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 05 – Virtue Signalling with Eliphaz

Go through life like a dog: If you can’t eat it or play with it, just pee on it and walk away.

“Call if you will, but who will answer you?
    To which of the holy ones will you turn?
Resentment kills a fool,
    and envy slays the simple.
I myself have seen a fool taking root,
    but suddenly his house was cursed.
His children are far from safety,
    crushed in court without a defender.
The hungry consume his harvest,
    taking it even from among thorns,
    and the thirsty pant after his wealth.
For hardship does not spring from the soil,
    nor does trouble sprout from the ground.
Yet man is born to trouble
    as surely as sparks fly upward.

“But if I were you, I would appeal to God;
    I would lay my cause before him.
He performs wonders that cannot be fathomed,
    miracles that cannot be counted.
10 He provides rain for the earth;
    he sends water on the countryside.
11 The lowly he sets on high,
    and those who mourn are lifted to safety.
12 He thwarts the plans of the crafty,
    so that their hands achieve no success.
13 He catches the wise in their craftiness,
    and the schemes of the wily are swept away.
14 Darkness comes upon them in the daytime;
    at noon they grope as in the night.
15 He saves the needy from the sword in their mouth;
    he saves them from the clutches of the powerful.
16 So the poor have hope,
    and injustice shuts its mouth.

17 “Blessed is the one whom God corrects;
    so do not despise the discipline of the Almighty.[a]
18 For he wounds, but he also binds up;
    he injures, but his hands also heal.
19 From six calamities he will rescue you;
    in seven no harm will touch you.
20 In famine he will deliver you from death,
    and in battle from the stroke of the sword.
21 You will be protected from the lash of the tongue,
    and need not fear when destruction comes.
22 You will laugh at destruction and famine,
    and need not fear the wild animals.
23 For you will have a covenant with the stones of the field,
    and the wild animals will be at peace with you.
24 You will know that your tent is secure;
    you will take stock of your property and find nothing missing.
25 You will know that your children will be many,
    and your descendants like the grass of the earth.
26 You will come to the grave in full vigor,
    like sheaves gathered in season.

27 “We have examined this, and it is true.
    So hear it and apply it to yourself.”

It looks like there’s a lot of wisdom here, right? As my NIV text notes so wonderfully put it, “The problem is not so much with what the friends knew but with what they did not know.”   Poor Eliphaz is being made to look quite the pompous fool, a little reminiscent of Hamlet’s Polonius.  Polonius is the character with the famous one-liner “to thine own self be true,” which is, indeed, great advice.  He’s also a scheming, overbearing windbag and generally crap father.  Basically, Polonius was virtue signalling, and Eliphaz is kind of doing the same thing.

What I love about this passage though is that Eliphaz doesn’t even know how right he is.  God will indeed save Job from seven calamities (a figurative number just meaning “a lot” not necessarily seven exactly), his property and health will be restored, and his children will, indeed, be many.  Even his parables are spot on without realizing it.  Eliphaz talks about his a fool’s children being “crushed in court without a defender.”  (v. 4)  Well, with Satan as “the Accuser” in the heavenly court, that is basically what happened to Job’s children.  The only difference is that Job isn’t a fool, and has God as his defender.  And through all his long laments in this chapter, Job is “laying his cause before Him,” as Eliphaz counsels him to in v. 8.  If Eliphaz weren’t so busy pontificating then maybe he could see that Job is already doing exactly what he said to do.

One of my favorite pieces of advice I’ve received from my MIL is, “go through life like a dog: if you can’t eat it or play with it, just pee on it and walk away.”  It’s silly on the surface, but good advice at it’s core – kind of the opposite of Eliphaz self-righteous “if it were I” talk of this first speech.  And that, I think, it what we can learn from this little Biblical episode:  We are going to come across trying people.  But, as Max Ehrmann’s Desiderata says, “even the dull and ignorant, they too have their stories.”  Let us glean what truths and good we can from people, even if we aren’t in full agreement with them.  I know it’s not always easy, but we don’t have to take their foolishness to heart.  In fact, in the next chapter Job is about to call Eliphaz out on his bullshit.  So yes, listen to what people have to say, but then weigh it against your own life, your own conscious; talk it over with God.  If it doesn’t hold water, then leave it.  You’ll be better off.

Job 04 – Things Get Complicated

Then Eliphaz the Temanite replied:

“If someone ventures a word with you, will you be impatient?
    But who can keep from speaking?
Think how you have instructed many,
    how you have strengthened feeble hands.
Your words have supported those who stumbled;
    you have strengthened faltering knees.
But now trouble comes to you, and you are discouraged;
    it strikes you, and you are dismayed.
Should not your piety be your confidence
    and your blameless ways your hope?

“Consider now: Who, being innocent, has ever perished?
    Where were the upright ever destroyed?
As I have observed, those who plow evil
    and those who sow trouble reap it.
At the breath of God they perish;
    at the blast of his anger they are no more.
10 The lions may roar and growl,
    yet the teeth of the great lions are broken.
11 The lion perishes for lack of prey,
    and the cubs of the lioness are scattered.

