Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Miserable Comforters (Job and Human Suffering #2)

04/22/2012, Job 3, Job 4-27
Text of the selected reading in five voices
Audio failed to record (sorry!)

Last week, we heard the beginning of Job’s story. A man who fears God and shuns evil, one who is among the greatest men in the East, suddenly is afflicted by every sort of calamity we can imagine. His fortune – in animals and servants – is destroyed in a day. His 10 children die in a tornado. Then, his health deteriorates overnight and he is wracked with constant pain.

That was the prologue. In this week’s reading, selections from the next major section of Job, Job and his friends are in conversation, and it isn’t going well. Gone are the prologue’s conversations between God and the Satan. In fact, though God still has a big role in the story, the Satan entirely disappears from the text. Gone is the patient Job (James 5.11) who declares, "Should we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the evil?" (Job 2.10). Instead, he curses the day of his birth and goes on to declare "God has wronged me" (19.6). Gone is Job’s wife, who recognized his integrity and advised him to "curse God and die". Job doesn’t do that – literally – but he certainly takes to the offensive and makes his protest known. And, gone are Job’s compassionate friends, weeping and mourning with him, in silence for "seven days and seven nights" (2.13). Now his friends take Job on as a project, someone they can and must help. And they help they offer is to prosecute him, to accuse him, to serve as his adversaries over 24 chapters of beautiful poetry, in one argument after another.

Last week, as we introduced Job and examined the prologue, we mentioned the theory of "retributive justice". It is the idea that evil things happen to evil people and good things to good people. If we do lots of evil, lots of evil will happen to us. What God provides, by way of justice, is both reflective of and proportional to our actions. Whether it is the conventional wisdom of the time, or the karma of today, we struggle in those moments when there seems to be no correlation between what is happening to us and what we have done. We struggle when we have no one to blame, no one to blame but God.

This theory is the principle upon which the argument between Job and his friends turns. They both take it as a given. The friends logic is: Evil things are happening to Job, therefore Job has done evil things. Job’s logic is: Evil things are happening to me, while I have my integrity, therefore God has done me wrong.

Let’s start with what his friends are saying:
You must have done evil. All the friends follow the logic of retributive justice to this conclusion, and all his friends defend God’s reputation (as if that were necessary). Eliphaz kicks it off: "Those who plow evil and those who sow trouble reap it" (4.8). Bildad contributes, "Does God pervert justice?" (8.3). Zophar chimes in, "If you put away the sin that is in your hand, . . . then you will lift up your face without shame" (11.14-15). They say a great deal more about Job’s guilt, but it is not necessary to repeat. There are a couple variations on this theme, however, among them:

Your children must have done evil. Bildad offers this so-called wisdom: "When your children sinned against [God], he gave them over to the penalty of their sin" (8.4).

It could be worse – and you would deserve it, too. Zophar makes this audacious statement: "Know then that God exacts of you less than your guilt deserves" (11.6).

Human righteousness is neither pleasurable to God nor truly possible for human beings. Eliphaz asks, rhetorically, "What pleasure would it give the Almighty if you were righteous?" (22.3). And, Bildad declares, "If even the moon is not bright, and the stars are not pure in his eyes, how much less man, who is but a maggot!" (25.5-6).

Aside from the logic of retributive justice, there are a couple other themes that leap off the pages of this argument:
Trouble is innate to the human condition. From Eliphaz: "Human beings are born to trouble just as sparks fly upward" (5.7). There certainly are times when we all wonder if this might be true. But it does not indicate anything particular to Job, does not (on its own) impact the logic of retribution, and does not explain why the friends are doing so well while Job is suffering so cruely.

You are full of hot air. Bildad says, "Your words are a blustering wind!" (8.2). Eliphaz tells Job that his belly is full of "the hot east wind" (15.2). Now, to be clear, this is not meant to be a compliment.

Finally, and perhaps most startling to us today: Your refusal to admit your sin dishonors me. Zophar declares, "I hear a rebuke [from Job] that dishonors me" (20.3). In a society in which relationships are structured with honor and shame, there is tremendous pressure on those who are afflicted to accept it as what they justly deserve. It reinforces the social order, allows everyone to nod their heads and tell their children, "You don’t want to become like Job now, do you?" Though honor-shame dynamics are part of all human emotion and relationships, we don’t live in a classical honor-shame society. But we all have experienced those moments when someone confronts us out of their own issues, wanting us to admit wrong so that they feel better. They want us to be the scapegoat, and to go along with it.

