Job 06 – The Myth of Hard Work and Success

It’s hard to pull yourself up by your bootstraps when you don’t have any boots.

Then Job replied:

“If only my anguish could be weighed
    and all my misery be placed on the scales!
It would surely outweigh the sand of the seas—
    no wonder my words have been impetuous.
The arrows of the Almighty are in me,
    my spirit drinks in their poison;
    God’s terrors are marshaled against me.
Does a wild donkey bray when it has grass,
    or an ox bellow when it has fodder?
Is tasteless food eaten without salt,
    or is there flavor in the sap of the mallow[a]?
I refuse to touch it;
    such food makes me ill.

“Oh, that I might have my request,
    that God would grant what I hope for,
that God would be willing to crush me,
    to let loose his hand and cut off my life!
10 Then I would still have this consolation—
    my joy in unrelenting pain—
    that I had not denied the words of the Holy One.

11 “What strength do I have, that I should still hope?
    What prospects, that I should be patient?
12 Do I have the strength of stone?
    Is my flesh bronze?
13 Do I have any power to help myself,
    now that success has been driven from me?

14 “Anyone who withholds kindness from a friend
    forsakes the fear of the Almighty.
15 But my brothers are as undependable as intermittent streams,
    as the streams that overflow
16 when darkened by thawing ice
    and swollen with melting snow,
17 but that stop flowing in the dry season,
    and in the heat vanish from their channels.
18 Caravans turn aside from their routes;
    they go off into the wasteland and perish.
19 The caravans of Tema look for water,
    the traveling merchants of Sheba look in hope.
20 They are distressed, because they had been confident;
    they arrive there, only to be disappointed.
21 Now you too have proved to be of no help;
    you see something dreadful and are afraid.
22 Have I ever said, ‘Give something on my behalf,
    pay a ransom for me from your wealth,
23 deliver me from the hand of the enemy,
    rescue me from the clutches of the ruthless’?

24 “Teach me, and I will be quiet;
    show me where I have been wrong.
25 How painful are honest words!
    But what do your arguments prove?
26 Do you mean to correct what I say,
    and treat my desperate words as wind?
27 You would even cast lots for the fatherless
    and barter away your friend.

28 “But now be so kind as to look at me.
    Would I lie to your face?
29 Relent, do not be unjust;
    reconsider, for my integrity is at stake.[b]
30 Is there any wickedness on my lips?
    Can my mouth not discern malice?

Job is speaking for all the downtrodden here: all the blamed victims, all the casualties of an unfair economic system, anyone ever harmed by institutionalized racism.

I remember watching a news story on homelessness years ago, and a woman said, “it’s hard to pull yourself up by your bootstraps when you don’t have any boots.” Her words came to mind when I read v. 13: “Do I have any power to help myself, now that success has been driven from me?” It is comforting to believe that we are in charge of our destinies, that if we just work a little harder, put the hours in, do the extra assignment, that we will be successful.  If that is true, then yes, we are all masters of our own fate.  But sadly, that is not true.

Before anyone rolls their eyes at my whining, let me just tell you a bit about how much I do believe in hard work.  I am up and writing this blog by 5:30 am to fit it into my day.  I have a whole series of pictures of me you can see (and a whole bunch of undocumented moments!) I call #farmingwhilemomming where I’m literally working two jobs at once.  Before Betty was one, I was the one who sifted through the mountains of paper work to get the farm a USDA microloan.  I am out there, working a little harder, putting the hours in, doing the extra assignment.  (So is my hubs, by the way: as I write this it is currently 5:57 am and he is up checking emails before he goes out to do farm chores)  I don’t say this to brag, I say this to silence anyone who might be tempted to brush off my argument with a “just have to work harder” type of response.

We work hard, and have seen success for it, but Chris and I face unique challenges as a black man and as a woman.  Chris talks a lot about his experiences elsewhere, so I’m going to mainly talk about my experiences here. Being in the predominantly male occupation of farming, I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been told I’m pretty smart “for a lady,” or been mansplained something I already know, or had someone be surprised that I can drive stick/park a 350/lift a bag of feed.  I educate myself about everything from how a freezer works to engine anatomy because I’m very suspicious that the service I might get is going to be different or less than a man because, as a woman, people expect I won’t know better.  That sounds cynical, and it is.  Fortunately we’ve met some very nice people since moving here and I trust my regular mechanics – but it took time to get there, and there are definitely services I’ve walked away from because I felt they looked down on me.

