Saving Our Skins? - A Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 20B (Job 2)

Job & his wife - La Tour 


1:1 There was once a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job. That man was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil. 

2:1 One day the heavenly beings came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came among them to present himself before the Lord. 2 The Lord said to Satan, “Where have you come from?” Satan answered the Lord, “From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it.” 3 The Lord said to Satan, “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. He still persists in his integrity, although you incited me against him, to destroy him for no reason.” 4 Then Satan answered the Lord, “Skin for skin! All that people have they will give to save their lives. 5 But stretch out your hand now and touch his bone and his flesh, and he will curse you to your face.” 6 The Lord said to Satan, “Very well, he is in your power; only spare his life.” 

7 So Satan went out from the presence of the Lord, and inflicted loathsome sores on Job from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head. 8 Job took a potsherd with which to scrape himself, and sat among the ashes. 

9 Then his wife said to him, “Do you still persist in your integrity? Curse God, and die.” 10 But he said to her, “You speak as any foolish woman would speak. Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?” In all this Job did not sin with his lips.

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                Job was a righteous man from the land of Uz (wherever that is), whom Satan dared God to torment, to test his faith. God agreed to the wager, and as a result Job’s children were killed by raiding parties and his property destroyed. It was a sad day for Job, but he remained firm in his righteousness. He grieved but didn’t curse God. That’s the essence of chapter one of Job, though the lectionary includes only the introductory verse in the selection for Pentecost 20B. That’s because the focus is on chapter two and a second wager, this time involving Job’s own body. Will Job remain faithful with this twist in the story.

                As in chapter one, in chapter two of Job, the heavenly council gathers with Yahweh presiding. Satan appears once again before Yahweh, who once again asks Satan what he’s been up to. The answer is, “I’ve been traveling around the earth, checking things out, seeing what people are doing.” Once again, Yahweh asks Satan, what he thinks of Job. After all, “there is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man who fears God and turns away from evil. He still persists in his integrity, although you incited me against him, to destroy him for no reason.” Did you notice God’s response? Job remained blameless and upright, even though Satan had “incited me against him, to destroy him for no reason.” God is rather proud of this man, whom God had allowed to be tested.

                I have always been intrigued by the story of Job. It invites us to think through our understanding of God, including God’s relationship to the world. In my theology, God is love, and a God who is love doesn’t go around messing people’s lives. Yet, that is the story, which should cause us to pause before embracing a literalist interpretation. In this picture of God, God is rather petty. God play games with a man’s life, by letting his children be murdered and his property destroyed, just to see if Job will stay firm in his faith. Job does, despite everything that is thrown at him. Job is righteous, but what about God? Is God so thin-skinned that God can be manipulated by Satan? It’s a question we must face, if we’re to hear this story.

                If we’re to read Job in a way that informs us theologically, we need to affirm at the very beginning that this fiction. The first clue ought to be Job’s homeland. Where is Uz? It could be Edom, but who knows. The picture of the heavenly court is also a clue, though it gives evidence of its rootedness in a pre-monotheist Israel. Whatever its origins, the book raises questions about our understanding of God, the nature of faith, and the challenge posed to that faith by human suffering. With that is our opening point, we need to also address this important character who appears in the early chapters, and that is the person of Satan. The character of Satan as depicted here is not the devil of human imagination. This is no figure with red skin, horns, and a pitchfork. This figure is more an informant, sent out by God, as would a king, to keep watch for rebellious activities. In this set of exchanges, Satan raises questions about Job’s piety. Is it based on living the good life, and if that good life is taken away, the piety would go away as well? It’s a good question, and whether we like the way the question is set up, it does speak to our own realities.

                In chapter two, when God asks Satan what he thinks of Job’s response to misfortune, Satan responds that this is to be expected. It’s one thing to lose your family and property. It’s another thing to have your own body afflicted. Isn’t it human nature to do whatever we can to save our own skins, even at the expense of those closest to us? That’s just the way things are. Jesus knew that. In the Gospel of John, we hear him say: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13). Jesus will do that for his friends, but what about us? When push comes to shove, won’t we save our own skins? That’s the wager. So, God goes along with the wager, allowing Job to be afflicted, but not killed. Pushed to the limit, will he curse God?  That’s the question.

                Satan went and cursed Job, causing sores to appear on his body running from the soles of his feet to the crown of his head. In other words, the totality of his body was covered with “loathsome sores.” He was miserable. He probably wished to die. But he remained firm in his faith. He did so, even when his wife suggested that he curse God, so he might die. Curse God and get it over with. That was her advice. But he refused. He remained firm in his faith, despite everything.

                Satan was wrong. Job didn’t save his own skin by cursing God, though Job’s wife encouraged him to do so. He told his wife that one should expect both the good and the bad from the hand of God. That isn’t a comforting word on Job’s part. It doesn’t fit with my own theology. It’s not that I plan on cursing God, but I am troubled by the idea that God would authorize the bad. God might allow something bad to occur, or maybe, just maybe, there are things God simply cannot do. Through it all, however, Job remains firm in his faith.  

This response on Job’s part, his decision to accept his fate and not curse God sets up the next phase of the story, his encounter with his “friends,” who at first seek to comfort him and then as time passes, and Job won’t confess his sins, raise questions about Job’s righteousness. After all, isn’t suffering the result of wrong doing? So far, however, Job does nothing to warrant his suffering, if suffering results from wrongdoing. His suffering comes from a divine directive.

                The questions raised by the Book of Job are important ones. In some ways the Book challenges another strain of Wisdom Literature that presumes that blessing is a sing of righteousness and suffering is a sign of unrighteousness. It also invites us to consider the we view the divine-human relationship. Marvin Sweeney, a Jewish scholar of the Hebrew Bible (and my son’s professor) at a Protestant seminary, offers these words of insight:
The book of Job deliberately presents the model of a righteous man who suffers with no apparent moral justification in an effort to force critical reflection on the issue. The arguments posed by Job’s friends concerning the meaning of human suffering and their assertions of divine righteousness even in the face of evil and Job’s responses to each of them are in fact the key issues of the book. The book of Job is intended to question the standard theological premises of the Torah and the Prophets, viz., is it really the case that observance of the divine will leads to success and peace in life? Is it really the case that the wicked suffer— and not the righteous? Is it really the case that G-d is just? Indeed, the final episode in which G-d affirms Job’s demands for an explanation for his suffering— even though G-d never provides such explanation— indicates that such a critical agenda is in fact the purpose of the book. In the end, the book of Job affirms divine presence and it appears to affirm divine righteousness, but the book also affirms the right and obligation of human beings to ask such questions of G-d. In this respect, Job points to and affirms a model of a human being in critical dialog with G-d.  [Sweeney, Marvin A. Tanak: A Theological and Critical Introduction to The Jewish Bible (Kindle Locations 11439-11447). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.]
                The door is open. Are willing to walk through? Are willing to enter a critical dialog with God, as Sweeney proposes? The lectionary moves quickly, jumping from chapter two to chapter twenty-three. We don’t get to see the dialog with the friends, but we do experience Job’s complaint, which is set up by this attack on Job’s skin.

Picture attribution: La Tour, Georges du Mesnil de, 1593-1652. Job and his Wife, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=46621 [retrieved October 1, 2018]. Original source: http://www.yorckproject.de.

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