Sermon for Williamstown Uniting Church
7th of October, 2018
Job 1:1 – 2:10
After spending the month of September making our slow way through the Letter of James, in October we’re going to go to the other end of the biblical canon and spend some time with the Book of Job. We might not be certain whether the Letter of James was actually written by Jesus’ brother James the Righteous, but we have some certainty about when, where, why and to whom it was written. We know none of those things about the Book of Job. We don’t know where it was written. We don’t know who wrote it. Commentators narrow its date to sometime between the seventh and the fourth centuries BC. We are fairly sure that Job is not intended to be a real person; the opening and closing parts of the book may be based on a traditional folk tale. What we can be certain of is that this is an absolutely amazing book and I hope that over the next four weeks you take the time to read all of it. I’ll let the scholars at the University of Nottingham introduce it.
In today’s reading the scene is set. I want to make a couple of points. The first is that at this time Satan is not ‘the devil’ and Satan is not a name. The character in Hebrew is ha-satan, which means ‘the adversary’ or ‘the accuser’. Basically, the satan is the prosecutor in God’s court, a servant of God, who can only torment Job because God allows it. The Book of Job addresses the question of why human suffering happens, and there’s no suggestion that it happens because there is an equal and opposite power to God. Christianity doesn’t believe this either, it’s not a dualistic religion with good and evil balanced, but there are some forms of Christianity that see evil as so powerful that they come close to it – ‘the devil made me do it’ type of religion. One thing that the Book of Job is very clear about is that ha-satan alone can’t make anyone do anything.
The other point I want to make is that Job’s wife is a hero. She might not seem heroic; she only gets two sentences: ‘Do you still persist in your integrity? Curse God and die,’ and Job rebukes her for it. But think of the context! One of the commentators I read this week, F. Rachel Magdalene, says that what is happening to Job is torture. Everything he has and everything he is, is being destroyed. He loses his wealth. He loses his household. He loses his children. He loses his health. Interestingly, after the first series of losses we’re told that, ‘In all this Job did not sin or charge God with wrongdoing’. After Job is inflicted with loathsome sores we’re only told that, ‘Job did not sin with his lips’. Maybe he ‘sinned’ internally by charging God with wrongdoing in his thoughts.
The aim of torture, Magdalene writes, is for the person being tortured to lose their understanding of the world, and replace it with the torturer’s understanding. If you’ve ever read George Orwell’s 1984, which I haven’t for over thirty years, you will remember the last paragraph, after the protagonist has been tortured to the point that he begs the torturers to hurt his girlfriend instead. The book ends:
He gazed up at the enormous face. Forty years it had taken him to learn what kind of smile was hidden beneath the dark moustache. O cruel, needless misunderstanding! O stubborn, self-willed exile from the loving breast! Two gin-scented tears trickled down the sides of his nose. But it was all right, everything was all right, the struggle was finished. He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother.
That still haunts me, and is the reason I only read the book once.
The aim of torturers is to get the tortured to love Big Brother. In the case of the Book of Job, that would mean Job accepting that his torture is legitimate punishment; that he has sinned and God is appropriately reproving and disciplining him. As we’ll see, Job does not reach that point. But in the introduction that we hear today Job comes close to it when he says, ‘Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return there; the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord,’ and ‘Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?’
Job’s wife’s ‘Curse God, and die’ suggests one form of resistance to torture – martyrdom. Rather than accepting the worldview of the torturer, the person being tortured can refuse to live in the torturer’s world and die. If accepting that God is right to punish Job is giving in to the satan’s torture, then cursing God and dying, as Job’s wife suggests, is a form of resistance.
Job doesn’t accept his wife’s suggestion. But over the next three weeks we will see Job enacting another form of resistance to his mistreatment. He not merely complains; his complaints form a civil legal suit against God. God is punishing him without reason; Job demands that God answer for it. It’s the Amnesty International option. And luckily, because God is a somewhat reasonable torturer, it works. That’s where the metaphor breaks down, because in the Book of Job God is both in charge of the torturer and the judge of the court to which Job appeals, both Augusto Pinochet and the International Criminal Court. But the important thing is that Job resists. Despite what he ways to his wife in today’s reading, ‘Shall we receive the good at the hand of God and not receive the bad,’ Job spends the rest of the book most definitely not simply receiving the bad. His wife may be speaking ‘as any foolish woman would speak’ but she also happens to be right. Maybe it’s her words her that jolt Job out of his passive acceptance of injustice.
We will see Job’s rejection of his mistreatment, and God’s response to Job, over the next few weeks. Again, I encourage you to take some time to read the entire Book. It is an amazing piece of work. If only we knew who wrote it, and could give them credit.