In this Sunday’s first reading we walk in on the third act of a much longer play. Act One was set in the heavenly court where God is speaking with the satan, literally “the accuser,” without the demonic horns and hooves of later characterizations. God asks the satan if he has observed the faithfulness of Job, and the satan bets if Job’s children and wealth were stripped away, then Job would curse God. God takes the bet: Job’s oxen, donkeys, and sheep are stolen or killed, his servants murdered, and his children all die while gathered in the house of his oldest son. Job’s reply is to fall to the ground in worship:
“Naked I came forth from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I go back there. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” (1:21).
Act One continues back in the heavenly court, where the satan goes double or nothing with God: sure, Job remained faithful in his grief and loss over others, but if Job himself were physically ravaged then he would curse God. Once again, God is all in, and Job is covered in boils. The narrator is careful to tell us after both tragedies that Job neither sinned, nor blamed God. (1:22; 2:10).
The very meaning of Job’s name is a question, “Where is the (divine) father?”, and in Act Two he lives that question out loud (1). Anguished, he spills out his grief and confusion to the friends who come to console him. In contrast to the dramatic dialogues of the first act, the second act is full of soliloquies. Job cries out to God for an explanation, and his friends criticize him for questioning the divine will and accuse him of sinfulness—surely the root cause of his sufferings at the hands of the God they presume to be both good and just.
The lectionary reading for this Sunday picks up at the beginning of Act Three: God responds to Job’s persistent questioning by speaking “out of the storm,” a weather pattern that often signals God’s presence in the Hebrew scriptures (2). God goes on to detail the wonders and intricacies of creation, which God has not only created but also sustains in being. In the play’s conclusion, Job reaffirms God’s power, God rebukes Job’s friends for thinking that Job had sinned, and Job is restored to wealth and becomes again the father to many sons and daughters.
. . . . . . .
This past week, nine members of Mother Emmanuel AME church were murdered for being black. What does the Book of Job have to teach me? That I am not Job. As a white, well-educated, middle class, Catholic woman living in the United States the ravages of racism have been inflicted neither on my immediate family nor my own flesh. Rather, through my race, education, social class, religion, and nationality I am personally part of the institutions implicated in the sin of racism. If through conversion I desire not to be the satan of the story, then I must learn instead how to be a better friend to Job.
Job’s friends come to him in his grief, but they are cold comfort. They are so confident of God’s goodness that they cannot perceive the evil of the injustice done to Job. Stumbling upon the limitations of their own theology, they fall upon Job with recrimination (3). Rather than hearing Job’s cries and honoring his demand for an explanation of the evil inflicted upon him, they accuse him of sin, arrogance, and blasphemy. They want him to admit his mistakes, get right with God, heal and move on already. They listen with a combination of judgment and distance that reduces Job’s humanity by offering prefabricated answers, and become righteously indignant when Job refuses to agree with them. They are blind to the fact that through their inability to truly accompany and stand with Job, they have exacerbated and perpetuated the original injustice against him.
God doesn’t really answer Job’s question, yet Job seems to take some comfort from God’s presence. “Where is the divine father?” “Here.” I can’t tell why Job finds consolation in God’s response. But then, I’m not Job, I’m just hoping to be a good friend to him. So what concerns me more is that it sounds for a while like God and Job’s friends will come to the same conclusion—who are you to question God? Yet in the end, God affirms that Job was right to demand an accounting, to lament, to name injustice for what it is. In contrast, it’s Job’s friends who are condemned: “And after the Lord had spoken these words to Job, the Lord said to Eliphaz the Temanite, ‘My anger blazes against you and your two friends! You have not spoken rightly concerning my servant Job. So now take seven bulls and seven rams, and go to my servant Job, and sacrifice a burnt offering for yourself, and let my servant Job pray for you. To him I will show favor, and not punish your folly, for you have not spoken rightly concerning me, as has my servant Job’” (42: 7-8).
What must I do to be a better friend to Job, to be in solidarity with African Americans whose mourning and anger this week is the newest page in a long book of suffering? Be present. Listen openly to experiences of being Job. Allow what I hear to challenge my preconceptions and privileges. Pray for my own conversion and work to transform my church, culture, and nation. Admit and ask forgiveness for my part in others’ pain, my role in injustice. Neither avoid nor dismiss nor attempt to simply fix anger, frustration, despair and pain. Learn to amplify voices calling out to demand the presence of the divine father.
(1) Footnote to Job 1:1 in Anselm Academic Study Bible.
(2) Footnote to Job 38:1 in Anselm Academic Study Bible.
(3) The Book of Job offers a difficult vision of God who willingly allows injustice in order to prove a point, and it is quite honest about doing so. In 42:11 we read: “Then all [Job’s] brothers and sisters came to him, and all his former acquaintances, and they dined with him in his house. They consoled and comforted him for all the evil the Lord had brought upon him . . . .” More recent Jewish explorations of God and the problem of evil may be found in Elie Wiesel’s play, The Trial of God, and in the BBC television production God on Trial, which is based on the central idea of Wiesel’s work).