Hespeler, 24 October, 2021 © Scott McAndless
Job 42:1-6, 10-17, Psalm 34:1-8, 19-22, Hebrews 7:23-28, Mark 10:46-52
The Book of Job is a deep theological and philosophical dive into a very difficult question that people have always struggled with. It dares to ask the question why bad things happen to good people. But, as we read the end of the book this morning, I am struck by another question that is just about as difficult to deal with. Of course, the book tells the story of all of these terrible things that happen to Job. He loses all of his possessions to marauding bands of warriors, all ten of his children, seven sons and three daughters, are killed in a tragic accident and he deals with sickness so severe that it leaves him in constant pain and suffering.
About Recovering from Trauma
Of course, all of that tragedy does set up the difficult discussion of the question of why these things happen. But that is not really what the end of the story is about. In many ways, the end of the story raises an issue that is just as important for our present circumstances as the question of why bad things happen. At least, it leads me to ask the question how we can recover from trauma, from our losses and the really bad things that happen to us.
In some ways, the end of the Book of Job is a perfect picture of recovery. After losing everything, including his own health, Job gets it all back. He recovers physically. He gets his wealth back. And this is presented as a precise calculation. Wealth, in that world, was mostly measured in livestock and so Job gets back precisely twice as many sheep, twice as many camels, twice as many oxen and twice as many donkeys as he had before. Don’t tell me that’s a coincidence; there’s got to be a message in something as exact as that. In the same way, Job gets his children back and this is, once again, quite exact. He lost seven sons and three daughters and gets back exactly the same number of both. Again, this is no coincidence.
Recovery is not as Simple as that
So, there you go, right? Everything lost has been given back. Trauma over. All’s well that ends well. Except here is the problem. Recovering from trauma is never as simple as just getting everything you lost back. Never. And you might think, based on these details, that the Book of Job totally fails to reckon with that reality. It suggests a completely happy ending. But I’m not so sure about that. I think that if we play close attention to the story of that recovery, we might see how hard Job and the people around him had to work at it. But to understand that, I think we may need to consider the story from the point of view of somebody who lived it, maybe, say, as Job’s eldest daughter might have told it. That’s right, we need to hear Aunt Jemima’s story.
Come on, children. Come and sit at your Aunt Jemima’s knee because I have a story to tell you. You need to hear this story because my father, your great grandfather, Job, is coming to visit later this afternoon. You need to know this story before he comes. Your great granddaddy had some terrible things happened to him many, many years ago. He lost everything that he held dear, not only everything that he owned but also everyone that he loved. He had ten children in those days, seven strapping sons and three beautiful daughters. But he lost them all in one tragic accident. Oh, my beautiful babies, you have no idea how much Job wept for those children.
And your great granddaddy tried for days on end to understand why such things had happened to him. He knew he had done nothing to deserve such tragedy. He spoke to his friends trying to find an answer and, in the end, he spoke to God and God came to answer. Now, did God ever explain to Job why such terrible things had to happen to him? Not really. God just sort of overwhelmed Job by talking about all the complexity of the universe until Job just gave up his arguments. Sometimes, you see, we never do get a clear answer to that question of why bad things happen to us.
You Can’t Replace Children
But the good news is that your great granddaddy got through it all. He survived and came out the other end of all of his struggles. He got all of his possessions back, in fact twice as much as he had before. And, blessing of blessings, he had ten more children – seven sons and three daughters. I was the first of those children.
And this is what you need to know today, children. Job loves me and all his children and he loves his grandchildren and, you, his great grandchildren. He loves you so much. But when he comes today, it may not seem that way. Instead of smiling and laughing, he will probably weep when he sees you. He’ll weep because you remind him of those children that he lost.
No matter how many children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren he has, they cannot possibly replace even one that he lost. Lost children never work that way, never have and never will. I know that sometimes people, trying to comfort someone who’s lost a child, will say that. They’ll say, “Can’t you just have another one?” That can sometimes be the hardest thing for a grieving parent to hear, because they know they just want the one they lost back.
