The Rev. Dr. Irina Dubinski

Job and His Comforters, Luca Giordano c.a. 1700.


Would you like to become wise? And how? Maybe, from our own experience or observing that of others; or, from listening to the trusted advisors; and yet even more so, by studying literature, history, philosophy, and our sacred texts, of course. The Bible even includes a specific subset of “sapiential” books: Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes and Ecclesiasticus, Song of Songs, Daniel, Wisdom of Solomon, plus some Psalms and even some of Jesus’ sayings. Like the rest of the Bible, these texts do touch on the covenantal history of the Jewish people, provide prophetic warnings, and remind us that the right relationship with God is the one route to eternal life. What is special about these texts, however, is their angle on wisdom as that which has three sources: direct inspiration, observing nature, and human effort; thus answering the central questions of our lives from the mystical and philosophical, rather than purely theological, standpoints. One such central question we all ask concerns the origins of suffering. In fact, many of us first open or return to the Bible specifically when confronted with incomprehensible suffering we experience or observe. Every wisdom book emphasizes this theme, but each one approaches it differently. For example, Proverbs is primarily an exhortation, while Job, from which we read today, takes a diametrically opposite approach of dramatic storytelling and questioning, raising, specifically, one question: why do the innocent suffer? So in fact, both its concern and method are quite the opposite from that of the Prov, which warns us that it’s the wicked who will certainly be punished and, therefore, instructs us how to avoid being numbered among them. When confronted with random suffering, we tend to take one of these approaches, too; either blaming ourselves for having done something wrong, after the Prov fashion, or blaming God for presumably having allowed it, as it appears to have happened in the prologue to Job. When the book is read as a whole, however, it repudiates both of these assumptions, and in doing so, stands as one of the most hopeful and freeing books of the scriptures. As such, it has inspired countless theologians and philosophers, and contributed to our liturgies in fasts and Holy Week, when we truly need hope. But, its central message does take some effort to be discerned. So, we must resist the tendency to look for it in any one line; instead, consider its whole action, and remember that in any great fiction, not one character necessarily represents the author. Who was Job, and who wrote about him? According to the Talmudic tradition, the author of the book is Moses, and the main character is one of the advisors to the Pharaoh of his time. Modern scholarship, however, cannot provide concrete answers to the date and authorship of the book, and Job is likely purely an archetypal character -- a prototype of Christ, in fact, for the prologue makes it very clear that Job suffered through absolutely no fault of his own. More than half of the book recounts the three cycles of dialogues between Job and Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar. The trio of friends first arrives to spend a week in silence with him just as the Jews sit shiva today, but then they also try to explain to him that he must have been guilty of something quite serious. Elihu enters the stage next, to criticize both Job and his friends, by concentrating on Job’s seemingly sinful response to admittedly undeserved suffering. Job wants a hearing in the divine court, but God refuses to engage in what he equates to, essentially, being judged by mortals. Yet, God does vindicate Job, threatening to punish the others for their presumption of knowing his ways, and restoring Job’s fortunes twofold and the children onefold (hinting that the rest are safe in eternity). In our lives, this Hollywood ending is certainly desirable, but unlikely, and even here it might have been added later. There are also two interludes that break down the cyclical pattern of dialogues in Job: ch. 28, which is a stand-alone poem about the transcendent character of wisdom, and ch. 38 that we read today, which contains God’s speech. Perhaps, all these endless human deliberations, which presume to have the knowledge of God’s intentions and essence, make both Job (and God?) very weary. So maybe, Job hears these in his mind as meditations, when his thoughts begin to wander and his body is shutting down in response to all that he has experienced. Perhaps, we might hear these saving voices in our minds too, when the weariness of our bodies causes us to pause, or when all the opinions that the world cares to offer begin to blend into an incessant, meaningless din. Yet, the feelings associated with desolation are very real, and Job makes a good point of not hiding them. The seemingly meaningless conversations are, in fact, important, too; as long as they do not mean to settle a question, but serve purely as a way to accompany someone in suffering. Job’s answer to why the innocent suffer is simple: they just do, and through no fault of their own. This is actually quite profound and liberating once we allow ourselves to let go of our assumptions about the Creator; specifically, about the kind of God who would make such an awful world and allow the Accuser to act freely in it every single moment (not just that time in the prologue to Job!) Our faults do (sometimes!) result in negative consequences; but it is certainly a mistake to consider all suffering as indicative of guilt. Yes, evil exists as the opposite of good. As every concept comes into being, part of its definition is found in its antonym. But frankly, the more pressing question is this: are we always ready and prepared to respond to another in their suffering -- regardless of its origins, regardless of being able to alleviate it -- in silence, prayer, compassion, and conversation? The feast of the “beloved physician” St Luke is on Monday. Might we choose to dedicate some time tomorrow to meditate on how we could truly help each other heal? And when we are in Job’s place, to whom will we turn for genuine wisdom and support? How will we pray? Or to circle back to my opening question: how might we become wise? Amen.