These may seem like strange questions, and for most of us we could share some very good and spiritual responses, but if you could be completely honest with yourself and others, do you pursue God because you believe he gives you stuff and blesses you? Is God like Santa on steroids or a magical vending machine in the sky where if you say the right words or do the right things you can have all of your heart’s wishes? Sadly, I think that is how many of us function in our journey with God.
The passage from the first two chapters of Job addresses this belief system and raises some difficult questions as to how the universe really works and what does it mean when we go through difficult circumstances. As we continue in our series, How Long O Lord, we will be studying the book of Job in order to gain a better understanding of how to journey through suffering and how to respond in the midst of a traumatic loss.
How traumatic loss was understood
Before we dive into the story of Job, I need to take a few moments to provide a framework for the book so that you will have a better chance of making more sense of the story.
The book of Job is a story with a narrative frame, but predominantly written as a poem. We are provided a story concerning Job’s background at the beginning of the narrative, as well as a peek into the heavenly throne room, while at the end of the narrative we are provided information on the restoration of Job. One of the interesting facts about this story is that its setting is east of the land of Israel. Job is not an Israelite and it is not placed in the context of a covenant relationship or the Torah. The Scriptures are using a story about a prominent eastern man in order to teach valuable lessons about suffering to the people of Israel.
One of the challenging things about the book of Job is that it is difficult to translate. The book appears to be written in Hebrew, but may have originally been written in Akkadian, which can cause numerous differences in interpretation depending on the translator. There are a few portions of the book that are confusing as to who the speaker is, as well as an exact meaning of what is being communicated.
In Job we are introduced to an Ancient Near Eastern royal court image to explain God’s dwelling place. These images may not necessarily be revealing what God’s home looks like or necessarily functions, but it provides images that would have been understandable to the culture in which it was originally written.
One of the underlying beliefs of the ancient world is something we call the retributive principle. In order to make sense of the responses of Job and his friends, you need to understand this belief system. In its simplest form, the retributive principle proposed that we live in a world where God rewards those who do what is right and he punishes those who do wrong. Since there is no reward/punishments in an after-life, these consequences must be experienced during a person’s life in the here and now. It is this principle that lies behind all the conversations of the book, and it the principle that the book of Job is going to refute.
As we get further into the story of Job, it will become clearer that the book may have better been titled God. Job is not the one on trial here; rather, it is God and how he has established the universe.
Finally, Job’s story is not a model for how we should respond to suffering, but providing responses based upon the embracing of the retributive principle. It is not a good book to quote because most of the arguments are false ideas concerning pain, suffering, and consequences.
One traumatic loss after another
In the land of Uz there lived a man whose name was Job. This man was blameless and upright; he feared God and shunned evil. He had seven sons and three daughters, and he owned seven thousand sheep, three thousand camels, five hundred yoke of oxen and five hundred donkeys, and had a large number of servants. He was the greatest man among all the people of the East. Job 1:1-3
We are introduced to one of the main characters whose name is Job. We are told that Job was a man of integrity and followed God with his whole heart and life. In other words, Job was a man whose character and actions were righteous. We also learn that Job was a very wealthy man and was highly respected in his community. Based upon these initial descriptions, the original listeners would have seen Job as blessed by God because he was such a good person.
His sons used to take turns holding feasts in their homes, and they would invite their three sisters to eat and drink with them. When a period of feasting had run its course, Job would send and have them purified. Early in the morning he would sacrifice a burnt offering for each of them, thinking, “Perhaps my children have sinned and cursed God in their hearts.” This was Job’s regular custom. Job 1:4-5
We are given further details concerning his life and family. We learn that Job’s children enjoy one another’s presence and spend time celebrating together as a family. We are told that Job is not only a righteous man, but that he is ritually devoted to God as well. He regularly intercedes for his children before God.
After being provided with background information on Job, we are immediately transported to God’s heavenly throne room.
One day the angels came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came with them. The Lord said to Satan, “Where have you come from?” Satan answered the Lord, “From roaming through the earth and going back and forth in it.” Job 1:6-7
The author uses imagery from the ancient world to describe the dwelling place of God and models it on a throne room from the east. The king is enthroned and is being visited by dignitaries, messengers, and spies who present themselves before the king and provide reports. One such visitor is described as the challenger or accuser. The NIV text translates it as “Satan,” but the Hebrew text is better translated by the terms “challenger” or “accuser” rather than a proper name like Satan.
Then the Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one on earth like him; he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil.” Job 1:8
It would appear that one of the roles of the challenger was to observe people, and one of those people observed was Job. God brings up the subject of Job and provides a glowing description of his character and devotion to God. The challenger does not seem to have the same observations.
“Does Job fear God for nothing?” Satan replied. “Have you not put a hedge around him and his household and everything he has? You have blessed the work of his hands, so that his flocks and herds are spread throughout the land. But stretch out your hand and strike everything he has, and he will surely curse you to your face.” Job 1:9-11
The challenger has serious doubts about the reasons for Job’s good behavior. In his opinion, Job only appears to be righteous because he has received all kinds of stuff from God. If you take it away, Job will turn on you in a second. The accuser’s accusations are less about Job, but more about God and the universe he has established. The accuser believes that God’s system/structure is flawed. The only reason why anyone obeys God is because God gives him/her good things.
