Columns Jeffrey Weiss: My Way to the Egress Opinion

The Book of Job’s cold comfort for those who suffer

“Job Rebuked by His Friends,” an 1805 illustration of the Book of Job by William Blake. Image courtesy of Creative Commons

(RNS) For the couple of months since I went public about my brain cancer, I’ve had many people of many faiths send me messages that they were praying for me. Some said they were hoping to nudge the Almighty to heal me.

I appreciate every such message. After all, glioblastoma is a tough challenge. The median survival rate is only a few months more than a year. Maybe my friends could offer God some reasons to boost my survival odds?

But I’ve been a reporter for a long time. I’ll admit I chew on any such broad claim, thinking about whether there are valid rebuttals.

So for me this has been a wry reminder of what I’ve read in the biblical Book of Job. If you’ve never read it, you’ve missed out on a rollicking narrative that includes colorful settings, sarcastic arguments and an answer that turns away from a lot of Jewish and Christian traditions.

You likely know that Job is portrayed as a pious and wise man who did a lot of good, suffered a lot of bad and ended up with a response from God.

But does that response say what God’s plans are and how well people can understand them?

I just reread the book for the first time in years. I’m using a 1985 translation by the Jewish Publication Society in my Jewish Study Bible. Near the start of the introduction provided, it says: “Job is the most difficult book of the Bible to interpret … ”

So, yeah, translation problems mean some fine details will be impossible to focus closely. But a view from the analytical equivalent of 20,000 feet seems reasonable and interesting.

Job is a pious and wealthy guy with a big family who has done many good things for other people. One day, God points out what a great and good fellow Job is to one of his divine subordinates.

“Ha-satan” is not like the Satan in other faith traditions, by the way.  He’s an adversary, yes, but something like a prosecuting attorney. There’s zero hint of him being evil or supervising an eternal hell.

This Satan tells God that Job may be doing the right things only because he’s so comfortable. God, who doesn’t respond that he’s omniscient and will always win a bet, gives ha-satan permission to test Job by whacking his wealth, killing a lot of his family and ruining his health.

Job never blasphemes in his response. Not even once.

Some of his friends show up to discuss what’s going on. They insist Job surely did something wrong to deserve God’s imposition of suffering.

Nope, says Job, who also points out that not only do some other good people suffer, but some nasty people live happily and well.

He wants God to explain why. But God’s response is almost no answer.

Why do bad things happen to good people? Why do good things happen to bad people? God lists all the things he’s done that people can’t possibly fathom.

Don’t bother arguing, God basically says, because you can’t possibly understand how God sees what’s happening.

At the very end, by the way, God tells Job’s buddies that they said all kinds of false things to justify why Job had suffered.

And God gives back Job his wealth and comfort. He dies at age 140, “old and contented.”

One angle in Job is a worthy point, no matter one’s specific theological beliefs: Job says he does what’s right because it’s right, not because he expects a reward. I’ve tried to follow that and will keep trying on my way to the Egress.

I’m totally grateful for the support some friends are giving me. But does God care about such prayers?

I think the Book of Job says even those who believe in the Almighty 100 percent can’t necessarily figure out what he might be doing or why.

So in addition to the gratitude, I’ll hold onto a smidge of hope that I might also die “old and contented.”

(Jeffrey Weiss is a longtime reporter who covered religion, faith and morality issues for more than a decade. In December, he was diagnosed with a brain cancer. He’s exploring how a likely end of life should affect his thinking about beliefs and behavior)

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Jeffrey Weiss


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  • But does God care about such prayers?

    Yes. Mr. Weiss, you will be in my prayers.

    I do like your take on Job. I have always understand the Lord’s answer to be along the lines of: “You do not know what I know. Because of this, you cannot understand. Trust me.” The only possibility is to choose to trust Him.

  • I’ve read Job a number of times; the narrative is…difficult… as it speaks to theodicy, or what some call, why good things happen to bad people, and the reverse; God’s answer, is, – “yo Job can you create a whale? I didn’t think so, …so don’t push it.”

    The textualists say there were several successor authors, by style and by content; so even the contemporaries found J difficult;

    Job’s wife is also one of the casualties of Satan’s “trial by ordeal,” who does not have Job’s faith;

    she says, Mrs J does – “curse god and die” – she does, and she does.

    ‘curse god and die ‘ are the greatest words in the English language, or any
    Closer to home, I was a quantitative analyst researcher in cancer, a few decades back (I’m a geezer), and there are public data bases, difficult to navigate, to tell you what we know of ‘survival’ intervals and survival outliers;

    Also PubMed is a public access, free, text-based inquiry into things medical, likely including your situation.

    It helps to have a medical student nearby to navigate and absorb that information.

    Godspeed, as it were.

