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Friday, June 26, 2009

The Death of Job's Children

Job had 10 children (Job 1:2). When Satan challenged God’s assertion of Job’s righteousness, he asked God for permission to harm Job’s loved ones and take Job’s possessions (vs. 10-11). God acquiesced, and Satan used human conflict (vs. 15, 17) and natural disaster (vs. 16, 18-19) to destroy all that Job had, and kill all whom Job loved, save his wife.

My biggest fear is that something would harm one of my children, let alone both of them. I know people who have lost children. It is completely devastating. Yet, from the text of the story of Job, the death of his children functions more as an element of movement, than a cause for mourning. Job must move from prosperity to pain so we can get to the meat of the story and find out if Satan was right. The death of 10 “young people” (vs. 19), as well as their spouses and servants, is a tool for the use of the storyteller. The event gets us to the point where Job has to react, and his reaction is the story.

The narrator never comments on the sorrow of such an awful human loss. Satan is utterly indifferent. Satan does not care a whit for Job’s children or for Job. Satan wants to prove God wrong. God also comes across coldly. We love reading “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they” (Matthew 6:25-26)?

These words of Jesus clearly state that God values us, loves us, and provides for us. Genesis chapters 1 & 2 declare humans made in the image of God; humans and humans alone are special in God’s kingdom.

And yet, in Job 1-2, humans (Job’s children and servants) are mere fodder for the wager. God seems more intent on proving Satan wrong than valuing Job’s children. In fact, God appears to be completely indifferent to the fate of Job’s children; and, God is not at all sympathetic to Job’s grief. What gives?

First, this is a good example of why we strive to consider the entire testimony of the Bible and not just isolated verses. When we read the New Testament we have to remember the Old, because the New is built on the Old. When we read the Old Testament, we have to remember the New because our interpretation of the Old is determined by the teaching of Jesus and Paul and the other New Testaments voices. With other passages as a corrective, we remember we can trust God to watch over us and care about us.

Second, death is not always the worst thing to happen to someone. We don’t see the Job story from the perspective of Job’s children. Their view is never considered. From their vantage point, maybe something is gained by their deaths. I don’t know. I look into the New Testament and see Stephen willingly face death for the sake of the Gospel (Acts 7). Jesus embraced death to save humanity.

This step of trying to step into the shoes of the peripheral characters does not put God in better light. God doesn’t look good in Job 1 & 2. But, lest we commit Job’s sins, let me hasten to add, we cannot understand God’s perspective. We cannot know the divine mind and I accept that. What I wish is that we had some dialogue or some knowledge of the thoughts of one or two of Job’s children. It might help us understand the morality of the story.

In seeing that we don’t have that, I am eternally grateful we have passages like Genesis 1 & 2 and Matthew 6 to remind us that God does value us and does care. These passages don’t provide relief to the seemingly capricious theology and theocentric morality of Job. But they remind us that God is good.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009



In Job 1:6-12, God and ‘the satan’ have the following exchange.

One day the heavenly beings came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came among them. 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.”

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.”

Then Satan answered the Lord, “Does Job fear God for nothing? Have you not put a fence around him and his house and all that he has, on every side? You have blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land. But stretch out your hand now, and touch all that he has, and he will curse you to your face.”

The Lord said to Satan, “Very well, all that he has is in your power; only do not stretch out your hand against him!” So Satan went out from the presence of the Lord.

I refer to Satan as ‘the satan’ (lower case ‘s’) because ‘ha-satan’ in Hebrew is a title, not a name. It means ‘the adversary,’ or ‘the accuser.’ Several of the writers who approach Job via critical Biblical studies do not see in this ‘satan’ the same being of evil Jesus refers to as ‘the enemy’ (Matthew 13:39) or Beelzebub (Mark 3:22-23). The feeling is the one in Job is not evil at all.

Leo Perdue (Brite Divinity School, Professor of Hebrew Bible) describes ‘satan’ as a “member of the divine council [who] has the responsibility to search out and discover evil on the face of the earth and to make a report to the divine judge.” Furthermore, based on his reading of Job he writes that God is “a suspicious ruler of the divine council [who] falls prey to the temptation of ‘the satan’ and turns over to him the hero [Job]” (Perdue, Wisdom & Creation, p.129).

Now listen to Gerald Janzen (Christian Theological Seminary, Indianapolis, Professor of Old Testament). He identifies ‘satan’ as a “proper member of the divine council.” He feels God’s question to ‘the satan’ amounts to a check. God is asking ‘satan,’ “Have you been doing your job?” Janzen recognizes that this book is not about ‘satan.’ He is a minor (but important) character. Janzen’s reading suggests that the appropriate behavior for ‘satan’ is to go about the earth, notice, and report to God what he sees.

Edwin M. Good (retired from Stanford University): “‘the satan’ … a divine district attorney, poking his nose here and there through the world in order to bring wicked people to divine justice. Far from being God’s adversary he is the divine law and order officer. He is not the principle of evil, however much he became so in later Jewish and Christian mythologies, but on the contrary in Job is a principle of good, of justice (Good, essay – “The problem of evil in the book of Job” in the book The Voice from the Whirlwind, p.52).

