Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost

“Some of God’s greatest gifts are unanswered prayers,” drawled Garth Brooks.

October 18, 2009

Alternate First Reading
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Commentary on Job 38:1-7 [34-41]

“Some of God’s greatest gifts are unanswered prayers,” drawled Garth Brooks.

“Then the Lord answered Job….”
While Job may not have been thinking in terms of a girlfriend, a longed-for high school crush, still he might have agreed. I wonder what surprised Job more, the content of the answer he received, or the simple fact he received one. For almost ninety percent of his book, Job has struggled with God’s apparent absence, God’s distance, God’s silence. And now God answers him.

Gird up your loins
The first part of God’s answer is one of several connections with Job 23:1-9, 16, the first reading from last week (19 Pentecost). “Who is this,” God asks Job, “who darkens counsel by words without knowledge?” This answer refers to Job’s despairing cry that he wishes he could disappear and “vanish into darkness” (23:17). God’s words make it clear that Job speaks in ignorance–an ignorance that is profoundly theological. It is out of darkness–confusion, ignorance, foolishness about God–that Job accuses God. Now God will answer, just as Job had asked. Sort of.

The second part of God’s answer to Job is a simple enough call to action: “Gird up your loins like a man,” God says to Job, in effect telling him to “hike up that diaper.”

“Gird up your loins” is an idiom, one that is used in the Bible when the situation calls for courage, commitment, and perhaps an end to complaining. Elisha told one of the “members of the company of prophets” to go anoint Jehu as king over Israel, never mind that Ahab is currently king, never mind the danger, as though to say “Stop dragging your heels, hike up that diaper, and do what you’re told” (2 Kings 9:1ff). In the same way, God called the prophet Jeremiah to deliver the word to the kingdom of Judah, never mind the ways God’s prophets are typically received there, never mind this “I am only a youth” business; quit your half-steppin’, hike up that diaper and tell it like I tell you to tell it (Jeremiah 1:6, 17).

The sense here in Job is a little different. Job does not have to face unruly kings or disgruntled parishioners; Job has to face God, and God’s answers to his complaints. You wanted answers, Job; well here they come, so gird up your loins like a man, hike up your diaper, and listen.

A reversal of pronouns
With a bit of rhetorical flourish, God reverses the field on Job. God does this with a switcheroo of the pronouns, the questioner becoming the questioned. In 23:4-5, Job was anxious to bring his case against God: “I would learn what he would answer me,” Job brashly declared, “and understand what he would say to me.” But God turns the tables on him. “I will question you,” God says, “you shall declare to me.” When reading this text in worship it might be helpful to highlight this reversal of pronouns, emphasizing each one as it is read, and thus emphasizing what God does with Job’s questioning, namely turn it right back on him.

Job’s longed for “Q and A” goes very differently than he might have hoped and certainly differently than he expected, as after the fashion of parents and teachers God answers Job’s question with a question, actually a series of them.

Were you there?
God’s first question for Job is, as was Job’s question to his wife (2:10), rhetorical. “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” Were you there? Job has no answer, because there is only one possible answer: “Nowhere. No. I was not.” God goes on, pressing the reversal of charges, covering the ins and outs of creation (verses 5-7), the watering of the earth–answering drought with rain (verses 34-5, 37-38), and providing for the cycles of the animal kingdom (verses 39-31).

Of all of this, God makes the case, Job is ignorant. Is it not possible that Job is equally ignorant in his questioning of God? Job’s ignorance of the grand scheme, of the workings of creation from its foundations to its highest heavens to life in between, reveals Job’s theological ignorance–that Job questions God, questions the (in)justice of his own situation, questions God’s apparent absence, is proof positive that Job is out of his depth.

The implication of this reverse-questioning is that while Job may not know or recognize or feel God’s presence, still God is very much at the helm. God is, after all, God; Job is not.

Who’s who? Who has given understanding?
In the whole of Job 38, the word “who” occurs thirteen times. In the selected reading that we deal with here, we get no fewer than nine of those. In the English one occurrence of “who”, miy is missed in verse 36 which might read,
“Who has put wisdom in the inward parts, who has given understanding to the mind? (NRSV has “or has given”)

And this “who’s who?” in God’s questioning of Job provides another rhetorical edge to the reading. “Who’s who?” God seems to ask. “Not you,” is the answer.

But more than this, and in one last connection with last week’s reading from Job, one particularly important use of this “who” is worth noting. God asks Job, “Who has given understanding to the mind?” And therein is Job’s earnest, even aggressive longing to have an answer from God met.

The phrase “who has given” is mey- naton in Hebrew. This phrase, easily missed in English translation, recalls Job’s longing to know where God might be found in 23:3, “Oh, that I knew where I might find him,” or more literally, “Who will give [that] I may know” where to find God. The Hebrew phrase here is mey-yiton, “who will give.” Job’s plea for knowledge of the Almighty is answered, finally, by the only one able to share such knowledge–the Almighty–the one who gives knowledge; knowledge which Job, as he questions God, and seeks for God, lacks.

The Lord’s answer to Job may not, on the surface, seem particularly satisfying. But at the heart of this passage lies what is, finally, the only possible answer to theological ignorance–Job’s or ours–that it is God who is God; God who created the earth, who orders the heavens, who sustains life in their midst, and who, even when it is difficult for us to see or feel, we can trust is there with us and for us.