The Incredible Wager

November 9, 1997




The Incredible Wager

I mentioned last week that Victor Hugo, author of The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Les Miserables , called the book we are examining this morning “perhaps the greatest masterpiece of the human race” — extravagant praise echoed by Martin Luther, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Thomas Carlyle and dozens of other poets, theologians and philosophers in the western world. The bad news is that calling something a masterpiece can be the kiss of death in terms of a wide audience. Mark Twain defined a classic as “something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read,” and this is especially true if it’s written in poetry. Most people agree, for example, that Shakespeare is the greatest of all English poets, but except for students who have no choice, only a tiny fraction of Americans read his plays.
This is understandable, because they are not easy. They are set in a culture that seems light years distant from ours, and the poetic diction used by their characters is often archaic and difficult for readers 350 years later. Excellent poetry requires some skill and effort, even in our own time and language, but excellent poetry translated from another language is tougher yet, especially when it uses a system so different from ours that we find it hard going and give up. So here is a book in the Bible, called a work of extraordinary genius by those expected to know, and yet read only by a few. The rest of us pretty well exhaust our knowledge of the book by saying, “Ah yes, the patience of Job” without realizing that in most of the book Job is anything but patient — is actually a bitter, defiant rebel who dares God to explain how the world is managed.
Confusion about these two Jobs, one submissive, the other an angry heretic, is the result of an oddly divided book that may have had two different authors. The first two chapters and part of the final chapter, less than 10% of the book, are written in simple prose that makes for easy reading. The huge middle of 39 chapters is written in poetry, and this is the section that has won such high praise. The two parts are so radically different that many Bible scholars think this is what happened: Once upon a time an old folk tale circulated among the Hebrew people about a good man of great wealth who was tested by incredible tragedies, patiently praised God through all of them, and was rewarded at the last with greater prosperity than he had at the beginning. It made a neat comfortable package: a sort of case history for proving what the audience believed — that if you are good, God invariably blesses you with good health, many children, and prosperity, while if you are bad, God never fails to punish you. And it’s important to remember that those rewards and punishments have to happen right here on earth, because the Hebrew people had not yet developed the idea of a heaven or a hell. If justice were to be done, it had to be done in a person’s lifetime, or not at all.
But it seems that one day a nameless but greatly gifted poet decides the religious establishment is all wrong, that any honest look at human life will show that good people are not always protected from harm, and that the wicked are not always punished. Cruel and greedy people, this poet has noticed, often do quite well — living off the fat of the land, respected for their power and wealth, escorted to their graves when they die by the Mayor and the City Commissioners. On the other hand, he has seen good and innocent people suffer one tragedy after another, and he knows that even if none of us are totally innocent by the time we grow up, still the agonies inflicted by life are often hideously out of proportion to any mistakes we may have made.
So this sensitive, honest man decides to take the old folk tale, with its glib and false theology, break it in half and use the two parts of it to frame his own reading of life. The first part becomes a prologue to set the stage for what he intends to do, and the second part becomes an epilogue for anyone who really wants one by the time he is finished, and in between are 39 chapters of poetry where the author creates an angry Job who cannot make any sense of his terrible and undeserved suffering and asks what kind of monster God must be to let it happen. I said the author “creates” such a charact because this is not history; this is sacred fiction, like some other great stories in the Bible. The parables of Jesus are sacred fiction; he made them up in order to teach a lesson. The story of Jonah and the whale is sacred fiction, intended to teach a great truth about God and using dark comedy about a whale and a gourd vine to help make its point.
But please understand that I am not using the word “fiction” in a derogatory sense. This intelligent audience knows that some of the greatest truths in human history have been taught through fiction: parables, short stories, novels and plays. Job , we will discover, is more like a play than any of those other forms of fiction. But it is intensely serious, just as Jesus was when he made up his parables, and just as that unknown author was who created the parable of Jonah to teach the Israelites that they had no monopoly on God’s love. Since fiction is such a marvelous vehicle for transporting truth, the unknown poet who created the book of Job has used it to wrestle with the most painful and perplexing questions human beings can ask:
Why, if God rules the world, was my innocent son caught between two rival gangs with whom he had no quarrel, and so wounded that his promising young life has become a horrible mockery of what it once was? Why did my little girl, so bright and beautiful and utterly innocent, have to be the one to develop leukemia? There is no need to extend that list: you know how endless it is, how agonizing the questions are that rise from all around the world: if a good God rules human life, why do so many millions of innocent people suffer? The characters who walk on stage in the drama called Job will debate that question fiercely, but before the curtain rises we get a brief and fascinating prologue to whet our appetite for the main event.
In the prose of the old folktale we are introduced to a man so morally perfect and so incredibly rich in children and property that no one can match him — the point being that if tragedy can ruin his life, it can certainly ruin ours, and make us cry out for an answer to what seems a cold and careless world. The opening sentence has that kind of vague and timeless flavor storytellers often use to get started: “There was once a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job.” We are not given any details about time or exact location or family background, because this Job is meant to stand for anybody, anywhere, at any time, who cries out in desperation, “Why is this terrible thing happening to me?”