  • “But a view from the analytical equivalent of 20,000 feet seems reasonable and interesting”.
    I really like that line, especially considering Job talks about understanding what we can’t understand. How can our analytical brains trust what is not understood? Is trusting what is not understood a liability or a strength? I don’t think people really know that answer until they find themselves in an un-understandable circumstance. Like Job’s friends, we analyze what someone is going through and we want to determine what they should think. It’s not that easy, I’ve seen people who claim a faith lose it, and I’ve seen people without a faith gain one in times like these. There is a song on YouTube, ‘Though You Slay Me’ (the story of the inspiration behind the song is on there as well) it does a good job of giving feeling to Job 13:15.
    Thank you Mr Weiss for sharing your story.

  • So, a low life creator has a bar bet with Satan. He kills Job’s family, destroys his livelihood, and makes him miserable as he can without actually killing him.
    Sounds like someone I can’t wait to know.

  • You are probably already familiar with Harold Kushner’s book, “When Bad Things Happen to Good People”, since you almost quote the title in the article. But I would also like to draw your attention to Carl G. Jung’s “Answer to Job”, and to Solomon Freehof, “The Book of Job: A Commentary”. All excellent commentaries on a deep book.

  • 1. Not with “Satan”, but with one of the Sons of God in the heavenly counsel, the one whose job is that of Prosecuting Attorney.
    2. There are three propositions underlying the Book of Job.
    a. Job is blameless. (And Yahweh says this himself.)
    b. God is good.
    c. God is all-powerful.
    What the story points out is that only two of those propositions can be true. Which ones are true are for you to decide. If Job is blameless, then either God is not good or not all-powerful, for instance. If God is good, then either Job is not blameless or God is not all-powerful. If God is all-powerful, then either God is not good, or Job is not blameless.

  • Strictly speaking, an angel with the TITLE of Satan, the Accuser. The Christian invention of satan as the devil, satan as the snake in the garden, satan in rebellion against god, are another story entirely.
    All three propositions can be true. Fundamentalists aver that anything god does is by definition good and moral– even unto the murder of all of the little babies in the world who could not have sinned even if they wanted to. Even unto his failure to remove sin as a consequence of the flood. Even unto behavior that the moral sense he gave us tells us is wrong if a human would do it.
    however, I think job merely shows us that god is no more moral than the people who created him/it/them.

  • One of the theological problems that Job brings to the fore is whether god is the source of both good and evil, or whether evil comes from an independent source. Judaism is strictly monotheistic. So the answer has to be the god is the source of both. Christianity was dissatisfied with that answer because it means you cannot rely on god, and so created Satan as the source of evil. But that brings on a bigger problem. As soon as that proposition is out, then monotheism is gone. Satan becomes another god, a powerful god, one which it is believed will be eventually defeated, but a god none the less. This is a problem that Christians are unwilling to face.

    For the humanist, it is enough that humans are the source of their own evil. Much simpler.

  • No disagreement from me.

    but while we’re on the subject of polytheistic monotheism, there is the three in one god, just like in polytheistic Hinduism’s Brahma, and the various incarnations of various other gods, all of whom seem to exist simultaneously. There is Mother Mary, who will intercede, and who is worshipped, making her a god. There are all of the saints, who can be prayed to and who will intercede, making them gods. There are all of the idols of all of the saints, Jesus, and Mary, making no-graven-images rather old hat.

    why, if you were a skeptic, you’d almost think that Christianity isn’t actually tethered to reality, let alone it’s own tenets.

    It’s almost as if this god is a creation of his believers, and not the other way around.

  • I thought the Book of Job did not provide any answers. Rather, it invites us to look at life differently. The amount of wealth or number of friends is not important. Whether you live 140 years or 1.4 years is not important. May I suggest that whatever is my/your purpose in life, it will be fulfilled and my/your life will be complete? I suspect that if there is a god, then IT does know what it is doing. “Life lasts but an hour,” and I suspect you don’t have to worry that it will be anything less than fully complete.

  • The Virgin Mother – Jesus bond is an interesting one. Joseph Campbell in his book “The Masks of God: Occidental Mythology” points out that the divine mother/divine son pairing can be found in almost every religion in the ancient mid-east. And, as Judaism had become very patriarchal, repressing the feminine, Christianity had a good opportunity by upgrading Mary.

  • Not just the religions of the middle east. Religions all over the world had a savior, often born of a virgin, who would come again, often for the redeeming of sins. Odin AllFather sacrificed himself to himself by hanging himself on a tree for the benefit of mankind.

    None of these stories are new,

  • Yggdrasil, the Tree of Life at the navel of the world, the Gaokerena World Tree (the Haoma or Soma) in Persian mythology. Even the Caduceus is in the shape of a cross.

  • Just an aside. In the 11 century, a/the leading Jewish rabbi/theologian (Maimonides) declared Islam to be monotheistic but heresy but Christianity idolatry.