Now we draw nearer to the conclusion of this series. I have continued to circle around 2 images throughout these months of reflections on suffering.
The first image is a mother who rushes into a darkened room at night where her infant baby is crying, attempting to console the distressed baby with the words, "It's alright." And the second image comes from the Biblical book, Job, in which the main character, Job, who has lost everything including his health, is visited by friends who attempt to console him.
I chose the first image because of its simplicity and universality, its picture of a mother's instinctive behavior. Her empathy does not necessarily draw upon any high level of intelligence or consciousness, not even that of human beings, for we see empathic, consoling behaviors within many different species of animals. It is within the nature of mammals to care for and in many cases to console one another and especially their young.
But human beings show another level of complexity in their suffering. As C.G.Jung has said:
Suffering that is not understood is hard to bear, while on the other
hand it is often astounding to see how much a person can endure
when he understands the why and the wherefore.
(Collected Works, Vol. 18, para. 1578)
For that reason, even though the mother may rush to console her distressed child without thinking, it is very likely that as soon as the incident is behind her, she will reflect to some degree on what happened, how she felt, and what it means for her and the infant to go through the anxiety of such distress, the source of which may not be known or even knowable. Life gathers around us its darkness and mystery, especially late at night when a child is sick or the telephone rings with news of some catastrophe among our family or friends. In those times, very few of us can escape the centuries-old questions: Why did this happen? What have I (or "you" or "they") done to deserve this? What is the meaning of this sad, scary thing?
Which brings me to my second image, the suffering of Job and the attempt by friends to explain what his suffering means. The image evokes reflection from the perspective of depth psychology, literary analysis, and theology. An analysis of the document of the book of Job, as I have suggested earlier, reveals a canonized book of holy scripture conflated from many sources. It contains several layers gathered and edited over some period of time, identifiable by shifting language, particularly in terms of the very incohesive narrative, but more particularly the names used for the deity, as well as the differing nature of the various God-images. However, the central theme running through the book, consistently placed on the lips of Job and erroneously answered by his would-be-friends, is the search for some understanding of the meaning ofJob's suffering.
This is the universal and timeless question: What is the meaning of my suffering? And, once again as I showed in my previous blog, the fundamental supposition of Job's friends was that his suffering could be understood in no way except that he had sinned. To his friends' credit, this was the accepted view of Job's time and place. His friend Eliphaz, arriving to "console" Job, said:
Can you recall anyone guiltless that perished? I speak from
experience: those who plough iniquity and sow disaster,
reap just that. Under the breath of God, they perish: a blast
of his anger, and they are destroyed. (4:7-9)
How easy it was for Eliphaz, and later the two other friends, to say, "Only the guilty who have sinned perish. Therefore, your suffering must be understood as a punishment for your sin." What might the sin(s) have been? There are many prohibitions that came down particularly from the book of Leviticus. These were encapsulated within the so-called "Holiness Code" and "Purity Code." A number of the prohibitions had to do with sexual behavior and thoughts that might blaspheme the deity. These codes draw upon a long history of formation and doubtless were based upon, and in turn cultivated, a religious consciousness of human beings as depraved. Consider the warning Eliphaz gives Job:
How can anyone be pure, anyone born of woman be upright? God
cannot rely even on his holy ones; to him, even the heavens seem
impure. How much more, this hateful, corrupt thing, humanity,
which soaks up wickedness like water! (15:14-16)
In the same vein, and at the same time, those codes projected an image of God as a stern law-giver, judge, and persecutor. Listen to how Bildad describes God's treatment of anyone who fails to keep the strict code in mind, heart, body, and actions:
The light of the wicked must certainly be put out, the lamp that
gives him light cease to shine ... . Driven from the light into dark-
ness, he is banished from the world, without issue or posterity
among his own people or a single survivor where he used to live.
His end appalls the west and fills the east with terror. Such indeed
is the fate of the places where wickedness dwells -- the home of
everyone who knows not God. (18:18-21)
No wonder Job was terrified that he and/or one of his children might sin. No wonder that he scrupulously protected against violating such prohibitions as might be found in the Holiness and Purity Codes. And, then, no wonder that he felt confused, betrayed, and angry when -- after having lived such a "pure" life -- he suffered such calamities he would expect a sinner to suffer, including shameful accusations by his friends of surely having angered God. Finally, no wonder that his friends, convinced of their righteousness by upholding the code, continued to insist for Job's own "good" that he surely had to have sinned and must confess the sin before God destroyed what was left of his life.
Such was the self-consciousness and God-consciousness of Job's day and place. The expected sources of morality had become moralistic; the expected norm of righteousness
had become an inflated self-righteousness; and the God who was projected to be a deity of consolation, a comfort in times of suffering, had become the very source of suffering.
But then something very surprising happens in the story. A young by-stander, Elihu, breaks into the exchanges between Job and his three friends-turned-accusers. Elihu's own speeches make up the third section (chapters 32-37) of this moralistic folk-tale on suffering. It's placement in the book, as well as its placement in the Hebrew Bible, comes almost precisely in the middle. It serves, however fortuitously it may appear, as a kind of hinge point between what has come before and what comes after.
