~ Job 38-41, Sermon 4 in Sassy Love, Sacred Faith series ~
Cleveland Park, I’m aware that over the course of these last few Sundays you may have grown suspicious of me. I’ve talked to you about the cockamamy book of Job . . . about a nearly incomprehensible conversation in heaven which results in an ethically dubious divine test on earth. And I’ve talked to you about a man who responds to that test with sass, curses, lament, and by challenging God to a legal trial. I realize that during all this, you may have asked yourself, “Does Tonetta smile?” Does she ever, you know, laugh? And heaven help that wife and kid! Do they just have to hear about suffering and lament all the time? Is their home shrouded in black with mournful Sweet Honey in the Rock music softly playing by the hour? And God forbid, has she challenged that little, innocent boy to curse back to life as she has us? (Mommy, I’ve broken my toy. What should I do? Curse back to life son!)
Well, this morning I want you to know that I do smile, and I do laugh. It’s true that in a culture of denial we must be people who take suffering seriously enough to engage in genuine lament. That can’t be said too often. But, there is also a time to choose joy – and a time to let the inscrutable God transform us into an astonishing newness and freedom. This morning I want to begin talking some about that.
Several years ago, one of the first audio books I ever listened to was Yann Martel’s The Life of Pi. Some of you may be familiar with it or may have seen the movie version. It’s about an Indian boy who begins an ocean voyage with his family from Pondicherry to Canada. However, on one of the very first days out, the ship sinks, and the boy, Pi, is the only survivor. The only survivor, that is, except Richard Parker, a Bengali tiger. For 227 days, Pi and Richard Parker are stuck together on a life boat. Pi, being the son of a zoo owner, has always appreciated animals – at least caged ones. On the lifeboat, his appreciation must become more theory.
Looking back at one turning point in the experience Pi reflects, “It was Richard Parker who calmed me down. It is the irony of this story that the one who had scared me witless to start with was the very same one who brought me peace, I dare say even wholeness” (Ballentine 672).
Eventually, both Pi and Richard Parker make it to the shores of Mexico. The tiger disappears into the forest and Pi begins recovery at a local hospital. A representative from the company who owned the boat visits Pi to investigate the reasons for the ship accident. Pi explains what happened and the representative says, “Mr. Patel, a tiger is an incredibly dangerous wild animal. How could you survive in a lifeboat with one? . . . Come on, Mr. Patel, it’s just too hard to believe” (Ballentine 673). This begins a rather profound conversation that has everything to do with the book of Job.
Pi replies, “if you stumble at mere believability, what are you living for? Isn’t love hard to believe? . . . Love is hard to believe, ask any lover. Life is hard to believe, ask any scientist. God is hard to believe, ask any believer. What is your problem with hard to believe.” The representative replies that he is just being reasonable to which Pi shoots back, “So am I! I applied my reason at every moment. Reason is excellent for getting food, clothing and shelter. . . Nothing beats reason for keeping tigers away. But be excessively reasonable and you risk throwing out the universe with the bathwater” (Ballentine 673-674).
Exasperated, the representative insists that the company must know what really happened. And Pi counters, “So you want another story . . . I know what you want. You want a story that won’t surprise you. That will confirm what you already know. That won’t make you see higher or further or differently. You want a flat story. An immobile story” (Ballentine 674).
Well, the book of Job certainly doesn’t provide a flat story. As I’ve said on other Sundays, it asks hard questions such as whether human beings are capable of disinterested righteous – of serving God for Godself and for no other reason. And, of course, it asks why the innocent suffer and whether God can be called good in light of such suffering? But it also asks something else that I want to talk about this morning. It asks whether we can make peace with the chaotic in our lives and in the world in some way? Can we survive – maybe even thrive — in this boat called life with our own tigers?
This morning we’re going to look together at what are known as the Divine Speeches. These are found in chapters 38-41. Recall that at the beginning of the book, God entered a kind of wager with Ha-Satan regarding the pureness of Job’s piety, resulting in Job losing all he had, including his 10 children and his own health. Job, at first, blesses God without reservation. But then he begins down the path of sass. He curses the day of his birth and the very creation of the world. He laments the deepest “whys” of human existence. Then, while talking with his friends, Job decides that legal charges need to be brought against God. According to Job, God has used God’s power capriciously. God has made real wisdom impossible for humans to attain. Thus, God should be tried in a court of law. Job demands a confrontation with God and nearly thirty chapters later – after going around and around with his friends about the nature of God’s justice – Job gets that confrontation. Job had expected that such a meeting would mean being crushed. But, to the contrary, Job is brought into the confidence of God about the nature of the world. He is taken on a cosmic tour of the heavens and the earth. God asks him questions that on the surface may seem harsh but, in reality, get at deeper existential questions that we all must confront. Explicitly: Who are you? Where were you? Are you able? (Janzen). Implicitly: What does it mean to imitate the creator God in care of the world and in relation to all that is wild, free, and outside of human control?
