August 6, 2017
Writings Ketuvim Part 1, Psalms, Proverbs, Job
Another book on the recommended list is God: A Biography by Jack Miles. It is a fascinating character analysis of “God” in the Hebrew scriptures. This book contains the most credible reading of the book of Job that I know. Job epitomizes resistance to any understanding of “God” that would delegitimize his experience. Job resists the superficial theology of Deuteronomy that explains away suffering by calling it a punishment from “God” for bad behavior. What happens when suffering is undeserved? Why do we hold to superficial explanations of reality that blame the victim?
All of life is far more boring
than words could ever say.
Our eyes and our ears
are never satisfied
with what we see and hear.
Everything that happens
has happened before;
nothing is new,
nothing under the sun.
Someone might say,
“Here is something new!”
But it happened before,
long before we were born.
No one who lived in the past
is remembered anymore,
and everyone yet to be born
will be forgotten too….
Be happy and enjoy eating and drinking! God decided long ago that this is what you should do. Dress up, comb your hair, and look your best. Life is short, love the one you love, and enjoy being with your lover. This is what you are supposed to do as you struggle through life on this earth. Work hard at whatever you do. You will soon go to the world of the dead, where no one works or thinks or reasons or knows anything.
–Ecclesiastes 1:8-11; 9:7-10
Job 1:1-2:10 CEV
Many years ago, a man named Job lived in the land of Uz. He was a truly good person, who respected God and refused to do evil.
Job had seven sons and three daughters. He owned seven thousand sheep, three thousand camels, five hundred pair of oxen, five hundred donkeys, and a large number of servants. He was the richest person in the East.
Job’s sons took turns having feasts in their homes, and they always invited their three sisters to join in the eating and drinking. After each feast, Job would send for his children and perform a ceremony, as a way of asking God to forgive them of any wrongs they may have done. He would get up early the next morning and offer a sacrifice for each of them, just in case they had sinned or silently cursed God.
One day, when the angels had gathered around the Lord, and Satan was there with them, the Lord asked, “Satan, where have you been?”
Satan replied, “I have been going all over the earth.”
Then the Lord asked, “What do you think of my servant Job? No one on earth is like him—he is a truly good person, who respects me and refuses to do evil.”
“Why shouldn’t he respect you?” Satan remarked. “You are like a wall protecting not only him, but his entire family and all his property. You make him successful in whatever he does, and his flocks and herds are everywhere. Try taking away everything he owns, and he will curse you to your face.”
The Lord replied, “All right, Satan, do what you want with anything that belongs to him, but don’t harm Job.”
Then Satan left.
Job’s sons and daughters were having a feast in the home of his oldest son, when someone rushed up to Job and said, “While your servants were plowing with your oxen, and your donkeys were nearby eating grass, a gang of Sabeans attacked and stole the oxen and donkeys! Your other servants were killed, and I was the only one who escaped to tell you.”
That servant was still speaking, when a second one came running up and saying, “God sent down a fire that killed your sheep and your servants. I am the only one who escaped to tell you.”
Before that servant finished speaking, a third one raced up and said, “Three gangs of Chaldeans attacked and stole your camels! All of your other servants were killed, and I am the only one who escaped to tell you.”
That servant was still speaking, when a fourth one dashed up and said, “Your children were having a feast and drinking wine at the home of your oldest son, when suddenly a windstorm from the desert blew the house down, crushing all of your children. I am the only one who escaped to tell you.”
When Job heard this, he tore his clothes and shaved his head because of his great sorrow. He knelt on the ground, then worshiped God and said:
“We bring nothing at birth;
we take nothing
with us at death.
The Lord alone gives and takes.
Praise the name of the Lord!”
In spite of everything, Job did not sin or accuse God of doing wrong.
When the angels gathered around the Lord again, Satan was there with them, and the Lord asked, “Satan, where have you been?”
Satan replied, “I have been going all over the earth.”
Then the Lord asked, “What do you think of my servant Job? No one on earth is like him—he is a truly good person, who respects me and refuses to do evil. And he hasn’t changed, even though you persuaded me to destroy him for no reason.”
Satan answered, “There’s no pain like your own. People will do anything to stay alive. Try striking Job’s own body with pain, and he will curse you to your face.”
“All right!” the Lord replied. “Make Job suffer as much as you want, but just don’t kill him.” Satan left and caused painful sores to break out all over Job’s body—from head to toe.
