Bible by Request: Job
Pentecost XII (O. T. 19); August 12, 2018
I think of the Book of Job as an opera. It has a short prologue and a short epilogue, and in between a long series of arias and duets. The music may be by Wagner, or it may be by The Who or by Lin-Manuel Miranda, but to me the story makes the most sense when thought of as an opera, since most of it is poetry. It starts out, "There was once a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job." Now, Uz is an unknown and possibly fictional place, or the story-teller may have had a particular place in mind. It is clear – to me, at least – that the story is a parable; it is not a piece of history, but a parable like the parables of Jesus. If it's important to you to think of it as history, go ahead, but I can't imagine that whether the events happened or not makes a bit of difference to the point of the story – again, like the parables of Jesus.
Job was a perfectly righteous man; he never sinned. And he was extremely devout, offering sacrifices for himself and on behalf of his own adult children, just in case they ever sinned. He was also fabulously wealthy. Now one day all of God's senior staffers were making their reports, and God turned to the Satan and asked what he had been up to. Pause for interpretation: the Hebrew word "satan" means "accuser;" the Satan's job was, essentially, prosecuting attorney. He was to report to God any wrongdoers and bring them for judgment. This was the beginning of our idea of "Satan" (as a proper name) as the Devil, but is not exactly the same thing.
So the Satan said he had been looking for evildoers, and God teased him: "Have you considered my servant Job? You'll never catch him doing wrong." The Satan said of course not; you've made him rich and happy. But take it away from him, and he'll curse you to your face. The Lord told the Satan to go ahead and do his worst; just don't touch his health. So the Satan did his worst, and the way the story-teller crafted this part is beautiful, so I'm going to take some time and tell it. A messenger came to Job and told him that the Sabeans had come and stolen all his oxen and donkeys and killed the servants attending them; "I alone have escaped to tell you." While he was still talking, another messenger arrived and said that fire fell from the sky and burned up the sheep and the servants watching them; "I alone have escaped to tell you." While he was still talking, another messenger arrived and said that the Chaldeans had come and stolen all his camels and killed the servants with them; "I alone have escaped to tell you." And while he was still talking, a fourth came and said that the house where his adult children were feasting together had fallen in and killed all of them; "I alone have escaped to tell you."
Job said, "The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord." So the Satan lost that bet, but he raised the stakes. He said that if Job were to fall ill on top of that, then he would curse God; the Lord told him he could do as he liked, just not kill him. So the Satan made Job wretched with a skin disease; Job sat on a pile of ashes and scraped himself with a broken piece of pottery. His wife said to him, "Curse God and die!" but Job replied, "Shall we receive good from the Lord and not the bad?" He would not turn against God.
Now we come to the meat of the opera, and I can cover this part quickly. His three friends Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar came to see him and sat with him in the ashes for seven days. And then the singing begins. Job curses the day he was born; Job complains that he has done nothing to deserve such awfulness; Job demands that God come in person and explain all this. So the friends give him all the right theological answers: that bad things happen only to bad people, so Job must have done something sinful and he just doesn't remember it; that he should take all this as a learning experience; that suffering builds character… you know. Perhaps someone has tried to tell you this during some bad time of your own. Job stubbornly insists that they are all liars and demands that God show up and explain.
At the climax of the opera God does show up and God does not explain. Well, one thing God does that you should keep in mind is that God yells at the three friends that they are all liars and only Job told the truth. But God does not explain. When God starts singing God is accompanied by full orchestra – or, if it's a rock opera, with the volume turned up high. God sings, "Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me. Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?" and on and on. God says "you will answer me" but God never pauses for breath, so Job never gets a chance to answer until God finally stops singing.
In the course of God's aria, God takes Job on a tour of the earth and the skies, and asks Job if he can make the sun rise, or the seas move, or the snow or the rain fall; and whether Job can command the stars and the constellations. Then God takes Job on a tour of the wild places and all the beasts that live there, both real and mythical: the lion, the mountain goat, the wild ass and the wild ox, the ostrich, the horse, the hawk, Behemoth and Leviathan. God asks Job about Job's power over the wild things and the mythical things; Job's response is the Scripture you heard: "I repent in dust and ashes."
The epilogue follows, in which God tells the friends they are liars and that God will forgive them only if Job asks it, which he does. And then the Lord gave Job a new family and even more wealth than he had before; Job lived to see his great-grandchildren and the story ends on a happy note… unless you are one of the children or servants killed at the beginning of the story. But let's not push it farther than it is meant to go.
But here's the question: what's the point of all this? After listening to thirty-nine chapters of singing, what do we come away with? We learn, of course, that bad things do happen to good people. But there is more. Given the way God seems to blast Job off his feet, a typical summary is that God leaves Job without an explanation, but simply the reminder that a puny human being cannot expect to understand the ways of God. There is something true yet still unsatisfying about that.
Another understanding is one I learned from a seminary classmate who now teaches Hebrew Bible at Columbia Seminary, William Brown. Bill reads the Hebrew a little differently, and I don't need to go into that, but the upshot of his understanding is that God is not trying to belittle Job by showing him the wonder of Creation. Rather, God is showing Job that he is part of a wonder-filled Creation. Job is not isolated, not alone in his suffering, but is part of a Creation that includes stars and snow, lions and Leviathan. At the same time, Job is humbled to know that he is not at the center of it all. If you dwell too much on your suffering, Job, then you make the mistake of thinking that this is all about you. You have your life and your place here, but so do the ostrich and the wild ox, the horse and the hawk. It isn't about you.
This wonder-filled Creation: it isn't about us. What differences would that make in, say, our worship of God if we remember that all this isn't about us? What would it mean for our relationship with the earth and the other creatures on it if we remember that all this isn't about us? Perhaps if we learned that, we would work to stop climate change and the extinction of so many species of life; perhaps we could restore ecological balance. This isn't about us, but we are a part of it, the part of it that calls upon God for justice, that asks questions, that sings opera. We are part of a wonder-filled universe, but it isn't about us. Job learned all that and discovered that even though it didn't really answer his question, it gave him some comfort as he sat among the ashes.
Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master
 William P Brown, The Seven Pillars of Creation: The Bible, Science, and the Ecology of Wonder (Oxford University Press, 2010); chapter 5 "Behemoth and the Beagle," pages 115-140.