Hurricane Maria strengthens again… Mexico searches for earthquake survivors against increasing odds… Crucial American financial institutions hacked… Record flooding in Houston… Five murders in Baltimore this week, 230 for the year… Is it just me, or does it feel like a good time to be reading The Book of Job? Job poses some of the most difficult questions for us: Why do bad things happen to good people? Is the universe orderly and just? Is God looking out for humanity? Does it really matter how we behave?
The Book of Job is really two books: a prose frame story in chapters 1, 2, and 42 and 39 chapters of poetry in between. Most scholars agree that the framing narrative records an oral folk tale, which had been circulating for centuries and was told in several cultures. As a sustained protest in poetic form, the middle portion of the book resembles no other text in the Biblical canon. Theologically, it is a radical challenge to the doctrine of “reward for the righteous and punishment for the wicked,” and as such, the unknown author is working alone—“a bold, dissenting thinker, a poet of genius who produced a book of such power that Hebrew readers came to view that they couldn’t do without it.” (Harold Kushner) Job gives voice to our agony: How can it be that a God who is good has created a world with such pain?
Job deals with the problem of theodicy—the defense of God in view of the existence of evil—so while ordinarily we put human beings on trial as perpetrators of violence, in this case it is God who is on trial.
Russell Baker, a nationally syndicated columnist, wrestles with this idea in his autobiography Growing Up. As a five-year-old playing with friends in the woods, Baker suddenly learns that his father has died.
“He was 33 years old. When I came running home, my mother was still not back from Frederick, but the women had descended on our house… and were already busy with the housecleaning and cooking that were Morrisonville’s ritual response to death. With a thousand tasks to do, they had no time to handle a howling five-year-old. I was sent to the opposite end of town to Bessie Scott’s house… Poor Bessie Scott. All afternoon she listened patiently as a saint while I sat in her kitchen and cried myself out. For the first time I thought seriously about God. Between sobs I told Bessie that if God could do things like this to people, then God was hateful and I had no more use for Him… After that I never cried again with any real conviction, nor expected much of anyone’s God except indifference, nor loved deeply without fear that it would cost me deeply in pain.” (Baker, Growing Up)
Baker lost more than his father that day. For us in Baltimore and those who struggle hard everywhere, I wonder how to navigate through pain without losing ourselves in the bargain? How do we not lose hope? How do we not lose God? How do we keep on keeping on?
Join me on Thursday evenings at 6:00 or Wednesday mornings at 10:00 for the Rector’s Bible study, especially if you don’t know too much about the scripture, especially if you thought you’d never study the Bible, especially if you gave up on God a long time ago. Whatever we have lost, God has come looking for us.