Job 14 – Truths vs. Greater Truths

Seeing the forest through the trees.

“Mortals, born of woman,
    are of few days and full of trouble.
They spring up like flowers and wither away;
    like fleeting shadows, they do not endure.
Do you fix your eye on them?
    Will you bring them before you for judgment?
Who can bring what is pure from the impure?
    No one!
A person’s days are determined;
    you have decreed the number of his months
    and have set limits he cannot exceed.
So look away from him and let him alone,
    till he has put in his time like a hired laborer.

“At least there is hope for a tree:
    If it is cut down, it will sprout again,
    and its new shoots will not fail.
Its roots may grow old in the ground
    and its stump die in the soil,
yet at the scent of water it will bud
    and put forth shoots like a plant.
10 But a man dies and is laid low;
    he breathes his last and is no more.
11 As the water of a lake dries up
    or a riverbed becomes parched and dry,
12 so he lies down and does not rise;
    till the heavens are no more, people will not awake
    or be roused from their sleep.

13 “If only you would hide me in the grave
    and conceal me till your anger has passed!
If only you would set me a time
    and then remember me!
14 If someone dies, will they live again?
    All the days of my hard service
    I will wait for my renewal to come.
15 You will call and I will answer you;
    you will long for the creature your hands have made.
16 Surely then you will count my steps
    but not keep track of my sin.
17 My offenses will be sealed up in a bag;
    you will cover over my sin.

18 “But as a mountain erodes and crumbles
    and as a rock is moved from its place,
19 as water wears away stones
    and torrents wash away the soil,
    so you destroy a person’s hope.
20 You overpower them once for all, and they are gone;
    you change their countenance and send them away.
21 If their children are honored, they do not know it;
    if their offspring are brought low, they do not see it.
22 They feel but the pain of their own bodies
    and mourn only for themselves.”

There are some who think v. 12-14 are at the very least innocently mistranslated, but possibly even changed completely and intentionally, to more fully support the idea of resurrection.  Indeed, I got excited when I read that passage – “I will wait for my renewal to come.”  Isn’t that what we’re taught, as Christians, to wait for?  I mean, the return of Jesus is the renewal this whole Christian “thing” is all about, right?

So let’s say that this passage has been manipulated.  I can totally believe that: before they were codified into a collection we now call “the Bible,” these stories (especially a really old one like Job) were oral traditions that were retold and later written down in a centuries-long game of telephone, if you will, so things were bound to change, at least a little.  But does that mean we should totally scrap it?

In short, no.  But this is a good time to plug in a little reminder about reading the Bible in context, which can be easy to forget, especially in a project like this with a laser focus on one chapter at a time.  Is it true that the key passage of this chapter has been manipulated to fit an agenda?  Quite possibly yes.  But how does it, and this chapter at large, fit into the greater truths the Bible is trying to convey to us?

Taken as a whole, this chapter – and most of Job’s three-chapter speech here – aren’t really about renewal and allusions to resurrection, but about God’s infinite power and the insignificance of humans in the face of such an almighty force.  I think two verses from chapter 12 could serve as Job’s thesis in this three-chapter speech: “To God belong wisdom and power, counsel and understanding are his…to him belong strength and victory, both deceived and deceiver are his.” (13:13, 16)  So, even ignoring the potentially problematic passage, we have our first greater truth: God is great.

The second greater truth takes a little inference, but I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch.  The second greater truth is that even though we are “like a fleeting shadow” in our mortality, we are important to God, God sees us.  In this chapter alone Job mentions God watching man three times: in vv. 3, 6, and 16.  In all of Job’s the chapters making up Job’s speeches so far, God watching man is mentioned nine, possibly ten times (in v. 7:8 he could be referring to his friends or to God when he says “you will look for me but I will be no more”).  True, it is mostly in a negative sense, more like a kid with a magnifying glass over an anthill than a beneficent Lord, but we must remember the place of pain and lack of understanding from which Job is speaking.  In fact, because of his suffering Job is extra important to God.  Remember, the cause of all this suffering was a wager between God and Satan – so Job’s actions through his suffering are of keen interest to the celestial court of this story, even if Job’s days are just as fleeting as the rest of ours.

So if God is great (Greater Truth One), why are we important to God (Greater Truth Two)?  I honestly don’t know.  But perhaps the key to that mystery lies in the Greatest Truth: that God is love.  We may not understand all of God’s ways, but even with all the suffering we see in Job, all the suffering we see in the world, we can know that we, our insignificant, flawed, mortal, fleeting selves, are important to a power much greater than our own.  God is watching us, all the time.  Xe sees our successes, and rejoices with us, Xe sees our failures, and mourns with us.  One, or even hundreds, of controversial translations in the Bible cannot dissuade me from that fact, because I can see the forest through the trees, or in this case the truth through the words, and it bears repeating one more time: God loves us. God loves you.  Praise be to God.