Then Job sat on the ash-heap to show his sorrow. And while he was scraping his sores with a broken piece of pottery, his wife asked, “Why do you still trust God? Why don’t you curse him and die?”
Job replied, “Don’t talk like a fool! If we accept blessings from God, we must accept trouble as well.” In all that happened, Job never once said anything against God.
Eliphaz from Teman, Bildad from Shuah, and Zophar from Naamah were three of Job’s friends, and they heard about his troubles. So they agreed to visit Job and comfort him.
Eliphaz from Teman said:
What use are we humans
even the wisest of us?
If you were completely sinless,
that would still mean nothing
to God All-Powerful.
Is he correcting you
for worshiping him?
No! It’s because
of your terrible sins.
To guarantee payment of a debt,
you have taken clothes
from the poor.
And you refused bread and water
to the hungry and thirsty,
although you were rich,
respected, and powerful.
You have turned away widows
and have broken the arms
That’s why you were suddenly
trapped by terror,
blinded by darkness,
and drowned in a flood.
Job 31:16-25; 35-37
I have never cheated widows
or others in need,
and I have always shared
my food with orphans.
Since the time I was young,
I have cared for orphans
and helped widows.
I provided clothes for the poor,
and I was praised
for supplying woolen garments
to keep them warm.
If I have ever raised my arm
to threaten an orphan
when the power was mine,
I hope that arm will fall
from its socket.
I could not have been abusive;
I was terrified at the thought
that God might punish me.
I have never trusted
the power of wealth,
or taken pride in owning
Why doesn’t God All-Powerful
listen and answer?
If God has something against me,
let him speak up
or put it in writing!
Then I would wear his charges
on my clothes and forehead.
And with my head held high,
I would tell him everything
I have ever done.
Job 38:1-2; 40:1-14 CEV
From out of a storm, Yahweh said to Job:
Why do you talk so much
when you know so little?….
I am Yahweh All-Powerful,
but you have argued
that I am wrong.
Now you must answer me.
Job said to Yahweh:
Who am I to answer you?
I did speak once or twice,
but never again.
Then out of the storm
Yahweh said to Job:
Face me and answer
the questions I ask!
Are you trying to prove
that you are innocent
by accusing me of injustice?
Do you have a powerful arm
and a thundering voice
that compare with mine?
If so, then surround yourself
with glory and majesty.
Show your furious anger!
Throw down and crush
all who are proud and evil.
Wrap them in grave clothes
and bury them together
in the dusty soil.
Do this, and I will agree
that you have won
Then Job answered Yahweh:
“You know you can do anything.
Nothing can stop you.
You ask, ‘Who is this ignorant muddler?’
Well, I said more than I knew, wonders quite beyond me.
‘You listen, and I’ll talk,’ you say,
‘I’ll question you, and you tell me.’
Word of you had reached my ears,
But now that my eyes have seen you,
I shudder with sorrow for mortal clay.”
Job 42:7-17 CEV
The Lord said to Eliphaz:
What my servant Job has said about me is true, but I am angry at you and your two friends for not telling the truth. So I want you to go over to Job and offer seven bulls and seven goats on an altar as a sacrifice to please me. After this, Job will pray, and I will agree not to punish you for your foolishness.
Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar obeyed the Lord, and he answered Job’s prayer.
After Job had prayed for his three friends, the Lord made Job twice as rich as he had been before. Then Job gave a feast for his brothers and sisters and for his old friends. They expressed their sorrow for the suffering the Lord had brought on him, and they each gave Job some silver and a gold ring.
The Lord now blessed Job more than ever; he gave him fourteen thousand sheep, six thousand camels, a thousand pair of oxen, and a thousand donkeys.
In addition to seven sons, Job had three daughters, whose names were Jemimah, Keziah, and Keren Happuch. They were the most beautiful women in that part of the world, and Job gave them shares of his property, along with their brothers.
Job lived for another one hundred forty years—long enough to see his great-grandchildren have children of their own— and when he finally died, he was very old.
Jack Miles God: A Biography
In agreeing to a savagely cruel wager with the devil, the Lord has characterized himself by his own action. What he expected was a swift victory in the wager. He expected that Job, having blessed rather than cursed God after the first round of satanically inflicted agony, would simply bless him again after the second. Instead, though Job explicitly refuses his wife’s invitation to curse God, he goes on, past either blessing or curse, to a third alternative that neither God nor the devil has anticipated: He harangues God, countercharacterizing him relentlessly as not the kind of God who would do what we the readers know he has just done. Without realizing that he does so, Job changes the subject, making God’s righteousness rather than his own the question on the reader’s mind. And ultimately on God’s own mind as well, for in the end, Job wins: The Lord bows, in a way, to Job’s characterization of God, abandons his wager with the devil, and after a vain attempt to shout Job down, atones for his wrongdoing by doubling Job’s initial fortune….
