~ Job 42 ~Final Sermon in Sassy Love, Sacred Faith series ~
Not too long ago, I read of a woman whose teenage son was killed in a car accident, his life cut short much, much too soon (Newsom). On the morning of his funeral, she decided to begin the day by reaching for her Bible. This mother – who must have been dealing with aching despair and the abyss of grief – decided to read the divine speeches from the book of Job — the very ones we talked about last week. She later reported choosing those chapters because she “needed to know that [her] pain was not all there was in the world” (Newsom 631). Perhaps the tragedy had led her, like Job, to curse the day of her birth and to curse the very creation of the world. And now, she needed to know that God’s power for creation and re-creation – indeed for life itself – was stronger than the forces of chaos (Newsom). Perhaps she needed a sense of the vastness of the world to begin absorbing her pain in a way that was impossible for any one person or thing.
Who of us in this room has not recognized the solace of wild creatures and wild places? Regardless of whether we have experienced death at close range or only from a distance, we intuitively know of the “despair for the world” that Wendell Berry names so well. Many of us, too, have lain awake at night wondering what meaning our lives have, what enduring purpose. And I’m betting that nearly all of you here can name an experience before some immeasurable, nearly unthinkable creature or landscape which revealed your best frameworks of the world to be inadequate.
Earlier this year, I had such an experience. On a whim, my wife and I decided to fly out to Phoenix. And while there we got a chance to visit the Grand Canyon. Now, it’s at this point that I have to say that I’m one of those people who aspires to visit every single National Park. And I even have to admit that I occasionally cry when watching nature films – to which my wife, ever beside me, rolls her eyes, and then goes back to paying the bills. So, when we entered Grand Canyon National Park I was beyond excited. I quickly grabbed a map and we began to stroll along the rim. My wife kept warning me to stay as far away from the edge as possible – which made sense as our son was strapped to my chest. I took her advice, honestly, because I also was pretty scared of falling over the edge. It’s only later that I realized that such places demand a kind of falling. They have a gravity that pulls us down to what is elemental. It seems to me that we are supposed to come away from such places having fallen, even having experienced a kind of death.
And this is what happens to Job. The man who was tested by God with extreme tragedy for reasons apparent only to heaven, the man who cursed the world and life itself, the man who tried to sue God – is brought to his knees when confronted with the design of God’s world. When confronted with the mandate for both radical order and radical freedom, Job is undone and can begin to take up his life again (Janzen).
But then, the book takes an odd turn. The narrator reappears, and we return to the prose narrative which had seemed to come to an end after chapter two. Job is portrayed clearly as the faithful hero – and like any good fairy tale – the story closes with Job becoming richer and more blessed with family than he had ever been. Yet, we the faithful audience, are left scratching our heads. Does retributive justice actually win out in the end despite most of the book refuting the idea? Are Job’s friends the ones who were right all along since God does restore Job once Job repents? Much of the ending of the book is exactly what they said would happen. And in what sense does Job speak what is right? Is it his protests to suffering that are right or his submission to suffering in the end that is right? Once everything is said and done, what can we actually take away from this book?
This morning, I want us to look together at the final chapter of Job, chapter 42, to see if we can make any sense of the way the book ends. I would love it if you would grab a Bible and read silently along with me. The chapter begins with Job’s poetic response to what God has said about the nature of the world. Then it moves to the narrator wrapping things up in prose. So, take a second to find chapter 42 and move through the text as I read.
42 Then Job answered the Lord:
2 “I know that you can do all things,
and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.
3 ‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’
Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand,
things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.
4 ‘Hear, and I will speak;
I will question you, and you declare to me.’
5 I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear,
but now my eye sees you;
6 therefore I despise myself,
and repent in dust and ashes.”
7 After the Lord had spoken these words to Job, the Lord said to Eliphaz the Temanite: “My wrath is kindled against you and against your two friends; for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has. 8 Now therefore take seven bulls and seven rams, and go to my servant Job, and offer up for yourselves a burnt offering; and my servant Job shall pray for you, for I will accept his prayer not to deal with you according to your folly; for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has done.” 9 So Eliphaz the Temanite and Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Naamathite went and did what the Lord had told them; and the Lord accepted Job’s prayer.
10 And the Lord restored the fortunes of Job when he had prayed for his friends; and the Lord gave Job twice as much as he had before. 11 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 the evil that the Lord had brought upon him; and each of them gave him a piece of money[a] and a gold ring. 12 The Lord blessed the latter days of Job more than his beginning; and he had fourteen thousand sheep, six thousand camels, a thousand yoke of oxen, and a thousand donkeys. 13 He also had seven sons and three daughters. 14 He named the first Jemimah, the second Keziah, and the third Keren-happuch. 15 In all the land there were no women so beautiful as Job’s daughters; and their father gave them an inheritance along with their brothers. 16 After this Job lived one hundred and forty years, and saw his children, and his children’s children, four generations. 17 And Job died, old and full of days.