What comes after is a change in self-consciousness as well as a change in God-consciousness. Elihu is angry not only with Job but with Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar as well. He charges the three inquisitors of having missed the mark altogether, and Job of being blind to his real situaiton. It is worth noting that the editor who conflated the many sources in the book of Job emphasizes the point that Elihu differs from all that has come earlier. Elihu is young, the text says. His character is one of deep thought, bold, passionate, impatient with the prevailing piety of his time, but yet capable of modesty and humility -- especially in the face of his God, a divine presence who is timeless, immanent, and transcendent in power and awe. Even the name of this young upstart suggests a possible new relationship with the divinity: "Elihu" in Hebrew means "He is my God," and Elihu's father is "Barachel," "God has blessed." (32:2)
But let's listen to Elihu. I will briefly lay out his case. Instead of a conforming orthodoxy that claims absolute knowledge of God's moral demands, Elihu proposes a more modest and humble view: "Teach me what I should say to him, but better discuss no further,
since we are in the dark. ...There are times when the light vanishes behind darkening
clouds... ." (37:19-21)
Instead of assuming that God is so insecure that he is easily offended when his legalistic prohibitions are violated, Elihu says,
If you sin, how can you affect him, what benefit does he
receive ... . (35:6)
If you are upright, what do you give him... . (35:7)
Of course God does not listen to trivialities... . (35:13)
In fact, Elihu's deity is not the law-giving, judging, persecuting patriarch of the Holiness and Purity Codes but rather a God whose "clouds make the lightning flash" while
still "pulverizing the rain into mist" and "sending it down on the human race."
(See 36: 27; 37:16) This God sounds much like the weather and storm God that in some sources is also associated with Yahweh:
He gathers up the lightning in his hands assigning it the mark
where to stick. (36:32)
He does not check his thunderbolts until his voice resounds no more.
Yes, certainly God shows us marvels and does great deeds that we
cannot understand. (37: 4,5)
In fact, Elihu's speech inserts a name for God, 'Aliy, that we have not seen before or after in the text.
Lo, 'Aliy spreads his light, the roots of the sea are his throne. (36:30)
'Aliy speaks with his thunder, venting his wrath against evil. (36:33)
This deity, 'Aliy, is a storm deity with archeological references extending back at least to the fourteenth/fifteenth century B.C.E. (See Archeology, Vol. 62, Number 6, November/December 2009 for reports on an excavation site in Syria and a temple presided over by a storm god whose name was made out to be "Adda.")
Whatever associations may have formed Elihu's image and experience of God, it must be noted here that this God is one of utmost wonder, awe, and power who strives for justice in the world. However, Elihu adds yet another profound characteristic of his God, and it is this: God cares not so much for the outer display of piety as for what is within one's heart. It is the "state of affairs" within one's soul that appears to be of special concern to Elihu's God. In a fascinating description of how Elihu believes God expresses this special concern for persons, Elihu informs Job:
God speaks first in one way, and then in another, although we
do not realize it. In dreams and in night-visions, when slumber
has settled on humanity and people are asleep in bed, he speaks
in someone's ear, frightens him with apparitions to turn him from
what he is doing and to put an end to his pride. And thus he
preserves his life from the abyss ... . (33:14-18)
In addition, when someone is suffering and approaching death:
Then there is an angel by his side, a mediator, chosen out of
thousands, to remind him where his duty lies, to take pity on
him and to say, 'Release him from descent into the pit, for I
have found a ransom for his life ... . (33:23,24)
Circling around Job, his sufferings and his protestations, Elihu arrives at the central point of his confrontation of the pitiful Job and his accusers. It is pride, says Elihu, that has clouded Job's mind, and the pride is that of self-righeousness.
Job's internal state of affairs is his pride of self-righteousness for having so zealously followed the rigid proscriptions of the Holiness and Purity Codes. Job shows no love for God, only fear of not meeting his rules for living. Job shows no empathy or love for his sons and daughters, only fear that even in their minds they may somehow blaspheme God who would punish them as well as himself. Job's predicament is both that he has no awareness of his inner state and that he is possessed by a toxic, debilitating God-image. And whereas his old friends offer nothing to help him become conscious of his situation, Elihu brings forth both a diagnosis and a prescription for his recovery -- a spiritual recovery.
Elihu speaks of a change in self-consciousness as well as a change in God-consciusness. Already, Elihu says, there is an advocate to mediate for you; and the good news of a change in your life is as close as a whisper in your ear while you sleep at night, attended by your "dreams and night-visions."
My account of Elihu's case has taken us through many turns within a deep forest of theological and mythological language and ideas. The account has also suggested a new way of looking at the ancient text of Job by focusing on the role of Elihu as an agent of change who offers a self-consciousness and God-consciousness challenging an old, stultifying orthodoxy.
But more than a brief commentary on the text, I am proposing that this interpretation of a change in consciousness offers potential to ground our perspective and experience of suffering in a way that honors body and mind, soul and spirit. To this I return next time.