October 15, 2010
Today I begin my journey into a book of profound poetry that wrestles with that most timeless issue; unjust suffering. Why do bad things happen to good people? A first reading of Job’s first chapters might give you a rather disturbing answer; because Satan tells God to do it…huh??
A brief(ish) synopsys: Job is very good man who also happens to be pretty loaded and very fertile – 10 children (7 of them sons; big bonus for the patriarchal Israelites), about a billion cattle. It didn’t go to his head mind you, he’s well holy, even offering sacrifices just in case his children sin at their dinner parties. So, as you may have guessed, God’s well pleased with his man Job and likes to tell the “heavenly beings”, and among them Satan, all about him. Satan is not impressed; “of course he’s good and holy; he’s loaded! Take away his cattle and children, then you’ll see, he’ll curse you.” Rather remarkably, God agrees to this! So in the space of about 5 minutes Job loses everything (except his wife, but that doesn’t seem to be much comfort to him as he calls her a “foolish woman” in chapter 2). Job responds by tearing his clothes, shaving his head, and worshipping. Nice. Another Heaven scene occurs, God boasts about his devout Job again, but Satan’s not having any of it; “yeah yeah, but if you took his health…then he’ll curse you.” Astonishingly, God agrees again… But again Satan’s plan fails. Job says wisely (to his ‘foolish woman’) “Shall we receive good from God and not receive bad?” Pretty impressive stuff (apart from the sexism, which we’ll put down to post-traumatic stress for now).
What’s not so impressive, rather perplexing, is the exchange between God and Satan. If we read Satan as ‘the devil’ then this is pretty worrying stuff! So who is he? Well he only pops up in three verses than aren’t Job in whole Hebrew Bible (Zech 3:1-2; Chron 2:11) and is not to be confused with Satan in New Testament. In Greek Satan is used interchangably with “the devil”, it’s less clear cut here. Satan is present among “the heavenly beings” and the Hebrew “ha-Satan” (the satan) can be translated as “the accuser”, or commonly “the prosecutor” in the context of Job. “ha” shows that a name is a title bestowed on a being, not the being’s names itself. David M. Carr (An Introduction to the Old Testament) actually says ‘satan’ comes from the Hebrew “to roam” so it could just mean a roaming spy, a position in Yahweh’s divine council that informs God of His people’s wrong-doings… though you wouldn’y think God needed spies…
The main thing is that this doesn’t have to be read as God being manipulated by the Devil (phew!) ‘the satan’ seems to be part of the Heavely court in this narrative. Perhaps it is a device to show us a “thought process” of God – if He can be said to have such a human thing – and introduce the very pertinent question “do you worship God because of what you have been given or because He’s God?”
Whatever answers the book of Job ends up giving us (stay tuned to find out!), we can pretty safely say that the authority begins and ends with God. God gives the Satan power; he doesn’t have on his own. And at the end of Job (spoiler alert!) the Satan is not there, it’s just Job, his friends and God, implying that the ultimate authority over suffering rests with God. But then again, that’s pretty hard to swallow too, isn’t it? I suppose that’s why our Holy Scripture has a 42 chapter reflection on the nature and causes of suffering slap bang in its middle.
The Epilogue to this heavenly tale is too moving to be ignored. Job’s friends hear of his suffering and set out to “console and comfort him”. When they arrive they mourn with him; “They sat with him on the ground for seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word with him, for they saw his suffering was very great.” Later they debate the meaning of suffering, but for now they just sit, they don’t try to do anything for Job, they’re just with him. Wonderful. It seems God had not taken all of his riches after all…