Gerry Squires and Boyd Chubbs have produced something singular: they have taken one of the most puzzling and puzzled over books of the Hebrew Bible and created of it a modern illuminated manuscript. Chubbs’ penmanship undulates in graceful lines punctuated by colourful initials. The text frames a series of moody water colours in which Squires’ interprets the sufferings of one of the most famous victims in the history of literature.
Squires is one of the greatest artists ever to have been born in pre-confederation Newfoundland. Chubbs is a master calligrapher from Labrador. The barren rocky landscape that forms the background of the illustrations is, of course, Newfoundland. What more fitting site for the trials and tribulations of Job than Newfoundland, a country that, like the God of Job himself, takes with one hand what it gives with the other. Squires has here produced his most confessional and personal work since the Boatman series of the 1970s. It is Gerry Squires who raises his hand to God in this work. It is Gerry Squires who reaches into the void. But it is also Boyd Chubbs as it is myself and every human being who has ever lived long enough to suffer the injustice of life. For Job is everyman and everyman is Job.
I am a philosopher and can only offer a few questions to contribute to this beautiful book, questions that occur to everyone at some time in life, but which the philosopher may perhaps be able to express with a particular clarity. The question that occurs to me on reflecting on Job is the following. Who but God is responsible for the evil that cannot be attributed to human misdeeds, the evil that befalls us (natural evil), by distinction from the evil that we do to one another (moral evil)? A child born with a crippling fatal illness, brought into existence only to be denied it, suffers natural evil. People crushed under piles of rubble after an earthquake or torn to pieces by a tsunami suffer natural evil. What kind of God would allow such things? Most striking in The Book of Job is the way the unknown poet makes of natural evil a moral problem. Job suffers the natural lot of the multitude—sickness, poverty, loss, death. The poet compels us to consider these ills, at least in Job’s case, as caused directly by God. If natural evil is the effect of God’s free decision, it too should be considered from a moral perspective, the text suggests.
Through no fault of his own, Job is tormented by God. As Job protests to the three friends, who attempt to defend God against Job’s accusations, Job’s suffering cannot be understood either as the effect of the ill-will of other men or as just punishment for any misdeeds of his own. For Job, we are told, is a righteous man. Indeed, it is his very righteousness which makes him a target for God’s cruel experiment. God alone is to be held responsible for the injustice of Job’s suffering. This is the shocking conclusion of this text of sacred scripture: God is responsible for evil.
Greek mythology abounds with stories of tragic victims of divine caprice. But that a tale such as Job exists in the Hebrew Bible is astonishing. It is widely believed that the Hebrew Bible is the book that identifies God with being itself. The God of the Jews is not one deity among others, vying for power: he is infinite being itself. Medieval theologians conclude that to identify God with being is the same as identifying God with the good. To deny this, to distinguish God from the good, would be to say in effect that there is something higher than God. If God is not identical to the good, then the good is higher than God, and God is not infinite.
And yet, in The Book of Job we read of the infinitely good God, the creator of the world, entering into a game with the devil (‘the adversary’) for the sake of a vain display of power. What are we to make of such a story? One widespread interpretation holds that Job is an argument for atheism erupting from within the Jewish scriptures. Along this line of argumentation, the meaning of Job cannot be that the creator is morally suspect (a contradiction in terms), but rather that God does not in fact exist. The story of God’s contest with the devil is thereby read as a poetic device drawing attention to the inadequacy of the very idea of a creator God. It would seem that at least one of the ancient Hebrew authors who contributed to the composition of the Bible felt compelled to counterbalance the theological claims of scriptures with a story calling attention to certain simple facts, the everyday occurrences that make the existence of God dubious. Illness, accident, old age, even death: none of these calamities, we feel, ought to be. We can imagine a better world than the one we seem doomed to suffer. Since it is incoherent to imagine a God who is not good, we must conclude that God does not exist. On this reading, Job’s problem is not that he is the victim of a capricious creator who has masterminded his misfortune (the surface story). Job’s problem is rather that he has not been created at all: like each of us, Job is an accident adrift in a sea of meaningless accidents, suffering a life that is without design or purpose.
The greatest theologian of all time, the thirteenth-century Dominican friar Thomas Aquinas, countered this argument head on. In his Summa Theologica, Aquinas restates the argument for atheism as follows: “The word ‘God’ means that he is infinite goodness.” Sed hoc intelligitur in hoc nomine Deus, scilicet quod sit quoddam bonum infinitum. “If, therefore, God existed, there would be no evil discoverable; but there is evil in the world. Therefore God does not exist” (Sum theol., 1a, q. 2, a. 3, arg. 1). It is difficult to imagine a more succinct argument for atheism. Aquinas’ answer to this objection is born of his unshakeable faith, refined by his razor-sharp intellect, that God exists. No doubt, there is natural evil in the world. And God could have prevented it—if he had been unable to, he would not be infinite. The only conclusion to be drawn from this paradox, Aquinas argues, is that God allows evil to be for the sake of some higher good in an act of design that exceeds our comprehension. Far from demonstrating the impotence of God, the existence of evil demonstrates God’s power. For God is so powerful that He can bring goodness even out of evil. In Aquinas’ words: “This is part of the infinite goodness of God, that he should allow evil to exist, and out of it produce good.” Hoc ergo ad infinitam Dei bonitatem pertinet, ut esse permittat mala, et ex eis eliciat bona (Sum theol., 1a, q. 2, a. 3, ad. 1). We finite beings, Aquinas argues, simply cannot understand the infinite goodness of God.
Aquinas’ argument, which in some ways repeats the argument of The Book of Job itself, satisfies few modern thinkers. Yes, Job gets a new family in the end and his wealth is restored. But what about his first family, who were brutally sacrificed for the sake of God’s contest with the devil? The most amazing thing about Job is that it does not pretend to offer a satisfying answer to the problem of evil. At the heart of the joy that concludes the book, the stain of evil remains and the question haunts the reader: Why was Job’s suffering necessary? Did Job not love God from the beginning? What was proven by means of the sacrifice of Job’s family?
The Book of Job may not offer an answer to these questions, but it brings the core insight of the ancient Jews into sharp focus: God is either identical to justice or justice alone is God. This insight of the Jews changed history. The poet’s depiction of God using Job to prove his power to the devil cannot, on this reading, be intended as literal. Job himself seems to reject this God and any religion that would worship such a God. What Job demands of God is higher than myth and higher than law. What Job seeks transcends and puts into question all ideological forms of religion. Job demands justice: that the innocent should be vindicated, that perpetrators of evil should be punished, and that innocent life and genuine love should be free of pain.
The Book of Job is not an argument for atheism but a defence of justice in a world that is in too many ways unjust. It is not true that there is no justice in the world. It is only because there is justice that the world can be known to be in large part unjust. For we must at least conclude, as does God at the end of the book, that Job himself is just.
Professor Sean J. McGrath, Department of Philosophy, Memorial University of Newfoundland.