Monday, March 18, 2013

Reading the Bible for Lent: Job

{I'm attempting to read the whole Bible during Lent this year, and blogging my way through it. The Bible is an old friend, but we fight sometimes. Ever hear of quitting something cold turkey? Well, this is my way of starting something cold turkey, if that makes sense. I'm facing it head on, with my eyes open, and a new way of reading. My hope is to read the entire text through the lens of Jesus (I'm figuring out what this means as I go along) and attempt a balance of honesty and charity, both of which I've lacked in the past. See also: The PentateuchJoshuaJudges and RuthMore on Judges1 & 2 SamuelKings and ChroniclesEzra and Nehemiah, & Esther.}

This may come as a surprise, but I've come to love the book of Job. It validates the feelings of anyone who has ever suffered and wondered. There's something comforting about finding out that many of your deepest, darkest questions are contained in a book written thousands of years ago; that people were scratching their heads about the same things back then.

The book addresses many of the fundamental questions of the human experience. Why do people suffer? Why some and not others? How should we respond when tragedy falls? And the big one: why do bad things happen to good people?

The book reads like theater, so that's how I like to imagine it. The characters appear, and say their pieces, and an invisible narrator gives insight from a chair in the shadows, to the side of the stage. All the while, an uncomfortable tension hangs in the air, and we're all sitting in the audience biting our fingernails, hearing our internal conflicts voiced by the self-assured, the wounded, the pitiful, the glib, knowing they're getting to a deeper truth about the human condition that we'd rather not dwell on too much. Eerie echos of Ecclesiastes show up in Job's words, or maybe it's the other way around: is everything meaningless, are we chasing after the wind, do we simply work and go to our graves and then.......cease? What can we know? We begin with assurances and end with a big question mark, and the audience shuffles out, unsatisfied. I'll explain why I think that in a bit, but first here's the rundown:

The Characters:
  • Job: a "blameless, upright man who fears God and shuns evil" (1:1)
  • Job's children: seven sons and three daughters
  • The Adversary/Satan ("the adversary" is the literal translation)
  • The LORD
  • Job's wife
  • Job's three friends: Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar
  • Elihu: a friend of Job who shows up later in the text
The Events:
  • Job is blameless, wealthy, and pious: so much so that he offers sacrifices on behalf of his children in case they sin.
  • The Adversary goes before the LORD. The initial reason for his visit isn't clear, but for some reason the LORD asks him if he's considered Job, and describes him to The Adversary, offering him as an example of righteousness. This is the first puzzling moment of the book (why did the LORD offer him up?) but there are plenty more to come. The Adversary responds that Job only worships the LORD because his life is good; if harm comes to him then surely he would curse the LORD. The LORD gives The Adversary permission to do whatever he wants to Job's family and possessions, but not to touch Job. Essentially, this is a bet, with a human plaything.                                                               
  • Job's sons, daughters, and livestock are all killed in one day. 
  • Job hears of his great loss, falls to the ground and utters these admirable words: "Naked I came from my mother's womb, and naked shall I return there. The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away. Blessed be the name of the LORD" (1:21). Then we're told, "in all this Job did not sin nor charge God with wrong." 
  • Unsatisfied, The Adversary returns to the LORD. He argues that Job wouldn't remain faithful if his own health was affected. So, the LORD gives The Adversary permission to afflict Job, with the condition that he spare Job's life.
  • Job gets "painful boils from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head", and again responds in a admirable fashion when his incredulous wife (who, interestingly, is also spared) suggests he should just "curse God and die". He responds: "Shall we indeed accept good from God, and shall we not accept adversity?" (2:10) And again, we are told that Job does not sin with his lips.

