Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost

We enter this week into one of the most difficult and theologically sophisticated books of the Old Testament: the book of Job.

October 7, 2012

Alternate First Reading
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Commentary on Job 1:1; 2:1-10

We enter this week into one of the most difficult and theologically sophisticated books of the Old Testament: the book of Job.

Virginia Woolf spoke for many readers of Job when she wrote to a friend: “I read the book of Job last night. I don’t think God comes out of it well.”

What do we do with a story in which God and the Satan enter into a divine wager, using Job as an unwitting pawn in their game? What do we do with a book in which 10 children are killed off in the first chapter, only to be replaced by 10 more in the last chapter (as if children were replaceable)? How do we respond to (or preach) a book in which God answers Job’s anguish by seemingly browbeating him into submission at the end of the story?

God — at least on an initial reading — does not come out of this book well.

And yet, this book, difficult as it is, has spoken to people of faith through the centuries. Job, in the great lament tradition of ancient Israel, wrestles profoundly and honestly with God. Job holds on to God with fierce faith, but he does not let God off the hook for the inexplicable suffering that so often shadows this world. And in the end, God shows up, responding to Job’s lament with a vision of creation radical in its beauty.

This week’s reading introduces us to the figure of Job and to his suffering. The next three weeks’ readings will give the preacher the opportunity to delve into Job’s response to suffering, God’s speeches at the end of the book, and Job’s response to those speeches.1

The first two chapters of Job (our topic for this week) are the part of the story that is probably most familiar to people today. Job is a righteous man who suffers greatly and displays amazing piety. The writer of Job doesn’t dwell on this part of the story, however. The events of Job’s suffering are quickly narrated in order to get to the core of the book: the 35-chapter-long dialogue between Job and his “friends” and the response of God that follows.

We moderns, of course, cannot skim over these first two chapters so quickly. There is much here that calls for our attention: the figure of the Satan, the divine wager, the losses that Job experiences — particularly the loss of his children, Job’s two responses, etc. Let me touch on a few of these matters and suggest some questions and avenues that might prove fruitful for exploring in a sermon.

Parable, not History

First, a word about genre. The prologue to the book of Job (chapters 1-2) “sets up” the meditation on suffering that follows it. “There was once a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job” (1:1a). This prose prologue to the book reads like a folktale. There is no mooring in history (contrast Jeremiah 1:1 and Isaiah 1:1) or place (Uz is not mentioned as a place anywhere else in the Bible). Indeed, the prologue to the book of Job may be evidence of a folktale known in ancient Israel about a righteous man named Job, a man “blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil” (1:1b). Ezekiel certainly assumes that his hearers know the figure of Job when he lists Job, with Noah and Daniel, as a paragon of righteousness (see Ezekiel 14:14-20).

The book of Job, in other words, should be read as a parable, not history. No one knows when the book was composed, but it is obviously responding to a crisis of some sort (perhaps the Babylonian Exile). What does one say about God and faith in the midst of undeserved and extreme suffering? The writer of Job, most scholars agree, takes the folktale of Job and uses it as the framework for addressing that question.

The Satan

Wherever the word “Satan” appears in the text of Job, the definite article is attached to it in Hebrew. In other words, “Satan” is not so much a name as a title: the Satan. To “satan” in Hebrew is to accuse, to indict, or to be hostile towards. The Satan in Job, though ominous, is not the full-fledged demonic figure that he becomes in the New Testament and in other later Jewish writings.

In Job, he is part of the heavenly court, given the task of investigating what human beings are up to on the earth (1:6-7). And he does his job: When God draws his attention to Job, proud of Job’s piety, the Satan accuses Job of self-interest. “Does Job fear God for nothing? Have you not put a fence around him and his house and all that he has, on every side? You have blessed the work of his hands,” says the Satan (1:9-10). Take it all away, and Job will curse God, or so the Accuser claims.

The Wager

God does not let the Accuser’s challenge go unanswered. “Very well, all that he has is in your power; only do not stretch out your hand against him!” (1:12).

Now, the wager between God and the Satan is difficult to “square” with what we know of God in the rest of Scripture. Nowhere else does God use human beings as pawns in a divine chess match. Again, this is a parable, not history. Still, read in the most sympathetic light, the divine wager could be understood as a radical act of trust on God’s part. God trusts Job to prove the Satan wrong.

The whole of Scripture testifies to God’s desire to be in relationship with the world and particularly with human beings. But we fail again and again to love God with all our heart, with all our soul, and with all our might (Deuteronomy 6:5).

Job fulfills that command; he is a person of perfect integrity and faith. But the Satan raises doubts about his motives: Does even the most faithful person serve God only because of what he (or she) gets out of it? Is it possible to love God for who God is, and not for hope of reward? Is it possible, in other words, for the relationship between God and humanity to be an authentic relationship? God is staking a lot on Job’s response.

Job’s Responses

Job responds to his suffering twice in the prologue. The first time, after he’s lost his wealth and his children, he frames his suffering in the images of birth and death: “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return there; the Lord gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord” (1:21). After he is afflicted by boils, and challenged by his wife to “Curse God and die,” Job responds somewhat more ambivalently, but still with piety: “Shall we receive the good at the hand of God and not receive the bad?” (2:10).2

How shall we understand these responses to suffering? These statements of Job can be (and have been) read in different ways. Some commentators would dismiss them as overly pious and useless for pastoral ministry. Others hold them up as the sole examples of Job’s faith and patience, ignoring the 35 chapters of radical anger and despair that follow.

To those who would dismiss these responses as overly pious, it must be said that they are faithful. Job responds to the loss of all he holds dear by praising the One who gave him those gifts. Stripped of all that gave his life meaning, Job clings to the God who gave him life in the first place.

To those who would hold up these responses as the only proper way to respond to suffering, it must be said that these statements are not Job’s last word, and that what follows them — Job’s long and anguished lament — is also faithful. Praise and lament are two sides of the same coin. In both praise and lament, we cling to God, even when we don’t understand God. In both praise and lament, we believe that our lives are inextricably bound up with God’s life. In both praise and lament, we acknowledge that God is God and we are not.

Lament will be the focus of next week’s reading. For this week, perhaps it is enough to introduce the figure of Job and the book that tells his story, knowing that our hearers will be all-too-familiar with the experience of suffering it describes and the questions it raises. Perhaps it is enough to sit with Job on the ash heap for a while, as his erstwhile friends do for a time in silence (2:13), mourning for what is lost and waiting for what will be.

1For an alternative 6-week series of texts for preaching on Job, see my notes in the Narrative Lectionary section of this website

2Job’s wife has come in for harsh criticism by commentators through the centuries, but in recent years has received more sympathetic treatment. Though I don’t have time to do her justice, it must be noted that she shares Job’s suffering. They are her children as well as his. William Blake, in his “Illustrations of the Book of Job,” is one who treats Job’s wife sympathetically. Blake depicts her almost always by Job’s side, sharing his suffering as well as his revelation from God. Blake’s illustrations can be seen at