Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Suffering of Job and Natural Disasters: Creation Untamed III

This is the third installment of my review of Fretheim's Creation Untamed. In previous posts we saw how God created the world good, but not perfect. We also saw that God created a world which included natural disasters that were made worse by human sin.

In chapter three Fretheim examines the book of Job. This is not a place where one would usually turn to to think about natural disasters, but as Fretheim points out, much of what causes Job's suffering is the result of natural disasters: windstorms, lightening, fires, disease (p. 65).

Probably the main stumbling block for many readers of Job is the opening scene in which God and the satan agree to a wager concerning Job's faithfulness. Fretheim spends a good bit of time here unpacking the scene, but probably his most important point is this. Job never takes a direct hit from God. The primary source of Job's suffering is elements in God's creation mediated by the satan. Much of Job's suffering is from natural disaster and some is from moral evil (the various bands of raiders that attack his land). But God is not directly involved here (p. 72).

Job's response to all that has befallen him is reveled in the various speeches attributed to him in chapters 3-37 . Again and again Job returns to the problem of the way creation works. Job understands that his suffering is a results of the way creation works. Fretheim says:

"Job faults God for not creating an order that functions in direct correspondence to human behaviors. The most fundamental issue for Job is theological, more specifically, a certain theology of creation. For Job, God's creation is out of whack; it is a disorderly place that cannot be truly counted on and that God does not carefully control in a way that God should" (pp. 74-75).

In the speeches attributed to God in chapters 38-41, Job is shown that creation is diverse and complex. God's governance of the world is not all controlling. Human beings are not protected from the wildness and randomness of creation. God allows creatures to be what they were created to be which includes the potential for danger (p. 78, 82). The world God created is good, but not perfect. It is not a risk-free place for human or animals. God did not provide danger-free zones even for righteous people like Job (p. 83). God challenges Job to trust God's design of creation and to have confidence that, no matter how dangerous a place, God does have concern for the well-being of creation (p. 85).

So why does Job suffer? Fretheim suggests that God's commitment to human freedom means that God cannot act with complete freedom in the world. God is committed to the structures of creation which means that disasters will strike both the righteous and the unrighteous Matt 5:45 (p. 87). He puts it this way.
The is a price, sometimes a horrendous price, that people may pay for living is such a world. But this is a price that God also pays, for God too will experience the suffering that the creatures undergo. God does not remain aloof, ensconced in some distant abode. God is not like a mechanic fixing a car. God enters deeply into our suffering; rather than control things from without, God works from within. Rather than remain in heaven, above the storms of life, God has chosen to join Job in his suffering and seeks to bring healing from within. And notably, God recognizes that healing may well take significant and sustained levels of conversation and intellectual engagement with the whys and wherefores of life (p. 89).

Fretheim's closing thoughts in this chapter is that God is more honored by the impatient questions of Job than by the friends who place certain questions off-limits (p. 91). In other words, it is in asking the really hard questions that we finally begin to engage God. Disaster, pain and even disease is not a part of "the fall," but God's design. And suffering sometimes has nothing to do with sin but the world we live in.


  1. I agree that God allows nature to take its course, and the He is not directly reponsible for human suffering from natural disasters (as if he had willed them to come to pass). I'm not sure that God recieved glory from Job's questions and accusations. Didn't God rebuke Job for questioning him (40:7-8)? I think we can ask questions of God (humility would be key here), but not question (just short of accusing)Him, or doubt Him because our human reason is unsatisfied. Just my thoughts.

  2. Phil, I am not sure God is rebuking Job for questioning in 40:7-8 as much as he is telling Job that he has got his thinking wrong. Fretheim makes the point that when God tells Job to "gird up hi loins" in 38:3 and 40:7 that it is a challenge to probe his experience of suffering more deeply and to evaluate creation from God's point of view rather than his own. When read in the overall context of the God speeches this seems to make sense.

  3. I think your right about God addressing Job's thinking, and Fretheim's observation about 38:3 is interesting. This seems like a book worth reading...thanks for drawing my attention to it.

