Three views of suffering; Bible study groups at a Catholic church, a Baptist church and a synagogue study the Book of Job

May 18, 2009

The story of suffering; Jews, Catholics and Protestants find common ground in Bible’s Book of Job
By Patrick McGee
The Middlesex News
Framingham, Mass.

Before starting their Bible study session, the group of men at Franklin’s Grace Baptist Church bowed their heads in prayer for a dying 12-year-old.

For religious people, the sickness of the innocent boy provokes one of the most unsettling questions of all: Why doesn’t God stop suffering, especially the suffering of those who don’t deserve it?

After praying, the men opened their Bibles to the book that wrestles with this question, the Book of Job.

The book has been studied for centuries by clergy and scholars alike in a constant search for better understanding of human suffering. In recent months, three area Bible study groups also grappled with the book and found the ancient text deeply relevant to their lives.

The Baptist in Franklin, a group of Jews in Holliston and Catholics in Hingham, who just finished the book last week, all struggled with Job’s suffering and relationship with God.

Some of the differences in traditions showed in the group’s interpretations. The Jewish group continually compared Job’s undeserved suffering to the Holocaust, while  Tom Flaherty, a member of the Catholic group, said suffering can be interpreted as a good thing – as an invitation to join Jesus on the cross.

Although traditions and versions of the Bible were different, the three groups found far more similarities than differences.

They drew parallels between Job’s suffering, comparing it with bouts of cancer, deaths of loved ones and sickness of children such as the boy the Baptists prayed for, Matthew Gignac. The 12-year-old eventually died from tumors that plagued his body.

Holliston resident Eric Rosenkrantz looked for a reason why his 6-month-old daughter was afflicted with so many illnesses so early in her life. Flaherty, a Norwell resident, said the book threw him into such a deep examination of his own conscience he asked God to stop.

“We studied Job because it gives an opportunity to think about some of the traditional responses to evil in the world,” said Rabbi Jonina Pritzker, who led the Bible study at Temple Beth Torah in Holliston.

“There’s no question that this is a masterpiece,” said Celia Sirois, instructor of sacred scripture for the Boston Archdiocese. She led the study of Job at St. Paul’s church in Hingham.

“If there’s one lesson we learn out of the Book of Job, it is that God knows what He’s doing, whether we do or not,” said Pastor Kirk DiVierto, who led the Baptist study. “And then the corollary of that is that knowing that God is good and knowing that He loves us, whatever he does is good for us and His glory.”

The challenge

Considered one of the world’s best pieces of poetic literature, the book tells of Job so “blameless and upright” that he is a source of pride for God. But God is challenged by adversity – or Satan, according to most Christian interpretations – and told God that Job would surely curse God if he lost his considerable wealth and happy family.

God accepted the challenge and the suffering of Job began. In a violent sweep, Job was stripped of his herds by bandits who slayed his servants. The house of Job’s elder son collapsed, killing all of Job’s children, who were inside.

Job did not lose faith, but fell on the ground to worship and utter the famous words, “The Lord gave, the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.”

God was pressed further by Satan and told Job would give in if he was robbed of his health. God tested Job again and infected him with a terrible disease that caused boils to break out all over his body.

Job’s wife told him to, “Curse God and die.” But he did not. He lost everything including his happiness, but kept his faith.

“I hated this. I hated this,” Laura Matz said at the Temple Beth Torah. She turned the pages with disgust, telling how it pained her to read how God – whom she understood to be loving – could inflict such suffering on a good man.

Job’s friends tried to answer why. The three of them came to Job and told him he suffered because he must have done something wrong.

“They’re arguments worth listening to. They do have something to say,” Sirois said, explaining divine retribution was the belief of the times.

“When you read the Bible, the theory of divine retribution is all over the place,” Pritzker said.

Job insists he did nothing wrong and launches into a debate with his friends.

After offering their “wisdom,” Job barks at his friends, “If you would only keep silent, that would be your wisdom!”

This sparked laughter from some of the participants in the area Bible studies.

“The friends are very much like us,” Rosenkrantz said, pointing out how people sometimes believe they have all the answers and are sometimes more hurtful than helpful when they’re trying to console people.

