Today in OT, we were talking about the Book of Job. If it’s been awhile since you’ve read Job, or if you’ve never really studied it, here’s the deal: There are two sections. The first is prose, and forms the framework of the story: God is hanging out in the sky and ha-satan (the satan, with a small “s”) comes strolling through, and Yahweh’s all, What’s shaking? And the satan says Not much, just out roaming the Earth and God says, Have you heard of my man Job? He’s upright and blameless. This peaks the satan’s interest, and he says to Yahweh, Job only likes you because he has a great life; take away all that stuff and he will curse you. And Yahweh is all, Nah, I don’t think so. He’s cool, and satan says, Wanna bet? And God shrugs and says Sure, why not.
The satan (‘prosecutor’ or ‘adversary’) then begins to visit numerous calamities on Job: killing his livestock, his seven children, and then — because that’s not enough — giving Job head to toe boils on his skin. Job’s wife helpfully suggests that he should go ahead and die (she’s just lost her 7 children and her husband is sitting in the dust scraping his body with a piece of pottery, so we can’t really expect Mrs. Job to be chipper and supportive just then), but Job says that wouldn’t be right, and falls down and worships God instead.
So Job is sitting there, mourning his children and sheep and oxen and scraping his boils, when his so-called friends come along. They’re kind of jackasses. They sit quietly with Job for seven days, which is nice, but then they lay into him, and start wondering exactly what he’s done to earn such over-the-top punishment from God, ’cause he must have done something. Job is mystified; he’s tried really hard to be a good guy, and he can’t think of what he’s done wrong.
Obviously, this prose framework is ridiculous, but its absurdity serves a purpose: for the original audience, it would have been easily understood as a story (not fact) because (a) that’s not how the God of Israel acts, and (b) no one is actually sinless. The framing story sets the scene for the friends to begin espousing the Deuteronomic point of view, that punishment follows sin and blessings follow right living, and their questions all stem from that point of view – and the assumption that Job must have done something really bad.
Here comes the good part: the poetic insert. Nestled in the framework of the prose, which probably was a pre-existing story in the ancient world (the old gods were fickle and played silly games, so gambling with someone’s life could very well have been a common plot) is a beautiful poetic section, in which Job and God have a back and forth. Some of the most gorgeous imagery is found in this section, as God asks Job question after question in response to Job repeatedly expressing the wish to be able to defend himself against God. Here’s an excerpt from 38:4-11; see what you think:
“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements—surely you know!
Or who stretched the line upon it?
On what were its bases sunk,
or who laid its cornerstone
when the morning stars sang together
and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?
“Or who shut in the sea with doors
when it burst out from the womb?—
when I made the clouds its garment,
and thick darkness its swaddling band,
and prescribed bounds for it,
and set bars and doors,
and said, ‘Thus far shall you come, and no farther,
and here shall your proud waves be stopped’?
That’s good stuff, right? And during this back and forth, God quotes Job and Job quotes God quoting Job, and there is a whole lot of listening going on — the point of which is that God actually has been paying attention all along!
God gets pissed at Job’s so-called friends for blaming Job and assuming that they know why God does what he does, and then it gets tricky. The NRSV says, in 42:6, that Job, who’s had this banter with God that has reiterated the awesome power and might of God AND the fact that God hears Job in his sorrow and actually cares about him, says: “therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.” But the Hebrew doesn’t say that. The beginning of the sentence is “Therefore I give way” (as in yield, melt away) and then the verb isn’t “shoov,” which means to turn back or repent, it is “naham,” the passive form of “to comfort.” Job is not saying he repents in dust and ashes, but rather yields and is comforted in dust and ashes. (It’s the same word translated as ‘comforted’ five verses later, in 46:11). Tradition has passed this on to us as “repent” because that’s what later Scripture tells us we need to do, but that’s not what the text says.
What could that mean, to be ‘comforted in dust and ashes?’ Well, back in Genesis 18:27, Abraham, who’s just finished going back and forth with God about the number of righteous it will take to make God spare the people of Sodom and Gomorrah, says, ““Let me take it upon myself to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes.” Perhaps Job is recalling his connection to Abraham (father of his people, after all) and indicating to God that he has understood the point of all of those rhetorical questions about creation — that Job is just a mortal man, but still, God concerns himself with Job! This would fit with the point of the story: not that God is a jerk who likes to hammer people with questions they can’t possibly answer, but that — as mighty as he is — God concerns himself with each and every one of us, and is in fact with us in our suffering.
I’ll let you ponder that for awhile, and tell you something funny that happened in OT. We were talking about Job, and my professor was making the point that the framing story, which is much like a parable, would have been understood by the original audience as not how things actually happen — God and the satan don’t actually gamble with your life!
And I looked at my professor and said, joking, “Sometimes it sure feels like it, though,” and she laughed and said, “Maybe you are a character in someone’s parable.”
…. And if that’s not the perfect summation for hard times, when we feel that we are pawns in an arbitrary game of fate, then I don’t know what is.
So the next time you’re feeling like a character in someone’s parable, just remember: as long as you’re not sitting in the dust scraping your skin with potsherds, you’ve got it better than Job!
*If you haven’t checked out The Brick Testament yet, particularly the Holiness Code of Leviticus (look for the section called The Law), please do — it’s hilarious!