Job to God: “Let Me Alone!”

November 16, 1997




Job to God: “Let Me Alone!”

What do you do when you discover that something you were taught in church all your life is not so? Do you close your eyes to the truth of your own experience and say, “I will go on believing what I’ve been taught, no matter what the facts seem to be,” or do you decide that if something taught in the name of religion contradicts what any honest person can see, then that teaching must be mistaken? The book of Job , which we introduced last Sunday, faces that problem head-on. Orthodox faith taught that good people are always protected , while bad people invariably suffer, and since there was no concept of a future life, the rewards and the punishments come right here on the earth.
It was all so clear and unequivocal that if you wanted to know who was good, you simply looked around for people who were healthy, rich, and blessed with a houseful of children; and if you wanted to know who was wicked you looked for someone who was sick or poor or the victim of some terrible tragedy. It all made for a nice, easy way of reading life, but it had one major defect: it simply wasn’t true to human experience. And at some point in the history of Old Testament religion a great poet decided to write a book which would challenge that doctrine. In an old folk tale which he uses as a frame for his story, God is confronted by a messenger who has visited earth and seems to have come back to the heavenly court with a dim view of human life. He is called “the Satan,” a Hebrew phrase which means “the Adversary,” but he seems quite at home around God and his divine lieutenants, and he is not yet the fully developed embodiment of evil which later scripture will call Satan.
He is cynical, however, about why at least some people worship God, arguing that they only do it because it pays , and when God points to a man named Job as an exception the Adversary says that if Job were stripped of his good fortune he would give up his religion in a hurry. So God agrees to a test in which Job’s ten beloved children and thousands of his flocks will be killed to see if he will bow his head patiently and go on worshipping God. This would all be monstrous, of course, if the story of Job were fact rather than sacred fiction, but the book gives us plenty of evidence that we should not read it literally. In the first place, a God willing to permit all those deaths to prove a point to a sceptic would be a monster unworthy of anybody’s worship. The God of the book of Job is a literary character, created by an author struggling with the age-old mystery: if there is a loving God in charge of the world, why do millions of innocent people suffer in every generation? That this most vexing of all questions should be faced in a book of inspired fiction ought not surprise anyone who has read the made-up parables of Jesus, who clearly felt it wasn’t necessary to be factual in order to tell the truth.
We talked last week about how artificially things are arranged in this Biblical drama. Job has 7 sons and 3 daughters, 10 children in all — but these are not numbers from a family scrapbook. These are the symbols of perfection in Jewish numerology, and they are simply a literary way of saying, “Job had the perfect family.” If you use the sacred number 3 to multiply that special number ten — ten times ten times ten — you get another special number that signifies an ideal fullness — l,000 — and if you multiply that by the holy number 7, you get 7,000 — which turns out to be exactly how many sheep Job has. He also has an unbelievably huge herd of camels, and predictably they number 10 times 10 times 10 — times 3. Job has 3,000 camels! And by now you can surely guess how many friends come to comfort him by and by: not 2 or 4 but 3 of them, and they sit in shocked silence not for six days, or eight, but for seven. Job is a masterpiece of fiction, and all these numbers have symbolic rather than mathematical reality.
Last week we saw Job stripped of everything he had. Four messengers came one after the other on a single day, to report that his family and all his servants had been killed, and all his flocks either dead or stolen. By an amazing coincidence, likely only in fiction, only one person is left alive after each tragedy so he can come to tell what has happened, and each one speaks exactly the same words: “I alone have escaped to tell you.” It’s all arranged by the storyteller to have the maximum effect on an audience. And finally, if any more proof of his manipulation is needed, instead of having his characters talk the way people do in real life, they all pour out their thoughts in line after line of technically perfect Hebrew poetry. So what we have is a creation from the tortured heart of an extraordinarily gifted poet….and I use the word “tortured” because I believe, as a German scholar once put it, that this author “wrote his poem with his own blood.”
A good story-teller knows how to use suspense, so after last week’s faceoff between God and the sceptic, we now have a second parliament in heaven to which the Adversary returns and argues that even if Job has passed the first test, he will rebel against God if he is caused to be sick, and plunged into unbearable pain. The God of our story says, “You’re on, again. Do anything you like to Job except that you cannot actually kill him.” So Test # 2 begins, with Job writhing in agony, afflicted with loathsome boils from head to foot. He scrapes his tormented flesh with pieces of broken pottery and sits in a pile of ashes to signify his misery. But in the simplistic old folk tale he is still patient, and says: “If we accept good from God, shall we not accept evil?” He passes the test once more.
But in the story he still has friends — all wrapped tightly in their creed — and three of them come to visit. They find him so ravaged by disease that at first they don’t even recognize him. When they do, they weep aloud, tear their clothes, throw dust over their heads, and sit on the ground in respectful silence for those 7 days and 7 nights. And suddenly the whole tenor of this book changes dramatically. The old folk tale, written in prose, with its simplistic reading of human life, comes to and end with Job still perfectly patient and submissive, but the poet has a very different view of things. He says, in effect, “Let me show you what a person in Job’s predicament might really do when life turns dark as midnight.” So he begins his 38 chapters of poetry with an angry Job who opens his mouth before his silent, staring friends to curse the day he was born and to accuse God bitterly of being a cruel and unjust tyrant. For those of you who may not spend this afternoon reading the long book of Job, here is a sample of his defiance:
“Why did I not die when I was born? Why was I not buried like a still-born child that never sees the light?….Why is life given to one in such misery….who longs for death, but it does not come…. God has me all fenced in. There is no peace of mind for me.” The three orthodox friends are horrified at this rebellion against the will of God, and one by one they begin reminding Job how he should act.. “Now that adversity comes, you lose patience….Is your religion no comfort?….What innocent man has ever perished?” In other words, you may seem innocent, Job, but these tragedies prove that you are not. You need to repent, and things will be all right again.” Job growls that they remind him of streams that promise life but go dry in the desert sand, and he dares them to show how has done anything to deserve such misery. “What am I?” he asks. “Am I some dangerous animal to be watched so closely by God?” And to God he cries out, “Why do you scare me with nightmares? Let me alone! My life is frail and it will soon be over. Let me alone! What harm does it do you, anyway, if I make a mistake, you spy on mankind!”
One of the friends, appalled at such bitterness, lays it on the line. “Your kids did wrong, Job, and God took care of them but you are still alive; maybe if you ask forgiveness he will prosper you again.” Job is now given some marvelous lines about how God shakes the earth out of its place, how he can forbid the sun to shine and seal up the stars, how he created Orion and the Pleiades, how even when he pounces on a man as he has pounced on Job, no one dares ask him what it means. “But I don’t care how powerful he is,” Job says, “I am blameless. You may not think so, to see me like this, but I do not deserve what has happened to me. The truth of the matter is, God destroys the innocent and the wicked in exactly the same way!” And then, as if they had all three shuddered in amazement at this heresy, he says, “Well, who does it then? Somebody mocks at the despair of innocent human beings! This world is handed over to the wicked. I am sick of life, so I will say what I want to about God, who knows that I am innocent.”
The speeches go round and round, chapter after chapter, the friends insisting that age and wisdom are on their side, and that if Job has all these problems it’s proof that he has done something wrong, for after all, the world is just! Their blindness to the realities of human life drives Job to the edge of madness. “I could talk the way you talk if you were in my place. Can’t you understand that I have been attacked by God, even though I’ve done no wrong? God has torn up my hope by the roots, my very breath is loathsome to my wife — you should have pity on me!”
And when Zophar (these guys do have interesting names: Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar!) when Zophar, the third speaker, repeats the same tired sermon about how only the wicked are punished, Job tries again to make them see the way the world is. “What you tell me is not true! Wicked men live to be old and strong, with their homes safe from fear, their bulls breeding without fail, their cows dropping calves safely, their families flourishing, their children happy. (This poet, by the way, never says anything just once ) They sing, Job says — these wicked men — they lead a good life, they die in peace…..these men who had no use for God at all. So why serve God? Why pray to him?” God he says, will not answer one question in a thousand. Though I am blameless, he twists my words. I wish somehow I could drag him into court and argue my case agaisnt him, face to face. Why does this God hide and treat me as an enemy? — this God who destroys the good and the bad alike, who mocks at the calamity of the innocent.
The pious friends keep telling Job that even though everybody thought he was a good man he must have been bad in ways only God knew, and if he will now admit his faults and repent, God will bless him once more. It may all seem remote and irrelevant, their simplistic reading of life, but I can bring it close to home. One of the finest women I know has told me that when her son was born with a physical defect, two of her church friends told her it happened because of some moral failure in her life and that she should repent and ask forgiveness. Like Job, she knew her own innocence, but their smug cruelty was not easily forgotten.
So we come, at last, in this strange and powerful book, to Job’s ultimate question: “Does God really make any distinctions among people? Does he really run things? After all, one person dies, happy and whole, in peace and prosperty; another dies brokenhearted, and never gets the good of life; both lie down in the dust together and the worms swarm over both of them. If you don’t believe me,” he says, “just ask people who travel; they’ll tell you that there is no justice in this world.” The preaching friends keep trying, but Job has stopped listening — no help can come from them. “I wish I knew where to find God himself,” he says, “so I could lay my case before him. I’d like to know what he would say!….I could argue with him as one who is innocent, and be acquitted for all time. But I can’t find him. I am appalled at his dark mystery.” How often, in the long history of undeserved suffering, has that cry rung out in the lonely hours of the night?
And there, for now, we have to leave Job. The poet is going to have God make an appearance, in this extraordinary drama, and have God speak at some length….but whether his God will give a satisfactory answer to Job’s questions, and to ours, about why the world at times seems so grotesquely unfair, remains to be seen next week. And the conclusion is surprising. Please come back to hear it.
This week will be kind to some of us, Eternal God, and not so
kind to others. From the love we feel for one another in this
place, may we share both the joys and the sorrows in the spirit of Christ our Lord. Amen