Sunday, October 7, 2012
There once was a prince. It was said that he was blameless and upright. He had many possessions – oxen, donkeys, sheep, camels. He lived in a time when life was measured by possessions and family. His land stretched farther than the eye can see, and his 10 children who got along with one another. Everyone knew of the prince’s wealth, and yet he was admired, not envied.
To call him upright was to call him just. Others used their wealth to lord over the poor and expand by dishonest means and grow by power and force. Not the prince. He was savvy in business and generous, extremely generous with all people.
What’s more, he was a man of deep faith and true religion. It was said of the upright prince that he was blameless and feared God. He turned away from evil. He would rise early and offer burnt offerings for his sons. “It may be that my children have sinned and cursed God in their hearts” (1:5).
It was said of the prince that he was the greatest man of all the people of the east (1:3).
One day the sons of God presented themselves before the Lord. The Satan was among them. We cannot say. He was the one to whom God spoke, as if God expected him. God asked, “Where have you been?”
“Walking the earth.”
God continued. “Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one like him, blameless and upright; he fears God and turns away from evil” (v.8).
The Satan showed a sinister moxi before the Lord. “Have you not put a fence around your precious Job? You protect him – his house, his family. You bless him and everything he touches increases or turns to gold. Take it all away, and he will curse you to your face.”
To stand before God, reject God’s observation, and openly, defiantly challenge the Almighty, who would dare? It’s unacceptable. God takes the challenge?
“Very well. All that he has is in your power. Only do not injure his body.”
The prince sat on the stoop with a full mug. He enjoyed twilight after a day of sweaty labor. His children gathered together at the home of the eldest. The thought of them at a party together made him smile. Maybe he would go and join them.
In the distance, he could see a rider from the East. As the horse advanced, it became clear there was great concern. He recognized the rider as one of his servants.. “What’s wrong?”
The man was out of breath. “The Sabeans.”
The prince’s face hardened. The Sabeans had caused enough problems. They had no scruples. But, they had not been seen in over a year. Were they back? “How bad was it?” asked the prince.
“They’re all gone.”
His man was tearing up, lips trembling. “All the servants are dead. All the oxen and donkeys are gone.”
Hard hoof beats interrupted the somber dialogue. Another of the prince’s servants, this one from the southern fields, approached. He was black with soot and ash. He coughed furiously.
“I saw it in the distance. We’ve dealt with lightning before. I …”
“Not like this.” The servant interrupted his master. “It was fire from God. It hit on all sides.”
“It’s been so dry,” the prince said quietly.
“I …I,” the servant stammered, “I am the only one. The sheep. The other servants. Only I made it.” The prince collapsed onto the stoop where had been relaxing, resting in his wonderful life. His mug fell, beer spilling.
The silence was shattered by screaming coming from the Western hill. A man covered in blood fell as he tried to run down the hill. The prince’s servants rushed to him and helped him into the house. One ear had been severed and he was cut in several places. After they calmed him down, he explained that raiding parties had come and made off with the camels.
“The Chaldeans?” The prince couldn’t believe it. “We have had a truce with the Chaldeans for five years. The business dealings have been good for them and for us.”
“Sir,” said the now calmed servant. “They came with swords. They planned to execute us all.” He shook his head. “I barely made it.
The four, three rattled servants and a completely discombobulated prince had a start when the door of the house slammed open. The prince felt the color leave his face. It was his most trusted servant, master of all his northern dealings. This servant lived on his eldest son’s land. He had been a part of the family since that eldest was a newborn. Now he stood before him, hair disheveled, unsteady on his feet.
The prince shivered. “Tell me.”
“Tornado, sir. Worst I’ve seen.”
The prince held our his hands, words failing him. “The house collapsed. Everyone is dead. All the servants. All your children. Dead.”
Job’s head fell into his hands. Slowly, from deep within, a primal scream arose and erupted forth from him. His fists shook. His ripped the hair from his own head. Then, with shears he completely shaved himself and dumped ashes on himself. He went back outside. As his servants looked on from the house, he ripped his clothing off and fell into the dust. Kneeling, he looked to heaven and said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb and naked I shall return there; the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.”
It was said that in all these things, the prince never sinned with his lips nor did he charge God with any wrongdoing.
The sons of God presented themselves before the Lord. The Satan was among them. “Where have you been?” The Lord asked. “Walking the earth.”
God continued. “Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one like him, blameless and upright; he fears God and turns away from evil. Though you convinced me to destroy him for no reason, still he keeps his integrity”.
The Satan was not impressed. “What stand did your Job make? People crack like eggs when their lives are on the line. He was fine losing stuff. Now, stretch out your hand against his body. And watch him break. He will curse you to your face.”
To have the audacity to question the Almighty – and God went along with it and God’s prince Job passed the unreasonable test. Now this adversary pushed harder, and inexplicably, God goes along again. “Very well,” God said to the Satan. “He is in your power; only spare his life.”
The prince’s wife returned from her sojourn to her husband’s grief. She had planned to tell him of her journeys, all that she saw, including the disease in far-off lands. It was horrible. The skin would dry up and flake off leaving gaping, open sores that filled with flies. Dogs would lick the oozing wounds of beggars who lined the road.
