We’ve been spending the past couple of weeks talking about God, the Bible, and Natural Disaster. Together, we’ve been seeking to discern God’s role in such destructive events as the Oklahoma tornados, Hurricane Sandy and Katrina, the Haiti Earthquake, and countless others.
A couple of weeks ago we looked at the creation stories, and we learned that creation is messy and it takes time. It’s not a clean process, even for God. Instead, it is something that takes evaluating. And as a result, creation was made good, not perfect. We also learned that God shares creative power with all creation, for the sake of a shared relationship. And that includes us… we are partners with God in creation.
Last week, we talked about the flood story. We learned that in the flood story, God is not like a cold, neutral judge behind the bench, but rather is like a grieving parent. God is deeply affected by the actions of humanity. Anguished and heartbroken over the corruption that existed within humanity and creation. We learned that human actions can have disastrous environmental effects on creation. That there are natural consequences to our actions. However, throughout the story, God is like a grieving parent when deciding how to move forward with the world. And finally, in the end, God makes the promise to never destroy the world again. For God would rather be in relationship with an unruly and wicked creation than no creation at all.
Today, we dive into the story of Job – another well-known and classic story from Scripture. Listen to a portion of the story.
11There was once a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job. That man was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil. 2There were born to him seven sons and three daughters. 3He had seven thousand sheep, three thousand camels, five hundred yoke of oxen, five hundred donkeys, and very many servants; so that this man was the greatest of all the people of the east.
6One day the heavenly beings came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came among them. 7The Lord said to Satan, “Where have you come from?” Satan answered the Lord, “From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it.” 8The Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man who fears God and turns away from evil.” 9Then Satan answered the Lord, “Does Job fear God for nothing? 10Have you not put a fence around him and his house and all that he has, on every side? You have blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land. 11But stretch out your hand now, and touch all that he has, and he will curse you to your face.” 12The Lord said to Satan, “Very well, all that he has is in your power; only do not stretch out your hand against him!” So Satan went out from the presence of the Lord.
13One day when his sons and daughters were eating and drinking wine in the eldest brother’s house, 14a messenger came to Job and said, “The oxen were plowing and the donkeys were feeding beside them, 15and the Sabeans fell on them and carried them off, and killed the servants with the edge of the sword; I alone have escaped to tell you.” 16While he was still speaking, another came and said, “The fire of God fell from heaven and burned up the sheep and the servants, and consumed them; I alone have escaped to tell you.” 17While he was still speaking, another came and said, “The Chaldeans formed three columns, made a raid on the camels and carried them off, and killed the servants with the edge of the sword; I alone have escaped to tell you.” 18While he was still speaking, another came and said, “Your sons and daughters were eating and drinking wine in their eldest brother’s house, 19and suddenly a great wind came across the desert, struck the four corners of the house, and it fell on the young people, and they are dead; I alone have escaped to tell you.” 20Then Job arose, tore his robe, shaved his head, and fell on the ground and worshiped. 21He said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return there; the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” 22In all this Job did not sin or charge God with wrong-doing.
29Then his wife said to him, “Do you still persist in your integrity? Curse God, and die.” 10But he said to her, “You speak as any foolish woman would speak. Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?” In all this Job did not sin with his lips.
11Now when Job’s three friends heard of all these troubles that had come upon him, each of them set out from his home—Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite. They met together to go and console and comfort him. 12When they saw him from a distance, they did not recognize him, and they raised their voices and wept aloud; they tore their robes and threw dust in the air upon their heads. 13They sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great. After this Job opened his mouth and cursed the day of his birth.
38Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind: 2“Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? 3Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me.
4“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. 5Who determined its measurements—surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? 6On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone 7when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?
42Then Job answered the Lord: 2“I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted. 3‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’ Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. 4‘Hear, and I will speak; I will question you, and you declare to me.’ 5I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; 6therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.”
7After the Lord had spoken these words to Job, the Lord said to Eliphaz the Temanite: “My wrath is kindled against you and against your two friends; for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.
