Job’s Friends and Victim-Blaming
When I was a Reformed Christian, my interpretation of the book of Job was one-dimensional and bleak. Now freed from the duty to view the Bible as inerrant, God as good, and theology as coherent, I read it as perhaps a valuable lesson to believers. It is definitely a step in the right direction away from the mindset of the Pentateuch.
For those who are not familiar with the story of Job, this cowboy will catch you up to speed in about 3 minutes: click here.
My quick synopsis: At an Olympian-like meeting of the heavenly beings, God boasts to Satan that the wealthiest man in the East, Job, fears and worships him. Satan claims that the only reason Job serves God is because he is so well-to-do; if his possessions were taken away, he would turn from God. God, realizing his ego is in jeopardy, gives the order that Satan may harm Job in any way he wishes but not kill him. The conniving spirits cast Job into utter misery and despair. At the height of his suffering, Job’s three closest friends come to commiserate with him. For several days, they simply sit and keep him company. At long last, the friends begin bombarding him with questions and accusations, insistent that he must have sinned in some way to incur the wrath of God. If only his friends could see into the heavenly places, they would see that God does not punish and reward fairly, but rather he is arbitrary, narcissistic, and insecure.
My previous understanding of the book centered almost entirely on the introductory drama between God and Satan, even though the bulk of the book is the monologic discourse among Job and his friends. I thought the meaning was that God may do with us as he wishes, to glorify himself, and that we should submit to suffering. But now I consider this book a parable, warning the readers not to assume that suffering is a direct result of sin. When someone is suffering, they should be viewed with compassion and empathy, not scorn. This is ethical.
The moral of the story is even more palatable if we take God out of the equation. Nature is not an intelligent, intending force. Bad things happen to some people regardless of who they are. We are all in this “life” thing together. We can come alongside one another in times of need, understanding that we are all subject to the same misfortunes. The rain falls on the just and the unjust alike.
Many people are unsettled by the idea of our fortunes being largely determined by indifferent forces of nature that have no higher teleological aspirations. I would be much more unsettled believing that an all-powerful, jealous God directs my life at his whim.
Job’s friends were not a special instance. The are all too many examples of victim blaming in modern society. Pat Robertson blamed the Haitian earthquake on a “pact with the devil.” John Hagee blamed Hurricane Katrina on gays. Jerry Falwell blamed the 9-11 attacks on pagans, abortionists, feminists, and gays. Victim blaming s not limited to religion. Some say that victims of rape, for example, are responsible for tempting the rapist.
Why are Job’s friends (and people today) so quick to blame bad circumstances on someone’s character? It’s simple: fear.
As humans, we have the stunning ability to see causal relationships from the morass of sensory data we take in. We see patterns. We learn from experience. If something we do is followed (seemingly directly) by a pleasant outcome, we will likely do it again. This allows us more control over our circumstances, our comfort and our chance of survival. Sometimes this method is accurate, and it is in fact a crucial building block of empiricism. But sometimes we are led astray into thinking there is a correlation between two things when in fact there is none. This is the breeding ground of superstition.
We also learn from seeing causal relationships in what others do. If someone touches fire and then acts in a way that signals he or she is in great pain, an observer will avoid touching fire. I think this is the basis for victim-blaming. Job’s friends were understandably terrified by what they saw. No one would want the same to happen to them. In order to avoid an outcome, you must know the cause of it. If the cause is not readily apparent, fill in the gap. God has a reputation as a good “gap-filler.” In the case of a rape victim, one might be comforted (incorrectly) by thinking that if one dresses modestly and does not act seductively, rape will be avoided.
The attitude of the book of Job signals a clear divergence from most of the previous Old Testament books which describe a stricter cause/effect relationship between suffering and disobedience. The stringency of the punishments may not match the crimes, but the punishments parallel sins nonetheless. In that sense, Job is a very positive reaction to the harshness of other books, moral progress.
However, even if I read Job very generously, ignoring the mythology and viewing it as a parable urging us not to judge victims, there still remain two major problems with the book. Firstly, it seems contradictory that a book encouraging the readers not to make assumptions about why people suffer begins with a dramatic explanation of why God allowed Job to be tortured. It doesn’t really achieve the goal of encouraging believers to hold the causes for calamity in indecision. It just shifts the focus from the justice of God to the capriciousness of God. Also, as an addendum, we are told that Job was even wealthier in his latter days than before the story because of his obedience. This unravels the whole tale. We are back to “the wicked suffer, the righteous prosper.”
Secondly, it is wholly unsatisfactory to me that in the end, Job’s friends experience the wrath of God because they did not “speak the truth about [Him].” From the acts of God in the Pentateuch, it was perfectly reasonable to infer that Job was suffering because of sin. They operated under the assumption of a just and good God. Once again, in favor of punishment, Jehovah missed an opportunity to calmly, kindly, and sanely instruct his creation.