After Job, God knows his own ambiguity as he has never known it before. He now knows that, though he is not Bertrand Russell’s fiend, he has a fiend-susceptible side and that mankind’s conscience can be finer than his. With Job’s assistance, his just, kind self has won out over his cruel, capricious self just as it did after the flood. But the victory has come at an enormous price. Job will father a new family, but the family he lost during the wager will not be brought back from the dead; neither will the servants whom the devil slew. And neither will god’s own innocence. The world still seems more just than unjust, and God still seems more good than bad; yet the pervasive mood, as this extraordinary work ends, is one not of redemption but of reprieve.
We are moving into the third portion of the TaNaKh. Torah. Nebi’im. Ketuvim. Law. Prophets. Writings. The Writings are a diverse group of texts that reflect for the most part a post-exilic setting. After the Persians conquered Babylon and the Jews from Babylon returned to Judah they rebuilt the temple and the city. This is recounted in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah.
Other writings include the Psalms, the hymnbook. The Megillot or Festival Scrolls are five different texts written at certain times during the Jewish year. These include
- the Book of Ruth for Pentecost or the late-spring harvest.
- The Song of Songs, erotic poetry for Passover
- Ecclesiastes for the feast of booths or autumn feast of thanksgiving.
- Lamentations in July or August for the destruction of Jerusalem in 587 BCE and the Romans in 70 CE.
- Esther for Purim in February or March to celebrate the deliverance from Persian attack. (Stephen L. Harris, Exploring the Bible, p. 225)
These books don’t have much in common except for the fact that they serve these traditional roles of being read liturgically during those seasons.
Also in the Writings are the Chronicles, the final books of the TaNaKh. Chronicles is a re-write of Samuel and Kings, a revisionist history that explains away the rough edges of that earlier work and paints David with high praise.
Also included in the Writings is the Wisdom literature. Proverbs, Job, and we include Ecclesiastes again here. This wisdom literature has a long history. It is not revelation from God like what inspires the prophets. It is human reflection. But it is no less sacred. The figure, the wisdom woman, is featured as the first-born of creation and is the figure through which Yahweh creates the world itself.
The Wisdom Woman, or Sophia, or Hokhma, is the source and muse for the wisdom literature. Wisdom literature does not refer to the covenant of Moses, or the exodus or exile. God is talked about, but does little talking. This is human work that comes from reflection.
Proverbs contains practical, conventional wisdom, for the most part, advice to a young man on how to live a good life. Advice also for the good woman who considers a field and buys it. You have seen acrostic poems about Mother. The song Mother by Eddy Arnold is an example:
M is for the million things she gave me
O means only that she’s growing old
T is for the tears she shed to save me
H is for her heart of purest gold
E is for her eyes with love-light shining
R means right and right she’ll always be
Put them all together they spell mother
A word that means the world to me
Proverbs 31:10-31 is an acrostic poem about the good wife. Each line begins with a letter of the Hebrew alphabet. It is an ancient version of Eddy Arnold’s mother.
Ecclesiastes is one of my favorites. This is a world apart from the Deuteronomic History or the Prophets. No concern for proper worship or keeping the covenant or understanding hard times as punishment or good times as reward. For Ecclesiastes:
Life is boring. Live it the best you can.
From this collection, The Writings, today we feature Job.
Ecclesiastes and Job offer a minority view to the covenants and theology of the Law and the Prophets. It is a minority view that challenges the majority view that life has a plan and a purpose. The minority view says, “Probably not.”
We received a good dose of Job this morning. I wanted us to get a flavor of the story. Job was a helpful book for me as I reflected on my grief after losing my son, Zach, to suicide.
“All of life is far more boring,
than words could ever say.”
What a wonderful translation by the Contemporary English Version of Ecclesiastes 1:8. Existential angst. My son knew that.
“All of life is far more boring,
than words could ever say.”
He shared that angst occasionally with me. “What is the point?” I wish I could have met him there. I look back with deep regret for not being present as I could have been. For not having an answer. For being afraid of his angst. For not–who knows. I second guess myself a lot. I don’t blame myself. Most of the time. Because sometimes bad things happen.
