Saturday, June 11, 2016

Defending God

In the ancient Near East, when the gods detected gross impropriety in their ranks, they subjected their own to trial. When mortals suspect their gods of wrongdoing, do they have the right to put them on trial? What lies behind the human endeavor to impose moral standards of behavior on the gods? Is this effort an act of arrogance, as Kant suggested, or a means of keeping theological discourse honest?--from the book blurb.


The book with this arresting title was written (2005) by James L. Crenshaw, Robert L. Flowers Professor of Old Testament at Duke University. He is the author of many books, most recently The Psalms: An Introduction (2001) and Education in Ancient Israel: Across the Deadening Silence (1998).

In a continuing search for guidance on how to treat the issues raised by the book of Job, I had come across a reference to this tome and have tried to read it. Much of it examines ancient near eastern texts (the title of a collection by James B. Pritchard edited and published in 1950) - from Egypt, Mesopotamia, but including at least a question from Epicurus, "whence evil if there be a god?"

That I believe is the question Job and similar middle eastern texts (Akkadian, Ugaritic, Sumerian, Egyptian, among others) address. Further I believe that it is really only a "hard" question if one believes there is one god as opposed to many. Herakles /Hercules had to live with many afflictions, but I think he might have taken comfort in the knowledge that these were the doings of a jealous goddess (Hera) who intended to defy and discomfort Zeus. That was no doubt small comfort to one sent to clean out the Augean stables, but at least it meant that Father Zeus was not guilty.

What I mean is that if there are two high/ultimate powers in the universe and one was responsible for the good things that happen and the other for the bad things in human experience, then the question - how can a good God allow evil in this world - would not arise. Literally, it was the devil that did it.

The story of Job begins with a scene in heaven in which Satan or "the Satan" gets God's consent to wreak havoc in Job's life. Why then is there no further reference to Satan in the rest of the book? Neither Job, nor any of his friends, nor Yahweh when He finally speaks, refers to Satan as the origin of the evil that befalls Job. The problem of the justice or righteousness of God, theodicy, would not arise if the arguments in that book accepted the premise that there is a evil "principle" as well as a good god in the universe.


This question, therefore, is meaningless in a dualistic theology and perhaps even more so in a polytheistic context. Gods, more or less equal to each other, do good or evil as is in keeping with each character. One might even accept the conclusion of the Barong dance in which good and evil battle to a DRAW. (The image to the right was downloaded from Wikimedia Commons on June 11, 2016; this work has been released into the public domain by its author, Zsolt67 at Hungarian Wikipedia.)

But Job believed in One God, holy and almighty. Any evil in the world created and sustained by that God, raises the question, "why does a good God allow evil"? There were answers of sorts in Crenshaw's work, but I take no comfort in Mesopotamian parallels or Ugaritic myths. 

I found it particularly offensive that a passage that seemed to promise further light on this question led to a foot-note that referred to a previous publication by the author. I wished the author had treated the question substantively and not as an opportunity to display his academic achievements. I hope to address Job's question in a current writing project that I plan to complete by the end of this year.


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