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Born To Trouble - Four takes On The Book of Job

Web posted on July 06, 2014

Sunday Peace

by Rev Robert Lyon

I've been to so many funerals in the past year and seen so many elderly folks warehoused in low-cost nursing homes that I'm starting to feel like Siddhartha Gautama.

The story is told that Gautama, the Buddha, who lived in India around 500 BC, ventured off the palace grounds for the first time at age 29 (his father was overprotective) and saw, also for the first time, an old man, a sick man, a dead man, and a religious hermit. Appalled at his discovery, Gautama abandoned his father's palace to follow the hermit's example in a quest to understand human suffering.

Gautama recognized that "things" don't make for happiness, and that the psychological side of suffering is frustrated desire. But for all the Buddha's wisdom and compassion, unless you think that getting rid of your desires is the best way to maximize your happiness, you may want to seek a solution elsewhere. I recommend the book of Job.

The author of the book of Job makes pretty much the same assessment of the human condition when he has a character say that, "Man is born to trouble as sure as sparks fly upward" (Job 5:7). Personally, I think Job offers the more satisfying view because he looks for the godly fulfillment of human desires rather than their renunciation. So over the next four weeks, we're going to look at the book of Job under these topics: (a) An Ancient Tale, (b) Really Bad Orthodoxy, (c) Not Pie in the Sky, (d) A Gospel Trailer.

To read Job correctly, you have to ask what kind of book it is, how it was put together, when and why it was written, and who is this character called Job? Job may once have been an actual person, but by the time the story reached its present form, his story had become a parable of human suffering. One Hebrew dictionary takes the name "Job" (Iyov) to mean "the assailed", a fitting name for one who has endured "the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune".

Many scholars date the story in its present form from around 500 BC, just after the Jews returned from the Exile and began to rebuild the Temple and the city of Jerusalem. Job may therefore represent the Jewish people, and his plight may reflect the sufferings of the Exile. But whether that view is correct or not, it's quite proper to read Job with an extended meaning that applies to all of us in all our plights.

The actual story occurs in chapters 1, 2, and the latter half of 42, which are the only parts of the book written in prose. There Job is portrayed as a good and devout man who loses everything through no fault of his own, and is eventually restored to twice his previous fortunes. The chapters in between, written in verse, contain three cycles of speeches by Job's friends Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar, interspersed by Job's replies, followed by a long lecture from young Elihu, and finally Job's life-changing encounter with God.

The story takes place in "the land of Uz", a desert land of uncertain location to the East or South of Judah. Owning 3000 camels, the delivery vans of the desert, Job is clearly a merchant of substance. With abundant sheep, donkeys, and 1000 oxen that he counts by the pair ("500 yoke of oxen") he is also a rancher and farmer. As clan chief, he is also a priest who offers sacrifice for his family, which sets his story in a time before the priesthood instituted by Moses.

Job experiences two distinct kinds of adversity: human evil and natural disaster. The Sabaeans make a raid from the South, steal his oxen and kill his ploughmen. The Chaldeans raid his caravan from the East, steal the goods and camels, and kill his drivers. Meanwhile, an enormous lightning storm burns up all his shepherds and his sheep (7000 x 4 legs of roast lamb?) and a tornado wipes out the house in which his 7 sons and 3 daughters are having a party. With no disrespect to the seriousness of the content, the form of this tale is that of a "shaggy dog story", as you recognize from the fact that after each disaster a sole survivor returns to report "and I alone have escaped to tell you."

So by a combination of human evil and natural disaster, the two kinds of adversity to which we are all subject, Job loses not only all his "things" but also the relationships that make his life worthwhile: his kids are dead, his sympathetic friends change their tune, and his wife advises unhelpfully, "Curse God and die."

What, then, is this story about? Well, what it is not about is the origin of evil. Yes, the "inciting force" for the conflict (as your English teacher used to call it) is a wager on Job's integrity, a wager that "the satan" proposes and God accepts, a wager that God accepts because he knows Job won't let him down.

But whatever you may happen to believe about The Devil, this devil is clearly just a literary device. We give him our "willing suspension of disbelief" only long enough to make the story work, then let him disappear back into the fog of myth. Though some Bible translations call him "Satan", what the Hebrew text calls him is not "Satan", as a proper name, but "hasatan", "the satan". That is, "the adversary".

For this adversary to be "real", and for the wager to have actually happened, you would have to believe that God holds staff meetings in heaven (maybe they're like army O Groups) and that one of those meetings was "crashed" by a ne'er-do-well who (according to another legend) had been evicted from Heaven before Creation. You would have to believe that God, who is "of purer eyes than to behold evil and cannot look upon iniquity" tolerated such an intrusion with nothing more than a sarcastic "Where did you come from!" And you would have to believe that God saw nothing unethical about gambling with an adversary at the expense of an unwitting subordinate who is three times described as "blameless and upright".

So what, then, is this story about? It seems mainly to show how a truly "blameless and upright" person will respond to the suffering that inevitably befalls him. It also shows why in the face of disaster we should not surrender hope and desire. And it cautions us to be wary of orthodoxies that are unwilling to accept self-evident facts.

If you've hung in for Part One, I hope you'll come back over the next three weeks for Parts Two, Three, and Four. But before next week you should read Job for yourself. If you're not familiar with Biblical literature, you may find your first exposure to Job rather tedious. So I've prepared an easy-to-follow abridged version that I'll be using for the next three sessions. Click on the link, then click on "Job". You have my permission to copy or download it.

Robert welcomes your questions and comments at

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All in the Family
( August 13, 2017 )

Through the Valley of the Shadow
( July 30, 2017 )

( July 16, 2017 )

God and the Grass
( June 10, 2017 )