The two great pronouncements of Jewish doubt– or as I prefer, spirit— are the Books of Job (between 600 and 400 BCE) and Ecclesiastes (250-225 BCE). Both exalt an inquisitive and challenging sensibility, a clear-eyed reaching for justice in the face of life’s least tolerable facts that concedes nothing to implacable mystery.
The influence of Epicurus seems to pervade the latter especially, with his most solid practical wisdom transmitted by Ecclesiaastes’ author Koheleth: Love your spouse. Get some work to do… enjoy the simple pleasures. Forget worldly recompense; forget the afterlife; forget being watched or judged by God. And hardest of all, for most of us in this world of vanity: forget being remembered. Oh, and don’t expect life to be fair. Under the sun, the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong etc.
Bart Ehrman: “It cannot be overlooked that in the divine response from the whirlwind to Job’s passionate and desperate plea for understanding why he, an innocent man, is suffering so horribly, no answer is given… suffering does not come for known causes or known reasons. Suffering just comes, and we need to deal with it as best we can.” God’s Problem
Ecclesiastes, like Job, before him, ends up surrendering. There is no reason to struggle against the great, and the crazy, and the evil: we ought simply to be glad we are alive.
Why? Why can’t we be glad but also gird our loins and get out there and scrap for justice? As James said, life feels like a fight so let’s go.
That doesn’t mean we refuse to acknowledge our appreciation for life’s treasures. Woody Allen’s answer to Job, in the person of his schoolgirl friend Tracy, deserves to be heard. “You’re God’s answer to Job.You would have ended all argument between them.He’d have said “I do a lot of terrible things but I can also make one of these.” And Job would’ve said “OK, you win.”
But– sorry, Woody– that’s just too Hollywood. This is a bit trivializing too, but I still like it:
At first, Job’s friends counsel passive acceptance of his accumulating scourges– including the deaths of his loved ones– with a centuries-early foreshadowing of Leibnizian theodicy. Job must have deserved this punishment, since it was happening, so it must be all for the best. Right.
His faith finally stretched beyond possibility by cruelly-targeted conspiratorial assault, Job quite reasonably explodes: Miserable comforters are ye all… I loathe my life. He begins at last to press an aggressive prosecution… but then crumbles when faced with God’s righteous indignation, “Where were you when I laid the foundations of earth” etc.
God’s defense offers no apologies, no promises of ultimate justice, nothing but the rhetorical equivalent of a smack-down. He is great, Job is puny and ignorant, so just shut up. Might makes right, as Plato’s Thrasymachus would have it. Not nice.
And Job caves. I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes. What?!!?
There’s nothing for Job to apologize for, from any reasonable standpoint. We have an explanation for most of the natural wonders in Job… we feel the opposite of how Job did (small and powerless). OK, we’re still small enough to warrant some humility. But we’ve been places and understood some natural phenomena, we’re not worms. We don’t need to grovel, and He’s got some explaining to do, to have as little sense of justice as the universe exhibits… What kind of God is that? If the main reason for persisting in believing in God is that he made the world and all the creatures in it, it will be hard to argue that he does not have the power to make it a less actively dangerous and chaotic world.
Job may have relented, and accepted his substitute/consolation family, but he did get sort of get the last word: after the Book of Job, God never speaks again.
And btw: how about an explanation of the no-time before time itself began? Yes, we know: that’s hard.