10And the Lord restored the fortunes of Job when he had prayed for his friends; and the Lord gave Job twice as much as he had before. 17And Job died, old and full of days.
Let’s begin with the very first line of the book of Job – “There was once a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job.” What does that sound like to you? What kind of story does that sound like to you? It kind of sounds like the beginning of a fairy tale, doesn’t it? As in, “Once upon a time…there was a man named Job who lived in the land of Uz.” Many scholars agree that the book of Job is likely not a historical story. One reason could be that no one can figure out where the land of Uz was. It has never been found. Which suggests that maybe Job doesn’t represent a real person. Rather the character of Job represents every person. Which we can understand. I would bet we’ve all experienced undeserved suffering in our life. Different degrees of suffering, certainly. But suffering nonetheless.
So this is a “what if?” kind of book. What if this happened, how would we understand it? Which tells me that the Bible is not so much a book that answers questions as it is a book that asks questions. Which is remarkably important! The Bible is asking the same questions of God that we are. Which means it is a sacred task to ask such questions. “The book of Job is a story designed to pose key questions about suffering, presenting various points of view.” (Fretheim, p. 68) and then invites the reader to evaluate the responses to suffering.
Now this “once upon a time” story begins with a somewhat outrageous claim – that God makes a bet with satan that Job will remain faithful even as he is inflicted with great suffering. Because of this, many understand the point of this book to be that suffering is a test – that God is testing us when we suffer. However, one could say that this “testing” of Job’s faithfulness is not for Job’s sake, but is for God’s sake! For God to win an argument.
What do you think of that picture of God? A god who makes bets with satan about the faithfulness of human beings? Does God allow the destruction of children (as happened to Job’s children) simply in order to win a bet?
Or might it be that this beginning and its portrayal of suffering is so outrageous that it invites the reader to say “no!” to it? To say that suffering does not come from being tested? Maybe?
So God and satan make this wager – that Job will be faithful to God despite incredible suffering. And Job experiences great suffering, much of which comes from natural disasters. From fire and lightning that burned up his sheep and servants (1:16), to a windstorm that collapsed his son’s house, killing his sons and daughters.
And let’s notice Job’s response. After all this, in 1:21, Job says, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return there; the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” And in 2:10 – “Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?” Quite a remarkable response, right? This seems to show great faith and patience on Job’s part. That Job still blesses the Lord after all of this and that he seems to willingly accept the good and the bad that is handed to him. No wonder why God picks him as the most blameless and upright man…
BUT. But then, notice what happens after that at the end of chapter 2. It says, “After this Job opened his mouth and cursed the day of his birth.“ Suddenly, Job has a change of heart! This would suggest that Job actually changes his mind on his previously made statements. Maybe for Job, “the Lord gives and takes away” is no longer an acceptable answer. Maybe that no longer works for Job and perhaps, should no longer work for us?
With this change of heart, Job goes on to question God for 24 chapters! And through out, Job focuses on the question of creation. Essentially, Job thinks that creation was poorly designed. For Job, he believes he has lived his life in an exemplary way and is not deserving of such suffering. A feeling of many who suffer greatly…that it is undeserved.
Then, Job’s friends respond to his suffering for about 10 chapters. One friend says that Job is actually lucky that this has happened to him. Another says that Job’s children must have sinned against God and thus are punished. Finally, the third argues that Job just doesn’t know that he is sinner. Therefore, he is delusional, they think. They all seem to agree that God is punishing Jon because he deserves it. So Job thinks it is undeserved; his friends think it is deserved.
But then God speaks. Finally. After 38 chapters, we get a word from God. Which is good news. God does not ignore Job’s question and challenge about the world, but rather accepts it and responds. God could have certainly dismissed Job for even questioning God, but God doesn’t do that. And notice, the wager, the bet with satan is nowhere to be seen at this point. In fact, satan has left the story as well. They both sort of fade away.
