New outcomes, never imagined at the start (Ruth 3–4; Pentecost 24B)

A sermon preached by the Rev. Elizabeth Raine at Tuggeranong Uniting Church on Sunday 7 November 2021

*****

We rejoin Ruth and Naomi in chapter 3, where Naomi takes the initiative to securethe future for herself and Ruth, a future that centres around Boaz as a potential husband for Ruth. Naomi issues detailed instructions to Ruth in regard to staging an encounter with Boaz at the threshing floor, a place with a poor reputation in Hebrew scritpure, where Boaz is working late.

Ruth is instructed to bathe, put onher best clothes, and apply perfume, all which signifies romantic intent. Despite the risk, Ruth dutifully obeys, informing Boaz when she accosts him on the threshing floor that she is “Ruth, your servant; spread your cloak over your servant, for you are next-of-kin.” ‘Spread your cloak’ is a Hebrew euhphenism for sexual intercourse, and Ruth is not only signifying her availability for marriage but her desire that Boaz carry out his duty as next of kin according to the Levirite law.

This law required the next of kin of a deceased husband to father a child for the deadman so that his lineage could continue. Boaz takes the hint, and tells Ruth that though there is a nearer next of kin, he will sort this out tomorrow with that closer family member.

In chapter 2 we noted a number of contrasts: male and female, foreigner and Israelite rich and poor, etc. In this chapter we also find contrasts. Boaz and Ruth had met during the day, in a public place, where the social custom for such encounters were maintained. Here they meet in private under the cover of darkness, and unrestrained by custom, their interaction is quite different. We are now in the private domain of women, signified by the night. Boaz’s prominence, riches and public profile are not as important here. It is both a time of danger and a time of potential promise and blessing.

Despite Ruth’s bold initiative, she and Naomi still live in a world that does not value its widowed women, and their fate rests in the hands of a man with wealth and status. Boaz needs now to fulfill his part of the plan in the public, male sphere of lifein chapter 4.

We now return to daylight and the male) domain. The focus shifts from Ruth to Boaz, and from the private to public sphere. Boaz is here to wait for the nearer next of kin, or goel. It is Boaz’s interests that dictate how the exchange between the two men will go, and we can tell this because the Hebrew passage here begins and ends with Boaz’s name. Further, despite the bible translation of ‘friend’, the other goel is called peloni almoni, Hebrew rhyming slang that basically means “old what’s his name”, or “Mr such and such”. Again we see the sense of humour of the author of this book at work.

Boaz is shown to have authority in this society as “Mr what’s his name” and the ten elders do what he tells them to. None of the men he addresses challenges his authority or his right to order them around.

In the ancient Hebrew world, decisions about law, property and finances were made at the town gates, where the men and elders would gather to discuss aspects of law and to enact judgment.

Boaz constructs an elaborate legal argument around an alleged piece of land we haven’t heard of before that Naomi apparently wants to sell. Her nearest kinsman has first right of refusal under Hebrew law. This begs the question: why did Naomi need Ruth to glean if she had land to redeem? Is Boaz resorting to an imaginery piece of land to cover his real aim – which is to acquire Ruth as a wife? It would certainly give him the legal cover he needs for such a proceeding – for even in this rather enlightened book, for someone of Boaz’s social standing to enter into marriage with a Moabite, a foreigner, would be risky if no legal duty is involved.

So while Boaz is apparently concerned with the noble duty of redeeming his kinswoman Naomi’s land, he can just slip in that Ruth is part of the deal as well. Mr “what’s his name” decide that the risk of redeeming the alleged land is too great to him, as if Ruth were to have a child that child could legally claim the land in the future, even if he had paid for it now. So he refuses, and Boaz is free to marry Ruth.

The outcome of this chapter presents a very different family picture from that in the first chapter. Life has replaced death, abundance has replaced famine, fullness of life and fertility has replaced emptiness and barrenness. Amidst the rejoicing of the community, God finally appears as an active character, causing Ruth to conceive a son to Boaz.

Despite this intervention of God, the story is not about divine manipulation or a system where God directly rewards and punishes. The important thing in this story is the role of human action and intervention. God’s grace is bestowed only when such action is taken by the people concerned, and when it concerns all people.

Ruth’s story ultimately has a happy ending because the community decide to accept and welcome her despite being a foreigner.

The book of Ruth challenges us to look more closely at our own cultural context, and how the poor and the foreigner are welcomed and provided for in our community. Even in a world where prosperity has become available for some on a ridiculous scale, many still die of starvation. Many flee countries where food supplies are insufficient, and where opression is rife.

It is clear that true community in our world is broken. Gleaning has been replaced by our welfare system, which is often inadequate to address the real issues facing the poor. If nothing else, the story of Ruth here should challenge us to work for cultural change, to transform the brokeness into a society where all are equally valued.

The little genealogy at the end probably strikes the modern reader as a rather oddaddition, but it has a special function. If further proof is needed by the reader of Ruth that God favours the inclusion of the foreigner, this is it. The gift of children was regarded as a sure sign that God’s blessing was resting upon a person. Ruth is the great grandmother of King David, the most famous of Israel’s kings in the biblical record. The genealogy shows that by accepting the foreigner, Israel goes on to beextraordinarily blessed.

Many generations later, some people in Israel became followers of the one whom they believed had been chosen by God to be the Messiah. They claimed that this man from Nazareth was a descendant of the great King David; this claim would be crucial to establishing his credentials amongst his Jewish contemporaries. And since the man from Nazareth was descended from David, he was also descended from Ruth, the Moabite and foreigner. Without this story of the refugee and the foreigner, who married across ethnic boundaries and became part of a new family, there would be no David – and thus, no Jesus.

From the simple act of welcoming and giving hospitality to the stranger and foreigner, and building a new life with new relationships and new hopes, new outcomes and consequences can happen that were never imagined at the outset.

 

 

Lead us, O God, 
in the way of Christ, the servant,
who opened his arms to the poor and the foreigner.

Lead us, O God, in the way of welcoming the stranger
caring for the neglected, feeding the hungry,
housing the homeless, and challenging the powerful,

Lead us, O God, 
in the foolish way of the Gospel,
which turns the world upside down to bring salvation to all.

Amen.

An island of peace and goodwill in the middle of a sea of wars, treachery, unfaithfulness and violence (Ruth 1–2; Pentecost 23B)

A sermon by the Rev. Elizabeth Raine, preached at Tuggeranong Uniting Church on Sunday 31 October 2021.

*****

The book of Ruth stands as an island of peace and goodwill in the middle of a sea of wars, treachery, unfaithfulness and violence, as characterised by the preceeding book of Judges, and the following books of Kings and Samuel which follow.

The central characters appear to care for each other, the community generally acts well towards each other, and God’s providence is made available to the most vulnerable in society. It tells the story of a remarkable woman, a foreigner who gave up everything to devote herself to her Israelite mother-in-law Naomi.

The author also has a good sense of humour. The names of Mahlon and Chilion, the two sons that die, which in the Hebrew mean “sickness” and “consumption” respectively. Naomi’s home city, Bethlehem, literally means “house of bread”. So we find at the start that Bethlehem, the “house of bread” was in the grip of a famine, and that Naomi’s husband has to go to Moab, a land where the people are specifically excluded from the congregation of Israel because they refused to give bread to the Israelites fleeing Egpyt.

So Bethlehem, the house of bread, is starving its people, and the land of Moab where food was withheld from the Israelites, now has plenty to share with them. This reversal of the expected puts the reader on notice that this is no ordinary book and no straightforward story.

Although the story is set “in the days when the judges ruled” (ca. 1200-1025 BCE), the date of Ruth’s composition is probably much later. The story’s frequent reminders that its heroine is not an Israelite provides the best clue, and the storyteller is suggesting that Boaz’s gracious treatment of a Moabite woman in this way is unusual. This insistence on an inclusive attitude toward foreigners suggests a composition date in the fifth century BCE, when the issue of intermarriage between the Israelites and non-Israelites had become extremely controversial.

This short story therefore is composed to remind a nationalistic and post-exilic people who are keen on eliminating “foreigners” and people of mixed heritage that their most fondly remembered king, David, was the great-grandson of a Moabite woman.

Ruth 1

In the first speech of the book, Naomi counts herself as among the dead – her husband and sons are dead and she may as well be dead herself. She now sees her worth measured solely by the ability to produce sons. With some irony on the part of the author, Naomi recommends that her 2 daughters in law find security in a husband’s house, apparently forgetting that the house of a husband to date has provided neither safety or security for any of them.

Ruth counters with a speech that is brief and to the point, and pledges a commitment and loyalty far beyond what is required. Few of us today can really appreciate how great this commitment really is. To abandon one’s ancestral homeland, family and gods in favour of those of a foreigner was an enormous risk, and acceptance by the new community was by no means assured. It meant learning new customs, preparing new foods, a new language and a new folklore. That Ruth is constantly referred to as a ‘Moabite’ suggests that she (and the narrator)  are aware that her ethnicity is an immense barrier to her full inclusion in the new community.

