Lessons (Track 1)
So Job finally gets what he’s been asking for: God comes onstage. Not, however, to answer Job’s questions, but to ask Job some questions. Today’s reading gives us Job’s final response, but before moving to that, let’s wonder a bit about God’s response.
“Who is this that darkens counsel
by words without knowledge? (38:2)
“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?…
when the morning stars sang together
and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy? (38:4-7)
Who has cut a channel for the torrents of rain,
and a way for the thunderbolt,
to bring rain on a land where no one lives,
on the desert, which is empty of human life, (38:25-26)
Gird up your loins like a man;
I will question you, and you declare to me.
Will you even put me in the wrong?
Will you condemn me that you may be justified? (40:7-8)
Can you draw out Leviathan with a fishhook,
or press down its tongue with a cord?
Its sneezes flash forth light,
and its eyes are like the eyelids of the dawn.
From its mouth go flaming torches;
sparks of fire leap out.
Out of its nostrils comes smoke,
as from a boiling pot and burning rushes.
Its breath kindles coals,
and a flame comes out of its mouth.
In its neck abides strength,
and terror dances before it. (41:1, 18-22)
So what is this? Sheer bluster? Many readers have thought so. But if they’re right, Job’s in the Bible only because generations of readers were remarkably unobservant. Let’s try for something more likely.
This is obviously a Creator delighted with creation. And it is a wild, beautiful, and dangerous world. What is God up to? The book doesn’t answer the question directly; that would violate the logic of story. The story invites us to reflect, to wonder, to draw our tentative conclusions. In that spirit, here are four suggestions.
First, while it is clearly not a world organized around human interests narrowly conceived, it is the sort of world that can nurture what we most value in humanity. Human interests narrowly conceived: recall the lines about the rain. Elsewhere in the Old Testament rain often appears as a paradigmatic divine blessing: predictable rain in response to obedience, drought in response to disobedience. Here God is sending rain “on a land where no one lives, / on the desert, which is empty of human life.” God hunts for prey for the lion, and that prey is sometimes human.
Has this God built fail-safe mechanisms into creation, whether into weather systems, so that hurricanes don’t hit populated areas, or into the human body, so that cancerous cells immediately die, or into the human psyche, so that evil thoughts put us to sleep? Obviously not.
A world that can nurture what we most value in humanity? Traditionally there are four cardinal virtues (fortitude, temperance, justice, prudence) and three Christian virtues (faith, hope, love). What would these virtues –particularly fortitude, faith, hope, love—mean in a defanged world?
Recall Thomas More. Lord Chancellor of England, he refused consent to Henry VIII’s divorce and was beheaded July 6, 1535. Robert Bolt wrote a play based on his life, Man for all seasons. Late in that play More’s been sent to the tower and his daughter Margaret is trying to talk him into saying the few words that would mean his freedom.
Margaret In any State that was half good, you would be raised up high, not here, for what you’ve done already. It’s not your fault the State’s three-quarters bad. Then if you elect to suffer for it, you elect yourself a hero.
More That’s very neat. But look now… If we lived in a State where virtue was profitable, common sense would make us good, and greed would make us saintly. And we’d live like animals or angels in the happy land that needs no heroes. But since in fact we see that avarice, anger, envy, pride, sloth, lust and stupidity commonly profit far beyond humility, chastity, fortitude, justice and thought, and have to choose, to be human at all… why then perhaps we must stand fast a little—even at the risk of being heroes.
Margaret (Emotionally) But in reason! Haven’t you done as much as God can reasonably want?
More Well… finally… it isn’t a matter of reason; finally it’s a matter of love.
Coming at this from another direction, in the middle of a discussion of church order, St Paul asks “Do you not know that we are to judge angels?” That’s the briefest of glimpses into our future, and a reminder in this context, that God’s problem isn’t to somehow “get us to heaven.” It’s to form sons and daughters who in eternity can be trusted with power and responsibility far beyond our present imagination.
Why this wild, beautiful, and dangerous world? It’s the sort of world that can nurture virtuous individuals. We might also observe that it can nurture virtuous communities. We confess one God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the original community. What would our community life look like, or be worth, if we never had to deal with each other’s suffering? This is a remarkably good world for calling forth the love within our communities that faintly mirrors the eternal love between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Second, where does the book leave the question of God’s justice, so often raised by Job’s friends and Job himself? It looks as though the retributive justice (everyone gets what they deserve) is at most a stopgap measure in God’s providence. Recall the verses in today’s reading. Job is to intercede for his friends, precisely so that they don’t get what they deserve. Job’s vindication is good news for Job’s community, problematic as it is. And here again Job and Jesus as presented in Hebrews dovetail, with Hebrew’s celebration of Jesus as the one who “always lives to make intercession for [us].” This really needs to inform our politics. There’s a place for retributive justice, but it alone is not going to reknit our badly torn community life.
Third, God as artist. Why this wild, beautiful, and dangerous world? After listening to God’s response to Job, it sounds as much an aesthetic issue as anything else. Recall Annie Dillard’s observation: “the creator loves pizzazz.” That may be part of what’s going on here. Recall the description of Leviathan “Its sneezes flash forth light, / and its eyes are like the eyelids of the dawn.” God takes more delight in our wild freedom than we do. We ask “What right does God the Artist have to create such a world?” Well, at each Eucharist we recall (glancing at Crucifix) that the Artist did not shield himself from the violence and danger.
Fourth, this wild, beautiful, and dangerous world that God has created, is the world in which God invites Job –and us—to live. And it is this world that Job embraces in today’s reading.
Understanding that embrace is complicated by the challenge of translating v.6. The New Revised Standard Version, which we typically use, offers a sort of worst-case reading: “therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.” No wonder we’re tempted to hear the preceding chapters as divine bluster! The CEB offers “Therefore, I relent and find comfort on dust and ashes,” with the note “The verse is capable of several translations…” The best translation is probably something like “Therefore I recant and change my mind concerning dust and ashes” (Ellen F. Davis in the collection of essays in Getting involved with God). Dust and ashes just aren’t an appropriate response to this God, to this world.
The most powerful evidence for Job’s embrace of this world is that he has more children. To bring children into this world! And the names he gives them: Jemimah, Keziah, and Keren-happuch, which, if we translated them, would come out something like Dove, Cinnamon, and Horn of Eye-Shadow. Here’s how Ellen Davis ends her essay:
The two portraits of Father Job that stand at either end of this book mark the true measure of his transformation. Job, this man of integrity who was once so careful, fearful of God and of the possible sins of his children, becomes at the last freewheeling, breaking with custom to honor daughters alongside sons, bestowing inheritances and snappy names. The inspiration and model for this wild style of parenting is, of course, God the Creator. Job learned about it when God spoke out of the whirlwind. And now Job loves with the abandon characteristic of God’s love –revolutionary in seeking our freedom, reveling in the untamed beauty of every child.
Job, Blind Bartimaeus, Thomas More, and pre-eminently Jesus himself, not ashamed to be called our brother, and even now interceding for us: not bad company in this wild, beautiful, and dangerous world. Amen.