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Verse 14, Suffering

16. Israelites living in a foreign land, Alleluia. 
      Won’t bow down at the king’s command. Alleluia. 
      “There’s just one God over earth and sun, Alleluia. 
      And, Nebuchadnezzar, you’re not the one.” Alleluia. 
17. So in the furnace three must go: Alleluia. 
      Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. Alleluia. 
      The king comes down to watch the show. Alleluia. 
      Sees four singing in the fire’s glow. Alleluia. 
Who was the fourth in the furnace with Shadrach and company? 
18. Job had money and life was good. Alleluia.
      Surely he was living the way he should. Alleluia.
      He lost it all and they said he'd sinned. Alleluia.
      But the answer is blowin' in the wind. Alleluia. 
What Bible passage did Bob Dillon have in mind when he wrote “Blowin’ in the Wind”? 
The answer to the first question is an angel, who looked to Nebuchadnezzar like a son of God. The second is still an open question. Bob Dillon might not have had any Bible passage in mind, but some pop music scholars think he did. Only they don’t mention the part of the Job story where God speaks “out of the whirlwind,” which is where I thought “blowin’ in the wind” came from. Instead somebody on the Internet thought he saw an echo of a prophet’s saying about people who have ears but can’t hear. (“How many ears must one man have before he can hear people cry?”) I think my guess is just as good. 
I put two stories together in this essay because both are about suffering. Both, I believe, are fiction. The story of the three men in the furnace contains a miracle—the appearance of an angel in the furnace with Shadrach and company, keeping them from harm. But, to a believer, that doesn’t mean it has to be fiction. Even to a non-believer it doesn't mean the author intended it as fiction. Some other factors justify the conclusion that this story is more likely a moral tale than historical reporting. One is the situation in which the author wrote. Jews really were suffering. They were tortured and killed for their religion. Some were resisting, but not all. The unknown author of the Book of Daniel wanted to encourage more Jews to remain faithful to their God; and it makes sense that he would have used a story which he either made up or found in the local folklore to do it. Another clue is in some of the details of the story, which are even less likely than a miracle. The behavior of a king taking time off to inspect personally the proceedings of a particular case of capital punishment is one example. 
In the other story, the things that happen to Job are not miraculous. They’re perfectly possible according to the laws of nature. Yet this story is easily identifiable as fiction. The story begins with a setting that is not on earth but in heaven, where God is presiding over a court that looks like Camelot and bragging to one of his “knights,” whose name happens to be Satan, about how his friend Job is so devoted to him. Satan says, “Well, why wouldn’t he be. You gave him practically everything a man could want. Just take away those gifts and see how faithful he is then.” God says, “OK, he’s in your hands. Just don’t kill him.” 
Sometimes the existence of evil and suffering in this world is enough to make one doubt that there is an all-knowing, all-powerful, all-loving God over it all. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were lucky. God sent an angel to keep them safe inside the fiery furnace, and the story is meant to reassure suffering Jews that God is still in control and still cares for them. But there are lots of times when, as in Job’s case, God doesn’t intervene to keep the innocent from suffering. Why does a good God permit bad things to happen? Why does God allow bad people to exist or good people to go bad? Why does God stand by while anyone suffers? 
Christians, and Jews before them and who knows who before that, have analyzed and agonized over the paradox of suffering in a world made by a good god. (It’s not an invention of recent atheist critics.) There are those who find in this problem of evil a reason to leave the faith they were brought up in; but many others, just as sensitive and reasonable, stay. Trust that sometimes must go beyond reason, even in human affairs, steadies them, plus the knowledge that this problem has been around a long time and that some answers have worked for some  thoughtful people. They may have their own answers. 
The Israelites had a traditional answer to the problem of suffering. Suffering was divine punishment for the sins of the nation. Very often the sin named was idolatry. The prophets accused the Israelites of whoring after other gods. In the same breath, though, they targeted sins against other people and the earth: “You have neglected the poor, the widow, and the stranger. You have ignored the Sabbath rest for yourselves, your slaves, your beasts of burden, your fields.” Worshipping Israel’s God implies that you take care of these other duties as well. 
The prophets also held out hope. “God will not be angry forever. Return to God’s ways and he will relent. You will again live in a land of milk and honey.” The following pattern is repeated many times in the story the Bible tells: 

  1. Sin
  2. punishment (usually in the form of defeat by some other nation)
  3. repentance
  4. restoration of the nation’s fortunes
  5. sin again, and so on.

