Job, Chapters 38-41
October 21, 2012
For years, I was deeply disturbed by God’s response to Job’s heartfelt lament in the Book of Job. Job tackles a lot in his weakened, grieving state. He grapples with the age-old Problem of Suffering. He debates simplistic, yet popularized theologies of divine reward and punishment. He offers astute observations about the fortunes of the just and the unjust in this life. And what does he get for all this wrestling and struggle? An interrogation by God? A monologue about nature? How helpful is that?
The key that unlocked God’s response for me first unlocked an entirely different door, but one not unrelated, I believe. Many years ago, Kim Mammedaty, a Native American pastor, led the Bible studies at the Baptist Peace Conference. She used the first three chapters of Genesis as her text. In her introduction, she pointed out a simple fact that had eluded all my upbringing in the church and years of theological training. She noted that most of Genesis 1 and 2 is not about humanity at all. In fact, the vast majority of the story is about the non-peopled creation!
Think about it! For centuries, particularly in western culture, humans have viewed themselves as the crowning achievement of creation–its apex, if you will. Kim directly challenged the anthropocentrism, or human-centeredness, inherent in western biblical interpretation of these foundational stories. After this eye-opening experience, I began to see God’s response to Job in a different light.
While I had read the text silently many times throughout my adult life, one day I decided to read it aloud. The setting was significant. I was standing by a lake at a Conference Center in Wisconsin. The sun was rising over the horizon. The morning light shimmered across the gently undulating surface of the water. Fish leaped in and out of the lake, splashing and dancing with abandon.
The Holy One roared out of the whirlwind, “Where were you, when I created the earth? Tell me, since you know so much!…How was its foundation poured, and who set the cornerstone, while the morning stars sang in chorus and all the angels shouted praise?” (Job 38:4,6-7).
I heard in God’s incessant questioning an invitation for Job to open his eyes to what he had heretofore been unable to see. But God wasn’t just questioning Job. God was questioning me about what I could see and could not see. How much could I fathom the secrets and beauties of nature? What capacity did this bigger picture have to change me?
Our primary question when faced with personal suffering is usually “Why me?” But there is another Problem of Suffering, and that is the way that it turns us in on ourselves and often leaves us incapable of seeing beyond and outside our own pain. Job faces cascading, cumulative losses of a magnitude that is hard to fathom. He is inescapably stuck in his pain.
So God comes to Job, not with answers to his big questions, but with new questions. Job interrogates God, fearless in his sarcasm, brutal in his honesty, and God dishes out the same to Job. It is another sign of the raw and rare authenticity of relationship between them.
God’s response opens up Job–and us–to the wonders, mysteries, beauties, and intrinsic value of the natural world utterly apart from the human experience. God cracks Job’s suffering open, breaking through the anthropocentrism of both his perspective and his pain. God’s incessant questioning rips the blinders off Job’s eyes, as Job comes to a new place of Seeing that offers fertile ground for a transformed vision, not only of his personal life, but also of his place in the natural order.
The more I have read Genesis 1 and 2 and this God Monologue in Job 38-41 side-by-side, the more the latter feels like a midrash, or commentary, on the former. Both are poetry, steeped in lush and rich imagery. Both move in similar ways from land and waters, light and darkness, to the more intimate intricacies of the animal world. Where else in Hebrew or Christian scripture do we have such portraits of nature? On occasion, in the psalms, but not in such an extended way.
The natural world is alive with the breath of God, and we are not at its center. This is important, life-saving news for 21st century people. Acclaimed environmentalist, Bill McKibben, has written a book called The Comforting Whirlwind: God, Job, and the Scale of Creation. The back cover states that the author “turns to the biblical book of Job and its awesome depiction of creation to demonstrate our need to embrace a bold new paradigm for living if we hope to reverse the current trend of ecological destruction…McKibben calls readers to truly appreciate both the majesty of creation and humanity’s rightful–and responsible–place in it.”
Job cannot find God in his sufferings, although he looks diligently and faithfully. This is very clear. Yet, he rediscovers God in a direct encounter with the Holy One who immerses Job in meditation on the mysteries and wonders of nature.
I preached the Sunday we commissioned Oberlin College grad, Beth Peachey, to her service with the Mennonite Central Committee in Guatemala. Beth was charged with starting a Music Ministry there among four Mennonite churches, specifically for survivors of genocide and their children. How could I preach on anything but Job? After Beth returned to the States four years later, she told me what helped her the most from that sermon during her years in Central America. It was this insight I gleaned from Job: “If you can’t find God where you are looking, look somewhere else.”
There have been times in my life when God has been difficult to see in the trajectory of my own daily journey, so I have plunged my heart into looking for the Holy One in the natural world, my grandchildren, or the most vulnerable around me. This is a journey that Jesus also encourages us to take, as he invites us to encounter God through meditation on the wildflowers, the birds of the air, and the tiny mustard seed…through interactions with little children, the sick, the prisoner, and the hungry.
God’s questioning and “unveiling” provides enough of an answer for Job that he seems to no longer “need” the other answers for which he has been clamoring. Last spring Allie Lundblad and I talked about the vast number of God-questions she was bringing with her to seminary this fall. Knowing Allie and the kinds of questions her heart is always pondering, I suggested that she might not find as many answers as she was hoping for. Allie replied, “I’m not expecting to find answers to all my questions. I just want to get to the place where I can be at peace with my lack of answers.”
That is an important place to arrive. It just might mean that we have glimpsed enough of God to carry on, even as our hunger and thirst for more of the Divine Presence continues to propel us forward.
How does Job respond to God’s interrogation?
That’s next week…stay tuned.