July 4, 2016 by jmar198013
Manuscript of my sermon for Sunday July 10, 2016. From a series in Job I’m calling “theology in the raw.”
Scriptures are Job 3.1-10; 4.1-9; 7.11-21.
An audio link is embedded below for those who would rather listen.
How we got here
Last week we left Job in mourning—his garments rent, his head shaved. Collapsing on the shambles of his ruined life. He had lost everything—his livelihood, his employees, all ten of his children.
Job was the most righteous person of his day, but the satan had bet God that if Job were to lose everything, he will certainly curse you to your face.
God wouldn’t do it himself, but he didn’t stop the satan from doing it.
And the satan was proven wrong. Job did not curse God, but continued to bless him.
When we meet Job again in our readings today, he’s cursing. He’s not cursing God, but himself. How did we get here? What happened in the meantime?
The satan had gone back and protested that God made him go too easy on Job: Stretch out your hand and strike his bones and flesh. Then he will definitely curse you to your face.
Once again, God refused to do it himself, putting the responsibility on the satan: There he is—within your power; only preserve his life.
And so the satan covered Job from head to toe with painful sores. And though we don’t hear from him anymore in this story, I suspect he was still at work, in the broken heart of Job’s wife. The satan’s bitterness can enter into us through the tender places, just as surely as God’s healing grace. When Job’s wife sees her husband sitting on a pile of ashes, scratching his sores with a broken piece of pottery, she says: Are you still clinging to your integrity? Curse God, and die.
About this time, his three friends—Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar—show up. They have heard about all the evil that has befallen Job, and must see it for themselves. They aren’t prepared for what they see. Job is a husk of his former self. The four of them sit together on that heap of ash for a full week. No one says a word.
It was Job who finally spoke up, and that’s where our reading today begins:
Job spoke up and cursed the day he was born, our narrator tells us.
For seven days Job and his friends sat in silence. According to the Genesis storyteller, the earth was created in six days, and on the seventh day God rested. But Job and his friends have been sitting and waiting for seven days. There has been no new creation, and certainly no Sabbath rest.
The voice that tears through the curtain of silence, through the chaos and turmoil of Job’s ruined life, is not God’s. It’s Job’s. And Job doesn’t speak words of creation. Job cries out for un-creation.
Job doesn’t wish he was dead. He wishes he had never been born. Perish the day I was born, he cries.
He doesn’t just wish he’d never been born. He wishes the very night he was conceived could be erased from the calendar. May gloom seize that night; may it not be counted in the days of a year; may it not appear in the months.
Job wishes he had never been created. Listen closely to his words:
That day—let it be darkness;
may God above ignore it,
and light not shine on it.
In Genesis 1, God had spoken into the darkness and chaos: Let there be light! But now Job says the opposite. Job says, Let there be darkness! Job wants the day of his birth, even the night he was conceived, to be sent back into the darkness; the formless void; the pile of nothing before creation itself.
Here’s something important in all Job’s talk about un-creation. It’s important because it will come up again. While Job is wishing that the night of his conception could be erased, he says: May those who curse the day curse it, those with enough skill to awaken Leviathan. The Hebrew there in that first clause is difficult. The word may be yom—day—those who curse the day. But it’s slightly more probable that the word is yam—or sea. That’s why other translations have, Let those curse it who curse the Sea (NRSV).
What did Job mean by that? What does cursing the Sea and awakening Leviathan have to do with anything? Wasn’t Leviathan a dinosaur or a crocodile or a whale or something? How can waking up Leviathan erase the night of your conception?
To answer those questions, let’s take a little excursion to Ps. 74.12-17. Listen carefully to what the psalmist wrote.
God has been my king from ancient days—
God, who makes salvation happen in the heart of the earth!
You split the sea—yam—with your power.
You shattered the heads of the sea monsters on the water.
You crushed Leviathan’s heads.
(Have you ever heard of a whale or a crocodile with multiple heads? According to Israel’s neighboring countries, Leviathan had seven heads!)