If you don’t see how this might effect my success, if you are still tempted to say “well, everyone has to be careful about who they trust their car care to,” or “you should be proud that you prove them wrong,” let me spell it out.  Lesser service, or, conversely, more service than I need because someone thinks they can up-sell an unsuspecting woman, costs me time and money, which hurts my bottom line.  And those same people who are surprised that I can drive stick or feel the need to talk down to me?  That’s the definition of a microaggression. Again, I can just hear the eyes rolling, and I’ll admit I haven’t found any studies on sexist microaggressions, but a 2014 study published in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine did find that people who experience a high level of racial microaggressions (aka, the kind Chris has to face on a daily basis) age faster on a cellular level.  I wouldn’t be surprised if sexist microaggressions have the same effect.  So not only is institutionalized sexism and racism potentially hurting our business, it is also actually hurting our health.

And all of my ranting is coming from an able-bodied, cis-gendered, white, upper-middle-class individual.  Stop for a minute and try to layer on a few more other labels, if you will, and think about the challenges I might face if I were, say, a gay black woman? Or a disabled poor person? Or a dark-skinned Muslim immigrant? Can you begin to see how society might be stacked against me?  Job is right in calling out his friends in their calling out of him.  “Do I have the strength of stone? Is my flesh bronze?” Job asks in v. 12.  Here’s another quick aside for you: there’s even a documented racial bias in pain treatment, with people of color receiving less pain management than their white counterparts.  Is their flesh made of bronze? Is theirs the strength of stone?  Sometimes society seems to think so.

Job accuses his friends in v. 27 with the words, “you would even cast lots for the fatherless.” I think I’ve mentioned this before, but widows and orphans were the most disadvantaged people (except maybe lepers?) in society back then.  They were without any protector, any safety net.  Tell me, can you see any parallels between Job’s friends and the “haves” in today’s society?  The wealthiest 1% continue to receive tax cuts at the expense of schools, medical research, and especially social support programs like SNAP. We, as a society, are taking people’s boots away, then asking them to pull themselves up by their bootstraps.  Is this what God would want? Is this what Jesus would stand for?  Job has the right, as he says, to bray like a wild donkey and bellow like an ox without fodder – for his sustenance is gone.  We, too, have that right.  If you are in a position of privilege, lend your voice to those that are not.  If you are not in a position of privilege, speak up (if it is safe to do so).  We have a long, long way to go.  But journeys are made one step at a time.  If we have God to guide us and each other to lean on, we can make it. Together, we can make it.

Job 01 – A Different Way to Think About Satan

More like an undercover cop and moral auditor than an eternal tormentor.

A quick word on pronouns, and my usage of them from here out:  I believe God transcends/is all inclusive of gender.  I was raised, as many Christians were, referring to God using male pronouns.  I’ll admit it is what is most comfortable for me, but I’m committed to recognizing not only the divine female within God but also the overall inclusivity of God, and am making it a practice to now refer to God (and any angels, spirits, etc discussed in the Bible) with the gender neutral pronouns xe, xem, xyr, xemself.  I realize this may be awkward for some readers, but the more we practice the better we get!  I will continue to refer to Jesus using masculine pronouns as he came to Earth as male.

In the land of Uz there lived a man whose name was Job. This man was blameless and upright; he feared God and shunned evil. He had seven sons and three daughters, and he owned seven thousand sheep, three thousand camels, five hundred yoke of oxen and five hundred donkeys, and had a large number of servants. He was the greatest manamong all the people of the East.

His sons used to hold feasts in their homes on their birthdays, and they would invite their three sisters to eat and drink with them. When a period of feasting had run its course, Job would make arrangements for them to be purified. Early in the morning he would sacrifice a burnt offering for each of them, thinking, “Perhaps my children have sinnedand cursed God in their hearts.” This was Job’s regular custom.

One day the angels came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came with them. The Lord said to Satan, “Where have you come from?”

Satan answered the Lord, “From roaming throughout the earth, going back and forth on it.”

Then the Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job?There is no one on earth like him; he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil.”

“Does Job fear God for nothing?” Satan replied. 10 “Have you not put a hedge around him and his household and everything he has? You have blessed the work of his hands, so that his flocks and herds are spread throughout the land. 11 But now stretch out your hand and strike everything he has, and he will surely curse you to your face.”

12 The Lord said to Satan, “Very well, then, everything he has is in your power, but on the man himself do not lay a finger.”

Then Satan went out from the presence of the Lord.

13 One day when Job’s sons and daughters were feasting and drinking wine at the oldest brother’s house, 14 a messenger came to Job and said, “The oxen were plowing and the donkeys were grazing nearby, 15 and the Sabeans attacked and made off with them. They put the servants to the sword, and I am the only one who has escaped to tell you!”

