Looking Once Again at Job

It was a great question Satan asked “Does Job fear God for nothing?” It’s a good question for all of us. We who are blessed, like Job. Is our love for God founded on our belief that God is a loving and compassionate God?

I needed to take another look at the Book of Job…

Job isn’t intended to be history. Like the Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and the Song of Solomon that follow it in the Bible, it is devotional in nature. Some say it is the oldest of the stories in the Bible and it predates Judaism. When you go all the way out Indian Trails and visit the petroglyphs you’re told that they pre-date any indigenous peoples now known. Job is like that. It has this wonderful “once upon a time” quality, with the setting being in the land of Uz. There is no place called Uz. And Job has it all. Listen to this: There was once a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job. That man was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil. 2There were born to him seven sons and three daughters. 3He had seven thousand sheep, three thousand camels, five hundred yoke of oxen, five hundred donkeys, and very many servants; so that this man was the greatest of all the people of the east.

The book has been interpreted a variety of ways. Most scholarship has focused on two aspects of God’s speech from the whirlwind near the end of the book. It’s there when God tells Job to Brace yourself and stand up and take it as a man. That blows me away. Is that the voice of God? I’m trying to make sense out of Job’s experience.

Job 1: 1There was once a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job. That man was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil. 2There were born to him seven sons and three daughters. 3He had seven thousand sheep, three thousand camels, five hundred yoke of oxen, five hundred donkeys, and very many servants; so that this man was the greatest of all the people of the east.

4His sons used to go and hold feasts in one another’s houses in turn; and they would send and invite their three sisters to eat and drink with them. 5And when the feast days had run their course, Job would send and sanctify them, and he would rise early in the morning and offer burnt offerings according to the number of them all; for Job said, “It may be that my children have sinned, and cursed God in their hearts.” This is what Job always did.

6One day the heavenly beings came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came among them. (I want to make sure you understand that Satan, in this story isn’t like what we’ve been led to think about Satan. He was a loyal, trusted, prosecutor or auditor like the Government Accounting Office, or Inspectors General. We get to eves drop on this conversation. It is not out of malice that Satan does what he does.)

7The Lord said to Satan, “Where have you come from?” Satan answered the Lord, “From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it.” 8The Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man who fears God and turns away from evil.” So, God isn’t above doing a bit of bragging on his creatures. And in response, the Inspector General proceeds with his challenge.

9Then Satan answered the Lord, “Does Job fear God for nothing? 10Have you not put a fence around him and his house and all that he has, on every side? You have blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land. 11But stretch out your hand now, and touch all that he has, and he will curse you to your face.” 12The Lord said to Satan, “Very well, all that he has is in your power; only do not stretch out your hand against him!” So Satan went out from the presence of the Lord.

So the scene is set. Satan has been given license to test the quality of Job’s trust in God. It’s a great question Satan asks “Does Job fear God for nothing?” It’s a good question for us. We who are blessed, like Job. Is our love for God contingent on the fence privilege has place around us? Is our love for God founded on our belief that God is a loving and compassionate God? This God isn’t the God of the Psalms or Exodus. Though the Satan can’t touch Job in his body this is what he does.

13One day when his sons and daughters were eating and drinking wine in the eldest brother’s house, 14a messenger came to Job and said, “The oxen were plowing and the donkeys were feeding beside them, 15and the Sabeans fell on them and carried them off, and killed the servants with the edge of the sword; I alone have escaped to tell you.” 16While he was still speaking, another came and said, “The fire of God fell from heaven and burned up the sheep and the servants, and consumed them; I alone have escaped to tell you.” 17While he was still speaking, another came and said, “The Chaldeans formed three columns, made a raid on the camels and carried them off, and killed the servants with the edge of the sword; I alone have escaped to tell you.” 18While he was still speaking, another came and said, “Your sons and daughters were eating and drinking wine in their eldest brother’s house, 19and suddenly a great wind came across the desert, struck the four corners of the house, and it fell on the young people, and they are dead; I alone have escaped to tell you.”

