Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Saturday, April 05, 2014

BIBLE: Job (Prologue: Heaven and Earth)

Here’s something to think about: the ancient Greeks and Romans didn’t know about the Book of Job. How many Greek and Roman authors ever mentioned Job? In our last selection Edward Gibbon covered the persecution of the early Christians in the Roman Empire. Of course they weren’t the first ones to suffer for their faith and they won’t be the last. Long before the Roman Empire came along a man named Job suffered greatly because he “was perfect and upright, and one that feared God, and eschewed evil.” Those facts alone would have made him stand out, in any culture, at any time in history. For starters he was “the greatest of all the men of the east.” This is a clue that Job was not Hebrew. He was, however, a monotheist; he believed in, and was faithful to, one God. That stands in stark contrast to the polytheism of most of the ancient world. In short, Job was a good and righteous man. How do we know?
The Bible tells us so: “the Lord said unto Satan, Hast thou considered my servant Job, that there is none like him in the earth, a perfect and an upright man, one that feareth God, and escheweth evil?” Job didn’t just appear to be a perfect and upright man. He really was perfect and upright; in all the world there was no one like Job. That was the situation on earth. Meanwhile, back in heaven, trouble was brewing because “Satan answered the LORD, and said, Doth Job fear God for nought? Hast not thou made an hedge about him, and about his house, and about all that he hath on every side?” A picture starts to form. The Lord looks at Job and sees a good man. Satan says, sure he’s good. I’d be good too if I had all the stuff he has. So they make a sort of divine bet. Satan says “thou hast blessed the work of his hands, and his substance is increased in the land. But put forth thine hand now, and touch all that he hath, and he will curse thee to thy face.” Take away all those blessings you gave Job and he’ll turn to other gods.
There’s plenty to think about even at this early stage of the story. Was Job a real person? What kind of God is this? Is he like Zeus? What is Satan (a heavenly creature) doing on earth spying on Job? And there’s plenty of room for discussion. What is this story about? Is it an explanation of why bad things happen to good people? Or is it really just the opposite: a non-explanation, one more example of immortal gods bullying mortal man; not much different from polytheism? Is this a story about sharing pain and knowing we’re not alone in our suffering? The Bible says the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom. Was Job a wise man or just a shrewd businessman, calculating costs and benefits? Is it divine wisdom to fear this version of God, or is it more of a pragmatic strategy for surviving in this world? There are no correct answers to these questions. We’re no closer to answering them now than people could way back in Job’s day. That’s what makes this book a timeless classic.
Job’s situation still resonates in the modern world. We don’t write on stone tables or papyrus, we use Word documents or email instead. We don’t ride camels and donkeys, we drive cars and fly in jet planes. But we still feel pain, just like Job did. We suffer setbacks, just like Job did. We still get sick, just like Job did. And God is still mysterious; just as mysterious he was to Job. What most of us don’t do is express our human condition as eloquently as Job. When Job loses everything he owns he doesn’t say woe is me. He doesn’t kill himself. He doesn’t blame God or someone else. He merely states the facts: “Naked came I out of my mother's womb, and naked shall I return thither: the LORD gave, and the LORD hath taken away.” Job knows that this side of heaven is earth, and everything on earth passes away. This is the lesson Job learns the hard way: what happens on earth soon passes away; what goes on in heaven is none of our business.


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