16 While he was still speaking, another messenger came and said, “The fire of God fell from the heavens and burned up the sheep and the servants, and I am the only one who has escaped to tell you!”

17 While he was still speaking, another messenger came and said, “The Chaldeans formed three raiding parties and swept down on your camels and made off with them. They put the servants to the sword, and I am the only one who has escaped to tell you!”

18 While he was still speaking, yet another messenger came and said, “Your sons and daughters were feasting and drinking wine at the oldest brother’s house, 19 when suddenly a mighty wind swept in from the desert and struck the four corners of the house. It collapsed on them and they are dead, and I am the only one who has escaped to tell you!”

20 At this, Job got up and tore his robe and shaved his head. Then he fell to the ground in worship 21 and said:

“Naked I came from my mother’s womb,
    and naked I will depart.
The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away;
    may the name of the Lord be praised.”

22 In all this, Job did not sin by charging God with wrongdoing.

Today I’m going to discuss a new understanding of Satan that I reached after reading this chapter.  But first, I feel it’s necessary to explain where I come from, theologically, when discussing Heaven and Hell and the Devil.  I don’t have a fully formed notion of “heaven” and “hell,” if they exist at all, and who is going to end up in which place.  I came of age during the release of the “Left Behind” series, and for most of my teen years was terrified of the Rapture and what came afterwards and if I would be one of those left behind or not, and firmly believed there were those who were “saved” and those who were not.

Then, after sophomore year of college, a friend committed suicide.  He was open about his struggles with mental health, and I never knew him as anything but bright, kind, generous and loving.  Seriously, everyone loved him.  And I just couldn’t imagine that God would condemn him to eternal hell for his brain being sick.  If you think about the brain being an organ (which it is), condemning someone to hell for acting out of a mental illness is like condemning someone to hell for Chrons disease, or endometriosis.  I simply could not accept this hard and fast saved-not saved, heaven-hell duality.

Also, after having kids, and knowing how much I love them even when they are driving me insane-I mean literally have to put them in their beds and walk out of the house to cool down before I go back in-I can’t imagine a loving God rejecting any of us for forever. Yes, that includes people as terrible as Stalin and Hitler.  Sure, God might be angry at us, and might punish us, but condemn us to hell forever? I just don’t see how a parent could do that.  I pray I never get tested in this, but I can’t think of one thing that my daughters could do that would make me stop loving them.  I might be deeply wounded, horribly shamed, or incredibly angry, but those feelings would still be rooted in a place of love.  And if God is much more perfect than I, wouldn’t Xe love all Xyr children, too?

Finally, the idea that hell and the devil even exist seems counter-intuitive to the idea that there even is a omnipotent, loving, good and just God.  No one can deny there is suffering in this world, and I don’t believe all suffering is part of “God’s plan,” so does that mean I have to believe that God isn’t omnipotent, loving, good and just?  Does that mean I have to believe in hell and the devil?  It’s something I’ve wrestled with, and this chapter gave me another option, which I’m excited to share with you now.

Briefly, let’s take a look at a few ways the Bible designates Satan, starting with…well, Satan.  “Satan” is not a name, or at least, it didn’t start out that way.  “Satan” is a title, it means “accuser.”  The story of Job is an old one, possibly as old as 2000 BC, and in it, the Hebrew word for Satan is always preceded by the definite article. In other words, it reads “The Accuser,” so xe is kind of like a prosecuting attorney, presenting all the facts against us.  By 600 or 500 BC the article is dropped, and “Satan” becomes an actual name, but it started as a title. Second, we’ve already seen “serpent,” in the story of Adam and Eve.  Related to this description is “dragon,” which is used in Revelations. Both are often symbols and bringers of knowledge and wisdom, if not in Western cultures certainly so in other cultures.  Additionally, Lucifer literally means “morning star.”  So, it is a harbinger of the light of day, which, to me, sounds pretty positive.  Could it be another allusion to Satan being the bringer of knowledge, or of bringing things to light?