You gave it to the desert dwellers for food!
You split open springs and streams;
you made strong-flowing rivers dry right up.
The day belongs to you! The night too!
You established both the moon and the sun.
You set all the boundaries of the earth in place.
Summer and winter? You made them!
What’s going on here? The psalmist talks about God saving people by splitting a sea in the desert. That sounds like the Exodus, doesn’t it? But the psalmist also talks about God establishing the sun and moon and the seasons and all the boundaries of the earth. That sounds like creation—like Genesis 1. But I don’t recall any sea monsters, like Leviathan, in the stories of the Exodus or the creation. Do you?
The psalmist was tying the Exodus—God creating the nation of Israel—to the creation of the cosmos. But where does Leviathan fit in?
Well, Israel’s neighbors had their own creation stories. In those stories, the chief god Baal became king over all the gods when he fought back the violent chaos before the foundation of the world. Story was that Baal had defeated the raging seas—Yamm—and the sea monster, Leviathan. They also believed that certain spells could unleash Leviathan, who would come and swallow up the moon. That was how they explained lunar eclipses.
With that as background, we can see clearly what the psalmist was doing. He was saying that it wasn’t Baal or any other god who tamed the chaos and created the universe. It was Israel’s God, the Lord YHWH. And YHWH alone.
We’ll meet Leviathan again in a few weeks, and learn that there is only One who can tame it.
Keeping all that in mind, we can understand what Job is asking for. Job was not an Israelite. Yamm and Leviathan were part of his worldview. He wished that the soothsayers would raise Leviathan up from the Sea; and that Leviathan would swallow up the night of his conception. Then he wouldn’t exist.
Has your world ever been torn apart that completely? That it feels like nothing is stable or solid or real anymore? That you think it would be better never to have existed, than to live in a world where there is such senseless evil? That’s what Job was expressing.
The well-ordered creation Job had known his whole life crumbled underneath and all around him. And all Job can do is protest: Stop the world, and let me off!
Sometimes stuff just happens
When Job cursed his own life, he wasn’t speaking to his friends. It was a raw expression of grief from someone who had experienced unspeakable loss. Job was certainly not soliciting any advice from his friends.
And yet, his friend Eliphaz decides to dispense advice, whether Job had invited it or not. If one tries to answer you, will you be annoyed? Eliphaz asks. But who can hold words back? In other words, I’m about to tell you what I think you need to hear, whether you want to hear it or not!
When someone else is undergoing intense suffering or tragedy, it can make us uncomfortable. I suspect it’s because it makes us feel vulnerable. The presence of someone who is suffering forces us to acknowledge that the same thing could happen to us. And then some of us are fixers by nature. Whatever the case, we are often tempted to say something that will make it better. I wonder if we are not saying these things to reassure ourselves more than the person who is suffering.
Think about the really senseless, brutal, tragic evils we sometimes encounter. When babies die in their cribs; or a marriage crumbles; or a woman is brutally raped; or someone we know is diagnosed with a terminal illness. What scripture passages do we often quote? Job’s words: The Lord has given; the Lord has taken; bless the Lord’s name. But that was only about half true, wasn’t it? Or how about Isa. 55.8: My plans aren’t your plans, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. But if you keep that in its context, it means that God is more just, more merciful, and more forgiving than humans. Not that God has some secret plan that involves your child dying or you suffering from cancer. Then there’s Rom. 8.28: We know that God works all things together for good for the ones who love God. That’s also true. But all it means is that God can and does make good come from evil. Not that everything that happens is good or God’s will.
Let me be clear: I believe that all of those passages are useful for teaching, for showing mistakes, for correcting, and for training character (2 Tim. 3.16). But that doesn’t mean they’re the best ones to quote at ground zero.