Living with the Fear
What’s more, having once lost so much, Job also lives with a fear of losing it all again. That has made it hard for him to just enjoy the things that he has and to show love. Recovery from loss – especially the loss of children is just that hard. So be gentle and loving with your great grandfather, it is what he needs most of all.
The Trauma of Generational Loss
Children, I don’t think that many people understand how hard it is to recover from this sort of trauma, especially when a whole generation is lost. I heard about a tribe once – they lived far away from this land of Uz – but they were invaded by a foreign people who came in and occupied all their territory.
These new settlers treated the people who had been living there forever as if they were ignorant savages. They decided it would be better if their entire culture were eliminated. And so, they took all of the children of the people of this tribe away from their parents. They took them and put them in schools where they were not allowed to speak their language or practice their culture or religion. Many of these children were also abused in various ways.
The Challenges of Survival
But, much to the disappointment of the settlers, the original people survived. Many of their children died, but the people survived. But survival itself brought its own challenges. For the children did not know who they were anymore. And, when they had their own children, they had no parenting models to follow. So, even after the original destruction had come to an end, the effects of the trauma kept on being passed down from generation to generation to generation.
That’s exactly what Job didn’t want to happen for his family, and he worked hard to make sure it didn’t. And so, children, I’m going to tell you what measures he took because you might need to take similar measures some day.
Accept Help from the Right People
This is the first thing that Job did that helped him to recover. He accepted help. This is exactly where too many people fall short. When you’ve been through a really hard time, when you have struggled mightily and just barely managed to survive, there is a tendency to withdraw. After all, you don’t really want to talk about what you went through. That stirs up too many difficult emotions. And you can also feel this real need to be self-sufficient. But it’s just not going to work. Recovery, real recovery that lasts, always happens within a larger community of support.
So Job found that community of support. He had to be choosy. Not every friend was going to be helpful to him. In particular, the three so-called friends who came and argued with him that he must have deserved all of these bad things that happened to him, they weren’t going to be much help. So, he prayed for them, but then he just let them go on their way.
But then there came to him all his brothers and sisters and all who had known him before, and they ate bread with him in his house; they showed him sympathy and comforted him for all that he had gone through. They understood. And to them, Job could really talk about everything he had gone through and all of his emotions. And that, just that, was a necessary step for his recovery. It allowed him to begin to build his own story of what he had gone through and what it meant. And that became the beginning of a new story of who he was and where he was going from there.
Accept Other Kinds of Help
So, the sympathy and listening ears they brought meant a great deal. But they were also the beginning of his financial recovery as well as each of them gave him a piece of money and a gold ring. So, my darling grandchildren, never forget that you need the help of good and trustworthy friends in order to recover from your trauma.
Job’s Emphasis on his Daughters
But there was something else that father Job did that truly saved the future generations of his family, something that I will never forget. It was about his children. He had seven new sons and three daughters. But here is the funny thing, if you go and look at the records of his family, you will not find the name of any of those sons anywhere. Now, Job loved his sons, there is no question about that! But he lived in a world that put all the emphasis on sons. They were the ones whose names were supposed to live on. They were the ones who were expected to build the future. But Job, after all he had gone through, decided that recovery for the future of his family needed to be led from someplace else.
Job had three daughters. I, Jemima, was his first born, and then Keziah, and the third Keren-happuch. And you all know those names because your great-grandfather resolved that no one would ever forget his daughters. He knew that they would be the best leaders for the recovery from trauma. He even made sure that his daughters would inherit an equal portion of all his property with his sons, something that is quite unheard of in our world, as you know.
Women are a Key to Recovery
Job did all of this because he understood something that people too often fail to realize: there can be no recovery from tragedy if women are not a key part of it. There was a time when banks and development agencies tried to help whole countries recover from poverty or natural disasters by making investments, but they made a mistake. They chose only to invest in the traditional economic drivers like government and established industry. It was often not successful, sometimes driving corruption and embezzlement and often leading to a high failure rate. But they discovered something. When they gave loans to women, even very small loans to start some small enterprise, it almost always drove economic growth that helped the whole community.
This may have something to do with how women prioritize family and community and want to build for the next generation. It certainly has something to do with how women are often the carriers of important traditions that they keep and pass down, kind of like I’m doing when I tell you this story today. Well, Job understood this.