In turn four witnesses who escaped capture and death tell Job, the greatest of all the people of the east, that everything, everything that gave him power and prestige and progeny, that guaranteed the future of his lineage had been taken from him. Waring neighbors took their toll but so did the natural forces of wind and lightning. One fell swoop and all was gone. And this may be the most unbelievable part of the whole story:

20Then Job arose, tore his robe, shaved his head, and fell on the ground and worshiped. 21He said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return there; the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” 22In all this Job did not sin or charge God with wrong-doing.

Of course we recall the rest of the forty chapters. In the second chapter we read that again the heavenly beings were in council before the Lord, the Satan among them. The Lord said to Satan, “Where have you come from?” Satan answered the Lord, “From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it.” 3The Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man who fears God and turns away from evil. He still persists in his integrity, although you incited me against him, to destroy him for no reason.” 4Then Satan answered the Lord, “Skin for skin! All that people have they will give to save their lives. 5But stretch out your hand now and touch his bone and his flesh, and he will curse you to your face.” 6The Lord said to Satan, “Very well, he is in your power; only spare his life.”

7So Satan went out from the presence of the Lord, and inflicted loathsome sores on Job from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head. 8Job took a potsherd with which to scrape himself, and sat among the ashes. 9Then his wife said to him, “Do you still persist in your integrity? Curse God, and die.” 10But he said to her, “You speak as any foolish woman would speak. Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?” In all this Job did not sin with his lips.

We recall how Job’s friends try to explain to him what happened, that somehow Job must have sinned – because such suffering and lose could only be understood as punishment. Against all that Job maintained that he was innocent and held tight to his integrity. But the story insists that the universe is deliberately at variance with the view held by Job and his friends. In the friends’ insistence that Job’s suffering meant he had sinned, and in Job’s demanding a specific reason why he, in his innocence, should suffer, both sides presume the existence of a system of reward and punishment in the cosmos. A righteous person cannot know why he or she suffers and the wicked prosper, because our wisdom is not God’s. And the bottom line is that we human beings can’t wrap our small minds around what God is about.

What the story points to is that there is no such law of retribution and that nature is neutral to man’s moral action. The sun rises on the righteous and sinner alike (28:13, 15). Rain falls on the desert, whereas it could have been directed only to the cultivated land where it is needed by men (38:26 27). Wild animals do not observe the tenets of human morality (38:15 16). Material prosperity and misfortune do not constitute divine recompense or chastisement. It is the concept of a cosmic order that does not operate according to a built in principle of moral retribution which makes possible the selfless piety that is the first issue posed by the book of Job.

Nature is amoral. It doesn’t operate reasonably. Wildfires, hurricanes, tornadoes are simply nature being itself. Alligators or gorillas dragging toddlers into harms way aren’t moral matters. However, it would be a grave error to interpret the book of Job’s denial of divine retribution as constituting a legitimate excuse for us to abandon our obligation to seek to establish justice on earth. Even though justice is not woven into the stuff of the universe nor is God occupied with its administration, it is an ideal to be realized by society. The principle of automatic reward and punishment is, in its self, a form of coercion, and leaves no special realm in which humanity can exercise our moral freedom by doing the good from purely disinterested motives. The author of Job may be denying one fundamental assumption of the narrative and prophetic books of the Bible, but his denial is consistent with another, even more fundamental assumption: that it is up to humankind to carry out God’s commandments and that this primary task must be done in society and actualized in the course of history.

It was a great question Satan asked “Does Job fear God for nothing?” It’s a good question for all of us. We who are blessed, like Job. Is our love for God founded on our belief that God is a loving and compassionate God? This God isn’t the God of the Psalms or Exodus. Is our love for God contingent on the fence privilege has place around us? Most agree that the ultimate theme of the book of Job is the nature of a righteous man’s faith in God. It turns on the question of the nature of religion: Can we serve God for naught?…When Job says, ‘Though he slay me, yet will I trust in Him’ in the thirteenth chapter the second half of the verse may also be translated, “yet will I argue with him.” The book reaffirms Job’s trust in God -and God’s trust in Job. In teaching that piety must be unselfish and that the righteous sufferer is assured not of tangible reward but of fellowship with God, biblical thought about justice, retribution, and providence reaches a climax -and a limit.

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