Grace Presbyterian Church
October 28, 2018, Pentecost 23B
The Reset Button
After everything that has been said and done in this book, the last eight verses of this final chapter feel…strange. Odd. Maybe even like a little bit of a cheat.
The first six verses of the chapter are fairly clear. Whatever else may be the case, Job gets itat least on some level: in his questioning and interrogating God, he didn’t know what he was talking about, in the most literal sense of that phrase. The “cosmic nature hike” on which God took Job in chapters 38-41 apparently made enough of an impression that Job is at least somewhat compelled to back down from his previous posture.
We have to note, though, that in this backing down Job is notin fact renouncing his claim of innocence; he does not say that he somehow deserved the suffering that came upon him. No: what he renounces is his claim against God as somehow being unjust towards him. He recants of his arrogance, in the words of John C. L. Gibson, in trying to bend God’s will to his own. That’s plenty to recant, to be sure, but do understand that this is not the same thing as saying that he deserved the suffering that had been thrust upon him (a thing that God never says either).
It is compelling, this brief response from Job. He even quotes back some of God’s words to God – “Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?” for example, which you can almost imagine Job saying while pointing at himself in exaggerated fashion – and responds to those quotes with his own acknowledgment of how he has been changed and corrected by his encounter with God. Verse six is, unfortunately, a bit of a mishmash in Hebrew, and made worse by odd translation choices; it would probably be better understood as Job rejecting or recanting the “counsel without knowledge” with which he had challenged God, and perhaps even rejecting or recanting the “dust and ashes” in which he had been perched for most of this book. The time for mourning is done, and any more of this ash heap would be wallowing in self-pity.
The next three verses would seem rather satisfying for Job. Those three so-called “friends,” Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar, get a pretty fierce tongue-whipping from God and an order to seek forgiveness from Job by means of a burnt offering, with Job being charged to offer prayers on their behalf, lest God otherwise “deal with you according to your (the friends’) folly.” While it might well (and understandably) have chafed at Job to be charged with seeking forgiveness for those who had been so merciless towards him, for the three accusers it must have burned mightily for their own fates to be even a little bit in the hands of one whom they had been so quick to brand as wicked based on nothing more than his suffering.
To this point, as a culmination of this story, it frankly looks pretty good. God is still God, Job is chastened for is arrogance but not condemned for undeserved suffering, and the three jerk friends get what they had coming. It looks good. It would look very good, except that the story doesn’t end in verse 9.
Instead, we get verses 10-17, which looks for all the world like a giant reset button has been pressed and everything gets put right back the way it was before all the bad stuff happened. Actually, a reset button times two: verse ten makes clear that “the Lord gave Job twice as much as he had before,” and in case that wasn’t clear verse twelve actually runs the numbers. “Fourteen thousand sheep, six thousand camels, a hundred yoke of oxen, and a thousand donkeys,” it says, and that’s exactly double what is recorded as Job’s inventory in 1:3. Oh, and ten children again (at least Job didn’t get double the children!). I guess things must have gotten better with Job’s wife too, in that case.
It still feels like a cheat.
After all this poetry and dialogue that specifically and dramatically destroys the idea of retributive justice (Job’s old idea that God rewarded the just with material favor and cursed the unrighteous with suffering) in God’s monologue to Job, and especially in God’s rebuke to those friends that just happened in the previous three verses…we’re going back and saying “nah, just kidding, you humans can go back to kissing up to God to get good stuff”?
It’s possible that something else is going on in these final verses of the book of Job. It’s possible, just maybe, that Job and his newly acquired understanding is being put to the test – and even more, that Job is passing the test.
First of all, notice how that reprimand of Job’s friends ended. The three men had been charged to offer up that burnt offering, and beseech Job to pray for them. In verse 9 we read that the three did what God had commanded, “and the Lord accepted Job’s prayer.” However bitter a pill it might have seemed to be charged to pray for his persecutors, Job evidently did it.
Then see how verse ten follows that: “And the Lord restored the fortunes of Job when he had prayed for his friends.” (emphasis mine) Step one: being able to be concerned for the welfare of others, even when they’ve been pretty awful to you. Job passed. Now comes step two: how do you handle the restoration of your fortunes, Job? How do you respond to being a father again? Are you capable of being a good steward of these herds (again, a borderline ecological catastrophe just waiting to happen) and being a good husband to your wife and a good father to your children? Did you really learn what you say you learned?
Maybe, in this seeming “reset button” restoration, what is actually happening is that Job is being challenged not just to tell God what he learned, but to show God.
We get a clue to this, I think, in the record of Job’s ten children. (Unfortunately we don’t get a clue as to how Job handled all those animals.) We are told in verse 13 that, like before, Job (and presumably his wife!) had seven sons and three daughters. What is recorded about his family this time around is quite different that what we learned back in chapter one.
Back in that introduction to the story, the main thing we learned about his family is that the sons would hold feasts in each other’s houses, each taking his turn, and making sure their sisters were invited. Then, in 1:5, we get what seemed a mild quirk about Job; when those feasts had run their course, Job would get up early the next day and spend his day offering sacrifices, just in case one of them had somehow sinned or “cursed God in their hearts.”
On the surface, it looks harmless, and maybe even a little heartwarming – aww, Job’s looking out for his children – but maybe there’s something different going on underneath the surface. Is all that sacrificing and fussing about Job’s children, or about Job? Is it about their righteousness, or his own?
Things are quite different here in Chapter 42. This time, we learn something about those children – more specifically, about the daughters. It’s no longer about the sons and their feasting; it’s about the daughters – and they have names! Interesting names at that, which roughly translate (in order) “Dove,” “Cinnamon,” and (really different one here) “Rouge-pot.” We learn that they are quite beautiful, and more importantly that they shared in the inheritance of their father, along with their brothers. This was not donein the culture in which Job lived, yet here it is. And we don’t get any indication that Job was constantly running around trying to offer sacrifices for them in case they did anything stupid. Job treats his children very differently.
Ellen F. Davis, in her book Getting Involved With God: Rediscovering the Old Testament, offers two key observations on this seeming change in Job before and after the horrible things he suffered. As to this new family, Davis points out that (as any parent who ever lost a child, or anyone who ever lost a spouse, could tell you) it isn’t a question of “replacing” the lost child or the lost spouse. Instead, as Davis puts it, “The real question is how much it costs Job to become a father again.” Job (and presumably his wife!) know how hard the world can be, and yet choose to be parents to children again – even having experienced the brutal loss of children. Job really seems to have learned something from this encounter.
More broadly, Davis addresses the question we are left with by the story of Job: “The great question that God’s speech out of the whirlwind poses for Job and for every person of integrity is this: can you love what you do not control?”
Stunning question, isn’t it?
Can you love this wild and untamed creation that God created, knowing that it is not your place to tame it?
Can you love those grown-up children, moved away and on their own and raising your grandchildren in ways you wouldn’t have possibly done, but no longer under your control?
Can you love God, far more vast and exuberant and untamed than the eye can see or the ear can hear, whose will cannot be bent to conform to your will?
It seems that maybe, after his experience of tragedy and his experience of God, Job found a way to answer “yes” to those questions.
What about us?
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #624, I Greet Thee, Who My Sure Redeemer Art; #659, Know That God Is Good; #794, O Savior, In This Quiet Place; #852, When the Lord Redeems the Very Least