Biblical Scholar, Seminary Professor, Episcopal Priest

Posts tagged “Job

When Seminary Messes With Your Simple Faith

[The image is courtesy of Karen Whitehill, a digital collage in which she superimposes the heads of vintage stars over the Last Supper by Juanes. Many thanks for her gracious permission.]

Jesus told a parable like this (in Luke 13:6-9): A woman had a fig tree planted in her vineyard; and she came looking for fruit on it and found none. So she said to her gardener, ‘Look here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ The gardener replied, ‘Mistress, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’

Let us pray for the times “When Seminary Messes With Your Simple Faith”:

Holy One of Old, open our eyes that we may see. Amen. (Link to audio available here.)

 

[NB: The RGT is my name for my translation of the scriptures, the Revised Gafney Translation. I generally translate all the lessons when I preach.]

 

Job ends his response to God’s interrogation by saying:

I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes. (NRSV)

I recant and relent, Being but dust and ashes. (JPS)

I disparaged myself and wasted away, and I regard myself as dust and ashes. (LXX)

I reject all of this and take comfort in dust and ashes. (RGT)

Why are all of those translations of Job 42:6 so different? And which one is right? The second question is easier. The RGT is right. The JPS is right too. They are both right even though they don’t say the same thing. The LXX is also a faithful translation – of a different Hebrew text translated to and preserved in Greek. The NRSV, RSV, KJV, ESV, Wycliffe, Geneva, Bishop and Douay Bibles are all less right, much less right because they insist on making Job repent even though the verb shuv, “turn,” “repent” isn’t actually in the text. They need Job to conform to their theology, their embedded theology, so they corrected the text to say what they thought it should say to mean what they knew it meant. As for others, the NIV just isn’t worth opening and as a paraphrase the Message isn’t even a translation of the bible. The bible was a whole lot simpler before we all got to seminary – in whatever century (ahem) we attended.

The bible was so much simpler because for most, there was only one with a single table of contents, passed down in a straight line from ancient texts written by men – and I mean men and not people – men who heard from God and wrote what “He” said. Biblical faith was bumper-sticker simple: God said it. I believe it. That settles it. At least mine was once upon a time. Now there are different bibles for Protestants and Catholics and we Episcopalians and Anglicans and, among the Orthodox there are more bibles still with the Ethiopians not bothering to print bibles anymore officially, but if they did, there’d be more books in theirs than any other under heaven – except for some of the Church’s early bibles with the Odes of Solomon and Sibylline Oracles and Epistles of Barnabus and Clement and Shepherd of Hermas. Maybe it wasn’t all so simple back then.

Now we know there are Hebrew manuscript families and Greek manuscript families and Aramaic manuscript families and, for each family sometimes hundreds, if not thousands of manuscripts for both Testaments. And if we trust that God guided canon-shapers and collectors to preserve the “right” text – if there even is such a thing – then we have to wrestle with so many translations. It was so much easier when we had the translation of our childhood faith, our youthful devotion, our pastor’s teaching, our grandmother’s sacred trust. Now we’ve learned aleph-bet and alpha-beta and how to use software and the internet to find the root of words and it’s not so simple anymore. The words of scripture are beloved and treasured and strange and slippery all at the same time while remaining authoritative and compelling.

And it’s not just bible. Seminary messes with your theology and you didn’t even know that you had a theology, let alone that it was embedded. You knew what you believed and that was just the way it was. There was no interpretation. Faith was simple, not simple-minded. We had questions. Some of us were blessed with pastors and counselors and family and friends who honored and encouraged our questions whether they understood or shared them or not or even knew where to begin to answer them. For others of us our questions marked us as different, malcontent, uppity. Neither we nor our questions were welcome in places that should have been safe for us. Now our questions beget more questions like “why do you ask that?” And when we find answers they are satisfying and unsatisfying all at the same time. As God’s mind-blowing response was for Job.

The book of Job is the story of a man who has questions for God; he seeks to face God face to face and so he summons God, he subpoenas God, he sues God. Job’s questions are the questions of all the world: Why is there evil? Why is there suffering? Why did my children have to die? His friends have answers but they don’t answer the questions in his soul. His friends’ theology is the theology of good religious folk. It is simple theology. It is that he must have done something wrong because God’s folk are blessed and highly favored and favor ain’t fair. Their understanding of God has been shaped by their cultural contexts, social locations and families of origin, shaped and limited, like our understanding of God. Because God is more. Job is hungry for that more. He needs God to be more.