***

I’m going to switch gears here because we’ve reached a good stopping point in the cycle of speeches between Job and his friends. I’m setting aside the Book of Job until next Lent and reading Psalm 6 and Psalm 32 in the remaining time before Holy Week, which starts a week from today.  During Holy Week I’ll read corresponding Gospel passages, specifically Matthew 21, 26, and 27.  Then for Easter I’ll read Matthew 28, if you want are reading along (or ahead) as we go.

Job 11 – The Endurance of Job

Job really isn’t very patient, but he does endure.

Then Zophar the Naamathite replied:

“Are all these words to go unanswered?
    Is this talker to be vindicated?
Will your idle talk reduce others to silence?
    Will no one rebuke you when you mock?
You say to God, ‘My beliefs are flawless
    and I am pure in your sight.’
Oh, how I wish that God would speak,
    that he would open his lips against you
and disclose to you the secrets of wisdom,
    for true wisdom has two sides.
    Know this: God has even forgotten some of your sin.

“Can you fathom the mysteries of God?
    Can you probe the limits of the Almighty?
They are higher than the heavens above—what can you do?
    They are deeper than the depths below—what can you know?
Their measure is longer than the earth
    and wider than the sea.

10 “If he comes along and confines you in prison
    and convenes a court, who can oppose him?
11 Surely he recognizes deceivers;
    and when he sees evil, does he not take note?
12 But the witless can no more become wise
    than a wild donkey’s colt can be born human.

13 “Yet if you devote your heart to him
    and stretch out your hands to him,
14 if you put away the sin that is in your hand
    and allow no evil to dwell in your tent,
15 then, free of fault, you will lift up your face;
    you will stand firm and without fear.
16 You will surely forget your trouble,
    recalling it only as waters gone by.
17 Life will be brighter than noonday,
    and darkness will become like morning.
18 You will be secure, because there is hope;
    you will look about you and take your rest in safety.
19 You will lie down, with no one to make you afraid,
    and many will court your favor.
20 But the eyes of the wicked will fail,
    and escape will elude them;
    their hope will become a dying gasp.”

The more I read Job (and read about Job), the less I think it is about theodicy – the justice of God existing alongside the existence of evil – and more about endurance of faith.  I think this seed was planted long ago.  The same pastor I mentioned two posts back also told me she thought that “the patience of Job” should really be “the endurance of Job,” because he really isn’t very patient with his loud complaints and bitter responses to his friends, but he does endure through his whole ordeal.

Then, a week or so ago, I was perusing through online writings on Job. I’m sorry I can’t remember if it was on Instagram with the hashtag #bookofJob, or a blog article, or what because I’d really love to link to it and give the author credit (to that person: if you find me, holler!), but the thrust of their message was, Job’s suffering was all worth it because it meant (spoiler alert) he got to meet God.  Yes, he gets his stuff and family and everything back, too, but even more than the worldly goods his faith is rewarded by the presence of God.  So, is Job’s test more of a quest, almost like a knight? Job didn’t get to pick his quest quite like a knight does, but just like a King Arthur style tale, he is tried and tested and faces hardship but wins a glorious prize for his endurance in the end.

Finally, earlier this week, I came across an article in my favorite academic journal, Vetus Testamentum. In it, author Andrew E. Steinmann argues that the central theme of Job is not theodicy, but rather Job’s “struggle to maintain his integrity and his battle to hang onto his trust in God, rather than the problem of his suffering.”  Steinmann goes on to argue that the theme of theodicy is secondary and the only safe conclusion we can draw, again to quote the author, is that “theodicy is an irrelevant exercise for human beings.  They cannot explain God’s actions because they do not have access to God’s wisdom in the heavenly court. They can only dangerously attempt deductions that are as unreliable as the deductions made by Job’s friends.” (All this from “The Structure and Message of the Book of Job, Andrew E. Steinmann, Vol. 46 Fasc. 1 of Vetus Testamentum, Jan. 1996)

Following this theme of the endurance of Job, or the endurance of the faith of Job, we can see his friends test him with their false piety, impatience and indignation.  This speech of Zophar’s is the most impatient and indignant yet.  Add his wife to the mix when she says “curse God and die,” (2:9) and we have temptation (it’s a morbid desire, but still, Job desires the grave above all else at this point – and his wife is saying he will die if he just curses God).  So Job’s faith is tried in every manner: loss, suffering, trying attitudes, and temptation.  But he endures, his faith endures.

I find this a much more satisfying explanation of the book of Job than one based solely on theodicy, exactly because there is suffering in the world.  The truth is, we don’t know why God allows suffering.  But that doesn’t mean Xe doesn’t love us, it just means we lack a full comprehension of God. I think I’ve used this analogy before: but it helps me to think of it like kids on the playground.  When I take my girls to the playground, I am watching over them, helping them.  But even under careful guidance, they occasionally hurt themselves.  It’s not that I don’t care about them, it’s just part of growing up, learning their abilities, and striving for the next monkey bar.  I patch up their boo-boos, give them hugs and kisses, and send them back out there.  If Earth is our proverbial playground, could God be doing the same for us?  Watching over us, maybe even letting us make some mistakes, in the hopes that we are growing, not just individually, but collectively? I like to think so.  I know I’ve mentioned this before (maybe multiple times), but my all-time favorite church sign is “God didn’t promise a smooth ride, but rather a soft landing.”  This encapsulates what I think is the most important takeaway from Job:  That all of life is a quest, just like Job’s suffering was.  It is a quest of faith, a battle of endurance in which we must hold fast to God.  We may get scraped up from time to time, but that doesn’t mean we should abandon our faith.  Stay faithful, and the reward is everlasting peace in the life to come.

