There once was a man named Job

For a complete change of pace, following the season of creation, we jumped into the book of Job. This first week we just dealt with the prologue, the part that sets up the story. In some ways it’s the most provocative and upsetting piece of a deeply unsettling book. We wrestled with it two weeks ago. Thoughts are after the jump.

5th print from William Blake’s Illustrations of the Book of Job, 1826

The book of Job is the book of the Bible that wrestles at the greatest length with the questions of suffering. And so we might come to it hoping to find answers to those age-old questions that we all share like, why do bad things happen to good people.

But this paragraph right at the beginning, throws a big old wrench in those hopes for easy answers. God says, I’ve been provoked into this, for no reason. And Job, by all accounts a really good guy, is left to deal with the consequences.

Gulp.

This is our first clue that Job is not a book for the faint of heart. There are no easy answers here—no religious cliches, or at least not any that stand for very long, no greeting card sentiments.

What we get instead is honesty, and relentless questioning, a portrait of incredible faith. So we’re going to live with Job for four weeks.

But first we have to get through this prologue, which paints a picture of God capriciously betting with Satan about the faith of a good man.

Let’s step back and get a little context, see what purpose the prologue plays in the whole work. And then perhaps we can find some good news in here.

Job can be divided into three parts. The first two chapters, half of which we’ve just read, are a prologue. They’re prose. They have this fable-like air to them.

Then there are almost forty chapters of poetry. Job and his friends go back and forth reflecting on and debating about the cause of Job’s suffering. Also in this poetic section is a startling reply from God.

And finally, at the very end, we return to prose for a short epilogue.

The structure of Job makes me think of how barbecue is served across the south. The meat is a work of art—tender, perfectly seasons, and there’s lots of it. It fills the plate. And on the side you get one or two slices of store-bought white bread, often straight from the grocery store. It’s a brilliant economy of form. The cooks know that the meat is the main point. The bread is a barbecue delivery system, helping you get barbecue to your mouth efficiently. The bread is not the main point.

The book of Job is something like that. The beginning and the end are a frame.  They are not the main point. They are, in many ways, a delivery system for all of the poetry and reflection in the middle.

The book of Job is not asking us to believe that God literally behaves like this portrayal in the prologue. I doubt if the people who first told this story believed that. What the prologue is doing is setting up a series of questions for the chapters to come.

Maybe the most important thing this section sets up is that Job did not bring this on himself. None of this is Job’s fault. The prologue makes that clear beyond a shadow of a doubt. And so we can’t take the easy way out of saying, well, it’s just karma – people receiving the bad they’ve put into the system. Job has done no wrong, and yet… That set-up, and the intensity of the questions it sparks, is the gift of the prologue.

The second thing we need to put a little context around is the whole Satan thing. In spite of how it looks in English in almost all of our translations, this is not even remotely about a demonic being with red tail and pitchfork. The word we have rendered as Satan was not a name. It was a common noun with a definite article and is better translated as the adversary.

The idea at the time this story was first told was that God is a king. And just like an earthly king, God was surrounded by a council of advisors. Just like an earthly royal court, these advisors in heaven each had different roles to play—some were court jesters, some were yes-men, and every court had at least one adversary. Much like our idea of a devil’s advocate, the adversary’s job was to raise objections, to be skeptical, keep the king from trusting too quickly.

Which is exactly what this adversary is doing in our story. He was saying, look, do you really think people just love you God because you’re God? No! They love you because you do good things. Take those away and the love will go away.

It’s important to make this distinction, because while the book of Job raises a lot of questions, one problem it does not raise is the horror of Satan traipsing around on earth, in league with God, bringing horrible misery into our lives. That is not what this book is about. Job has nothing to do with our pop culture idea of a devil. Nothing.

So. Is there anything in this prologue other than problems? Anything helpful for us today? I think there may be, if we turn our attention away from heaven and down to earth and look at Job.

Job and his wife have a rough exchange. She gets a bad reputation for this comment, but of course she was grieving, too. It’s hard to find the right words when someone you love is in pain, and even more so when you are, too. Our suffering can isolate us. I think that’s why Job pushes his wife away.

Then he says “shall we receive the good from the hand of God, and not the bad?”

This is Job’s first question. He will ask many more before his journey is through. Whether you believe that God doles out good and bad, or whether you believe that it’s just life that gives both good and bad, the question still stands. Shall we receive the good, and not the bad?

Do we really expect to have only sunny days? Do we believe that if something is right it will be easy, if something is meant to be then it won’t be too hard? Do we think we’ll have only good and no bad?

I wonder if Job asked because he was suddenly realizing that deep down inside he had thought he would be the lucky one, the one who got through unscathed, with perfect children and good health and no real trouble. That world has come crashing down, and Job is trying to make sense of it.

He has accepted all life has handed him up until this moment, and he tries to extend that attitude of acceptance, of openness even to this horror he faces now. There’s wisdom in that kind of acceptance. It brings a gentleness, and a humility. Shall we receive the good, and not the bad? Do we really have any choice?

This is where Job starts. It’s not his last word on suffering. Maybe it’s of help to you where you are right now. Maybe not. If not, that’s okay. It didn’t work for Job forever either.

Perhaps the most powerful thing we can take from this hard text today is just the fact that it is here. It is good news that our tradition includes this witness to honest, questioning, wrestling faith in the midst of hardship.

So much of our culture suggests that we should be happy most of the time. That kind of thinking gets magnified in church.

And when we can’t seem to get our lives together, when we really don’t like ourselves, when we can’t figure out how we’ve made such a mess of our lives, when we can’t seem to stop crying, when we feel like we’re the only ones having this hard of a time and we wonder what’s wrong with us, it’s easy to believe that we’re the only ones and if we were just better people, just a little more spiritual or had a little more faith, then we wouldn’t be so broken. We’d be whole like all the people around us who seem to have it together.

But we’re all broken. Job’s witness is a potent reminder that questions, fears, suffering, and grief are all part of this journey.

We do not worship the God who hovers above it all, a model of detached wholeness. No,  we confess that it is in the weakness of a child and the brokenness of the cross that we have caught a glimpse of glory.

This is Job’s story, too. Today is just the tip of the iceberg, the beginning of the story of one who would not let the hard questions lie, who wouldn’t settle for platitudes and cliches, who did not turn away from the storm but relentlessly and honestly waded into the middle of it, and in the very eye of the storm, found God.

This, friends, is the hope on which we lean—not that life will only hand us good, but that come what may, good or bad, nothing, nothing can separate us finally from the love of God. May we have a measure of Job’s courage, a measure of his relentless, hard fought faith. And may we come to know, day by day, a bit more of the God who joins us in the troubles and pains of life. May it so be.

by Sarah W. Wiles
October 7, 2012
Bethany Presbyterian Church
Tacoma, WA
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