Skip to main content

Pagan Theodicy and the book of Job

They probably should never let Pagans own Bibles, much less read them. (Too late now.)

I'm up to Job. Though this post is going to be more inspired by an excerpt from Archibald MacLeish's play J.B., based on Job, than by the Biblical text itself. Bear with me.

Job is probably the central book of the Bible for Pagans, whether we've read it or not. However monotheists might come to terms with it, Job cannot satisfy the polytheistic Pagan mind.

Job, of course, is the story of the long suffering and faithful man whose trust in God is put to the test by God--and thereby, indirectly, the omnipotent, omniscient God himself is tested. And (theoretically) vindicated. Theodicy: "The vindication of divine goodness and providence in view of the existence of evil," says my Oxford American Dictionary, though "suffering" is probably a better word, to my mind, than "evil".

The intellectual problem, as Archibald MacLeish had his version of Satan put it, is that
If God is God, He is not good;
If God is good, He is not God.
This morning I didn't even know the word, theodicy. Now I know that this idea is what drove me away from monotheism when I was still a young child, walking alone in the woods for spiritual sustenance. Even as a girl, the idea of an all-powerful, all-good, all-loving, and all-knowing supreme being had holes in it I could have driven a truck through, if only my feet had reached the pedals.

And, after years of struggle to find a way to relate to the numen of the world, in a society that recognized only omnipotent monotheism as a legitimate religious possibility, I finally encountered Pagan expressions of love for the sacred, and a way forward. I found a way to embrace the gods--not omnipotent, not omniscient, and not moral absolutes of goodness, either; rather, beings that are good as existence is good, as a waterfall or a rock or a star is good.

Nora, Peter's grandmother, was a lifelong Protestant who lived with us both for years. Whenever she heard us explain that we found the divine within nature, she would quote Tennyson, and remind us that "nature is red in tooth and claw."

Yes. Nature is red in tooth and claw. The hawk destroys the mouse; the virus kills its host; all things die.

And yet, all things have life, have Spirit, have a rightness and a sacrality in their being. The virus that may take my life one day is no less entitled to its share of life and existence than am I; the greatest galaxy no more a miracle than the volvox swimming in my pond. I can honor them all, rejoice in them all, even as I do not abandon the importance of my own small life in all this sea of being.

I do not see any individual god or goddess as a personified, purposeful author of this, apart from and in control. When I refer to God in this blog, I am thinking, not of an individual intelligence, with or without a long white robe and beard, but of a glowing coal of Life, of Joy, deep within the heart of all things. (Talking about the Light, or the Ain Soph, or the Ground of All Being, is a more accurate reflection of what I understand by the word "God," and sometimes I'll use those words, for accuracy's sake. But it has recently come to seem cumbersome and even a bit overly precious to do that, so I've given myself permission to be inconsistent.)

But I don't recognize a single, separate, all-powerful being.

So I don't have to face the problem of Job in my theology. Instead, I think of my Pagan friend Roxanne, who, when faced with the cancer death of a member of her family, reflected that "the only thing worse than the idea that this death has no purpose would be the idea that it did."

I could never forgive a God who deliberately inflicted suffering in order to produce a particular outcome. I could never love an all-powerful intelligence that moved us around on a chess board in such a fashion.

But I don't have to. My God is not outside of creation, but within it, and part of it. I will die and I will suffer, not for a reason outside myself, but because it is my nature, part and parcel of being who I am: of being at all.

Death and suffering are what it costs, but not to please an arbitrary and omniscient God beyond the world. Death and suffering are what it costs to live at all. I will die because I live. I will suffer because I feel. I do not need a rationale to make this better.

And here's the MacLeish passage that blew me away, and made my heart stop for a moment in awe:

J.B., the Job character, has lost everything, as in the Bible story. But unlike in the Bible story, the moment of acceptance and relief comes, not from a God who restores lost wealth and (unpardonably) lost children with more of the same, but from his wife (named Sarah in the play):
Sarah: You wanted justice, didn't you?
There isn't any. There's the world...
Cry for justice and the stars Will stare until your eyes sting. Weep,
Enormous winds will thrash the water.
Cry in sleep for your lost children,
Snow will fall...
Snow will fall...