Upon reading Job and listening to the comments of leading authorities like Perdue, Janzen, and Good, I am not sure what to make of ‘satan’ in the book of Job. First, I would reiterate that the book of Job is not about ‘satan.’ He functions as a catalyst in the action, and then, he’s off the stage never to return. I am tempted to entertain the idea that this being we meet in Job 1 & 2 is not the same being that Jesus refers to as the devil, Beelzebub, Satan, and the enemy. I am tempted to hypothesize that that being is totally different, but I don’t have any particular good cause for such a conclusion other than my own reasoning.

I don’t agree with Edwin Good’s conclusion that ‘satan’ is a “principle of justice.” Good is taking it too far. It does seem that God is quick to show off Job, and then it backfires on God. The exchange of God & Satan in the divine council is unsettling. Clearly God is in charge and all movement is dependent upon God’s will. But God seems out of control regarding Job’s actions once Job is released to the destructive designs of the ‘satan.’ For ‘satan’s’ scheming to harm Job, even if it is in order to prove God wrong, I see ‘satan’ as malevolent.

It was not God’s intent that Job suffer. However, God allowed it just so God could prove a point. God allowed the death of 10 young adults (Job’s children; this number does not account for spouses and servants who also died). God allowed Job to go from prosperity and health to poverty and disease. God did it all to win an argument.

The whole notion of “divine council” (see also Psalm 82:1; 1 Kings 22:19-23; Zechariah 3:1-2; and Ephesians 6) is quite troubling if this is how divine councils function. People are just tools in the hands of gods – is this true? If so, from a human perspective, God’s hands are no cleaner than ‘satan’s’. However, it may be that one of the things the book of Job tells us is the human perspective is of limited importance to God. Other passages of scripture would contradict this theology (Matthew 6:35-43), but that’s one of the realities that makes Job so intriguing.

The ‘satan’ we meet in Job is something – something otherworldly. What he is exactly, I don’t know. He doesn’t appear as God’s enemy. He is most definitely God’s subordinate. And I am sure he does NOT have humanity’s good in mind. But, what he is, I am not sure.

Why Job?

Why Job? Why are people drawn to this book of the Bible? Below I offer some observations.

(1) Confirmation – Some folks are pretty convinced that they know all about God and the Bible. So, when they go to read the Bible, they already have some ideas fixed in their minds. They read to find confirmation of what they already believe. This is a dangerous approach because it isn’t humble. We should realize that the Bible has been informing, challenging, convicting, and transforming people of faith all over the world from its inception in the 1st century (and before that). If we go to it thinking we know it all, how will God’s word teach us anything new? I urge Bible readers to be open enough and humble enough to be taught new things – especially in a book like Job.

(2) Uniqueness – Two books of the Bible stand out as different from the rest: Job & Revelation. For this reason, I think any time a Bible study or discussion is on one of these books, some are drawn to the study because they are curious. There is a novelty factor. People have heard 100’s sermons on the Prodigal Son parable, and the birth narrative of Jesus, and the resurrection. But, Job is different. That is an attraction for some.

(3) Pain – Pain is a driving force in Job. He suffers horrendously. At first his response is “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord” (1:21). Later on, Job says, “Let the day perish in which I was born. Why did I not die at birth, come forth from the womb and expire” (3:1, 11)? Job accuses God of assailing him, and in the end Job is counted as in the right. So many people are in pain. Just today, I dealt with a marriage in crisis, heard about someone with esophageal cancer, and heard about someone else with an unidentified growth in the lungs. It comes in numerous forms, but it comes; most people appreciate Job because Job doesn’t offer empty, trite answers for their heavy, complicated questions about pain.

(4) Bible study – Some people thirst for God’s word. I wish more Christians did. A lot of believers are content to sit on what their preacher or their momma or their grandpa tells them the Bible says. The Bible is not the exclusive territory of preachers, priests, seminarians, theologians and super saints. The Bible is God’s gift to all believers and indeed to all people. So I encourage all people to develop a hunger for the word of God. “How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth” (Psalm 119:103)!

Of the four reasons people open the word, I encourage the last three. I discourage coming to God’s word if you already think you know the “right answers.” If your story is already written and you have no truth left to learn, you will misread the Bible because you will project into it your conclusions. Instead of writing your thoughts into the word, let the word write on your heart.

Tell me if you think there are other reasons people participate in Bible study and particularly in studying Job.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Talking about Tough Times is Popular

We advertised at our church that three different small groups would be studying Job. I sent the email about the Job study out church-wide, and boy, am I glad I did. Eight people have expressed interest in being in one of the group. None of those eight are currently in any of the three groups involved in the study.

Why is there such interest in Job?

The first group began the first session on Job by asking the group, what guides your thinking? What I mean there is who has influenced you? I hear a lot of people swear that they base their beliefs on the Bible. If you dig into their thinking, you discover they really base their beliefs on what their pastor taught them the Bible said (which is partially but not completely accurate most of the time). Or, they base their beliefs on what their mother or grandmother taught the Bible says. That teaching from a beloved and formative figure in a person’s life is important. However, did the grandmother have any training in critical Bible study? Was the grandmother exposed to the various methods of Biblical study and the various perspective through history from which scripture is viewed? Grandma taught the best grandma could, but it’s likely her view, while valuable, is limited.

