January 10, 2005
Where Was God?
By WILLIAM SAFIRE
In the aftermath of a cataclysm, with pictures of parents sobbing over dead infants driven into human consciousness around the globe, faith-shaking questions arise: Where was God? Why does a good and all-powerful deity permit such evil and grief to fall on so many thousands of innocents? What did these people do to deserve such suffering?
After a similar natural disaster wiped out tens of thousands of lives in Lisbon in the 18th century, the philosopher Voltaire wrote "Candide," savagely satirizing optimists who still found comfort and hope in God. After last month's Indian Ocean tsunami, the same anguished questioning is in the minds of millions of religious believers.
Turn to the Book of Job in the Hebrew Bible. It was written some 2,500 years ago during what must have been a crisis of faith. The covenant with Abraham - worship the one God, and his people would be protected - didn't seem to be working. The good died young, the wicked prospered; where was the promised justice?
The poet-priest who wrote this book began with a dialogue between God and the Satan, then a kind of prosecuting angel. When God pointed to "my servant Job" as most upright and devout, the Satan suggested Job worshipped God only because he had been given power and riches. On a bet that Job would stay faithful, God let the angel take the good man's possessions, kill his children and afflict him with loathsome boils.
The first point the Book of Job made was that suffering is not evidence of sin. When Job's friends said that he must have done something awful to deserve such misery, the reader knows that is false. Job's suffering was a test of his faith: even as he grew angry with God for being unjust - wishing he could sue him in a court of law - he never abandoned his belief.
And did this righteous Gentile get furious: "Damn the day that I was born!" Forget the so-called "patience of Job"; that legend is blown away by the shockingly irreverent biblical narrative. Job's famous expression of meek acceptance in the 1611 King James Version - "though he slay me, yet will I trust in him" - was a blatant misreading by nervous translators. Modern scholarship offers a much different translation: "He may slay me, I'll not quaver."
The point of Job's gutsy defiance of God's injustice - right there in the Bible - is that it is not blasphemous to challenge the highest authority when it inflicts a moral wrong. (I titled a book on this "The First Dissident.") Indeed, Job's demand that his unseen adversary show up at a trial with a written indictment gets an unexpected reaction: in a thunderous theophany, God appears before the startled man with the longest and most beautifully poetic speech attributed directly to him in Scripture.
Frankly, God's voice "out of the whirlwind" carries a message not all that satisfying to those wondering about moral mismanagement. Virginia Woolf wrote in her journal "I read the Book of Job last night - I don't think God comes well out of it."
The powerful voice demands of puny Man: "Where were you when I laid the Earth's foundations?" Summoning an image of the mythic sea-monster symbolizing Chaos, God asks, "Canst thou draw out Leviathan with a hook?" The poet-priest's point, I think, is that God is occupied bringing light to darkness, imposing physical order on chaos, and leaves his human creations free to work out moral justice on their own.
Job's moral outrage caused God to appear, thereby demonstrating that the sufferer who believes is never alone. Job abruptly stops complaining, and - in a prosaic happy ending that strikes me as tacked on by other sages so as to get the troublesome book accepted in the Hebrew canon - he is rewarded. (Christianity promises to rectify earthly injustice in an afterlife.)
Job's lessons for today:
(1) Victims of this cataclysm in no way "deserved" a fate inflicted by the Leviathanic force of nature.
(2) Questioning God's inscrutable ways has its exemplar in the Bible and need not undermine faith.
(3) Humanity's obligation to ameliorate injustice on earth is being expressed in a surge of generosity that refutes Voltaire's cynicism.