When we read this story, we forget that racism and nationalism were as rampant in ancient times as they are now. We may unconsciously view Judaism as the ‘right’ religion, and thus a natural and desirable course of action for Ruth. The truth is that inter-ethnic relationships were complex and often viewed very unfavourably by the ruling elite of Israel, as the books of Ezra and Nehemiah make very clear. For example, in chapter 9 of Ezra, the officials refer to the “abomination” of inter marriage with Moabites and other races, and state that this “pollutes” the holy seed of Israel. Integration was not easy; acceptance not guaranteed.

Naomi does not seem convinced by Ruth’s speech, but allows her to continue with her whilst the more obedient Orpah returns to her homeland. For Naomi to be burdened with even one Moabite woman in her homeland of Israel may have lowered her status as a poor widow further and stretched her already meagre means. In other words, where we are easily impressed with Ruth’s speech of devotion, it is questionable if Naomi was. The narrator merely states that seeing “how determined” Ruth was, Naomi “stopped speaking to her”. The rest of the journey is not mentioned, and no further conversation recorded.

Naomi’s final lament that she wants to be known as “Mara”, meaning bitterness, rather than Naomi, meaning sweetness, suggests that she is not yet grateful for Ruth’s exceptional gesture of solidarity and loyalty with her. She laments that she returns empty, her daughter in law’s devotion is ignored. 

It is also worthy of note that while Naomi is recognised by the women of Bethlehem, Ruth has been rendered invisible. Neither the townsfolk nor Naomi refer to her presence. The narrator alone makes reference to her, reminding us that not only is she Ruth the Moabite, but also Naomi’s daughter in law. 

Ruth 2

The first chapter of Ruth was intended to challenge the reader’s or hearer’s stereotypes about women, loyalties, and national origin by the use of humour and irony. The relationship of Naomi and Ruth is meant confront hearers about what they thought they knew and invites them to ask new questions that help them begin to rethink their view of “the world as it should be.” 

By this strategy and others that keep the hearer/reader guessing throughout the chapter, the book of Ruth has begun by turning expectations upside down and subverting the dominant world vision. 

Chapter 2 picks up the story of Ruth and Naomi as they settle into life at Bethlehem. Though the famine which drove Naomi and her family from Israel has ended, action is required so that food might be put on the table. Ruth therefore proposes that she go and glean in the fields. As a poor foreign widow, this is Ruth’s only means of survival, as gleaning was the main means of support for the poor in Israelite law. Up to this point, the story has been about two widowed women supporting each other.

Ruth’s industrious activities draw the attention of Boaz, the owner of the field in which she gleans. Despite being poor, female and a Moabite, Ruth finds favour in the eyes of Boaz, rich, male and Jewish. By strange coincidence, Boaz is the kinsman of Naomi. A good translation of his Hebrew name is ‘pillar of the community’.

On Boaz’ appearance, the Hebrew reader is likely to be asking some serious questions. Why isn’t he helping Naomi as Israelite familial duty would dictatehe should – especially seeing he is so upright in the community and so obviously rich? Why has she been left to fend for herself, facing deprivation and possible starvation? Why does Boaz only take an interest in Naomi’s fate after he sightedRuth?

The chapter has a lot of complex interplays going on, between foreigner and Israelite, male and female; old and young; rich and poor; powerful and powerless. The author subverts most of the prevailing stereotypes as the story progresses.

Ruth stated at the beginning of the chapter to Naomi that she hoped to ‘find favour’in someone’s eyes. “Finding favour” in the Hebrew Bible generally means that a woman is desirable in the eyes of men. Coupled with the pervasive Israelite belief that Moabite women were sexually immoral (Gen 19 and Numbers 25 allude to this), the author is stressing both Ruth’s vulnerability – and her desirability.

We turn now to Boaz. His first question is “To whom does this young woman belong?”, a most irrelevant question as far as his interests as a landowner are concerned. The author is communicating Boaz’s very keen interest in Ruth.

The foreman identifies Ruth as the young Moabite woman who returned with Naomi. There is a conversation between Ruth, and Boaz. She has fallen prostrate at his feet. Such deference is usually reserved for God. Ruth twice uses the phrase “found favour in your sight”, the phrase that indicates a love interest. Boaz evokes the name of the Lord. Apart from her speech in chapter one, Ruth shows no interest in the Lord, the God of Israel. Instead she makes it clear her fate is going to lie with Boaz, not the God of Israel.

This is emphasised by her saying that Boaz has ‘spoken to her heart’ (mistranslated as ‘spoken kindly’ by the NRSV), another phrase frequently used in the Hebrew bible to indicate a love interest. Ruth is signalling her availability and interest in Boaz, but she has also shown she will not be bullied into an inequitable relationship.

Back at home, Naomi undergoes quite a transformation in relation to Ruth when she sees the amount of grain Ruth has gleaned. Naomi is no fool either, andknows by the cooked food Ruth has given her, and by the huge amount of barley, that something unusual is afoot and that there is a man involved. Hence her first questions “Where did you glean today?” Where did you work?” are quickly followed by “Blessed be the man who took notice of you”. One does not come across large portions of cooked food or ephahs of grain in the normal course of gleaning.

Naomi’s response is to initially call down a blessing on Boaz, in a reference to herself and her late husband. Again, the discerning Hebrew reader must be wondering here why Boaz has failed to act for Naomi before this time. For the first time Naomi reveals the familial connection to Boaz, and calls him goel, or redeemer. This term indicates a close family member with an assigned role in family legal matters, usually financial. To date Boaz has proved a rather unreliable goel, and Naomi is quick to capitalise on his apparent interest in Ruth by warning her against gleaning in another field “lest she be bothered”. 

Despite being poor, female and a Moabite, Ruth has reversed the normal social order to find favour in the eyes of Boaz, rich, male and Israelite. The harvest scenes evoke themes of life and fertility that point towards blessings to come. But for the moment, life is still difficult, and the women’s future needs to be secured.

Despite Ruth’s resourcefulness, she and Naomi are still in a category of people whose well-being depends on the actions of others. The shortcomings of Israelite society that the book highlights challenge us to look more closely at our own cultural context, and how the poor and the foreigner are welcomed and provided for in our community.

Even in a world where prosperity has become available for some on a ridiculous scale, many still die of starvation. Many flee countries where food supplies are insufficient, and where opression is rife. It is clear that true community in our world is broken. While gleaning may be unknown to us, it has been replaced by our welfare system, which is often inadequate to address the real issues facing the poor.

If nothing else, the story of Ruth here should challenge us to work for cultural change, to a society where all are equally valued.

The author of Ruth is a political commentator of the times. He or she disagrees with the extreme nationalistic sentiments of Ezra and Nehemiah, and wants to offer another point of view, a point of view where personal qualities of faith, love and loyalty are placed ahead of race and country of origin. So be with us next week, as we see how this unfolds in the remaining two chapters.

Coping with chaos and death: the ‘wisdom’ of Job (Pentecost 22B)

A sermon preached by the Rev. Elizabeth Raine at Tuggeranong Uniting Church on Sunday 24 October 2021.

*****

Last time we were with Job, he and his three friends had reached an impasse. Job believed them to see blindly and listen deafly. They, on the other hand, cannot understand Job’s stubbornness. Enter the fourth friend, Elihu.

Elihu, whose name means ‘My God is He’, and whose nose is burning in anger in regard to the conversation to date, strongly condemns the approach taken by the three friends and argues that Job is misrepresenting God’s justice and discrediting God’s character. In his speech, Elihu describes God as mighty, yet just, and quick to warn but also quick to forgive. Elihu is almost cast into a prophetic role, and prepares the way for the appearance of God, who finally shows up.

God has arrived in a whirlwind, and to compensate for his long silence of 35 chapters he now responds to Job with a flood of rather sarcastic questions. There is a touch of irony here in God’s chosen vehicle – in 9:17 Job had said If I summoned him and he answered me, I do not believe he would listen to my voice, for he tramples me down with a whirlwind, enlarges my wounds for no reason and will not let me get my breath.

God appears to do just this, his intent apparently being to adjust Job’s attitude by telling him a few things, including some pretty prolonged boasting about his cosmic power, culminating in the description of the monstrous Leviathan and Behemoth. By this God therefore puts cosmic matters – including Job’s smallness and frailness when compared to these two monstrous creations – into their true perspective.

Twice he reminds Job to gird your loins like a real man. I will ask questions, and you instruct me (38:2; 40:7).

To “gird the loins” is usually used as a metaphor for preparing for battle. It is hard to conceive that the unfortunate Job, who has just been told he “darkens counsel” with “ignorant” words, who has a whirlwind of cosmic proportions roaring around him, is in any position to instruct the deity or do battle with him. The deck is stacked, and this is a contest that we know God must win.

The response God gives Job is not the expected one. God’s words are not what the friends have imagined that God would say, nor are they the vindication that Job had hoped for. God has reversed the scenario that Job had earlier envisaged. Instead of Job challenging God in court about the justice of God’s actions, God counters with his own case, asking Job to reveal his wisdom. Instead of the divine actions being interpreted by a powerless human, they are now presented from God’s point of view.

The speech of God to Job is the climax of the book but it offers no explanation for Job’s suffering. The question: where was Job when God created the world? is an unsatisfactory ‘answer’, and we are left with the uncomfortable possibility that God acts in capricious ways, an unsympathetic deity who would allow the life of a man, his family and his servants and animals to be tormented or cut short for no better reason than to prove a point to the Adversary.

