Sunday, November 14, 2010

Ethical Reflections on Suffering in the Bible

Alice C. Linsley

All the heroes of the Bible suffered greatly. It appears that suffering was part of their divinely-appointed destinies as rulers among their people and as men through whom God brought deliverance to their people. Job, Joseph and Moses are but a few whose suffering led to good for many.

Their suffering raises ethical questions about God’s dealing with those He has destined to His purposes. Job, Joseph and Moses are suffering servants. Suffering Job demands that God make sense of his suffering, but God never gives Job an answer. The meaning of suffering isn't important. What matters is one's response to suffering. Each of these heroes responds differently, yet in each case he becomes a mediator between his kinsmen and God, or the means of divine rescue for their people.

Like his father Jacob, Joseph is a dreamer. His dreams foretell his future as a leader and ruler over his brothers. His skill in dream interpretation later secures him a place in Pharaoh’s court. Joseph suffers betrayal, slavery and prison before he is raised to a position of authority which he uses to rescue the very brothers that abused him.

Moses suffered when he had to flee his home and later when all his siblings turned on him for marrying a Kushite and for asserting his leadership. Moses uses his authority to deliver the same siblings who trouble him, except for Korah, who it appears died in the wilderness. Still, Moses sees that Korah's sons receive sacred duties at the tabernacle.

Job loses his family, lands, wealth, social standing and his health before God restores him and appoints him as a mediator for his kinsmen who troubled him.

After suffering, all three men gain new families as a result of their hardships.  Both Joseph and Moses marry the daughters of priests, high-ranking and chaste women.

The suffering of these men's lives  has so much in common that we must ask what God is trying to teach us about suffering and divine destiny. What conclusions are we to draw about the nature of God’s dealing with those He has called according to His purpose?

The destiny motif in these stories raises significant ethical questions, and by focusing these questions, we will be able to draw some conclusions. Here are some questions we should ask:

How can we regard Job as righteous when he himself recognizes that he crossed the line in his questioning of God?

How can we regard Moses as a righteous leader when he murdered a man and fled from justice?

Likewise, shouldn’t Joseph, the spoiled tattle-tale who rubbed his brothers’ faces in his grandiosity share some responsibility for what happened to him?

Do Moses’ years of toil in the wilderness atone for the murder he committed?

Aren’t enslavement and imprisonment of a young boy a stiff price to pay for youthful self-obsession?

Is Joseph playing God in hiding the diving cup and so terrorizing his brothers that they are speechless at the prospect of returning to Egypt? Does God play “cat and mouse” with us to terrorize us into repentance?

Moses was very reluctant to step up to his destiny. He begged God to send another. Where does human freedom come into play?

Was Joseph justified to excuse God’s treatment of him on the grounds that everything turned out for the good in the end? Are we to excuse God when things don’t turn out well?

Focusing these questions doesn’t help us to answer them, but it does help us to draw conclusions about God’s dealing with those He has destined to lead.

It appears that God overlooks grievous sins and youthful faults if He has designs on our lives.

It also appears that God is not willing to accept a “No” from those He has destined to lead.

It appears that years of toil, exile, and suffering are necessary to bring us to our destiny.

It appears that God terrorizes us into surrendering to, or complying with, His purposes.

And finally, regardless of how things turn out, God is to be excused for treating us this way.

The final ethical question is this: Does such a God as this deserve our worship?

The answer to that question is present in the stories of Job, Joseph and Moses.  It is also found in the individual's heart... a matter worth pondering.

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