Ever been treated like this by your friends? Sometimes, the best we might be able to say about such behavior is "He really means well." But, in Job’s case, it would be closer to the truth to say, "With friends like these, who needs enemies?" Job’s own comments make his feelings quite clear. He feels corrected and unheard – and he is.

Do you mean to correct what I say,
and treat the words of a despairing man as wind? (6.26)
You, however, smear me with lies;
You are worthless physicians--all of you! (13.4)
Miserable comforters are you all!
Will your long-winded speeches never end?
What ails you that you keep on arguing? (16.2-3)
Perhaps because his friends are not listening, and claiming to speak for God, Job even wonders whether God hears him:
Even if I summoned him and he responded,
I do not believe he would give me a hearing (9.16).

I think we all get this: One of the biggest reasons that people are uninterested and even hostile to the gospel of Jesus Christ is the people of Jesus Christ. If the people of God don’t listen, why should folks expect God to listen to them?
But in Job’s experience, God is not simply absent or estranged. God is intimately present – and causing me pain.

The arrows of the Almighty are in me,
my spirit drinks in their poison;
God's terrors are marshaled against me (6.4).

I have never personally felt like this, though I know folks who have. One man sat watched his young adult son die and said, "It felt like God stuck a knife in my gut and twisted it." "The arrows of the Almighty are in me, my spirit drinks in their poison." Job says this! Out loud!

In addition, Job evaluates the conventional wisdom of retributive justice and concludes not that Job has sinned, but that God has done wrong. To his friends, so sure that Job is wrong, he says, "I will never admit you are in the right; till I die, I will not deny my integrity" (27.5). Instead, God has "denied me justice" (27.2); "God has wronged me" (19.6). Job says this! Out loud! And, please note: At the end of the story, God commends Job for his God-talk. Now, I haven’t figured that out on a logical level. What I do know is this: If the only witness we have of God is one of pain, we should say it. God won’t condemn us for doing so, and some times we just need to get it off our chests. If the Scriptures can so powerfully describe the full range of emotion and argument in the context of human suffering, then we must have a God who is personally acquainted with pain, and not offended when we speak honestly out of our deepest pain.

The most remarkable thing about Job’s side of the argument is how creative he is as a theological thinker. He takes the conventional wisdom of his time and turns it upside down: "God has wronged me!" He imagines going to court with God, though he is sure that he won’t be heard. He is fierce about bringing his complaint before the One whom he believes has injured him: "Though he slay me, yet will I hope in him" (13.15). Most amazing of all is his theory, without precedent in the tradition, that he has a witness, an advocate, a redeemer standing up for him before God.

Even now my witness is in heaven;
my advocate is on high (16.19).
I know that my Redeemer lives,
and that in the end he will stand upon the earth.
And after my skin has been destroyed,
yet in my flesh I will see God (19.25-26).

In the Christian tradition, we have seized on this language and read it as Job anticipating Jesus. The text itself is not definitive. Some scholars read it as a theory of one of the "heavenly beings" speaking up for Job, like the Satan was accusing Job. It fits with the courtroom logic of some of Job’s other statements, and it fits with the heavenly court backstage glimpse we get in the prologue (but of which Job is apparently ignorant). Some scholars read this language of Job as a reference to his own words and their enduring power – that even when he is dead and gone his testimony, his advocacy, his witness remains because he has spoken it aloud (see Clines).

Personally, I am a "both/and" or an "all of the above" kind of guy. We see Jesus at the center of the Scriptures and read all of the Bible through that lens. Job may very well have been saying more than he realized. In all our suffering, in all our pain, these words of Job are a powerful comfort. They don’t relieve the pain, but they confer on us an exalted status. No one else may listen to us and we may wonder if we are heard by God, but "in the end", we have an advocate - witness - redeemer. We are heard. We may experience God as mean-spirited and vindictive. And, we have an advocate - witness - redeemer when all we want to do is fight back. Our words are not lost. Our pain is not forgotten. Our suffering is not overlooked.

Resources for the series:
David J. A. Clines, Job (Word Biblical Commentary, three volumes).
Robert Gordis, The Book of God and Man.
Edwin M. Meeks, In Turns of Tempest.
David Penchansky, The Betrayal of God
Janzen, Job (Interpretation Biblical Commentary)
and others

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