The meaning and significance of this divine speech of God continues to be a widely debated issue. Some interpret God’s words as a negation of a human being’s right to question God. Others see them as a correction to Job’s limited understanding of good and evil. Still others believe this scene shows Job’s faith and humility. Yet others believe that the words of God avoid Job’s questions, suggesting that there is doubt cast over God’s justice and compassion.

To answer God’s somewhat sarcastic questions would require the knowledge of a god, not a human. Job’s limitations are exposed, and the workings of God are declared to be a mystery beyond Job’s understanding. Instead of being offered comfort, Job is reminded of his ignorance and frailty. What are we to make of this disconcerting picture of God, especially since the questions Job asks may also be our own?

The speeches of God to Job illustrate the world according to Hebrew cosmology. The world is seemingly ordered, and everything has its place. The sea has its limits, cosmic darkness is behind gates, the sky has statutes and the clouds are numbered. But there are disorderly elements as well. The wild beasts have both hunter and prey among their numbers, yet God provides for both, giving to one the freedom to eat and another to be eaten.

In his ignorance, Job has imagined a black and white world where evil and good, reward and punishment are clearly defined. Hence his insistence that he be shown justice. But here he is presented with a world of moral ambiguity, where the wild ass is just as likely or not to be eaten by the lion in search of food.

The world as God has created it is presented as full opposing forces such as life and death, chaos and order, freedom and control, wisdom and foolishness, ordinary and bizarre, evil and good, and Job’s assumption that in a just universe his piety should have been rewarded with prosperity, is rendered meaningless. The world is not ordered according to guilt or innocence so there is no easy answer to the problem of innocent suffering.

Creatures die so others may survive. Chaos and death are not eliminated by God but operate within the boundaries of his design and the world’s complexity means it is not possible for a simple and mechanical law of reward and punishment to operate. The various aspects of human morality that Job and his friends have discussed at length are not the way the universe works. God presents a universe which is independent of such human belief systems. As Job’s beliefs fall about him in ruins, he is faced with a deity whose ways are outside of human comprehension and wisdom.

The book of Job began with deprivation and tragedy. In the final verses though, we find abundant restoration, with Job receiving back his house and family and twice as much as he had lost. Job wisely acknowledges the supreme power of God, his own ignorance, and renounces his dust and ashes.

Note that Job does not repent in sackcloth and ashes but repents of them. This suggests that he is still a touch defiant, but he has learnt he is not the centre of the universe and it is now time to resume normal life again in the verses that follow. And with a final touch of irony, the friends who wanted Job to plead for God’s mercy for himself now find themselves in need of Job’s intercessions on their behalf.

It seems a happy ending, but despite its complex setting and arguments, the book of Job has presented us with more problems than solutions. Curiously, verse 42:10 states that restoration is made to Job because he prayed for his friends, not because he repents. Even more surprisingly, Job’s friends and relatives then console him about the evil that God had brought upon him, a statement that lays the blame for Job’s suffering directly with God, and not the Adversary. They offer gold and silver as a token of their goodwill. The implication is that God does cause innocent suffering, as part of the cosmic design.

So where do we go from here? Do we dwell on a dangerous universe where God doesn’t answer the questions of Job and where justice seems questionable? Or is there another way forward in this rather dark story?

Professor Kathryn Schifferdecker[1], in her commentary on Job on Working Preacher, notes the details of this restoration have some unusual features. She states that

Job’s three daughters are the most beautiful women in the land, and Job gives them an inheritance along with their brothers, an unheard-of act in the ancient Near East. He also gives them unusually sensual names: Dove (Jemimah), Cinnamon (Keziah) and Rouge-Pot (Keren-happuch).

Schifferdecker believes that Job has “learned to govern his world as God does.” What does she mean by that?

The cautious father of the prologue who offered sacrifices for his children in case they had sinned now has become a parent modelled on God’s own creation. By giving them their inheritance, he is giving his children the same freedom to live and grow and learn that God gives God’s creation, and, like God, he delights in their freedom and in their beauty.4

Ellen Davis, in her book Getting Involved with God: Rediscovering the Old Testament[2] writes, “The great question that God’s speech out of the whirlwind poses for Job and every other person of integrity is this: Can you love what you do not control?”

It is a question, says Schifferdecker, that is worth pondering. “Can you love what you do not control: this wild and beautiful creation, its wild and beautiful Creator, your own children?” she asks? [3]

Davis also puts forward the case that we should not be concentrating on why or how much it costs God to restore Job’s fortunes, as it obviously costs God nothing. “The real question is how much it costs Job to become a father again.”[4]

I really like this perspective. Job, says Schifferdecker, resembles a Holocaust survivor whose greatest act of courage may have been to start again and bear children. Yet despite the potential risks, Job chooses to enter life again. Job and his wife, despite their terrible experiences, choose to again “bring children into a world full of heart-rending beauty and heart-breaking pain. Job chooses to love again, even when he knows the cost of such love”. (Schifferdecker, 2012)[5].

Having cited so much of her, I am going to give the last words to Professor Schifferdecker, as I think she sums it up beautifully:

Living again after unspeakable pain is a kind of resurrection. The book of Job does not espouse an explicit belief in resurrection. Nevertheless, the trajectory of the whole book participates in that profound biblical movement from death to life. It is not surprising, therefore, that the translators of the Septuagint add this verse to the book of Job: “And Job died, old and full of days. And it is written that he will rise again with those whom the Lord raises up.”

And perhaps that is an appropriate place to leave this story of Job, waiting with God’s other servants for the world to come. This complex work, the book of Job, plumbs the depths of despair and comes out on the other side into life again. In this movement, it testifies not only to the reality of inexplicable suffering but also to the possibility of new life — life lived out in relationship with the God of Israel, the God of resurrection, who, as both synagogue and church proclaim, is faithful even until death, and beyond. [6]

****

See other sermons in the series at

https://johntsquires.com/2021/10/02/living-through-lifes-problems-job-1-pentecost-19b/

https://johntsquires.com/2021/10/10/hope-in-a-broken-world-job-23-pentecost-20b/

https://johntsquires.com/2021/10/17/celebrating-creation-job-38-and-psalm-104-pentecost-21b/

and also

https://johntsquires.com/2021/10/20/job-a-tale-for-the-pandemic-part-one-pentecost-19b-to-22b/

https://johntsquires.com/2021/10/20/job-a-tale-for-the-pandemic-part-two-pentecost-19b-to-22b/


[1] Schifferdecker, K. Commentary on Job 42:1-6, 10-17, Working Preacher, 2012 (Accessed 20/10/2021 https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-30-2/commentary-on-job-421-6-10-17 )

[2] Davis, E.F. “The Sufferer’s Wisdom,” Getting Involved with God: Rediscovering the Old Testament (Cambridge, MA: Cowley, 2001), 121-143.

[3] Schifferdecker, K. Commentary on Job 42:1-6, 10-17 ,Working Preacher, 2012

[4] Davis, E.F. (2001) 121-143

[5] ibid

[6] ibid

Job: a tale for the pandemic, Part Two (Pentecost 19B to 22B)

The book of Job is a challenging and disturbing book. It takes us to a central dilemma that we all face in our lives. It provides us with a stimulus to undertake an exploration that is eminently suited to the time that we have been experiencing over the past few months in lockdown—indeed, since early in 2020. The book poses the question: why is this happening?

See https://johntsquires.com/2021/10/20/job-a-tale-for-the-pandemic-part-one-pentecost-19b-to-22b/

That’s a question many are asking about the pandemic. Why has it come upon us? Or, to be more theological about it: why are innocent people suffering? why are we caught in this current spiral? do those without a moral compass appear to prosper? why do those who seek to do good find themselves beset by problem after problem?

The question is acute for us each personally, during this time of restrictions because of a global pandemic. After all, we had nothing to do with the cause of the pandemic. Why should we suffer the frustrations of lockdowns, if we are innocent of causing the virus to spread? Why should we endure the hardships of reduced interpersonal interactions, if we have been behaving with due care? Why should we not be able to gather for worship, since we have not been in places where infections have been found?

The question is also pertinent and pressing in our current global context. For a start, the pandemic has inflicted suffering and death on millions of people around the world—suffering far more invasive than what we are experiencing in the current lockdown. How many millions of people have died? And how many millions of family members have suffered the grief and despair of not being able to say farewell to their loved ones as they die in hospital wards? And how many medical and nursing professionals have been stressed beyond limit by the incessant demands they have faced during the pandemic? And how fair is all of this?

The question also presses in terms of the climate. We have long known that the climate is changing, the high temperature averages are claiming, the arctic glaciers are melting, the sea levels are rising, the intensity and frequency of catastrophic weather events are climbing—and people around the globe are suffering. All of this presents a challenge to the way we live. We may even think that we are suffering unfairly in such a scenario.

It is clear that the science has come to a conclusive decision: we human beings have been contributing in a major way to the changes in the climate for over two centuries, now. We actually can’t lament that we are suffering unfairly, since our comfortable lifestyles in the well-to-do Western world undoubtedly mean that our carbon footprints are much larger than they should be. We are contributing to climate change, so can’t expect to be exempt from its ravages.