  • Job's three friends come to him, and sit with him in his sorrow. They sit and say nothing for seven days and nights. (I really love this detail.)
  • Job starts to talk. He wishes he hadn't been born. He utters poetry; one can imagine his weak gravelly voice raising in sorrow, in shock.
  • Job's friends start to talk too. Eliphaz goes first, and tiptoes around the idea that Job must have some un-repented sin in his life to have such calamity fall on him. He asks: do the innocent perish? don't those who sow trouble reap it? can a mortal be more righteous than God? He encourages Job to seek the LORD's forgiveness: "Behold, happy is the man whom God corrects; Therefore do not despise the chastening of the Almighty. For He bruises, but He binds up. He wounds, but His hands make whole" (5:17-18). Bildad follows suit, insisting that Job must need to repent. "If you were pure and upright, surely now He would awake for you", he says (8:6). Repent, and the LORD will restore you, he promises. 
  • Job doesn't accept the premise on which his friends are operating: essentially that good things happen to the righteous and bad things happen to the unrepentant.  He insists he's innocent, over and over. We see a shift in Job's tone. Remember how earlier the narrator says Job didn't charge God with wrong? He does now, in no uncertain terms:
    • 6:4 For the arrows of the Almighty are within me; My spirit drinks in their poison; The terrors of God are arrayed against me.
    • 7:11 Therefore I will not restrain my mouth; I will speak in the anguish of my spirit; I will complain in the bitterness of my soul.
    • 7:20-21 Have I sinned? What have I done to You, O watcher of men? Why have you set me as your target, so that I am a burden to myself?
    • 9:16-19 If I called and He answered me, I would not believe that He was listening to my voice. For He crushes me with a tempest, and multiplies my wounds without cause. He will not allow me to catch my breath, but fills me with bitterness. If it is a matter of strength, indeed He is strong. And if of justice, who will appoint my day in court?
  • That last line hits me like a punch in the stomach. Yes, the LORD is powerful, Job says. His friends have been emphasizing this point, and Job agrees with them. But, he wonders, and this is probably the biggest question of the book: is justice possible?
  • The idea of a court meeting emerges, and the themes of justice and power come into play. Job wonders how he could approach the LORD without a mediator. He's powerless, and suffering, and oh so aware of the LORD's powers and yet insists he would plead his case before Him. This is a cry for a Messiah, a wish for a way to approach this LORD who punishes, in this case, to simply prove a point. In chapter ten, Job begins to describe all that he would like to say to the LORD, if he could. He wonders why the LORD would fashion his body only to destroy it. He's wrestling here with whether the LORD is truly good or not. We see a cadence in the text: these are your attributes, show yourself to be good/ but this is what you've done, it doesn't make sense/these are your attributes, show yourself to be good. Back and forth, forth and back. Surely, surely. This is faith: the insistence that something else is going on, something we don't understand.
  • Zophar responds, again urging repentance. He introduces another theme: we can't understand everything. He asks, "Can you search out the deep things of God? Can you find the limits of the Almighty? They are higher than heaven--what can you do? Deeper than Sheol--what can you know?" (11:7-8).  What can you do, what can you know?

