When Job’s questions are our questions
Job is one of my favorite books in the Bible and is interesting poetically, philosophically and theologically. I’m not a biblical scholar or theologian and have not read all the commentaries and expositions on the meaning of Job, but I know that the questions it wrestles with are the basic questions tripping up millions as a roadblock to faith in God.
I love the way Job starts out in the rhythm and repetition of a great storyteller. My “is-this-a-fable-meter” rises as I read the first line: “There was a man named Job, living in the land of Uz.” (My Bible footnotes say Uz is “an area whose exact location is unknown.”) I think of the Wizard of Oz. Uz is also related to Oz, meaning East.
The repetition of sevens and threes in the counts of sons, daughters, sheep, camels and the summary of “richest man in the East” sounds like a great way to begin a fairy tale. Not that I think it is. From my view, Job was a real man who existed and suffered extensively, but the storytellers through the ages added their embellishments, like any good story based on a real character.
So the tests of Job start with the Lord asking Satan what he’s been doing. Satan says, “Well, I’ve been walking here and there, roaming the earth” (1:7). Satan’s challenge to God sets off a horrible chain of events. Job’s children are having a feast when a messenger comes running to Job (who is not at the feast) and tells him that out among Job’s oxen and donkeys, a neighboring tribe destroyed the animals and all the servants except himself. “I am the only one who escaped to tell you” (verse 15).
This repeats with more servants reporting a new attack even “before he had finished speaking.”
The storyteller in Job has his art down beautifully. This makes for a great read, even though the awfulness of losing all 10 children in one storm is horrifying, beyond bearing.
Job goes into immense grief. He laments and mourns but responds with, “The Lord gave, and now the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21).
In Chapter 2, again Satan has been “walking here and there roaming the earth,” and this time he gets permission to attack Job himself but not kill the good man. Job’s body is hit with unspeakable sores, and he pretty much goes into isolation from any remaining family or friends.
Then we meet some of Job’s friends, who often get a bad rap for their questions, which convey the prevailing wisdom of the time, that if you are suffering greatly you must have sinned greatly. But in this section it strikes me what great and close friends they must have been.
After weeping and wailing like people did in that time, they also tore their clothes and threw dust into the air and onto their heads. Sometimes I wish we dealt with grief and troubles in such a visible, visceral way. What awesome friends! That dust would have come from the trash and dung burned outside the town walls.
Job’s friends sat on the ground with Job for seven days and nights without saying a word, because they saw how much he was suffering, the Bible says.
Most of us have trouble listening to or sitting with a suffering friend for even one hour without trying to offer advice or misguided consolation or telling a similar story. Here the friends sit and are depressed with Job for one solid week.
Finally Job breaks the silence and curses the day he was born. I can imagine what a relief this is. Job is human. He doesn’t curse God but voices his frustration and despair. He goes on a bit. When bad things happen, after the wailing and throwing around the figurative ashes or dust, we often lash out in anger. It’s part of the process.
I love the way the Good News Bible puts the beginning of one friend’s response when Job’s done with his first outburst: “Job, will you be annoyed if I speak? I can’t keep quiet any longer.”
Later, in Chapter 8, his friend Bildad asks, “Are you finally through with your windy speech?” If we fault the friends for piling on their critique, we maybe should also give them credit for their unflinching honesty.
The first friend, Eliphaz (Chapter 4), presents the typical questions and explanations we have for suffering, and some that, thankfully, we have mostly gotten rid of. Job’s friends aren’t in on the secret revealed in the prologue, that Job’s exemplary faith is so sincere that Satan has brought all the mayhem to Job’s life as a test.
Francis Davidson’s New Bible Commentary reminds us that Job’s sufferings are actually, in this telling, “evidence of the divine [God’s] confidence in him [Job].” Perhaps that’s where some people get the idea to say inane things like, “When bad things happen, God must think we’re up to the test.” Thanks, but I’ll skip the test.
The Book of Job illustrates how people in this primitive time engaged in intellectual thinking and pondering. There are some references to the prevailing idea of the time that “someone sinned—either you or your parents—to have caused this great suffering,” which we now reject, but the dialogue back and forth between Job and his friends contains the following:
- Poetic and crisp descriptions: “God hung the stars in the sky” (9:9).
- Lovely metaphors: “A thing of dust that can be crushed like a moth” (4:19). “The wicked roar and growl like lions” (4:10).
- Vivid and homey illustrations: “What taste is there in the white of an egg?” (6:6). Really? So they enjoyed a good fried egg now and then?
- Thinking that plumbs the depths of their souls: “You see my fate and draw back in fear” (6:21). This is what makes it so hard to deal with the suffering and illness and even death of close friends and family: We know that our time is coming.
Job then asks God the question we can’t blame him for asking: “Why use me for your target practice?” (Job 7: 20, Good News).
In the climax, (Chapter 32) we hear from a new voice, Elihu, who has apparently been biting his lips and, as the youngest, waiting for a chance to speak. He delivers some of the best advice, reminding us that when we feel God fails to speak to the problem of suffering, God does speak “again and again, no one pays attention to what he says” (33:14).
In a recent book, The Book of Job: A Biography, by Mark Larrimore (Princeton Press, 2013), the author summarizes the Elihu speech as reminding Job his case is not unusual: The innocent always suffer in our world. I like what Larrimore hints at in saying that suffering happens, but God always offers some resources to help us. That is the big takeaway for me in Job. Some suffering we can explain (war, famine, injustice), and we can work toward solutions but often don’t. But when we can’t explain why the innocent suffer, we must also remind ourselves to be part of offering to help out: to be there, to stand alongside, to cry with, to be quiet and listen, to bring a casserole.
Then right after Elihu, we hear again from God. I love reading this part aloud in my best theatrical, thunderous, voice.
“Then out of the storm the Lord spoke to Job. ‘Who are you to question my wisdom. …
‘Does either the rain or the dew have a father?
‘Who is the mother of the ice and the frost?
‘Can you tie the Pleiades together?’ ” (38:2-40:2).
In God’s comeback, Job’s questions are not answered or even addressed, but we are left in awe and wonder about God. Job’s health and good fortunes are restored, like the end of any good story.
In the epilogue to the Book of Job, his friends are restored to grace by Job praying for them and God asking that they present sacrifices for themselves. “I will answer his prayer and not disgrace you the way you deserve,” the Lord says. “You did not speak the truth about me as he did” (42:7).
Job is commended for his questions, his outbursts, his truth seeking. And we ponder whether or not we can be angry with God, ask questions, and doubt? The conclusion of Job seems to say, Ponder no longer. It’s OK to have doubts. I can take it. Just keep trusting, as Job did.
I must add a footnote. In 19:23, we read, “How I wish that someone would remember my words and record them in a book! Or with a chisel carve my words in stone and write them so that they would last forever.” The Davidson commentary pitches this as an indication that Job is frustrated with the response of his friends, that maybe someone in future generations will read about and understand his dilemma. How neat that we are doing just that.
However our communication occurs in the future, I have no doubt that God, Job and his friends will still speak into eternity on the unending questions regarding suffering, human coping and a master plan. The universality of Job and its message reaches out through time and space like a lightning bolt to connect and illuminate. That is the electric potency of God’s Word.
Melodie M. Davis is a managing editor at MennoMedia, author and blogger at www.findingharmonyblog.com. She is a member of Trinity Presbyterian, a house-church-based congregation in Harrisonburg, Va.