Commentary on Job 38:1-11
I remember well the first time I read the speeches of God in the book of Job.
I had not been raised in the church, having gone only a few times in my childhood, and I had come to seminary in 1968 for reasons that could be considered less than religious.
I took Hebrew there, primarily because it looked so funny on the page, all squiggles and dots. But the language, and all that surrounded it, grabbed me like nothing else ever had. I took as many classes in the language as I could, and in those long-ago days, that amounted to seven full semesters. Two of those were given over to a study of Job.
The story seemed simple enough. Job is a righteous man, religious in every way, and rich. But due to a test, set for the Satan by God to discover whether or not Job’s piety is offered freely to God or for some reward, Job loses all. He ends up on a heap of ashes, scraping his foul sores with a broken piece of pottery.
Shortly, three friends of past acquaintance show up. They have supposedly come to comfort the sufferer. In fact, they are cruel antagonists whose first look at Job on his heap reveals to them he can be nothing less than a foul sinner. As they will say again and again, those who do evil deeds always receive their just rewards from God. They expect Job to die, as he deserves, and they squat in silence waiting.
But both they and we are surprised.
Far from acquiescing to his fate, Job begins to question its justice. The friends may have expected a silent death, but instead they receive the fury of a man convinced that God is not what they (and he) think.
Job thinks that God should be rewarding him for his proverbial piety; he cannot imagine why he has ended up with nothing on a dump. While the friends think he is on the heap precisely because he is evil, Job knows (and as we know from the first two chapters of the story) that he has done nothing worthy of such treatment. Something is definitely amiss in the neat world of reward and punishment, and Job refuses to be silent in the face of such obvious injustice.
Many scholars like to say that Job is so extreme in his claims about God and his life that he “almost” blasphemes. By any meaning of the word “blaspheme,” Job blasphemes forcefully again and again. The God he has been taught to put his faith and trust in, the God who always rewards and always punishes, has certainly made a mistake this time!
At 9:22-23, Job is constrained to shout, “God destroys both righteous and wicked,” and even “mocks at the calamity of the innocent.” He concludes (9:24) by announcing, “The earth has been handed over to the wicked; God covers the faces of the judges: if it is not God, then who is it?”
Blasphemy indeed! The God of Job is here called tyrant and sadist, mismanaging a chaotic universe.
The friends, and we, are rightly shocked. They do their best in their subsequent speeches to belittle, to accuse, and to obliterate Job. If they are not able to demonstrate that the upstart is the foulest sinner of all time, their understanding of God and the world will collapse.
The first two dialogues grow increasingly bitter and cruel, at times reduced to school yard taunts. They shout, “You are evil,” while he responds, “I am not, but you are cruel.” This goes on for many chapters.
The first time I read this back-and-forth exchange, I identified strongly with Job, as I think the author wanted his readers to do. The friends are plainly imposters and mountebanks, claiming to know all there is to know about God but in reality knowing very little. They are both failed theologians and failed counselors who would rather be narrowly right than helpful or sensitive to a man in pain.
But if they are thoroughly wrong about their claims, and their final disappearance from the drama makes that plain, then is Job right? What sort of theology can we glean from his ravings? Then God speaks, and I thought that I would get an answer to Job.
As I read chapter 38, I was furious! Job wants answers about the universe’s justice, or lack of it, and God blusters on about the creation: the sea, the dawn, the earth, etc. As the speech progresses, God speaks of the wild creatures of the world, even the ostrich, whose foolishness knows no bounds, but whose speed is wondrous.
What are we to make of all this? Job wants justice, and God says, “Have a look at the stupid but fast ostrich!” I just did not get it.
But over time, after multiple readings, and much prayer and reflection, something very important began to dawn.
Job and his friends were completely wrong about God. God is simply not in the business of rewarding and punishing human beings. God’s revelation to Job and to us is that the universe is far bigger, far stranger, and far more mysterious than we can imagine. A longer look at the ostrich and the sea and the eagle would help us to begin to see that.
We would also learn that we are not in creation’s center either. The world is not our oyster, but it is God’s oyster, the God who “brings rain on a land where no one lives, on a desert, empty of human life” (38:26). Why would God do this?
Because God is God, and we humans do not determine how God will act, nor are we always the reason for God’s actions. In the end, God is holy and other and fleet. The world is God’s, not ours.
Job needed that revelation, and so do we.
June 21, 2009