Wednesday, May 2, 2012

If: Job Defends His Integrity (The Book of Job and Human Suffering #3)

Audio file.
Scripture, selected text from Job.
Job 29-31

Let’s set the stage for today with a little review:

Job is a man who "fears God and shuns evil" and who is among the greatest men in the east. In one day, he loses his extensive fortune and his 10 children. Then, he loses his health and is tortured with sores, head to toe. His three friends arrive and after 7 days of silent support, they begin a dialogue about why this has happened to Job. Do you ever wonder why bad things happen to good people? The conventional wisdom in Job’s time was that bad things did NOT happen to good people, that "retributive justice" demanded that good things happen to good people and bad things to bad people. So, Job’s friends concluded that Job must have done bad – really bad. ‘Fess up and get on with your life. Job, however, concludes that God has messed up.

Today, we hear selections from Job’s concluding argument, a lengthy speech in three parts. The first part I’ll call "then". It is focused on Job’s past, on a remembered ideal of greatness and honor. The second part I’ll call "now". It is focused on Job’s suffering and dishonor. The third part is "if", focused on Job’s innocence and future hope. Commentator David Clines characterizes these portions of the speech as "nostalgic", "bitter", and "aggressive" (vol 18A, 1011). Today’s reading will include selections from the first two parts and the entire body of the third part of Job’s speech.


The text is remarkable. The first part, "then", with its extensive first-person story-telling, "I walked", "I was in my prime", "I delivered the poor", is very unique in the Old Testament Scripture. The second part, "now", includes an amazing direct address to God as adversary. The third part, "if", has a series of oaths, including curses, that are both bring the speech to a powerful climax and provide a unique example of legal debate that, in Job’s case, rejects the arbitration of Job’s friends and issues a summons to God. Let’s walk through the speech together.

"Then". Among the treasured memories of Job is his honor. He is even honored by the poor, or at least he thinks he is. "The blessing of the wretched came upon me" (29.13). Even outside of the heated political rhetoric of presidential campaigns, a rich man does not frequently have the respect and admiration of "the wretched". More often than not, the assumption is that he has enriched himself at the expense of the poor. Job offers himself as an exception: "I broke the fangs of the unrighteous" (29.17).

Job also remembers how his presence would silence the men of the town. He’d come to the gate to take his seat and the younger men would withdraw and the older men would hush their voices. Job would speak on an important question, and when he was done talking, no one had anything else to say, nothing to add, no question to ask, no contradiction to raise (29.8, 29.21-22). One wonders how much of Job’s nostalgia fits the realm of fantasy. No one ever contradicted you? Really? Or, a bit more cynical perhaps, one might wonder if Job is so comfortable with his honor that he has become authoritarian – perhaps in ways entirely acceptable in his culture, but certainly not in ours (see Clines, 993, 995, 1038).

"Now". "But now they make sport of me" (30.1). "And now they mock me in song" (30.9). "And now my soul is poured out within me" (30.16). Now, his honor is undone and he is ridiculed even by the young. God has become his adversary. "With violence he seizes my garment; he grasps me by the collar. . . . He has cast me into the mire, and I have been reduced to dust and ashes" (30.18-19, see Janzen).

My story: Being picked up and thrown

Then comes the amazing direct address to God as adversary: "I cry to you and you do not answer me; I stand, and you merely look at me. You have turned cruel to me; with the might of your hand you persecute me. ..." (30.21-22f).

"If". Job rehearses a comprehensive catalog of sin and includes sins of the mind and heart, sins of the inner life. Job speaks of lust, deceit, envy, adultery, rejecting the cause of his slaves, refusing to care for the poor, trusting in wealth, worshiping created things rather than the Creator, rejoicing at the misfortune of his enemies, denying hospitality to strangers, concealing his own sin, failing to honor the land itself.

It is a remarkable list, encompassing environmentalism, equality, social justice, sexual purity, truth, idolatry, anger and competition, hospitality. Of proper treatment of slaves, he makes the stunning observation, "Did not he who made me in the womb make them?" (31.15).