  • And so it goes on. Job acknowledges the mysteries of the universe, the unknowable things of God. He says, I know, but then he asks why again. The cadence continues in rich and descriptive poetry. In chapter thirteen, we see Job come to a stubborn new conclusion (I love how this book shows us his process, his wondering): "Though he slay me, yet I will trust Him. Even so, I will defend my own ways before Him" (13:15). He's not giving up on his faith in the LORD, but he's not admitting to things he hasn't done either, which is baffling to his friends. And so the questions continue, chapter after chapter.
  • Elihu enters the scene. He's more harsh with Job than the other three friends, who suggest Job needs to repent in a much more gentle manner. Elihu lays it out bluntly: "What man is like Job, who drinks scorn like water, who goes in company with the workers of iniquity, and walks with wicked men? For he has said, 'It profits a man nothing that he should delight in God'." Job is messing with the beloved ideal that if you follow the law and do right, God will bless you, and Elihu doesn't like it one bit. Because, let's face it: if you have to let go of that ideal, life has a lot less certainty, and you have to face your fears. But this is what Job has managed to do. He's looking his fears in the face, and yet not letting go of his faith.
  • Finally, the LORD responds to Job "out of the whirlwind, and [says]: 'Who is this who darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Now prepare yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer me" (38:1). I really recommend reading chapters 38 and 39; there's just no way I can do them justice here. The LORD asks Job question after question, like: by what way is light diffused, or the east wind scattered over the earth? Does the hawk fly by your wisdom, and spread its wings toward the south? And the grand finale: Shall the one who contends with the Almighty correct Him? He who rebukes God, let him answer it. Boom.
  • The LORD is sounding a lot like Job's friends here. Job answers, meekly, that he is vile and cannot answer. "I lay my hand over my mouth. Once I have spoken, but I will not answer. Yes, twice, but I will proceed no further." (40:4-5) Then, the LORD goes on to question Job some more.
  • Then, something happens that is kind of shocking. Job repents
                   I know that You can do everything, 
                  And that no purpose of Yours can be withheld from You
                  You asked, 'Who is this who hides counsel without knowledge?'
                  Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand,
                  Things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.
                  Listen, please, and let me speak;
                  You said, 'I will question you, and you will answer Me.'
                  I have heard of You by the hearing of the ear,
                  But now my eye sees You.
                  Therefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes. (42:1-6)
  • Then, another surprising thing happens: the LORD rebukes Job's friends! He tells them "you have not spoken of Me what is right, as my servant Job has" (42:7) and commands them to offer up sacrifices and have Job pray for them. 
  • As the book closes, we learn that the LORD gives Job twice as much as what he had before. He gains more livestock than he lost, and again has seven sons and three daughters. He lives to see them grow and have grandchildren. So Job died, old and full of days. The curtain falls, the actors take a bow.
So we in the audience, what lessons do we take home? Are we meant to? The LORD answers Job's questions with more questions, and Job finds a strange comfort in this. 


I don't find much comfort in the LORD's response; if anything He's even less approachable after His tirade of questions. And to be honest, the hasty happy ending feels contrived and empty. Nevertheless, I find a sacred space between the lines (and I'm finding, as I make my way through the Old Testament, that's often where the sacred space exists.)

Here's my comfort: this book is not the last word on God's character. It is a wondering, a question mark, a universal throwing up of the hands. I see this book as an amazing product of the imagination, a historical treasure, and an incredibly brave statement about how much we don't know. Is it to be taken literally? Are we the playthings of heavenly beings, bound to suffer and then grovel in the dirt when we have the courage to ask why?

That sacred space between the lines whispers no, no, no. Imagine we're living alongside Job. It will be a long time before we meet the God who weeps with us, who bleeds for us. We don't even know He's there yet, and so we cower before this tyrant of our imagination. There's so much we can't explain. We see hints of mercy, but who dares to believe it? Who would ever believe it was Him, unless He showed us?

I've heard plenty of sermons about Job: how it's a lesson to praise God in all circumstances, how God rewards the faithful, how God is God and we are not.....the thing is, I don't think that's what this book is about at all.

When you turn poetry into a formula, you kill it. We used to say jokingly, leave a little room for the Holy Spirit and tsk-tsk about sitting too close in church or slow-dancing at the prom, but isn't that just a good motto for life? Leave a little room for the Holy Spirit; leave the poetry to speak to us as it will. We may hear different things; we carry different burdens to the cross.

This book is a collective wondering; it asks the questions that were bound to come up eventually and have never yet gone away. And I suspect that, like all good art, it's supposed to make us feel something more than it's supposed to make us able to explain something.

When you're hurting, I mean really low, do you want someone to give you a chipper, trite answer or do you want someone to sit with you in your sorrow? Do you want to know why? Absolutely. Will any answer ever really satisfy your grief? No.

Sometimes, poetry is the best we have to offer, because despite what we know or think we know, we still wonder all the time. Even the staunchest fundamentalist wonders, in his or her moments of solitude. Job's friends seem afraid to admit any doubt at all, and so they channel that fear into certainty, while Job asks the deepest questions of his heart and freely admits his fear. That is why I love the book of Job. It is poetry in response to human suffering, and poetry is where I hear Him.

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