Mysteriously, God doesn’t answer the questions Job has been asking for the entire book when God finally appears. But God does seem to answer Job’s experience in some way. And this seems to be enough of an answer to utterly transform Job as we’ll see next week.
In a few minutes, I’m going to ask our volunteer readers to come up front. They’ll be reading portions of the Divine Speeches from chapters 38-41 to you. Feel free to read along with them in your Bible – the texts are listed in your bulletin. But also feel free to close your eyes and try to imagine what is being described. These speeches contain the most powerful imagery in the entire book. They also contain the longest reflection on creation outside of Genesis 1 and the longest sustained treatment of animals in the entire Bible (Schifferdecker, Newsom). Listen for the ways the Sea – a Near Eastern symbol of chaos – is described. Be attentive to the portraits of each wild animal and each mystic creature. Above all, don’t be fooled into thinking that God is bullying Job into submission. Underneath language that is sassy — even harsh — God is using a disorienting vision of the cosmos to transform Job into a deeper freedom.
Readers, if you would come.
The first image we get is a sobering one – God confronting Job from out of a whirlwind. In the Bible, divine disclosures are often accompanied by “clouds and thick darkness.” Or by strong winds associated with Near Eastern ideas of a storm god. The name which your Bible translates, “the Lord” is actually the Hebrew letters used to signify the Israelite God. For much of the book, God has been referred to by Job and his friends by other more generic names for God. It is as if the friends – from the perspective of the writer – are unsure of who the god they are referring to really is. But from a whirlwind now comes the God revealed to Moses at the burning bush, the God who is identified as, “I am who I am” or, maybe more accurately, “I will be who I will be.” It is the radically free God who confronts Job and what this God reveals can only be called a scandal (Janzen). The words that come first are a question. “Who are you to so ignorantly obscure my careful design of the world?” The second words that come are a challenge. “Come and present your best self. And while you’re at it, get ready for action because what I’m going to show you will require you to move, to fundamentally change” (Newsom).
Then the radically free God launches into description after description of the work of God in creation. God is revealed as an architect of the world who is precise and who creates the world as the temple of the Lord (Newsom). God then brings Job to an image of the Sea, which was the ultimate symbol of chaos in the Near Eastern world. In the very first line of Genesis, it is this Sea that the Spirit hovers over at the dawn of creation. The Genesis image would have signaled to an ancient reader that the Sea had been defeated and so an orderly creation could begin. But in these speeches, the Sea is not defeated. God restrains it, but God also nurtures it. Limits are set for it, but it is not destroyed.
A bit later, God moves on to the world of meteorology. Job is shown a picture of a God who constructs water channels so that rain can make it to the desert – a place where no human would have lived – a place which, in fact, represented the unfamiliar and the threatening (Newsom). If you go back to chapter 30, you’ll see that this is the very place that Job describes as utterly godforsaken (Newsom). Yet, contrary to how Job sees the world, the desert is actually the place of God’s gratuitous care.
Then in chapter 39, God moves on to showing Job the world of animals. And it is critical to note that nearly every animal that God uses as evidence to demonstrate God’s just governance of the world is wild. The lion — which then and now epitomizes the animal threat to humans – is provided for by God. Job has spoken of lions only as images for the wicked (Newsom). Yet, God describes Godself as a lioness hunting prey for the sake of lion cubs (Newsom). God treats the raven — a scavenger who would have been considered unclean in Israelite thought – exactly the same. In chapter 29, Job makes clear that he sees himself as a provider. Now, that sentiment is contrasted with how boundary-breaking God’s provision really is.
