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Posted on October 28, 2018 by Kathy Miller

Faithful Extravagance

Job 42:1-17

Then Job answered the Lord:

“I know that you can do all things,

    and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.

You asked, ‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’

Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand,

    Wonders beyond me that I did not know.

You said, ‘Hear, pray, and I will speak;

    Let me ask you and you will inform me.’

By the ear’s rumor I heard of You,

            and now my eye has seen You.

Therefore I recant and relent,

            Being but dust and ashes.”

 

After the Lord had spoken these words to Job, the Lord said to Eliphaz the Temanite: “My wrath has flared against you and your two companions because you have not spoken rightly to Me as did My servant Job. Now therefore take seven bulls and seven rams, and go to my servant Job, and offer a burnt-offering for yourselves, and Job my servant will pray on your behalf. I will accept his prayer and not deal with you according to your folly; for you have not spoken to me as is right, as my servant Job has done.” So Eliphaz the Temanite and Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Naamathite went and did what the Lord had told them; and the Lord accepted Job’s prayer.

And the Lord restored the fortunes of Job when he had prayed for his companions; the Lord gave Job twice as much as he had before. Then all Job’s kinfolk, and all who had known him before, came and broke bread with him in his house and grieved with him and comforted him for all the harm that the LORD had brought on him; and each of them gave him a piece of money and a gold ring.

The Lord blessed Job’s latter days more than his former days; and he had fourteen thousand sheep, six thousand camels, a thousand yoke of oxen, and a thousand donkeys. He also had seven sons and three daughters. He named the first daughter Dove, the second Cinnamon, and the third Horn of Eyeshadow. In all the land there were no women so beautiful as Job’s daughters; and their father gave them an inheritance along with their brothers. After this Job lived one hundred and forty years, and saw his children, and his children’s children, four generations. And Job died, old and full of days.

The Word of the Lord.

Thanks be to God.

 

Sermon

On the one hand, I quite like the book of Job. Not the beginning, necessarily, when God agrees to a wager with the Adversary to determine whether or not Job only loves God because his life has been good and easy—I’m not a huge fan of a God who is willing to wager my life and happiness to win an argument, but I do like that we’ve included a book in our sacred scripture that deals almost exclusively with human pain and suffering—a book that does not shy away from the hard questions about God’s role in our misfortune and our own potential culpability.

In case the Book of Job is only ringing vague bells of recollection for you, allow me to provide you with a brief recap:

  • When the book opens, we are introduced to Job, a blameless and upright man who feared God and shunned evil.
    • Job is wealthy and has seven sons and three daughters.
    • To give you a sense of Job’s character, the text tells us that he is the kind of person who would preemptively offer sacrifices to God just in case his children happened to have sinned without knowing it … so, something of a worrier and someone big on following the rules. Maybe a little uptight.
  • Now it happens one day that The Adversary (one of the heavenly beings whose job was to question God) has just returned from being on earth and God asks if The Adversary noticed Job—because, God says, there is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, who fears God and shuns evil. And the Adversary counters that this is only the case because God has protected Job and prevented any misfortune from befalling him. It is easy, The Adversary implies, to love God when life is going well.
  • Very well then, God, answers, his life is in your hands, do with it what you will and let us see if Job continues to be blameless and upright, to fear God and shun evil.
  • And so, tragedy after tragedy befalls Job:
    • A raiding party kills his servants and absconds with his oxen and donkeys
    • A fire kills his sheep and the servants tending them
    • Another band of robbers steals his camels and kills more of his servants
    • A great wind blows down his eldest son’s house and kills all of his children
    • And, finally, open sores appear on Job from the soles of his feet to the crown of his head.
  • All of this occurs in the first two chapters of the book. For the next 35 chapters, Job and his companions (who come to console him) argue about the cause of Job’s suffering. Job insists that he is blameless and continually calls on God to account for what has befallen  him. His companions, meanwhile, insist that Job must have done something wrong to merit this punishment.
  • Finally, in chapter 38, God appears in a whirlwind and responds to Job. And then the book ends with the reading for this morning in which Job steps back from his accusations, his companions are chastised by God, his fortunes are restored twofold and he has ten more children.

 

So, on the one hand, I like the book of Job. I like that we have this sacred text that deals with these very human emotions and situations. And, I rather like Job. He is stubborn and unwilling to waver in his belief. And, I appreciate that we believe in a God who responds to Job’s demands for answers. I like that we have in scripture an affirmation of the fact that sometimes a life of faith involves moments of rage and even blame directed at God.

On the other hand, I’m not a huge fan of how the book ends. While I appreciate that God responds to Job and I can recognize that the poetry of God’s response is indeed beautiful, I read God’s response as close to bullying. God begins by asking, “who is this that darkens my counsel with words but no knowledge? Gird up your loins like a man and I will question you and you shall answer me … Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? … Have you commanded the sun to rise in the morning? Can you draw out Leviathan? Have you considered Behemouth?” And on and on. For three chapters, God questions Job and parades before him this strange collection of God’s creations, from the mountain goat and wild ass to the Leviathan and Behemouth. To me, it reads as both a power play and a prideful tour of God’s creation highlighting some of God’s more bizarre creations. And then, when Job finally recants and relents, the book’s “happy ending” involves his fortunes being restored twice over and the birth of ten new children (as if new children could simply replace the ones who died).