I suspect we often fail to grapple with what it means to live in a fallen creation. A creation where fallen beings—both human and spiritual—are free to choose the wrong. We live in a world where the satan and other forces that are hostile to God do evil things. Why else would we pray—as Jesus taught us—Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven? We pray this specifically because here on earth, it’s not always God’s will that’s being done.
In a world where God’s will is not always done, there’s going to be randomness and some degree of chaos and evil. Sometimes, stuff just happens.
Job and his friends didn’t have room in their theology for randomness or chaos. If you remember from last time, they thought the world worked by the doctrine of retribution. They saw the universe as a logical system of cause and effect, rewards and punishments. If you were good, God would reward you with good things. But if you were evil, God would punish you with evil things. Eliphaz and Job’s other friends were not ready to give up that worldview. I get that. A universe where there is chance or randomness or chaos is not always a safe one. Bad things can and do happen to good people, and we often don’t have a lot of control over it.
So Eliphaz goes with what they’ve always known:
Think! What innocent person has ever perished?
When have those who do the right thing been destroyed?
As I’ve observed, those who plow sin
and sow trouble will harvest it.
When God breathes deeply, they perish;
by a breath of his nostril they are annihilated.
The implication is, if Job is suffering so badly, God must be punishing him for something. That’s how they thought the world works.
Think about how cruel Eliphaz’s theology made him in this moment. Here’s a man—Job—whose children were just all killed by a whirlwind. And Eliphaz says: by a breath of his nostril they are annihilated. Do you hear what Eliphaz was implying? That the winds that killed Job’s children were the very breath of God! So not only must Job have sinned, his children must be rotten, too! And if you think I’m reading too much into that, a couple of verses later—this wasn’t in our readings today—Eliphaz says: the lion perishes without prey—that’s Job’s livelihood being taken from him—and its cubs—Job’s children—are scattered.
If your theology—your ideas about God and how the world works—makes you cruel to others; or makes God seem cruel; then perhaps your theology is too small. That was the problem with Job and his friends.
Whatever the case, whatever you do: When others suffer, please don’t be an Eliphaz!
Quoting the Bible at God
If you ever find yourself, like Eliphaz, hiding behind what you’ve always believed, even though it feels icky, guess what? The problem may very well not be with you, or with the other guy. The problem may be with what you believe. Your theology might be too small.
I suspect that often, when we are faced with a situation on the ground that challenges our safe and comfortable worldview, we retreat. We retreat deeper into that worldview even though it is failing us. Even though it may cut us off from others in distress, so that we fail them, too. We retreat by reasserting the truth we think we know. We find ourselves confronted with senseless tragedy or distress or uncertainty, and we quote Bible verses at it.
You know what I think that is? It’s a polite way of telling the other person—the one who is hurting or afraid or distressed—to please shut up.
Job—God bless him—refuses to be silenced. But I won’t keep quiet; he says. I will speak in the adversity of my spirit, groan in the bitterness of my life. Job is saying, I’m going to keep telling my story honestly, and you’re going to listen!
Job sees that his friends aren’t going to be any comfort to him. Besides, what could they do anyway? As he sees it, the source of his troubles is God. Just like when he cursed his life, he’s not talking to his friends. Now Job speaks directly to God.
Am I Sea—yam—or the Sea Monster, that you place me under guard? he asks God. Job wants to know if God regards him as a threat to the universe, like the sea monsters of myth? If not, why is God punishing him so harshly?
Job—who has lost everything; who is covered in festering sores; whose friends are accusing him falsely—can’t stand anymore. He begs God to leave me alone.
Psalm 8.4-5 famously describes God’s care for humanity:
What are human beings
that you think about them;
what are human beings
that you pay attention to them?
You’ve made them only slightly less than divine,
crowning them with glory and grandeur.
Just as Job had reversed Genesis 1 by demanding, Let there be darkness!; now he takes the words of the psalmist and throws them right back in God’s face.
What are human beings, that you exalt them,
that you take note of them,
visit them each morning,
test them every moment?
Why not look away from me?