J.B: Why did you leave me alone?

Sarah: I loved you.
I couldn't help you any more.
You wanted justice and there was none--
Only love.
This seems deeply true to me, and beautiful. "You wanted justice and there was none--only love."

The passage concludes with J.B. remarking, "He does not love. He Is," and his wife replying, "But we do. That's the wonder."

And there I differ from MacLeish. For me, Sarah is speaking for God, for Spirit, in her love.

I recognize this love, because I have experienced it when I have stood within the warm embrace of the gods of nature, and felt their love. And I recognize it because I have bathed in the limitless sea of love that is the Light of Friends, and I know that, personal or not, individual intelligence as I, a human, can understand it or not, there is love at the heart of things.

I find that the dilemma J.B.'s Satan expresses, that the word theodicy was coined to address, does not bring me anguish any more.

I find that I can do without justice, having let go of the notion of an omnipotent puppet-master deity, separate from creation. I can let go of needing to see "justice" in a world where death is just how life is fed...

Because I have learned that I need not do without the love; that that love, that Light, is there at the heart of all things: the hawk, the mouse, the virus, the stars, and the tiniest beings in the most ordinary places.

It is enough. Mine is a God who Is--and who loves.


Anonymous said…
Thank you, Cat, for a gorgeous posting for a Sunday in August. When I was going to my Jesuit high school, the priests taught a religious elective entitled "Theology of the Devil," a class in theodicy (which, when you think about it, is pretty high-falutin' stuff for the average 15-year-old, yet also probably meeting them where they live in term of their spiritual thinking.) (IMHO you were a precociously truck-driving little girl!) Monotheism sets us up, in some ways, for a lot of needless neurosis. And I find it also encourages a creepy "Gilligan's Island" mentality in people--always waiting for rescue, always disappointed. I prefer religious structures that put the onus of spiritual "rescue" on the human being: "WORK ON YOURSELF/SAVE YOURSELF." The flowing monism of neo-Paganisms corresponds much better to the world we live in. Buddhism, too, acknowledges that Nature is red in tooth and claw--and reminds us that we can limit our participation in that (by becoming vegetarians, for example, which is better for Mother Earth anyway.)
Yes. I found myself nodding all the way throught that.
Thanks, Cat!

Terri in Joburg
Yewtree said…
Excellent post, sums it up beautifully.

By the way, if you haven't read Graham Harvey's Contemporary Paganism: Listening People, Speaking Earth I think you might enjoy it.
Anonymous said…
Dear Cat, it sounds like there's been a misunderstanding somewhere. Theodicy is not about why "God deliberately inflicts suffering", it's about why God permits wrongdoing. The word is a compound of Theos, "God", with dike, meaning "right" (in the sense of what is self-evidently right) and hence "justice".

The places where the Bible teaches that God deliberately inflicted some suffering in order to produce a desired outcome are relatively few in number, and limited to situations where some truly momentous outcome is at stake: God hardening the heart of Egypt's Pharaoh and setting up a tragedy in order to launch the great experiment of Hebrew theocracy in its desired trajectory; God making a person blind from birth in order that he might be given his sight by the Son of God himself; Christ being crucified, and his martyrs suffering in his footsteps, in order that humanity with all its powers and principalities might be brought around in a loving way to the path of love. Only something that momentous would seem, in the eyes of the composers of the Bible, to justify such a strategy on God's part.

Aside from that, all the passages I can think of where God deliberately inflicts suffering are places where God was engaged in restoring the balance of justice (a major concern of the Judæo-Christian tradition). And actually, even the cases of Pharaoh, the Crucifixion, and the martyrs, may be taken as instances of God working to restore the balance of justice.

The book of Job does not say that God deliberately inflicts suffering. It says, and I point to the first chapter of the book, that God permitted one of his divine servants, Satan, who in the Middle Eastern tradition of that era was the one who served as God's unmarked police car on the earth, to test and observe Job and determine whether he was faithful. Satan was the one who chose to perform the test by deliberately inflicting the suffering, and God afterward reproached him for his wantonly destructive attitude (v. 2:3: "you incited me against him, to destroy him without cause"). When the test was finished, and Job's faithfulness proven, God acted to set things back aright, restoring the balance of justice.

