Many centuries before The Book of Job became part of the Hebrew Bible, there was a similar story from Babylonia or Assyria. The protagonist of that story, Tabi-utul-Enlil, also suffers great ills and misfortunes, and wonders why his gods and goddesses ignore him. He has been obedient to them and ‘bowed his face,’ and ‘brought his tribute.’ But “No god came to my aid, taking me by the hand. No goddess had compassion for me, coming to my side.”
It is a powerful story, one that was adapted into an important story in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. However, the moral that the story of Job offers is unsatisfying. Job’s suffering (the loss of his ten children, all his wealth, and his health)—which came as a test by God, prompted by Satan—is resolved by God after He tells Job not to question the One who has created the world. Job, humbled, repents, and gets ten new children (with the daughters being the most beautiful in the land), and twice the wealth (including 14,000 sheep!), and supposedly lives happily ever after (other than the loss of his first ten children, which as a father, I can’t exactly reconcile that ten new children, even pretty ones, make up for the loss of the other ones).
It is unsatisfying on every level, other than as an excellent vehicle to consider different theodicies or theories of suffering. Job’s three friends—all of whom are sorely lacking in social emotional skills—try to console him and explain why he suffers (as does a random youngster who, having not been even mentioned until two-thirds into the story “Ok, Boomer’s” Job and his friends, dismissing their lack of wisdom, and offering his own interpretation). And all attempt to give reason why Job is suffering: he’s offended God, he’s being punished for his sins, and so on, but Job swears his innocence and even recriminates God for not punishing the truly wicked—until God swoops down in the form of a whirlwind and scares him into humility.
And yet, I can’t help but imagine a Gaian version of this story. One that provides wisdom instead of a warning to stay obedient when unexpected suffering strikes. Sometimes—actually frequently—good people are struck by misfortune. Disease, financial ruin, the loss of a child. It is unexplainable, and yet, our human minds crave, even demand, explanation—hence why we seek out God, since science is rarely enough for most in that moment.
So what if there was a Story of Job for modern times? While I started writing this months before COVID-19, it feels even more relevant now, as thousands have died from a disease that didn’t exist just months ago—a disease that will probably continue to cull humanity without judgment for years to come.
The millions who will suffer from this virus are not to blame, directly at least (perhaps other than those going to “coronavirus parties” or otherwise flouting good sense). But the underlying systems we’ve created and are living in cultivate and concentrate risk: new diseases (from environmental disruptions of wild lands; through factory farming; and through pollution, including the warming of the Earth); our global interconnectedness; our total population, which puts further pressure on the Earth; as well as population density, with people often concentrated in slums where health and sanitation are further compromised. Add to all that the ignorance about health and medicine, and misinformation, which makes it all worse. As does the inequitable distribution of goods and putting profit over people leading to even worse outcomes, as some cannot afford healthcare, cannot stay home when feeling sick, and companies resist shifting to producing essential supplies in times of crisis.
As the story explores, some suffering is human-cultivated and reducible. Other forms are just pure bad luck. Distinguishing between these, accepting the latter, and minimizing the former, individually and collectively, is the best we can do. But that is still a lot.
The Gaian Book of Job
There was a man in the land of US, whose name was Job. He was a successful man. And happy. He had a farm in the south of that land. He had a kind wife, and two helpful and clever children. On his farm he had two acres producing vegetables, five acres producing hay, and twenty acres of grassland to pasture his flock of six score sheep. His sheep provided wool, meat, and security during challenging years. One hundred acres of forest bordered his farm, providing shade and additional food for his sheep, firewood, lumber, and forageable crops.
But his children were nearing the age of adulthood. And more money would be needed to provide them with education and a chance at a good life. His neighbors had long ago increased the size of their flocks, adding more sheep per acre, and some even built large sheds and brought in feed to sustain them. But his visits to their farms made him question that approach. Their animals seemed skittish, unhappy, unwell.
And yet. Perhaps there was no harm in increasing his flock just a bit. So he sold the trees of five acres of his forest, produced more hay, and his six score sheep became twelve.
In subsequent years, Job earned more. And his oldest went away to college. This child, a son, was bright and thrived in school and seemed all but destined to be successful and happy. However, a car struck him down while crossing the street on his busy school campus, and he did not recover from his injuries.
Oh, how Job cursed himself and questioned why he sent him to a big city school instead of a quiet rural one. Though that was his son’s choice. Over and over he struggled with the thought, ‘if only we had done something differently, my precious son would still be alive.’ But over time, Job began to understand that life is full of uncertainty. Of good fortune and bad fortune—and it is not always easy to distinguish between the two until long after the fact. While I am devastated, Job thought, I have also been wonderfully fortunate to have had twenty years with such a wonderful person in my life.