People told him that he shouldn’t make so much of his daughters, that he shouldn’t let them inherit alongside his sons. But Job knew better than anybody the trauma that he had been through, and in order to make sure that the scars of that trauma didn’t get passed down to the next generation and the next until it came to you, this was the wise decision that he made. If you ever get the chance to help people recover from trauma, you need to keep this in mind as well.
End of Story
Well, children, that’s the story that Aunt Jemima has for you today. Great granddaddy Job will be here very soon, so you all go and you put on your best clothes and wash your faces and get ready to greet him with the biggest hug any patriarch has ever received.
The Challenge of the End of the Book
I know that people often turn to the Book of Job as they try to process the very difficult question of why bad things happen. It is a useful book for that, even if it doesn’t give crystal-clear answers, probably because there are no crystal-clear answers. So, I’ve always loved the book for how it helps us to deal with that question.
But I’ve always had problems with the ending. Yes, it does say that, in the end, Job got everything back that he lost including a whole set of replacement children. But that always troubled me because I have tried to minister to many people who’ve gone through traumatic loss, and I know that just getting back what you lost is not the same thing as recovering. I also know that it never helps a parent get over the loss of a child when you suggest that they can just have another one.
But this time as I read the story, especially as I reflected on Jemima and her sisters, I realized that there is more to the story than that, and it really does lay out some of the steps that actually do help a person to recover from such devastating loss.
Dealing with your Trauma and Loss
So, if you have suffered that kind of trauma, or if you know someone that you love who has, I would counsel you to never underestimate the impact of the wounds and the scars that you carry. They are serious and they do not just affect you, they can also be passed down in your family. Be wise like Job and take steps to deal with your trauma. Find safe and supportive people that you can trust who will listen to you and help you process your experience. In some cases, you may need someone who has been professionally trained to do that. Do not be afraid to ask for help, we all need it sometimes. And make investments in the people who will build a better future for yourself and your family and everything you want to leave for the generations yet to come.
Watch the YouTube video here:
Hespeler, 10 October, 2021 © Scott McAndless – Thanksgiving
Amos 5:6-7, 10-15, Psalm 90:12-17, Hebrews 4:12-16, Mark 10:17-31
The story is told that, in Jerusalem in the early years of the first century, there was a gate in the city wall that was popularly known as the eye of the needle. This gate was apparently quite handy for those who engaged in the import/export trade – maybe especially those who engaged in it without wanting to bother paying annoying things like taxes and tariffs, if you know what I mean. The reason they liked this gate was because it was generally left open at night when the main gates were closed. As such, it offered an easy way to avoid the attention of customs inspectors.
Getting Through the Gate
But there was one problem. The gate was very small. And so, when a trader arrived at this gate with a camel train carrying all manner of goods that he wanted to take to market, he would quickly discover that it was so small that a camel bearing all of its burdens could not pass through it.
And so the merchant would have to remove every pack from the animal’s back. Then he would have to remove the beautifully engraved saddle that he had inherited from his father and even the fine metal bridles and bits that had been in his family for generations. The man would have to lay all of these possessions and assets of his on the ground and only then lead the camel towards the gate.
But even then, it was not possible for the camel to pass. Camels are quite unique as beasts of burden in their ability to bend their knees and get right down to the ground, and that is what the camel would have to do next. And it was only in that extremely humble position that the camel was able to crawl its way through the gate. Only then, could it stand again, and the trader could push all of his possessions through the gate, put them back on the animal and go on his way.
The Saying of Jesus
And it is said that, when Jesus turned to his disciples one day and said to them, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God,” that he understood and all his disciples understood that what he was actually referring to was not the eye of a literal sewing needle, don’t be ridiculous! No, they all understood that he was talking about that gate in Jerusalem.
And if they all understood that, then doesn’t that give us a perfect interpretation of that famous saying of Jesus? Because then it would mean that Jesus was saying that the problem is not really with our wealth and possessions. It is not really these things that prevent us from being part of the kingdom of God. The problem is our attitude towards our wealth and possessions. And if we, like the camel, can lay aside all of our earthly possessions without regret and if we can get down on our knees in thanksgiving to the God who has provided all of these things for us, well, then we too can pass through the gate and into the kingdom, at which point, I guess, we get all our possessions back too.
