On a Wager and a Prayer

I’ve been thinking about Job a lot lately. Not my job, but the biblical book. Way back when I was preparing my initial classnotes on Job, I remember a commentator—I forget who—stating, as commentators are wont to do, that people have strong reactions to Job. Either they love it or they hate it. I have enough imagination to consider some people being somewhat ambivalent about it, but I have observed many people over the years revealing powerful reactions to this Wisdom book. One of the reasons, I suspect, is that God doesn’t come off looking particularly good in this story. This was recently reintroduced to my awareness in Steven Cahn’s God, Reason and Religion. The reader, unlike Job, knows the real reason for Job’s suffering. It was a divine wager, instigated by God, that Job would not curse him even if allowed GBH by the Satan. We know, however, and we are culpable for that knowledge. It puts a burden on the reader.


When God does explain to Job why he shouldn’t question God’s acts, as Cahn points out, the answer rings hollow in the knowledge of the truth. God can’t admit to Job that he was playing fast and easy with his health and the death of his ten righteous children. A roll of the dice and Job is vulture-bait. The book of Job should make us squirm. We base our morality, we are often told, on the ideals of the Bible. If we were Job, who ends the book never knowing about the bet, we might be content. But the author, with a sly wink to those who face life squarely, points out that this is all a charade to justify God’s confidence in one of his many carroms. I suppose that might be small comfort to the pawns.

For Job there is no answer given to why he suffers. He doesn’t even really ask why—God’s right on that count, Job is very good. Yet the reader is not so lucky. How can we gain any comfort knowing that God sometimes lays us on that altar, not for any just cause, but as a wager against the divine prosecutor? No, the Satan in Job is not the Devil. He too is a divine character, an attorney borrowed from Zoroastrian mythology. He’s just doing his job. His Job. He is present to make us feel our guilt. And if Job, who the Bible itself says is perfect, can barely restrain his soul from cursing, how much of a chance do the rest of us have? There are many who hate the book of Job. I am not one of them. A more honest book I have a difficult time imagining. If it comes to justice in this world, however, I wouldn’t bet on it.

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