A Reflection on the Book of Job
As you probably have heard, legislators in Texas successfully created a law that has effectively ended abortion in Texas. The law, Senate Bill 8 as it’s known, empowers ordinary citizens to sue anyone who performs or in any way supports abortions that happen anytime after about six weeks, when a fetal heartbeat can be detected. Most women do not even know they’re pregnant until well after the first six weeks. Now, doctors, nurses, Uber drivers, anyone providing financial support to a mother who might seek an abortion – anyone who in any way supports an abortion after six weeks, except for the patient, is liable to be sued by any ordinary citizen. The law empowers citizens rather than state officials to enforce the law. And it incentivizes enforcement of the law by providing $10,000 rewards to any citizen who successfully sues anyone who performs or supports an abortion after six weeks. Senate Bill 8 is in clear violation of decades of established legal precedent since Roe v. Wade upholding a mother’s right to seek an abortion until the end of the second trimester of pregnancy. But by preventing citizens who want to protect their abortion rights from sueing public officials, the Texas law outmaneuvers the normal way that illegal laws are challenged in the courts. The Supreme Court, as you probably know, allowed the Texas law to go into effect, not seeing a clear response to the unorthodox procedural issues presented in the case. As a result, abortion providers have effectively shut down in Texas, fearing legal prosecution brought by pro-life citizens and/or citizen bounty hunters who are variously motivated to enforce the law. Women are now forced to seeking abortions in neighboring states: Oklahoma, New Mexico, Arizona, and Kansas.
I like to listen to podcasts, especially when I’m driving or out walking the dog. One of my favorites is The Daily from the New York Times. The daily provides an in-depth look each day at one story that is center-stage in the day’s news. On Friday, that story was about an abortion clinic in Oklahoma called Trust Women. Trust Women, like many clinics in states neighboring Texas, has been overwhelmed in the last month with a swell of women from Texas who are now forced to travel to seek abortions. Trust Women is about three hours north of Dallas and is one of the closet clinics that Texas women can still go to. As a result, Trust Women has been overwhelmed with demand, so much so that the clinic simply cannot schedule many women for an abortion before Oklahoma’s 20-week abortion limit. Texas women who cannot get an appointment in time and cannot afford to travel to find a clinic that can perform the abortion are left with only one legal option: they are forced to carry their baby to term.
There were a number of heartbreaking interviews in Friday’s episode of The Daily. The most heartbreaking one to me was a young woman, Samira, from Beaumont, Texas. Samira found out she was pregnant at five weeks. She scheduled an appointment for an abortion in Texas on September 1, the day thenew law into effect. And on that day, the doctors heard a fetal heartbeat, which meant that she could no longer have the abortion. Heartbroken, Samira had to schedule an abortion outside of Texas, in Oklahoma. Samira grew up in poverty. She has a two-year old son. She and her partner hold minimum wage jobs. Their financial situation is precarious, but in the last year, it improved, and they were making it. In November 2020, Samira and her partner moved into their own apartment and bought their first brand-new mattress.
Samira says that she is determined to provide for her two-year-old son the things that were often missing from her upbringing – electricity, heat, and enough food. In the podcast, we hear the fear and desperation in Samira’s voice as she explains that having a second child will plunge her family into financial emergency. Samira is so passionate about wanting to create a better life for her son, and she is so clear that a second child just will not make that possible. At the same time, Samira is torn by the decision. She wishes that abortion weren’t the only way to address her situation. But of course, those lawmakers who are intent upon undermining access to abortions are often the same lawmakers who are unwilling to provide the resources to support children and families who cannot afford to bring another child into the world. “They don’t understand that we’re real people,” Samira says.
What’s striking about Samira’s story is the fragility of her situation. Here’s a person who is trying hard to scratch out a life for herself and her family. She’s a hard worker. She and her partner are committed to providing a better life for her son – and by “better life,” she doesn’t mean a McMansion, a Volvo, and summer vacations. She means an apartment, where the lights come on when you flip the switch; that is warm in the winter; and that is stocked with enough food so that her two-year-old son doesn’t go hungry. Samira is clearly a child of generational poverty. And just when she and her partner are starting to achieve the life they envision for themselves, the Texas abortion law almost upsets the whole apple cart.
“They don’t understand that we’re real people,” Samira says. To me, that’s a reminder that we human beings are vulnerable, although sometimes that’s easy to forget. We are vulnerable to pain, sickness, heartbreak, and death. We are vulnerable to violence that others perpetrate on us. We are vulnerable to systems that oppress and marginalize. In many ways, what makes us most human is that we are vulnerable. We’re limited. We human beings are vulnerable creatures, who can hurt and be hurt, who don’t live forever, who aren’t invincible, and who mess up, sometimes badly.