But what of those whose carbon footprint is minuscule, in comparison to our own? There are 16 African countries whose CO2 emissions per year are 0.15 tons per person or less. As you trace the names of countries as the figure rises, there are many more African and Asian countries, long before any European countries are noted.

By contrast, the figure is 17.10 tons per person for Australia, 15.52 for the USA, and 18.58 for Canada. That is a completely inequitable output. Should we not be suffering more deeply, in the western world, than people in Africa and Asia are? And yet the reality is that the comfortable, even extravagant, lifestyle of the western world is what is driving the incessant rate of increased CO2 in the atmosphere. And the whole world—humans, animals, fish and bird, and vegetation—suffers as a result. The questions raised by Job are acutely relevant to this issue.

(The figures come from https://www.worldometers.info/co2-emissions/co2-emissions-per-capita/)

And the question remains hanging as we reflect on levels of malnutrition and access to food in the current world. The World Food Programme of the United Nations estimates that one in three people around the world. Even before the current pandemic, each and every day of the year, 820 million people were seriously underfed and hungry.

Children bear the brunt of this inequity. 149 million children under 5 are estimated to be stunted (too short for age), 45 million are estimated to be wasted (too thin for height), and 38.9 million are overweight or obese. That is a situation that is utterly unjust. The questions press even harder on us.

(See https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/malnutrition)

We have the means, we are told, to distribute food equitably around the world. And yet up to one third of food is dumped everyday in the USA—a shocking waste of resources and a completely inequitable state of affairs. So those who happen to have been born in certain areas of the world where circumstances beyond their control mean that they are suffering far more than is warranted. Injustice abounds. The questions from Job resonate—how is that fair?

And then, there are survivors of domestic violence, and—still—survivors of child sexual abuse, and those suddenly facing homelessness, and those in the long enduring grip of mental illness, and those fleeing violence and persecution in their home countries, seeking refuge and asylum in a welcoming place … and many other situations where the innocent are suffering unjustly. The list could be very long, indeed, if we give careful thought to it.

So, reflecting on these matters, in the light of the discussions that are recorded in the story of Job, we have much pause for thought. How do we reconcile our faith in God—God who is loving, God who is just, God who is overseeing all that takes place—given these terrible realities? Is the image of God that we have accurate? If God can act to change any of these terrible situations that we are facing, why does God not so act? Is God uncaring? Is God unable to act? Is God not concerned with justice?

These are the questions that Job explores. It is a book which provides us with deep resources for thinking about such matters. It is a tale that resonates with so much in the experience of contemporary people. It is a take for our times.

Job: a tale for the pandemic, Part One (Pentecost 19B to 22B)

“Why is light given to one in misery, and life to the bitter in soul, who long for death, but it does not come, and dig for it more than for hidden treasures; who rejoice exceedingly, and are glad when they find the grave? Why is light given to one who cannot see the way, whom God has fenced in?” (Job 3:20–23). Why? is the question that Job asks incessantly, as he ruminates on what fate has befallen him.

Job, the righteous, upright person, struck with tragedy and blighted with grief, laments his situation. His story provides a good tale for us to consider during this time of global pandemic. It is a tale that explores the questions that we may be pondering.

As the story begins, we learn that Job had a good, prosperous life; but through no fault of his own, his life is turned upside down; he lost stock—500 oxen, 500 donkeys, 7,000 sheep, and 3,000 camels—and all of his children—seven sons and three daughters (1:13–19). His life, once blessed and enjoyable, was utterly destroyed.

Yet “in all this”, we are told, “Job did not sin or charge God with wrongdoing” (1:22). Indeed, after each round of festivities enjoyed by his children, his practice was to sanctify all his family. He would “rise early in the morning and offer burnt offerings according to the number of them all” (1:5). He was indeed “blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil” (1:1).

Job came under attack, he felt. Through no fault of his own, his life was turned upside down. He was deeply distressed. “Why did I not die at birth, come forth from the womb and expire?”, he cried (3:11). “Why were there knees to receive me, or breasts for me to suck?” (3:12). “Why was I not buried like a stillborn child, like an infant that never sees the light?” (3:16). The joy at the prosperity which he had enjoyed had crumbled, his very being was pierced with deep grief and despair.

He turns, in his anguish, to God, whom he accuses of having brought this suffering upon him. “Why have you made me your target? Why have I become a burden to you? Why do you not pardon my transgression and take away my iniquity?” (7:20–21) “Why did you bring me forth from the womb? Would that I had died before any eye had seen me, and were as though I had not been, carried from the womb to the grave”, he laments (10:17–18).

Job berates God, whom he sees as being negligent in not intervening to save him from his fate. “Why do you hide your face, and count me as your enemy?” (13:24), he asks. Then, some time later, he presses the point: “Why should I not be impatient? Look at me, and be appalled, and lay your hand upon your mouth. When I think of it I am dismayed, and shuddering seizes my flesh.” (21:4–6). He lays the blame at God’s feet: “Why are times not kept by the Almighty, and why do those who know him never see his days?” (24:1)

Why? Why?? Why??? is Job’s constant question.

Job reflects on the quest for Wisdom, which is what is advocated in Proverbs (Prov 1:2–7; 2:1–5; 3:13–18; 4:5–9; 9:10; 15:32–33; 16:16; 17:24; 19:20; etc) and sought by The Teacher (Eccles 1:13; 7:25). Yet the search for Wisdom, who is more precious than jewels (Prov 3:15; 8:10–11), is much more difficult than mining for those precious jewels (Job 28:1–11).

Where shall Wisdom be found? Job asks (28:12). “Where does Wisdom come form?” (28:20). The answer is, “it is hidden from the eyes of all and concealed from the birds of the air” (28:21). Job despairs of ever finding Wisdom. God knows the way to Wisdom (28:23–27), but direct access to Wisdom remains elusive. All that is offered is “the fear of the Lord” (28:28–a verse attributed to Job, but which many scholars consider to be an authorial gloss on the whole speech).

Elihu rebukes Job, turning his incessant questioning back on him: “God is greater than any mortal. Why do you contend against him, saying, ‘He will answer none of my words’? For God speaks in one way, and in two, though people do not perceive it.” (33:12–14). “Far be it from God that he should do wickedness, and from the Almighty that he should do wrong”, Elihu contends (34:10). “Surely God does not hear an empty cry, nor does the Almighty regard it”, he maintains (35:13).

The claim that God is not just is an outrage to Elihu. He turns to the inscrutable nature of God: “Surely God is great, and we do not know him; the number of his years is unsearchable” (36:26). “The Almighty—we cannot find him”, Elihu maintains; “he is great in power and justice, and abundant righteousness he will not violate” (37:23).

Yet Job will not budge. Finally, after a blistering speech from the Lord himself, out of the whirlwind (38:1–41:34), in which the deity makes it clear that Job cannot pretend to have any comprehension of the ways that God operates, Job backs down. He responds, sarcastically: “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted” (42:2), and then delivers his coup-de-grace: “therefore I despise myself, and repent of dust and ashes” (42:6).

It should be noted that the common rendering of these final words of Job in so many translations have inevitably mistranslated a crucial word. The Hebrew here clearly states, “I repent OF dust and ashes”. The twist to repenting IN dust and ashes, found in most translations, portrays Job as meekly withdrawing his complaint and submitting to the inscrutable mysteries of God.

But he does not. In fact, his final word is another sarcastic barb, aimed directly at God: “I will give up on playing the meek-and-humble supplicant”. He has not had his questions of Why? Why?? Why???answered in any satisfactory way. So he remains defiant. He repents of repenting. He will not be sorry.

It should also be noted that the “happy ever after” ending we have in 42:7–17, in which Job is vindicated and his fortunes are restored twofold, is widely recognised as a later ending which was not part of the original saga. In the original story, Job’s probing questions remain relentlessly unresolved.

The book of Job is a challenging and disturbing book. It takes us to a central dilemma that we all face in our lives. It provides us with a stimulus to undertake an exploration that is eminently suited to the time that we have been experiencing over the past few months in lockdown—indeed, since early in 2020. The book poses the question: Why is this happening? That’s a question many are asking about the pandemic. Why has it come upon us?

Or, to be more theological about it: Why are innocent people suffering? why are we caught in this current spiral? Do those without a moral compass appear to prosper? Why do those who seek to do good find themselves beset by problem after problem?

I’ll explore these questions further in part II of this reflection in the next blogpost.

******

See also this series of sermons on Job by Elizabeth:

https://johntsquires.com/2021/10/02/living-through-lifes-problems-job-1-pentecost-19b/

https://johntsquires.com/2021/10/10/hope-in-a-broken-world-job-23-pentecost-20b/

https://johntsquires.com/2021/10/17/celebrating-creation-job-38-and-psalm-104-pentecost-21b/

https://johntsquires.com/2021/10/24/coping-with-chaos-and-death-the-wisdom-of-job-pentecost-22b/

Celebrating creation: Job 38 and Psalm 104 (Pentecost 21B)

A sermon preached by the Rev. Elizabeth Raine at Tuggeranong Uniting Church on 17 October 2021

This week, there have been many school students striking around the world for something to be done about climate change. Young people are very concerned about the impacts of climate change, and the future of life on our planet.