The Lord said to Satan, “Very well, then, everything he has is in your hands, but on the man himself do not lay a finger.” Then Satan went out from the presence of the Lord.
One day when Job’s sons and daughters were feasting and drinking wine at the oldest brother’s house, a messenger came to Job and said, “The oxen were plowing and the donkeys were grazing nearby, and the Sabeans attacked and carried them off. They put the servants to the sword, and I am the only one who has escaped to tell you!”
While he was still speaking, another messenger came and said, “The fire of God fell from the sky and burned up the sheep and the servants, and I am the only one who has escaped to tell you!” While he was still speaking, another messenger came and said, “The Chaldeans formed three raiding parties and swept down on your camels and carried them off. They put the servants to the sword, and I am the only one who has escaped to tell you!” While he was still speaking, yet another messenger came and said, “Your sons and daughters were feasting and drinking wine at the oldest brother’s house, when suddenly a mighty wind swept in from the desert and struck the four corners of the house. It collapsed on them and they are dead, and I am the only one who has escaped to tell you!” Job 1:12-19
Responding to traumatic loss
God pulls the barriers away from Job, and the challenger goes to work to remove all the blessings from Job’s life. In a single day, Job experiences the ultimate in traumatic losses. He loses all of his wealth, resources and his children. It is hard to read the description of Job’s losses, especially if you have experienced similar losses in your own life. How on earth do you continue to go on in the face of such horrendous losses? How will Job respond? Was the accuser correct in his assessment of Job?
At this, Job got up and tore his robe and shaved his head. Then he fell to the ground in worship and said: “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will depart. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised.” In all this, Job did not sin by charging God with wrongdoing. Job 1:20-22
After hearing the litany of horrible news, Job responds by tearing his clothes and shaving his head: cultural signs of extreme grief and traumatic loss. He expresses a core belief that all that we have comes from God and it is within his authority to take these away when he sees fit. No matter the circumstances, Job will continue to trust God.
The author makes it clear that Job, at this moment in the story, still has done nothing wrong in his response to God in the face of these horrible losses.
Have you ever had a day like Job? You receive from HR a note to inform you that you are no longer employed and the loss of your job is overwhelming. You receive a phone call from your doctor informing you that your last series of tests discovered the presence of a very active form of cancer. You receive a subpoena that let’s you know you are going to court to be sued by a former friend. How do you respond to these difficult moments?
On another day the angels came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came with them to present himself before him. And the Lord said to Satan, “Where have you come from?” Satan answered the Lord, “From roaming through the earth and going back and forth in it.” Then the Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one on earth like him; he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil. And he still maintains his integrity, though you incited me against him to ruin him without any reason.” Job 2:1-3
Once again we are transported to the dwelling place of God. A similar situation as we last encountered, but this time God provides a further description of Job’s good response to all that he has been through. We also learn that God takes responsibility for what Job has gone through. These were not simply the actions of the accuser, but God’s allowance places God in a role of responsibility.
God does not absolve himself concerning who is the source of Job’s suffering. God is not saying there was no higher reason for his suffering; rather, he is stating that Job’s suffering has nothing to do with Job’s actions.
“Skin for skin!” Satan replied. “A man will give all he has for his own life. But stretch out your hand and strike his flesh and bones, and he will surely curse you to your face.” The Lord said to Satan, “Very well, then, he is in your hands; but you must spare his life.” Job 2:4-6
The accuser counters God’s observations, as he still does not buy Job’s response. The challenger has a very low view of humanity and its reasons for obeying God. From his perspective, a person will easily lose stuff and the lives of others, but when things hit is personally (specifically our health), we will respond quite differently. God honors the request, but makes it clear that Job’s life must be spared.
So Satan went out from the presence of the Lord and afflicted Job with painful sores from the soles of his feet to the top of his head. Job 2:7
Job now experiences a horrific illness that encompasses his entire body. He is miserable and in horrible pain. How will Job respond to this new situation?
Then Job took a piece of broken pottery and scraped himself with it as he sat among the ashes. His wife said to him, “Are you still holding on to your integrity? Curse God and die!” He replied, “You are talking like a foolish woman. Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?” In all this, Job did not sin in what he said. Job 2:8-10
Job is at his lowest point possible and you would hope that his wife would be a voice of hope and encouragement, but his wife becomes an accuser and challenges him admit whatever he has done wrong so that he can be restored to his health and position within the community. Job’s wife becomes an ally of the accuser and a believer of the retributive principle. Even in the face of all these horrible events, Job still does not do anything wrong.
Finding perspective during traumatic loss
What do we do with this initial story of Job? My conclusion is less about answers and more about questions to get us going deeper concerning the suffering we experience in life. I want to return to our initial question: If you are honest with yourself, why do you pursue/obey/worship God? If you were to lose everything (wealth, resources, friends, and health) what would be your faith response to those circumstances? Would you trust God more or would you abandon your faith? Would you repent of real and imagined sins, or would you respond in some other way?
In a similar vain, in response to traumatic loss, how have you responded in the past, or, are responding in the present? If you are going through a season of difficult losses, how are you responding? Are you like Job, trying to grow deeper in your trust, or are you ready to be done with this journey of faith?
Finally, where have you gone for guidance on how to face terrible loss or suffering? Who are the people you have invited into your journey and what kinds of advice are they providing for you as you continue to navigate a difficult season of life?
Please reflect on these questions as we continue to make our way through the story of Job.