A Perfect Thanksgiving Application
It seems just perfect, doesn’t it? And wouldn’t that just make a beautiful application of this saying of Jesus on this day when we celebrate Thanksgiving? It’s a reminder that we can enjoy the good things of life, so long as we set aside a day like this on which we are truly grateful. You have maybe even heard that interpretation of this saying of Jesus before because it has been used in many sermons by preachers of all sorts. It is a very popular interpretation.
It is Bunk
There is just one problem. It is all bunk. The fact of the matter is that there was no such gate in the city of Jerusalem in the times of Jesus nor at any other point in time. Jerusalem is one of the most archaeologically investigated sites on the face of the earth, no such gate has ever been found. Even more significant, there is no mention of such a gate in any of the ancient records. In fact, nobody ever seems to have heard of such a gate until, in relatively modern times, the story I just told you began to circulate.
The Illustration that Took Off
So, do you know what I think likely happened? I suspect that, at some point, there was a Christian preacher much like myself who was struggling with this particular saying of Jesus because it is, of course, a really troubling saying. And he (let’s face it, given how long ago this likely happened, it was probably a male preacher) – he was looking for some way to make this saying relevant and palatable to the people in his congregation.
So, he made up a gate that never existed. He probably originally made it up just as an illustration. I’ll bet, in the original sermon, he did not actually say that the gate really existed. But, you know how people are. They always remember the sermon illustrations much better than they remember the actual point of the sermon. So, the story just spread around. And, before long, the actual existence of the gate was taken for granted. Nobody questioned it.
Looking for Loopholes
And I can understand why. Such an interpretation is so much easier to take than what Jesus was apparently really saying. In fact, the history of this particular saying of Jesus is a history of people looking for loopholes. I heard a joke the other day saying that Elon Musk, who is apparently now the richest man in the world, has been funding research lately on the miniaturization of camels and the magnification of needles’ eyes.
I heard that joke and I laughed, but then I thought about what the richest men in the world, men like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, have been doing lately. They, and a few other global billionaires, have literally been engaging in a self-funded space race. It rather seems as if they have decided that, if they can’t fit a camel through a needle’s eye, they are just going to fly directly to the kingdom of heaven in rockets.
How Jesus would Reply to the Super Rich
I can’t help but wonder how Jesus might reply to such men and their quest today. I think that men like that actually have a lot in common with that rich young ruler that had come up to Jesus that day. We are told that this man came up to Jesus with this question, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” And notice that that question is very specific.
He doesn’t ask, for example, “Good teacher, how can I get into heaven?” Nor does he ask, “How can I be part of this ‘kingdom of God’ that you are always going on about?” Being part of the kingdom of God was all about how you lived out this life as a part of what God was accomplishing in the world. Getting into heaven was all about what happened after you died, but this man asks about neither of those things. This man just wants to straight up live forever.
What the Super Rich are Doing
That is what I see the likes of Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk doing these days. They’ve already got everything of this world they could possibly desire. I mean, these are men who have so much wealth that they literally could not possibly spend it all no matter what they did. The interest and return on investment they earn grows much faster than what they could possibly spend buying things. They’ve gotten to this place where possessions don’t actually mean anything anymore.
And so what do they seek? They seek eternal life. To quote a movie score, “(Fame) I’m gonna make it to heaven, Light up the sky like a flame. (Fame) I’m gonna live forever. Baby, remember my name.” And they think that using their wealth to conquer outer space is the way they are going to do that.
And I know that they’ve done their best to present what they do as being ultra cool and all for the sake of the future of humanity, but I really think most people see through that. I suspect that Jesus would have seen through it too. Had they come up to Jesus and said, “What must I do to live forever?” They would have probably cut Jesus off even before he started listing off the commandments and said, “Hey, did you hear that I went into space?”