Despite the growing evidence of the consequences of climate change, such as huge fires, floods, rising seas and extreme weather events, many governments and corporations around the world continue to subsidise the fossil fuel industry, putting all of us at risk.

Young people (and many of the rest of us!) believe that if we don’t take action now and transition swiftly away from fossil fuels to 100% renewable energy, things are just going to get worse.

Climate change is the greatest challenge we have confronted as a human species. To stop emitting waste carbon dioxide completely within the next five or 10 years, we would need to radically reorient almost all human economic and social production, a task that while it looks almost impossible, really does need to happen if human and other mammalian life forms are to continue existing. It will demand an agreement and global coordination between nations on a scale never seen before.

Despite this, much of our world still pursues a decidedly unsustainable environmental course. Even worse, a disproportionate share of the consequences of climate change is borne by the very poor, those 40% of our fellow human beings who live in “poverty” (1.5 billion people) or “extreme poverty” (the 1 billion people who earn less than $2 a day).

We have island nations that will be consumed by a rising sea, nations where subsidence farmers will no longer be able to grow food and climate refugees from places like Bangladesh who will see their land flooded and become uninhabitable. Without significant changes, planet earth will exact a heavy price for our choices.

But what does our scriptures have to say about this? Is there a faith imperative to act? There are many parts of the Hebrew bible that celebrate creation, and that emphasise that its gifts are God-given. In return for this gift, the human creature is meant to care for creation.

So as well as science and environmental expertise, our scriptural tradition is also informing our motives and choices. If God created the world and called it good, and then made a covenant after the flood narrative with every living creature, all life, and with the very earth itself, then surely we should be reaffirming our commitment to creation as its caring stewards.

Starting right at the beginning of our scripture with the creation narrative, we might note in Genesis that God states that God’s creation is “very good.” If the human creature is created in the image of God, and not only looking like God but having something of the character of God, then surely our purpose would not be to destroy the creation that God declared as ‘good’ but to keep it that way.

Two of the passages on the lectionary today take a different, but very important direction. Both Psalm 104 and Job put forward the notion that the human creature is but one among many creatures, and all are seen as equally important within the framework that is creation.

Psalm 104 makes it very clear that all creation is not only dependent on God, but there are many parts of it dependent on each other. God holds it all in balance, and each of the component parts interact with each other in necessary ways. Some would say it is a poetic way of describing an ecosystem. The creation is represented as a living, breathing entity, where all creatures are nephesh and filled with the breath or spirit of God. All have their place, none is more important than the other.

Our next reading from the book of Job describes creation as a delicately balanced system that God takes care of, including animals and isolated geographical areas, not just the human part of it. God provides food and shelter for wild animals that have nothing to do with humanity as such, and God causes it to rain in wild and desolate areas where humans are not.

This particular verse is very striking, as unlike Genesis, God is emphasising to Job that mortals like him are no more important in the creation than anything else. Everything is equal and all contribute to the goodness of the created. The book of Job has defined and marked the extent of things like rain, wind, snow and sunshine.

God in Job makes it clear that the creation of the earth and heavens runs on specific laws that allow the whole system to function for the benefit of everything. Therefore, the book of Job raises the question about whether it is advisable for humanity to irrevocably alter the creation as God has set it out. What will be the consequences if we do so?

Video: The Sixth Mass Extinction http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p0aHPeqg2zI

So here we have two readings where humans are not the centre of God’s story and all creatures are — literally – created as our equals. The relationship appears to be non-exploitative, with all creatures secure in the place or habitat God has created for them.

Far from maintaining the delicate ecosystem balance set out by God that these writings imply, the earth’s capacity to sustain life is threatened by an ever-expanding human population and growing material demands. We are depleting earth’s nonrenewable resources and exceeding the environment’s capacity to absorb the pollutants we discard. This is particularly true of C02, the main gas driving climate change.

If nothing else, simple self-interest should remind us that all life remains fundamentally dependent upon being an integral part of a functioning ecosystem. Our fate is bound up with the fate of the planet.

Unless some miracle happens, the next 20 years are going to see increasingly chaotic global climate patterns, unpredictable biological adaptation and human responses that includes scapegoating and war over scarce resources. By the middle and later decades of this century — my grandchildren’s adult lives — this could look like a Mad Max story that should be filling us all with horror.

Our children and grandchildren will confront a range of outcomes that will be determined by the choices we make now. Whose voices will be heard the loudest? The fossil fuel industry and those whom it enriches? Or the voice of those who research the scientific evidence and those who are watching their homelands sink beneath the waves?

The worst outcomes of our consumptive lifestyles could be avoided if we did something concrete now. Are we willing to not only change our own habits, but to actively lobby our government to change theirs, and develop policies which will nurture and create life, rather than destroy and de-create it? Do we care enough to stop the sixth great extinction of species on the planet that God created and called “very good”?

The Christian Church has a particular calling to re-vision a much more holistic view of how we see and use God’s world, and how we look after the life that God has created on our planet. If we see the whole world and everything in it as the house of God, as the psalmist writes in Psalm 24, we may be more likely to treat everything and everyone with dignity and respect.

We need to value the things that cannot be counted, such as the beauty of a wilderness, river or forest. Consumer choices and economic growth should not be the only measure of good stewardship and well-being. Surely God intended us to treat our neighbours, including our fellow creatures, fairly and with love, and his creation with care. If members of God’s family continue to suffer because some of us are taking too much or many of God’s wild creatures continue to experience the threat of mass extinctions, we are not growing a more holistic household of God on our planet.

We are at a critical point in history, facing some considerable challenges including the damaging effects of human-induced climate change, the depletion of cheap abundant energy and a global food shortage. These challenges are global and they are connected to each other as both cause and consequence.

They are the results of social, political and economic systems that have come to do more harm than good; systems built on values of greed, power and materialism. We have developed a global economic system that is now diminishing, rather than improving our capacity to live sustainably on our planet.

The Christian life is not judged by comfort and prosperity and reward by God – especially not financially – but by suffering with the Christ and by the giving up of those things that distract or impede us. It is a challenging message. I hope that we, as the Uniting Church, can re-imagine a world where creation is treated with respect and all peoples are seen as equal.

And I hope that by doing so, we can tackle the cause of climate change appropriately and ensure the future of our planet and its fragile ecosystems for the grandchildren and great grand children of all the peoples of the earth.

See the source image
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See also https://johntsquires.com/2021/10/02/living-through-lifes-problems-job-1-pentecost-19b/

Hope in a broken world (Job 23; Pentecost 20B)

https://johntsquires.com/2021/10/24/coping-with-chaos-and-death-the-wisdom-of-job-pentecost-22b/

Hope in a broken world (Job 23; Pentecost 20B)

The second in a series of sermons on the book of Job, by the Rev. Elizabeth Raine; Tuggeranong Uniting Church, 10 October 2021

***** *****

Last week, we left Job engaged in the task of theodicy, the theological examination of why a just and all-powerful God could allow suffering and evil to exist. Job had become convinced that God was not particularly reasonable and was personally responsible for the suffering of the world. Just to remind you, Job’s words about God were as follows:

To paraphrase the words of David Hume, Job seems to have accepted that God must be somehow malevolent (able, but not willing to prevent evil), as he doesn’t understand why suffering should exist if God is able and willing to prevent it.

When Job’s friends arrive to comfort him, this spirited debate continues as they all decide join in the exploration of theodicy and whether God is just, as well as defending Deuteronomy’s assertions that the wicked are punished and the righteous are rewarded.

The lectionary has made a big jump here from last week with 21 intervening chapters left out. These chapters have largely been poetic speeches by Job and his friends, where they assert Job must have some secret sins, and where Job responds by strenuously denying this. Job’s friends are convinced that God rewards the righteous and punishes the guilty, so they try to convince Job that he must repent of his secret sin. Job, however, refuses, as he believes that he is innocent, a fact we readers know is correct.

This lament of Job reveals his anger, loneliness and frustration. God has become very distant to him, and he cannot find God no matter where he looks.

His grievance at his suffering spurs him to call out to God to demand a day in court where he can put his case to God about the injustice of his treatment, and he is convinced that he will be vindicated. His well-intentioned friends have failed to satisfy him with their orthodox answers, indeed have failed to listen to him.

So even if he is being rebellious, Job decides that he needs to take a risk and deal with God directly, and he therefore becomes much more insistent and increasingly frustrated as God refuses to answer. Karl Jacobsen, in his article on Working Preacher, points out that “Job is clearly ready for his day in court. But therein lies the problem; Job can’t find his way to the courthouse…[and] God is nowhere to be found. God’s hand, it seems to Job, neither leads him nor holds him fast.”

Until God appears in the whirlwind, we have an impasse. Job has scorned the counsel of his three friends. He has decided that he they see blindly and listen deafly. They, on the other hand, cannot understand his stubbornness. They do not recognise that in his suffering, it is Job who actually approaches a closer understanding of God, as distasteful as that understanding might be. Though God might crush him, Job, almost defiantly, still declares his trust in God.

