If you’ve been watching the political debates like I have, you’ve seen some heated exchanges between the candidates recently as each attempts to describe the state of our nation, and to persuade voters that he has a plan to improve upon it. As they respond to questions from the moderator and attacks from their opponent, each tries to gain the advantage by framing the terms of the argument. Such has been the case with Job as well.
This morning we come to the final Sunday in our three week study of the book of Job and the themes it raises — particularly the themes of justice and suffering, and how each relates to the other. In the first week we learned the set up, and heard that Job was “blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil.” (1:1) In heaven, God has been in a debate with a member of the heavenly court whose role was to find fault with humanity, who has accused humankind of devotion to God based only on gratitude for God’s blessing and fear of losing it. To test the merit of the accusation, God has allowed the accuser to afflict Job with every kind of misery. In a day, all that he had — his livestock, his servants, his children, his health — was taken from him in order to see if he would curse God.
In the second week we listened as Job refuted the wisdom offered by his friends, who attempted to console him by providing rationales for his suffering. They told him that God, who is good and just, punishes the wicked and rewards the righteous, and suggested that Job look to his own life to understand what he had done to merit this punishment. Job tears apart their arguments, challenging them to find fault with his conduct, to explain to him what he could possibly have done to deserve such suffering and loss.
Not content merely to justify himself to his friends, Job takes his debate directly to God, imagining a trial in which God would answer Job’s accusations of injustice and malicious neglect. Job imagines a debate more dramatic than any we’ve seen so far in this season of campaigning. He imagines a debate on a cosmic scale, in which God would be forced to answer Job’s questions about why bad things happen to good people, and where justice is to be found.
Finally, today, God speaks.
Before we consider the content of what God says when God finally enters the debate, let’s consider what is at stake. Though the original test was designed by the accuser to prove the transience of human devotion, Job — through his profound wrestling with God in faith — has set up a test of his own, and it is we, the listeners, like the audiences that fill the halls or tune in on their televisions, who will decide who has won this debate. Carol Newsom, my professor of Hebrew Bible at Emory University, describes the situation like this,
No longer is the question simply whether unconditional piety exists; one needs to know how such a stance could be meaningful. From the perspective of Job, who makes justice the central value, the notion of radically unconditional piety is at best meaningless and at worst monstrous, for it would appear to sanction divine arbitrariness and cruelty. The task God faces is to articulate a theological vision that will make such a stance not only meaningful, but also profound.”
What Dr. Newsom points out is that, while the book of Job begins with a story about a test for humanity, over the course of our engagement as readers and listeners a different test has also been established. It is a test for God. Having heard, along with Job, the feeble rationalizations offered by his friends, the limits of their proverbs, we want to know if God can offer a defense for the reality of so much unmerited suffering. We, like Job, want to know if we can continue to offer our praise and worship to the God who allows things to be as they are, painful and unjust, without in essence endorsing this state of affairs, the state of creation. As we, with Job, wait for God to speak we realize that God is now being tested every bit as much as Job.
I think this is a tremendous victory for Job.
God speaks, but when God speaks it is not to answer Job’s questions, but to pose an entirely different set of questions. God begins,
“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. Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding.” (38:2-4)
Though it sounds callous, God’s opening statement signals that God will not be delivering the same speech as Job’s friends. God does not defend God’s honor by questioning Job’s. Instead, God signals that the very terms of the debate are about to change, and that Job will need to pay attention and keep up.
It’s also just funny, and I think we have to acknowledge this, when God says “gird up your loins like a man.” It sounds like the biblical equivalent of “pull up your diapers” or “put on your big boy pants.” We might be tempted to hear this as a bit of divine mockery or condescendence. Instead, Dr. Newsom suggests that to “gird up your loins” was to tuck the ends of your robes up into your belt so that you could move quickly without tripping over yourself. In essence, God isn’t saying “grow up” as much as God is saying “keep up.” God is about to cover a lot of ground, rhetorically, and Job will be challenged to follow where God is going with this.
Throughout the book so far, Job has been charging God with a failure of justice. Here, God replies that Job suffers from a failure of knowledge, that Job’s arguments are based on his assumptions about how the world is ordered, how it has been created. Job, in his anger and grief at the chaos and loss that go hand in hand with being alive, has questioned the very nature of being. In response, God asks, “where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?” And then, with a heavy dose of sarcasm, God continues, “who determined its measurements — surely you know!” (38:5)
We get only a few verses of what follows in the passage read in worship this morning. We hear God ask, “Can you lift up your voice to the clouds, so that a flood of waters may cover you?” (38:34) and “Who has the wisdom to number the clouds? Or who can tilt the waterskin of the heavens, when the dust turns into a mass and the clods cling together?” (38:37-38) Of all the verses in God’s reply to Job, we couldn’t have picked better on a day when two of our sisters and brothers are being baptized into the body of Christ. We are reminded that God is the creator, that God provides the rains we need for life, waters that transform the dust of the earth into clods of clay molded into the shape of humanity; and that, in baptism, God recreates us, providing new birth into a new life, taking the dust of our fragile natures and molding us into vessels for God’s holy spirit to be poured into and through for the sake of the world.