So Job goes in search of that more. He goes in search of God, to serve his papers; his complaint – the text describes Job’s beef with God in the language of litigation, his legal pleading is based on his belief in a God who is fundamentally just and imposes order on chaos. He knows that if he can just get to God, all the horror he has experienced will somehow make sense. He is certain that there is justice with God, but he’s going to need a little help; he’s going to need an advocate to take his case, and if necessary, to bail him out from under the jail that the God in the whirlwind might just drop on him like Dorothy’s house. That’s what a goel, a redeeming relative is, the kin who will help you save your skin, the relative whom the Torah would say was required to come to your rescue. Job was looking for someone to stand with him as he stood up to God in that famous verse that everybody makes about Jesus. But Job’s redeemer wasn’t Jesus. (At least not yet.) I know that messes with somebody’s simple faith. Whether or not anyone else went with him, Job was going to find God.

And while he was on his way, God found him. I like to think of that whirlwind as seminary – you all are looking less blown away than when you first got here; your hair isn’t all standing up on end, there are no leaves stuck to you but you are in the whirlwind. However, unlike you all, Job didn’t know he was enrolling. Seminary isn’t just an academic program. It is from its Latin epistemological roots a place of formation and transformation. It’s a place where seeds are nurtured and cultivated, seeds of faith, seeds of self-expression, seeds of vocation, seeds of public theology, seeds of squiggles that will yield a harvest of biblical literacy and a place where critical seed questions sprout, blossom and bloom. Job took his precious handful of seeds to God and God – there’s no delicate way to say this – God shits on him. Yes, that’s what the gospel teaches us. Only Jesus calls it manure in the parable of the fig tree. It was as I said once in a children’s sermon, a “stinky and sticky mess.” But Job’s life isn’t a parable to him and the crap that’s raining down on him isn’t manure to him; it’s not obvious to him that his faith and theology are being fertilized. Because the God he encounters is not the God he expects, the God of his once simple but now questioning faith.

Job encounters God in expected and unexpected ways. He encounters God in the soaring rhetoric of creation language:

Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?

Don’t you know that I am the mother of ice and snow,

birthing them out of my own womb?

Job encounters God in explicitly feminine God-language, not just on the tongues of lefty-liberal, feminist and womanist faculty – of both genders – but from the mouth of God and for us, in the pages of scripture, hidden by generations of male translators but accessible to students of biblical languages and to software supported exegetes. God is more than Job thought or expected, but not necessarily the more that he was looking for.

Job seeks answers to his questions from the source of his questions and in return he gets more questions because God takes Job to school in a whirlwind intensive using Socratic pedagogy – teaching through questioning. God questions Job from chapter 38 to chapter 41, for one hundred and twenty nine verses. Now that Job has met God, his previous simple faith is still real but it is inadequate for the mystery he has experienced living his not-so-simple life. Job is learning about God in this stormy weather seminary but it doesn’t look or feel like what he thought it would.

And, as Job prepares to graduate, he finds all of his questions have not been answered. His most burning question is still with him: Why? But God doesn’t answer the question. And so Job utters perhaps the most enigmatic line credited to him. Job’s embedded theology is that even God is constrained by justice. So now Job looks into the face of the whirlwind that could have stripped the flesh off his bones but didn’t and says: I reject all of this and take comfort in dust and ashes.

Job doesn’t drop out of seminary because he learns stuff he whishes he never knew, ideas and concepts that make it difficult to hold on to his simple faith from a much simpler time. He rejects something but what? God? No. They continue in their relationship after this lesson. Does he reject his questions, his theological awakening and try to go back to the time before his critical thinking and religious experience clashed? I don’t think so. So what does Job reject? Perhaps he rejects the expectation that God will answer all of his questions, that everything will make sense and will fit together in an orderly, systematic paradigm or flowchart. Maybe he rejects the notion that God has to make sense to his finite, limited, human understanding.

So Job takes a seat. More than that, he takes comfort in where he is, on, al (preposition), aphar v’epher (conjunction junction, what’s your function), dust and ashes. Dust and ashes is his immediate context, that’s the place of his public theology, field site and internship. Dust and ashes is the place of our ministry. It’s the place where hurting people gather and signal their pain with a formal liturgy of mourning. It is a place of embodied tweeting, ashen-faced rather than face-booked. The ash heap is where you let go trying to capture your God experience in the perfect theological formulation. Job takes a seat and takes comfort in the God of his scandalous theology.