But the story still would have ended with Jesus shaking his head and saying, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and use it to lift billions from poverty, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”
Little has Changed
These men remind us of just how little has changed since Jesus first spoke to that rich young ruler. The richest people in the world are still full of themselves. And even when they do things that they like to think of as trying to better the world, their extreme wealth tends to skew their perception.
Yes, today’s billionaires may think of themselves as saving humanity by providing us a path to the stars, but it’s pretty clear, from the way they go about it, that it’s all about them saving the world. Yes, Bill Gates, who was once the world’s richest man, may have given away huge quantities of money through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, but when you look at how he set all of that up, he managed to keep a whole lot of control over how the money was spent so that it would align with his vision of what the world was supposed to be. He made sure that it was kind of all about him.
The Distortion Caused by Wealth
And I think that that is what Jesus is really getting at in his interaction with this rich young ruler and his saying about camels and needles’ eyes. There is no denying that you can do a lot of good with wealth. In fact, given all of the ways in which the world actually works, it is practically impossible to do good without access to wealth. That is why churches and non-profits actually have to invest a fair bit of energy into raising funds. But what Jesus is saying is that wealth itself has a power to distort even the noblest of goals. And the more there is of it, the more distortion may occur. I think that’s what we are seeing happening in the billionaire space race these days.
Jesus Asks for More
And Jesus was saying more than just that we have to take all of our belongings off of the camel and make the camel kneel down before going through the gate. He was saying that, if we really want to be part of the kingdom of God, which, remember, is all about what God is doing in this world to bring about God’s vision of peace and justice and goodness for all, then we have to let go of that distorting influence in our life. Wealth and the pursuit of it and the illusion of security that it brings, these are the very things that prevent us from being a part of the kingdom of God here and now.
And, while some can and will take Jesus’ advice to just give everything away to the poor, the practical truth of living in this world is that most of us will not be able to do that. But understand that, by not giving everything away, we are choosing the much more difficult path, indeed the impossible path. We have to deny the power that wealth has over us. The good news, however, is that God is so committed to bringing about God’s kingdom, that the impossible can happen.
Embracing the Impossible
So, yes, we are in a tough spot on this Thanksgiving Sunday. We do want to gather and celebrate the incredible bounty of harvest and all of the good things that God gives us in this world. And I would say yes, be truly thankful for all of these things today and every day. But do not forget to go beyond thanks to embrace the real challenge that your God gives to you today, to actually pursue the impossible reality of the kingdom of God.
Hespeler, 3 October, 2021 © Scott McAndless – World Communion
Job 1:1, Job 2:1-10, Psalm 26, Hebrews 1:1-4, 2:5-12, Mark 10:2-16
Have you ever considered that the mention of Satan at the beginning of the Book of Job is probably the oldest clear reference to the character of Satan that we have in the Bible. I know that people often assume that Satan first appears in the story of the Garden of Eden, but go back and read that story in Genesis 3 and you will notice that it never says that the serpent who appears to the woman is Satan, or even that it is a demon. It says that the serpent who spoke to Eve was just another creature made by God, albeit a very crafty one.
So Satan, as a distinct character, doesn’t really appear on the scene until we get to the Book of Job. But is that character who appears in the Book of Job really the same one that we come to know and hate in later Christian tradition? What is the story that really unfolds between the Lord and Satan at the beginning of this book? Even more important, what, if anything, does this character really have to do with the challenges we all face living today in this world? Today I would like to delve into one of the most classic tales of the Bible, one that leads us to one of the most elemental questions: why do good people suffer?
Once Upon a Time
Once upon a time in the land of Uz there lived a man called Job. And Job lived a good life. He worked hard. He was an entrepreneur who ran all kinds of businesses like restaurants and hair salons. And he loved to have the public come into his businesses and he always treated them right and gave them exactly the kind of service that pleased them. He treated his employees well also, paying them a living wage. And he was always fair and kind in his treatment of them.
He was a faithful friend. He enjoyed going out with his friends and maybe doing some dining and dancing. He loved to go to sports events with them and cheer for the home team. He was generous to them, sometimes to a fault.
Job had a good life, but that just seemed right to everybody because he was a good person. That is how it’s supposed to work after all, isn’t it?