  4. I think I really like Fretheim's point about engaging God. I don't think that God is threatened by our rantings. Psalm 103:13-14 state, " 13 Just as a father has compassion on his children,
    So the Lord has compassion on those who fear Him.
    14 For He Himself knows our frame;
    He is mindful that we are but dust.
    I think that God does appreciate it when we bring our thoughts and feelings into the throne room. I'm also sure that if we get out of line, God will, like the compassionate father mentioned in the psalm, correct us. I like the idea of God telling Job to "gird up" his loins. That's like telling him to stand up and be a man. Kudos to Dr. Fretheim for pointing this out.

  5. I like this conclusion by Fretheim; hard questions actually engage God and shouldn't be squelched in the name of saving face. The Exodus paradigm tells us that voicing pain prompts or pricks up the ears of God, causing Him to act. Also, Christ re-files the same complaint filed in Psalm 22 when strapped to the cross, a complaint against God.

  6. Who allows satan to act or not act? Who controls the world? Satan or God?

    The bible tells us satan is the god of this world, implying Satan is the one people are more influenced by.

    Does God selectively help people in times of disaster? Maybe.

    If you read the chapter on Job and you say this is not a mystery I submit you are being dishonest with yourself this is a very complex Chapter in the bible and to make it sound as something that is very simplistic would be a lie.

  7. I am not trying to make it sound simplistic nor I am I really saying anything about it. I am simply relating what Fretheim has said about Job. But in any case, I would encourage you to read his chapter on Job. It is quite insightful.

    Whatever the role of the satan in Job, that being is also absent after chapter one. So while it is not wise to gloss over that chapter, it is also not wise to suggest that Satan controls this world.

  8. (Not the same Anonymous as above).

    John - I have finished Chapter 3 of this book and have found it very interesting. I wonder how well Fretheim's idea on "natural evil" (natural disasters) would flesh out in a fully developed theodicy such as that put forth by Boyd.

    One thing in particular has captured my attention. Fretheim notes that "the satan" in the Job prologue is not the same Satan we encounter in later writings (as commonly understood by Christians).

    Is he following anyone in particular in this vein, or has anyone followed him there? I would like to read more on this idea.


  9. I am not sure who he is following on the notion of Satan. I assumed that what he means is that the Satan in Job is not the highly developed figure that we encounter in the NT. That figure seems to have arisen and developed during the exilic period and then abandoned by Judaism in later centuries. Christianity, of course, still holds a belief in personal evil.

  10. Thanks, John. So does this mean that "the satan" could actually still be a member of "the council" filling a similar role to what we see in Job; versus, say, an apostate angel such a Lucifer who is later identified as Satan in the New Testament? I know there's a lot to unpack in this question, depending on where we start with "the council" and Lucifer.

    What is your take on the connection (or not) between the figure we see in Job and the Satan of Jesus and Paul? Are they one in the same, or is it possible that they are two different beings?

    Thanks again.

  11. I would venture to say that they are one in the same, but the figure in the NT is much more developed. As early Judaism grappled with the problem of evil having a being who rebelled against God seemed, for a little while, to by a logical way to explain the existence of evil. I am not sure that we can/should make to much of the council or the rebellion story. They are two different parts of explanations that develop over the course of hundreds of years. I think the fact that Judaism later dispensed with a personal evil being is some evidence that it was recognized that a "satan" creates more theological dilemmas than it solves.

    I remember asking one of my professors once if he believed in Satan. He said: "No, but I do believe in evil." That struck me. We so often try to connect the source of evil from someplace outside of creation. Yet, we as humans do not seem to need any outside force to help us along.

  12. John: Thanks again. Your response provokes a lot of thought, especially for someone who has grown up with a strong sense of dualism and a healthy regard for the New Testament readings. I have a hard time reconciling the thought that there is not an evil being or beings with what is found in the New Testament, where such beings are assumed. While a sinful nature is inherent in humankind, it seems that the NT assumes that that nature is exascerbated by an evil presence.

  13. I agree, the strong presence of dualism in the NT does make it difficult to completely dismiss the presence of personal evil. I am, for the most part, agnostic about it. I think Christians put way too much emphasis on it. I am sure that I am going overboard in the other direction. But I try to have an awareness of evil in the world and what I may contribute to its presence here.