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Born To Trouble, Take Three: Not Pie In The Sky

Web posted on July 20, 2014

Sunday Peace

Rev Robert Lyon

( For a short version of the book of Job, click on JOB at graphikos@graphikos.ca )

For people who suffer, which in varying degrees is all of us, Job is a book of hope. Granted that some of the details are fuzzy, nevertheless Job embraces much the same hope that Christians cherish, which is a remarkable thing, considering that the author had never heard of Jesus. So let's hold the Christian reading until next week; this week let's try to read that hope through the eyes of Job and his author.

There's a famous Larsen cartoon that shows two deer in the woods, standing on their hind legs and talking. One deer has a birthmark that looks like a Target store logo with the colors reversed. The other deer sympathizes, "Bummer of a birthmark, Hal." (You can find the cartoon on-line by googling the punch line.)

That's pretty much how Job feels. He says, "[God] set me up as his target, his archers surround me" (16:12f) and "Why did you make me your target?" (7:20). He feels this way because, in the world-view of his day, since there was only one God and he was sovereign, then he must be the cause of everything that happens.

Job is not above "kvetching", complaining to God about his condition, but he still finds grace to say, "The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD" (2:21). Although he insists, "I will surely argue my ways to his face," in almost the same breath he affirms, "Though he slay me, I will hope in him" (13:15). Or as the King James Version has it, "Though he slay me, yet will I trust him." Despite his suffering, Job is a man of faith.

The inspired imagination behind the book of Job is that of a person who has seen suffering. The author shares both the frustration and the faith that he attributes to his character. In one way or another they have seen the same assaults of age, sickness, and death that the Buddha saw on his first day away from the royal estate. So how is it that they can face these things with faith rather than struggling to achieve renunciation?

The difference is that Job believes in a God who is both rational and just. When Job says, "I want to speak to the Almighty; I want to argue my case with God" (13:3), Job may not realize it but he is making a profound statement about the nature of God. He is saying that the God he believes in is a rational being, capable of intelligent debate. And he is saying that this God knows right from wrong and can be trusted to judge aright.

But God, for Job, is not only the judge; he is also a trusted witness for the defence: "Behold, my witness is in heaven, and he who testifies for me is on high" (16:19). God is also his "goel", the kinsman-redeemer who will buy a relative out of slavery or buy his estate out of hock: "I know that my `goel' lives" (19:25).

The God in whom Job believes has a long-range purpose, a loving purpose that extends somehow beyond the grave, so that even in the grave Job can wait for it contentedly. "Oh that you would hide me in Sheol (the grave), that you would conceal me until your wrath be past. All the days of my service I would wait, till my renewal should come. You would call, and I would answer you; you would long for the work of your hands. For then you would seal up my transgressions in a bag, and you would cover over my iniquity" (14:13-17).

There is no doubt in Job's mind what God is like, nor that, despite his great suffering, God is well disposed to him. The problem is that Job cannot figure out how to get God to answer his questions. "I wish I knew where I might find him. Would he contend with me in the greatness of his power? No, he would pay attention to me." (23:3,6).

God does indeed pay attention to Job, but in a vision that terrifies him. This is Job's OMG moment, and it is terrifying not because God wills it to be so but because that is our inevitable response in the face of "endless wisdom, boundless power, and awful purity" (F. W. Faber).

Through four whole chapters (38-41) God overwhelms Job with image after image of his power and knowledge as Creator of the natural world. We would need some different images if we were writing the book today, but if you can shift your mind back to that pre-scientific age and also remember that you're reading poetry, you can feel something of the awe that Job felt.

When you feel that awe, you understand why Job despises himself and repents in dust and ashes (42:6). He feels small. He realizes that he's intellectually out of his depth: he's been talking about things that he did not and could not understand (42:3). God cautions him that such thinking may lead a person to malign God in an attempt to justify our human expectations (40:8). That's what happens in A. E. Housman's naughty line: "Malt does more than Milton can / to justify God's ways to man." It's either that or, like Job, let an otherworldly awe move you to worship.

At the beginning of the story the author assures us that Job had not crossed that line: "In all this, Job did not sin nor charge God with wrong" (2:22). And his restoration in Chapter 42 confirms it. But his friends did cross that line, not by charging God with wrong but, ironically, by trying to defend God against such a charge in a way that made his justice look despotic. We also cross that line when we let the enormity of human suffering persuade us that there cannot be a God. That conclusion presumes a more comprehensive knowledge than we really have, and that's the sin of hybris.

One thing we moderns find difficult to credit is Job's restoration: seven new sons, three new daughters, twice the livestock he had before, and he gets to live 140 years, which is twice the usual fourscore and ten (Psalm 90:10). If you disregard the fact that the author took an ancient story and turned it into a parable, you're likely to write off Job's restoration as so much pie in the sky.

Well, pie, perhaps. Job's just desserts, you might say. But definitely not in the sky. There are no angels, harps, or disembodied spirits in this story. Job's restoration is very much a thing of the world we know. It's hard to be sure what this picture of Job's restoration actually points to, but it looks as if the author is contemplating the possibility of the resurrection of the body. "If a man dies, shall he live again? All the days of my service I would wait, till my renewal should come" (14:14).

The logic seems to be that if God made mankind with bodies, it's because he intends to perfect us with bodies. The material world is not a prison to be escaped, though the abundance of suffering makes it seem so. Embodied life is an amazing invention (by whatever means you think God brought it about) and Job's expectation is that God intends to make it even better. That's what the story means by giving Job a double blessing of twice 70 years.

But if you're still tempted to pass Job off as the wishful thinking bygone days, check out the last paragraph of the story. Notice that it's the seven sons who get mere passing mention, while the daughters (in that paternalistic age) are not only identified individually by name but also receive an equal inheritance with their brothers (42:13-15). This, too, is the restorative work of a just and rational God in a mad and suffering world.

Robert welcomes your questions and comments at nm@bbs42.net


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