The theology of Job is scandalous for many reasons: Job, a mere human being is blameless in the sight of God. And by the way, Job wasn’t even an Israelite. Then when he loses every thing he has including the skin he is in, it is because God gambles with his life and the lives of his children, consigning them to death to prove a point and win a bet with a character who is a satan but not the devil, (yet). And Job has the – I have to say it because the text calls for it – Job has the balls to sue God over what he knows was an injustice done to him, (the very ones God told him to gird up, tie down, like a man because God had a few questions for him and God was going to get all up in his face and his personal space and it was going to get rough). And if that were not scandalous enough, Job, who is not patient – James must have been reading the Testament of Job or one of the other extra-biblical Job stories – this impatient Job demands answers from God, holds God accountable to a standard of righteousness and sues God to answer to his questions. Job sued God. Shouted at God. And lived to tell about it. God even said he, Job, was right.

At the end of the story, Job takes comfort in his scandalous theology and the questions it generates because he has encountered a God who is big enough to be questioned, one who doesn’t wilt or fade under scrutiny, one who is not so insecure as to demand mindless, unthinking, unquestioning faith.

I found in seminary a safe and challenging place to examine and challenge my own faith and I discovered that the God of my faith, my simple, sincere, honest, faithful faith, was not God. Or rather, I like Job, encountered a God who was more than I imagined. I received a religious education that included, multiple perspectives, unanswered questions, doubt, uncertainty, ambiguity and conflicting text traditions which left me with a supple, flexible faith rather than a brittle, unyielding one. And I left with questions, more questions, different questions that frame an on-going conversation. I learned to take comfort in my questions and in the God who hears and honors them, welcomes them even, just as Job took comfort in dust and ashes.

So go to the ash heap and live your theology there. Take comfort there when prayer and liturgy and scripture and theology and history conflict with what you think you know about God. Be fulfilled in service to those still wounded on their ash heaps; engage their questions with more than the theological platitudes that failed to satisfy you. And when you rise from your ash heap, pray for those who tried to force you to fit in their simple theological paradigms. Job’s seminary experience was healing and transformational. And when Job died old, contented and full of days, he had a rich, complex, questioning faith and he was still unrepentant and God was still alright with that. Amen.


Suing God

Job 38:1 Then the Holy One of Old answered Job out of the whirlwind: 

2 “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? 

3 Gird up your loins like a man,

I will question you, and you shall respond to me.

 

Let us pray: Blessed are You, Yah our God, Heart of the Universe, who attends to us and hears the voice of our hearts; mother-love us and make audible the soft, still voice. Amen.

 

If I knew where to find God, I’d sue. That’s what Job said and that’s what Job did; he sued God. Job loses everything he has. His cattle and camels aren’t just money in the bank, they are the food in his belly, milk for his children, clothes on his back, the tractors with which he plowed his fields, fertilizer and fuel and transportation, Social Security and Medicare rolled up together. He has even made it his business to treat his slaves as justly as he knows how and he grieves their loss. And then there is the loss of all of his children at one time, a grief that overshadows everything else including the disgusting, oozing sores all over his body. All of Job’s children are dead and gone – murdered – and nothing will ever bring them back. Even if he has children later – and he will – they can never be replaced. And so he sues God. I understand. I am haunted by Job’s children, by the shades of his murdered children; they attend my teaching and preaching on and from the book of Job. They are three daughters and seven sons whose names and ages are neglected in the text. I will never forget them nor allow them to be forgotten.

 

The basis of Job’s lawsuit is that God has done him wrong by allowing his children to be butchered, his body to be afflicted and his wealth to be erased. After all, Job knows that he is blameless in God’s sight. And he knows that the prevailing theology of his day is that if bad things happen to you you are not a good person, you deserve whatever you get. But Job knows that he does not deserve any of this. (However, neither Job nor the biblical author take up the issue of whether wrong was done to Job’s murdered children.) 

