Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Out of the Whirlwind (The Book of Job and Human Suffering #4)

05 May 2012, Job 38-41, selection
Audio file

We have been working through Job, and I have found myself over the past couple weeks thinking, but not saying, "the gospel of Job". Technically, in biblical literature the "gospels" are the four New Testament books that tell the Jesus story. In a broader sense, sharing the "gospel" is sharing God’s good news in Jesus Christ. The book of Job is focused on human suffering, so it may not seem like an appropriate connection to speak of the "gospel of Job", the "good news". But it is Scripture, and all Scripture testifies to Jesus Christ. And, though its subject is human suffering, though it deals in ambiguity and frustration and pain, though it includes significant debate on the cause and justice of suffering, it has a powerful, life-affirming, God-honoring focus.

We need to summarize the story once more. It opens with Job, a man who fears God and shuns evil, a man who is extraordinarily "blessed". Then Job loses everything – all his wealth, all ten children, and his health. His friends show up and mourn silently. When conversation starts, after a full week of mourning, they take the conventional position: God doesn’t allow evil to fall upon the good, so Job must have done evil. They start out politely, but end up accusing him aggressively, even claiming that his children died because of their sin. Job, on the other hand, though he grew up on the conventional wisdom, concludes that God has done wrong. Job concludes with a remarkable final statement, rejecting the arbitration of his friends, asserting his innocence, and summoning God to court (31.35):

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

In today’s reading, God shows up. God responds to the subpoena! God replies to a man in pain. But we did skip a section of the book. After Job’s final defense, which we looked at last week, comes an additional set of speeches by a young man, Elihu the Buzite. We know nothing else about his background. He is not named earlier or later in the story. In his introductory remarks, he tells us that he’ll burst if he doesn’t speak, and he speaks like someone about to burst. He chews out Job’s friends, he tells Job that he wants to justify him (33.32), he says that Job is rebellious (34.37), he talks about the justice of God, and he describes a coming storm (37.9-f): the whirlwind, the ice, the clouds, the lightening. "Then the LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind" (38.1):

Who is this that darkens counsel
by words without knowledge?
Gird up your loins like a man,
I will question you,
and you shall declare to me (38.2-3).

Job’s had his turn at question-asking. Now, it’s God’s turn. And, if you thought Job’s questions were tough, try answering these ones!

Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?
Have the gates of death been revealed to you?
Who has cut a channel for the torrents of rain?
Can you hunt the prey for the lion?
Do you observe the calving of the deer?
Do you give the horse its might?
Can you draw out Leviathan with a fishhook?

The two speeches – interrupted by a brief reply from Job – are filled with a procession of questions on the Creation, then a succession of the creatures themselves, culminating with Behemoth and Leviathan, apparently the hippopotamus and crocodile described in legendary, imaginative terms.

There are two things about which we might expect God to speak, but about which God says nothing.

The first is the question of Job’s sin. Job’s friends have talked about this almost constantly. Over and over, Job protests his innocence. God says nothing. Job’s friends do not deserve the dignity of a reply. It isn’t until God is done talking with Job – and ignoring the friends – that God offers a couple words to the friends: "My wrath is kindled against you for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has" (42.7).

The second is the matter of Job’s suffering. Not that his suffering does not deserve a reply, but that any reply will only minimize it. What do you say to a man like Job? How can any words adequately acknowledge his pain? Robert Gordis writes that God "refrains from referring to Job’s suffering ... from exquisite tact and sensibility. Job’s agony cannot be justified by the platitudes of conventional religion, nor can it be explained away as imaginary. If man is to bear his suffering at all, the entire problem must be raised to another dimension" (1965, The Book of God and Man: A Study of Job, 118; a major resource for this entire message).

There are two things about which God says nothing. Now for three things that God does say, does manage to declare in the procession of questions and succession of creatures.

First, though it is not evident in Job’s personal situation, there is an order and a justice to the world – though it is not perfect. The questions function to highlight an order that we tend to overlook. One could wonder, cynically, if this is simply God on the defensive: "Job, I was too busy doing inventory in ‘the storehouse of the hail’ (38.22) and ‘commanding the morning’ (38.12) on schedule that I didn’t have time to take care of you". But, I believe that cynicism here is misplaced. This isn’t protest we hear from God. What we hear are questions that are intended to expand his own perspective, to see beyond himself and his pain, to notice a world full of order and mystery, a world that is by no means perfect, but a world that manifests order – and, by definition, justice – as well. On this subject, God does ask a couple pointed questions:

Will you even put me in the wrong?
Will you condemn me that you may be justified? (40.8)

Interestingly, God never condemns Job in this speech, except for his ignorance – but no moral condemnation. Is it possible to both justify Job and justify God? God even offers Job a challenge to make the world more just, to do better than God can do:

Look on all who are proud, and bring them low;
tread down the wicked where they stand (41.12).

There is a justice and order to the world, though it is not perfect.

Second, this order is not under control, not domesticated – WILD. Notice all the animals that God mentions – lion, raven, mountain goat, deer, wild donkey, wild ox, ostrich, horse, hawk ... and then behemoth and leviathan. The only one in the list that is a domesticated creature is the horse, but the horse the LORD describes is a war horse, dangerous, aggressive, and angry. We have an wild world because we have a wild God. Neither the world nor our God are under our control, able to be manipulated by prayers or actions or money or drama. Most of the control we seek, whether over our situation, other people, or even God, is an illusion. In fact, human beings are just as wild and undomesticated as the rest of Creation. Of Behemoth, the LORD declares, "I made [Behemoth] just as I made you" (41.15).

Third, this order is permeated with grace. In unexpected and even illogical ways, goodness is part of this broken world. The LORD asks Job,

Who has cut a channel for the torrents of rain,
and a way for the thunderbolt,
to bring rain on a land where no one lives,
on the desert, which is empty of human life,
to satisfy the waste and desolate land,
and to make the ground put forth grass? (38.25-27)

Only a wild and undomesticated God would be illogical enough to be gracious to land where no one lives. And, if God can be gracious enough to a desert, then what can God do for us?

Today, at the table of the Lord, we have the answer to that question.

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