12 “A word was secretly brought to me,
    my ears caught a whisper of it.
13 Amid disquieting dreams in the night,
    when deep sleep falls on people,
14 fear and trembling seized me
    and made all my bones shake.
15 A spirit glided past my face,
    and the hair on my body stood on end.
16 It stopped,
    but I could not tell what it was.
A form stood before my eyes,
    and I heard a hushed voice:
17 ‘Can a mortal be more righteous than God?
    Can even a strong man be more pure than his Maker?
18 If God places no trust in his servants,
    if he charges his angels with error,
19 how much more those who live in houses of clay,
    whose foundations are in the dust,
    who are crushed more readily than a moth!
20 Between dawn and dusk they are broken to pieces;
    unnoticed, they perish forever.
21 Are not the cords of their tent pulled up,
    so that they die without wisdom?’

I have a feeling that I may have alternating short and long blog posts through the book of Job, as some of Job and his friends’ speeches last for more than one chapter – example A right here. Eliphaz only speaks the first part of his speech in this chapter, the rest comes in chapter five, which I will read for Sunday, and hopefully will have a better grasp of this first exchange.  But, I can share a few interesting things I’ve learned in reading and reading about this text so far:

Remember how I said that Job is apparently very hard to translate?  Well, we’re getting into that here.  One article I found on Jstor focuses, for ten pages, solely on the opening question of 4:2: “If someone ventures a word with you, will you be impatient? But who can keep from speaking?”  In the original text, this sentence is grammatical gibberish, stretching even the artifice of poetry in its composition.  Or at least, so I am told, I definitely don’t read Hebrew.  Depending upon your interpretation, Eliphaz is either trying to gently moderate the tone of the conversation to follow, being solicitous as possible of a suffering Job and reminding Bildad and Zophar to do the same; or, Eliphaz is saying he is simply unable to keep from speaking anymore, and can’t help but disregard Job’s weariness in order to share his own counsel.  Depending how we interpret it really changes how we view Eliphaz and his character, wouldn’t you agree? (All of this from “A Friend’s First Words in Job 4:2” by Aron Pinker in the 2013 edition of Vetus Testamentum.)

Then there is the tantalizing passage of Eliphaz’s vision, in vv. 12-21.  At first blush it looks like a vision from God, but after pondering it for a moment I thought perhaps it was a false vision sent by Satan to help ensure Job’s friends would provide false or unhelpful counsel.  But then, Jstor threw even another possibility out:  Eliphaz may not have had the vision at all, but it quoting a vision of Job’s.  We already know that Job can get no rest, but later we learn more specifically he has been having nightmares and visions.  The break between chapter 4, which ends with this vision, and chapter 5, which starts with Eliphaz asking, “Call if you will, but who will answer you? To which of the holy ones will you turn?” (Job 5:1), leads some to believe that vv. 4:12-21 are Eliphaz quoting Job’s vision back at him. With difficulties in translations and apparently several different ways for ancient Hebrew to render quotations, this vision not even belonging ot Eliphaz is a possibility.  (all of this from “Job IV 12-21: Is It Eliphaz’s Vision?” by Gary Smith, in the 1990 edition of Vetus Testamentum – can you tell that’s my favorite OT study guide yet???)

Finally, the Book of Job is a very “self-aware” text, if you will – or it plays to the audience.  Again, I’m jumping ahead for the best example:  Eliphaz says to Job in 15:8, “Do you listen to God’s council?”  Of course Job hasn’t, but if this were a Shakespeare play the actor playing Eliphaz would at least wink at the audience, if not turn fully towards them to address this question.  I’m working my way through a fascinating essay about Job, about it’s use of dramatic irony (see the above example), and double-edged words.  (“Whose Job is this? Dramatic Irony and Double Entendre” by Naphtali Meshel, from the collection Book of Job: Aesthetics, Ethics, and Hermeneutics published in 2015, also available on Jstor, in case you want to read it, too).  In 4:6 we see one of the first uses of double entendre in the phrase “your hope.”  Again, I’m no Hebrew scholar, but Meshel says that the word here used for “hope” is also translated as “folly” in other parts of the OT.  So, Eliphaz can be saying “your piety is your hope” OR “your piety is your folly.”  

As you can see, my studies of Job just got a whole lot murkier.  My Sunday-school understanding of Job was “God tested Job, Job was patient and was rewarded.”  But there is so much more here!  It can be a little overwhelming, but I, for one, am glad that Job can’t be reduced to “God is good and the good are always rewarded.”  I wholeheartedly believe God is good, but to ignore the bad things in life, or even to ignore that life is complicated, like the book of Job, is an act of unhealthy denial.  I am excited to see what more I can learn in the second half of Eliphaz’s speech, and I hope you’ll continue reading with me on Sunday.