 

Where was God and what was God doing while Job’s life was being destroyed? God was there. And God did nothing. God permitted it, sanctioned it, suggested it. And if Job knew what we know from the narrator who speaks to the reader – that his life was crap because God was playing craps with his life – he might have wanted to do more than sue God. But Job doesn’t know that God set him up, used him and his children and all of their lives to prove a point. But Job does know that God is, that God is there and that God is just even when he doesn’t understand how a just God could let all of this happen. He knows that God is real and that if he can just find God and serve the Most High a subpoena and give God a piece of his mind, everything will be all right. 

 

I’ve been saying that Job sues God because the Hebrew text is full of legal terminology and presents Job’s claim as a personal injury lawsuit. Words like “contend” and “reason” in English bibles are all translations of the word that means lawsuit, riyv, in Hebrew. Job spends the majority of the book looking for God so that he can have his day in court. And Job believes that he will get a fair trial and a fair hearing from God because he believes in a just God. Now, in order to sue God Job had a number of obstacles to overcome which he explains his friends. First, God is no ordinary defendant, (9:32-34):

For God is not a mortal, as I am, that I might answer God,

that we should come to trial together.

There is no umpire between us,

who might lay a hand on us both.

If God would take God’s rod away from me,

and not let dread of God terrify me,

then I would speak without fear of God,

for I know I am not what I am thought to be.

 

Second, he had to figure out how to serve God a subpoena. Job discussed his search for God with his friends in 23:3-5:

Who will grant that I might know

where I might find God,

that I might come to God’s abode?

I would set my case in order before God,

and fill my mouth with arguments.

I might know what God would answer me,

and understand what God would say to me.

 

Job also spends quite a bit of time with this idea in chapter 9, verses 1, 14-16, 19-20:

If one wished to sue God,

one could not answer God once in a thousand…

If it is a contest of strength, God is the strong one!

How then can I answer God,

choosing my words with God? 

Though I am innocent, I cannot answer God;

I must appeal for mercy to my accuser… 

If I summoned God and God answered me,

I do not believe that God would listen to my voice.

If it is a matter of justice, who can summon God? 

Though I am innocent, my own mouth would condemn me;

though I am blameless, God would prove me perverse.

 

Job had to find someone among his kinfolk and skin-folk, an advocate, a go‘el, (traditionally translated redeemer) to represent him. That was the system set up from the time of Moses – if you got into any type of legal or even financial trouble, one of your relatives was supposed to bail you out, literally. But who could serve as Job’s redeeming relative? The relatives who abandoned him when he fell ill and lost all his money wouldn’t help him sue God. He says (in 19:13), “My relatives and my close friends have failed me.” Of Job’s attempt to find legal representation to take on God, one of his friends (Eliphaz) says in 5:1, “Call now; is there anyone who will answer you? To which of the holy ones will you turn?” But Job is convinced that this thing can be done, he also knows he may not survive it and wishes to leave an account for all who follow, 19:23-24:

“O that my words were written down!

O that they were inscribed in a book! 

O that with an iron pen and with lead

they were engraved on a rock forever! 

 

He got his wish. Perhaps most importantly, Job knows that there is someone who will take his case and he will surely get his day in court. He says:

For I know that my Advocate lives,

who will at the last stand upon the earth; 

and after my skin has been so destroyed,

then in my flesh shall I see God, 

whom I shall see on my side,

and my eyes shall behold, and not another.

My heart faints within me!

 

Job’s Advocate, his Redeeming-Relative is One who can summon God and require faithfulness of God. Job doesn’t know it yet, but his Advocate and Redeeming-Relative is God. Meanwhile, Job’s faux-friend Elihu acknowledges that there may indeed be such a mediator in 33:24-25:

Then, if there should be for one of them an angel,

a mediator, one of a thousand,

one who declares a person upright, 

who is gracious to that person, and says,

‘Deliver him from going down into the Pit;

I have found a ransom. 

Let his flesh become fresh with youth;

let him return to the days of his youthful vigor.’ 

Then he prays to God, and is accepted by God,

he comes into God’s presence with joy,

and God repays him for his righteousness.

 

With every fiber of his being Job ached and thought, if I could just see God… And then, God appeared to Job in a whirlwind. Job seeks to draw a real, living God into court, and gets more than he bargains for. God shows up. God shows up and God blows up the courthouse. God shows up in chapter 38 and tells Job to tie up the man-flesh dangling between his legs and demands that Job answer, “Who is this that darkens counsel by speech without knowledge? Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you will answer me!” 

