Quite coincidentally I was revisiting the Book of Job this week, and considering its content I was rather surprised to discover that I have been able to continue reading it. In fact it has turned out to be an unsuspected comfort at the death of a friend. To those unfamiliar with biblical texts it is worth pointing out that it’s not what you’d expect. God doesn’t come out smelling of roses. From the very opening scene Yahweh, the God of Israel, is presented almost like the capricious head of a pantheon holding court with his sons, and among them is Satan. In their conversation God points out his servant Job, the man of Uz, and boasts of his righteousness. Satan’s response is that Job’s virtue, like all virtue, is thin, and without the comfort of his family, his good health, and possessions he will curse God even to his face. So the game begins. God permits Satan to strip Job of all these things with the condition that Job’s life is spared.
In his misery three of his so-called friends come as comforters and sit down with him to talk. They’re no use of course, and it’s from them that we get the term ‘Job’s Comforters’ for people who aren’t actually much comfort in times of distress. Nothing can convince God’s victim that he has done anything to deserve all this heartache and pain, but his friends – convinced that suffering is divine retribution – plead with him to admit his guilt. Job will do no such thing, and so what the author puts in the mouth of Job expands into what must be one of the most terrific series of soliloquies on the nature of human suffering in the history of literature.
One phrase in particular caught my attention. In chapter 23 the hero roars: “O that I knew where I might find him, that I might come even to his dwelling!” That’s fighting talk, that is. Growing up where I did I’ve heard this language a lot. It’s the battle cry of housing estate vigilante justice, “You just tell me where he lives, and I’ll march right round there and see what he has to say for himself. By God, he’ll listen to what I have to say.” Job is raging, and his anger is directed towards God. It’s God who gets the blame. Not Satan. It was God who let this happen. The author makes no attempt to explain this away as a misunderstanding. No, Job is right on the button, and he’s for taking his case right to God’s house.
We’re not so used to calling God to account anymore. Mainstream religion is too well-groomed, too polite to let slip the dogs of war and angry rhetoric on God in times of disaster. Even though we see the glaring contradiction of an almighty God and a world of often unbearable suffering and injustice, we’re timid when it comes to asking God why. Job was no middle class Catholic for sure. He was shooting from the hip, and he wasn’t missing and hitting the wall either. In the end, so much like in our own experience, Job doesn’t get a satisfactory answer. It’s just like that. As the book closes the reader is left with two things: an invitation to see that putting the world back together is something that we can do for ourselves, and an echoing question – Why?