Job: The Setup
Pentecost VII (O. T. 14); July 3, 2016
This month our worship is going to take us on a quick tour of the Book of Job. A quick tour is sufficient for most of us; those few who really love a great piece of literature might want to read the whole thing. It includes some of the most gorgeous poetry in the Bible, and really deserves to be the libretto of a great opera or oratorio. I don't know that anyone has ever written that oratorio or opera.
Anyway, even though I love literature and will probably be unable to refrain from commenting on the quality of the work, mostly the sermons this month will explore what the Book of Job has for 21st century followers of Jesus. Sometimes I'll describe the themes in a reading and ask you annoying questions; sometimes I may riff on an idea. Today I'll recap what happened in chapter one and tell a little more of the story, reflecting on characters and themes.
"There was once a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job." If that sounds to you like, "Once upon a time…" you are right on. Some people like to get caught up in debating whether this story tells a historical event or not; what a pointless waste of energy. No one has any idea what "the land of Uz" might be; maybe it is somewhere between Terebinthia and Oz. Just as when Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan, no one debates whether the event actually happened or cares that Jesus is making up a story that teaches several great lessons, so no one who actually thinks about these things cares that the Book of Job is a fable – a wonderful fable – that teaches many great lessons.
So the story-teller goes all out to tell you what a great man Job is. He is phenomenally wealthy; he has a very good family. Indeed, his adult children all get along, and enjoy hosting each other in their homes for several days of celebration, probably for their birthdays (verse four reads literally "each on his day," translated in NRSV as "in turn"). But above all he is righteous. He worships faithfully, never missing the appropriate sacrifices. He does extra when his children are partying, just in case one of them might have inadvertently committed some sin. Job is the person we wish we were.
After introducing Job, the story takes us to the Court of Heaven. Several times in the Bible we are given the picture of the Lord God as a great King, seated on the throne, with His courtiers around him. One of those courtiers is called "the Satan," which is Hebrew for "the Accuser." The Accuser's job is to go about the kingdom, sniffing out sinners and the corrupt and bringing them to the King for punishment. You can think of the Accuser as both police and District Attorney, the one who finds out wrongdoers and then prosecutes them in a criminal case. Now, the title "the Accuser" or "the Satan" later on became a proper name, identified with the Devil, God's adversary. That's not who the character is in the Book of Job; he's the member of the Court of God whose role is to find out and accuse wrongdoers.
And so God issues the Satan a challenge: you can't accuse my servant Job of anything, can you? To which the Satan replies: well, you never let anything bad happen to him. No wonder he's so righteous; he is blessed. Okay, folks, that raises the first annoying question for us modern people of God to think about: do we worship God because God deserves to be worshiped, or do we worship God because we're feeling pretty good about life? The Satan issues a challenge to God and to us: will the people of God continue to worship God and be faithful to God even when things aren't going well for us?
So God accepts the Satan's challenge, and says, "Do to him as you will, but don't harm him personally." And the Satan takes away from Job everything: all his wealth, and even his children. Some of you know how devastating it can be to lose a child, so imagine losing everything: possessions and children, not one or two, but all of them. By the way, the rhythm of the story here is particularly good (I told you I couldn't resist commenting on the literary quality of the piece!), and serves to deliver body-blows. "You lost oxen and donkeys and the servants who looked after them." Pow! "And the sheep and the servants who looked after them." Pow! Pow! "And the camels and the servants who looked after them." Boom! "And all ten of your children." Wham! Kick, slap, punch.
We hold our breaths. How will Job react? Will he continue to be righteous? Will he curse God? Will he wail, "Why me?" Not yet, at least. Job is the person we all wish we were. His reaction: "Naked I came from my mother's womb, and naked shall I return; the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord." He sounds like a philosopher.
In fact, he reminds me of the Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi, renowned among those devoted to the Dao. One story I remember from teaching Daoism: Zhuangzi and his wife were married for many years, and loved one another deeply. So after she died, his friend Huizi came to Zhuangzi's house to mourn with him. When he arrived, he was shocked to find the widower drumming on a bowl and singing. "How can you do this!" Huizi cried. "You loved her, you were with her from youth, you raised children together, you grew old together, and now I find that you not only are not mourning her, but you are drumming on a bowl and singing!" Zhuangzi said, "You misjudge me. When she died I grieved and despaired, as any man would. But then I thought. Life has its seasons. We are born, we flourish, and inevitably we die. All happens as it must. When a person sleeps, you do not disturb their sleep, but allow them to rest peacefully. My wife has gone to sleep in the Great Inner Room; shall I disturb her sleep with wailing? After all, she has gone according to the law of Nature."
Although the assigned reading stops there, I'm going on a bit. The scene changes back to the Throne Room of Heaven, and God and the Satan have a similar conversation again. God points out "Job still persists in his integrity, although you incited me against him, to destroy him for no reason." The Satan argues that if Job were to suffer in his flesh, then he would curse God. So the Lord tells the Satan to go ahead, and Job gets a horrible skin disease; it's a wonderful, horrible picture: he uses a broken piece of pottery to scrape his diseased flesh and sits among the ashes. His wife says, "Do you still persist in your integrity? Curse God and die!" Job shushes his wife, and says, "Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?" And he does not curse God. Soon he will curse something, but not God.
But then the story gets real interesting. Job has three friends, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar, who hear about his troubles and set out from their homes to visit him. As they draw near and see how bad he looks, they wail and throw dust in the air. Okay, it's an Ancient Near East thing. And when they arrive, they sit on the ground with him for seven days, sit in silence, to share in his suffering.
And then… and then Job starts to speak. And the poetry begins. And we'll deal with some of that over the next few weeks. The first thing he says is to curse the day he was born, and the poetry is marvelous. Here's a sample:
Let [that day] not rejoice among the days of the year;
Let it not come into the number of the months.
Yes, let that night be barren;
Let no joyful cry be heard in it…
Let the stars of its dawn be dark;
Let it hope for light, but have none;
May it not see the eyelids of the morning –
Because it did not shut the doors of my mother's womb,
And hide trouble from my eyes (3:6-7, 9-10).
And it goes on in a similar vein, and for a long time. This is the beginning of about forty chapters of poetry. Once Job opens his mouth to curse his own birth, then his friends start in, trying to give him some perspective. At least they do not say, "You shouldn't feel that way." But they have a lot to say, which will be our subject next week.
So, the Book of Job is a gem, an emerald set in the silver of the Bible. It says things you and I may prefer be left unsaid. But for today, it is enough that it sets up a challenging story of a person who is righteous, and who persists in worshiping the Lord God, regardless of what happens to him. The Lord gives, and the Lord takes away; blessed be the name of the Lord.
Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master
Benson Presbyterian Church
Omaha, Nebraska There are many sources for this story. I used the memory of having taught it from Michael Molloy, Experiencing the World's Religions, Fifth Edition, and from http://www.consolatio.com/2005/04/zhuangzi_loses_.html.