Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
17th of October, 2021
Job 38:1-7, 34-41
On the day that I wrote this ‘Reflection’ Victoria had 2297 new cases of covid19 and in the previous twenty-four hours eleven people had died. This week the lectionary shows us the Lord at God’s most unfathomable and transcendent. What comfort is there for us in the God who speaks to Job out of the whirlwind and demands that he gird up his loins? Amid human suffering, what consolation is there in the knowledge that God made the entire cosmos? Why would the Lord think that a series of rhetorical questions about creation is any sort of answer to suffering? What does the Book of Job have to say to us during a deadly global pandemic?
Job’s story began with the folktale in which the Lord and ha-satan made a bet. Everything that Job had and everything that Job was, was stripped from him in order to see whether he would remain righteous or would instead, as ha-satan prophesised, curse the Lord to God’s face. Job’s wife encouraged him to curse God and die; his three friends, Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite, sat silently with Job in the ashes. These first two chapters are prose, rather than poetry, and the question they ask is: will Job, now that he has lost everything God gave him, also lose his integrity?
The next thirty-five chapters of the Book of Job are poetry and the question they ask is: why do bad things happen to good people? Job’s three friends and a young man, Elihu son of Barachel the Buzite, of the family of Ram, who has been listening to them, argue that God does not punish the innocent. If bad things are happening to Job, it must be because Job has deserved them. God is just, rewarding the virtuous and punishing the wicked. Job’s friends believe in an untroubled world in which the good do well and the bad do poorly. They are adherents of the prosperity gospel. The friends who began by compassionately sitting with Job in silence quickly evade troublesome existential questions by explaining that Job himself is responsible for his plight.
Job does not agree. In between each of his friends’ speeches Job proclaims his innocence; curses the day he was born; and wishes that he could confront God, his accuser. As his friends speak, Job turns away from them and increasingly addresses God directly. In the reading we heard last week Job complained that God was not answering him; Job was suffering unjustly, and he couldn’t even find God to protest. At that point Job still believed in a God of justice, he said that if only God appeared: ‘an upright person could reason with him, and I should be acquitted for ever by my judge’. But God was silent, and God’s silence was even more painful to Job than all his sufferings.
God does not leave Job in silence. Today we hear part of God’s reply to Job, and unexpectedly it is neither an explanation that Job was simply the subject of a bet between God and ha-satan, nor the condemnation of Job that his friends expect, nor the vindication that Job demands. God does not address either of the questions that the Book of Job asked: whether Job would curse God to God’s face; why bad things happen to good people. The Lord who speaks from the whirlwind is intent upon something completely different.
I do encourage you to read chapters 38 to 41 of the Book of Job, the Lord’s two speeches, in full because they are truly amazing. The Lord describes the mysteries of God’s creation through a series of rhetorical questions. ‘Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?’ ‘Who shut in the sea with doors when it burst out from the womb?’ ‘Is the wild ox willing to serve you?’ ‘Do you give the horse its might?’ ‘Is it by your wisdom that the hawk soars?’ My absolute favourite part of them all is a description of the utter ridiculousness of the ostrich. The Lord does not even make that a question; instead God describes all its idiosyncrasies:
The ostrich’s wings flap wildly, though its pinions lack plumage. For it leaves its eggs to the earth, and lets them be warmed on the ground, forgetting that a foot may crush them, and that a wild animal may trample them. It deals cruelly with its young, as if they were not its own; though its labour should be in vain, yet it has no fear; because God has made it forget wisdom, and given it no share in understanding. When it spreads its plumes aloft, it laughs at the horse and its rider. (Job 39:13-18)
The message seems to be that God’s creation of the ostrich is so bizarre that it is simply beyond human comprehension. We can only imagine what fun the author of the Book of Job would have had if they had known of the platypus.
God has appeared but is not answering any of Job’s existential questions. What the Lord reveals is God’s total power, but this power was never called into question. The Lord does not appear to care about the substance of Job’s complaints, that Job was innocent and did not deserve his suffering. What the Lord instead seems to be saying is, ‘Who are you to question me? Look at the majesty of my creation and know that you, humanity, are not at the centre of it.’