Thus I liked the story of Job during my time of grief. I liked hearing the detail of Job’s suffering. Sitting on a pile of crap after losing everything, scratching himself. I liked that his loss was caused by a wager. “Why oh why do I suffer so?” cries Job. “What have I done wrong?” Job pleads with God for an answer and puts up with the answers of his friends who give the traditional theology that what goes around comes around.
“Yahweh is giving you what you deserve. You sinned, Job. Suck it up.”
But that isn’t why Job suffers. Why did Job get his butt kicked? Here is the answer:
Satan and Yahweh went into a bar.
Yahweh said to Satan:
“Have you considered my servant, Job?”
And thus Job’s troubles began. I am certain Job would have preferred to remain anonymous. Alas for Job, he was “considered.”
Let’s consider Job’s friends. They come to comfort him as he sits on a pile of manure scraping his sores with pieces of broken pottery. Job’s friends have been criticized for their inadequate pastoral care, but they shouldn’t be. They are doing their best. They are offering the best that theology can offer to poor blameless Job. It is just that from Job’s perspective their theology is wanting.
Job, his suffering, and his reflection on his suffering present a crisis for Job’s friends. Job presents a crisis to the entire community. Because of his suffering and his refusal to submit to the community’s theology, he is a threat. Job should be a good boy and allow his experience to be subsumed under the theology of the community. He should just repent or be quiet about it.
But Job will not repent. He will not be silent.
The story of Job is not about Job or God. The story of Job is about how a community wrestles with a crisis of meaning. What happens when someone’s suffering causes the foundations for meaning to shake? Job’s suffering is a threat to the community’s meaning. Suffering people must be explained away. Whether this explanation is theological, psychological, or sociological, the explanation must serve to make us feel safe in light of the suffering of others.
Suffering without cause, that is suffering that could happen to me, is unacceptable. I will invent psychological, sociological, or theological solutions to explain the suffering individual away and therefore retain for myself the illusion that as long as I do x or don’t do y, I won’t experience that same fate. Job’s friends try to convince Job that God must have had a reason for Job to suffer. The readers of this wonderful story know the reason. The reason Job suffered is because God was bored and used Job to make a bet. Hardly admirable behavior for a deity.
In modern terms, the reason for suffering is just as fickle. People make up all kinds of reasons and suggest all kinds of causes for suffering. Upon examination, suffering is not the result of sin as some Christians have claimed or because of desire as some Buddhists have claimed. Suffering is not the result of karma as the New Age practitioners claim. Suffering is not the result of failing to raise your children correctly or for failing to habituate to the seven habits of highly successful people.
Certainly not all the time. Or even most of the time.
Suffering is the result of time and chance. It is better to be lucky than good. That answer is hard to take. We want to blame someone or something for it. The reason we need to do that is the vain hope that suffering will not be visited upon us if we pray hard enough or believe hard enough or engage in some other pious activity, at least enough.
Job’s friends represent the community confronted with a dilemma, a righteous sufferer. That impossibility required them to blame the victim for his suffering. They could not give up the idea of a just God. They could not give up the idea of an intelligence, of an agent who will respond to their prayers. To keep that belief, the sufferer must somehow be blamed. His prayers must not have been adequate. He must have done something wrong.
The truth is a bit more mundane. Life is time and chance. The best you can do is ride it out and be kind.
Remember the story. God has a bet with Satan. In this wager, God allows Satan to torture Job and bets that no matter what suffering is inflicted upon Job, Job will not curse God. What a great guy this God is, right? In actuality, God is a psychopath. He allows Satan to kill and to torture for his own egocentricity. Satan has Job’s servants, livestock, and family killed by violence, fire, and wind and for good measure, he gives Job a case of boils.
Job’s nameless wife entreats Job to curse God and die. This is little more than a suggestion for Job to kill himself honorably. Why Job’s wife isn’t considered to be a suffering agent alongside Job is likely a result of patriarchal prejudice. In any case, Job decides not to kill himself. His three friends come to comfort him and to encourage him to repent of his wrongdoing which they believe is the cause of his suffering. Neither does Job repent.
Job demands answers. He doesn’t get them.