Another potential distortion is the person who claims he believes only what he reads in the Bible. But in fact, he doesn’t read the Bible so much as he tells you what Max Lucado told him the Bible said. He heard Max on TV, so he uses Max’s words to establish his faith stance. Then, he calls it Biblical. It may be Rick Warren instead of Max Lucado, or Billy Graham, Philip Yancey, or John Ortberg, or Charles Swindoll, or Andy Stanley. Each of these authors is a trustworthy preacher/teacher, but none is a Biblical scholar. Not a one, to my knowledge, has a PhD in Biblical studies.

So, what guides your thinking? A beloved pastor or parent? A Christian who has attained some fame? Your own reading of the Bible?

That began our discussion with a bang, and it took off from there. We next looked at three questions that come from Philip Yancey’s book Where is God when it hurts.
(1) Is God fair?
(2) Is God silent?
(3) Is God hidden?
People began sharing some of the struggles they’ve been through. A relative with a debilitating disease. Losing a sibling. Losing a baby. This group of affluent people, all happily married had been through some very personal, real tragedies. And they talked about it.

I have led countless Bible studies. Sometimes people get into the text enthusiastically, but just as often, people are mute. I want it to be a discussion where we dynamically engage God’s word, but people just sit quietly and wait for me to give them the right answer. That did not happen with the Job discussion. People were telling their own stories, and my task was to watch the time while still allowing everyone to share. It was a spiritually powerful night. We got to Job 1:6, and our 90 minutes was up.

Now I am sitting at my desk, thinking about the energy and the willingness of the people in that discussion group. I am thinking about eight people needing a group because they too want to enter into Job and enter into discussion about Job with their Christian friends. Job pushes the issue of suffering to the center of the table and forces believers and God to talk about it. And, in my church, a church not beset by tragedy, people yearn for this discussion. It’s popular to talk our way through tough times. It’s needed because it is cathartic and in the discussion, one sees more of God and more of himself or herself.

One can either abandon faith as a result of suffering, or grow deeper in the relationship with God. It goes both ways, and there is no guarantee.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Honest Talk with God

Welcome to the discussion. That is what I am attempting with this blog - a discussion. My aim is to bring people and the Bible together. Here's what I firmly believe. The Bible is God's word and has something to say people today. The Bible is relevant, helpful, and needed. It is more than that. It is God's word. For the person who follows Jesus, the Bible is authoritative.

However, the Bible is also read by, taught by, preached on, and pondered by human beings who have a million different thoughts. I one time estimated that I had led about 500 small group Bible discussions in my life. That is a conservative estimate. The number is likely much higher. And, I have been in an equal number, or maybe more, where I was not the leader. The point is I have heard 1000's of people read the same Bible verse and see different things.

This is why dialogue and prayer are so important. We have to pray and ask for the Holy Spirit to help us understand what we read. We have to pray for the Spirit to convict our hearts, so that our lives will conform to God's will, which we find revealed in God's word. And, we need dialogue because we learn from one another. With respect and love, we need to share with one another and listen to one another as we read the Bible.

I hope this blog will spur dialogue around the word of God.

I tried blogging once before and just couldn't keep up with it. It was too random. I couldn't just sit down and type in my personal thoughts for all the world to read. Who cares about my personal thoughts? I needed a more structured format. I hope this accomplishes that.

I will begin with the Biblical book of Job. Our church is going through a study of Job that I am leading. I am supplementing the study with newsletter articles that come out every two weeks. As long as that is going, I will base my blog on the book of Job. When the study is over, and my thoughts on Job are exhausted, I will move on to blogging through other books of the Bible.

Please, submit your comments! Read Job. Think about your life, all you've seen, experienced, thought, and felt. And write in the comment section what you hear God saying. Your words could be a great help to a lot of people.

Why Job?
I am interested in Job because I have become acutely aware of the suffering of people. Maybe the fact that people in my church are being dramatically impacted by the worldwide economic woes has awakened me to the pain people have to go through. Maybe the fact that one of my good friends has had to watch his mom die of leukemia has prodded me to think about the problem of suffering. Maybe my visits to some of the poorer areas of third world countries have led me to think about how difficult daily life can be. Maybe watching the Ahmadinejad regime stamp out democracy and free speech in Iran is alerting me to the reality that people are hurting in the world.

Suffering is a reality, and right now, it is on my mind. I personally am not going through suffering. But, as a pastor, I must help other people interpret theologically and spiritually what they going through, the good, the bad, and the ugly. The book of Job is unique both in composition and in theological perspective. Job deals with suffering without offering any easy answers. Job's raw honesty invites the reader to also be 100% honest with God. Because God is relational, I believe we can't really know God or receive God's blessings until we are 100% honest with God about who we are.

So, I invite you. Read Job. Talk to God. And share what you can with me and with the readers of this blog.