Job 3:1-10, 4:1-9
Because the narrative lectionary, that we’ve been following this year, was developed in the northern hemisphere, we’re currently in the sort of ‘summer holiday’ season in which, instead of following the broad sweep of the Old Testament (as we will in our spring) or a gospel (as we did in our autumn), we get a number of short themed series, often exploring parts of the Bible that aren’t found in the more traditional revised common lectionary. So in the past couple of months we’ve read chunks from Paul’s letters to the Church in Corinth; and this week, we begin a series of five weeks looking at the book of Job. A book which manages to be, at the same time, both well known, and rarely read – and perhaps even more rarely preached upon.
And honestly, I really get that. Partly because the themes in the book are quite difficult, and the answers offered are incomplete and often unsatisfying, but mostly because the book is primarily made up of a lot of long and complicated speeches. I don’t think that I’ve ever heard a sermon preached on a passage from Job, and certainly never heard a series taking on the book as a whole.
But lest anyone suggest that I’m not up for a challenge, here we are. And we will see what we find.
The book begins, the opening two chapters that come before what we’ve read today, with the collapse of Job’s life. He was a wealthy man, married with children, houses and flocks of livestock; and an upright man; respected, honourable, pillar of society. And, above all, a righteous man – living according to the Torah, the way of God.
Until one day, God and Satan meet, and Satan claims that Job is only righteous because he’s been blessed with so much. “Let me take it all away, and you’ll see, he’ll show his true colours”.
And of course God, always up for a social science experiment with real people as the guinea pigs, says “sure, go for it. We’ll see”.
Which really ought to give us our first hint of something really, really important about the book of Job, and that is this: it’s not a true story. It’s not meant to be. Everything about the way the book is written points towards it as an enacted parable, an ancient forerunner of the medieval morality plays, if you like. It’s “As long ago as for ever, as far away as Selidor”, or “Long ago in a galaxy far far away”, or just “Once upon a time”.
Which is just as well, because I for one am not totally sold on the image of God allowing a man’s sons and daughters, sons-in-law and daughters-in-law, to be slaughtered, and the man himself beset with sores and sickness, just to try to win an argument with an adversary (which, I note in passing, is what “Satan” means – it’s probably not intended as a proper name, just “An adversary”).
It’s not here to tell us about a particular man named Job. It’s a playing out of ideas, and in particular, ideas about suffering, hardship, and the nature of evil.
In a culture in which the dominant narrative was “live a good righteous life and God will prosper you; but live a sinful life and you will suffer for it”, the book of Job stands out as a challenge; a “really? is it as simple as that?”
The book of Job is an exploration, then, of the problem of evil – “why do bad things happen to good people”. But in fact, it’s more subtle – and more useful than that. Because at its heart, at least, the first half of the book, is actually an exploration of “stupid things that people say when other people are suffering”.
At the end of chapter two we read that Job has three remaining friends. And it’s worth noticing (since we’re going to be quite critical of them) that their first response is everything you might hope. When they hear of his troubles, the three leave their homes, and travel to console and comfort Job. And on arrival, they say nothing – they sit with him for seven days and seven nights in silence. They wait for Job to speak.
And when he does finally speak, Job’s words are of despair. He’s lost all his possessions, and all his family, except for his wife, but even she has just told him that he would be better off dead. He, in response, refuses her invitation to curse God and be struck down; but, in the opening words we heard read today, he curses instead the day of his birth; wishing that he had never been born.
And at this invitation, Eliphaz the Temanite finally speaks.
Now names are often important in the Hebrew scriptures, they aren’t just there to make the passages harder to read, so who is Eliphaz the Temanite? Eliphaz roughly translates as “God is pure gold”; a devout name, and one which places emphasis on the purity of God. And the other thing to notice is that he is a Temanite – a descendant of Abraham and Isaac, but through the line of Esau, not of Jacob. An Arab, in our modern view, not an Israeli. A devout man, but a foreigner. This is not, we are being told even by his name, the view of Israel…
So Eliphaz brings his wisdom. “Job,” he begins, “you have helped so many people in their suffering with your support and your wisdom, but now you are suffering and it seems your patience and wisdom have deserted you.”
“Think now, who that was innocent ever perished? … But those who plough iniquity and sow trouble reap the same”
Here is the heart of Eliphaz’s response. In the light of God’s purity and justice, he will declare with confidence that those who are innocent do not perish, but those who sow trouble will reap it.
Search your heart, he will continue, seek deep within yourself, within your concience. For you are suffering, and in the justice of God that must mean that you are in the wrong.
Over the coming chapters Job and Eliphaz will debate this interpretation of events back and forth; with another of the friends, Bildad joining in on Eliphaz’s side “God will not reject a blameless person, nor take the hand of evildoers”.
And then, in chapter 9, Job will give his – and the Hebrew – final compelling argument.
“You are right: but how can any mortal be just before God?”
The argument of Eliphaz and Bildad was simple: if you are in good standing with God, you will prosper; if you are not, you will suffer – for this is surely what it means that God is just.
And Job’s response is simple and unanswerable: “How can anyone be in good standing with God? If what you say is true – if it is the whole truth – then unremmitting suffering ought to be the lot of every mortal ever born.”
That’s not the case. So there has to be more to God’s justice than that.
This simplistic sense of justice, brought by Eliphaz the Temanite, is appealing for it’s simplicity; and sadly, it is still, all too often, used as a weapon in the popular game of victim blaming. We wouldn’t, as a rule, say it to the face of a friend; but we still hear too many voices describing natural disasters as God’s judgement on society, AIDS as judgement on homosexuals. Fringe voices, but there are more mainstream versions of the same logic: blaming victims of domestic violence for provoking their attacker; blaming victims of rape for their ‘immoral’ choice of clothing; blaming the poor for their situation; blaming refugees fleeing from wars that were not of their making.
But perhaps more common, closer to home, and ultimately more destructuve, is the way we say it to ourselves.
Perhaps, when troubles come, we ask “what did I do to deserve this?”
Or perhaps, worst of all, is the other side of the coin; when we look at all the good things that we enjoy in our lives and believe that we prosper because we are in good standing with God.
The refrain of the opening chapters of Job is simply this “surely it’s not that simple?”. Job’s question is not answered in the book of Job; it is left as a challenge to simplistic models of morality and providence.
But that unanswered question “how can any mortal be just before God?” will be picked up powerfully in the New Testament, and especially in the book of Romans – “There is no difference. For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by God’s grace given as a gift.”.
Rich or poor, male or female, gay or straight, black or white, immigrant or native, pious or ungodly, religious or secular. “There is no difference. For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by God’s grace given as a gift.”
I think Job would have appreciated the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ. I wonder if we appreciate just how astonishing it really is?