God is Unfair
Job 1:1 to 2:10
More than 3,000 years ago, the writer of the Book of Job wrestled with a question which is still just as troublesome today as it was then. It is this:
If God is all-powerful, good, and just (and sometimes merciful), why do innocent people, sometimes very good people, suffer terribly from wars, natural disasters, sickness, and crime? Pick up a newspaper and read that the victim of a random and brutal murder was a kind and good person who was just finishing her training as a pediatrician and planned to devote her life to underprivileged children. In the obituaries in the same paper, read that a mafia crime boss, who allegedly ordered dozens of murders, has just died at 90, rich, unrepentant, and in the bosom of his family.
You get the idea. Luck, both good and bad, is not distributed evenly in the world, and not always, as one might hope, on the basis of merit. Job is treated unjustly by God, but the writer of the Book of Job is complaining for all of us about undeserved bad luck. God, it seems, is sometimes unfair.
In earliest times, pagans thought bad things happened because the gods made them happen. The gods, the priests said, demanded sacrifice, usually an animal, but in very dire times even human sacrifice. When the volcano smokes and rumbles ominously, it might be necessary to dress a young woman in flowers and toss her in the caldera as a gift to Pelee, the volcano goddess. For the Mayans, the way to make a severe drought go away was to throw a child into the sacrificial well for Chac, the rain god. Archeologists found the skeletons of two dozen individuals in the cenote at Chichen Itza, most of them children. And it always worked — the drought went away . . . unless it didn’t, in which case another sacrifice was unfortunately necessary. The primal gods must have seemed like all-powerful, dangerous adolescents. There really wasn’t much question that they were unstable. People expected that.
The ancient Greeks also had no trouble understanding why bad things happen. Their Gods were immortal beings with supernatural powers and human emotions. The gods fell in love (sometimes even with humans), they fought, they were sneaky and treacherous, they got angry, they even played practical jokes. They were very jealous — of each other and sometimes of humans. To be a superlatively strong or powerful or beautiful mortal was very, very dangerous, because it was almost certain to make some god or other jealous of you. In the long run, it was not even such a good thing to have a god or goddess favor you, because it was sure to make at least one other god angry. The Greek gods did bad things for the same kinds of reasons humans did. Like the earlier polytheist religions, the Greeks knew that the gods were capricious and treacherous and acted at cross-purposes to one another. The Greeks had a saying, “Count no man happy until he has reached the end of his life.” No matter how well things were going, something bad could come at any instant, maybe just because things had been going too well. It that regard, the first chapter of the Book of Job starts out like a Greek tragedy. Hmmm, Job is “the greatest of all the men of the east”? — watch out, Job!
Well, we are not polytheists. We do not believe in many childish gods, or in gods with human foibles. We believe in one creator God, omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent. God is wise and just and merciful . . . except that sometimes it seems that He isn’t. Expecting God to be fair is a problem we monotheists have that polytheists didn’t.
When John Milton wrote Paradise Lost (1667), he didn’t take on just individual miscarriages of justice, like Job’s, but the big picture, the whole enchilada. He said in Book I that he was writing to “justify the ways of God to men.” Why did God allow Adam and Eve to fall and lose the Garden of Eden, bringing sin and death into the world? When God gave them free will, He surely knew they would sin (God knows everything). It was a set-up from the start! Milton’s answer is that obedience to God without free will would be meaningless. Free will requires the possibility of bad choices as well as good ones. So God gave humans free will, knowing they would fail, at least in the short run.
Writing half a century later, Alexander Pope took a little different twist. He concluded that everything God does is good — we just don’t always understand how it’s good.
All nature is but art, unknown to thee;
All chance, direction, which thou canst not see;
All discord, harmony not understood;
All partial evil, universal good.
And spite of pride, in erring reason’s spite,
One truth is clear, Whatever is, is right.
Essay on Man (1734)
This is a reasonable position to take. Some days, this is what I think.
However, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, a German contemporary with Pope, took the idea one step further. If God is perfect, His creations must also be perfect. So Leibniz concluded, “This is the best of all possible worlds.” The concept is called philosophical optimism, and it was savagely satirized by Voltaire in his comic novel “Candide,” in which the naïve hero, Candide, experiences all kinds of disasters (like the Lisbon earthquake of 1755, a real event which killed as many as 100,000 people). Candide watches from a ship at sea and scratches his head while his teacher, Pangloss, explains why “this is the best of all possible worlds.” Candide eventually concludes, “Optimism is a mania for maintaining that all is well when things are going badly.” I’m afraid I agree with naïve Candide. I find it hard to read the newspaper and think this is the best of all possible worlds, but Pope and Leibniz would say that I don’t understand God’s purposes, and of course they would be correct.
Let’s get back to the book of Job.
The sixth verse says, “There was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan came also among them. . . .” Right away there’s something different about this story. I can’t think of another place in the Bible where there is a dialogue set in heaven between God and an angel. Olympian debates happen all the time in Homer, and Milton imagines conversations in both heaven and hell, but in the Bible I think Job may be unique. I’m not a scholar, but it has occurred to me that the story of Job, which comes from the second millennium BC, older than Homer, may have been adapted from an even older, pagan story.
God asks Satan where he’s been, and Satan says he’s been “going to and fro in the earth.” God asks if Satan has noticed Job. Satan says, “Sure, he’s a good man, but that’s because you’ve made him prosperous.” So God says, “Okay, Satan, take all his stuff away, but don’t hurt him.” So Satan does that. You heard all the disasters that happened. Marauders steal Job’s oxen, his camels, and his cattle, fire burns all his sheep, most of his servants are killed, and a great whirlwind destroys the tent where his seven sons and three daughers were feasting, killing them all. Job remains faithful to God. Satan comes back again and says, “Okay, Job took all that pretty well, but ‘touch his bone and his flesh, and he will curse thee to thy face.’” God says, “Okay, Satan, go ahead and wreck his body, but don’t kill him.” And Satan covers Job with boils.
Here’s the point. Job hasn’t done anything wrong! He’s not just a good man, he’s the model of a good man, one God boasts about to Satan. Job’s sons and daughters were sacrificed, not because God was displeased with Job, but because God was pleased with him. God says to Satan, “You moved me against him, to destroy him without cause.” (Job 2:3) This is the quintessential bad-things-happen-to-a-good-person story.
Job’s wife’s advice is not very helpful. “Curse God and die,” she says, but he doesn’t. Job’s “comforters” tell him at enormous length (35 chapters) that God doesn’t make mistakes. Therefore Job must have done something to displease God. But over and over Job answers that he hasn’t done anything wrong, and we know, because we saw the conversation in heaven, that Job is correct. That’s the point of the story the writer is telling.
Toward the end of the story, Job goes to God to demand an explanation. A scholar once told me that under Jewish law, this was Job’s right, just as a servant is entitled to complain to his master, or a subject, to his king.
When we finally get to the punch line, God’s answer to Job, it is pretty disappointing to me, although it satisfies Job. It begins in Chapter 38, “Where wast thou when I laid up the foundations of the earth?” And for all of Chapters 38, 39, 40, and 41 — 129 verses! —, God thunders on and on to show Job how puny and insignificant he is, listing all the things that God can do and Job can’t. So as I read the story, the answer turns out to be, in effect, “I’m God. I can do anything I want.”
In the end, Job gets seven more sons and three more daughters, more cattle and sheep and camels, and he lives to be 140 years old. So there is a happy ending. . . maybe, if you forget about the grief of losing ten children.
But go back to the beginning. Why does God let Satan torture Job? He’s proud of Job’s loyalty to Him, and a little stung by Satan’s suggestion that Job is good only because God takes care of him. Clever Satan. But it seems a little unlike an all-knowing God to be taken in by such an appeal to His pride. Was God sacrificing Job to impress Satan? Did the writer of the Book of Job think that maybe God is a little bit vain, a little bit like those Greek gods?
Job is a pretty pessimistic book, whether you’re an agnostic like me or a complete believer. The writer of the Book of Job was not a philosophical optimist. Furthermore, I think the writer would be turned off by Milton’s attempt to “justify the ways of God to men.” In Job, the point is that you don’t have to justify the ways of God. God is God. He can be unfair, by our lights, if He wants to. Whatever God decides, is what happens, whether it seems right to us or not. We don’t get to judge God.