Whose Misery Matters? Glimpses into (and beyond) the BOOK OF JOB

George Anastaplo

            We are given to understand that it is Job’s comprehensive misery that is paramount in this book. Unrelenting disasters are visited upon him. They are said to be intimately related to his apparent virtue.

Job’s remarkable goodness is made much of by God Himself during an encounter with Satan. Indeed, Satan is in effect challenged by God to test Job. Otherwise, it seems, Job would have continued to enjoy without interruption the delightful benefits of an exemplary life.

Satan does not deny that some men are more virtuous than others. But, he insists, Job is as virtuous as he seems to be only because he has been much favored by God. Virtue is not, for human beings, a condition pursued for its own sake.

How will Job respond, Satan wonders, if Job should be stripped of the good things of everyday life with which God has long blessed his family? A brutal testing of Job begins with the violent destruction of his children and possessions. That all this is some kind of test seems evident to those primarily involved in these soul-wrenching transformations.

Satan can then insist that even more testing of a stalwart Job is called for: his body should now be subjected to intense physical afflictions. Satan does not seem to recognize that what he now wants to deprive Job of is no special favoring of him by God, inasmuch as many people do enjoy years of bodily contentment. That is, Satan does not seem to recognize that what he now inflicts on Job is not a test but rather a punishment, thereby exposing the Satanic as vindictive and even determinedly petty.

Job’s wife does not seem to know (or to care?) about Satan. She may sense that her husband’s present misery is somehow connected with the character of the man. Do we, in turn, also tend not to make much, if indeed anything at all, of Satanic influences in our everyday lives?

Indeed, it can be a matter of chance what we can take both an informed and a useful interest in. Time and circumstances can very much influence what one may properly investigate and contribute to. There can even be much in a text such as the Book of Job, a text of markedly uncertain origins and purposes, that we should never expect to begin to understand.

We can be reminded of our limitations even as sympathetic observers—to say nothing of constructive intervenors—when we recall what happened to Job’s nameless servants once they are subjected to Satan’s ruthless experiments. It is reported (chapter 1, verses 14–17):

And there came a messenger unto Job, and said, The oxen were plowing, and the asses feeding beside them: And the Sabeans fell upon them and took them away; yea, they have slain the servants with the edge of the sword; and I only am escaped alone to tell thee. While he was yet speaking there came also another, and said, The fire of God is fallen from heaven, and hath burned up the sheep, and the servants, and consumed them, and I only am escaped alone to tell thee. While he was yet speaking, there came also another, and said, The Chaldeans made out three bands, and fell upon the camels, and have carried them away, yea, and slain the servants with the edge of the sword; and I only am escaped alone to tell thee.

          We then learn about the slaughter of Job’s sons and daughters. But we should be reminded that it is explicitly reported at the end of this book that Job’s sons and daughters are eventually replaced in enhanced forms, equipped thereby to enjoy the “partying” for which they seem to be destined.

Although Job’s restored household must have eventually had servants of the kind whose brutal extermination had been reported, nothing at all is said about the memory and long-term “disposition” of the slain servants. This silence should again remind us of the universal misery that can be (indeed, must be?) routinely ignored. Sustained meaningful interventions on behalf of multitudes of miserable people “everywhere” cannot be reasonably expected if one’s sensibilities are not to become impotent.

Thus, we can be reminded daily of large-scale disasters worldwide. Some of these afflictions can make Job’s troubles seem trivial by comparison. This is especially so when it is assumed that Job does have Someone who both cares for him and is in a position to be eventually most helpful for a very long time.

How seriously, then, should any of us take the universal miseries to which we are routinely exposed in overwhelming numbers? Indeed, may a fascination with the disasters routinely publicized thus even tend to make us less equipped to deal with the misery immediately around us and for which we may be to some extent responsible? It can be wondered, of course, what the human being should truly care about, and why, and for how long.

Indeed, the more we “see” of disasters worldwide the less likely we may be to do much about any of them that is of enduring significance. Hardly a month goes by that some “unprecedented” catastrophe (“natural” or “man-made”) does not demand our attention and sympathy. Such “diversions” may even cripple our ability to investigate first causes, causes that challenge us to get to the roots both of human understanding and of an enduring civic virtue among us.

Thus, our current “universalist” tendencies (if not even appetites) may leave us significantly less informed and disciplined as members of an established community than we might otherwise be. Critical to the way we conduct ourselves is a reliable sense of who/what one is. Critical here, that is, is a deep-seated sense of where one belongs—all with a view to what the enduring standards are toward which an established community, aware of its limitations as well as of its appropriate duties, should be naturally inclined.

These remarks were prepared for the sixty-fifth anniversary of the wedding in Chicago, Illinois, of Sara Jacqueline Prince and George Anastaplo, January 28, 1949.

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