The first thing to notice about God’s response is that God responds to Job’s questions with questions as well. God says at the beginning of chapter 38 – “Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me. 4“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. 5Who determined its measurements—surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it?”
When God says, “Gird up your loins,” God is challenging Job to consider more deeply the complexity of creation and his own place within it. Remember Job declared God’s creation as poorly designed. But “God’s questions to Job demonstrate that in order to understand his personal suffering, (Job) must revise his evaluation of the nature of creation and the way God chooses to work within it.” (Fretheim, pg. 83)
As a result, we too are invited to revise our understanding of creation. We cannot fully understand creation. Without potentially dangerous aspects to creation – like water and gravity – humanity could not exist. We rely on water for life. We need it. But water can also floods and cause death. We cannot live without gravity holding us here on earth. But gravity is also what causes people to fall from great heights. The very dangers of creation are the very things we rely on for life.
In response to God, Job says in 42:3, “Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.” That’s the first point I want us to take home from the book of Job. We learn that we simply cannot understand creation.
Because we cannot fully understand creation, we can get in its way and be hurt by it. Because we do not fully understand it, we build homes on insufficiently secured coast areas and flood plains, or on the edge of the earth’s fault lines.
Next, remember that Job’s friends tried to give reasons for his suffering. Now listen to what God says to Job’s friends in the end, 42:7 – “The Lord said to Eliphaz the Temanite: “My wrath is kindled against you and against your two friends; for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.” Notice, God gets angry when we try to explain away people’s sufferings! For God, it is better for us to say, “I do not understand” to those who are suffering than to try and offer an explanation. In fact, God seems to prefer Job’s questions rather than Job’s friend’s answers. God invites us to ask the questions!
We learn that the answers that Jobs’ friends provide, that Job is somehow deserving of this suffering and that it comes from God, is rejected by God. Rather God reminds us it is the nature of creation that has caused his suffering. Therefore, one can conclude that based on Job, God is not the doer of suffering. God is not the one who causes suffering. However, God does allow it.
Going back to chapter 1:12 – we see that while God did not cause the suffering God allowed it. It reads, “The Lord said to Satan, “Very well, all that he has is in your power.” God allows the suffering to happen. Perhaps that is one thing we can say – God does not cause suffering – but God does allow it to happen in God’s creation. .
As we’ve talked about already, I think the parenting image is helpful here. Parents allow their children to be exposed to the possibility of suffering, don’t they? Consider riding a bike for the first time, eventually you have to let them ride on their own. Driving a car. Going to a friend’s house. Playing sports. The possibilities of suffering are there and we are allowing them. Why? Well…if we didn’t, what would the result be? There is an episode of Law and Order about a mother who was so focused on protecting her own children from any danger in the world that she kept them home-schooled and never let them outside the house. As a result they had no concept of friends or how to make them. She convinced them that the world was an evil place and that they must fear it. All of this she did because she thought she could protect her children and keep them alive, and yet, in the end, it was suffocating the life out of them.
That’s the second point for us to take home. Sometimes, you have to allow for the possibility of suffering in order to make room of the possibility of life.
What does this all have to do with natural disasters? In the book of Job, we learn that the majority of natural disasters are not caused by human sin. Rather they are the result of a creation that we simply cannot fully understand. A creation that has been given the freedom to be creative itself.
Indeed, God has allowed the possibility for suffering and therefore holds some responsibility. However, it is also the very allowing for the possibility of suffering that also allows for the possibility of life. As a result, we are invited to trust in the good (though not perfect) design of God’s creation.
In the end, God restores much of what Job lost. But it is still not the same. Job’s firstborn children remain dead. It is indeed bittersweet for Job. But we must keep in mind, that God pays the price too. God also experiences the great suffering, again, much like how a parent hurts when a child hurts. That’s where we move to next week – the suffering of God and natural disasters. If there is anything of God in the words that have been spoken, may they settle and take root in our life. AMEN