But it’s a shame that we don’t get to hear the fullness of God’s response to Job, which reads like poetry, because it is the way that God speaks just as much as the content of what God says, that finally moves Job. God’s response to Job’s questions about the justice of creation washes over Job, wave after wave, as God asks:
Have you commanded the morning since your days began? (38:12) Have you entered into the springs of the sea, or walked in the recesses of the deep? (38:16) Have you entered the storehouses of the snow, or have you seen the storehouses of the hail? (38:22) Do you know when the mountain goats give birth? (39:1) Is the wild ox willing to serve you? (39:9) Do you give the horse its might? (39:19) Is it by your wisdom that the hawk soars, and spreads it wings… (39:26)
For us, who live in cities and visit animals in their cages at the zoo, this might sound like a romantic call to consider the wild beauty of creation and to find our place in it. But to people who lived in smaller settlements, close to the land and surrounded by the dangers of the wilderness, these images are less romantic and more menacing. We might hear God as saying, “look around you at the world I have created, it is filled with powerful creatures that do not submit to your will.”
In our day and age, we might be less frightened and amazed by creation as it exists outside our bodies, and more frightened and amazed by creation as it exists inside our bodies. I wonder if we might hear an extension of God’s reply to Job suited to our day and age that sounds something like,
Do you know when a cell becomes a life?
Can you tell when the division of cells will proceed along its course
to renew your inward parts as they slowly slough off their deadened layers day by day;
or, can you control when their multiplication will surge past their normal process, blossoming into masses that will burden your limbs, cloud your minds and stop your breath?
Job makes his case against God on the basis of justice. God’s defense is given on the basis of creation. The world as God has created it is filled with wonders. The powers of creation are awesome. The earth quakes. The skies storm. The seas rage. The rivers overflow their beds. The animals devour and are devoured in turn.
Perhaps it is even harder for us than it was for Job because we, with all our knowledge and technology, have shielded ourselves from so much of the chaos of creation. We have come to imagine that someday we will engineer a way to shield ourselves from death. To live forever. We suppose that God’s creation will, finally, be supplanted by our own. That someday we will write the rules, the terms that come with the precious gift of life. That, in our hands, creation’s wilds would bend to our order. That, under our management, there would finally be justice.
We need only hear ourselves speak these dreams out loud to know how false they are. In our hands the creation groans. In our hands death comes too quickly and too soon for too many people and places upon the earth. Justice, in our hands, is life for those we know and love, and the devil take the rest.
As harsh as they may sound to our ears, and perhaps to Job as well, God’s response is not intended to put Job in his place in any kind of humiliating way, but to remind him of the lessons we were learning throughout the season of creation that preceded this series on Job — that we are a part of creation, not apart from it. That we live and we die by the same laws that govern all of life. That death is a part of living, and suffering too.
At its core, God’s speech refuses to answer Job’s question about the causes of unmerited suffering, because to do so would suggest that there is still some method or device that lies within our grasp, that we still might hope to evade the fate that comes for each of us. God never says, “this is the ways things are so that some greater plan of mine can be fulfilled.” We are never asked to accept that the sufferings of life play some part in a mystery that will someday be revealed. God’s answer, such as it is, is simply “This is life. Not centered around you, always responding to your actions, rewarding or punishing you. Not responding to your wishes. Not bowing to your will. Creation is always being recreated, and you are a part of that, along with the rest of creation. The process is chaotic and it is painful, of that you can be sure.”
Job, finally, accepts this. Having pleaded that God would hear his case, Job finally acknowledges, “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.” (42:5-6) In the end, Job’s words become as enigmatic as God’s answer, suggesting as the book draws to a close, that any work left to be done will have to be done by each of us. Does Job, in the end despise himself? Is he signaling that he has withdrawn his case against God? Has his mind been changed concerning his place in God’s creation? It’s all, purposefully I think, left unclear. Throughout, Job has not been comforted by the easy answers of his friends, and so — consistent with that theme — Job refuses to provide easy answers for its readers and listeners. Whatever peace Job has found in the end has come through passionate engagement with his own life and adamant engagement with the God who created him, suggesting that the same may be required of each of us as well.
In praise of the God who created the world, who set the boundaries for the waters of earth and sky, whose floods have drowned us and whose hand has saved us and made us one with each other and with the whole creation.