Monday, January 9, 2006

Theodicy and An Answer for Job

As would be expected given some of the subject matter of his latest chapter, the book of Job is being discussed quite a bit in the comments section of Pete Townshend's blog/novella The Boy Who Heard Music. I recently wrote a bit on this topic in an extended reflection paper for my theology class last term and I thought I'd share a few of the relevent sections here to give a Jewish perspective (though certainly not the only Jewish perspective!). The first section deals primarily with the Biblical concept of creation. I've included it because the order/chaos aspects tie in with some of what I wrote about theodicy.

When reflecting on a theology--especially one that is even remotely Biblically based--it seems logical to start where the Bible itself begins: at the beginning. One of the most basic theological questions that all religions must deal with in some manner is the question of where the world itself came from and where mankind came from. This is an especially important issue to deal with in the modern world where science has shed so much light on these questions, removing them from the sphear of religion in many ways. The Big Bang and the Theory of Evolution have gone a long way toward removing God from the question of creation and many theologians (and theologically minded scientists) have put much thought into trying to reconcile the two viewpoints or trying to explain why they don’t need reconciliation at all. The Bible itself, however, is not all that interested with the idea of where “everything” came from. The idea of creation from nothing is not at all present in the text of Genesis. When God begins to create the world in Genesis 1.1-2 we see that the Earth is already in existence though it is as yet “unformed.” The creation story in Genesis is not about God magically making the world out of nothing, it is about Him bringing order from the chaos. This is made especially clear if one compares the text of Genesis 1 to other Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) creation myths where creation of the world is the result of a chaotic battle between the gods and ancient sea monsters. In Genesis creation is order. God doesn’t create the world so much as He builds it. And by building He gives it shape and creates order from the chaos. This is a very important point as much of what is in the Hebrew Bible is based on order from chaos. Order is created and maintained by keeping things in their correct categories. Mixing categories creates chaos, which is undesirable. Sin itself is often viewed as the chaotic principle in action. Adam and Eve’s sin was in trying to be like God, which was outside of their category as human beings. Cain sinned by being jealous and wanting to be like his brother. Both are sins of displacement, wanting to be something you’re not. And both are punished with further displacement. Chaos breeds more chaos. It spreads like a disease. This fits in nicely with the Kaballistic idea of Tikkun Olam, the idea that the world is flawed and needs to be repaired. In this case, mankind’s sins have hastened the third law of thermodynamics (ie that chaos increases in a closed system) and only by ceasing our sinning and following God’s mitzvot, which create order, can we repair the world. God creates order, but he punishes with chaos. As must be true in any monotheistic system, God is the bringer of order, but He is also the ultimate source of chaos as well. God is all things, not merely all good things. In the moments prior to the Big Bang the Universe resembled a black hole, all of the matter in it compressed into an infinitely dense infinitely small point. In such conditions the basic laws of physics that we tend to take for granted cease to function. It is hard for the human mind to grasp what this pre-Universe was like beyond a purely theoretical mathmatic model, but what is clear is that it was a completely ordered universe. The birth of our Universe via the Big Bang was an event of pure unbridled chaos. But there arose order from the chaos. Some can explain this with physics. The Bible explains it with God.

