By Rev. Dr. David D. M. King
Worship Communion Sunday
Job 1:1; 2:1–10
This Sunday we are starting a four week journey through the Book of Job. This ancient book explores the nature of human suffering. Does God reward people who do the right thing by giving them an easier life? If I am suffering, is it because I have done something wrong? As Rabbi Harold Kushner asks, Why do bad things happen to good people? Why would a good God allow suffering? If human beings are caused to suffer for no fault of their own, how can God be good? How are we to understand our own suffering? How are we to live with our own grief and loss?
The part of Job that Rhoda read this morning is likely ancient, older than most of the rest of the Hebrew Bible. You can tell because it has a strange conception of God and God’s relationship with other divine beings. For one thing, it doesn’t seem to be completely monotheistic. There is one God who is above all other gods, but there still seem to be other gods around. God holds court among the other divine beings, each of which has some sort of role in God’s administration of the universe. We might call them angels, but the text never does, and they seem to have a bit more agency that the angels of our imaginations.
One of these lesser gods or divine beings has a title that we recognize. In Hebrew, he’s called הַשָׂטָן (hassatan). The English equivalent is Satan. But this isn’t a devil with red horns ruling over Hell. This is a much older conception of who Satan is. And in fact, this being is not named Satan. The Hebrew in Job is very consistent in using the definite article every time this word is used. It’s not Satan, it’s the satan. The satan is this divine being’s job title, not his name.
So, what does it mean? What is the job description of the satan? It’s most often translated into English as the Adversary or the Accuser. It has a legal meaning. It’s probably something like an attorney general or the Director of the FBI. The satan’s job is to investigate human behavior to make sure that everyone is behaving the way that God wants them to behave. The satan is the James Comey or the Merrick Garland of God’s government.
At the beginning of the story, God’s court has been gathered together for a meeting of some kind, and there along with all of the other functionaries of God’s administration is the satan, the adversary, the accuser. And God asks the satan a question: “Where did you come from?” God is checking up on the satan to see if he’s been doing his job. The satan responds, “From wandering through the earth. God follows up: “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.”
Job, we have been told in the introduction, is a prosperous and righteous man. Has seven sons and three daughters, and he owns tens of thousands of head of livestock. He is so particular about his religious devotion that whenever one of his children throws a birthday party, Job makes animal sacrifices to God, just in case one of them got a little too drunk and said something unseemly. So God asks the satan what he thinks of this remarkably righteous man.
The satan isn’t impressed. “Yes, Job seems to be very righteous, but that’s only because you’ve built a protective wall around him. He has a perfect life—good health, a happy family, and tons of property—of course he stays loyal to God. You’ve given him everything, and you’ve never let him suffer any pain. But if you took the protective wall away, if you let Job experience pain and grief, he wouldn’t stay loyal to you. He will lose his faith. He will curse you to your face.” And God accepts the wager. “Go ahead. Do to Job whatever you have in mind. Just don’t physically injure him.”
The scene then moves from heaven to earth. I’m going to read just a little that was skipped over in the assigned reading today. “One day Job’s sons and daughters were eating and drinking wine in their oldest brother’s house. A messenger came to Job and said: ‘The oxen were plowing, and the donkeys were grazing nearby when the Sabeans took them and killed the young men with swords. I alone escaped to tell you.’
“While this messenger was speaking, another arrived and said: ‘A raging fire fell from the sky and burned up the sheep and devoured the young men. I alone escaped to tell you.’
“While this messenger was speaking, another arrived and said: ‘Chaldeans set up three companies, raided the camels and took them, killing the young men with swords. I alone escaped to tell you.’
“While this messenger was speaking, another arrived and said: ‘Your sons and your daughters were eating and drinking wine in their oldest brother’s house, when a strong wind came from the desert and struck the four corners of the house. It fell upon the young people, and they died. I alone escaped to tell you.’”
Job has lost absolutely everything, all in an instant, on one day, due to four different simultaneous disasters. The satan is not playing around. There is no subtlety here. The satan has unleashed every harm imaginable.
So how does Job react? Does he do what the satan predicted? Does he lose his faith? Does he curse God?
No. “Job arose, tore his clothes, shaved his head, fell to the ground, and worshipped. He said: ‘Naked I came from my mother’s womb; naked I will return there. The Lord has given; the Lord has taken; bless the Lord’s name.’ In all this, Job didn’t sin or blame God.” Job is in deep pain. He is experiencing incredible grief. And he is showing and declaring that grief. But he hasn’t turned against God.
