There is nothing like sitting in a rocking-chair on the porch, smoking a good cigar, on a beautiful spring day to turn you thoughts to the suffering of Job (and yes, my mind does work this way).
The Gentile and I were rocking and talking, discussing where we have been and where we were going. One of the themes we keep returning to is the knee-jerk Bible quote: the tendency of people to, in any situation, to “instinctively” quote a Bible verse or offer some other otherwise empty religious sounding platitude. Particularly troubling for us in when this dependence on what we call “Bible-versing” is the default setting for so many when faced with the suffering of others. We want to offer support. We know we are supposed to be empathetic, but is “All we are is dust in the wind[i]” really the best we can do? Which brings us to Job.
At the end of Chapter Two, Job’s friends come and sit with him as he suffers:
Now when Job’s three friends heard of all this evil that was come upon him, they came every one from his own place, Eliphaz the Temanite, and Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite; and they made an appointment together to come to bemoan him and to comfort him. (2:11)
And when they lifted up their eyes afar off, and knew him not, they lifted up their voice, and wept; and they rent every one his mantle, and threw dust upon their heads toward heaven. So they sat down with him upon the ground seven days and seven nights, and none spoke a word unto him; for they saw that his grief was very great. (2:12-13)
All is well until Eliphaz the Temanite opens his big mouth:
Because He tested you with [one] thing, should you weary? Who can withhold words?Behold, you have chastised many, and you have strengthened weak hands. Your words would pick up the stumbler, and you would strengthen buckling knees. Now when it comes to you, you weary; it touches you and you are frightened. Surely, your fear was your foolishness, your hope and the sincerity of your ways. Remember now, who was innocent that perished, and where were the upright destroyed? (4:2-7)
Then, the other two “friends” pile on:
If you seek God and supplicate the Almighty, if you are pure and upright, He shall arouse [your merit] over you, and will complete your righteous home. (8:5-6)
If you prepare your heart and spread out your hands to Him, if there is iniquity in your hand, distance it, and do not allow injustice to dwell in your tents. For then you will lift your face without a blemish, and you shall be strong and shall not fear, for you shall forget trouble; like water that has passed shall you remember. (11:13-16)
And to what benefit do all these words lead Job? None:
I am as one who is a laughingstock to his friend, one who calls to God and He answers him that the completely righteous will have laughter. (12:4)
But you combine lies; all of you are quacks. Would that you kept silent, and it would be accounted as wisdom for you. (13:4-5)
Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar have fallen prey to one of the great blunders: in the face of the suffering of others, the offer neither solace nor succor but instead cling blindly to their creed.
Abraham Joshua Heschel calls creed, “the diminutive of faith” (Man is not Alone, p.169). Creed (and its doppelganger, dogma) reduces faith to words without substance, belief (without action) for the sake of belief. In other words, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar try to argue Job’s suffering away primarily because his suffering is a threat to their faith. After all, if one as righteous as Job can be laid low by G-d, what hope do any of us have? They repeatedly repeat their creed not to comfort Job but to comfort themselves, to re-affirm their “faith”.
It is easy to “reach out” to others, but to actually touch them can be uncomfortable. It is easy to tweet about injustice (or to write a blog post about it), but looking into the eyes of those for whom injustice is a daily reality is hard. We want faith to be a comfort, so we rarely allow our faith to challenge our creed.
[i] Behold, He putteth no trust in His servants, And His angels He chargeth with folly; How much more them that dwell in houses of clay, Whose foundation is in the dust (Job 4:18-19).