The Book of Job, Introduction
October 4, 2015
Those of you who have known me for years realize that I am a long-time fan of the Book of Job in the Hebrew scriptures. This Big Story, this MetaStory, has seen me through the toughest periods of my adult life. I never tire of reading Job, although I do admit sometimes crawling back to its pages, wishing I did not need its inspiration once again. Surprisingly enough, at each re-reading or change in my own circumstance, self-awareness, or theology, I discover treasures that I missed the last time around.
Where else, in the biblical scriptures, do we find an intimate spiritual and psychological portrait of the human soul in the cauldron of prolonged suffering? Nowhere else. I like to go deep, and if the Book fo Job is anything, it is deep.
The main character, whose name is Job, inspires me. He is relentless in his pursuit of God regardless of circumstance. He is brave enough to speak his truth, even when he feels bereft or misunderstood. His personal testimony in the mid-section of the book reads uncannily like Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s Gospel. Job is prophetic; he is also contemplative.
The last time I preached, I went off-lectionary and delved into the initial encounter between Job and his friends at the end of Chapter 2. Today’s lectionary reading includes all of Chapter 2, but I’m expanding that text quite a bit. I want to touch on themes throughout the book that speak profoundly to our deepest questions about life, personhood, suffering, and God.
Let’s begin with the prose Prologue to this story. Here, God is depicted uncomfortably to us moderns, easily swayed by one characterized as an Adversary, but also described as an angel of God. He is named ‘the Satan’ (although translated most often in our bibles, just ‘Satan’). The reason I use ‘the Satan” is because people today think of ‘Satan’ as a proper name, but this was not the meaning in ancient times. Instead, the word indicated a special function, such as instigator of evil, accuser, or prosecutor (see “The Interpreter’s Bible,” Volume 3, Abingdon Press, copyright 1954, p. 912). So, ‘the Satan’ roams the earth, checking out the human race and observing the faithfulness of individuals to the High God.
Job quickly comes to the Satan’s attention. So this angel challenges God to a test of sorts—“Let’s see how faithful Job really is. You, God, bless him with wealth, status, influence, family, land, etc. etc. Would he still be faithful if you took all that away?”
A set of cumulative catastrophes occurs in rapid succession, but they do not deter Job’s devotion. So the Satan–the accuser, the prosecutor–goes back to God again, and asks to take away Job’s health. “Just don’t kill him,” is God’s response. Again, Job’s response is surrender and trust.
In Jewish writer Harold S. Kushner’s book titled, “The Book of Job: When Bad Things Happened to a Good Person,” the author posits that this oft-disturbing prose Prologue to the Book of Job is ancient fable. He believes the same of the prose Epilogue. There, after the whole story plays out in all its intensity and furor, God makes up for Job’s cataclysmic losses by providing more lands, more children, more wealth, more status, than ever before. Job intercedes to God for his erring friends, and everyone lives “happily ever after.”
So unlike real life here on earth.
In between the prose Prologue and Epilogue of Job we find 39 chapters of intense, emotional, honest poetry. This poetry takes direct aim at theological formulas that are not true to human experience—whether found in the prose sections of the Book of Job or revealed in the misdirected advice, shaming, and dogmatism of Job’s friends.
Even as Job faces cumulative grief, loss, and physical pain, his most important attributes remain intact—his strong sense of self and his abiding hunger for God. I don’t know about you, but cumulative loss has a way of ungluing me, taking me out of the game bit by bit. During such times, Job reminds me what it looks like to stay intact under immense stress–hoping against hope, despairing and getting back on my feet again. Job also demonstrates what it looks like to remain engaged with God in those times when we need God the most and yet, God is Silent.
Through no fault of his own, Job finds himself in the fight of his life. We are fortunate to walk with him in the midst of all the raw see-sawing emotions he faces. In her book, Rising Strong: The Reckoning. The Rumble. The Revolution, author Brene Brown says this: “We much prefer stories about falling and rising to be inspirational and sanitized. Our culture is rife with these tales…We like recovery stories to move quickly through the dark so we can get to the sweeping redemptive ending” (see p. xxiv, “Rising Strong: The Reckoning. The Rumble. The Revolution” by Brene Brown, copyright 2015, Random House).
Job doesn’t move quickly through the dark. That may be why I think sometimes that his story should be rated PG-13. The violence unleashed on his life and felt in his heart provokes his deep struggle with profound loss and utter dislocation. He tries to regain his equilibrium even though everything around and within him has radically changed. Brown continues in her book, saying, “Rather than gold-plating grit and trying to make failure look fashionable, we’d be better off learning how to recognize the beauty in truth and tenacity” (see p. xxvii, “Rising Strong”).
Job reminds me, that at the end of the day, perseverance is more important than courage. How many of you have had times when you felt fragile, broken, and undone–ready to just escape the arena you found yourself battling in? Job felt that often. But he just kept plugging along.
One of my most frequent pieces of advice for people in crisis is this: “Just keep putting one foot in front of the other every day. That, in itself, is something to celebrate. That, in itself, is victory enough.”
In the 39 chapters of this poetic ‘tour de force’ between the Prologue and Epilogue, Job wrestles with the Big Questions of life. He finds himself living in that precipitous gap between his experience and what he has previously believed about himself, friendship, and God. It’s a darn uncomfortable place to be, but staying with the struggle eventually leads Job to the places he longs to go.
Such is the wonder of this poetry. Its themes are Universal. Your own story might be hidden—or not so hidden—in the pages of this book. Trust, hope, betrayal, despair, anger, shame, grief, regret, faith, wonder, disappointment, determination, awe—all these feelings arise and find expression within this narrative.
The Book of Job is considered part of the Wisdom Literature within the Hebrew scriptures. There is much more wisdom to be culled from this remarkable and mysterious text down the road. Stay tuned.