Job 38:1-21 & Job 42:1-6

Job – All of it

This evening we are diving into the story of Job. We’ve had two readings from the book of Job, but actually we are going to take the opportunity to look at the whole of the book. Even for one of our longer, Dive, sermons, this is quite an undertaking, and we’re not going to be able to cover everything, but as I was looking at these two passages it didn’t really seem possible to address them without looking at the whole book, so that’s what we’re going to do.

Last weekend was the CAP quiz. I found myself in an impromptu team with Liz, Margaret Watkins, and Alwyn and Trevis Jones. There were lots of questions in this quiz, as you’d expect, over a wide variety of topics. We didn’t do too badly, some rounds went really well, some very badly. In the past I fear that I’ve not always been a good person to have on a quiz team. You see, I’m not very good at admitting that I don’t know something or that I’m wrong about something, so if I think I know the answer, even if I’m not very sure, I can sound quite sure and sometimes talk other people out of the right answer, when they do know but aren’t as confident as I am.
I think I’ve just about curbed these tendencies, but I know that they’re still there. “I don’t know” can be one of the hardest things to say.

The book of Job is all about questions. So, let’s start off by thinking about questions. I’d like to suggest that there are a number of different types of question:

Question seeking information: Where is my book?
Rhetorical question: Answer already known, doesn’t expect a response, asked to make a point: “Do you know how long it took me to make this meal?”
Impossible question: A type of rhetorical question asked to heighten awareness of someone’s limits: Can you wind the clock back?
Existential question: Again, not meant to be answered, or at least, not quickly, but the asking of them provokes exploration and enquiry. “Who am I?” is perhaps the simplest of these.

The questions in the quiz were all information seeking questions. Very few of the many questions in Job are like this. They are rhetorical questions, designed to provoke thought.
Behind all the questions that we find in Job are, it seems to me, two sets of existential questions.

The first set is from the human side:

“Why is there suffering”
“Why do innocent people suffer”
“Why do I suffer”
“How am I meant to react to suffering”
“What is God like?”

The second set is from God’s side:

“Why are people pious?”
“Why do people do religious things – live well, pray, worship?”
“Is it possible for people to love and worship me, apart from any belief in a benefit they might get?”

Before we dive into looking at these questions, and how the book addresses them, let’s take a bit of a step back for an overview.

The book of Job was probably written sometime between 700 and 200 years before Christ. It is likely that there was an older folk tale about Job that provided the outline of the story, which was incorporated into the book we have today. The book is made up of three sections. The first two chapters, in prose, introduce the main characters, and the bulk of the action of the story. The next 39 chapters present, in poetry, the speeches of Job, his friends, and God. The final chapter details Job’s final response to God, and, again in prose, the conclusion of the story.

The book begins, “In the land of Uz there lived a man whose name was Job.” This is the Biblical equivalent of, “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.” Or “Once upon a time…” There is no intent here that this should be read as a historical account of a man who actually lived. As Jesus used parables without always saying, “This next story is a parable”, but expected people to understand that from the context, and the way he told the story, so the writer here is using a form that communicates that this is a story that has much to teach us, but is not a historical account.

So, we’re not sure who wrote this book, or when, or much about its setting. There is one other thing that I want to mention. The Hebrew that it is written in is unusual, unlike the Hebrew of the rest of the Bible. Some commentators would even go as far as saying that it comes from a distinct Hebrew dialect. There are a number of words that only appear in the Bible in Job. There are more words influenced by or borrowed from Aramaic. At points the best copies of the text that we have don’t make complete sense, and translators have to reconstruct what they think the original probably said.

I say this with some hesitancy, because I don’t want to suggest that the Bible in general is unreliable, or sow seeds of doubt about the reliability of the Bible as we have it. I do so, however, because it seems to me that being honest about the very few places where we aren’t sure what the original authors wrote, makes it more credible when we claim that we have a high degree of confidence in the reliability of the vast majority that we are confident about.

I also wonder if this isn’t all consistent with the whole sense of Job, that it is more interested in posing questions, than it is about giving answers, or making things easy for us to grasp. In every way Job invites us to wrestle with it, to exercise our minds and wisdom and discernment. To hold our conclusions lightly and with humility, as we explore them together.
So, with all that in mind, let’s dive in.