The answer—suffering is punishment for sin—worked as long as Israel was a nation, well, two nations since the split in David and Solomon's United Kingdom. It worked because people identified themselves with their nation, tied their destiny and their dreams to that of the nation. So even if their personal lives didn’t work out so well, there was hope that the nation’s would someday. It was a very common attitude in that age but probably impossible today. There came a time when it stopped working because Israel had ceased to be any nation at all.
That was during the Babylonian Captivity, the middle 40 years of the sixth century BCE, Before the Common Era. The larger half of the Divided Kingdom had been destroyed long since by the Assyrians. The smaller, named Judah after one of its two tribes, was defeated by the Babylonians and many of the people removed to Babylon. The prophet Jeremiah tells the people to make a new life. “We no longer have our own land or king. Our temple is destroyed. But this place isn’t exactly a prison. We can even pray for this new land. And we have the Torah, our sacred writings.” Some people think the style of worship that became the Jewish synagogue service, centering around readings and commentary on the scriptures, began at this time. About this time also the Israelites came to be known as Jews. 
Then King Cyrus of Persia, having just conquered the Babylonians, decided it was inconvenient to have all these displaced people around his new empire. (There were more of them than just the Jews.) He gave permission for all of them to go back to their original homes. Some Jews accepted the offer. Their story is told in books of Ezra and Nehemiah. But many more, in fact the majority, wanted to stay where they were. They'd made a decent life for themselves in a foreign land. Why throw that away? It was among these latter people that the story of Job appeared, and the history of that story includes two major turning points in the history of the problem of suffering. 
As the story was first told, Job is a righteous man of means and also blessed with good health and a happy family. Then he loses it all, his wealth, his health, and even his family. Through it all Job suffers with heroic patience, and he's at last rewarded, with wealth, health, and new family restored. Job's patience has since become a byword in many languages. I seem to recall my mother, in an exasperated state, saying something about "the patience of Job."

That story indicates that the understanding of suffering among the Jewish people was beginning to change. It no longer looked forward to what might happen to the nation in some unknown future. God doesn't visit the sins of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generation; nor does God's mercy, when the people repent, consist in some future blessing for the nation. Since there is no nation it's necessary for justice to be served one individual at a time. I think this is the understanding of suffering most Christians have today, adding that the recompense may have to wait until a life after death.

Cyrus' successors on the Persian throne were not as kindly disposed toward foreigners as Cyrus was, and the people were suffering once more. Would this story with its new theology of suffering satisfy their needs? A poetic genius among the Jews in Babylon didn't think so. He made several additions to the story in the form of a dialogue between Job and his friends, supposedly there to comfort him in his sorrow. Their comfort consists in doing exactly what the original story of the patient Job did: apply a theology designed for a suffering nation to a suffering individual. They insist that Job must have sinned to deserve all this punishment, and the solution is to admit it and repent. Then God will once more show mercy.