Throughout Job’s speech, there is a great sense of longing for God’s presence, for God’s attention and for God’s caring. This is surely a feeling that can resonate with us all and many of us may have experienced in tragic circumstances.

All of us have sought comfort in disturbing times through prayer, and even today, in the uncertain times of climate change, pandemics, warsand natural disasters, we continue to seek the presence of God in the midst of suffering and injustice. Suffering will always challenge a person’s sense of relationship with God, but it does not need to destroy that relationship. As Christians we believe that, in the midst of suffering God, does come to the afflicted and affirm the presence of grace.

Spill the Beans this week suggests that Job’s anger, like that of the author of Psalm 44 (“Wake up, Lord! Why are you asleep?”), raises important questions about what is and is not permissible to say to God in prayer. Are we honest with God? Do we allow ourselves to lament to God about the unfairness of the tragedies we encounter in life?

Surely it is important that such questions can be voiced before God. There is an honesty in Job’s story that challenges the superficial type of faith that crumbles when tragedy strikes, and there is a freedom here that gives us permission to say what we need to say to God even if we need, like Job, toapologise later. God can take it, and surely God’s grace and love will be there waiting for us.

Part of the power of the book of Job is the fact that it realistically addresses addresses the painful questions of life. Tragedy and suffering are never simple issues; they challenge faith and can create a sense of helplessness and hopelessness. Like Job, we often find that there is no shortage of opinions from others trying to explain the pain they are not suffering, and simplistic answers are offered in response to life’s most painful questions.

The strength of Job’s book is that it allows all sides of the issue – the simple answers of the friends and the emotional turmoil of Job – to be heard and heard again. So though it seems to go on and on, repeating the same arguments over and over again, and then failing to provide any answers, this is often the way the problem of suffering is experienced, especially when it comes to the enormous issues of world poverty and economic injustice.

We need to sit as long as we can with those who have suffered and are suffering from injustice and immense suffering. And perhaps, as we ponder our own tragedies, and the fate of the uncounted and unnamed men, women and children who have died in war or ethnic violence, or pray for the current victims of poverty, famine and disease in our world, we might find our thoughts connecting with experiences and the suffering of Job.

And while we cannot measure how God heals, or answers every sufferer’s prayer, or upholds us in the experience of pain, grief or fear, as Christians who understand the grace of God we can surely still believe that God is there waiting for us, even if God seems momentarily absent, in the midst of God’s suffering people.

So from the paradox of faith, we remember:

from silence, comes the song of praise;

from darkness, shines forth the light;

from mystery, comes the kingdom of God.

It is this that allows us to continue to praise God, and to continue to seek out hope in a broken world.

For other sermons on Job, see https://johntsquires.com/2021/10/02/living-through-lifes-problems-job-1-pentecost-19b/

https://johntsquires.com/2021/10/17/celebrating-creation-job-38-and-psalm-104-pentecost-21b/

https://johntsquires.com/2021/10/24/coping-with-chaos-and-death-the-wisdom-of-job-pentecost-22b/

For other sermons on Wisdom, see https://johntsquires.com/2021/09/12/in-the-squares-she-raises-her-voice-lady-wisdom-in-proverbs-pentecost-16b/ on Lady Wisdom, and https://johntsquires.com/2021/08/17/in-order-that-all-the-peoples-of-earth-may-know-your-name-1-kings-8-pentecost-13b/ on the wisdom of Solomon

Living through life’s problems (Job 1; Pentecost 19B)

A sermon by the Rev. Elizabeth Raine, on the Book of Job (Part 1),
preached at Tuggeranong Uniting Church on 3 October 2021.

The book of Job has always been famous for two things – the patience of Job, and the introduction to the alleged malicious machinations of Satan. When we read the text closely though, we may be surprised, as both these ‘truths’ are actually found to be wanting.

Job is not patient, nor is the satan the personified force of evil found in later biblical literature. Whilst afflicted, Job spends all of his time challenging the injustice that has reduced him to these straits, and shows little patience in regards to his unfortunate situation. For example, in chapter 3 he cries:

Why is light given to one in misery,
and life to the bitter in soul,
who long for death…
and … are glad when they find the grave?
For my …groanings are poured out like water.
I am not at ease, nor am I quiet;
I have no rest; but trouble comes. (Job 3:20–26)

Despite the dramatic capital “S” translation in our bibles of the Hebrew word sātān, the word should be translated rather as ‘adversary’, or ‘prosecutor’. The adversary is the servant of God, his role to investigate the goings on of humanity and report on them. This adverserial role requires him to present the case to the contrary at the heavenly court. We also find him in this role in the prophet Zechariah 3:1, where he stands ready to accuse Joshua in the setting of the heavenly court.

So what is the book of Job about then? One of its functions was to challenge the theology of Deuteronomy, which claimed that righteousness was always rewarded, and evil always punished. The author of Job disagrees, as his experience has shown him good people suffer and evil goes unpunished in an imperfect world. The author also wants to explore the notion of whether God is good and just. So in the literary setting of the heavenly court, the author constructs a debate between God and the adversary, around these questions.

The book of Job was probably written sometime after the Babylonian exile, in the 6th century BCE. It deliberately avoids mentioning any identifying historical features and is written not as an historical account but as a fable or folktale encounter between a human being and God. The book’s action does not take place in Israel. Its characters are from Edom, to the southwest of Israel, which perhaps allows for a freer discussion of the issues the story raises.

The seeming puzzle of the suffering of the righteous, and the apparent blessing of good fortune to the wicked was a problem addressed by various books in Hebrew scripture, but none of them exhibit the radical protests and questions that we find in the book of Job. The book of Job lists a large number of injustices that regularly happen to the righteous poor, at the hands of the unscrupulous wealthy. 

We frequently find verses such as “Therefore I say, he destroys both the blameless and the wicked, when disaster brings sudden death, he mocks at the calamity of the innocent. The earth is given into the hand of the wicked, he covers the eyes of its judges – if it is not he, who then is it?” (Job 9).

So the author of Job has set himself an enormous task – he will explore the truth that the innocent, not just the wicked, do suffer, and attempt to explain the rationale for God’s actions in regard to such suffering.

In the scene before us, the adversary makes the point that Job has never suffered from poverty or adversity in his life. Why shouldn’t he be righteous? Surely, he argues, if Job’s wealth and family were struck down,then his faith would be tested to the point where he would curse God. God, intrigued by this notion, agrees to the adversary’s suggestions. Job is to be tested rigorously in regard to his faith.

This is not the picture of the loving, merciful Christian God that we have come to know and love. Here is a God who knows that his human servant is righteous, yet is quite happy to gamble with his feelings, faith andthe life of his family in order to test the adversary’s claim. Is this a fair representation of God? Do we really think that God tests the faith of humanity?

This idea that God tests us is one that has taken hold in western societies. There is a belief that God never sends us any more than we can bear, and that testing can be good for us and aids the development of our faith. This concept therefore understands the loss of family and friendsthrough accident or cancer, for example, are to test us. This is surely a terrible idea.

And if God really does test the faith of humanity through harsh adversity and poverty, then one must wonder why poor dark-skinnedchildren under the age of ten seem to be the ones most in need of such testing. After all, they and their families are the ones most often the victims of war, disease and starvation. While there is no doubt that certain forms ofsuffering can bring us closer to God, much of the suffering that is experienced by humanity does not have such an outcome.

Perhaps one of the greatest differences between us and the author of Job is the belief that God is responsible for such suffering. We tend to let God off the hook by the use of doctrines such as freewill, despite the imbalance of power that suggests our freewill is a large cause of the extraordinary death toll from war, disease and poverty in the developingworld. Not so Job – he is determined to hold God accountable for what he sees as unjust suffering.

The great misfortune which has stuck Job, which include the stealing of his animals, the killing of his servants and destruction of his children are not initially blamed on an unjust God. At first Job can still bless the name of God. So the scenario in the heavenly counsel repeats itself. God again boasts of Job’s righteousness, the adversary again seeks to test Job’s faith by an attack on his actual person. Again God agrees, and Job is afflicted with terrible sores. Ignoring the counsel of his wife (curse God and die), Job still persists in his faith.

While this may seem a commendable attitude, Job’s question in 2:10 (“Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?”) raises some difficult issues: Does God send both good and bad upon humanity?  Do both good and evil emanate from God?

This might seem like a ridiculous question. But consider Isaiah 45:7, in which God states, “I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil; I the LORD do all these things”. And Deuteronomy 32:39, where God declares, “See now that I, even I, am he; there is no god besides me. I kill and I make alive; I wound and I heal; and no one can deliver from my hand”.

In the Hebrew world view, such an idea was not unknown, though it may seem anathema to us. Evil had to be explained somehow, and it seemed reasonable in a monotheistic religion that God both blessed and cursed, gave and took away.

Despite’s Job’s protestations of innocence, Job’s three friends, who arrive to console with him, do not waver from their belief that God is right, and that Job is undoubtedly being punished for some secret sin, although they themselves are at a loss as to know exactly what this sin might be. Theypersist in believing that Job must deserve all of the punishments.

