Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

During the month of October (Pentecost 18-21), we are treated to a rare opportunity–a run through the book of Job, in shorthand.

October 4, 2009

Alternate First Reading
View Bible Text

Commentary on Job 1:1; 2:1-10

During the month of October (Pentecost 18-21), we are treated to a rare opportunity–a run through the book of Job, in shorthand.

Over these four Sundays, there are readings from the beginning, middle, and end of Job which provide a short synopsis of the book. We read about the heavenly wager that gets Job into his mess (2:1-10); we sample Job’s “bitter complaint” to (against?) God (23:1-9, 16-17); we hear some of God’s pointed response (38:1-7); and finally we witness Job’s restoration to health, wealth, family, and above all right relationship with God (42:1-6, 10-17).

Though there is nothing of Job’s dialogue with his friends (arguably the most missed part of Job), there is enough in these four disparate readings to come away with a good sense for the whole of the book. What’s more, there are, from week to week, connections between these passages that provide nice flow and coherence for preaching and worship.

This lectionary tour of Job provides a remarkably full exposure to the book as a whole. While not, perhaps, a substitute for a full reading of Job, this is an excellent opportunity to introduce our preaching and our hearers to the adversarial wisdom and tenacious faith of Job, and to the challenges it brings.

The Set Up
Following a glowing description of Job as “blameless, upright, God-fearing, and turning-away-from-evil” (1:1; 2:31), the word–or name–most likely to catch the interest of both preacher and preachee is, of course, Satan. This may seem like the perfect match-up: Satan vs. the Sweetie (II) in a grudge-style-cage-match showdown of Good vs. Evil. But this idea is somewhat misleading.

As is often pointed out, “satan” here is not so much a name as it is an office or function. In the Hebrew of Job, this is clear in that “satan” always includes a definite article, ha-satan, “the satan.” The fact that most English translations ignore this is either the result of reading too much of the Devil into the text, or misplaced fear of confusing the reader. Regardless, the meaning of the text is easily obscured. Maybe this will help put the whole “satan” thing in perspective: “the satan” in Job works in much the same way as the angel of the Lord who appears to Balaam’s donkey, blocking his way “as his adversary” (Numbers 22:22). “The satan” is one, usually an angel, who serves as an adversary or “prosecuting attorney” on God’s behalf.

What is often overlooked, but cannot be ignored, is that the Satan functions as the adversary on God’s behalf. After this introductory section of the book, the Satan never makes another appearance, is not mentioned, questioned or in any way signified. It is God who is questioned, represented, and significant. In other words it is God who is in control.
Later on in Job’s dialogue with his friends, he rejects the idea that God is not in some way culpable in his suffering, arguing that the animals and even the plants know that God is behind everything, and all of this (cf. 12:7-12). The implication is that only people–for Job his friends, and for we who read this passage as scripture potentially we ourselves–may be ignorant of God’s ultimate control.
“Who among all these does not know that the hand of the Lord has done this?
In his hand is the life of every living thing
and the breath of every human being.” (12:9-10)

And, Job argues (believes, complains) that his life and breath, even in suffering and struggle, are in God’s hands too. Satan is not on the hook here, for Job; God is.

All of this suggests to me that if we get bogged down in our preaching (or allow those to whom we preach to be bogged down in their thinking and believing) with the wrong-headed juxtaposition of “the satan” and the Devil, we are likely to miss the primary concern of Job as a whole, and this early offering in particular.

What Job 2:1-10 does is set the stage for the critical issue that drives the book, an issue that is put into play in the question/question exchange of Job and his wife (2:9-10). As he mourns in ashes covered with “loathsome sores” which he itches at (like a dog licking a wound) with a piece of broken pottery, Job’s wife asks him, “Do you still persist in your integrity?” Job responds–after an admittedly snippy crack about his wife’s gender and foolishness (but don’t judge him too harshly, remember, his sores were loathsome)–“Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?” In this exchange, the dilemma of faith is articulated. And in this exchange–more than an imagined struggle between the Devil and the believer, more than a heavenly gamble between the Satan and God–the set up for the book is made.

“Do you still persist in your integrity?”
Exactly what Job’s wife means by her question is open to interpretation. Perhaps she means that any God who would do such things, or allow such things, is not worth the integrity of relationship. Perhaps, like Job’s friends, she was trying to lay the blame for their troubles with Job–his integrity, then, is false. Regardless, her question begs the issue, how do we reconcile suffering and faith?

Bill Brown has summarized the force of Job’s argument as a rejection of the “orthodox theology of his day, one based on the practice of piety and the presumption of divine retribution.”2  In other words, piety does not equal protection. Job argues against a simplistic view of, say, Psalm 1, taking it to promise only good fruit in due season and wither-proof foliage. Job is more sober, more realistic about life than this.

But Job does more than just speak to his day. Job speaks as well to what is, if not an orthodox, then certainly a dominant piety in American evangelical Christianity–namely the so-called “prosperity gospel.” Job militates against this false “gospel,” good news turned bad, and our preaching can and I believe should follow suit.

The idea that God blesses the faithful, rewarding the righteous with what they deserve, and that the opposite, trials and tribulation, are signs of being out of sync with God–apparently the prosperity gospel is nothing new under the sun–is rejected outright by Job. It is rejected in the portrayal of the struggles of a genuinely “blameless and upright” man, and in Job’s response–both to his wife and to his situation.

“Shall we receive the good at the hand of the God, and not receive the bad?”
Job’s question is rhetorical. The implied answer is that, of course, one should. Perhaps because there is little else that one can do, after all God is God. In essence this is a reiteration of Job 1:21b, “the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away.” While this may strike some as fatalistic, Job’s question is instructive. I take it to be a foreshadowing of his own struggle with suffering and faith, and an attempt to maintain faith in the midst of personal trial. One might hear in Job’s question an echo of the Good Friday lament–My God my God, why have you forsaken me? This is both an expression of faith, and a bald assertion that all is not right.

Job 2:1-10 is the set up for the faithful struggle and the struggles of faith that Job embodies, and to which we are invited. These struggles are not with Satan, or with our own righteousness, nor are they signs of sinfulness or faithlessness, rather they are offered as expressions of genuine and life-giving relationship with God.