Job’s son’s funeral was expensive. And his younger child, his daughter, was quickly approaching adulthood. Job could not afford to send another child to school any more than he could send the first. So he listened to his neighbors. He doubled his flock again, and bought special feed that prevented them from getting sick. He razed ten more acres of woods and with the money from the trees as down payment, he borrowed enough from the moneylenders to build a large shed for his 300 sheep.
Again, Job earned more. His daughter left the farm to go to school and was happy. Job and his wife were proud. But the land of his farm seemed less alive. His life less joyful as he tended his crowded shed. Then one spring, suddenly, his flock sickened and one quarter died. He too got sick, as did his wife. She was bedridden and eventually hospitalized. While they tried, the doctors could not help her and she returned to the Earth.
His daughter returned from school to mourn her mother and care for her father. While home, another disease ravaged the flock and his sheep had to be put down to prevent infecting his neighbors’ animals. Job’s daughter also sickened and succumbed to her illness and returned to the Earth.
Job had lost his whole family. And his flock. Soon he developed sores in his mouth, on his feet, and on his hands. He could barely lift himself from his bed, draw air into his lungs, or hold down even the simplest of foods. The pain and loss was unbearable. And he cried out, “why have I been so forsaken?”
Job’s Friends Attend Him
Having heard about Job’s suffering, his friends from his days in school called upon him. Martin from Germany, Krishna from India, and Daisetsu from Japan—they all came together to support him and mourn with him.
As Job and his three friends sat, sharing stories of their time together, and particularly their memories of Job’s wife and children, Job once again sobbed and asked what it was he did to deserve this.
Martin answered first, “Truly, no one deserves what you have gone through. But God in his wisdom can never be doubted. It is He who created the universe. We are but worms to him. Do not question His actions. For shall we receive the good at the hand of God and not receive the bad?”
Job replied, “I do not question God. If this is God’s action, then I accept it. But I am not sure I can attribute this to the Almighty. Is he really a puppet master orchestrating all of life, or has he not given all eight billion of His children free will? Could this suffering not stem from others’ actions, others’ choices, or even my own? But if my own, what, truly, have I done to warrant this?”
To this Martin answered, “You must have done something that perhaps you didn’t understand as evil, but God did. You must have sinned. Gravely. If you repent, and rededicate yourself to God, perhaps this tragedy will make sense and He will take away your suffering.”
Job responded, “I am not without sin, but the idea that I have done something so evil, so irredeemable that God would kill three innocents to punish me suggests either God is a capricious monster or is just a fiction of man.”
Krishna then spoke up, “When you say it like that, it is hard to imagine an omnibenevolent God allowing this type of suffering to be put upon you, the good Job who surely doesn’t deserve it—especially when there are so many individuals far more deserving of God’s wrath who have not received it. However, perhaps this is not punishment for misdeeds in this life, but misdeeds in a past life. The karmic cycle extends eons. This may be the settlement of a debt for transgressions made many lifetimes ago.”
And Job replied: “Do you really believe that my past lives, which I do not remember, nor frankly even believe I’ve had, somehow shape the moral and physical consequences of this life? Karma as a metaphor, or even in the terms of personal relationships—if I do something cruel to you, it’ll come back to me—that I can accept. But literal karma? Where my actions long ago—in a time before cars, even—triggered a car to run over my son in a different city centuries into the future? You say you’ve come to comfort me, instead you just try to explain away my suffering, and instead, enrage me!”
Daisetsu looking deeply into Job’s eyes, whispered, “You are right. It is not our place to explain away your suffering. Or dismiss your pain. Though suffering is, in reality, just an illusion. It is just perception—there is no suffering, only attachment to things in life. Life happens. People die. All the time. It is your inability to accept that your wife and children—and your health and vigor—are gone that is at the heart of your suffering. If you can separate yourself from your longings, accept the changes that have suddenly come, instead of clinging to the past, you will suffer no longer.”
Job sighed. “This may be true but it does not erase the fact that my wife and children are no more. Their suffering may be over but all who knew and loved them cannot separate themselves from that suffering until they too are dead. Still today I see my father, and my heart aches when I think of him—even as he has been in the ground for 25 years and is no more than dust and bone. Can a person ever actually shift his perspective enough where the loss of a loved one will not rend his heart in twain?
Daisetsu, smiling gently, responded: “No, but to remind oneself that suffering is part of life and does not stem from past life misdeeds or from a wrathful or even inscrutable God is still comforting.”