The author of the book uses the friends of Job to expose the inadequacies of the tradition, and Job counters their arguments by some pretty stark statements about the injustice of God. Job confidently believes that God is omnipotent. The question is therefore, why doesn’t he use this power to right wrongs, punish the wicked and ensure that justice is done?

Consider the end of chapter 12, for example: “The Lord makes nations great, then destroys them … He strips understanding from the leaders of the earth and makes them wander in a pathless waste. They grope in the dark without light, he makes them stagger like drunkards.”

Job, whether he realises it or not, has engaged himself in the study of theodicy, the theological examination of how a loving, just and all-powerful God can allow suffering and evil to exist. Job appears to be the first theologian that we know of to begin to ask some of the pertinent questions of theodicy. David Hume summed up these questions nicely:

Is he [God] willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is impotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both willing and able? Whence then is evil? David Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (New York: Social Science Publishers, 1948) p. 198.

Job represents an age-old problem of power and justice. Those who have not been the victim of unjust power, whether divine or human-made, can not really appreciate the insecurity that capricious power and the denial of human rights generates.

This aspect of the story of Job is particularly disturbing for us. There is no doubt that what has happened thus far to Job is absolutely unfair. Why should “a blameless and upright man who feared God” be made to suffer so?The only ‘freewill’ that can be blamed here is God’s – the decision to test Job was God’s alone.

For us, the question is, how can we believe in a God that apparently has such a dark side? A God who willingly strikes dead the family of a person who has God’s goodness at heart, who has done no wrong? Who afflicts him with a dreadful disease and deprives him of his farm and means to make a living?How can we hold to the idea of an all-loving God when these kinds of things not only happened to Job, but do happen routinely in today’s world? 

Christianity has always taught of a loving, caring, forgiving God, one who is there to heal and to comfort. Yet here a swift and harsh punishment is placed on Job as the result of a wager between God and the adversary. 

Despite its antiquity, this story of Job confronts us with many unanswered questions. Do we accept the thought that all things, good and evil, are sent from the one true all-powerful God? Perhaps we need to further question our ideas of God. Is God truly all-loving and all-powerful? Or can God be only one, or the other, of these?

The bible consistently makes it clear that God – and our own fears and frailties – are encountered in wild, dangerous places. In the New Testament, the letter to the Hebrews clearly states that “it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God”. Faith is not a journey that is safe or straightforward. There will always be darkness and perplexities to be confronted.

We can use our faith to avoid the harsh facts and unpleasantness of the real world that surrounds us, and cocoon ourselves into a warm and fuzzy kind of spirituality. Or we can use our faith as a way of living through life’s problems and injustices with a small flame of hope, to live a God centred-life with all the uncertainty that such a faith brings with it. This is the ultimate challenge that this passage presents to us.

For other sermons in this series, see

https://johntsquires.com/2021/10/10/hope-in-a-broken-world-job-23-pentecost-20b/

https://johntsquires.com/2021/10/17/celebrating-creation-job-38-and-psalm-104-pentecost-21b/

https://johntsquires.com/2021/10/24/coping-with-chaos-and-death-the-wisdom-of-job-pentecost-22b/

The woman of valour (Proverbs 31; Pentecost 17B)

A sermon peached by Elizabeth Raine at Tuggeranong Uniting Church on 19 September 2021.

I suggested last week that the purpose of the book of Proverbs is to make suggestions as to how one might learn to live faithfully in everyday life. This passage (Proverbs 31:10–31) is no exception to this. Like other passages, it is meant to inspire moral ideals and guide people in living the best life possible.

If you are a woman and you know this passage, or were paying close attention to the reading, you might be thinking something like: is this even possible? how am supposed to live up to such an ideal? how is this meant to inspire wisdom in me?

And these are very good questions. The superwoman of Proverbs 31 has often been used to try and put women back into kitchens and keep them subservient to their husbands.

Today I am going to challenge this reading of Proverbs 31, and I am going to start by looking at how the first verse of this passage is translated. If you have a bible to hand feel free to look it up.

How do bible translations describe the woman of Proverbs 31? Generally, you will find that she is described as a noble, competent, capable, excellent, virtuous or good wife. Occasionally she is described as a woman, rather than a wife.

But is this actually what the Hebrew says? There are two primary issues in translation that shape how we interpret this text. The first is the status of the woman. Biblical Hebrew does not have separate words for “woman” and “wife”, so which is correct? The second issue is how the woman is described.

Let’s start at the beginning of the chapter. The claimed source for the words of this chapter is quite unique in the Old Testament. According to the text itself (31:1), a woman, the unnamed mother of the unknown King Lemuel, composed this poem describing a woman of worth and taught it to her son, who writes it down here. So it is a woman describing a woman. That might give us some clues. Secondly, the poem is an acrostic one, meaning the first word of each verse begins with a letter from the Hebrew alphabet in succession.

Like most of the wisdom literature, the purpose of this poem is to draw attention to the often-overlooked importance in one’s faith journey of doing everyday things. It is an acrostic so it is easier to remember, so obviously the ancient writers thought it was important enough to be memorised.

This poem is one of the most misunderstood passages in the bible, where it is seen as a list of virtues that form a job description for the ideal and faithful wife/woman. It has been trotted out on Mothers’ Days, weddings and in complementarian Christian circles where it stands as the pinnacle which woman should strive to emulate.

I am suggesting this is not the best way of understanding this passage, and that the purpose of Proverbs 31 purpose is to celebrate wisdom-in-action, not to instruct women everywhere to get married, have children, and take up weaving.

Let us go back to our translation issue. The Hebrew is eshet chayil, a ‘woman of valour or strength’ and this is how the opening verse should be translated. It has a male equivalent gibor chayil, or ‘man of valour’. It is a reminder to men (who are the intended audience of Proverbs) that as well as ‘men of valour’, there are also ‘women of valour’, the Hebrew emphasising the equality of the terms as applied to both genders.

 

The Hebrew word, chayil, has a primary meaning ranging from ‘military might/power’ and ‘(physical) strength.’ Its plural form designates warriors or an army. Translations that erase this woman’s physical strength and power create a construction of stereotypical “femininity” that is not present in the text. In verses3, 17 and 25 when chayil occurs translators nearly all translate it as strength. So why translate it as dutiful, capable, good noble or virtuous here?

Other language in the text points to the woman being strong, and we find a number of military terms to emphasise this. In verse 11, she provides ‘spoils’ (a term from war time plundering) for her Lord (no, it is not the word for husband (ish) as translations suggest).

In verse 17, she “girds her arms with strength and makes her arms strong”, again in military style. In verse 15 the Hebrew reads that she rises while it is still dark to provide “prey” for her household (this infers she is slaughtering the beasts, usually a man’s task). Verse 25 emphasises she is clothed in ‘strength and dignity’.

Professor Brent Strawn in an online article points out that the sentiments of verse 17 and verse 25 go far beyond both home and market: they are worthy of the mightiest of warriors (see Psalm 77:15; 83:8; Ezekiel 30:22; Nahum 2:1).

Like the feminine version, these gibor chayil, “men of valour”, have suggested military strength. We find the young David being described as a “gibor chayil ve-ish milchama,” a man of valor and a man of war (I Samuel 16:18). This is proved in his fight with Goliath, and becomes a central feature of David’s success as king. Later in 2 Samuel 23:8, David’s men are described as gibor chayil.

Gideon is described as a gibor chayil in the book of Judges (6:11), as is Joshua’s army as they prepare to take Jericho (Joshua 1:14). 1 Chronicles 5:18 identifies the sons of Reuben, the Gadites and the half-tribe of Manasseh as gibor chayil.

We have one other ‘woman of valour’ in the Hebrew bible, and she is found in the book of Ruth.

In this book, Ruth is presented as a destitute Moabite who followed her mother-in-law back to Jewish Bethlehem.  Once there, her daily work involved gleaning for barley and wheat. For over three chapters, she is neither a wife nor a mother. Her life looked nothing like the life of the woman depicted in Proverbs 31.

Ruth didn’t spend her days exchanging fine linens with merchants, running a home full of servants or buying fields.  Instead, she worked all day in the sun, gleaning leftovers from other people’s fields, which was a provision made for the poorest of the poor in Israel. 

And yet Boaz says of Ruth in chapter 3:11:  “all the assembly of my people know that you are an eshet chayil” (Ruth 3:11 NRSV).

Ruth is a woman of valour, not because she checked off the Proverbs 31 domestic goddess list, but because she lived her life with resourcefulness, compassion, courage, wisdom, and strength.  In other words, she lived her life with valour.

In the book of Ruth, Boaz is identified as gibor chayil, a man of valour. So when Boaz uses eshet chayil of Ruth, he clearly sees her as his equal.

The Proverbs woman is not defined by her husband or her children, particularly sons, as many other women in the Hebrew bible are. Rather, this woman is someone who is motivated, and she is defined by a string of verbs such as “seeks,” “rises,” “buys,” “provides” and “makes.”

We are also not given much in the way of the woman’s appearance. Normally, unless they are judges or prophets, women are described in the Hebrew bible by their physical attributes such as beauty or gracefulness. Not here though – we have no clue as to her weight, height, shape, or clothes. Is she beautiful? Is she built like a tank?  We will never know – and it doesn’t matter.