For everyone sin he lists, he declares his innocence with an oath and a curse if he is perjuring himself. "If I have raised my hand against the orphan, because I saw I had supporters at the gate" – that is, if I ever took advantage of the weak just because the balance of power was with me – "then let my shoulder blade fall from my shoulder and let my arm be broken from its socket" (31.21-22). In a number of cases, no specific curse is listed. It is assumed in the structure of the speech, a cascading series of "negative confession", of "oaths of innocence" that climax in verse 35:

Here is my signature!
Let the Almighty answer me!
O that I had the indictment written by my adversary!

In one humorous scene from the movie Bruce Almighty, Bruce (played by Jim Carrey) meets God (played by Morgan Freeman) and finds the file drawer filled with the details of Bruce’s life. It looks like any standard two-drawer file cabinet. But, when he opens it, the drawer expands all the way across the warehouse floor.

"O that I had the indictment written by my adversary!" Job wishes for the book, the whole book on him, and promises to wear it "like a crown" (31.36) and to approach the Almighty with the boldness of a prince. "Here is my signature! Let the Almighty answer me!" Talk about aggressive! No wonder the first verse of the next chapter says that "these three men [Job’s friends] ceased to answer Job" (32.1)! They wanted to stay out of range of the lighting bolt!

"Then", "Now", "If". As I read through this, I am struck again by Job’s pain. I am amazed by his righteousness. And, I am impressed by his strength, his willingness to take on God himself, even after he has endured so much pain.

We do not need to review the story of his pain today. I do want to examine his righteousness. It is amazing to see how comprehensive his righteousness is, to note the extent of his innocence. And, it is a bit depressing to see how much he is still contaminated by sin – and ignorant of it. Even his friends don’t call him on it, presumably because they don’t notice it either, because they can’t point out the sin that is acceptable in their world, in their system.

Job offers up a theological basis for human equality, but does not hesitate to own slaves, to own other human beings. And, for that matter, he has no problem with the rigid structure of honor-shame societies, especially when everyone becomes silent to listen to his words "dropping like dew" (29.22), and discount their own independent thinking (see Clines, 993, 995, 1038).

Job offers an oath that he has never looked with lust on a woman, never been enticed into adultery, never taken advantage of the sexual desires or emotional vulnerability of another person. The curse that goes with his oath? "Then let my wife grind for another, let other men kneel over her" (31.10). In what world is a woman being raped the appropriate retribution for the man’s adultery and lust? It is just wrong, but neither Job nor his friends notice it.

It is at this point that we have to examine our own sense of righteousness, and the entitlement that we believe righteousness provides. No matter how aware and advanced we feel ourselves to be, we need the humility to embrace the fact that there are tremendous gaps in our righteousness, gaps that we may never recognize. This does not mean that we accept those gaps, that we stop growing in grace. It does mean that we remain humble, that we accept the fact that people whom we observe as clearly sinful may be righteous in ways that we have never been.

And, we need to review the sense of entitlement that we believe righteousness provides. We want retributive justice to work. We want good things to happen to good people, and we want to define ourselves as good. That’s what Job wanted. His oath of innocence was not just a legal document, a summons to God Almighty. It was also a beautiful, if flawed, expression of hope that retributive justice will actually work in his case. All the curses? They are nothing but retribution for evil. Since he is innocent, he wants retribution for good. He deserves it! That’s entitlement. And when we focus on entitlement, whether with the vocabulary of retributive justice or some other form, we miss out on grace, on the gift of God.

I am amazed by Job’s righteousness, and I am impressed by his strength. After all he has been through, and without any support from his friends, he is ready to take God to court. It is audacious. It is bold. And, I like it. I’ve never done it myself, but I love watching Job do it. It’s much safer, and I get a great seat.

I am left breathless at the end of Job’s speech. What will happen next? I assume that one of two things may happen. God might show up and crush him utterly. After all, he’s hoped to get it over with (6.9) and he fully expects to die: "I know that you will bring me to death" (30.23). Maybe this is his desperate plea to end it all, since he refuses to do the deed on his own.

OR – God might ignore him completely, treat Job like a nothing, not even a minor irritant. If that happens, Job continues to suffer and God just doesn’t show up.

What in fact happens is just what I do NOT expect. God shows up, takes job seriously, and responds to the summons. Now, God does not answer Job’s charges. God does not explain what has happened. But God does not show up to crush him, and God does not ignore him and leave him alone in his pain. Instead, God honors the audacity of a pain-stricken man a bit obsessed with his own goodness.

That is grace. And, that’s what we’ll be dealing with in the next two weeks!

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