Three Problematic Texts: Thinking in Jewish XX
There are three problematic texts I wish to discuss. Job, Jonah and Kohelet. Each of these texts, most likely written during or just prior to the Hellenistic period in the Levant, approach the problem of God in similar ways. Job and Jonah turn the same question upside down while Kohelet simply views the problem of God in the light of pure skepticism. Job, a righteous man, is debased by an all powerful God who acts capriciously taking away everything to see if Job will curse him. Sure, in the end the redactors of the text create a happy ending and Job gets back everything he lost in double measure, but the text raises questions of the capricious nature of Godly promises. Jonah looks at the same question turning it on its head. In Jonah, God is angry at his prophet who is unwilling to test the power of God existentially by refusing to carry out God’s instructions. Escaping to the sea, Jonah is sacrificed by the pagan crew of the boat upon which he travels. Once again the ending belies the intent of the story, that an all powerful God is also not bound by promises or covenants. In Kohelet, the question of God is put in terms of whether or not the intervention of human beings can influence the regularity of nature or is the whole of nature (God) both fixed and immutable.
Taken together, these three texts are problematic. Foremost is the question of God’s capricious nature. If, in fact, God can make a promise which God himself does not intend to keep then trusting in God is unwarranted and perhaps even unnecessary. Promises that are made carry the weight of ethical actions, compliance is a moral and ethical and even a legal obligation. If human beings are expected to be bound to their promises, all the more reason God, acting as a primary exemplar, should be obligated. But, apparently God doesn’t think so. For Job, a righteous man, God, on a bet, deprives him of everything: wealth, friends and family. This act is capricious in the sense that as a righteous man Job follows all of God’s commandments, lives up to his obligations under the covenant between God and the Children of Israel, but God doesn’t see fit to honor his end of the obligation that he, himself, entered into with Moses at Sinai. Rather he breaks the covenant and punishes Job, a righteous man, who, even in the face of extreme punishment, refuses to curse God.
Jonah points to a different characteristic of God’s capriciousness. In this case, Jonah, a prophet of God, cannot bring himself to carry out the instructions of God to go to a place and warn the people there of God’s anger. Instead, Jonah attempts to escape to the sea where, in his anger with Jonah, God causes a great storm nearly sinking the boat upon which Jonah is escaping. The sailors on the ship identify Jonah as the problem and offer him up as a sacrifice by throwing him overboard; God sees this and in spite of the fact that the sailors are Gentiles (in this case idol worshipers) God stops the storm. Once again the redactors of the text create a happier ending by saving Jonah and allowing him to complete his assigned mission but that part of the story was likely added at a later date as the book of Jonah was being considered for inclusion in the Tanakh. Here, the message is that the covenant is breakable by God and only by God even though Jonah is frightened and unable to do his assigned duty. To read this any other way is to do an injustice to Jonah. How many of us could, for example, hear the call of God as Abraham heard the call to sacrifice his own son to God and actually go so far as to be perfectly willing to carry out the command. The only fair reading of Jonah is to assign to God a capricious need to reject the covenant he himself created when it suits him rather than being careful to abide by that very covenant when it is most difficult to do so.
As to Kohelet, the text questions the ability for human beings to know the wonders of God. Nature has its predictability while God is totally unpredictable. The righteous often suffer while the wicked often thrive, and if nature is truly predictable then what is the point of being righteous? While Kohelet never questions God’s existence, he does question the need for worshiping that God who has clearly no tolerance for ethics or morality.
Given that the redactors of both the Jewish Tanakh and the Christian Bible felt the need to include these books as part of the scriptures, one must ask why? Did not the editors of these two bodies of scriptural literature see the problematics involved with these three books? I think they did or, even if they didn’t, they should have. To create a picture of a God that is not bound by the promises that God is said to have made, to project a God whose capricious nature curses the righteous and rewards the non-believer, to understand God as rewarding the wicked while punishing the righteous as well as being unable or unwilling to allow for intervention in natural affairs, is to call into question the very nature of that God and to call into question the need for human beings to worship him. To my mind, these three books, taken as examples of a single problem, point toward the response-ability of human beings as tied directly to the random nature of the Universe in which we reside. God is made entirely irrelevant even where fairy tale endings are attached to make the text more palatable.
- Understanding Tragedy: Thinking in Jewish XVIII (rogerpassman.wordpress.com)
- Jacob Neusner, Talmud Bavli and Thinking in Jewish XI (rogerpassman.wordpress.com)
- Drawing Conclusions: Thinking in Jewish VIII (rogerpassman.wordpress.com)