In the story that thus takes shape we have a split-personality Job. He suffers patiently, but he also rebels against his lot, rejecting all the rationalizations of the “friends” who come to comfort him. They assume he must be guilty of something or God wouldn’t be treating him like this. He knows he doesn’t deserve it. There’s no justice to it, nothing good in it at all. He even challenges God to give him a hearing. God, finally rising to the challenge, speaks out of a whirlwind and gives no answer at all. Just as the song says, the answer is “blowin’ in the wind.” 
The Jewish people are being told not to put the burden of solving the problem of evil on God. Suffering doesn’t just go away when we do all that we imagine God wants. It’s something to deal with as best we can. Job eventually recovers from the disasters that claimed him for a while. That part belonged to the original story, and the new author simply repeats it at the end. In the new story, though, it’s not patience alone that wins the victory. It’s also Job's dogged determination not to give in, not to deny what he absolutely knows: this evil is wrong. God tells Job’s friends, “You have not spoken rightly about me as has my servant Job.”
Once in a while the Bible comes up with a theory or hypothesis to explain some puzzling phenomenon, but that’s not the Bible’s strong suit. The theory that suffering is punishment from God is a case in point, and the author of Job wants us to know just how inadequate that theory is. He would have had some pretty scathing retorts to Christians who explain natural catastrophes like Hurricane Katrina or unnatural horrors like 911 as God’s punishment for some favorite “sin”—homosexuality, taking God out of schools, or whatever. 
All through the Book of Job the reader is expecting to find some new theory to replace the old, but no such theory is provided. I think that’s exactly right. Evil doesn’t deserve an explanation. When you hear some supposedly wise saying about evil, stop and think if they’re just making evil things out to be not really bad after all. Here are some examples: 

  • Evil is just the other side of the coin.
  • It’s the shadow that makes the light all the brighter.
  • It’s the necessary contrast. How could we know how good we have it without some suffering to compare?
  • Suffering is an illusion and so is the whole material world. Enlightenment will put us above all that.
  • Suffering stirs up the virtue of compassion and the fighting spirit that leads to great accomplishments.
  • It’s only temporary and it just gives us a “higher” place in heaven.

Job actually has something to say about that last theory. He doesn't believe it. (Job, Chapter 14) Though belief in an afterlife was common among surrounding peoples, it didn't gain acceptance among Jews until very late, in the one or two centuries before Jesus' time, and then only for some. 

There’s another Christian theory, which has some vague beginnings in the Hebrew Scriptures, namely that pain and suffering besides being a punishment for sin are a price paid to God for forgiveness. There’s a memorable passage in the Book of Isaiah that we hear in church every Good Friday: 

Yet it was our infirmities that he bore,
our sufferings that he endured,
while we thought of him as stricken,
as one smitten by God and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our offenses,
crushed for our sins;
upon him was the chastisement that makes us whole,
by his stripes we were healed. 
(Isaiah 53:4-5) 

Though Christian liturgy applies these words to Jesus, the traditional Jewish interpretation, accepted by many Christian scholars, is that they refer to the Jewish people. Do they really mean that somehow suffering pays a debt incurred by sin? Some Jews apparently thought so. A story is told of seven brothers tortured and killed for refusing to worship the gods of the then reigning empire (left by Alexander the Great). The last of them predicts that “through me and my brothers [God will] bring to an end the wrath of the Almighty that has justly fallen on our whole nation.” (2 Maccabees 7: 38) Catholics are thinking in the same way when they imagined that their Lenten penances were “paying” for sins. Early Christians and many, maybe even most, theologians in the past applied this theory also to Jesus’ suffering. “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:45) 
Other theologians today doubt that the idea of a ransom payment is the correct way to understand Jesus’ death. For me, it raises the question: What if the leaders of the Jews had not rejected Jesus? What if Jesus had seen nothing but success in every endeavor? Would our sins not have been forgiven because Jesus didn’t “pay” any ransom? 
Why did Jesus “have to die”? Was death, especially death on a cross, part of God’s plan for Jesus? I think God’s plan for Jesus was not to die on the cross but to fulfill a mission, which he conceived based on his study of the Jewish scriptures and his own insight into the times in which he lived. Jesus foresaw that obeying this call would likely result in his own death and went ahead anyway. That doesn’t mean that he wanted to be a martyr, or that God wanted his Son to die. Jesus’ obedience stands as God’s judgment upon evil and our support in the midst of it. 
I don’t think the Bible gives a definitive answer to the question why God allows the innocent to suffer or allows any suffering, period. I find encouragement in the Bible as a whole because of its realism in the face of the problem, the courage of the people on its pages who suffer, and the honesty of the writers who tried to make sense of it without excusing themselves, without blaming God, and without ever falling for the pessimistic philosophy that all we can look forward to is an unending cycle of good and evil, peace and war, prosperity and want. Well, most of the time they didn't fall for it, but not all the time -- that sentiment also is found in the Bible.