The Book of Job

Psalms 8:1-4, Job 2:1-10 / February 22, 2015
Susan Boyer

As we dive into the journey of Lent this year, we are also on a five-week journey through the Book of Job.  Now, some of you are saying in your heads, “Really, the Book of Job?  It is so depressing.”  Others of you may not have heard about Job.  Before we get into all the deeper complexities and subtleties of this book, suffice it to say that Job is a much loved, much hated, much discussed book in the Bible. As I began preparing for this sermon series, I couldn’t believe the wealth of resources available to me.  Plus, I don’t think we all realize just how much this book has impacted our art, our music and our conversations.

The Russian film, Leviathan, which is an Oscar nominee this year, is based on the Book of Job.  Joel and Ethan Coen, acclaimed directors of movies like Fargo and The Big Lebowski wrote, produced and directed a film called A Serious Man that many see as a parallel to the Book of Job.

William Blake, a man influential in the history of poetry and visual arts created 22 engravings called Illustrations of the Book of Job.  These pieces of art are considered his greatest masterpieces in the medium of engraving.  J.B., a famous play from the 50s about Job, opens in a circus tent and tells the story of J.B, a wealthy banker.  There is a ballet, a musical and many songs based on the Book of Job.

Victor Hugo said, “Tomorrow, if all literature was to be destroyed and it was left to me to retain one work only, I should save Job.”  Tennyson referred to the Book of Job as the “greatest poem, whether of ancient or modern literature.”  Virginia Woolf said, “I read the book of Job last night.  I don’t think God comes out well in it.”  G.K. Chesterton believed that Job posed a question so difficult that even God could not answer it.  C.G. Jung thought that God suffered such a deep defeat with Job that he had to come to earth in human form and sacrifice himself.

There are many times when I am in conversation with someone who is suffering in one way or another and they will say to me, “I feel a bit like Job.”  Other times I will hear someone say about a friend, “She has the patience of Job.”

Today I want to merely introduce you to Job as we prepare to spend several weeks learning to know this book that people either love or find very disturbing.  I invite you to read the Book of Job as part of your Lent this year.

The Book of Job is a poem with two chapters of prose at the beginning and one chapter of prose at the end.  The majority of people, who know anything about Job, only know those three chapters.  They don’t know that the bulk of this book is actually a poem.

This is how the story goes…Job was a righteous man from the land of Uz. He had seven sons and three daughters.  Notice the significance of those perfect numbers.  Job had flocks and flocks and flocks of sheep and camels and oxen and donkeys.  He was the wealthiest man in the East.  His children would regularly get together and observe the feast days. When a feast was over, Job would offer burnt offerings according to the number of children he had, just in case any of them sinned or cursed God while they were drinking.

After we learn just how wealthy and righteous Job is, the scene shifts from earth to heaven.  God is meeting with his angels and Satan.  At this point in the Bible, Satan is not an agent of evil but more like an officer of God.  The HarperCollins Study Bible compares him to a CIA operative.  Other sources suggest Satan is more like a prosecuting attorney and the book of Job give us a sense of a courtroom drama.

God says to Satan, “Have you seen that man Job?  He is so pious…so righteous.”  “Of course, he is,” Satan says with derision.  “He wants for nothing.  I bet if you took it all away he would curse you.”  So God says, “Okay, you are on.  I put all that Job has in your hands, but don’t hurt him.”

Back on earth, the day looks like any other day.  Job is happily minding his business when one of his servants comes running in and breathlessly tells him that the Sabeans stole all his oxen and donkeys and killed the servants tending them.  And just then another servant bursts into the room and tells him that all of his sheep and the servants watching them were burned by a fire.  And while he is absorbing all this bad news another servant explodes into the room to tell him that the Chaldeans took all his camels and killed the servants watching them.  And before that servant can finish his sentence another one rushes in with the news that while his children were eating together a wind came and knocked the house on top of them and all of his children are dead.

What did Job do with the news that all of his wealth was gone and his children were all dead?  Did he fall apart?  Did he go in search of his insurance policy?  Did he call the funeral director?

Job stood up, tore his robe, shaved his head and then fell on the ground and…wept….no….Job worshiped God.  He said, “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.”

The scene switches back to heaven and God turns to Satan and says, “See, I told you he is righteous and above reproach.”  “Yeah, sure,” Satan says, “that’s because you won’t let me touch him.”  “Oh alright,” God says, “but whatever you do to him, spare his life.”

The next thing Job knows he is covered from the top of his head to the bottom of his feet with boils.  He takes a broken bit of pottery and sits in the ashes scratching his sores.  His wife finds him that way and says, “Really?  Is your integrity that important to you?  Why don’t you get it over with?  Curse God and die.”  Does Job do it?  No. Righteous, blameless Job responds, “I have received good at God’s hand, shall I not receive the evil?”

That is when Job’s friends show up.  Then for chapters upon chapters we read poetry in which Job’s friends take turns telling him that he is suffering like this because he must have sinned.  “No, I didn’t.”  “Yes, you did.”   “No, I didn’t.”  “Yes, you did.  Just admit it.”  “No, I won’t.”  For pages upon pages, Job continues to defend his integrity with his friends.  I know this conversation sounds boring except that there is this intense drama embedded in the poetry that gets increasingly passionate and bitter.   Job says things to his friends like, “Miserable comforters you all are” and “I am a brother to dragons.”  Eventually, after a long period of silence, God shows up and changes the whole conversation.  No longer is the conversation about virtue and whether or not Job did anything to deserve such suffering.  Suddenly it is about mystery and power and doxology.

In the narrative at the very end of the Book of Job, God turns to Job’s friends and lets them have it.  God tells them that they did not speak the truth to Job about God and for that they must repent.  God tells Job’s friends they have to offer burnt offerings and Job must pray for them.  God says, “I will listen to Job.  I will listen to Job if he doesn’t want me to deal with you the way you deserve.”  After Job prays for his friends, God restores all of Job’s fortune…two-fold.  Then Job’s siblings show up.  I want to know where they have then been up till now.  Did they stay away because Job was no longer the wealthy, generous brother?  They listen to Job’s story and when they leave they each give him money and a gold ring.  Then God blesses Job with seven new sons and three more daughters, more lovely than the last three. Job adores his daughters so much that he grants them an inheritance equal to their brothers.  Job lived a long life.  He was able to see four generations of his descendants before he died.

That is the story of Job in a nutshell.  If you read this story as historically accurate you will do it a disservice.  Don’t get caught in saying, “God makes deals with Satan about our lives?”  The Book of Job is a story…a story that holds up the human condition of life.  It delves into our profound questions about blessing and suffering. It asks the question, “If God isn’t a Santa Claus figure, bringing us gifts when we are nice and punishing us when we are bad, then just who is God?” It names our pain when God’s answer to our suffering is silence. It shows the friends easy answers for what they are….attempts to give human answers to divine questions.  The Book of Job points out that piety and service are not enough.  As Walter Brueggemann says, “No one can stand in the face of the whirlwind on a soap box of virtue.”[1]  God is mystery beyond our human understanding.  Job is the book that substantiates the truth of our questions.  It points to the truth that God is beyond our domestication.  God cannot be tamed.

Job struggles hard to keep his life together in what he experienced as the absence of God.  Perhaps you have been there.  Perhaps you are there now.  The poetry of Job speaks to us that God is present, even when we don’t know it…present but undomesticated and unfettered by our need for answers.  God is present, even beyond our knowing.  Amen.

 

 

 

 

[1] Walter Brueggemann, The Threat of Life  (Fortress Press: Minneapolis, 1996), p. 87.