Since Job is to stand for all innocent people who suffer, we are told at once that he is a veritable saint, blessed with incredible wealth and an ideal family. When we read that he has seven sons and three daughters, we are expected to know that seven and three are symbolic numbers of perfection in ancient Jewish literature. Perfect man, perfect family. And to show how rich he is, those same sacred numbers are used to present Job as the Bill Gates of the ancient Near East: he has 7,000 sheep and 3,000 camels (I tried last week to imagine 3,000 camels….and failed) — and to strain the limits of credibility even more the man has 500 teams of oxen and 500 donkeys. Obviously, we have a literary artist at work, not a man concerned with realistic numbers. With servants all over the place to take help take care of his 11,000 animals and his 10 children, Job is described as “the greatest of all the people of the east.”
His seven sons, we are told, take turns having banquets in each other’s houses, inviting their three sisters to eat and drink with them, and just in case they drink too much super-righteous Job gets up early in the morning after the big parties and sacrifices burnt offerings for them. As you can see, the author is working overtime to present us with an ideal citizen and an exemplary father because this is crucial to the great debate about human suffering which is soon to begin.
But before it does, the next scene in the prose preface takes us out of this world with a remarkable statement: “One day the heavenly beings came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came among them.” Remarkable for two reasons. First, because it suggests a God who appears to hold court at certain times to get State of the Universe reports. Like the rest of us, the Job poet imagines God in terms of his own culture. When we paint God’s picture, he turns out to be a majestic Caucasian grandfather with a full white beard, traditional symbols of authority and wisdom . Not a woman , mind you, since it was men who created this image, and not a black man because whites created the pictures we see first in Sunday School. I keep a cartoon that makes the point. It shows a woman and her five-year-old son, on the street, passing a tall man with a long white beard. The little boy looks up and says, “Hello, God. Thank you for making me.” He knew how God was supposed to look.
The second surprise in this preface to the Job drama is that among the divine lieutenants who present themselves before God is one who is called “Satan.” But as any decent commentary or annotated Bible will explain, this is not the devil of Christian scripture because that personality had not yet evolved. The Hebrew language of the book of Job has an article adjective before the word “Satan,” so he is actually ha satan (the Satan) or, if the word were translated literally, “the Adversary” — because that is how he will function in this old folk tale. Please notice that he seems to belong at this heavenly parliament as much as any of the others, and no one, including God, shows any surprise or discomfort or hostility when he shows up to make his report. He is clearly not the devil of later Christian theology.
When God asks this messinger for a report (“Where have you been?”), the answer comes back: “From going to and fro on the earth, and walking up and down on it.” In other words, “I’ve been on earth patrol.” He doesn’t come right out and say it’s a bit messy on that planet, but to get the plot underway God seems to sense that attitude and become rather defensive about his work. “Have you considered my servant Job?” he asks, “a blameless and upright man who fears God and turns away from evil?”
The messenger’s response shows why he’s called “The Adversary”: Well of course this particular man is a faithful worshipper, but why not? After all, you’ve put a protective fence around him, so that nothing bad can happen to him, and you have made him immensely rich in flocks and family. His religion has paid off. But I dare you now to take all that taway from him, and then see if he still loves you! I’m betting he won’t, that once he has lost everything he ‘ll curse you to your face. And God, because the story line demands it, takes the bait: All right, he says, we’ll run a test. You may do whatever you like to everything Job has, so long as you don’t touch his physical self. So the great cynic leaves the heavenly convocation to begin his work, and the next paragraph shows the terrible consequences.
“One day when his sons and daughters were eating and drinking wine in the eldest brother’s house, a messenger came to Job and said, ‘ The oxen were plowing and the donkeys were feeding beside them, and the Sabeans fell on them and carried them off, and killed the servants with the edge of the sword. I’m the only one to escape and tell the story.’ While he was still speaking, another came and said, ‘The fire of God [lightning] flashed from heaven. It struck the sheep and the shepherds and burned them up. I am the only one to escape and tell the story.’ While he was still speaking, another arrived and said, ‘The Chaldeans, three bands of them, have made a raid on the camels and carried them off, after killing the servants. I am the only one to escape and tell the story.’ While he was still speaking, the final messenger came with the worst news yet: ‘Your sons and daughters were eating and drinking in the eldest brother’s house, when suddenly a whirlwind swept across from the desert and struck the four corners of the house, and it collapsed on the young people and killed them. I am the only one to escape and tell the story.’”
Events in the real world don’t happen in this highly artifical way, but in fiction anything goes because the author pulls the strings. So we have four stunning losses in a single day, with a single survivor from each one to tell the audience what happened. What a strange God the storyteller has imagined, whose eagerness to prove a point has caused the death of 7,000 sheep and l0 beloved children, not to mention all the servants who have been in charge of Job’s vast estate. This awful experiment works just fine as a literary device but it is unbearable as literal truth.
As for Job, he goes into shock, tears his robe and shaves his head in grief, but he passes the test and says, I came into this world with nothing, I will leave it with nothing ; blessed be the name of the Lord. So God wins the first round, but his cynical adversary is not finished and is about to propose another hideous test in Round 2, which to stay within our time limits I have to be put off until next week. It’s one of the world’s great stories. Please come back.,

For the red and gold of Indian summer, and dear friends with
whom to share it, we give thanks, Eternal God, and promise as we
leave this place to share our happiness in all good ways. Amen
share our happiness in all good ways