Job 10 – Remembering Lent

Rededicating ourselves to God.

“I loathe my very life;
    therefore I will give free rein to my complaint
    and speak out in the bitterness of my soul.
I say to God: Do not declare me guilty,
    but tell me what charges you have against me.
Does it please you to oppress me,
    to spurn the work of your hands,
    while you smile on the plans of the wicked?
Do you have eyes of flesh?
    Do you see as a mortal sees?
Are your days like those of a mortal
    or your years like those of a strong man,
that you must search out my faults
    and probe after my sin—
though you know that I am not guilty
    and that no one can rescue me from your hand?

“Your hands shaped me and made me.
    Will you now turn and destroy me?
Remember that you molded me like clay.
    Will you now turn me to dust again?
10 Did you not pour me out like milk
    and curdle me like cheese,
11 clothe me with skin and flesh
    and knit me together with bones and sinews?
12 You gave me life and showed me kindness,
    and in your providence watched over my spirit.

13 “But this is what you concealed in your heart,
    and I know that this was in your mind:
14 If I sinned, you would be watching me
    and would not let my offense go unpunished.
15 If I am guilty—woe to me!
    Even if I am innocent, I cannot lift my head,
for I am full of shame
    and drowned in my affliction.
16 If I hold my head high, you stalk me like a lion
    and again display your awesome power against me.
17 You bring new witnesses against me
    and increase your anger toward me;
    your forces come against me wave upon wave.

18 “Why then did you bring me out of the womb?
    I wish I had died before any eye saw me.
19 If only I had never come into being,
    or had been carried straight from the womb to the grave!
20 Are not my few days almost over?
    Turn away from me so I can have a moment’s joy
21 before I go to the place of no return,
    to the land of gloom and utter darkness,
22 to the land of deepest night,
    of utter darkness and disorder,
    where even the light is like darkness.”

I’ve gotten a little side-tracked by some sub-themes in the readings these past few weeks and want to re-focus on the fact that we are still in Lent, since we’re about halfway through it.  Lent is a time we remember Jesus’ temptation in the desert, and prepare ourselves for his return on Easter.  I think calling out injustices, celebrating nature, and reaching out to those in mourning are all things he would want us to do, so the past few weeks worth of blog posts aren’t wasted, I just wanted to take the time to really focus on Lent itself again.

“If I am guilty–woe to me!” verse 15 declares, “Even if I am innocent, I cannot lift my head, for I am full of shame and drowned in my affliction.”  I am not a fan of needless guilt – I think it is bad for our mental health and can prevent us from getting out there and doing some real good – but this passage does invite us to marvel at the omniscient and omnipotent nature of God.  God is always watching, is ever present.  Poor Job is speaking out in pain, but there is truth when he says that God could always “bring new witnesses against [him]” (v. 16).  He even asks God to “turn away from [him] so [he] can have a moment’s joy,” (v. 20) realizing that even in the depths of his misery God is watching.

I got to go the Ash Wednesday service kid-free, which meant I actually got to listen to the sermon for once, and the Pastor asked – “if you knew Jesus was coming tonight, what would you do to prepare?”  It’s an interesting question.  In all honesty my first thought was clean the house and make some cookies.  But beyond that, it brings the reality that God is always watching, is ever present, into a more concrete reference.  There are definitely some moments where I wish God had maybe looked away and not noticed my petty gossip, losing my cool with the girls, or all the single-use containers I still buy.  But that is the beautiful thing about Lent: we know Jesus is coming, in reality we do not know the day or hour, but symbolically he will return on Easter, and we can prepare ourselves for him.

So how do we do that?  Giving up something is a nod to Jesus’ temptation in the desert, and if that helps you focus more on Jesus, then great, do it!  Dawn Hutchings, a Lutheran pastor whose blog I follow, has an interesting idea of Giving up God for Lent.  I know, it sounds a little out there, and maybe it is for some people, but the idea is to give up the idol of God and surrender to the spirit of God – I definitely suggest reading it.  But preparing for Jesus can be lots of things beyond giving up something. I took on reading Job as my Lenten practice because I never liked the book, and thought that would be an appropriate practice of spiritual rigor.  I’m happy to say that I’ve gained a new appreciation for the book of Job, and I hope that the gratitude and openness of spirit it has brought me is an appropriate preparation for Jesus.  And all that leaves is to re-dedicate ourselves to God: confessing our sins, or, if “sin” is too much of a trigger word, confessing our shortcomings and vowing to try harder.  That’s all we need to do.  Though I have to admit, if Jesus was coming tonight, I’d probably still try to clean the house.