The story, dear friend, is a patent fiction, not a historical account. It makes no claim to be grounded in a specific time and place, or to be talking about a person with an actual place in the compulsively-recorded family trees of the Jewish people. And it does not allege that God actually, in real life, permits Satan to take the lives of children and servants for such poor reasons.

Rather, this story sets up what a much later century would call a "closet drama": a drama of ideas that unfolds not on the earth and not even on a stage but, rather, in the audience's minds, and where an event happens that does not necessarily ever happen in real life. Its purpose in doing so is to create a clear-cut backdrop for exploring competing human views of God's nature, and also to praise and encourage a specific virtue, commonly known as "Job-like patience". It may fairly be compared to G. B. Shaw's Man and Superman, which was also written as a closet drama, and which everybody knows never happened in real life, either.

All the best,
Hi, Rick, Terri, Yvonne, and Marshall!

Thanks, all for reading and for commenting. It is getting to the point where my posts do not feel complete to me until I've read the thoughtful things that appear in the comments section. Readers like you spoil me. (Which I like--please keep it up!)

Rick, I like the phrase you used: "flowing monism of neo-Paganisms." I may wind up recycling it, just because it really captures something I think is important about how at least some of us (though not all) think about our Paganism.

I'm also way into the phrase, "precociously truck-driving little girl," and thinking it would make a great tee-shirt or bumper sticker for some of the girl children of my acquaintance. I can't help it--it just tickles me.

Yvonne and Terri, thanks for letting me know that my words captured some of your experience, too.

Marshall, I think we may be talking past one another to some degree. The fictional/historical question isn't really relevant to me here--I am treating Job, and all the Bible, as a collection of myths. (That's myths as in, stories that resonate deeply with the human condition, as opposed to the pejorative, stuff-that's-made-up interpretation of the word.) So I'm not asking so much, did this happen, as I'm asking, does this story speak to my condition?

And, perhaps more than any other book in the Bible, I find that it does.

Did Job happen? Not the point. But the Holocaust happened, slavery happened, the genocide of Native Americans happened. Bad things happen to good people, and we are left to wonder why.

You seem to feel that there is a distinction between God "deliberately inflicting suffering" and God permitting suffering, or between God permitting his divine cop Satan to set up a speed trap for Job and putting Job in harm's way himself. That I have trouble with--if we accept the notion of God as an omnipotent, omniscient being, then the shade of meaning between permitting and causing is a trifle to thin a hair for me to see it clearly. And as for God rebuking Satan for "incit[ing] me against [Job], to destroy him without cause," if I took that as other than a storyteller's flourish to establish Job's innocence to us as readers, I'd be reminded uncomfortably of Adam's excuse for eating the apple: "The woman... gave of me of the tree, and I ate." I'd call it buck passing, and certainly an omnipotent and omniscient God doesn't get to do that!

However, I don't believe that is why that detail is included; I think it's really unjustified to read that much in to the story.

However, the trial does seem to me to be of God--or, as you more accurately put it,of "competing human views of God's nature," not of Job. His faithfulness is one of the great themes in the story, of course. Shocking though the idea of putting God on trial may seem to us, sitting quietly and comfortably in the midst of plenty, it is certainly a question that every bereaved parent I have ever counseled has had to wrestle with. I admire the author of the text for being willing to face this issue head on, and I think it's one of the reasons this book is so rich.

As a child, looking at life, I was unable to sustain a belief in an omnipotent deity who could permit the things which, even as a child, I could see life held within it. I measured my idea of an omnipotent monotheist God against my idea of justice, and found God lacking.

Now, I wonder, if it wasn't both my concept of God and my concept of justice that were lacking.

As an adult, I have had experiences I had not had as a child, and I am less certain of that. Though my instinctive take on the question of theodicy--is God just or justifiable?--was negative, and led to my becoming Pagan, my experiences of a loving Source as an adult have moderated my position a bit.

I still do not see that God is just. But I'm not sure that that's the direction the text is really going. The idea that the story as written has a happy ending because Job becomes richer than he was before and has new children to replace the old ones strikes me as far too facile; the more I reflect on Job, the less convinced I am that this is how we are meant to read the text I become.