Meanwhile in the Heavenly Realm
Now, one day, Yahweh, the great high God of the Israelites, was hanging out with all of the other gods. They were coming to Yahweh and giving their reports, for they were under God’s authority. And while they were doing this, Satan also came.
“Well, well, well,” said Yahweh, “if it isn’t Satan, my old nemesis. If it isn’t the great dragon, that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray and who steals souls away and condemns them to outer darkness for all eternity.”
Satan or Hasatan?
“Wait, wait” said Satan, “what are you talking about? That’s not who I am at all. I am Hasatan, the Satan. Think of me as your Attorney General. I am one of your servants, the one who goes out and goes to and fro on the earth and walking up and down on it to see what all of those humans of yours are up to. I’m one of the guys on your team, remember, just like all of these other so-called “sons of God.”
“That whole idea of me as your adversary locked into a conflict with you for all eternity, that’s not an idea that’s even going to come into being until maybe hundreds of years after the writing of this particular story.
The Origins of Satan
In fact, some people think that it is a concept that was influenced by a dualistic way of looking at the universe – you know, a way of thinking where everything is seen as a conflict between two opposites: good and evil, light and darkness, black and white. Judeans might have picked up such ways of looking at the universe from the Persians during the time of the exile. But that way of understanding me as big bad Satan has still not yet even been envisioned.”
“Oh sorry, of course you are right,” replied Yahweh. “I guess that is a problem when you are an eternal being. When you are living simultaneously in the past, present and future all the time, sometimes it can be difficult to keep all of that straight. So, let’s start all over again and I’ll greet you properly.
“Welcome back home, Hasatan, my faithful Attorney General. I would be happy to hear your report on the doings of the people of the earth. Tell me, what do you think of my man Job? There is a good example of a faithful human, am I right? He always tries to do the right thing. He treats people fairly. And he only ever has good things to say about me. Doesn’t Job reflect really well on me, his creator?
A Deal is Made
“Well,” said Hasatan, “it is true that Mr. Job has nothing but good things to say about you. But why would he say any different? It’s like he lives a charmed life and everything he sets his mind to only brings him success. Let him experience a little bit of failure, some frustration and disappointment and then we shall see if he changes his tune.”
“Fine,” said Yahweh, “you have a devious mind, but that’s exactly what I like about you. Go ahead and do your worst. But do me one favour, don’t hit him directly, but you can mess things up around him.”
“Done,” cried the prosecutor. And he went out of the divine presence.
What Happened to Job
So, what did Hasatan need in order to accomplish his mission? Did he require incursions of marauding Sabeans and Chaldeans? Did he need tornadoes or hurricanes blowing in with all their destructive power? These are indeed the hazards that sometimes afflict us in this life. But Hasatan hardly needed anything as dramatic as that to accomplish his goals. He only needed a small thing – a tiny little virus.
The virus and the fear of the virus accomplished everything else. Public health officials shut down all of Job’s restaurants and his salons. His income dropped so drastically that he had to lay off all of his workers, which broke his heart. All of a sudden everything that had made him feel safe and secure, was taken away from him and he felt lost.
At the same time, he was also immediately cut off from all of his friends. He couldn’t go out and enjoy dinners or sporting events. He was trapped inside with no place to go and he felt as if his life was completely miserable.
But he said to himself, “Hey, at least this is something that we’re all in together and we’re all going to get through it together.” And so, in all of this, Job did not lose his goodness and righteousness.
So it happened that another day Yahweh, the great high God of the Israelites, was hanging out with all of the other gods. They were coming to Yahweh and giving their reports for they were under God’s authority. And while they were doing this, Satan also came.
So Yahweh greeted him. “Hey Satan. . . I mean. . . Hasatan, what do you say now? I saw that you did your worst to my good buddy Job and he didn’t crack. You might just be losing your touch.”
“Oh no, replied the Attorney General. “I did everything just right. If only your limitations hadn’t held me back, he would have reacted differently. Let me move directly against him and you will see that his façade will crumble like a house of cards”
“Yeah, whatever,” said the Lord, “Go ahead and do your worst.”
