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Politics of Scripture

Calling God to Account

Today’s texts are complicated, messy messages of divine justice. Perhaps the best we can learn from Job or Bartimaeus is the courage to call God to accountability.

Job and Bartimaeus make a fascinating pair: both expected to bear their burdens in silence and shame, and instead both call on God to be accountable, refusing to be silenced. As a student of both disability theory and trauma theory, these texts can present hermeneutic problems. Is Job acquiescing to a senselessly violent theodicy? Does Bartimaeus’s demand for a cure rely on ableist presumptions? These texts present a complex understanding of both agency and divine accountability in the face of suffering.

Then Job answered the LORD:
“I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.
‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’
Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand,
things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.
‘Hear, and I will speak; I will question you, and you declare to me.’
I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you;
therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.”
And the LORD restored the fortunes of Job when he had prayed for his friends; and the LORD gave Job twice as much as he had before. Then there came to him all his brothers and sisters and all who had known him before, and they ate bread with him in his house; they showed him sympathy and comforted him for all the evil that the LORD had brought upon him; and each of them gave him a piece of money and a gold ring.
The LORD blessed the latter days of Job more than his beginning; and he had fourteen thousand sheep, six thousand camels, a thousand yoke of oxen, and a thousand donkeys. He also had seven sons and three daughters. He named the first Jemimah, the second Keziah, and the third Keren-happuch. In all the land there were no women so beautiful as Job’s daughters; and their father gave them an inheritance along with their brothers.
After this Job lived one hundred and forty years, and saw his children, and his children’s children, four generations. And Job died, old and full of days.

Job 42:1-6, 10-17

This is the very closing of the book of Job, the end of a story that starts with a challenge from Satan to God: test the faith of Job. Take all he has, cast every misfortune at him, and see whether he stays faithful or not. By the end of the first chapter, Job has lost all his wealth, his home, and his children have all been killed.

From there, the book of Job offers a series of dialogs between Job and what may be his three least helpful friends. These friends, convinced that such misfortune falls only to the wicked, try to convince Job to repent of his sin.

But Job knows his innocence. He does not reject God because of his suffering (as Satan predicted); he demands justice. He refuses silence. Job does not blame God for all that has happened, but he insists that God is the one capable of righting it.

In this, Job shows himself to be both a faithful and clever man. He knows the power of God, and even if Job is not aware of the wager God has made on his faith, he knows the claim that only sinners suffer is wrong. The world is harsher and justice more scarce than his friends seem to believe.

For this reason, Gustavo Gutierrez sees Job as a prophet, not only because he calls on God’s justice for himself, but because Job recognizes the failure of justice for the poor, too. In wrestling with his own experiences of loss, Job also “realizes that he is not the only one to experience the pain of unjust suffering…Job discovers to his grief that he has many counterparts in adversity” (31).

This conversion of Job, this movement from his own pain to solidarity with the suffering of others may seem to be betrayed by the eventual ending of the text. The book closes with a lengthy speech by God, traditionally called the “Hymn to Wisdom.” In this speech, God emphasizes that God’s wisdom is not human wisdom; that humans cannot ever fully know the divine will and the plans God has made. At the closing of God’s speech, Job initially seems meek:

Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand,
things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.
‘Hear, and I will speak; I will question you, and you declare to me.’
I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you;
therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.”

Is Job repenting of his cry for justice? Or is he merely acquiescing to the limits of his human knowledge? The lectionary may actually obscure some of the ending, here, by skipping over verses 7-9:

After the Lord had spoken these words to Job, the Lord said to Eliphaz the Temanite: “My wrath is kindled against you and against your two friends; for you have not spoken of me
what is right, as my servant Job has. 8 Now therefore take seven bulls and seven rams, and go to my servant Job, and offer up for yourselves a burnt offering; and my servant Job shall pray for you, for I will accept his prayer not to deal with you according to your folly; for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has done.” 9 So Eliphaz the Temanite and Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Naamathite went and did what the Lord had told them; and the Lord accepted Job’s prayer.

Here, God proclaims that Job’s friends were in the wrong; it is Job’s prayer, Job’s calls for justice that God accepts. This helps make sense of the closing actions God takes: returning to Job what he lost, twofold. Divine justice is not straightforwardly retributive, and sin is not the cause for all suffering. Job refused to stay silent, and for that he is commended.

Still, this may not seem like true justice, or true restoration. Innocent people will continue to suffer without Satan’s wager. Job’s new children do not really “replace” the ones who died. The trauma and loss Job endured does not disappear because he now has thousands of sheep, camels, oxen, and donkeys. 

Trauma theorists like Judith Herman tell us that experiences like Job’s, at their core, disrupt and upset the stories of control and agency we tell ourselves. Recovery from trauma is not about reclaiming the entirety of what was lost (such as possessions or relationships), but seeks to re-understand the survivor’s own narrative and agency in light of the changes the trauma enacted. This is why many survivors – such as Job – turn to advocacy in the path to recovery. 

