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.

See also 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/