness, are ultimately about systems, not individuals. According to Brueggemann, the Bible in general, and the book of Job and part of Jeremiah in particular, support this idea that theodicy is “a practice of social criticism of social systems.” When we ask questions about human suffering, we should look not to individual sin and righteousness, but to how we have constructed and how we function within social systems.
Bureggemann is an Old Testament scholar, so it makes sense that he would focus on these books in the Hebrew scriptures. But we can pull this forward into the New Testament as well. Jesus rarely criticized individuals for any sort of personal sin. His condemnation was reserved for the oppressive systems of his day—and the people who led and benefited from those systems.
When Jesus calls the scribes and Pharisees “blind guides,” “hypocrites,” and “whitewashed tombs,” it is not because of their personal sins and failings, it is because they uphold a system that is supposed to usher people into the Kingdom of God, but instead keeps them out of it. It is because they “have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice, mercy, and faith.” (Matthew 23:23)
And Jesus not only criticizes the oppressive forces of his day, he also suffers under them. I remember the closing night of my Baptist Jr. High summer camp. Our camp director gave the same sermon every year, and it was about how agonizing Jesus’ death on the cross was and how we were personally responsible for his death. “Every time you sin,” he said, “you are pounding the nails deeper into Jesus’ flesh.” And it was pretty clear from earlier camp experiences that activities like swearing, making out, and listening to rock music were the main nail-pounding culprits.
This version of the crucifixion made for an emotional worship service with many tears and a robust response to the inevitable altar call. But the biblical text would suggest a different reason for Jesus’ execution. Just as much human suffering—Job’s, ours, everyone’s—can be linked to unjust social systems, Jesus’ suffering is clearly a result of social systems. Jesus is condemned by both the political and the religious institutions of his day. Because he threatens their power, they conspire together—or maybe it’s more accurate to say that they use each other—to end Jesus’ life and, therefore, maintain the systems that function so well for those in power.
Certainly not all human suffering can be linked to unjust social systems, but much of it can. And understanding this shifts our view of what it means to be “righteous” or “sinful.” It is easy—relatively speaking—to follow a set of arbitrary rules my community might establish so that I can be in the “righteous” category. Maybe those rules are about language or sex or music; maybe they are about eating or voting or washing out baggies. Whatever they are, tell me what to do to be righteous and I can probably do it—especially if I think that being righteous will lead me to be blessed by God and escape suffering in this world.
But if sin is connected with social systems . . . well, then I’m on shakier ground. Because how can I avoid being complicit in the systems that I know cause so much suffering in this world? Racism, sexism, capitalism, materialism . . . nationalism—this is the water in which we swim; it is the air we breathe.
So here is the generally assumed theodicy question: If God is all good and all powerful, then why do people suffer?
And here is the theodicy question that Brueggemann’s observations have led me to: If unjust systems cause suffering and we cannot extricate ourselves from these systems, where is the hope?
The suffering is worldly, but the hope is of God. It is a resurrection hope. It is life given by God over and against, above and beyond all the suffering the systems of this world can cause. Our hope is in this resurrection life that we cannot will or create on our own.
And yet, the resurrection life is a life in which we can participate.
There is a piece of the conclusion to Job’s story that often gets overlooked. We are told that “the LORD restored the fortunes of Job.” And we are also told that “there came to [Job] all his brothers and sisters and all who had known him before . . . and each of them gave him a piece of money and a gold ring.” Job’s fortunes were not restored completely out of thin air; they were restored—at least in part—through the generosity of those who loved him.
And Job’s ten children were not pulled out of a hat. His wife bore those children. After losing all of her children, after the grief, the devastation, she is willing to have more children. To put her body and her heart through the pain and the danger of creating a new family. It is a form of resurrection—given by God, yes, and also not possible without her willingness to participate.
There’s one other little piece to this conclusion to Job that gives me hope. Not just hope that God can bring new life to individuals, but hope that God can reform and renew entire systems. It’s a small thing, a small hope, but it’s there. Listen to verses 13-15:
“[Job] also had seven sons and three daughters. He named the first Jemimah, the second Keziah, and the third Keren-happuch. In all the land there were no women so beautiful as Job’s daughters; and their father gave them an inheritance along with their brothers.”
Did you hear that? In this story where only the men have been afforded the dignity of names, we learn the names of all three of Job’s daughters. In a culture where the systems denied inheritance to women, Job gives these three beautiful women an inheritance. Job certainly does not dismantle the system of patriarchy (if only he had!), but he does at least partially withdraw from it. Brueggemann might say he offers a practical critique of a social system that does not work humanely.
We cannot will or create the resurrection life so desperately needed in the world today. The power of resurrection belongs only to God. But we can participate in that life. We can shift our energy—even if only slightly—away from systems that promote violence and oppression toward systems that nurture life.
Where can you extend generosity this week?
What hard, hopeful work can you do? Are you already doing?
What form of oppression can you address?
If you are feeling overwhelmed, you are not alone. Take a deep breath—a spirit-filled breath—and give one thing; do one thing; pray one thing. Put yourself in the midst of other people who are also giving and doing and praying—and breathing.
And know that however powerful the systems of the world seem, the God who created and loved the world into being is more powerful; the God we serve has answered and continues to answer this world’s systems of hatred, violence, and death, with the astounding miracle of resurrection life.
*Ideas and quotes from Walter Brueggemann are taken from: Brueggemann, Walter, “Theodicy in a Social Dimension,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, 1985.