Israelites living in a foreign land, Alleluia.
Won’t bow down at the king’s command.
“There’s just one God over earth and sun,
And, Nebuchadnezzar, you’re not the one.”
17. So in the furnace three must go: Alleluia.
Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego.
The king comes down to watch the show.
Sees four singing in the fire’s glow.
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.
What Bible passage did Bob Dillon have in mind when he wrote “Blowin’ in the
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
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
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.”
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
- punishment (usually in the form of defeat by
some other nation)
- restoration of the nation’s fortunes
- sin again, and so on.
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
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
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.
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
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
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
- 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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.