YEAR B: PENTECOST 18
October 4, 2009
Job 1:1; 2:1-10
The book of Job is the story of one man’s suffering, and through his story an exploration of human suffering and the inadequacies of theological views on why bad things happen to good people. Along with the book of Ecclesiastes, some commentators have envisioned the book of Job as belonging to a ‘wisdom in revolt’ stream amid the wisdom literature. These books question the traditional wisdom retributive view of life that finds a connection between following God’s ways and being rewarded (as evidenced in the book of Proverbs). Job is held up as a prototype for the innocent and the good who suffer undeservedly.
Commentator Edwin Good (in his excellent book, In Turns of Tempest) suggests that since the author of the book is unknown, and it is set entirely beyond Israel, it is most useful to consider the book as fiction, or we might think of it as a kind of parable. The very start of the book in Job 1:1 lends a fictional character to it.
The book has two main sections, a prose framework story which begins in the first two chapters setting the scene and concludes in an ‘all’s well that ends well’ prologue in 42:7-17, and a poetic section which makes up the bulk of the book in chapters 3-42:6. It is in this poetic core that the heart of Job’s suffering is explored. It is likely that the prose framework was quite ancient, and that the poetic core was of one piece, with the addition of Job’s fourth friend, Elihu, as a later interpolation (chs. 32-37). The text probably was given its final shape after the Babylonian exile, though it is unclear just when this happened.
In having a poetic dialogue on the topic of suffering, Job is not alone in the ancient world. Two close parallels are the Babylonian Theodicy (sometimes titled ‘A Dialogue of Pessimism’) and the Egyptian ‘Dialogue of a Man’ which deals with a man’s wish for death. Neither of these deals with suffering in the sometimes disturbing and ambiguous way of the story of Job.
While it raises questions of innocent suffering, the book of Job does not contain a fully- developed theory on the origin of evil. It rather portrays Job’s problems as the outcome of a heavenly wager between God and the satan or the accuser (much like a prosecuting attorney in court.)
In Job 1:1, the scene is set for the story of Job, who is introduced as almost a fairy-tale figure: ‘There once was a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job.’ The scene is set outside the land and people of Israel, in keeping with the more universal themes of wisdom literature generally. There is no acknowledgement in the story of Job of the salvation history of the people of Israel, and the name used for God is Elohim, not the name revealed to Moses (Yahweh).
Job is set up as ‘blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil.’ Since the fear (understood to mean awe or reverence) of the Lord is seen in Proverbs as the path to life and wisdom, this description of Job establishes him as a wise man.
The verses that are left out between the two parts of the lectionary reading establish that Job is a wealthy man, a patriarch of a large family with land and herds. All of that is about to change, however, as the accuser (hassatan in Hebrew) taunts God, suggesting that Job is only faithful because he has been blessed with wealth and health. God allows Job’s faithfulness to be put to the test by losing his children, wealth, and flocks to a series of terrible calamities.
Job’s response is to grieve and to worship, attributing both his abundance and the loss of it to God, ‘The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.’
In chapter 2 where the lectionary reading continues, the scene returns to the heavenly court, where God and the satan again spar over Job. God uses the same words as in the first heavenly scene, taunting the satan that Job is upright and blameless and fears God. God adds that now Job still persists in his integrity, despite the satan having incited God against Job ‘to destroy him for no reason.’
The accuser heightens the conflict, which is to be played out further on the field of Job’s life. This time, he incites God to touch Job’s health, his bone and his flesh, ‘and he will curse you to your face.’ God relents, saying only that the satan must spare Job’s life. In vv. 7 and 8, the satan afflicts Job with sores, and Job sits on the ash-heap, abject in his suffering.
In v. 9, Job’s wife (who has been silent in the story until this point, having suffered the loss of her children and home, and now witnessing the downfall of her husband) speaks out of her grief and anger. ‘Do you still persist in your integrity? Curse God, and die.’ It is interesting that she uses the same phrase that God uses of Job, ‘persists in his integrity.’ She also echoes the language of the satan character, who has predicted that Job would ‘curse God’ to his face. The word translated ‘curse’, barak, actually means to bless, but is possibly used here euphemistically to mean curse.
Commentators differ on their reading of how Job’s wife intended the word, with some emphasizing her bitterness, and some among the early church fathers even seeing her as the devil’s mouthpiece or advocate. Others take a more pastoral reading, attributing her tone to her anguish and grief, and proposing that she may have said, ‘bless God and die’, wanting her husband to be at peace at last.
In her article on Job in The Women’s Bible Commentary, Carol Newsom has said that Job’s wife is the one who most clearly sees what is at stake in questions of innocent suffering held up alongside a perception of God as beneficent. Job’s wife sees through to the futility of all that will be debated in the poetic dialogues in the unfolding story of Job and his friends. She asks pointedly what use is it to hold to his integrity, when none of what has been lost can be restored. Whether or not he is eventually proved to be a righteous man is a moot point when weighed in the balance with the children who are no more. She also dares to ask if life is worth living in such a world, where fate proves capricious and cruel. In v. 10, Job snaps back at her, ‘You speak as any foolish woman would speak’, a double insult in the wisdom tradition, as a fool was one without regard for the appropriate word in season, and women were thought foolish, as only men were educated. Job adds, ‘Shall we receive good and not evil at God’s hand?’ Presumably, this word of wisdom is of small comfort to his wife.
The reading ends with the assurance that, ‘In all of this Job did not sin with his lips.’ This may beg the question of whether his thoughts are as benign as his words. Yet his words are all we have in the text, giving only the outline of the story without the psychological detail for which we might hope.
In preaching this passage and on the following three weeks of readings from Job, one might invite listeners to reflect on their own theology of where suffering comes from and how we sense God’s presence and involvement at such times. Sometimes there are people in our acquaintance who seem to have the troubles of Job, more than their share of hardship and calamity. In preaching on Job, one could draw out ways that communities of faith might respond to them.
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