So how does this woman of valour have relevance for us today as both woman and as church people? What message does she bring to a world where women are bombarded with messages about aging, body shape and beauty?  On Working Preacher, Professor Amy Oden suggests that

This passage offers a radical counter-cultural message in the profound silence about what she looks like. The closing verse reminds us that “beauty is vain,” not something women (or men) hear anywhere in the daily visual assault of airbrushed female bodies on billboards, magazine stands, and pop-up ads. The silence of Proverbs 31 on appearance is striking, and refreshing. She is praised for the content of her character and the excellence of her endeavors rather than the surface of her skin.

Oden also sees the subversive nature of the Proverbs woman as a “tangible expression“ of Lady Wisdom, who we met last week. Oden says the woman’s “virtue and worth are a result of her own agency, her actions and choices…she leads her own life rather than following someone else’s. She pursues her own ends rather than obeying orders. There is no hint that her industry is not her own, that she is demure or deferential, or that her pursuits are directed by others.”

In other words, the ‘woman of valour’ is as independent as Lady Wisdom, as clear on what her pursuits and her purposes are. Like Lady Wisdom, she is also operating in the male domain of buying and selling, and things occurring outside of the household.

When we see Proverbs 31 in the larger context of the book of Proverbs and the wisdom literature, and in the more immediate context of Lady Wisdom, the woman of Proverbs 31 could be understood not as an actual flesh and blood woman but as the ideal of Lady Wisdom herself.

Indeed, several verses pick up some of earlier depictions of Lady Wisdom in Proverbs – for example, she is far more precious than jewels (v10), opens her mouth with wisdom (1:20-21, 24; 31:26), both are strong (8:14 with 31:17, 25) and both “laugh at the time to come” (31:25; cf. 1:26).

The words eshet chayil, the ‘woman of valour’, is used by modern Jewish women as a way of cheering each other along. The say it to one another when they are celebrating things such as promotions, pregnancies, divorces, and battles with cancer. It is the Jewish equivalent of saying “you go girl” or acknowledging someone is wearing the ‘Wonder Woman tights’. In fact, Wonder Woman, on Israeli TV, is known as “Eshet Chayil.”

According to this Jewish practice, being a women of valour isn’t about what you do, but how you do it. Surely this is the message to us today, men and women. This isn’t about being a dutiful wife excelling in housewifery, though that is OK if you do it with valour. It isn’t about how we look, or about meeting the expectations of others on how we look.  It is about how we do things, our motivations, our faith and our inner qualities.

If you if you are retired, do it with valour. If you are a nurse, be a nurse of valour. If you are a CEO, a pastor, a check out chick, mountain climber or a barista at Café Guru, if you are rich or poor, single or married—do it all with valour. And if you are a Christian, a person of faith, be counter-cultural, speak out about the superficiality of much of our society, show courage when facing injustice and support the equality of women.

For this is what makes us eshet chayil, ‘women of valour’.

*****

See also https://johntsquires.com/2021/09/12/in-the-squares-she-raises-her-voice-lady-wisdom-in-proverbs-pentecost-16b/

In the squares she raises her voice: Lady Wisdom in Proverbs (Pentecost 16B)

A sermon by Elizabeth Raine, preached at Tuggeranong Uniting Church (in the ACT, Canberra) on 12 September 2021

The purpose of the book of Proverbs is to guide us in learning how cope with life (Prov 1.2-6). It places an emphasis on teachings gathered from tradition of the elders (e.g., 4.1-4) and from experience (e.g., 6.6-11). In contrast to many other books of the Hebrew Bible, major themes such as the Mosaic and Davidic covenants are absent; Temple worship and sacrifice are rarely mentioned.

Most of the sayings are meant to inspire moral ideals. Guided by the principle that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (9.10; 1.7; 15.33), the authors emphasise values such as honesty, diligence, trustworthiness, self-restraint, and appropriate attitudes toward wealth and poverty.

This first chapter of Proverbs introduces us to Lady Wisdom, a mystical feminine aspect of God. She calls to us and invites us on an unexpected journey. She is a central character in many chapters in this book, and those who know her are seen as righteous people. She is offered as a role model for us, her teachings are a template for life, and she a pioneer who opens upa pathway to faith and obedience.

Lady Wisdom, by Sara Beth Baca,

Lady Wisdom, as she is known, has fascinated ecclesiasts and scholars since the inception of the Christian church. She has been described in many ways—as an aspect of God, as a divine entity existing in her own right, even as something approaching a feminine deity, as Proverbs 8 states that Wisdom was present at the beginning of creation, and was a co-creator with God, who delighted in her presence.

This personification of wisdom as a female in Proverbs is one of the most extraordinary portrayals of femininity in the Hebrew Bible. 

This very positive image of the feminine is a stark counterpoint to the very negative metaphorical depiction of women generally encountered in the Old Testament: for example, the whore with many lovers (Jer 3:1); the slaughterer of the Lord’s children (Ezek 16:21), and the adulterous woman in Proverbs itself (Prov 7).

Wisdom offers us a radical example of faithfulness yet she remains a disturbing presence. She transgresses boundaries by standing amidst the male elders at the city gates and presuming to teach them. She has a clear voice, a colourful personality, a dominant presence, and offers words of hope and the promise of life. She is a vehicle of God’s self-revelation, and grants knowledge of God to those who pursue her through scripture and learning.

Unlike most woman of her time, Wisdom occupies what was the domain of men, teachers and prophets. She stands on busy street corners, she is at the town gate; she sets her table at the crossroads where many pass by. Unlike her counterpart in Proverbs 31, there is nothing of the domestic goddess about her. She is counter cultural and subversive. She teaches knowledge and leads her people on their way through history. In a most unladylike way, she raises her voice in public places that are the domain of men and calls to everyone who would hear her. 

The prominent biblical scholar, Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, has written this about Wisdom:

“Divine Wisdom is a cosmic figure delighting in the dance of creation, a ‘master’ crafts wo/man and teacher of justice. She is a leader of Her people and accompanies them on their way through history. Very unladylike, she raises her voice in public places and calls everyone who would hear her. She transgresses boundaries, celebrates life, and nourishes those who will become her friends. Her cosmic house is without walls and her table is set for all.”

In short, the biblical figure of Wisdom represents a spirituality of roads and journeys, of public places and open borders, of nourishment and celebration, of justice and equality – rather than a spirituality of categories, doctrines, closed systems and ideologies.

Her dramatic modus operandi stands in striking contrast to the slow and methodical way of operating that we see in the classic formulations of Christendom, doctrines that have come to define the church in the eyes of those outside of it.

Wisdom calls us to work together, for the common good, with others in our society. She is not a figure bound to books and writing; she is out in the community seeking relationships with people, engaging wholeheartedly in public discourse, and living by example the key elements of a faith-filled life.

The church fathers, the male patriarchs of the church, loved making categories; they articulated their doctrines by amassing data, analysing the information, systematising the component parts and categorising the key dogmas. From this intensely rational approach to faith, we have inherited works such as the Congessions of Augustine, the Summa Theologiae of Thomas Aquinas, the institutes of the Christian Life by Jean Calvin, the string of creeds and confessions from the Westminster Confession onwards, and the massive Church Dogmatics of Karl Barth.

By contrast to these closed systems of knowledge, the biblical figure of Wisdom asks for a relational faith and invites us to develop a wide openness in the way we approach others and God. She requires of us that we really listen to others, including those we don’t agree with … she calls us to listen, to understand, to speak in ways that connect with others and ways that build productive and fruitful relationships across the differences that separate us.

I think that Wisdom is precisely the kind of person who would have relished the invitation, once offered to his disciples by Jesus, to push out to sea again and fish on the other side of the boat. She would value the opportunity to look in a different direction, to reconsider the task at hand and seek a new way of undertaking it. She would jump at the chance to explore a new arena, to pioneer a new task and to reshape her missional engagement so that it was fresh, invigorating, and creative. What a role model that is for us today!

So, the question that I invite you to ponder at this moment is: Where will we find Wisdom? Are we open to the exploration and discoveries that the biblical figure of Wisdom invites us to pursue?

Are we content with repeating our tried and true traditions from the past? Are we content with staying in our familiar comfort zone? Will our mission be simply no more than wishing people to walk through the door, as we remain in our comfortable, self-contained space?

Or will we choose the way of the rather unladylike Wisdom, the radical at the street corner, crying out to all who pass by? Can we understand Wisdom’s model as invitation to the church today? Should we be more concerned with ‘raising our voices’ in the public arena than confining ourselves to church buildings?

Hopefully we will choose to follow the path which offers us the potential to transform contemporary situations of injustice, brokenness and violence into communities that truly reflect the love of God, and we will take our stance in the marketplace in ways that show our deep and profound relationship with God. Hopefully we will follow Wisdom out of our enclosed gatherings to the space where social and spiritual change can take place.

*****

See https://johntsquires.com/2021/09/19/the-woman-of-valour-proverbs-31/

and also https://johntsquires.com/2021/09/08/wisdom-cries-in-the-streets-proverbs-1-pentecost-16b/ and https://johntsquires.com/2021/09/15/the-wisdom-from-above-james-3-pentecost-17b/