And then there’s Job. Job didn’t mess up at all. And yet God saw fit to allow Satan, the accuser, to test Job’s piety. First, Satan takes everything away from Job – his crops, livestock, camels, servants, and Job’s family. Still, Job stands firm. He does not “sin or charge God with wrongdoing.” So then Satan comes back for round two. This time, Satan says, let’s afflict Job physically, “touching his bone and his flesh,” and then Job will surely curse God to God’s face. Fine, God says. Do it. Just don’t kill him. Satan goes off and inflicts Job with sores all over his body. Job scrapes himself with a potsherd and sits among the ashes. His wife, exasperated, tells Job: why don’t you just curse God and die? And with that, our happy reading for today comes to an end.
You may know the broad outlines of the rest of the story. The fairytale narrative in the first couple of chapters turns to poetic verse for most of the rest of the book. Job’s three friends come to him and try to convince him that he has done something wrong, is deserving of punishment, and needs to repent. Job agrees with his friends about the power and majesty of God, but disagrees with them about his guilt. He maintains his innocence, and his resolve to defend himself intensifies throughout. The Book of Job is framed as a kind of cosmic trial in which Satan, literally “the prosecutor,” tries to impeach Job’s God-fearing character. Rejecting his wife’s advice, Job never directly curses God. But he does curse himself and the day he was born. And by doing that, Job does effectively impugn God as the creator of such a miserable life, and in insisting on his innocence, Job also questions God’s justice. Job’s self-defense implicitly turns the tables of the trial, with Job assuming the Satanic role of prosecutor, while God moves closer and closer to the role of defendant. But in the end, God famously answers Job “out of the whirlwind,” challenging him to reckon with the majesty of God’s creation. God relativizes Job’s implicit questioning of God: Who are you to question me? And who are you to call my creative work into question?
Job is a challenging book in many ways, in part because it’s hard to say just what it’s about. In some ways, Job is the ultimate statement of what theologians call “theodicy,” the problem of evil – how an all-powerful and completely good God allows bad things to happen to good people. On that question, Job doesn’t hold back – God does allow bad things to happen to Job, and then when Job pushes back, God essentially puts Job in his place. The book seems to be saying: “You think this is bad, Job – but what do you know? You couldn’t possibly understand the designs of such a powerful and majestic God.” For many of us, “what do you know?” is not the most comforting answer to the problem of evil, particularly when God is allowing it to happen as a test.
Job is about the problem of evil, but it is more fundamentally about the problem of being human. Some commentators have said that Job is part two of the creation story. I like to think that Job picks up at Genesis 1:31, where God saw everything that God made, and indeed, it was very good. To me, this one verse opens to the deepest challenge to faith. And that challenge is not so much about how it is possible that a good and all-powerful God allows evil to happen. I think that the most urgent challenge to faith is actually deeper than the problem of evil. It is this: was God telling the truth when God looked at God’s creation and deemed it good? Surely, that must be a joke. Look around. What’s good about it? Human beings suffer in all manner of ways, both because we are finite – that is, we die like all other creatures – and because we abuse what freedom we have, perpetrating evil on others. Look at Samira, a woman who grew up in generational poverty, who has worked hard to scratch out a better life for her son, and who now has to make the hard choice between bringing a new child into the world, which would almost certainly impoverish her family, or terminate the pregnancy. Sure – Samira has probably made some unwise choices. Who hasn’t? But at the same time, we have chosen not to create systems that meet people like Samira where they are.
War, disease, disaster, climate change, pandemic, chronic poverty, food insecurity, political dysfunction. When God created all things, including human beings, and called them good, was God serious? Job doesn’t think so. Job calls the goodness of his own creation into question. Despite my piety, despite all of the ways I’ve sought to honor God in my life, still this happens. It would have been better if I’d never been born, Job says. I don’t need to curse God and die; I can just curse myself and die.
And that is where God takes exception. That is where God shows up in the whirlwind, and says: Where were you when I created all of these things? Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? When I shut in the seas with doors? When I caused the dawn to know its place? Over five chapters, God makes it very clear to Job how wondrous God’s creation is. The point of the Book of Job is to inspire wonder at the wondrous works of God. Because for the author of Job, wisdom and wonder are linked. To wonder at the magnificence of creation is to grow in wisdom. And wisdom is the awareness that God’s work is good, just as it is. And when God created all things and said that they are good, God was telling the truth.
And so we are all vulnerable, just as Samira is vulnerable. But being limited, being finite, being vulnerable is part of what makes human creation good. Much of what we value makes sense to us because we are vulnerable: love, courage, commitment, striving, hope, faith – all of these values are meaningful to us precisely because we can die and we can make mistakes. What would love be if loss were not possible? Or courage? Or friendship? Or hope? All of these things are good to us because we are vulnerable and fallible creatures, not invincible and perfect ones. I think Job is saying that as painful as it is to be human, we are actually good – not because of something we might become, but because of what we are – finite, limited, vulnerable. And so when God created us and said we are good, God was telling the truth.