Baneful Night bore Nemesis, too, a woe for mortals.
One of my oldest friends died some years ago of pancreatic cancer. Danny was in his early 50s, but in some ways he was just getting started in life. We were roommates in college, and he dated the girl who is now my wife. He had kicked around for years after graduation. He was briefly a teacher in Spanish Harlem, drove a cab for a while and later worked as a reporter on the same tabloid where his father had been a sportswriter. At a time when most of his classmates were settled into careers and raising families, Danny went back to school, earning a Ph.D. from Columbia. He eventually got a job at a public policy think tank in New York, married his long-time girlfriend and moved to the suburbs. The cancer diagnosis came soon after he completed a major study on welfare policy that he believed would establish his reputation in his field. When I last saw him, the cancer was in remission, but he had no illusions about his prospects. He died some months later, leaving a wife and two small children.
Religion is supposed to provide solace in these situations. I was unable to attend Danny's funeral, so I do not know what words of comfort the rabbi had for his family and friends. Christians are offered the hope of a better world. But they are still left groping for an explanation when someone's death seems arbitrary or unfair. If Danny had been the victim of a street crime, the tabloid where he once worked would not have hesitated to call it a "senseless" killing. What do you call it when a good man's life is cut short by an act of God?
The ancient Greeks had little difficulty reconciling divine action with human suffering, because they were under no illusion that their gods were benevolent. In many ways, the Greek gods were merely human beings writ large, which meant they were capable of pettiness and mayhem on an epic scale. The goddess Nemesis specialized in making life miserable for humankind. There was, however, a kind of rough justice in her ministrations, since her targets were usually those who had it coming.
When the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is cast in the role of nemesis, it is not always clear that justice is served. The suffering that Job is made to endure is undeserved but not without purpose. Job is singled out for abuse precisely because he is a good man. Satan persuades God that Job must be pushed to the limits of human endurance to prove his faithfulness. Job's wife sensibly argues that he should curse God and die, but Job is beyond being sensible. He is like Jacob wrestling through the night with the angel of God. It is an unequal contest, but Job refuses to let go without an explanation for his misfortunes.
Job demands justice but winds up getting more than be bargained for. God's terms are absolute: he demands unconditional surrender. Job has done nothing to deserve the misfortunes that have befallen him, any more than Jesus deserved to die on a cross. Jesus had faced a similar moment of truth on the eve of his death, when we wavered momentarily but then ended with the simple prayer, "Thy will be done." Job ends with a radical acceptance of his fate. He is thereby able to see past his own suffering for the first time and to find peace.