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

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

“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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