Rev. Joel L. Tolbert
Unpacking the Book of Job
FAQ – Faithfully Asked Questions, a summer sermon series on questions asked by the children and adults of the church, week 5 of 7
Preached July 11, 2021 for the 9:30am Worship
It’s week 5 of our 7-week sermon series, Faithfully Asked Questions, or FAQ where you choose the sermon topics by submitting questions. This week, we have a new question, all about God and Job. Let’s hear it…
I am very troubled by the Book of Job, especially what it teaches us about God. (There are) very specific descriptions of God and (God’s) actions, many of which seem somewhere between unethical and immoral, (even) vengeful… Job is described as “perfect and upright”, … Job is not at fault. ... (So was the) purpose of Job’s sufferings - so that God could make a point to Satan? …. (As for Job’s) “friends”… why is it their fault for respecting God and blaming Job in the manner and belief of the time? ... (The) more troubling matter (is) the loss of Job’s family…. In what conceivable system of morality is killing off someone’s family made OK by providing a replacement family? ... Is there a constructive image of God to be derived from the Book of Job?
We’d better pray…
Job is 42 chapters, the way we have organized it. I tend, as some scholars suggest, to read Job as assembled from three different sources.
The first, let’s call it the Fable… the very beginning and very end of Job. In this simple children’s story, Job and his family are presented as faithful and healthy, and Job’s business is doing pretty well too. Then, one member of the God council, the tempter, ha satan, suggests Job is only faithful to God because Job is healthy and wealthy and loved.
Job 1:10 “Have you not put a fence around Job and his household and all that he has, on every side? You have blessed the work of Job’s hands, and his possessions have increased in the land. 11 If say, you were to stretch out your hand now, and touch all that he has, I bet he will curse you to your face.” 12 The Lord says to ha Satan “Very well, all that he has is in your power; only do not stretch out your hand against him!”
Job’s crops are ruined. Job’s livestock is stolen or plagued. Job’s servants are killed by enemies. Job’s children are killed by a storm. Job was afflicted with a skin disease. All of that happens in the first two chapters.
These first two chapters are ancient simple Hebrew prose. If I said to you all, “Once upon a time…” you would begin to anticipate an interesting, simple story with a moral to it that probably ends, “happy ever after.”
The end of chapter 42, verse 7 and following, matches the beginning chapters in style, ancient simple Hebrew prose. God corrects some friends of Job who misrepresented God and showed Job little comfort. Job asks God’s mercy on them. Then the story ends…
10 the Lord restored the fortunes of Job when he had prayed for his friends… 11 Everyone who knew him before came to him and ate with him … and showed him sympathy and comforted him … 12 The Lord blessed the latter days of Job more than his beginning; and he had (thousands of animals). 13 seven sons and three daughters… and Job gave the daughters an inheritance along with the sons. 16 Job lived one hundred and forty years, and saw his children, and his children’s children, four generations. 17 And Job died, old and full of days. (happily ever after)
Once upon a time, there was a Fable that tried to answer a big question. “Why do bad things happen to good people?” In that question is the assumption that good things should happen to good people, and bad things should happen to bad people. When it doesn’t work like that, the assumption is something is wrong, and we want to know why. The Fable explains it with one of God’s own, the tempter, ha satan, asking permission from God to test Job and see if Job’s faith is real, or the result of good luck. Job never loses faith in the Fable, and is redeemed and lives happily ever after. Ha satan is in Job 11 times. All 11 of them are in these few little lines.
The Fable answers the question, Why do bad things happen to good people? Saying sometimes bad things to happen to good people to test their faith, but the faithful are redeemed in the end.
The second section, let’s call it the Opera. The Hebrew from chapters 3 to 31 and 38 to the beginning of 42 are complicated nuanced intricate poetry. Job has obviously suffered something terrible, and three people respond to Job as to why. The Opera is three stacked and weaving movements, like acts in a play. In each act, each of the three friends correct or challenge Job, and Job replies to each of them. They debate the same question. “Why do bad things happen to good people?” In the friends’ responses, we hear the same assumption, that good things happen to good people, and bad things happen to bad people. So if bad things happened to Job, he must be a bad person.