Standing up, Job replied, “Perhaps that is true. But it is minimally so. And while I thank all three of you for your counsel, I am exhausted. Overwhelmed with grief and will excuse myself to sleep.”
“Wait,” said Richard, Job’s son’s friend who also had come to pay his condolences and had been listening to the debate. “Up until now I have remained silent, thinking that you all, being older than I, had wisdom far greater than mine. But all this talk of God’s mystery and righteousness, of karma, of non-attachment, makes me question your wisdom, and wonder about your naïveté. Yes, in ancient times, when science could not explain where lightning came from, where disease came from, even basic biological and ecological cycles, we told stories—of magical beings and recurring lives—to help assuage our fears and explain our suffering. But we know now that those are just fanciful myths. Life is full of random chance. Your son died because of bad luck. Your daughter and wife too. With science, we are working to rein in illness and superstitious beliefs that ofttimes exacerbate bad outcomes. This may not ease your pain, but have faith, faith in science and reason, which when applied, can cure diseases, design cars in ways that make accidents impossible, and make humans safe from dangers we currently face.”
“It would have been best if you had stayed silent,” replied Job. “For what you say is more nonsensical than any words that have yet been uttered. Yes, we may cure diseases but is our science truly focused on that? Science is not religion, is not a deity, and yet we treat it that way. In reality science is a tool—a tool that has become enslaved to profit. We spend more researching baldness than we do curing crippling diseases. We invest more on extracting ever new sources of oil and gas than we do stabilizing and stopping our looming climate crisis. Don’t talk to me about science having transcended our tribal minds. We are still tribal, still trembling primates, afraid of the violent shaking of the Earth, the whirlwinds, and eruptions that make us, and our science, seem at best like cruel children playing with magnifying glasses over anthills.
“Science will not bring back my family. Indeed, it—and its having provided ways to grow economies ever bigger and make ever more stuff—may have even brought about my misfortune. It is my foolishness, having listened to my neighbors, to society’s pressures, to my ego, instead of simply being content with what I had. So, no, it is not science that I will listen to, nor God, nor the Buddha, nor anyone else.”
“But then, where shall wisdom be found?” asked Richard.
“In my bed,” said Job. And with that Job left.
Where Wisdom is Found
Upon going to bed Job picked up a book that his wife had been reading before she died—one he hadn’t seen before. Inside was a piece of paper and on it was a note, in broken hand, written to Job.
If you are reading this, I have gone. Gone into the ground. Gone back to the living Earth.
No matter how brief a life, no matter if taken away by illness, ill fortune, or injustice, its brevity does not change the fact that every day received was a gift. A gift from Gaia. So do not grieve.
I had a wonderful life. With you. With our children.
Instead of mourning me, use your remaining time wisely.
To help others.
To care for the lands that provided for us for so many years.
And to continue to love those around you. Even in times when it feels impossible to love.
Your Loving Wife,
Job sobbed until he could not breathe, could not cry any longer, and eventually, exhausted, fell into a feverish sleep.
That night he dreamed—a vivid, living dream. He dreamed of a small farm with so many different plants. Children ran through and played in the crystal stream. The sun shone down and there was peace. There were woods, a modest house, and a small flock of sheep, eating grass in a large field.
When he woke up he realized what he had done. He had brought much of his suffering upon himself. “I grew too big.” He realized. “I damaged the bounty that Gaia freely gave me so I could have more—more wealth, more security, more respect. And instead I lost all of what I held most dear. So therefore, I accept the bad that Gaia has given me along with the good. I understand that obedience to Gaia’s laws is true wisdom.”
Job, whose fever had broken and whose breath had returned, then committed himself to restoring his land, to healing Gaia. He replanted the forest, sold the sheep shed, settled his debts, and planted a diverse set of crops that could sustain him, his community, and the land. Over time, he once again shepherded a few dozen sheep, but never did he push the capacity of the ecosystem of which he and his farm were part beyond its limits.
Job made his small farm into a paragon of balance for his community to witness. He was selfless in providing food for those who struggled with enough to eat. Often he would have guests in his home, helping to labor, taking in the natural beauty of his land, and regaining their feet after life had challenged them. While Job never remarried nor had additional children, with his giving spirit, he was never lonely. And Job led a good life until he died a quiet death at the age of eighty-two.
For fun, and continuity, I borrowed/riffed on a few lines from the Bible version of Job. Read: Job 2:10, 25:6, 28:12, 28:28, and of course, 1:1, as Job was from the land of Uz, not too much of a stretch from US.