The book begins by introducing Job, a wealthy man, with a large family, who is righteous in all he does and diligent in his religious practices.

The scene then shifts to the heavenly court, where God is meeting with his courtiers. One of the members of God’s court is described as “The Satan”. It is possible that the use of the article “The” is significant. It may indicate a title rather than a personal name. The translation of the word Satan is “accuser”. So, it may be that this scene describes the heavenly court before God’s enemy was thrown out of it, or it may be that what we have here is a member of God’s court who has been appointed by God to this role, a bit like the Prosecuting Barrister for the Crown Prosecution Service.

God’s first line in the book is in chapter 1v7. And it’s a question. God asks the Satan “Where have you come from?” and then, “have you considered my servant Job?”

Let’s go back for a moment to our types of question. At first glance these seems to be straight questions asking for information, but this is God we’re talking about. Is there anything that God doesn’t know? Is God asking for information or is God steering the conversation?

Then we hear from The Satan who has a question, “Does Job fear God for nothing?”

Again, what kind of question is this? It’s an existential question. It’s a question that strikes right at the heart of faith. Do people only follow God because of what they get out of it?

There are a couple of further questions that commentators ask. Is this God’s enemy trying to drive a wedge between God and the faithful servant Job? Or is it God’s chief prosecutor asking the awkward question on behalf of God? How can God know if a person’s religious faith and worship is entirely independent of what God has done for the person? Is it any more than cupboard love?

So, God gives the Satan permission to strip everything away from Job, but puts a limit on Job’s suffering – the Satan is not to touch his body. And that is what happens. His wealth goes, his flocks are stolen, his children killed. Disaster. But in the face of all this, how does he react?

“Job got up and tore his robe and shaved his head. Then he feel to the ground in worship. In all this, Job did not sin by charging God with wrongdoing.”

Chapter 2 takes us back to the heavenly court, and the gathering of all the courtiers. God asks the Satan the same questions. And the Satan’s answer is similar – surely if you remove the limits you put on Job’s suffering then he would turn from you.

So, God removes the limits, and allows the Satan to afflict Job’s body with suffering and disease. The Satan went out and made Job’s skin break out in sores, from the soles of his feet to the top of his head. It was so bad that he began scraping himself with a bit of pot, sat in a pile of ash. He had a row with his wife (I don’t have time to go into the details of this tonight, suffice to say that it might not be a simple a row as appears on first reading). But, in all this, Job did not sin in what he said.

Three friends now approach Job, they sit with him in silence for seven days, sharing his sorrow and suffering. And then, Job breaks the silence. And his big question is, “Why?” Why was I born for this, why does life continue when it is so painful, why me?

We then have several chapters of conversation between Job and his friends. On the one side we have the friends who are convinced that Job must have sinned for God to have allowed this suffering, and that he is just making things worse by refusing to admit this, and repenting of what he’d done wrong. They are sure that God punishes evil and rewards good and therefore that Job must have sinned for this punishment to be happening.

Job continues to protest his innocence, and to ask for a personal hearing in front of God, so that he can hear the case against him, and so that he can mount his defence. After his final protests, another friend, Elihu, speaks. He is angry that Job’s three other friends have failed to make a convincing case and argues that God’s justice is beyond humanity’s understanding and comprehension.

Then we get to the first of our two readings tonight. So far, God has stayed out of the debate. Job has pleaded with God repeatedly to speak to him, to allow him to put his case, and now God speaks, out of the storm.

And does God provide answers? Or does God ask questions?

God asks questions. Impossible, rhetorical questions that expect no answer. This stream of questions about the process of creation, the extent of the created order, the depths of the sea and the making of weather, the ways of wild animals of the ground and the air, echoing the creation order in Genesis 1, are all unanswerable. Well, there is an answer. It is, “no”. No I wasn’t there, I haven’t done that, I haven’t been there, I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know…” There is not a single question that God asks that Job can answer positively.

Eventually in chapter 40, Job does get a word in, but it is only to acknowledge his lack of answers, his unworthiness in the face of the might and majesty of God, in the end he asks his own rhetorical question, “how can I reply to you?”