Phase Two of Destroying Job’s Life
So Hasatan went out from the presence of Yahweh and systematically destroyed any sense of well-being that Job still had. That sense that everyone was going through these difficult times together, the Attorney broke that down very effectively. He quickly spread misinformation by means of his favorite tool, social media. Soon it seemed as if even the most sensible precautions against the spread of a virus, like wearing a mask and distancing and even vaccines had become political footballs that people used to turn friend against friend and neighbour against neighbour.
All of this broke Job’s spirit. And then he too fell sick with the virus, even if it was a mild case (because, of course, he had done what he could to protect the community by being vaccinated).
Job felt discouraged and robbed of all strength, but still in this he did not curse God, still he held onto faith that, at least, he was not alone in all of this because his God was with him.
The Issues in Job
The Book of Job, if it were not in the Bible, would still be considered one of the great works of human literature. It is an extensive discussion, written in poetic form, of one of the most intractable questions that humanity has ever faced – why do bad things happen to good people? And most of the philosophical and theological discussion of that question takes place within the extended poetic section in the middle of the book in a series of dialogues between Job and three or four of his friends. But I wanted to focus today, instead, on the brief prose story that begins and ends the book.
More than Framing Narrative
I know that many people have dismissed this story, suggesting that it’s merely a framing narrative that sets up the much deeper discussion in the poetic section. But I’m not so sure about that. Yes, the poetic dialogues in the Book of Job do find their own resolution to the difficult problem of evil. But I do think that, in its own way, the prose story also tries to resolve this difficult question.
It all comes down to the character of Satan. He never reappears after the opening scenes, he never gets mentioned in the poetic dialogues. Nevertheless, he is the apparent instrument of Job’s misery. I cannot help but feel that if we could better understand the purpose of this character in the story, we would better grasp the author’s understanding of the problem of evil.
And we must, first of all, dispense with most of the cultural and later biblical baggage that comes with the name of Satan. There is no sense that this character is a powerful nemesis to God in this story. The opening scene in heaven makes it clear that he is on God’s team.
The opening scene shows the Lord, Yahweh, surrounded by figures who are called, in Hebrew, “the sons of God.” This is a Hebrew idiom. In Hebrew, when you said sons of man, it meant humans. When you said sons of God, it meant gods. So this story, which is quite ancient, actually reflects a time before the people of Israel had really figured out that Yahweh actually was the one and only true God.
And Satan comes as one of these gods who serve the high God, Yahweh. He is not called by the proper name Satan but he is rather Hasatan, which means the satan, or perhaps the adversary or the prosecutor. He is, in other words, the kind of person who, in a royal human court, dealt with legal matters and with the prosecution of individuals accused of crimes. So, he may not be a popular member of God’s court, but he is definitely part of it.
So What is the Satan?
So, if he doesn’t represent the personification of evil in the story, how should we see this Satan who is the author of all of Job’s misery?
Well, this is how I understand it. That opening heavenly scene in the Book of Job is pretty clearly not meant to be taken as a literal description of the state of affairs in heaven. The scene, with a high king who is attended by a court full of servants including his own attorney general, is clearly based on the real-life situation that the author would have witnessed in a king’s court where he, no doubt, personally served. And he means us to see it exactly as an observer in that world would observe a discussion between a king and his prosecutor as they looked into the affairs of one of the king’s subjects.
God and Human Suffering
Neither the king nor the advocate desires or intends for anybody to suffer. The satan, I suspect, simply represents an intractable truth about life – that things sometimes go wrong. Sometimes they go horribly wrong. And such misfortune may visit anyone. It does not fall exclusively on the unjust nor on the just. And of course we are tested severely when such things enter into our lives.
I think that this story affirms this basic, inescapable truth about life. I know we would like to affirm something different. We would like to affirm that all suffering carries with it meaning and purpose. But the presence of the Satan in the high king’s court seems to say otherwise. But that does not mean that we are lost and alone in the midst of the suffering of this world.
The other thing that this story affirms is that God, the high king, actually does care about our sufferings and, in the end, he draws near to Job when he’s at the worst of them. And that is not nothing. That is the central theme of the story of the Christian gospel, that God, in Christ, draws near to us when we are at our very worst.