One “friend” suggests, “It’s because you have sinned, Job.” Job insists he is still the same good guy. Another is sure, “Well, it’s not God’s doing, because God is lenient.” Job insists God has been more lenient with the thieves who stole his livestock than with him. One friend suggests “it’s because you’ve fallen away from religious practices and beliefs.” Job barks at them for their “windy words,” and accuses them of not supporting him. One suggests there must be a wickedness in Job we cannot see, that maybe Job himself cannot see. Job insists that even if there is sin in him… nothing deserves this much punishment from a so-called “Redeemer.” One suggests punishment matches the degree of wickedness. Job argues there are all kinds of wickedness in this world that go unpunished, and the victims of wickedness are not all redeemed, and the wicked aren’t always punished.
Do you hear the base assumption behind the friends, that pain and suffering are fair proportional judgment of God or consequences from God for one’s “sins”? Job insists he isn’t to blame for the evil and suffering befalling him. He has been faithful to God and insists if he has done wrong, he has not done wrong enough to deserve all this.
In chapter 27, Job finally says to his so-called friends:
3 as long as my breath is in me and the spirit of God is in my nostrils,
4 my lips will not speak falsehood, and my tongue will not utter deceit.
5 Far be it from me to say that you three are right;
until I die I will not cut away my integrity from me.
6 I will hold fast my righteousness, and will not let it go;
Chapter 28 seems to have Job talking inside himself, wondering what to do? Where he can find the answer to the question?
28:1 “Surely there is a mine for silver, and a place for gold to be found.
3 Miners … search out to the farthest bounds the ore in gloom and deep darkness.
12 “But where shall wisdom be found? where is the place of understanding?
13 Mortals do not know the way to it, and it is not found in the land of the living. 14 The earth says, ‘It is not in me,’ and the sea says, ‘It is not within me.’
15 It cannot be bought with gold, and silver cannot be weighed out as its price.
20 “Where then does wisdom come from? Where is the place of understanding?
23 “God understands the way to it, and God knows its place.
‘Truly, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom.’”
Whenever the Hebrew Bible speaks of this, fear of the Lord, the English translations are often “fear”, but it never means be afraid of God. It only means respect, defer to, honor, submit to God. Bend our thoughts, feelings, beliefs, words, and actions to whom we trust God to be. So Job goes to God, stops talking to himself, and from chapters 29-31 talks directly at God.
29:12 I delivered the poor who cried, and the orphan who had no helper.
15 I was eyes to the blind, and feet to the lame.
16 I was a father to the needy, and I championed the cause of the stranger.
30:16 “And now my soul is poured out within me; days of affliction have taken hold of me.
20 I cry to you and you do not answer me; I stand, and you merely look at me.
31:3 Does not calamity only befall the unrighteous, and disaster on the workers of iniquity?
5 “If I have walked with falsehood…
13 “If I have ignored the needs of my employees…
16 “If I have withheld anything that the poor needed,
17 or have not shared my food with the orphans
21 if I have raised my hand against someone,
24 “If I have made gold my trust,
25 if I have bragged because of my wealth
35 If only I had a God who would hear me and respond!
(Here is my signature! Let the Almighty[g] answer me!)
Then, the grand finale of the Opera. Jump to Chapter 38, God does respond.
2 “Who is this that darkens my courtroom with words (but) without knowledge? 3 Prepare yourself, I will cross-examine you, and you shall answer me.
4 “Where were you when the foundations of the earth were laid? Tell me, if you were there.
5 Or do you know the width and height and age of the universe, surely you do!
8 “Or who set bounds for the sea… and caused the sun to know its place,
17 Have the gates of death been revealed to you,
21 Surely you know, for you were born then, and the number of your days is great!
40:2 “You wanted to wrestle it out with God! Anyone who debates with God must respond!”