But God isn’t finished, God continues with more questions. At first God asks whether Job really questions God’s justice, and then launches into a set of questions about Job’s power and ability to conquer the great beasts Behemoth and Leviathan. These may represent actual animals (the footnotes in our pew Bibles suggest that they may have been Elephants or Hippopotamii and crocodiles.) But more likely they refer back to the primordial mythical beasts of the Ancient Near East. King Kong and Godzilla. Balrog and Dragon. Take your pick.

If Job can’t do that, then how, the implication goes, can he even begin to imagine that he can take on God, who is not just the master but the creator of these beasts. How does he imagine he can contend with God, if he can’t even contend with one of these mighty animals?

And so we land in our second reading. Here we find that the questions have come to an end. Job has no more questions. But, he doesn’t really have answers either. He has come to realise that there are no answers that he can give to God’s questions, and he has come to accept that God isn’t going to answer his questions, at least not directly.
It is almost as if, as God has been asking these questions, Job has come to realise that God is far bigger than he had ever imagined, that God is far more powerful than he had ever comprehended. In that realisation he has come to believe that he can trust God, even when he doesn’t understand. He had heard of God’s power, and might, and majesty before, but now he has seen it. He has gained a deeper knowledge and understanding of it. It has become more real to him, and so his mind is changed.

And so we come to Job’s last words in the book named for him, and here we find some of those translation difficulties that I described earlier. As one of the commentaries, talking about verse 6 puts it,

“The literal sense is, ‘I despise (or dissolve) and repent upon dust and ashes.’ If the first verb is taken in the sense of ‘despise’, an object has to be supplied from the context, and the most likely ones are ‘myself’ or ‘my words’. ‘I repent’ must be taken here in the sense, ‘ I change my mind’.

Job is not doing here what his friends have demanded all along, admitting his sinfulness and repenting of it. He is admitting that his previous understanding of God was deficient.”

Some commentators go further, and suggest that the phrase, “upon dust and ashes” could be taken in the sense “about dust and ashes”. Throughout Job’s speeches he returned repeatedly to the idea that human beings are dust and will return to dust. Could it be that as well as having gained a deeper and more profound understanding of who God is, that Job has gained a deeper understanding of who he is, of who human beings are in God’s sight? That they are not just dust, but are more than that to God?

The book finishes off with God’s judgement on Job’s friends, it’s not positive, and on what Job has said along the way. Despite the pointed questions, in the end God says that Job has spoken rightly of God, unlike the friends. Because of this God will heed Job’s prayer when he prays and sacrifices on behalf of his friends. And then Job’s fortunes are restored, his health, his wealth, his folks, his family, more than restored, they are more than what he had before.
Does this restoration undermine one of the themes of the book, that there is no direct link between a person’s behaviour and whether they are blessed by God or are afflicted by suffering? A question for you to think about.

To round off, I’d like to return to the beginning of our first reading, where we are told, “The Lord spoke to Job out of the storm.”

As I was thinking about this, I was reminded of two other times that God spoke in a storm.

The first one was the storm that Jonah found himself in. God had told the prophet Jonah to go to Nineveh and tell the people of that city about God’s judgement. Jonah didn’t want to do that, so he got on a boat to Joppa. God sent a storm, and when the sailors cast lots as to who was the cause of the storm, the lot fell to Jonah. He told them to throw him into the sea, and the storm would stop. Which it did. Jonah went onto Nineveh, via a fish’s stomach. The point is that God spoke in a storm that arose because of a person’s disobedience.

The second storm is one that arose on lake Galilee. Jesus and his friends were in a boat. A boat that Jesus had told them to get into. They were sailing across the lake when the storm blew up and threatened to flood the boat and sink it. Jesus was asleep. His friends, frightened for their lives woke him up, and pleaded for help. He got up, spoke to the storm, and quieted the waves. He had some challenging words to say to his followers about faith, but that’s not the point that I want to draw out this evening. The point for tonight is that God spoke in a storm that arose when his followers obeyed him.

It seems to me that storms come in life. Sometimes they will be because we, or someone else in our lives have disobeyed God. Sometimes they will come for no apparent reason while we are obeying God. The fact that we’re in a storm doesn’t tell us where it came from. But, what ever the reason for it, God will be speaking in it, often with questions rather than answers, but always in a way that opens up the way for us to see God and ourselves more clearly.

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