 

Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Don’t you know that I am the mother of ice and snow, birthing them out of my own womb? Don’t you know that I am the father of the rain? (God uses both genders in Job.) Have you given marching orders to the sun every morning from the time before time? Did you plant the stars in the heavens joining them into constellations? Who do you think you are? Don’t you know who I am? And Job put his hand over his mouth.

 

The book of Job doesn’t whitewash pain and suffering. Its scandalous theology is that God is gambling with your life and the lives of those you hold dear, including your precious children. And at the same time, the book of Job affirms a God who is there, a God who responds, albeit a God who does not do what we want or think, but an all-powerful, sovereign God. When Job meets God face-to-force, Job says, “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you. I reject all of this and am comforted in dust and ashes.” 

 

The book of Job is an ancient theodicy; it is a theology of pain and suffering. And the book of Job is scripture to bear holy witness to the truth of the victimized and devastated who know that life is not fair, you don’t always get what you deserve, the innocent do suffer and God is inscrutable. Yet God is real and God is there and God will listen when you give God a piece of your mind about what God is doing to you, with you and the ones you love. 

 

That’s what the disciples do in the Gospel. They are on the Sea of Galilee which can be a good place to have a party. That’s what I did on my first trip to Israel. I danced across the sea on a party boat. It was late summer. On my second trip, it was July and I was buttoned up against the cold and braced for the wind. And even with our modern, motorized boat we were buffeted on that tiny lake like we were in the ocean. And if Jesus had been onboard, I would have woken him up too. Loudly. That's what the disciples do, giving Jesus a piece of their minds: Get up Jesus! What do you think you’re doing? I can’t believe you’re lying there asleep while we are dying. Get up and do something!

 

Job teaches that even if you’re crazy enough to try to sue God, God will come to meet you where you are, God will speak a word – that if it doesn’t change your circumstances, will change you. God spoke to Job from chapter 38 to chapter 41. God spoke to Job for one hundred and twenty nine verses. And in that time, God didn’t change a single thing in Job’s life. God changed Job.

 

I say with Job, I have suffered unbelievable loss, but it’s all right. I’ve faced the limits of my own mortality, and it’s all right. I’ve called God on the carpet and been blown out of the water, and it’s still all right. How can it be all right? Because whenever I need to – and I need to frequently, I give God a piece of my mind. I have filed more than one lawsuit myself. Shall not, the Judge of all the earth do what is right? I know that I have a living Advocate to plead my case. Somewhere there is for me, a redeeming relative, some kin to help me save my skin. I know I will get justice. I know I can’t win against God, but when I have my say then I know there’s still justice and righteousness in the universe.

 

Job sued God. Shouted at God. And it was all right. It was more than all right. It was healing and transformational. And Job died old, contented and full of days. 

In the Name of God: 

Sovereign, Savior and Shelter. Amen.


Giving God a Piece of Your Mind

Sometimes I’m up; sometimes I’m down. Sometimes I’m almost level to the ground. Sometimes I feel like a motherless child, a long way from home.

Sometimes, I want to do like Hezekiah, and take my stuff – my hopes and my hurts – to God in person, or at least as close as a mortal woman can get. Sometimes like Job, I want to give God a piece of my mind, and not even a sanctified piece. This morning, I’d like to invite you to tell God how you really feel because God already knows and God can take it. God can handle it. God can work it out. God can. God is able. Giving God a Piece of Your Mind.

Let us pray:

Blessed are You, Yah our God, Heart of the Universe, who attends to us and hears the voice of our hearts; mother-love us and let us hear the soft, still voice. Amen.

Some things in this world just aren’t right: Children die. Babies are brutally murdered. They are shot while playing in their front yards or run down by drunk, distracted or texting drivers who don’t even have the decency to stop or call for help. Children are brutalized by the people who should love and care for them, their own parents. It’s not right.

There is so much violence in our world, in our streets, in our schools, in our homes. Pregnant women are more likely to die at the hands of some man beating on them than any biological complication from pregnancy or childbirth. One in four women and girls and one in five men and boys have been sexually assaulted and live with the trauma and after-effects, rarely receiving the help they need or even seeing justice in their days. It’s just not right.