Recall with me that the divine speeches began with God proclaiming, “I will question you, and you shall declare to me” (Job 38:3). God has warned Job that – after the Who are yous, the where were yous, and the are you ables – Job will have to open himself to God with a verbal response. Chapter 42, verses 1-6, contains that response. And once again, we are left to observe with bated breath whether Job will curse God. Job begins by acknowledging God’s power. In verse 3, he then quotes a component of God’s earlier speech. Verse 4 follows in the same way with Job paraphrasing the import of God’s earlier words. This is significant because it means that the man who has disagreed with God for almost the entire book is now placing his perspective underneath that of God’s (Janzen). He admits essentially to obscuring God’s design of the world and to speaking of things beyond him. He speaks of hearing God, in recognition that God is not silent as he had thought. And he speaks of seeing God, claiming his experience of a God who is not absent as he had assumed (Janzen). Then comes the climax in verse 6, a notoriously problematic passage to translate from the Hebrew. Job repents, or at least seems to repent, and there is a sense that he can begin his life again.
But then, the narrator reappears, and we get two concluding judgements. In the first, the friends are accused of speaking wrongly of God. They must offer ritual sacrifices and Job is invited to intercede on their behalf. Job, in some way, is the only one who has spoken what is right. Then, Job is restored. His family comes to comfort him, and they end up giving him the money that will seed his new life. Notice that exactly the same phrase is used here is as used in chapter 2 for the comfort that the friends give to Job (Janzen). Yet, the family doesn’t do what the friends do. They don’t follow up their expressions of empathy with explanations and advice. Instead, Job’s family gives him the tangible resources he needs to move forward. (I could preach a whole sermon on that but suffice it to say, I think that says something clear to us here this morning.) Then Job becomes wealthier than before. He has seven sons, which the Hebrew renders in the dual, making it possible that he had 14 sons (Newsom). To add to the extraordinary, he has three beautiful daughters. Job is given twice the years to live as the average person and the story ends happily ever after (Newsom).
Now, when I was a high school literature and composition teacher I used to always ask my students how they felt any book we had read ended. I think if I were to ask many of you that question about this book, you would express something close to a sense of being unsettled. After all, how can we act as if the giving of children is somehow an adequate replacement for the earlier children who died tragically? Here is how Claude Brown expresses it in The Children of Ham: “They make God seem like a silly old man who was just spiteful and vicious to people. Then other times they made the people who dug God seem like fools, like Job. Now [God] played too much stuff on Job, and the chump said, ‘Well, it’s cool, you know, if you come back and tighten it up.’ But it seems impossible for anyone to go around like takin’ somebody’s squeeze and money and children and everything, [screwin’] up a man’s whole life, and then comin’ back later and saying, ‘That’s okay, I’m give you another one.’” (41).
But here’s the thing. I do think the way the story ends is troubling. The framework of the world in which piety is strictly rewarded and wickedness is strictly punished seems to win out. One could even make the argument that God is portrayed as a thief because, in Israelite tradition, only thieves were required to pay back double what they had stolen (Newsom). If nothing else, we can take from the book of Job that the truths found through dialogue have a place in the life of faith. We are called to go beyond propositions rationally expounded to the messiness of multiple perspectives. Whose perspective is most true in this book? God? Job? The friends? The narrator? Only life lived in intentional community can help us discern this kind of truth.
But hold on. Despite the problematic ending, I don’t think this is the only thing we can take from the book. There are three clues which I think can help us enter another meaning of the book. The first has to do with the translation of verse 6. It reads in the NRSV, “therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.” A better translation of this extremely hard verse might be, “Therefore I retract my words and have changed my mind concerning dust and ashes” or “Therefore I retract my words, and I am comforted concerning dust and ashes” (Newsom 629). Rather than repenting of sin, Job is taking back words describing a vision of the world in which humans were debased. The phrase “dust and ashes” is a way of talking about the human condition in the Bible. And it’s only used three times in the Hebrew Bible. Earlier in verse 30:19, Job had said of God, “he has cast me into the mire, and I have become like dust and ashes.” With this statement, Job rejects the Israelite vision of humankind as created in the image of God in a fundamentally good world. And he rejects the foundational vision offered in Psalm 8 which calls human beings a little lower than the angels and understands them as having a unique place in God’s world (Janzen).
