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[All passages from the Hebrew Scriptures are from Tanahk: A New Translation of the Holy Scriptures According to the Traditional Hebrew Text (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1985).]
Abraham is called a friend of God, but this friendship does not prevent Abraham from disagreeing and even haggling with God. (See Isaiah 41:8; II Chronicles 20:7. In the Christian New Testament, see James 2:23.) When God tells him that He intends to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham questions God’s judgment:
Will You sweep away the innocent along with the guilty? What if there should be fifty innocent within the city; will You then wipe out the place and not forgive it for the sake of the innocent fifty who are in it? Far be it from You to do such a thing, to bring death upon the innocent as well as the guilty, so that innocent and guilty fare alike. Far be it from You! Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly? (Genesis 18:23-25)
God concedes the point and agrees to save the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah so long as fifty innocent people can be found within them. But Abraham does not stop there. He persuades God to reduce the number to forty-five, then forty, thirty, twenty, and at last ten. So long as ten innocent people can be found, God will not destroy the cities (vv. 26-32).
Of course, it turns out that even ten is too high a figure, so the cities are annihilated anyway. But the point here is that Abraham, an exemplar of Jewish faith—a “friend of God”—is shown questioning God’s judgment and negotiating with Him.
But the paradigm case of “talking back” in Hebrew scripture is that of Job. At the beginning of the story, Job is already an exemplary character. God Himself points to Job as “a blameless and upright man who fears God and shuns evil” (Job 1:8). But the Adversary tells God that anyone would be exemplary under Job’s prosperous conditions. If his prosperity were taken from him, he would become blasphemous. To test this assertion, God permits the Adversary to wipe out Job’s material possessions and destroy his family. Job is grieved, but he still prays and accepts the new turn of events without complaint (vv. 20-22). Unsatisfied, the Adversary suggests that the test be carried out a step further: Would Job still be so patient if he were given a painful physical affliction? Once again, God allows the Adversary to carry out the test, and once again Job does not turn against God (Job 2).
But the majority of the story is about a long conversation between Job and three neighbors. They invite themselves over to see if they can help, but instead they make matters worse. Rather than easing Job’s pain, they try to assuage their own bewilderment by offering explanations of what has happened to him. Unable to accept that a just God would allow a good man to suffer so greatly, they conclude that Job has sinned and is being punished.
Job has no patience for such talk. He defends himself, even though doing so implies that God is unjust. God has wronged me,” he declares (Job 19:6).
Would that I knew how to reach Him,
How to get to His dwelling-place.
I would set out my case before Him
And fill my mouth with arguments.
I would learn what answers He had for me
And know how He would reply to me (Job 23:3-5)
When God finally does speak to Job at the end of the story, He is stern but accepting. In fact, God’s disapproval is aimed not at Job but at his neighbors, for they “have not spoken the truth about Me as did My servant Job” (Job 42:7, 8). Rather than punishing Job for accusing Him of injustice, God admits that Job has “spoken the truth about Me.” Not that God apologizes or repents of His behavior, but He at least does not strongly disapprove when Job complains about his plight.
There are at least two reasons why it is natural for the protagonists to complain about the turn of events in their stories. First, they do not yet understand their situation as fully as they will later, and therefore it looks as if things are turning out badly.
Aeneas does not understand (and his mother Venus sometimes forgets) that he must be led by a difficult route so that he and his followers might be molded into founders of Rome: “men who [live] for war” (Aeneid, Book 5, v. 754). This is not something that any of the gods—even his own mother—can give him. He can achieve it only by facing his problems and surmounting them. As the Sibyl tries to explain to him, he must “[g]ain boldness from disaster” (Ibid., Book 6, v. 95).
On the face of it he has every reason to complain, and so does his mother, but complaining will do no good. In order to achieve the victory he desires, he and his men must overcome the problems set before them. But because he does not fully understand that yet, his complaints are quite natural under the circumstances.
Similarly, it makes sense for Pyrrha to talk back because, according to the information she has available to her at this moment, it sounds like she is being asked to do something that is not right.
The heroes often do not know what the gods are doing, and precisely for this reason, they cannot be expected at all times to have complete confidence in the gods. Sometimes the learning experience itself undermines their confidence by presenting them with situations that seem unfair. Ironically, to be a person of faith does not always mean to keep believing in the gods. Under the most trying circumstances, to be faithful means merely to press on anyway even when the heroes’ confidence wavers, even when they cannot see how the gods could possibly help them now.
Second, it is natural for the heroes to talk back because they are being subjected to pain, and it is reasonable to protest when one is being hurt. Even if the pain is not physical, it is still very real. Change of any kind can be painful, and the heroes are being subjected to fundamental changes in their lives. Rama’s wife, whom he loves more than anything else in the world, is taken from him. Abraham must listen as God confesses His plan to destroy cities full of living human beings. At such moments, it would be unnatural not to cry out in protest.
In the latter case, in fact, God accepts Abraham’s protest and even goes along with him when he haggles with God. Whatever else it may mean to be a “friend of God” in the Jewish tradition, it does not mean that one must quietly agree to everything God says or does, without question or complaint. Apparently the God of Abraham thinks it is perfectly natural for His friends to talk back from time to time.
On the other hand, complaining, although understandable, is futile. The gods are not swayed by complaints, nor will they remove the difficulties that the protagonists complain about. After all, these are precisely the difficulties that the heroes and heroines must surmount in order to become who they are meant to be and fulfill their destinies. They have a job to do, and no one can excuse them from it—not even the gods.
In one of Christ’s parables, a father asks his two sons to perform a chore for him (Matthew 21:28-32). The first son talks back to his father and says he will not do it, but later in the day he goes out and does it anyway. The second son promises his father he will do it but never gets around to it. Jesus asks: Which of the two sons actually did what his father wanted? The answer, of course, is the first one. Although he talked back to his father, he ended up doing what his father asked. The other son said the right things but did not follow through.
The real test of greatness in these stories is not whether the heroes refrain from complaining or questioning the gods, but whether they go on and do what must be done, despite their protests.