The book of Job
October 11, 2020
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott
All scripture references are from The Message version
Since last January when wildfires swept across Australia, the year 2020 has become synonymous with disaster and suffering. One internet meme shows children with pained expressions on their faces and the caption reads, “Kids when they discover there’s a different history unit for every week of 2020.” How do we cope with the relentless bad news? How do we make sense of the suffering that we have experienced this year? And especially, what is the role of faith as we wrestle with the tribulations of being human? It feels like I’ve been talking about that for about eight months but for the next few weeks, I am going to look specifically at some of the people in the Bible who underwent hard times and ask what we can learn from their stories, and I am going to begin today with the man whose name has come to represent the epitome of affliction — Job. Rather than reading a particular scripture from Job, I will be highlighting some verses as we go along and I will be reading from the Message version because its stark language helps us to better hear the candor of this book.
Most of us know the name of Job but few people have actually read the book of Job because frankly it’s pretty long and doesn’t really have much of a plot. The bulk of its 42 chapters is a theological discussion between Job and his friends about the reason for suffering. Job was not a real person; the writer of this book created the character of Job as a sort of extreme case study for the nature of human struggle. We know that it is intended to be a teaching fable because the book begins with a Hebrew phrase that is very similar to the phrase we use to begin our fairy tales — “once upon a time.”
The book begins, “There was once a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job. That man was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil.”
In the story, the writer then tells us that the angelic council decides to test Job’s character and immediately the tragedies of Job’s life pile up with such rapidity that we feel like we are watching 2020 unfold before our eyes.
Enemies come and kill Job oxen and donkeys and the servants watching them. Fire from heaven explodes upon his fields and burns up his sheep, and the servants watching them. A Chaldean army comes and kills his camels, and the servants watching them. A great wind strikes the house where his sons and daughters are gathered and kills them all, and presumably the servants serving them. And finally, as if war, fire, and wind are not bad enough, pestilence descends upon Job causing boils to break out all over his body, from the bottom of his feet to the crown of his head. Job’s a mess. Before the third chapter, Job who was once rich and happy, has lost all of his livestock, his servants, his children, and his health. No one could comfort Job by saying, “Well, at least you still have…” because he has nothing. The writer has covered all of the bases. All of the things that make us happy and provide us with security and meaning, are gone. Job is bereft of everything and left only with questions about the meaning of his life.
The writer has set up this extreme case to test our ideas about why human beings suffer. When we read the book of Job, we aren’t supposed to ask, “Why did poor Job suffer so?” We are supposed to ask, “Why do human beings suffer? What did any of us do to deserve the grief and pain that we are dealt in the course of a human life?”
Once the writer has set up the question, he or she then trots out Job’s well-intentioned but rather unfeeling friends to mouth all of the platitudes that we say in order to try to make sense of why bad things happen to good people.
“It must somehow be their own fault. If they had eaten more broccoli, they wouldn’t have gotten cancer. If they had been smarter with their money, they would have had enough savings to cover the economic crash.” And worst of all, Job’s friends intone our self-righteous piety: “If you had had more faith, these things wouldn’t have happened. If you had prayed harder, or led a better life, God would have protected you.” One friend even tries to comfort Job with those familiar but patronizing words, “It may be hard to see it now, but time will show you that all of this was for your own good.”
Just as Job is supposed to represent human suffering, Job’s friends represent our rationalizations and the pious arguments we use to try to explain suffering. Most of the time, if we are to be honest we say these kinds of things not because we are trying to help the person who is suffering but because we are trying to assure ourselves that whatever happened to the stricken person won’t happen to us. “I eat my broccoli!” It is as if the only way many of us can cope with our fragile human mortality is to convince ourselves that while those other people may be fragile and mortal, we are smart and strong and important and too valuable to God to be vulnerable to the slings and misfortunes of life. Think of that saying that we toss out so easily — “There but for the grace of God go I.” Those words sound empathetic on the surface as if we realize how close we are to enduring the same suffering others experience, but in fact, it implies that we have been saved from suffering — There but for the grace of God go I— because God has chosen to bestow grace and protection on me while withholding it from that other poor schmuck. This is essentially what Job’s friends tell him, “If you had been a better, smarter, more careful, and more faithful person like I am, you wouldn’t be going through what you are going through.”
