Who Do You Think You Are? - A Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 22B (Job 38)

"The Lord Answering Job out of the Whirlwind," William Blake


Job 38:1-7 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

38 Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind:
“Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?
Gird up your loins like a man,
    I will question you, and you shall declare to me.
“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
    Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements—surely you know!
    Or who stretched the line upon it?
On what were its bases sunk,
    or who laid its cornerstone
when the morning stars sang together
    and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?

**************

                As we learned in chapter 2 of Job, the central character in this story (Job) is the victim of a wager made by God with Satan regarding the nature of Job’s righteousness. Despite being tortured, Job refuses to curse God, though it might have been the best thing for both him and his wife had he done so. As Jonathan Walton points out Job isn’t the only one suffering here. His wife had to watch as ten of her children died, the family fortune disappeared, and now she is left to care for her husband’s deteriorating body and spirit. He concludes: “When we look at the situation through her eyes, we might have more sympathy for this woman who looked upon her dying husband’s body and declared, “Please, honey. Just curse God and die” [Walton, A Lens of Love, p. 74].

The reading for this week from the Hebrew Bible is the third of four excerpts from Job. The first reading was the aforementioned excerpt from chapter 2. In the reading for last Sunday (Job 23), we find Job complaining bitterly about his situation. He doesn’t curse God, who appears to be the cause of his afflictions, but he does complain that God has chosen to be absent. This response on Job’s part followed a less than satisfying set of conversations with three friends who are also frustrated, though for them it’s Job who is the problem. If only Job would confess his unrighteousness things would get better. For his part, Job won’t give in. This will lead to another set of conversations with the friends, which leads to an angry response from a younger observer named Elihu, who is angry with Job for not admitting his guilt and with the three friends for not finding an answer. Elihu has his own set of defenses of God’s righteousness that extends from Job 32 through Job 38, where God jumps in and seemingly piles on.

                You must feel sorry for Job (and as noted, his wife as well). Not only is he the victim of this wager between God and Satan, but he must endure the critiques of his so-called friends as well. The reading from Job 38 brings God back into the picture. In fact, this is the first time God is going to speak since the early chapters. Throughout all this discussion between Job and his friends, he has been silent. In fact, Job bitterly complains of God’s absence (Job 23). Now God appears in the form of a whirlwind and seemingly demands to know why Job has the temerity to raise questions with God without having adequate knowledge. Before we get to God’s engagement with Job, I should take note of the reference to the whirlwind, which is a form of a theophany. It is a way of depicting God’s power and authority—storms always pack a lot of power!

Appearing in the whirlwind, God seemingly taunts Job: “Gird up your loins like a man.” If you think you know so much about life, let me ask you a few questions! Thus, begins the inquisition of Job. The lectionary spares us a bit by suggesting we read just the first seven verses of chapter 38. You can, if you wish, drop down to verse 34 and read from there to verse 41. I’m not sure it adds much to the conversation. Seven verses might be enough. Of course, God doesn’t bring this inquiry to a close in verse 41. No, the questioning goes on until in verse 2 of chapter 40, God asks Job: “Shall a faultfinder contend with the Almighty? Anyone who argues with God must respond.” Job meekly responds: “See, I am of small account; what shall I answer you? I lay my hand on my mouth. I have spoken once, and I will not answer; twice, but will proceed no further.” (Job 40:4-5).  With that response by Job, God picks things up and continues on until the end of chapter 41. Next week we get to hear Job’s answer, brief though it might be, in chapter 42.

                In the meantime, we have before us God’s questioning of Job. The questions start at the very beginning of the biblical story: “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” (Job 38:4a). Were you there when the creation of the earth commenced? If not, then you can’t know the full story of reality. Much of chapter 38 focuses on God’s act of creation, as well as God’s provision. It’s a bit unfair of God, don’t you think? What is Job to say in response? Of course, Job wasn’t there. Of course, Job can’t issue “an order to the clouds so their abundant waters cover you?” (vs. 34 CEB). And on it goes. Job isn’t suggesting he’s God. He’s just claiming to be righteous and faithful. I don’t know about you, but I think God “doth protest too much!” Or, maybe, as Ron Allen and Clark Williamson suggest, it’s possible that God’s rhetoric is not angry but ironic. Drawing from their former colleague Gerald Janzen, they suggest that what God does here is “prompt Job to realize that God approves of Job’s questions.” At the same time, they note that Carol Newson suggests that God’s speech is a reminder that we “should honor the boundaries of our own knowledge and figure out how to live creatively within them.” [Preaching the OldTestament, p. 159]. Thus, what looks like God shutting down the conversation is simply a redirection of it. Keep asking questions, even if there are no final answers to be found.

                Tone is always difficult to discern. It seems as if God is ignoring Jobs complaints and shutting things down, when God might be doing something else. Perhaps God is suggesting that the entire discussion of retributive justice that marked the prior thirty-five chapters or so might not be the correct conversation piece. Perhaps God is really rebuking the friends and not Job. As for Job, perhaps the answer is that somethings are simply unknowable. So, we must come to life’s situations with humility, asking questions, knowing that answers might not be forthcoming.

                We might not have been there “when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?” but it is good to know that there was joy at the beginning (vs. 7). J.S. Randolph Harris notes that in this response to Job and his “friends” God reminds Job and us that this “is God’s world, and not ours. Sometimes we need to hear that word.” [Feasting on the Word, p. 173]. But, even so, despite the vastness of the cosmos, all of which belong to God, Job 38 reminds us that God chose to speak to Job. Harris writes: “For all of our seeming inconsequence, we are the ones to whom God has spoken, the ones to whom God holds out the promise of conversation about the design of creation.” God doesn’t dismiss Job, but simply reorients his vision. [Feasting on the Word, p. 175]. This is valuable knowledge. Job might not have been there at the beginning, but he is part of that divine creation.

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