People suffer terribly all over the world. Crops fail. Jobs disappear. Economies collapse. Hard work and education seem to mean nothing. The only thing that endures is the bills, bills, bills. Our own bodies betray us, dissolving into sickness, disability and unexpected, unwelcome and untimely death. It’s not right God.

The ones we love betray us even more. I learned in seminary that hurt people hurt people. But knowing that doesn’t make it hurt any less. Some things in this life just aren’t fair. People work hard, pay their bills and lose their jobs and their homes because of someone else’s accounting tricks. People invest in their children’s upbringing and education and watch them chase after all that they tried to protect them from, or see them cut down as an innocent bystander while they were doing the right thing. So many of our young men and women are locked up, locked down and locked out.

And there is war and terrorism on every continent in the world. The drug war in Mexico regularly crosses the border. Our sons and daughters, wives and husbands, neighbors and strangers are fighting, killing and dying in Iraq and Afghanistan and in other places around the world. The impending tenth anniversary of 9/11 reminds us that not even the morning commute can be taken for granted – may we never see another day like that one in which airplanes became guided missiles and three thousand people left this life, some in agony burning alive while others choked to death, and yet others jumped to their deaths.

There is real evil in this world, much of it at the hands of other people. You know, sometimes it seems that this world would be a much better place if it weren’t full of all those other folk. I’m talking about me right now; you may have never felt like this. Or perhaps you have. Sometimes it seems like what is needed is for someone to just tell God all about it. Not because we doubt that God knows, but perhaps because it seems that God is so busy birthing new galaxies and stars, keeping all of the planets aligned in their courses, maintaining the moon’s proper orbit, keeping the sun from burning out or burning us up, sending the rain – and snow and sleet and hail, stirring the storms and calming the seas, blowing the evening breeze and trade winds across the Caribbean and Pacific, raising life from the dead husks of buried seeds entombed in the womb of the earth, feeding the birds and the bees, painting the flowers and the trees that it feels like God needs to be reminded that we need some help right here, right now.

We may know that God is attending to us every moment of every day, breath by breath, heartbeat by heartbeat, counting our hairs, freckles and wrinkles, but sometimes it feels like we’re out here all on our own, when life gives us lemons and we don’t have honey or sugar with which to make lemonade, especially when other folk start messing with us – hurting our feelings, hurting our hearts, hurting our families, messing with our livelihoods. And as much as we might like to see it, the earth does not open up her mouth and swallow them whole, no fire from heaven comes down and smites them, we don’t even hear voices saying, “Touch not my anointed and do my prophet no harm.” (And if we do hear voices, no one else hears them with us.)

Sometimes we need to call on God, to call God’s attention to our immediate circumstances in a particular way. Whether we believe that God is already actively, intimately involved with the details of our lives or think that God is so busy we need to cry out, “Come see about us!” there are ancestral stories passed down in the scriptures that speak to us about giving God a piece of our minds. Pray with me as I tell you the truth this morning: Sometimes I Feel Like Giving God a Piece of My Mind.

The first lesson, from the book of Kings is one such story. Seven hundred and twenty some-odd years before the scandalous birth of a Palestinian Jew with questionable parentage, Yeshua ben Miryam, Jesus, Mary’s child, the world as Hezekiah knew it changed for all time. The Northern Monarchy, the largest realm in the divided Israel was decimated and depopulated by King Shalmaneser of Assyria. He spent three years marching from the north: the peoples and produce, military and materiel of the tribe of Naphtali – gone, the peoples and possessions of the tribe of Issachar – gone, the citizens of the tribe of Manasseh and all their stuff, including the capital city of Samaria – gone. Burned to the ground and their people marched off and resettled as essentially slave labor in the Assyrian empire. And in their wake, unburied corpses, raped women, murdered children, hunger, desolation, grief, rage and cries to heaven.

Refugees from the other tribal lands poured into Benjamin, Judah and what was left of Simeon. There was no one left to govern in the north, even if the Assyrians didn’t march on every town and village, they irrevocably broke the Israelite monarchy, government and society in the tribal lands of Manasseh, Asher, Naphtali, Zebulon and Issachar, and Gad, Ephraim, Reuben and Dan. On the local level it was sheer anarchy; on the national level it was a return to foreign bondage. And Hezekiah watched it happen from his perilous perch on his own tottering throne.

