On Job 17:13-15

If I look for Sheol as my house,
if I spread my couch in darkness,
If I say to the Pit, “You are my father,”
and to the worm, “My mother” or “my sister,”
Where then is my hope?

Job 17:13-15

As long as he prospers, it is easy for Job to place his hope in God.  He lives, therefore, justly and is treated, he believes, justly.  The crisis here is that Job’s understanding of God has been challenged.  The wicked may be punished, but so then are the good.  If good and evil may be punished regardless of our actions, then there may not be a relationship between our deeds and the fruits of those deeds.  Further, it is because Job is good that he is punished, though this isn’t knowledge Job possesses.  We know, however, that Job’s exemplary life and his successes haven’t gone unnoticed.  He hasn’t been ignored.  God takes pleasure in Job’s goodness, Job takes pleasure in the rewards of goodness, and Job’s friends take pleasure in believing in a just and moral universe, which says that good is rewarded and evil punished.  But Satan, too, notices and desires to test this goodness.  He asks, “Is it really, truly goodness?”

The crisis Job faces, then, is one we all might face someday, when we undergo a catastrophe or witness a calamity.  We ask, “If God is just and good, why or how do the wicked prosper?”  Or, in Job’s case, “Why do the good suffer?”  The comforters come to say, “You must have sinned.”  Or, “Your children must have sinned. Or your forebears.”  It must be like this, for them, because to be otherwise would be too terrifying.  But when Job searches his heart, he can find no sin equal to his suffering.

Suffering is portioned out to all.  Even as children we know this.  Odysseus himself concludes that life is pain.  And every adult, who lives long enough, discovers eventually that life is difficult, at best.  Sometimes the good win, sometimes goodness is its own reward.  But so does wickedness gain, and, afterward, it seems to prosper, where goodness fails to.  Goodness may even cause one to lose.  It is hard to face the truth, when it tells us our principles and beliefs, upon which we try to base our conduct and judgments, have failed.  They may be true, these principles, but not in this situation, under these circumstances, we tell ourselves.  Yet even this rationalizing wears thin, until a wise person must decide to abandon what he thought must be true.  But abandon it for what?

This is Job’s question here.  If goodness, however goodness is defined, can’t save us, then in what or in whom should we put our hope?  The more frightening answer than wickedness, selfishness, sin is this: neither goodness not wickedness because each are punished and rewarded arbitrarily.  The idea of a moral universe, once abandoned, doesn’t lead one necessarily to do evil.  Rather, the conclusion might be that our actions, for the good or not, influence our circumstances not at all.  This would mean one of two things: either ours is an indifferent universe — a far more attractive conclusion, when compared to the alternative — or it is a malevolent one.

The hope of an indifferent universe would be that, if one is careful (this is beyond behaviors called either good or evil) and prudent, then one might avoid loss, deal with pain and come to enjoy what there is to enjoy.  This is the way of wisdom.  But if the universe is essentially malevolent, then what is there left to do but, like Job’s wife, curse God and die?

I can’t place my faith in a moral universe, and now, having given up on that, I find myself placing my hope in wisdom.  This choice, however, isn’t a reaction to the belief in an indifferent universe.  Rather, it is defiance against what I fear may be a malevolent universe.  I don’t believe that prudence can help a man avoid the thunderbolt come to strike him or sidestep the storm which arrives to uproot him where he lives.  Nor do I think wisdom necessarily helps him bear it all, the rack and ruin, better.  In this case, delusion may serve as much and maybe more than prudence or wisdom.  But what wisdom does promise is that we might stand in the eye of destruction and know we neither deserve nor don’t deserve the treatment we receive.

The meaning of life isn’t more life or avoid death.  From this perspective, life is for strengthening that voice within that says, I will win.  The outcome, the win or the loss, isn’t all that important.  The ends of our actions are, as Hamlet’s Player King points out, “none of our own.”  They belong to the indifferent or the moral or the malevolent universe, or to its god, or to nothing we know.

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