So, with this in mind, what if we’ve been viewing Satan the wrong way?  Not as an adversary to be overthrown, but more of a combined undercover cop-moral auditor?  Still not exactly someone you want to come up against, but also not an eternal tormentor.  My new thought, after reading this chapter, is that God created Satan as an impartial witness, one who can bring the truth to light, like the morning star, one who seeks knowledge over everything else.  When viewed this way, we can see why the serpent would encourage Eve to eat from the tree of knowledge – lacking more nuanced views of God’s design (including empathy and patience) the serpent saw a direct line to knowledge and wanted to go for it, and didn’t understand why it could possibly be off limits to anyone.  Seeing Satan as an impartial truth seeker also helps to reconcile how a God who is beneficent and loving and the source of all creation can exist side by side, indeed, create-a being like Satan who is not beneficent and loving.  I’m not saying that Satan is an extension or part of God like Jesus or the Holy Spirit is, but perhaps xe is, still, an agent of God: something God created to be apart from Xyr love of mankind and creation through which Xe could judge them fairly.

Would God have tested Job without Satan’s recommendation?  I don’t know.  Xe tested Abraham’s faith asking him to kill Isaac, so maybe it’s not outside the realm of possibility.  But seeing Satan as an agent of God, instead of an adversary of God, makes the stories more similar. In both, the faith of man is being tested through great hardship.  Why does our faith need to be tested in the first place?  I honestly don’t know, but perhaps it has something to do with growth.  All good parents want to see their kids grow, and God is nothing if not a good parent. These aren’t perfect correlations, but I think the following examples still fit: I make my kids do hard things on a regular basis.  Climbing up the ladder to the big girl slide all by themselves, sitting on the toilet, and, as babies, letting them cry it out to get back to sleep were all controlled situations where I stepped back and essentially asked more of them.  Sure, I could have helped them, but they wouldn’t have grown. Job’s test is far harder than most of us will be asked to pass, but God was watching over him the whole time.  Perhaps, when being tested by the devil, or Satan, or whatever you want to call xem, we are not being tormented by a demon but instead being encouraged to grow, to achieve new knowledge, and new spiritual insight, just as Job did.

This new view of Satan also makes failure a little easier to accept.  It took Marienne months to build up her confidence to go all the way up the ladder at the playground all by herself.  Potty-training is still a work in progress.  Do I condemn my daughters because they haven’t learned certain skills yet? Of course not.  Do I continue to get them to try? Of course I do, that’s the only way they’ll learn.  So perhaps we need to cut ourselves, and everyone around us, a little slack.  We’re all trying, let’s keep encouraging each other.  Satan may be setting up sting operations for us and pointing out our failures, and possibly we’re even punished for those failures (like when I put one of the girls in time out for scratching her sister-a favorite form of combat in our house). But even then, God is there rooting us on, watching us with pride as we learn and grow.

Genesis 16 – Sarai and Hagar

Protecting the patriarchy and male supremacy.

Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, had borne him no children. But she had an Egyptian slave named Hagar; so she said to Abram, “The Lord has kept me from having children. Go, sleep with my slave; perhaps I can build a family through her.”

Abram agreed to what Sarai said. So after Abram had been living in Canaan ten years, Sarai his wife took her Egyptian slave Hagar and gave her to her husband to be his wife. He slept with Hagar, and she conceived.

When she knew she was pregnant, she began to despise her mistress.Then Sarai said to Abram, “You are responsible for the wrong I am suffering. I put my slave in your arms, and now that she knows she is pregnant, she despises me. May the Lord judge between you and me.”

“Your slave is in your hands,” Abram said. “Do with her whatever you think best.” Then Sarai mistreated Hagar; so she fled from her.

The angel of the Lord found Hagar near a spring in the desert; it was the spring that is beside the road to Shur. And he said, “Hagar, slave of Sarai, where have you come from, and where are you going?”

“I’m running away from my mistress Sarai,” she answered.

Then the angel of the Lord told her, “Go back to your mistress and submit to her.” 10 The angel added, “I will increase your descendants so much that they will be too numerous to count.”

11 The angel of the Lord also said to her:

“You are now pregnant
    and you will give birth to a son.
You shall name him Ishmael,
    for the Lord has heard of your misery.
12 He will be a wild donkey of a man;
    his hand will be against everyone
    and everyone’s hand against him,
and he will live in hostility
    toward all his brothers.”

13 She gave this name to the Lord who spoke to her: “You are the God who sees me,” for she said, “I have now seen the One who sees me.”14 That is why the well was called Beer Lahai Roi; it is still there, between Kadesh and Bered.

15 So Hagar bore Abram a son, and Abram gave the name Ishmael to the son she had borne. 16 Abram was eighty-six years old when Hagar bore him Ishmael.

Volumes have been written on these two women. Volumes.  This older US News article provides a good summary of some of the major themes and subjects that continue to attract us to this story, some of which include the similarities between Hagar’s story and the female African-American experience during slavery, and the origin of Islamic and Judeo-Christian tensions.