Probably the most hotly debated theological issue is that of theodicy, commonly called The Problem of Suffering. The term comes from the Greek θεος="god"; δικη="justice," meaning "God's Justice." The general problem being, if God is good and just then why is there suffering and evil in the world? Why to the righteous suffer and the wicked prosper? The Bible makes it pretty clear what God expects of people: obedience to Him and His law. If people follow the mitzvot then they will prosper. If one sees a righteous person suffering then they are not as righteous as they might seem. If we see the wicked prospering then they must not be as wicked as we think. These answers, however, are not found to be all that sufficient by a large number of modern readers of the Bible. Clifford Geertz postulated that there were only two real answers for the Problem of Suffering:
  1. The Afterlife: While you may suffer here on earth you will be rewarded in the next world. This usually involves resurrection of the dead or the soul surviving after death and residing in “heaven.”
  2. Detachment from the Material World: The material world is an illusion. Suffering is caused by desire for the illusion. If you are not attached to anything, if you desire nothing, you won’t suffer because you can't lose anything.
The second answer is basically the basis for Theravaden Buddhism and is a totally alien concept to the Hebrew Bible. The first answer is problematic in that it is one that many still hold today, but for which there is no strong Biblical basis. The Biblical view, for the most part, seems to be that when you die you are dead, end of story. Any reward--or punishment-- from God is to be had in this life. This is the basis of many of Qohelet’s complaints, that everyone no matter how they lived their lives all end up in the same place: Sheol. There seems to be some unclarity about whether Sheol is a place where one’s “soul” goes after death or whether it is just a poetic way of speaking of the grave. There seems to have been some kind of belief in the survival of one’s personality after death, otherwise the conjuring of Saul’s spirit would have been impossible. In some passages Sheol resembles the Greek underworld in which all the should of humanity went to spend a rather bleak and gray eternity underground. There was no reward nor punishment in such an afterlife, just a gray semi-existence cut off from the world and cut off from God. It wasn’t until the 2nd Century BCE that Jews started developing a concept of life after death. During the Maccabeean revolt many people were martyred in the name of God, which raised the question ‘How did being righteous help them?’ The answer was that God would raise the dead and judge them. The result of this judgment would determine who would be rewarded or punished. A major problem using the explanation of the afterlife is that more and more people in the modern scientific age have a very hard time believing in life after death. In some ways this actually makes the Biblical text more appealing since it doesn’t profess such beliefs to any large degree.
Despite Geertz’s assertion to the contrary there are other answers to this question, though it could be argued that they do not work as well as the ones he supplies. One common answer is that we just don’t understand God’s motivations or actions, or that God has a plan that which, once revealed, would make sense of all of the perceived suffering and injustice we see around us. And, of course, there is the answer to Job from the whirlwind, which many find completely unsatisfying. Job does refute the idea that suffering is punishment for sin, but it also explains suffering by telling us that, unless we were God, we can’t possibly understand the way the universe works (which is belied by the prologue which shows us why Job was suffering). Some Kaballistic thought--as mentioned above--sees suffering as an result of a flawed and fractured world that can only be repaired through doing mitzvot. If indeed sin can be seen as chaos entering into God’s ordered system, then suffering can be seen as a result of the encroaching chaos, which can only be held at bay and defeated through the reordering of the world. The covenant with Abraham and later with the Israelites (and by extension the Jewish people) is a way of bringing order back into creation. A good portion of the mitzvot are concerned with categories: clean/unclean, holy/profane, Jewish/Goyish, and et cetera. Placing things and keeping things in their proper categories is the definition of order. And--so the theory goes--if the universe is brought back into perfect order and harmony, then suffering would disappear.
Part of the difficulty with theodicy is that we believe in a monotheistic system (or something approaching monotheism at any rate). In polytheism the suffering and evil in the world can be ascribed to an evil god, or a trickster god. But we have only the one God, who is responsible for everything. God is the creator of everything. Not just everything good, everything beautiful, or everything pleasant, but also everything bad/evil, everything ugly, and everything unpleasant. Christianity has answered this difficult picture of God with the invention of the Devil or Satan, who is essentially an evil antipode of God. The problem with that solution is trying to explain why the Devil is not really another god and maintain the idea that you’re still practicing monotheism. Another answer to this problem is the idea that just because God is the creator and ultimate source of everything doesn’t necessarily mean He is responsible for everything that happens: God doesn’t micro manage the universe. Rabbi Akiba said, “Everything is foreseen, yet freedom of choice is given.” God gave us the ability to choose our own destiny, for better or worse. Some choose goodness and justice, some choose evil and wickedness. Some choose God, and some don’t. This too is not an entirely satisfying answer, but perhaps the most important lesson one can take away from the book of Job is that sometimes the correct answer is not always the one we wish to hear.


The background image on this page is a Hebrew translation of the verse from Bob Dylan's song  It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding), from which the title of this blog is taken. Translation courtesy of Yoram Aharon of Hod-HaSharon's page--found via YudelLine-- which has many Dylan lyrics in Hebrew.