Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost

Most of the Book of Job is fly-over territory.

How do you get a camel through the eye of a needle ...
"How do you get a camel through the eye of a needle ..." by Mike Beales via Flickr; licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0.

October 11, 2015

Alternate First Reading
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Commentary on Job 23:1-9, 16-17

Most of the Book of Job is fly-over territory.

While there are 42 chapters in all, it’s usually the first two chapters and sometimes part of the last on that seem to catch our interest. Fortunately (or unfortunately), we aren’t alone in this tendency. Biblical readers throughout history have focused on this envelope or outer layer of Job, leaving the vast middle of the book untouched. This isn’t accidental or due to laziness; instead it has a lot to do with the fact that these intervening chapters are almost exclusively poetry rather than prose and they consist of long and often complex speeches given by either Job or his friends. In other words, they don’t make for easy reading and they are hard to break up into smaller units that make sense. The structure of the book poses a challenge to scholars as well in that they aren’t quite sure how this long poetic middle section is connected to its short narrative bookends. Are the two forms by the same author, they wonder, and if not, which part came first?

While poetry is as ancient as humanity itself, it is somehow intimidating to many of us. In college, I tried to get out of taking a required poetry course in my major, telling my advisor that reading poems wasn’t really my thing. Novels and stories, on the other hand, that’s where the action was! No luck — I ended up taking the class. I can’t say that I began to love poetry, but I did learn how to appreciate it or at least not to fear it. At the time I didn’t know that I would become an Old Testament scholar and, as it turns out, the Hebrew Scriptures are filled poetry. The Psalms, perhaps most notably, but also the prophets and wisdom literature like Proverbs and Ecclesiastes. There are also hymns and songs scattered throughout narrative texts as well — victory songs, prayers, hymns of praise, blessings, etc. And we are missing out when we take detours to get around them. Sometimes it is in these very texts, these poetic, fly-over portions, that some of the most profound insights in the Bible appear.

Poet Elizabeth Alexander, in a conversation with Krista Tippett on the NPR program “On Being,” suggested that reading and writing poetry are ways to get at hard and true things that other forms of language and literature can’t quite do, especially in ways that allows both poet and reader to formulate and ask questions. Perhaps this is the reason that poetry is the primary vehicle of communication in the Book of Job, which is essentially about tackling ultimate questions, from all kinds of angles and perspectives.

As chapter 23 begins, we discover that Job is still destitute. “Today also my complaint is bitter; His [God’s] hand is heavy despite my groaning,” he says in vs. 2. It’s been 20 chapters and nothing has changed in his situation. A few verses later he says,

If I go forward, he is not there;
or backward, I cannot perceive him;
on the left he hides, and I cannot behold him;
I turn to the right, but I cannot see him.

By the end of the chapter, with no relief in sight, Job adds that

God has made my heart faint;

the Almighty has terrified me;

If only I could vanish in darkness,

and thick darkness would cover my face!

Job has looked everywhere and has found no one to comfort him or relieve his despair. In fact, God has not responded in any way to Job’s demand for answers. But Job is still at it, asking and searching; maybe because if he stops, then he’ll have nothing left to live for.

When I’ve thought about the character of Job, sometimes I find myself wondering why Job doesn’t give up or just “curse God and die” as his wife earlier suggested. What is it that makes him persist in his quest for a divine response? Alexander provides some insight into this as well when she describes “the act of asking real questions in poems as a kind of spiritual practice.” Job seems to be engaging in precisely this kind of practice as he continues to talk to God in the shape of poems as a way of maintaining a connection, even when he doesn’t feel one. Statements and declarations are fundamentally one-sided in a way that questions are not. Questions always leave open the possibility for a dialogue.

There is also something important about the questions themselves that emerge in Job’s poetic reflections. Alexander continues her discussion, noting,

I ask questions relatively often in poems and I ask them because I don’t know the answer. And I ask them because I think that poems are fantastic spaces with which to arrive at real conundrum-y kinds of questions, to go as far down the road as you can of understanding something and then sometimes that road ends with a real question.

So what does Job want from God, what are the questions that he works to articulate? He wants to know what all of us want to know at certain points in our lives: Where is God in all of this?

O that I knew where I might find him,
that I might come even to his dwelling!

For Job, though, finding God would just be the beginning. He wants to bring his case against God to court and he wants a divine answer (Job 23:4-5). What is the case that Job wants to unfold before his creator? He wants a reasoned answer to his question: Why has all of this happened to me? Or more precisely, why have YOU done this to me? After all, I played by the rules, I did the right things, I have been a good person. You, God, have not played fair. What’s going on up there? I need to know!!

What an incredible model tucked deeply into our sacred text! Job shows us that saying hard and true things and asking real questions is part of being in relationship to God. They are not simply tolerated; they keep the lines of communication open when every other avenue is closed off.