I am coming to believe that Sarah's words from MacLeish's play, J.B., "You wanted justice and there was none--
Only love," may actually be the point that the author of Job is trying to make.

If I am correct--and I'm still trying to decide if even I agree with this notion or not--then the author of Job is actually saying that Job is comforted, not because God makes things "just" or "fair" again at the end of his story, but because he has experienced God's love and immanence.

Justice is a small thing, next to that, I think.

I may not be as at odds with the text of Job as I at first thought myself to be.

Again, I have no idea how this works for people whose ideas of God are less abstract and more about a discrete intelligence or personality. Nor would I claim that my reading of Job is the best one possible. I should think there must be many powerful truths to take from this story--which is why it is an effective, troubling, resonant myth.

I *heart* Job. :) I won't claim to have gotten everything from this text it has to give me yet--and that's maybe the best thing about it of all.
Yewtree said…
Hi Cat, Marshall and everybody,

The problem of Job, for me, is that of Manichaeism. The Adversary is described as a son of God in this book. If God permits the Devil to walk up and down in the Earth causing mayhem, then God is not good.

I came to the conclusion at the age of 15 that both good and evil reside in the hearts of humanity, and are not some external all-controlling entity.

I do believe, like Cat, that Love pervades the Universe, but I don't believe it is sentient. It just is. As Terry Pratchett once put it, "There's no justice - there's just us."
Robert Kirchner said…
I consider myself a pagan, but not a polytheist: I most value those experiences where I've glimpsed the oneness of all things. I seek to commune with that Oneness by worshipping Her as Goddess. With that as personal background, I'd like to share a Hindu myth that speaks to my condition on the question of good and evil. One day, Devi (the Goddess) appears before an assembly of all the gods. She's beautiful beyond description. She asks, "Which of you is worthy to be my husband?" All the gods start vying, pleading for Her hand in marriage. Then She transforms herself into a hideous, decomposing corpse. All the gods flee. Except for Shiva, who steps forward and embraces Her. She says, "You are the one who is worthy to be my husband." Devi is represented in Indian art and myth as having beneficent aspects (e.g. Parvathi), and terrifying, destructive aspects as well (e.g. Kali). It's all part of Her. She is Reality and it's all part of Her: the parts I like and find comforting, the parts that terrify and repulse me. The question that faces me every day is: can I be like Shiva and embrace all of Her?

Yes. Exactly!
Anonymous said…
Because you are so fabulous, I've nominated you for a little blog award. Stop by mine for more info.
Yewtree said…
I love your blog!

You have been nominated for the "I love your blog" award by me at MetaPagan.
L said…

When you posted this,
"I could never forgive a God who deliberately inflicted suffering in order to produce a particular outcome. I could never love an all-powerful intelligence that moved us around on a chess board in such a fashion." it struck me as something I have felt on numerous occasions. When I was a christian the story of Job, did not inspire me but infuriated me. He treated job like a plaything as to prove a point to the devil? I don't think so. Sorry to go off like this.. :)

Blessings to you....
Erik said…
I have to take issue with your limited list of the times God inflicts or commands suffering in the Bible. Consider II Kings 2:23-24 (Elisha and the bears), as well as the specifically-commanded fates of the children, the pregnant women, the elderly, and others not of the nubile-virgin persuasion, of the many nations the Israelites destroyed on their way to statehood (Numbers 31:17, Deut. 20:16, much of Joshua and Judges - for starters). You may respond that the peoples that Israel destroyed deserved it (a point made often enough in the scriptures that it strikes me more as after-the-fact self-justification, but I might be wrong about that), or that the establishment of Israel was "worth it"... but I can't accept that that's true of the children and babies of all these nations (often specifically listed out by God for destruction).

The idea of putting God on trial may be shocking to Christians, and those of us raised in that worldview, but it's worth noting that it's much less so in the Jewish tradition. Starting with Abraham ("Shall the Judge of all the earth not act justly?"), through to Elie Wiesel's "The Trial of God", the idea of holding God to account for his actions is not unheard of.