As advocates (for ourselves and others), survivors find a path to reclaiming agency in the face of senseless suffering. So we may ask why that suffering exists, but the text is not interested in definite answers. Like Job, we may question, but we may never fully know the answer. Still, the opacity of divine wisdom or divine justice is no reason to stay silent.

As we leave Job’s search for justice, we come to Bartimeaus, another man calling on God’s justice.

They came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”
Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” Jesus stood still and said, “Call him here.” And they called the blind man, saying to him, “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.”
So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. Then Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man said to him, “My teacher, let me see again.”
Jesus said to him, “Go; your faith has made you well.” Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.”

Mark 10:46-52

We don’t spend enough time with Bartimeaus in Mark’s gospel to see the same evolution and transformation that Job endured, but we do still see a man who demands God’s attention to get what he wants. For someone concerned about how disability is portrayed in scripture, Bartimeaus presents a different hermeneutic challenge from the theodicy of Job.

Disability scholars have identified the “normate” hermeneutic in how we look at disability in the bible. The normate hermeneutic is a pattern of interpreting scripture that upholds socially constructed norms around race, class, gender, etc – in this case, it upholds ableist assumptions about disability. Read this way, Bartimaeus seems to be a man who suffers because of his blindness. In calling for mercy, Bartimaeus wants to “see again,” that is, remove the cause of his suffering. This text could be read as a straightforward healing miracle: what were once broken (Bartimeaus’s eyes) are now whole again.

But if we refuse the normate hermeneutic, we see things that complicate this story. First, nothing in the text suggests that Bartimeaus is blind because of sin. While in John’s gospel (John 9:1-12) the connection of sin and disability is directly refuted by Jesus, Mark’s gospel lacks that context.

To complicate things further, Mark does connect sin and disability in one of Jesus’s earlier miracles (Mark 2:1-12), although that connection is not present here. Bartimaeus could be one of the many who suffer unjustly, for whom Job advocated.

At the same time, Bartimaeus is a capable self-advocate. His blindness does not prevent him from recognizing Jesus, nor does he need help to approach Jesus when he is called over. Of particular interest here, according to Kathy Black, is that Jesus does not assume that Bartimaeus wants to be cured. And then there is the request: Bartimaeus wants to see again (82-83). This implies he may have had sight at one time. Maybe, then, Bartimaeus is not unlike Job – someone once abled now struggling with poverty and disability. His cry for mercy is also a cry for God’s justice.

Granting Bartimaeus more agency in this story can help challenge normate assumptions which privilege abledness over disability or sight over blindness, but it does not remove the challenge of the text in its entirety – just as Job’s restoration of wealth and family does not fully remove the questions that readers (ancient and modern) might still have for Job, and Job’s God.

I am not sure these questions need answers. Or rather, I am not sure that Scripture can provide the kinds of answers we may want. Christians believe in the revelatory power of Scripture, but that does not mean we need to fall silent before that revelation. Like Job, we can and should question God (or as it were, question the text), question normate assumptions, question the idea that suffering, sin, and disability are somehow intrinsically related.

As I read and reflected on the scriptures for this post, I recalled another theologian who refused silence and easy answers: John Hull, a theologian who became blind in 1980 and wrote extensively on that experience and how it shaped his encounter with scripture. As Hull puts it in “An Open Letter from a Blind Disciple to a Sighted Savior:”

When I studied the New Testament as a sighted person, it did not occur to me that you, Jesus, were yourself sighted. We were in the same world, but it did not occur to me that being sighted was a world. I thought that things were just like that. When I became blind, then I realised that blindness is a world, and that the sighted condition also generates a distinctive experience and can be called a world. Now I find, Jesus, that I am in one world and you are in another.

This is a call not unlike Job’s – Hull draws attention to the difference between the sighted world of Jesus and his world, just as Job recognizes the difference between divine and human justice.

And like Job, Hull knows that God’s justice belongs in both worlds – he calls Jesus to account for that. He refuses the (human, normate) assumption that blindness has no place in divine justice. Instead, he finds an entryway into a new kind of relationship with God:

my confusion turned into indignation and then I wrote with tears when I realised that you not only died for me but you became blind for me. And what can I say to you now about the passages which offended and hurt me so much? Well, Lord, if I may say so without presumption, I forgive you. But is it not your role to forgive me? Yes, but perhaps our relationship is becoming more mutual.

In refusing to be silent with his complaints about Scripture, about justice, about God, Hull’s prophetic voice forges a new understanding of God. Today’s texts are complicated, messy messages of divine justice. Perhaps the best we can learn from Job, Bartimaeus, or Hull is the courage to call God to account.

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