And to make sure that there would be no one to rise up against him, Shalmaneser depopulated Israel of all its royal and military power, intellectuals and entrepreneurs, artisans and most skilled craftswomen and craftsmen. Then to keep the economy going and funneled into his coffers, he repopulated Israel with people he had taken captive and forced off their lands in other battles in other nations. The new inhabitants of Samaria were from Babylon, Cuthah, Hamath, Avva and Sepharvaim. They made what lives they could with the peoples who were considered too useless to deport. Their descendants became known as the Samaritans – as distinct from the former Samarians – the Samaritans were despised, not because their religion differed some from the religion in Judah, (and it did), but also because they were multicultural, multiethnic, multinational and living proof of the fall of Israel. That is why the Samaritans were considered impure.

Now let’s think about that for a moment. Who and what were the Israelites to talk about ethnic and national purity? (Remember race did not exist as a concept until less than five hundred years ago.) The founding parents of Israel, Abraham and Sarah were incestuous Chaldeans or proto-Babylonians; today they’d be Iraqis. They came from a family where incest was accepted; they were sister and brother from the same father; then their brother Nahor married their other brother, Haran’s daughter, Milcah, his own niece. She was the grandmother of Rebekah who married her cousin Isaac. Milcah was also the sister of Lot who claims to have been abused by his daughters – even though we know that many abusers blame their victims. Incest was common and inner-family marriage was the norm in the founding family of what would become Israel – a familial and religious designation, not an ethnic identity. One of the mothers of Israel, Rebekah and her brother Laban were Arameans, and Rebekah required her son Jacob to marry one of her nieces – he married both, but that’s another story. Jacob’s twelve leading sons – he had more and many daughters but that’s another sermon – Jacob’s sons and their women became the ancestors of Israel:

Judah had children with Tamar who was not from the founding family; she was a local Canaanite girl who had married into his family; she was his daughter-in-law. Simeon also had children with a Canaanite woman. And Joseph married Asenath, an Egyptian woman so that two of the latter tribes, Ephraim and Manasseh, were half-Egyptian, half-African. Even Moses married Midianite and Nubian women. So the claim from later generations of Israelites that the Samaritans were “impure” is something like the pot calling the kettle black. And all of that stems from the events Hezekiah watched unfold around him.

I say that Hezekiah was perilously perched on his throne because four years after Hezekiah was placed upon it, Shalmaneser and his army came back down from the north and this time, there was no Israelite army to slow them down. This time he pushed into Judah and took all of Hezekiah’s fortified towns, killing, maiming, raping and looting as he went. The Judean army was broken. There was nothing to keep Shalmaneser from ransacking and ravaging Judah. Nothing, but God.

But was God even paying attention? God did not intervene when Shalmaneser destroyed Israel. You know God does not intervene every time disaster befalls us. At least not in my life. I have had heartache and grief. I have watched folk I love cut down in their prime or linger in affliction savaged by disease. And like Hezekiah I have tried to do the right thing in my own life, and sometimes I have even managed to do so. But there was always someone around pointing fingers at every setback and tragedy, blaming me for my own misfortunes just as the Judeans blamed the Israelites for their devastation.

The Judeans comforted themselves by blaming the Israelites. Surely they were sinful and brought the disaster on themselves. Nothing like that could happen around here. We are God’s people. God is on our side. And there were plenty of prophets who agreed with them. But there were some prophets who said that Judah had their own issues with sin. And the surviving Israelites told the Judeans, just wait; your turn is coming. And to Hezekiah, this was more than an academic question; was God going to let Shalmaneser destroy Judah too?

Hezekiah prayed. He more than prayed, he gave God a piece of his mind. Hezekiah went to the house of God and literally laid his petition before God. You see the Assyrian military commander had presented Hezekiah with a letter detailing everything that he was going to do to him and his people, and naming all of the peoples and gods he had already come through to get to his front door. And as far as the commander was concerned, Hezekiah and his god was one more obstacle before dinner.

Hezekiah wanted God to see the disrespect of the Assyrian commander with God’s own eyes. Hezekiah took the letter dissing God and showed it to God: Look what they are saying about you! Look what they say they will do to your people. Look what they say they will do to your house. Look what they say they will do to the place where your name and your glory abide. Look at this mess! Every time they have sent somebody one of these letters, they have destroyed them and their gods – know I know there’s a big difference between you and their gods, but they don’t know you like I know you! Save us I pray, not for our sake alone – although we’d appreciate it. Show them who you are and whose we are.”