Back we go to heaven. All of the angels are gathered together to give their reports to God, and among them again is the satan. God asks again, “Hey what do think about that Job guy? Pretty righteous, right? You took away everything, and he’s still faithful. He’s got crazy integrity, don’t you think?”
“Yes,” the satan responds, “he did do pretty well. But that’s only because you tied my hands. You wouldn’t let me injure him. Strike his flesh and his bones, and you’ll see. He will turn against you.”
And again, God agrees to the wager. “Go ahead and do it. Just don’t kill him.” So the satan strikes him again, this time with festering sores across every part of his body. Job, who has already torn his clothes and shaved his head, picks up a piece of broken pottery off the ground, walks out of town to the place where people burn their garbage and sits down naked in the ashes, scraping his ulcerated skin with the pottery shard.
His wife finds him there and says, “Are you still clinging to your integrity? Curse God, and die.” She is expressing the words that Job cannot, the deep betrayal at having lost not just his possessions, but his family and his health.
Job responds, “Don’t be a fool. Will we receive good from God but not also receive bad?” Again we are told that through all of these trials, Job does not sin with his lips.
Job’s three best friends hear about all of the disasters that he’s endured, and they decide to come “to console and comfort Job.” They each come from their own towns. The Bible tells us, “When they looked up from a distance, they didn’t recognize him. They wept loudly. they tore their robes and threw dust in the air upon their heads. They 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.” “They sat with Job on the ground seven days and seven nights, not speaking a word to him, for they saw that he was in excruciating pain.”
Every one of us has experienced grief and pain. Every one of us has experienced loss. There is grief that comes with the death of a parent, a sibling, a friend, a child. There is the pain that comes with the estrangement of a relationship, the sorrow of moving away from friends or family. There is the humiliation that comes when we try and then fail. There is the deep insecurity we feel when our financial resources start to run out. There is the frustration and anger we feel when we have illnesses that will not go away.
Sometimes these losses are a consequence of our own actions. Much of the time… maybe most of the time, they are not. Sometimes loss just happens. Sometimes tragedy just hits us, and we don’t know why. Sometimes we struggle to identify a reason why, to try to make sense of what has happened, to make sure that nothing like this ever happens again. But very often, these things are out of our control. They blindside us, and we are stunned and confused, overflowing with emotions we cannot name and somehow, at the same time, completely empty, blank. It is inevitable. If we love, then at some time, we will grieve.
Job’s friends are going to spend the next couple dozen chapters trying to tell Job what went wrong, to try to cheer him up, to try to help him fix it. None of it is very successful. It’s probably not very helpful, either. Have you had that experience, when you’re in the midst of grief, and someone tries to make you feel better with some quick words? “I guess God needed another angel.” “Well, at least you still have…” It’s because we feel uncomfortable with other people’s grief, and so we try to find a quick way to shut it off, to shield ourselves from it, to avoid staring into the abyss. It’s rarely as helpful as we think it will be.
Job’s friends get it right at first, though. They find Job, his clothes torn off, sitting on the ash heap. They see someone who is unrecognizable from the friend they have known. And they don’t hustle him off home to get cleaned up. They don’t tell him to snap out of it. In fact, they don’t speak at all. They tear their own clothes, and they sit down with Job in the ashes. And they just sit there. They don’t say a word. They don’t leave his side. They just sit there with him in his pain for seven days and seven nights.
When someone is suffering grief and pain, that is often the best thing that we can do. Just be present. Don’t try to find the right words that will make them feel better. Don’t try to fix the situation. Don’t try to snap them out of it. Just be there, with love and compassion. Focus on listening more than speaking.
Every grief is different, and different people experience grief in different ways. It’s a process, a frustratingly long process, and it never travels in a straight line. Which means that there is no right way to grieve. And there is no right way to accompany someone in their grief. And it will likely change from day to day, from hour to hour, and even from minute to minute.
We’ll talk more in the coming weeks about Job and his story, his journey through grief and loss, his struggle to understand, and his despair and anger with God. For today, let me close with a little wisdom from one of my favorite shows, the West Wing It’s Leo McGarry who says:
“This guy’s walking down the street when he falls in a hole. The walls are so steep he can’t get out. A doctor passes by and the guy shouts up, ‘Hey you. Can you help me out?’ The doctor writes a prescription, throws it down in the hole and moves on. Then a priest comes along and the guy shouts up, ‘Father, I’m down in this hole can you help me out?’ The priest writes out a prayer, throws it down in the hole and moves on. Then a friend walks by, ‘Hey, Joe, it’s me can you help me out?’ And the friend jumps in the hole. Our guy says, ‘Are you stupid? Now we’re both down here.’ The friend says, ‘Yeah, but I’ve been down here before and I know the way out.’”