Finally, God speaks to Job directly from a whirlwind. In this speech, God does not come clean. He does not tell Job the truth. He only speaks about his power. He is great. Job is puny. Therefore Job has nothing to say to God. Might makes right. The NRSV has Job respond to God’s pompous bluster in 42:1-6:
Then Job answered the Lord:
‘I know that you can do all things,
and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.
“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.
“Hear, and I will speak;
I will question you, and you declare to me.”
I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear,
but now my eye sees you;
therefore I despise myself,
and repent in dust and ashes.’
In this translation, Job, is a cowering sycophant. This is not Job. This repentance of Job makes no sense given the narrative we have witnessed for the past 41 chapters. The God of the story of Job is not worthy of repentance. This God made a wager and never tells Job the truth. He provides nothing but bluster. He may be able to put a fishhook in Leviathan, but he can’t tell the truth.
Not only does Job’s response not make sense, the Hebrew also is unclear. A translation that makes more sense of the Hebrew and the context is from Jack Miles in his wonderful book, God: A Biography. Here is Miles’ translation of that critical portion of the story in which Job responds to God’s pompous bluster from the whirlwind:
Then Job answered the Lord:
“You know you can do anything. Nothing can stop you. You ask, ‘Who is this ignorant muddler?’
Well, I said more than I knew, wonders quite beyond me.
‘You listen, and I’ll talk,’ you say, ‘I’ll question you, and you tell me.’
Word of you had reached my ears, but now that my eyes have seen you, I shudder with sorrow for mortal clay.”
In Miles’ translation, Job does not repent. The truth is that God is less moral than Job. God has power but no justice. God may be great, but he is not good. Job, ever the seeker for justice, knows now that he sees and hears for himself that God is incapable of justice. Job shames God. God therefore rewards Job. That is how the story ends with God learning a lesson. While God may have won the bet over Satan, he loses the larger wager to Job. God, the character, grows from his encounter with Job. It isn’t enough to be powerful, he must also be just. Now we have a story that makes sense.
For the author of Job, the idea of philosophical atheism would not be possible. For that author, there must be an agent who created this world. The question is whether or not this agent is friendly. Job’s story shows that he is not friendly. He is fickle. Confronted with this agent, Job can only weep for humanity, for “mortal clay.”
There is no justice in this universe except that which we human beings are able to dispense ourselves. If there is an intelligence it is no better than time and chance. The author of Job knew that. His interpreters, perhaps until Jack Miles, have not known that. Because of piety (“God must be good”), the church and the guardians of scripture misread the story in the same way that Job’s friends falsely accused Job. In both cases, theology required them to marginalize the human experience of suffering.
That said, Job carries on. He does not curse God and die. He doesn’t settle for pious answers or for his community’s theology. He seeks truth, faces it, shudders, and lives.
Thus, I consider that Job is my hero.
I wrote that a few months after Zach’s death.
My philosophy in a nutshell:
“Life is boring. Live it the best you can.”
While that may be true, it is thin gruel for nourishment. Five years later, and I appreciate that you are listening to me speak about this, but five years later and I read Job the same way. But there may be something new. Earlier, I didn’t know what to do with the last part, with Yahweh’s reward to Job. I dismissed it as a lame gesture on the author’s part to tidy up a horrible story.
Yahweh gives Job more stuff and new daughters, perhaps even more beautiful than the ones he lost. Something doesn’t quite ring right. You can’t just erase the pain with new stuff. He doesn’t get his old family back. He gets a new family. Not the same. Jack Miles concludes his chapter on Job with these words:
The world still seems more just than unjust, and God still seems more good than bad; yet the pervasive mood, as this extraordinary work ends, is one not of redemption but of reprieve.
But it is reprieve. I have gained some new things since we lost Zach on June 28th, 2012. After a time you do appreciate the rewards that time brings. The rewards are not the same as what was lost. Not a replacement. They are a reminder that life does go on, but more than that.
Life goes on with unexpected gifts and delights.
In my case, a nephew, born a few days after Zach’s death, now a fun, smart five-year old. Also, my daughter marries and we get a new daughter-in-law. Both daughters every bit as beautiful as Job’s daughters, and a granddaughter.
Other gifts, too. More internal. Hard to pin down but along the lines of the serenity prayer, I suppose.
Change what I can. Accept what I cannot change. Wisdom to know the difference.
I breathe. Am I wiser? I don’t know. Joyful? Hopeful? Well, I’ll put it this way:
I find myself opening one eye in anticipation of waking from a long sleep.
There are gifts in this life. Even after grief.
There are gifts.