Job himself still clings to the doctrine of retribution. That’s his understanding of God’s justice. But he also can’t imagine any sin he has committed that has not been atoned for. Certainly a mistake has been made in the heavenly bureaucracy! All this punishment must have been meant for someone else! Or maybe he did commit some sin unaware. But the retribution is unjust, because it is ruthless and relentless.
From the beginning of his troubles, Job had assumed God was responsible for his loss. But he still spoke piously: The Lord has given; the Lord has taken; bless the Lord’s name. But now we see Job’s piety wearing thin. Now Job suspects that God’s just administration of the universe has failed.
If I sinned, what did I do to you,
guardian of people? asks Job.
Why not forgive my sin,
overlook my iniquity?
Then I would lie down in the dust;
you would search hard for me,
and I would not exist.
In other words, Job says: God, I don’t know what I’ve done wrong, but I made all the right sacrifices. I’ve adopted the posture of repentance—shaved my head, torn my clothes, and I’m sitting on a heap of ashes. Now forgive me and stop punishing me before you kill me!
Job’s safe, predictable, orderly universe has just crumbled all around him. And Job now demands to know why. Job demands answers.
How not to be Eliphaz
I hate to say it, but there’s still way too many Eliphazes out there. And it may be even worse now, with all of our social media. Every time there’s a tragic event in the news, the Eliphazes come out in full force. On Twitter. In the comments sections of Yahoo! articles. On our Facebook feeds.
A child falls into a gorilla enclosure at an Ohio zoo. Another child is devoured by alligators at a theme park in Florida. And what do people say? Where were the parents? I wonder how they would feel if it was their child?
And then there are the larger-scale tragedies that involve the loss of many lives. Like the recent night club shooting in Florida. Like clockwork it becomes a political football, an occasion for gun control and anti-gun control advocates to shout their talking points. And then, of course, there are the ones who come out and say things like, Well, that’s the punishment of God. They were gay. I’m sorry more of them didn’t die.
The cultural climate out there is often pure Eliphaz. It’s all about blame and shame. Pointing fingers. Trying to figure out who’s fault it is. Quoting Bible verses at tragedy.
I think all the Eliphazes out there would do well to heed what Job tells his friends a few chapters later. In Job 16.2-3, he complains:
I’ve heard many things like these.
All of you are sorry comforters.
Will windy talk ever cease;
what bothers you that you must argue?
Many folks who ponder over the book of Job say the only good thing Job’s friends did for him was sit silently with him for seven days. I think they’re about right. But at some point, we have to stop sitting in silence. Life has to go on somehow. What then?
A good place to begin might be Rom. 12.15: Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep (NRSV). Empathy is always a healthier response to the sorrow of others than shame or blame, which is the way of Eliphaz.
Here’s something not to do. When someone is suffering or grieving or in any kind of distress, it’s not your job to correct their theology. If they’re angry at God, let them be angry at God. God doesn’t need you to defend his honor against a broken person. Let them be who they are at that moment, and let God be who God always is.
Notice what Job’s friends don’t do, because there’s probably some clues in there about what we might should do. For one thing, none of Job’s friends listened to him to hear what it was that actually troubled him. They didn’t see him as a person in need; they saw him as a problem to be solved. Here’s Job, covered in sores. Did any of them offer him some salve for those things? Did any of them draw a bath for him? Bring him some new clothes? Help him shave? Bring him and his wife any food to eat? Offer to help him rebuild when he was ready? Job’s friends don’t seem to have done any of those for him, or even offered.
Of course, I guess if you find someone who is the victim of tragedy, and you assume it’s their fault; or that the dreadful thing that has befallen them is God’s judgment, you wouldn’t think to do those things anyway. In that case, shame and blame might be an appropriate response.
But of course, the Holy Spirit made sure that Job ended up in our Bibles so that we would know better.
One of the things that Job does is to lead us out of the way of Eliphaz, and onto the way of empathy. And empathy for others will surely go farther in correcting our theology than any sermon I could preach.