The creation stories in Genesis put humanity at the heart of God’s creation. The creation narrative that the Lord offers Job is vastly different. It is a story of the places furthest from humanity, the foundations of the earth, the doors of the primordial sea, the horizon of the dawn, the recesses of the sea and the gates of death, the home from which light and darkness emerge, the storage places of snow, hail, rain, and wind. The everyday realities of rain, dew, frost, and ice are described, but rather than talking about the way they affect human beings, the Lord talks about the mysterious way they have of being absent one day and suddenly present the next:
Have you entered the storehouses of the snow, or have you seen the storehouses of the hail …? Who has cut a channel for the torrents of rain, and a way for the thunderbolt, to bring rain on a land where no one lives …? Has the rain a father, or who has begotten the drops of dew? From whose womb did the ice come forth, and who has given birth to the hoar-frost of heaven? (Job 38:22-29)
The descriptions of the animals are similar. These are the wild animals, the animals of the hunt, those who are either dangerous or useless to human beings: lions, ravens, mountain goats, the wild ass, the wild ox, the ostrich, the horse, the hawk. These are all animals that might seem to humanity to be purposeless, even harmful. But from their own point of view, and from the point of view of the Lord, they have just as much right to live as do humans. The debate of Job and his friends assumes that God is uniquely concerned with human life. The Lord’s answer says that the wilderness has a right to its own life. This may be one answer to the question of ‘why covid19?’ Might it not be that in God’s view not only do bats have as much right to live as human beings, so do viruses?
In most of the Hebrew Scriptures, the Lord is the one who brings order from chaos, light from darkness, land from water. But from the striking metaphor of the sea as swaddled infant, (Job 38:8-11) to the celebration of the wildness of those creatures who mock and spurn human control, (Job 39:19-25) to the ecstatic description of the monster, Leviathan, playing in the sea, (Job 41) it seems that God’s identification with the chaotic is as strong as with the human and the tamed. What God appears to be showing Job, and us, is that God’s creation has a purpose beyond its utility to humanity. It has a value of its own, that derives from God having created it. This is something that humans need to always remember, but is it an answer to Job?
After pairs of speeches between Job and his friends, we now have pairs of speeches between Job and God. God’s speeches refuse to engage Job’s arguments on Job’s terms, but they do engage Job. Job is not an Israelite, he is not a member of the people of God, he comes from the land of Uz. Throughout the debate between Job and his friends God is referred to as ‘God,’ Eloah, El Shaddai, Elohim, but the God who turns up is YHWH, the Lord, the God who made a covenant with the people of Israel. The God who answers Job is not the god of the prosperity gospel, who gives good to the virtuous and bad to the wicked, the god of cause and effect, but the Lord who lives with God’s people. And, apparently, God’s people include Job, the outsider, the stranger.
In describing creation, the Lord has focused on its freedom and wildness. In engaging Job, the Lord does the same thing. Job had never ceased to question God, and now it is he who is questioned. The Lord engages with Job. The engagement may imply that that there are things that Job will never understand, it may literally leave Job with more questions than answers, but it is still a conversation. The Lord speaks about the strange wonder of the non-human creation, but the Lord is speaking to Job. As when the Lord made a covenant with Moses, God is involving Godself with humanity.
We do not know why bad things happen to good people, or even why bad things happen to people like us, middling good and middling bad. The Book of Job does not give us answers; maybe there are none. What it offers us, instead, is the reassurance that despite the immensity of a universe that seems indifferent to us, we have not been left alone in it. The God who laid the foundation of the earth, who shut in the sea with doors, who caused the dawn to know its place, who knows the gates of death, the gates of deep darkness, is also the Lord who talked with the human Job.
One last thought. The Lord’s speeches tell us of the utter otherness and wildness of the cosmos, the non-human creation, a world that was not created for us and that is full of things that threaten us. We inhabit a universe that is billions of years old and sextillions of kilometres large. Given all that, surely the only way for humanity to live in the very brief time we have is in solidarity with one another. Rather than arguing why bad things happen, as Job and his friends do, maybe we should simply care for each other through them, as Job’s friends did initially when they sat with him in the dust. But more about that next week.