As someone who has lost children, I can’t get past that part of this final chapter—for me, it encapsulates the larger problems of the book—who is this God who agrees to allow tragedies to happen? Who is this God who thinks things can be repaired simply by replacing dead children with new children? Job may appear to be satisfied at the the end of the book, but I am not. To my mind, God’s bombastic questions and boastful tour of creation is nothing but bluster. They in no way answer Job’s questions and this business of replacement children at the end only highlights this problem.

 

Because the book of Job deals so forthrightly with questions of suffering and pain, it is natural to read it in search of answers: why is it that we suffer? why doesn’t God stop bad things from happening?

Unfortunately, I’m not sure those are the questions the book is asking. The book never once attempts to justify God’s actions nor explain the reason for Job’s suffering. Indeed, Job’s companions, who do attempt to answer those questions, are roundly rebuked by God at the end of the narrative.

Instead, the book of Job seems to be about human pain: how is it that we are meant to endure it? What does it look like to be faithful in and through our pain? How are we transformed by it?

When we read the book of Job focused not on God and God’s actions or inactions, not asking why God allows suffering, but instead on Job and Job’s response to that suffering, the question of the final chapter shifts slightly. Instead of why God thought Job’s children could simply be replaced, the question becomes how it is that Job is able to open himself up again to the potential cost of love. As one author puts it, “It is useless to ask how much (or how little) it costs God to give more children. The real question is how much it costs Job to become a father again. How can he open himself again to the terrible vulnerability of loving those whom he cannot protect against suffering and untimely death?”[1]

While there is no definitive answer given to that question, there are a few hints. The story of Job is bookended with two portraits of Job. In the beginning, Job is presented an upright man so fearful of God and his children’s potential sins that he would preemptively offer sacrifices on their behalf, just in case. At the end of the book, we are given different details about Job and they are strange. First, we are told that Job names his daughters Dove, Cinnamon, and Horn of Eyeshadow. While the Bible is full of names that sound strange to us today, these three names would have been strange even in Job’s context. Second, the text tells us that Job gave his daughters an inheritance along with his sons. This was unheard of in the time that Job lived. Job has changed. A cautious and worried man has become one who overturns societal conventions.

What causes such a dramatic transformation? The only possibility is the encounter Job had with God in the whirlwind. Now, suddenly, God’s bizarre tour of creation and its oddities begins to make slightly more sense. In the midst of his suffering, Job encounters a God who brags about making it rain on a land where no one lives, on the desert, which is empty of human life, simply to satisfy the waste and desolate land.

In the arid climate of the Middle East, to waste water on what is essentially sand is the epitome of both extravagance and uselessness. Moreover, “every animal in which God glories is utterly useless,” with the exception of the war horse, who, while useful, is described in such a way as to make clear that there is no controlling it: from the wild ostrich who flaps her wings joyously while at the same time forgetting where she has laid her eggs to the Leviathan who is sneezes light and breathes fire, the animals God describes are ones who can never be tamed and appear to serve no real purpose.

In response to Job’s insistence that he has done nothing to deserve the suffering he has experienced, God describes for Job a creation in which little makes any sense. Job, who is convinced that his moral innocence should have warded off disaster, because he believes that the world is a manageable place run by a demanding but nonetheless predictable God who owes the righteous a good time, encounters a view of the world that is in no way sensible, predictable, nor suited to human purposes.  Job, who we sense is expecting an answer from God that will explain his suffering in a way that makes sense in his view of the world, instead meets a God who glories, as Annie Dillard writes, in pizzazz—in creatures who are stunning even if they occasionally step on their own eggs. Job meets a god who “gets a kick out of doing things for no good reason” like sending rain on a deserted land.[2]

There is no answer to the question of why bad things happen. At least, no answer that makes any sense or any difference to us when we are in the midst of them. Instead, what the book of Job offers is twofold: first, the reminder and divine recognition that the pain and suffering are real. Even at the end of the book, after his fortunes have been restored, the text makes a point of noting all the people who come to sit with Job to mourn with him what he has lost.

Second, there is no preventing loss. No amount of sacrifice or ritual can protect us or our children from the tragedies that befall us. And so, perhaps the most faithful thing we can do is rail against God when we suffer loss, and when our grieving is done, learn from Job to revel in the gifts we have been given, to float convention and give our children strange and beautiful names, to give away our money simply because we can, to celebrate birthdays and create moments of levity when possible, to remember the beautiful and the useless even as we grieve the tragedies and loss we encounter in this life.



[1]. Ellen Davis, Getting Involved with God: Rediscovering the Old Testament, p. 142.

[2]. Davis, 137.

 
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