And for 36 chapters, Job pushes back. “I did everything right,” he says. “I was good. I was kind. I was careful. I was faithful. I have done nothing to deserve this. There is no meaning in this grief. There is nothing redemptive about my pain. There is nothing I can learn from this that will make me a better person. Your arguments are hollow,” Job declares, “and in fact, you are making my suffering worse by trying to explain it. None of this makes sense. You don’t know any more about this than I do,” he keens. “And so I call upon God to explain this to me!”
Job voices our heartache and confusion in our grief, but Job also voices our hope that somehow God can make sense of all of this for us, that somehow our faith will lead us to satisfying answers that will quiet the turmoil in our soul. If only we could talk to God, we say along with Job, God would explain to us why our loved one had to die or why it has been necessary for racial injustice to remain so intransigent in our country. If only we could talk to God face to face, God would unroll the blueprint of the universe and point out the trajectory of these events and show us how in the end, it will all make sense, and then our grief would be at least tempered by understanding. That’s what Job wants from God — just some answers that will help him make sense of it all.
We sit on the edge of our seat waiting with Job to hear the answers we have sought for so long, and after 38 long chapters, God does finally appear. But does not come as a comforting spirit but appears instead as a raging whirlwind breaking down upon Job’s head.
“Why do you confuse the issue?” God roars at Job. “Why do you talk without knowing what you’re talking about? Pull yourself together, Job! Up on your feet! Stand tall! [You have questions for me? Well,] I have some questions for you, and I want some straight answers.”
And then like a parent angry at an impudent teenager, God says to Job, “Where were you when I created the earth? Tell me, since you know so much! Who decided on its size? Certainly you’ll know that! Who came up with the blueprints and measurements? How was its foundation poured, and who set the cornerstone, while the morning stars sang in chorus and all the angels shouted praise? And who took charge of the ocean when it gushed forth like a baby from the womb? That was me! I wrapped it in soft clouds, and tucked it in safely at night. Then I made a playpen for it, a strong playpen so it couldn’t run loose. And said, ‘Stay here, this is your place. Your wild tantrums are confined to this place.’”
God then continues with a torrent, verses upon verses of rhetorical questions that answer Job’s accusations by not answering them. Instead, God describes a wild untamed creation which is beyond the feeble powers of human beings to control.
“Can you pull in the sea beast, Leviathan, with a fly rod,” God demands, “… Can you lasso him with a rope, or snag him with an anchor? Will he beg you over and over for mercy, or flatter you with flowery speech? Will he apply for a job with you to run errands and serve you the rest of your life? Will you play with him as if he were a pet goldfish? Will you make him the mascot of the neighborhood children?
From the beasts of the ocean to the beasts of the land, to the winds and rains and the coursing of the stars in the heavens, God paints a picture of a wild creation, crashing and thrashing in untamed beauty, and of which human beings are only a small and fragile part. God’s answer to Job’s question of why we suffer is that the question itself is an egotistical one. It presumes that human beings should be exempt from the workings of creation, from the energy and constant flux of life that cannot be restrained by even the divine power of God.
The book of Job confronts the problem of suffering and concludes life is wild and unpredictable and sometimes as beautiful as the stars in the heavens and sometimes as treacherous as the storms that surge across the seas. We are part of that life, a beautiful but fragile part, and ultimately only a small part. We are beloved by God but it is egotistical of us to believe that God’s love for us makes us magically exempt from the workings of creation. God’s love for us helps us to endure our place in creation and gives meaning to our fragile lives even in the midst of suffering. In the following weeks, I will be looking at some of the people in the Bible who didn’t struggle as Job did with the “why” of their suffering, but who asked the more important question of “How do we live with our suffering and find meaning and healing for our broken hearts?”