True story - once at Shabbat service during a thunderstorm, our old rabbi was interrupted in the middle of his d'var Torah (meditation or interpretation of the week's parsha, scripture reading) by a HUGE roll of thunder that must have lasted close to half a minute. When it was over he turned to look out the window and said, "Do you mind? I'm trying to tell your story here!" :)
Anonymous said…
Hi, Cat and Peter. I've also nominated you for the BlogLove award.

Bright Blessings and thank you for your many wonderful words.
I think I may not have been clear in my original post. The impression I had as a child, that the manipulative chess-player deity was an inevitable outgrowth of an omnipotent monotheistic deity, seems a bit crude to me.

Yes, this is how the world looked to me when I was younger.

But my understandings of what "God" is have changed over time. If not truly monotheistic, I'm at least monist at this point. And I'm less interested in abstract questions of justice than immediate questions of love and presence, which I've come to feel that the Christian God, at least as represented among Quakers, does pretty well with.

I do not see the God of Job in terms of a divine being who "treated job like a plaything as to prove a point to the devil," a reading that is not holding up well to looking at it as an adult, and as someone who has experienced the presence of God as an immanent source, a Light in All Things.

It probably will hold up even less well with careful and repeated readings of the text. At least one reader has called me on being less than scrupulous in how I have presented my texts, and it's true: I'm jumbling together the actual Biblical story, exerpts from a modern play about Job, a dictionary definition, and my own childhood and (changing) adult understandings.

The danger is of creating a straw man, an oversimplified version of the God of Jewish and Christian traditions, and dismissing him carelessly.

The possibility is that, as I read and sit with a surprisingly risk-taking and open-hearted book of the Bible, I will find ways to allow the book to challenge me.

Whatever else is true, I'm clear that none of us understand the ultimate spiritual realities around us. So being challenged by a text, perhaps to grow and deepen and change, is one of the finest things that we can say about it.

I think that Job is a wonderful text, because I know beyond doubt that I have not plumbed the depths of what it can teach me.

To the extent that I may have presented an oversimplified and subjective version of the story for something with a good deal more meat, I apologize. Let me say again--this blog post is much more about my subjective responses than about Job or his God.

Thanks to all who commented.
Anonymous said…
A slightly belated response to Yvonne and Erik —

Yvonne, the problem with describing Job as Manichæan is twofold. First, Manichæanism didn't exist when Job was composed; it wasn't even born until long after the death of Christ. Describing Job as Manichæan is an error of anachronism rather like describing paganism as postmodern.

And second, the Satan of Job is not the Devil of the twenty-first century imagination. He's not even the Devil of the Gospels. All that was a way of thinking that, like Manichæanism, didn't yet exist when Job was composed.

Marvin H. Pope, professor of Northwest Semitic Languages at Yale University, points out in his Anchor Bible commentary on Job that the original Hebrew text does not speak of "Satan" but of "the Satan": in other words, it is not naming an individual by his/her proper name, but rather, by a title that describes his office. "The figure here," Pope writes, "is not the fully developed character of the later Jewish and Christian Satan or Devil. ... The Satan is one of the members of the divine court and comes with other attendants to present himself ... and report on the fulfillment of his duties. ... Tur-Sinai has made the attractive suggestion that the figure and role of the Satan derives from the Persian secret police. Herodotus tells us that the royal secret police in Persia were called 'the eyes and ears of the king.' ... As a roving secret agent, the Satan stood ready to accuse and indict his victim and serve as prosecutor, as at Zechariah 3:1; cf. Psalm 109:6. If the roving investigator found nothing to report, it might occur to him to assume the rôle of agent provocateur, as in I Chronicles 21:1. ... The origin of the concept of the Satan from the analogy of the security system of the Persian Empire would quite naturally explain the later development of the concept of the Adversary and Tempter...." Pope goes on at length presenting the evidence for this understanding.

