In undergraduate ethics classes I teach, I am struck by how few young people these days have grown up reading the Bible as a treasure house of wisdom, understanding, and splendind stories. When I was young, the Bible was central to our daily lives, to our sense of common heritage, and our cultural, literary, and moral understanding. I hope for a renewal of awareness of this common text that helps knit us together as a community.
In earlier days, among both Christians and Jews, the Bible was the key--and for many the only--path of education. One scholar calculated that in the course of a lifetime, a person who went to worship services regularly would hear the equivalent of about ten college educations in the teachings of the clergy. The Bible was the "common academic experience" through which ordinary citizens learned and thought about the great issues of individual and community life. People carried the stories of the Bible in their heads and followed the lessons of those stories in their lives.
Recently, I asked faculty colleagues for their views on what is required to be culturally literate. What should our graduates know about the history, art, and literature of Western civilization? One friend, English professor Al Wertheim, told about his father, who came to this country penniless and with only an eighth-grade education. He left Nazi Germany in 1937 with the clothes on his back and a few belongings in a suitcase. These precious possessions included two books: the Bible and the Odyssey. "There it was," Al said, "the coure of our civilization in two books. It still speaks eloquently to me," he told us, "that this is what my father chose to take to the New World."
When I started reading the Bible as a child, the story that fascinated me most, and continues to fascinate me, is the Book of Job. Among all the Bible's stories, none hits home more tellingly, particularly in this post-Holocaust age, than the Book of Job. It is a spiritual and literary masterpiece.
You will recall that Job is struck down by a series of terrible blows. He is a good man, a person of integrity. He has tried his best to be upright and religious because he fears the consequences of a wayward life. Suddenly, all his nightmares come true. He loses his children, his wealth, and his health. In anguish he cries out, "What have I done to deserve this? Why me? I am innocent."
Each of us suffers something of Job's fate at times in our lives. This is the source of the book's spiritual power. We may lose a friend, or a child, to an incurable disease or a senseless accident. We may lose our homes to fire or financial hardship, our health to illness. Even if we have sinned, do we really deserve terrible retribution? We cry out with Job against chaotic fate.
As Job sits suffering, three friends come to console him. Their brand of solace is not very comforting. "You must have done something to deserve it," they say. "Repent. If you are pure, God will save you. God never abandons the innocent." In their syllogism, if God is all-powerful, and if God is just, then Job must be guilty. He is being punished. He ought to think harder about the sins he must--somehow, somewhere--have committed.
But Job proclaims his innocence. "What's the matter with God," he asks, "that he should do this to me? Can't He tell right from wrong, or keep His accounts in order?" Finally Job asserts his right, according to ancient Jewish law, to summon his accuser and confront him face to face.
God obliges. He comes down in the whirlwind to give Job a lecture. And what a lecture! God says nothing at all about Job's innocence or guilt, or the reasons for his suffering. Instead God thunders about the majesty of creation, the vivid wildness of the physical world. The imagery is rich with the power and beauty in which our lives are embedded.
The Book of Job is the great parable of moral outrage, a powerful expression of our common dilemma when we are victims of events that ride roughshod over our moral sense. …