What's Tony Thinking

Job and the Pandemic


In the pandemic one of the Biblical texts to which we must turn is surely the Book of Job.

As most readers know, Job is an exploration of human suffering and loss. How do we endure it? How do we make sense of it? And crucially, now, how do we begin again when the storm subsides? But that latter point gets ahead of the story.

Job is a good man who has a good life. Great family. All strong and healthy. He has a prosperous farm and large herds. And Job enjoys the esteem of his fellows. Until . . . Satan comes along and poses a challenge to God. “I wonder,” says the tester (the literal meaning of “satan”), “how your good fellow, Job, will do should his fortunes change?”

And change they do. Job’s children die. He loses all his livestock and the farm. His health is destroyed. He ends up sitting on a heap of ashes scratching his scabrous sores. What now of Job’s faith? How, in the world, is he to make sense of it all?

The nature of suffering and loss that people and nations have sustained during the pandemic has, of course, varied. The current situation is India is heart-rending, but so too is the loss of life in the U.S. For all of us, even the most fortunate, there has been loss and disorientation. Life has, without warning, smacked us upside the head and left us reeling — just as it did Job.

Along come a succession of “friends,” in quotation marks because all three of Job’s friends while offering sympathy, “explain” Job’s smack-down as the result of his sins. Even if there is no evidence that Job has done anything wrong, there must be something, some hidden fault or failure. Job, says his friends, has done something to deserve his terrible fate. The friends, all terribly pious, invoke God in support of their arguments (although in the end God repudiates Job’s friends and their “suffering caused by sin” theology).

There have been explanations for the pandemic, along these lines. It must be our fault. A cosmic punishment for humanity’s sins. It’s because of our assault on the global climate. Or our heedless consumerism. Or our politically divided and acrimonious state. Who knows, maybe there’s some truth to these or other explanations? Or not.

Job doesn’t get any real answer or explanation. It has just happened. And God’s final, epic speech out of the whirlwind challenges all human explanations for both suffering and prosperity. We ascribe suffering to sin. “You must have done something to deserve this Job — admit it!” says his friends. The other side of that coin is that prosperity, health or a good life is a reward for your virtue. Not so quick, says the Book of Job — which is perhaps one of the earliest critiques of what we now call “meritocracy.”

In the end, God casts aside such easy, and for the prosperous, comforting correlations. Stuff happens. There’s a mystery to it. In the end, Job stands before the mystery, vindicated by the Almighty, if only because he doesn’t buy any of the “answers” so confidently proposed by his friends, the would-be defenders of the God’s “justice.”

Life knocks us all for a loop, whether individually or collectively. In such times, we are disoriented, overwhelmed, angry and hurt. We are chastened, but perhaps also, enlightened. Our easy confidence in the ways we have life explained, our situation justified, roll over and put their feet to the sky. We are disillusioned — which is the pits — but it does mean we have been relieved of our illusions.

At the end, the story of Job serves up a surprise. There’s a “happy ending.” Job gets life and fortunes back. Another family. Renewed health. An even more prosperous farm. And re-instatement in the community. This has irritated many readers and commentators who see it as some kind of pay-off for Job’s noble suffering. It ticked me off the first time I read Job. I thought “What’s up with this? After all this, a happy ending! Outrageous!”

But there’s another way to see this conclusion, one that may be more apt for our situation just now. When a little older, it occurred to me how amazing it was that after all Job had been through, all the loss and disappointment, that he was willing to start again. To marry again, have children again and plant the fields again.

Quite remarkable, really — AND in a way where we find ourselves now, isn’t it? As the vaccinations take hold, as restrictions ease and the pandemic begins to subside — will we, like Job, manage to live again, to begin anew after all we’ve been through?

It is a question for each of us, and also for America. Will we start again?


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