I had written that "all the passages I can think of where God deliberately inflicts suffering are places where God was engaged in restoring the balance of justice." Erik offers additional examples of God inflicting or commanding suffering: "Consider II Kings 2:23-24 (Elisha and the bears), as well as the specifically-commanded fates of the children, the pregnant women, the elderly, and others not of the nubile-virgin persuasion, of the many nations the Israelites destroyed on their way to statehood (Numbers 31:17, Deut. 20:16, much of Joshua and Judges - for starters)." Yes, Erik, that was indeed the sort of thing I was talking about. I suspect your concept of justice is considerably different from that of the ancient Hebrews, but that does not mean that the Hebrews were not, in these passages, portraying YHWH as One who restores justice; it simply means you disagree with the ancient Hebrews about what true justice is.

I have been carrying on further discussions with Cat about this matter off-blog, but I will not go into those here.
Though I'm not sure I expressed it clearly, I think the "pre-Manichean" Satan (and thank you, Marshall, for the comment on how the Hebrew might be better rendered, "the satan") is one of the things that fascinates me about the book of Job. It does not, as I would have expected, fall into that abyss of dualism.

However, I do think that most people approach the story of Job from within a post-Manichean context. It's very hard to strip away those filters and read the book fresh.

One thing I believe I am seeing in my reading of the Bible thus far is an evolution in how God, justice, and the purpose of a religious life, is understood by the people who wrote these books. The understandings change and shift over time. Of course, if we insist on reading the books of the Bible through a modern fundamentalist/literalist lens, that sees the Bible as the word of God (period! full stop!), rather than words about God, we won't be able to grasp that the point of view of the texts changes over time. Sadly, it's not just many Christians who lapse into that way of reading the Bible--I think Pagans do, to.

That can result in a caricatured view of Christianity and of the God of Christians. So many things--including a post-Manichean understanding of good and evil--get projected backward in time onto a culture and people they didn't entirely fit.

It's hard to spot all the ways we go off course. But it's fun and refreshing to try to hack our way through the thicket of our assumptions, and try to read the text--and the texts about it--in new ways.

Popular posts from this blog

What Do You Mean, Quaker Pagan?

"What do you mean, Quaker Pagan? You can't possibly be both!" Every now and then, we do get a comment on the blog that, if politely worded, does drive at basically that point. Usually the critic is a Quaker and a Christian, though I have certainly heard similar points raised by Pagans. Let me state a few things up front. Peter and I both do consider ourselves Pagan. Neither of us considers ourselves to be Christian--I never was one, and Peter hasn't been for decades. And we do consider ourselves to be Quakers... as does our monthly meeting, which extended us membership after the normal clearness process. We consider ourselves Quaker Pagans. (Why not Pagan Quakers? Pure aesthetics; we think the word order sounds better with Q before P.) Here's the argument for why Peter and I can't possibly be both: 1. Paganism is a non-Christian religion. 2. Quakers are a Christian denomination. 3. ERGO... Yes. We've considered that argument, oddly eno

Red in Tooth and Claw

When Nora, Peter's grandmother, lived with us , our household was the nucleus of an active local Pagan community. Over time, dementia eroded more and more of Nora's ability to retain anything she learned about in the present, so she wound up discovering again and again that she was living in a family of Pagans. Over and over, we would have made some reference to our Paganism, and Nora, having forgotten about it for the time being, would ask us to explain again what it was we believed. We would explain, yet again, about all of life being sacred to us, and nature being the source of our inspiration. Each time we did this, we would reach the point in our discussion where she would protest, quoting the line from Tennyson about " Nature, red in tooth and claw ." Nevertheless, we would insist that that was where we looked for the holy, and eventually, she would exclaim (just as she had the time before that): "Well, then, you're all heathens!" When we

There is a Spirit Which I Feel

I was always a "rational use of force" gal. For most of my life I believed that the use of force--by which I meant human beings taking up arms and going off to war to try to kill one another--was a regrettable necessity. Sometimes I liked to imagine that Paganism held an alternative to that, particularly back in the day when I believed in that mythical past era of the peaceful, goddess-worshipping matriarchal societies . (I really liked that version of history, and was sorry when I stopped believing in it as factual.) But that way of seeing reality changed for me, in the time between one footfall and the next, on a sunny fall morning: September 11, 2001. I was already running late for work that day when the phone rang; my friend Abby was calling, to give me the news that a plane had flown into the World Trade Center in New York. So? I thought to myself, picturing a small private aircraft. Abby tried to convey some of what she was hearing--terrorists, fire--but the mag