Coming from the action oriented tradition of Judaism, Pritzker said one of the messages of the book is to refrain from blaming those who suffer, as Job’s friends do. She said a recent example of this finger-pointing was in the 1980s when fundamentalists proclaimed that AIDS was God’s wrath on sinners.

“I think the Book of Job teaches us righteous people do suffer and people shouldn’t be further persecuted for having brought this upon them,” Pritzker said.

Laypeople who read the book said Job’s friends showed them how futile it can be to try to comfort those who have suffered a great loss and how it may be better to be silent instead of  peppering the mourner with theories of God’s purposes.

In the Bible, Job’s friends continue to harangue Job with the theory of divine retribution, but Job rebuts them and their responses become shorter and shorter.

DiVierto pointed this out that Job was winning his argument – that good things sometimes happen to bad people.

Job continues to insist he did nothing wrong, and he complains bitterly about his suffering. He even calls on God to come and vindicate him.

This sparked some laughter again.

Who, the participants asked, is Job, or any person for that matter to demand an answer from God?

“When you’re doing all this, you’re making yourself equal to God,” said Hanover resident Eleanor Silva of the St. Paul group.

“This reminds me of my mother and father and how they said, ‘The world doesn’t revolve around you,’ ” said Hull resident Helen Van Praet of  St. Paul’s.

This comparison to parenting was one that several people from each group drew from the story of  Job.

When Job’s righteousness is described at the beginning of the book, it’s said that he made  burned offerings to God every day, including burned offerings for each of his children – just in case they sinned by accident.

“He’s a parent what can I tell you?” said Roger Sullivan who threw the Catholic group into laughter with his suggestion that Job is the classic worried parent.

And as for living God’s will by being good, Bill Wechsler, of Temple Beth Torah, said it’s similar to telling his children that they should brush their teeth. Brush won’t always prevent pain, or in this case, cavities – but you should still do it.

The real test

Near the end of the book, God appears and asks Job who he was to question. Participants said that’s similar to the recalcitrant outbursts of their children – often teenagers – who think they know best.

After hearing God, Job immediately recognizes that he had no place questioning his maker and resigns himself to humble worship. When the rebuke of Job ends, God has harsher words for his friends.

“You have not spoken of me what is right as my servant Job has  done,” God tells the friends.

God orders them to make an offering to Job and tell them, “I will accept his prayer not to deal with you according to your own folly.”

DiVierto said he believes this passage is the birth of the priesthood. Many of the participants said this may have been the real test, to see whether Job would forgive the friends who agitated him in his worst hour.

God gives Job no answer to explain Job’s suffering, and some of the participants continued to struggle with how meek an explanation of suffering the book offers.

“Look how little there is,” Matz said at Temple Beth Torah.

“Do you need more than that?” asked her friend Ralph Esterman. Other participants said the book made them think of how much they already have and how ludicrous it must be to ask God for more.

To the relief of many participants, God restored Job’s fortunes and let him live on till old age.

Mysteries of faith

Exploring – if not solving – the issue of suffering, the story is one to which almost everyone can relate. The unknown author’s literary genius takes the exploration of suffering to such depths that some participants said they were awestruck by the issues raised.

“If your head’s swimming, you’re getting it,” said Framingham resident Bill Smith of the Baptist group. “People go to Job to find out why people suffer. They’re not going to find it, it’s not there.”

Drawing their own conclusions, participants said suffering gives one a chance to test, and possibly deepen their faith.

“I think in the end Job became in awe of the mystery and awesomeness of God. I get the feeling Job grew up a little bit,” Rosenkrantz said.

Some said the books spells out how God is too large to fit into human understanding – as Job’s friends thought they could do.

“There’s a lot going on behind the scenes that we don’t see, and we have to trust God. He knows what he’s doing,” said Baptist group participant Jerry Stearns of Franklin.

When Sirois ended the Catholic group’s study of Job, she said, “And so we shall stop here, having solved nothing.”

Quotes from the Book of Job in this article were taken from the New Revised Standard Version. The Jewish group used the Jewish Publication Society version, the Baptist group used the King James Version and the Catholic group used several versions, including the New American Bible and New Jerusalem Bible.