But now, in the last verses of the book, Job changes his mind about that. The scholar who has shaped my thinking about so much of this book, Gerald Janzen, writes this of Job’s new vision. It “entails actions which display human participation in the dialectic of order and freedom in creation. To be dust in God’s image is to enjoy and to be responsible for the order manifest in creation; it is to enjoy and to be responsible for the freedom which is also manifest in the events of the world and which resides by God’s gift in the human soul” (259). Perhaps, after all, it is as Rabbi Bunam once said: “A man should carry two stones in his pocket. On the one should he inscribed ‘I am but dust and ashes.’ On the other, ‘For my sake the world was created.’ And he should use each stone as he needs it” (Ballentine 698). So, if you don’t remember anything else about the book of Job, I want you to remember that it’s a book about the beauty and complexity of the vocation to be fully human in the image of God.
Two other hints also let us know that the book might be leading us to a more satisfied ending than we might expect. In verse 42:8, the friends are told to offer ritual sacrifices to God and to ask Job to pray for them. Specifically, Job is to pray that God not deal with the friends according to their folly. The sense of this line is that were God to deal harshly with the friends God Godself would be guilty of folly – that God would be guilty of doing something dishonorable and reprehensible (Ballentine, Janzen). With this line – despite the story’s happy ending – we get a sense that the author is up to something more. For God to reject grace and to go back to a strict system of reward and punishment would be folly. So, even though Job is restored in the end, there is a hint riding underneath the text that this restoration is a free act of grace. It lets us know with Job that retributive justice does not have to be the framework of our lives – that we, like God, can choose grace.
And then we get our third clue and it’s a simple one. Verse 13 lets us know that Job has children. He has children. Once Job encounters God in the whirlwind and is transformed by what he sees and hears, he can begin again in radical freedom and radical courage. Here’s how one writer puts it: “The clearest expression of the renewal of Job’s mind is not anything he says. It is his willingness to have more children. I have heard it said in modern Israel that the most courageous act of faith the Jews ever performed was to have babies after the Holocaust, to trust God with more defenseless children . . . It is useless to ask how much (or how little) it costs God to give more children. The real question is how much it costs Job to become a father again” (Davis 142).
In chapter 42, we get a portrait of a man who has been utterly transformed by the not-silent, not-absent God. Job becomes a parent again, trusting the vulnerability of his children to a God he now trusts. And on top of that, he gives his three daughters an inheritance amid a society in which they were not entitled to one. Because Job has touched the freedom of God, he can give freely to all his children. Because God holds every creature and every place as valuable, Job can now reject social structures that dehumanize others. Because of encountering the seeing and hearing God, Job’s entire sense of justice has been transformed (Ballentine). He can even give his daughters names which in the Hebrew convey a gratuitous reveling in the world around him. The sassy love that Job tenaciously embodied for most of the book has given birth to a sacred faith now clearly expressed.
So, I want to ask you this morning what God asks Ha-Satan in the opening chapters of this book. Have you considered my servant Job? In effect, have you considered him as a possible role model for your faith life? A man who curses, laments, and insists on meeting God face to face. A man who wrestles with God, tirelessly protesting innocent suffering, not in spite of being made in the divine image, but precisely because of being made in the divine image. A man who allows himself to be transformed by the freedom of God and then takes up a life of radical freedom and grace.
And, I want to ask you what Mary Oliver puts so well: “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” How will you live out your unique human vocation as a priest on behalf of the world and its creatures? How will you live out your vocation as a priest called also to carry back to the community something of what you have experienced of God? Will you give up vengefulness, praying for your enemies? Will you work against injustice, restoring the rightful gifts of God denied to those dehumanized by society? I just want to know this morning will you revel in the wonder of God and of the wonder of the world and let them set you free?
Friends, the book of Job is a treasure to the church. May you ponder it endlessly, claim its truth, and never stop living its questions (Rilke). Amen.
Ballentine, Samuel E. Job. Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys Pub, 2005. Print.
Berry, Wendell. The Selected Poems of Wendell Berry. Berkley, CA: Counterpoint Press, 1999.
Top of Form
Brown, Claude. The Children of Ham. Toronto: Bantam Books, 1977. Print.
Bottom of Form
Davis, Ellen F. Getting Involved with God: Rediscovering the Old Testament. Cambridge, Mass:
Cowley Publications, 2001. Print.
Janzen, J G. Job. Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012. Print.
Newsom Carol A. “Job.” In The New Interpreter’s Bible: General Articles & Introduction,
Commentary, & Reflections for Each Book of the Bible, Including the
Apocryphal/deuterocanonical Books, 1994. Print.
Oliver, Mary. New and Selected Poems. Boston, Mass: Beacon, 2006. Print.
Rilke, Rainer Maria. Letters to a Young Poet. New York, NY: W.W. Norton and Company,