The next morning, she awoke just before sun up to the sound of moaning. Her prince was not at her side in the bed. She roused herself, threw on her robe, and found him, out on the stoop. The four servants, all that were left, had a fire going. In the glow of the light, she was horrified to see the disease she had seen in far off lands was now all over him, her prince. It was worse than anything she had encountered. How could that sickness have followed her here? How could they lose all they had, their children, their servants, their livestock, their land, and now this? How?
The prince, weeping unhelpful dry tears, used a pottery shard to scrape the flaking skin off. His eyes looked into the flames, looked faraway, looked nowhere at all.
The primal anguished cry that erupted from him the day before now burst forth from his wife, crushed as she was. “You keep on with holiness and worship and reverence,” she snarled at him. “And for what? Now go on. Curse God and die.” Her entire body shook.
Calmly, almost vacantly, without taking his eyes off the fire, he said softly, “Foolish woman. Shall we receive the good from God, and not the bad?”
It was said that in all this, he did not sin with his lips.
The sun began to rise on that morning after. The prince was now reduced to ashes. As the song goes, he swept the streets he used to own. Rays of daylight cut through the thick fog, but was this light of a new day, or a new deception?
The servants saw them, coming, in the distance. From three directions they came, Eliphaz from the land Teman, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar from Naamath. Three princes came and took up vigil alongside their friend. For a week, they sat in ashes, sat in silence, grieving with Job.
Now what? This story is from the Old Testament. After the first tw0 chapters, we won’t hear from the Satan again. The wife will be referenced, but she won’t have any more comments. For the next 39 chapters, Job and his friends will talk – a most contentious, acrimony-filled conversation. A young thinker will barge into it. Another, unnamed but extraordinarily important figure, will not speak. But Job will hint at what he might say or do. And we will hear from someone else. The Sabeans and Chaldeans, like the Satan, have done their damage. They’re now done in the story. But Job’s children are not.
Why call the one who challenges God as “the Satan,” and not just “Satan?” Job was written in Hebrew, and “Ha-Satan,” is a title, not a name. Thousands of theology pages debate exactly what “Ha-Satan” means in Job. The Hebrew means ‘the adversary,’ or ‘the accuser.’ It has legal connotations. Some commentators believe that when God called the divine beings together, ‘the accuser,’ was doing his God-given job by accusing Job.
The popular belief is that this one, the accuser or the Satan, is in fact who Jesus refers to as the Devil. He’s the serpent in the garden of Eden who deceived Eve. That may well be so, but that connection is not made in scripture until the 12th chapter of Revelation, the very last book.
In the Old Testament the concept of a being who personified evil is not one that was held from the beginning; it is an understanding that developed. Why doesn’t Abraham or Moses or Joshua ever talk about the devil? They did not know there is a devil.
My own belief is that there really is a devil, Satan, whom Jesus calls “the enemy.” I believe the enemy has demons under his command and he tried to strike at God by hurting who God loves humans. However, I think that Satan’s identity has developed over time. I don’t know how developed it was when Job was written.
My own take on the Satan we meet in Job is that he is not an accepted member of God’s inner circle. I do not believe that in the story he serves God’s purposes by accusing Job or challenging God. Rather, I think the writers of Job set the Satan up as a shadowy figure that works schemes to goad other humans into rejecting and cursing God. In the book of Job, the Satan is an agent of evil.
Why does God go along with his schemes? Why does God allow suffering?
In upcoming weeks, we’ll examine the conversations in the book of Job. Leading into that, I urge a couple things.
First, I urge honesty in our thoughts and talk about God and to God. One of the great tensions in Job is theological assumption. I pray, I tithe, I read the Bible, the give to the poor and give to the church. I should have a blessed life. So why did some hit me and total my car as I drove home from the appointment where the doctor told me I had cancer that would be extremely painful and terminal? Faithful living should lead to blessing. Then that happens. We have to say that. If it makes us mad at God, we have to say that. If suffering drives us to doubt the existence or goodness of God, we have to say that. We cannot understand Job and we cannot live in true relationship with God unless we are so dreadfully honest that we’re willing to question everything we’ve ever believed.
Second, I urge that we remember who we are as we read Job. We are resurrection people, Easter people. We trust ourselves to Jesus, who, we have discovered, is God in the flesh. He died for our sins and rose to life. In him, our sins are put to death, we are born anew, and we will be resurrected after our bodies die. That reality hovers as we read Job. It is a dark book and we are entering the darkness, but we never get to a place where we cannot see Easter’s light if we look for it.
Committed to honesty in prayer and in our God-thoughts, and always remembering we are Easter people, I make one final plea. As we read Job, each one of us must be conscious of our own reactions to suffering we have seen in the world and suffering we have personally experienced. Job is ineffective when it is disconnected from our reality. We have to read it where we live and the story becomes part of us. Where do we see Job speaking in our own story?
Read it all the way through this week. Honestly, prayerfully, read Job with eyes open and earnestly seek God as you do. Next week, we dig deeper into the question of what do we do when our life experience calls into question the foundation of what we thought was true about God?