Written by Scott A. Shay
In the aftermath of a season of dam disasters, earthquakes, terrorist attacks and forest fires — not to mention floods and volcanoes — the story of Job is as poignant as ever. Job is the classic tale of the human condition: Why does God make innocent people suffer?
But Job also raises another question: Why do people make innocent people suffer? The social dimension of the story is not immediately apparent since God is the one making Job truly miserable, whereas his friends are merely speaking to him. But upon closer examination, the story of Job is a parable of the social violence of shaming in today’s age of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube.
Let’s look at the story of Job through the frame of social media consciousness.
Job is a righteous person; he does the right thing because it is the right thing to do. Then a voyeur arrives, Satan, or “the Adversary” depending on your translation preference. The Adversary uses a tactic, which may be familiar to Twitter users, to distort an individual’s presumed motives. The Adversary tells God that Job is only doing good because he is well off (privileged). Despite the Adversary’s accusation being mere conjecture, like so many maligning tweets, it elicits a response. As the story goes, God gives the Adversary discretion to test his theory and harm Job, except for Job’s body. A succession of messengers then come to Job to tell him and his community that all of his oxen, sheep, camels and other flocks, were carried off or destroyed, and his sons and daughters were killed when a house collapsed on them. Yet even after this onslaught of tragic news, Job maintains his righteousness. He does not curse God. The Adversary, frustrated, asks God to let him harm Job’s body, and gets permission. Now, Job, covered with boils, exits his house and sits in a heap covered with dust. But he is still loyal to God, ‘’For all that, Job said nothing sinful.” (2:10). Job then proceeds to describe his situation — analogous to posting on Facebook.
And with this revelation, the book could have ended.
Instead, three friends, Elipahaz, Bildad and Zophar, comment on his post. In fact, they start a cycle of comments and replies in which they seek out the “real” reason for Job’s calamities. They use polite words, but in effect, they keep goading him to find some sin to account for his punishment. Job will have none of this. But his friends don’t stop what essentially amounts to trolling his post. There are three cycles of these exchanges. In each case, Job is forced to reply to defend himself. And as he does, he falls deeper into frustration and despair.
As a result of this ever-so-genteel shaming and harassment, Job’s Facebook friends succeed in undermining the very way that Job looks at himself. At the start of the book, Job speaks of doing the right thing because it is right. By chapter 29, he reframes his actions as though he was his own social media brand manager. No longer does he speak of giving good advice, but rather tells how princes and nobles became silent as he spoke pearls of wisdom and blessed what he had to say (29:9-11). No longer does he recount helping the poor, widows and an orphan because it is right, but rather speaks of how the recipients blessed him, and how his presence caused widows’ hearts to sing with joy (29:12-14). Job continues by citing how the good things he did looked to third-party observers. At this moment, a new character, Elihu, who has been following Job’s replies (a Facebook stalker of sorts) offers his opinion. The ceaseless pressure of his Facebook friends’ shaming retorts and responses corrodes Job’s psyche. The more they blame him, the more he had to prove himself. In a shocking turn of events, it is not Job’s suffering from God, but rather the torture by his friends, that makes him lose his primary virtue — his confidence in himself and his values.
But all is not lost. Out of the whirlwind, God steps in and makes a speech — a gem of ancient literature, which should be shared widely. In sticking to the point of this essay, among the many things He says, God castigates Job’s friends for their words. He even requires them to seek Job’s forgiveness or face punishment. God then changes Job’s fortune for the better and cures his physical afflictions.
Once again, the story could have ended here however, it takes yet another social turn. After getting the post about Job’s improved situation, some other friends and family arrive. But this time, they come bearing bread and money rather than words. They sit down and share a meal with Job and present him with substantial sums of gold, remembering and honoring his generosity.
The message of the story is clear. Real friendship is about acts of kindness and justice, not about likes and dislikes. Yet today we live in world where people spend more time social praising and shaming, than being with and helping one annother. Facebook is not the work of the Adversary, but words can harm our psyches just as much as hurricanes destroy our bodies and the planet.
There is a coda to this tale that deserves a mention. The ancient rabbi Nachmanides, a mediaeval Jewish commentator, wrote that Job’s impression of misfortune might have been primarily engineered by another now-recognized malady, known as “fake news.”
Nachmanides notes that the book never says that the misfortunes ever actually took place, other than Job’s boils. Rather, messengers said that the flocks were stolen, Job’s children were killed, and so forth. This may have been a diversion from the Adversary. Nachmanides bases his theory on a careful reading of the Hebrew grammar. Eight hundred years after he wrote his commentary, Nachmanides commentary reminds us that we must carefully scrutinize all reports and characterizations that show up on our newsfeed before making any judgments.
Scott A. Shay is the author of In Good Faith: Questioning Religion and Atheism. Learn more here.