Commentary on Job 1:6-22
After Proverbs and Ecclesiastes we now move on to another ‘wisdom’ book and one of the most profound, the Book of Job.
The book is called after its central character and deals with the problem of the suffering of the innocent. It is regarded as a literary masterpiece, although the author is unknown.
Job, a good and upright man but also a very wealthy one suddenly loses all his wealth, including his property and his family. He himself suffers from a serious skin disease and he is reduced to sitting miserably on an ash heap.
Yet, Job never complains against God. When some friends, “Job’s comforters”, come to sympathise, he protests his innocence, for such afflictions were usually seen as punishment for sinful behaviour. Nevertheless, Job does not complain against God. Yet he curses the day of his birth and longs for death to bring an end to his sufferings.
All through, he maintains an attitude of acceptance and trust in God which is strengthened by his suffering.
The overall lesson is that even good people may suffer greatly in this life and this can be a test of their faithfulness. Nor is it possible for the human mind to grasp fully the thoughts of God and to understand why things happen the way they do.
So the book in general deals with a problem which is still a source of great puzzlement and contention: How can God allow a good and innocent person to suffer?
Today’s reading sets the scene for the long dialogue which forms the main part of the book. The opening verses of the book, which we omit in today’s reading, present us with a man of great wealth and with a large and united family, as well as being a man who is very close to God.
One day, we are told, when the “sons of God” came into the Lord’s presence, Satan came along with them. These “sons of God” are superhuman creatures who make up God’s court and council and are understood to be the angels. Satan was originally a general name for an evil being but later became a proper name and here plays a role similar to the serpent in Genesis, as a tempter to sin.
There is then a dialogue between God and Satan, also called the “Adversary” or “Accuser”. God, taking the initiative throws down a challenge. He asks Satan if, in his wanderings around the earth, he had come across God’s good servant Job, a man whose like cannot be found anywhere. “Servant” indicates someone with a special relationship to God and is used of people like Moses and David and, later in Isaiah, for the “suffering Servant” who is a pre-figurement of Jesus.
“That’s all very well,” replies Satan, “for a person who has been endowed with huge wealth and prosperity. It’s easy to be good in his situation. But just let his possessions be taken away from him and you will see he will soon begin to curse God.” Satan boldly accuses the man God commends: he says Job’s righteousness, in which God delights, is self-serving. This is the core of Satan’s attack on God and his faithful servant in the book.
God takes up the challenge. “Right,” he says, “Job is all yours. You can do what you like but do not harm his person.” Satan is given an almost free hand to do what he wants but his power is significantly limited by the greater power of God. The question now is: Will Job curse God to his face? If Job does not, the accuser will be proven false and God’s delight in Job vindicated.
We are now brought to the house of Job’s eldest son where all Job’s family are dining together. One by one messages of disasters begin to come in. First, an invasion of Sabaeans have carried off Job’s herds of cattle and murdered his farm workers. All his herds of sheep and their shepherds are then struck by lightning. Again, a group of Chaldeans take off all Job’s camels and murder their drivers. Finally, Job is told that a hurricane has caused the house of his eldest son to collapse on his whole family, killing them all. In effect, his family and future generations are wiped out.
The Sabaeans were predatory nomads, probably southern Arabians from Sheba, whose descendants became wealthy traders in spices, gold and precious stones. Later in the book Job refers to them as “travelling merchants” and associates them with Tema, which lies nearly 600 km south-east of Jerusalem. Chaldeans were a Bedouin people until c.1000 BC, when they settled in southern Mesopotamia and later became the nucleus of Nebuchadnezzar’s empire.
Job is left with nothing. How will he respond? Will he curse God or at least complain and ask why these things are happening to him?
In fact, he goes into a penitential mode, tearing his clothes and shaving his head. Perhaps these things are a sign of his sinfulness for which he needs to repent. There is no sound of complaint but rather of total acceptance of what has happened to him: He was born naked from the womb of his mother and naked he will return to the womb of the earth. Everything he had was a gift from the Lord and now they have all been taken back. “Blessed be the name of the Lord!” Job’s faith leads him to see the sovereign God’s hand at work, and that gives him repose even in the face of calamity.
In fact, in the long dialogues which follow with his friends, Job will show that acceptance of what has happened to him does not come so easily. But, through it all, he never questions the justice of God; it is just that it is so difficult to understand.
We can see that the problems we have with the sufferings of the young and the innocent are nothing new.
These questions become perhaps even more painful and meaningless when many try to solve the problem by removing God from the picture altogether. But that does not solve the problem and does not take away the pain. If there is no God, if we convince ourselves that all is simply the result of chance, then why does the sense of wrongness still assert itself? In a world of pure chance there can be no absolute truth or falsehood, no objective right or wrong. Things just happen in a totally mechanical way.
Taking away God does not solve the problem because ultimately he is the source of the problem! – as Job recognises. Somehow, the answer is only to be found in a God who is full of love and compassion, in a God who allows his own innocent Son to suffer terribly and die in agony. Somehow the answer has to be found there in the Suffering Jesus. Many have discovered that the way out is not the removal of their pain but in being able, together with Jesus, to go through it. Pain can destroy but it can also heal.