Coming at it from a decidedly feminist-revisionist standpoint (yes, I can totally admit that bias), the most interesting theory I’ve read while researching this chapter is that the writer was just as concerned with propping up male superiority and the patriarchal system as he was with illuminating the divine supremacy of God.  Again, according to the US News article, by illustrating that God, then considered male, has the ability to control female fertility, the author has established male superiority over the very female power of child-bearing.

I don’t want to come across as cynical, but I do wonder how much of this story was written to make Abram look good at the expense of Sarai and Hagar.  There are many examples of polygamy in the Old Testament, but it’s generally accepted that the belief was polygamy was not meant to be the moral ideal – remember Lamech lusting after both Adah and Zillah?  Sarai offering Hagar to Abram is reminiscent of Eve offering Adam the apple.  Here is something tempting (a young girl, a delicious fruit) that will bring about something desired (an heir, knowledge) that the weaker woman (Sarai, Eve) offers to the apparently blameless or at the very least coerced man (Abram, Adam).  As to this male inculpability, Abram is often depicted in art history with his hand extended palm up while Sarai brings him Hagar, a symbol of rejecting responsibility or designating innocence.  But he still sleeps with Hagar…so how is he innocent of impatience and faithlessness while Sarai is guilty of being so? I just have a hard time holding only Sarai responsible for deciding Abram better sleep with Hagar, especially if so many other parts of this story are written to reinforce male dominance.  I can’t imagine the anguish Sarai was going through experiencing infertility for so long, especially in a time when fertility was kind of your defining trait as a woman.  That just doesn’t seem like the mindset that would arrive at a decision of “oh, yes, let this other beautiful, fertile woman sleep with my husband instead.”  I don’t believe Sarai was blameless, because that would be reductive in the other direction, but I do think she’s been given too much of the blame.

Also, if Abram was (at least partially) more responsible for deciding to sleep with Hagar than the writing of this story would lead us to believe, it would help explain the animosity between these two women a little more, and why Sarai mistreated the pregnant Hagar (16:6) and why in a few chapters she is insistent upon Hagar and Ismael being sent into the desert.

Really, the more I write about it the sadder I become.  They both became mothers of nations, but how fraught both these women’s lives were.  Hagar literally needs an angel to lift her out of her despair in this chapter.  It sounds like Sarai has reached a breaking point, herself.  The only thing I can say is – Ladies, let it be a reminder that we need to work cooperatively.  Gentlemen (and everyone else!) you can totally get in on this, too.  Let us not be jealous of each other’s successes, or gloat over each other’s short-comings.  Let us work to uplift each other.  We have generations of embedded male superiority to overcome still, as was made abundantly clear by the recent Bret Kavanaugh/Christine Blasey Ford Senate hearings, MeToo movement, and other news stories of the past year.

So yes, maybe I am a little sad and a little cynical this morning.  But I’m going to channel that anger into productive change in Jesus’ name, and I hope you will, too.  A quick Google search of “how to empower women” or “how to promote gender equality” comes back with some great ideas.  Below, in no particular order, are a few of my favorite, and I hope you’ll be moved to participate in some of them:

  1. Support New Moms – This can be anything from locally to globally.  The wonderful ladies at my church in Charlottesville set up a meal train for me when Betty was born, and I didn’t have to cook for a month.  It. Was. Amazing.  Reach out to moms of newborns, if they are in your community.  You can also support moms in developing countries through programs like the White Ribbon Alliance and the International Women’s Health Coalition, among others.
  2. Support Female Entrepreneurs – shop female-owned businesses, mentor female entrepreneurs and would-be entrepreneurs, or just provide encouragement and positivity to women and girls with an entrepreneurial spirit.
  3. Encourage young girls in school, particularly in STEM programs – girls are super smart, but we’re not always taught to value that.  Mentoring a girl you know, or one through a program like Big Brothers, Big Sisters goes a long way towards building a girl’s confidence to do well in school.  Additionally, you can support female education worldwide through organizations like the Campaign for Female Education.
  4. Speak up – speak up when you see sexism at work.  Speak up for the rights of other gender minorities (aka trans or non-binary peoples), because we are stronger together.  Speak with your vote and elect female candidates and candidates that are committed to furthering gender equality.
  5. Keep talking.  I’d love to hear some other ways you all have supported the women in your lives (or how someone has supported you) – whether it’s an anecdotal story of person-to-person support, or an organization you think is doing good work, or whatever!  I look forward to hearing them.