3 Job answers the Lord:
4 “I See, I am of small account; what shall I answer you? I lay my hand on my mouth. 5 I have spoken once, and I will not answer twice.
(And God says) 8 You put me in the wrong. You condemn me so that you may be justified.
And finally in Chapter 42, the end of the Opera, Job says
I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. 5 I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eyes see you; 6 therefore I recant and relent, being but dust and ashes.”
There are many translations to this last line. The Hebrew is intentionally ambiguous. I prefer the one I just read for you. The opera responds to the question “Why?” with… “I take it back. I shouldn’t have asked. I’m just a created. You are the creator.” The Opera’s response is, we will never know why. God is God, and we are not.
There’s an odd third section from chapters 32-37. Let’s call it the Talk Show. Someone named Elihu has observed, overheard Job and the three friends. He’s a bit younger, more skeptical and cynical, naïve, and even cocky. So he decides to advise and correct his elders, Job and Job’s friends.
“I am young in years, therefore I was timid…
8 But truly it is the spirit in a mortal, the breath of the Almighty in them,[b] that makes for understanding. 9 It is not the age.
9 (Job) You say, ‘I am clean, without transgression;
12 “But in this you are not right.
13 Why do you contend against God, saying, ‘He will answer none of my[b] questions?
14 For God speaks in multiple ways
19 Sometimes people are also chastened with pain upon their beds,
21 Sometimes their flesh is so wasted away that it cannot be seen;
23 Then, if there should be for one of them an angel, a mediator, one of a thousand, one who declares a person upright, 24 God may be gracious to that person, and says, ‘Deliver this one from going down into the Pit; I have found the ransom;
26 then the person prays to God, and is accepted by God, and comes into God’s presence with joy,
27 That person sings to others and says, ‘I sinned, and perverted what was right, and it was not paid back against me. 28 God redeemed my soul from going down to the Pit, 29 That’s why “God does all these things, twice, three times, with mortals, 30 to bring back their souls from the Pit, so that they may see the light of life.
Elihu responds to the question why with “Oh God is definitely just, but the fair and just thing would be to let all creation crumble. All of it has sinned and fallen short. Everything would return to dust. God isn’t just good to good and bad to bad. God is ridiculously good to all. That any have life at all, in any form, is a gift of God, and not to be complained about but only to be thanked!
Three different attempts and different ways to answer the same question why? I’ve sat with people who were suffering, and that is often the question… Why? Why did this happen? Why did this happen to me, to them, to us? I’ve asked that question myself at certain points in my life. From the story of Job, we realize we will feel drawn to ask that question… of each other, or of God. Sometimes, all we can do is ask that question, why?
The story of Job does suggest though that we be careful answering the question. The Fable throws the answer on God through the God council, and in that simple answer, a child may learn that yes, sometimes bad things happen to good people, but keep the faith and everything will work out in the end. That answer will not work when they grow up and feel the pain of life, death, grief that doesn’t go away.
The friends of Job answered it too simply in the opera. They know God is just and fair, and therefore assume the why of Job’s sufferings are Job’s fault. God is always just and fair. But we know suffering comes for many reasons… as a consequence of sin, yes… but sometimes as an unfair ripple effect of someone else’s sin, when victims suffer at the hands of others.
Elihu answers it too simply as well, as if to suggest all suffering is deserved and anything other than suffering is grace. That is not God’s world, and makes God out to be someone gracious, but a highly flawed creator.
Perhaps, instead of asking the question why, arguing it out with friends, or God, or some random talk show host… Perhaps, we should spend less time talking about suffering, and more time comforting it. Less time asking why, and more time asking, what do you need, how can I help? The God we know in Jesus did talk about suffering, but went about his days responding to it directly, healing, feeding, comforting. Let’s follow him.