Sermon: Job’s wife was right!

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
3rd of October, 2021

Job 1:1, 2:1-10

Today we hear from the beginning of one of my favourite books in the Bible. I know I say that about a lot of books, you might have discerned by now that I love spending time in the Bible, but the Book of Job really is something special. We do not know exactly when it was written, sometime between the seventh and fourth centuries BCE is our best guess, and we do not know who wrote it. I believe we know why it was written. The Revised Common Lectionary gives us readings from the Book of Job now because, like many of the Psalms and the books of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs, it is classified as wisdom literature. But the Book of Job is anti-wisdom literature. Unlike the psalms and proverbs that promise that those who are righteous will prosper, the argument of the Book of Job is that misfortune can strike anyone, even the most faithful.

The opening and closing parts of the book may be based on a traditional folk tale. Job is a wealthy and righteous man, with ten children and ‘seven thousand sheep, three thousand camels, five hundred yoke of oxen, five hundred donkeys, and very many servants’. One day God boasts to Satan about the righteousness of Job, and Satan replies that of course Job is righteous; he has been rewarded for it. So the Lord tells Satan, ‘Very well, all that he has is in your power; only do not stretch out your hand against him!’ Satan kills Job’s ten children and ensures that all his wealth is stolen.

Then Job arose, tore his robe, shaved his head, and fell on the ground and worshipped. He said, ‘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.’ In all this Job did not sin or charge God with wrongdoing. (Job 1:20-22)

Then we come to today’s reading, in which the Lord allows Satan to attack Job’s health, as well as his family and his wealth. Now Job is left sitting among the ashes, but still he refuses to curse the Lord for his misfortune.

Satan only appears in this opening folktale; he disappears from the rest of the book. It is important to note that this Satan is not ‘the devil’ of the later Bible. ‘Satan’ is not a name. The character in Hebrew is ha-satan, which means ‘the adversary’ or ‘the accuser’. 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 is no suggestion that it happens because there is an equal and opposite power to God who causes evil against God’s will.

The other character we see in this first section of the book is Job’s wife. She also then disappears; and for most of the book we are left with Job and his friends. 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 ‘patient’ Job rebukes her for it. But think of the context! She, like Job, has lost her ten children to death. Her response is much more appropriate and  much healthier than her husband’s.

One commentator, F. Rachel Magdalene,[1] 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. That would certainly be understandable.

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 have ever read George Orwell’s 1984 you will probably 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.

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 that God is appropriately reproving and disciplining him. As we will see, Job never accepts this, which is why I call this book ‘anti-wisdom’ literature. But in the introduction that we hear today Job comes close to it with his: ‘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 suggestion, ‘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, cursing God and dying, as Job’s wife suggests, is a form of resistance.

A woman pouring a bucket of water over an old man in a loincloth to soothe his suffering.

Job and his Wife by Albrecht Durer (1504)

Another commentator I read this week, Murray J. Haar, wrote a midrash, a reflective story, on the Book of Job in the light of the Holocaust. He has a twentieth-century Job, a non-Jew as the biblical Job was, observe a mass murder in a small Polish village. After the massacre, Haar writes:

Job began to see where he had gone wrong in the land of Uz, his home. He remembered that when it had come time for him to stand face to face with the Almighty he backed down before God. In the end, Job realized that he had submitted to God, not out of wisdom or renewed faith, but out of fear.[2]

Haar argues that nothing in scripture can stay the same after the Shoah. Everything must be reread in light of the death camps. Reading Job through the Holocaust we can see that we should not accept the bad from God’s hands as well as the good. It would be unfaithful to accept a god who conspired with ha-satan to torment Job, a God who ‘sent’ the evils of the holocaust. Job’s wife is right; Job should charge God with wrongdoing; he should curse the God who has sent him evil.

Job does not accept his wife’s faithful and proper suggestion that he curse God. What we are going to see over the next three weeks is 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 is the Amnesty International option. And luckily, because God is a somewhat reasonable torturer, unlike the Nazis and all too many human torturers, it works. That is where the metaphor breaks down, because in the Book of Job God is both the ultimate source of the torture and 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 says to his wife in today’s reading, Job spends the rest of the book most definitely not simply receiving the bad for the Lord as well as the good. His wife may be speaking ‘as any foolish woman would speak’ but she also happens to be right.

We will see Job’s rejection of his mistreatment, and God’s response to Job, over the next few weeks. We will hear one book of the Bible challenging all those portions of the Bible that say that all the ways of the righteous will prosper. (See, for instance, Psalms 1, 18, 25, 34, 37, 58, 92, 97, 112; Proverbs 3:33, 10:6, 11:8, 12:3, 12:21,13:21, 15:6, 21:21, and many more.)   The Book of Job is an amazing piece of work, and I am going to enjoy exploring it with you over the next few weeks. If only we knew who wrote it, and could give them credit! Amen.

[1] F. Rachel Magdalene, ‘Job’s Wife as Hero: A Feminist-Forensic Reading of the Book of Job’ in Biblical Interpretation, 2006.

[2] Murray J. Haar, ‘Job After Auschwitz’ in Interpretation, 1999.

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