Next up are mountain goats and deer. In contrast to the sheep and goats that Job would have known they need no shepherd — no human hand at all to touch their lives. Then Job is shown the wild ox, an animal that is so strong it was understood to be impossible to tame. Such an animal stands wholly outside of Job’s hierarchical and patriarchal world. It is the strong one in relation to humans (Newsom). Then God points to the wild donkey, another animal in Israelite thought symbolic of hostility. And God proudly announces its freedom from human control. I could go on – through the ostrich, the horse, and the hawk. But let me just conclude with God’s portrayal of the vulture. It is described as feeding its young on the blood of those slain in battle. One scholar is helpful in unpacking this disturbing image. She writes, “In the most disconcerting way, the divine speech asks Job and the reader to look at battle not from the human perspective of victory or punishment, liberation or oppression, but . . . through the eyes of the vulture, who finds it nourishing” (Newsom 612). In a profound way, God is fundamentally re-orienting Job’s vision of the cosmos. He is being shown that human concerns are not, in fact, the center of the world.
And then after a brief interlude God starts a second speech in chapters 41 and 42. God begins by insinuating that if Job oversaw the world, he would demean every proud creature – indeed everything that is a little too wild and little too free. God then asks Job to encounter two creatures of which God is most proud: Behemoth and Leviathan. These are both mystic creatures in Near Eastern thought who are also tied to the notion of chaos. Behemoth is threatening because of its strength. Leviathan, who you may recognize from the Psalms and Isaiah, is threatening because of its violence (Newsom). God limits these creatures, but also seems to utterly delight in them. They are not demeaned or diminished by God’s governance of the world. Actually, a quote by one of my favorite writers, Annie Dillard, might sum things up well. She explains, “The world is full of creatures that for some reason seem stranger to us than others, and libraries are full of books describing them – hagfish, platypuses . . . butterflies emerging in anthills, spiderlings wafting through the air clutching tiny silken balloons, horseshoe crabs . . . the creator creates. Does he stoop, does he speak, does he save, succor, prevail? Maybe. But he creates; he creates everything and anything. The creator goes off on one wild, specific tangent after another, or millions simultaneously, with an exuberance that would seem to be unwarranted, and with an abandoned energy sprung from an unfathomable font. What is going on here? The point of the dragonfly’s terrible lip, the giant water bug, birdsong, or the beautiful dazzle and flash of sunlighted minnows, is not that it all fits together like clockwork – for it doesn’t, even inside the goldfish bowl – but that it all flows so freely wild, like a creek, that it all surges in such a free, fringed tangle. Freedom is the world’s water and weather, the world’s nourishment freely given, its soil and sap: and the creator loves pizazz.”
Now, some of you may be scratching your heads and wondering how I’ve gone from lament last week to animals this week. Others of you are just like, “Animals. Yes! Let’s not ask questions.” Well, I want to spend the last 5 minutes I have saying something about what these speeches might be saying to us.
First, they say that our categories of justice do not necessarily match God’s categories of justice. Job’s world is founded on a theological absolute – God must reward the righteous and punish the wicked. But God’s governance of the world as described in these speeches does not seem to conform to simple oppositions and legal categories. “The dilemma of Job, “one writer asserts, “points to the challenge. . . to take our human concerns for justice and conceptions of justice seriously, as imaging divine concerns, and to recognize that God’s justice is not reducible to our conceptions of it” (Janzen 242). Job, and by extension we, are asked to reorient ourselves based on this revelation.
Second, the speeches assert that the free God delights in wild things and wild places. What is threatening to humanity is not destroyed or demeaned by God. It is allowed but limited. The world is not random nor is God indifferent. Yet, neither is the world a place that can be contained by the human perspective.
Third, the speeches suggest that God’s rule of the world is not coercive (Janzen). A world without chaos would require that God unilaterally crush it. These speeches reveal a God who is not willing to rule in such a way.
Fourth, the Divine Speeches — while making clear that humans are not the center of the world – also assume that humans have a unique place in creation. Here’s how one scholar puts it: “humankind is that part of creation whom God addresses with questions concerning the rest of creation . . . To be a human being is to be a creature who is yet God’s addressee and whom God confronts with the rest of creation vocationally” (Janzen 229).
The word “vocationally” is the key. What Job has seen challenges him to a new self-understanding. It challenges him to a decision about who he will be. Will he take up his unique place in creation and rule like the free God in whose image he is made? Or will he continue to adhere to strict categories of reward and punishment, insisting that God’s governance is unjust? Will he make peace with the chaotic in his life and world? Will he survive – maybe even thrive – with the tiger in his boat? Next week, we’ll end our series by finding out how Job responds. But for now, how will you answer these questions? At the end of the day these speeches ask something radical of us: Can we love what we cannot control? (Davis). Sometimes that could be those things that seem threatening. But, ultimately, can we love what we cannot control when the uncontrollable is God? Friends, may we search our hearts this week in answer to that one wild question. Amen.