Hezekiah’s story has a happy ending, a miraculous ending. God heard his prayer and answered his prayer affirmatively. There was a rumor about an African monarch, Tirhaka, assaulting the Assyrians on another side. They left to face his formidable threat and never came back. They could have and should have turned back around and continued their siege. But they didn’t. There was no earthly reason for the Assyrians to refrain from attacking Judah. It was a miracle. Hezekiah gave God a piece of his mind and God listened to Hezekiah. But Hezekiah’s story isn’t the only story in the bible. He’s not the only person standing in the need of prayer. Some of you may be Hezekiah, come to church, say your prayers and everything works out all right. But me, I’m Job. Every once in a while God and I have issues. We need to work some stuff out. And like Job, if I knew where to find God, I’d give God a piece of my mind. It’s all right. God can handle it. God knows what I’m thinking anyway. I might as well get it off my chest. And who knows, God just might come to see about me. That’s what Job thought.

The book of Job is the story of a man who sues God. His name Iyov, means “enemy.” And it sure feels like God is his enemy. Job loses everything he has. His cattle and camels aren’t just money in the bank, they are the food in his belly, milk for his children, clothes on his back, the tractors with which he plowed his fields, fertilizer and fuel and transportation, social security and Medicare rolled up in one. His slaves are people and he has made it his business to treat them as justly as he knows how and he grieves their loss. And then there is the loss of all of his children at one time, a grief that overshadows everything else including the disgusting, oozing sores all over his body. All of his children are dead and gone – murdered – and nothing will ever bring them back. Even if he has children later – and he will – those precious lives have been destroyed in a fit of violence.

And God did nothing. God permitted it. And if Job knew what we know – that his life was crap because God was playing craps with his life – he might have wanted to do more than sue God. But Job doesn’t know that God set him up, used him and his children to prove a point. But Job does know that God is and that God is just even when he doesn’t understand how a just God could let all of this happen. He knows that God is real and that if he can just find God and serve the Most High a subpoena and give God a piece of his mind, everything will be all right.

I’ve been saying that Job sues God because the Hebrew text is full of legal terminology and presents Job’s claim as a personal injury lawsuit. Words like “contend” and “reason” in English bibles are all translations of the word that means lawsuit, riyv, in Hebrew. The basis of Job’s suit is that God has done him wrong by allowing his all of children to be butchered, him to be afflicted with a disfiguring disease and all of his possessions to be stolen or destroyed. He knows that none of this is his fault, no matter what the saints, aints and his fair-weather friends say. Job knows that he is blameless in God’s sight. He also knows that the prevailing theology of the day is that if bad things happen to you, it’s your own fault, you deserve whatever you get and you get whatever you deserve. But that’s not working for Job. Job knows that he is a good man. He knows that he does not deserve his misfortune and neither do his children. Job spends the majority of the book looking for God so that he can have his day in court. And Job believes that he will get a fair trial and a fair hearing from God because he believes in a just God. Job 23 could be translated,

Job 23:3 Who will grant that I might know where I might find God,

that I might come to God’s abode? [And serve God a subpoena]

4 I would set my [legal] case in order before God,

and fill my mouth with [legal] arguments.

5 I might know what God would answer me, [under oath]

and understand what God would say to me [from the witness stand].

6 Would God counter-sue me in the greatness of God’s power?

Ah, no! God would make space for me [to have my day in court].

7 There an upright person could be found to be right with God [to be acquitted],

and I would be delivered for all time by my judge.

Job seeks to draw a real, living God into court, and gets more than he bargains for. God shows up. God shows up. God shows up in chapter 38 and tells Job to tie up the man-flesh dangling between his legs and demands that Job answer, “Who is this that darkens counsel by speech without knowledge? Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you will answer me!”

Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Don’t you know that I am the mother of ice and snow, birthing them out of my own womb? Don’t you know that I am the father of the rain? Have you given marching orders to the sun every morning from the time before time? Did you plant the stars in the heavens joining them into constellations? Who do you think you are? Don’t you know who I am? And Job put his hand over his mouth.

The book of Job doesn’t whitewash pain and suffering. Its scandalous theology is that God is gambling with your life and the lives of your children. And at the same time, the book of Job affirms a God who is there, a God who responds, albeit a God who does not do what we want or think, but an all-powerful, sovereign God. When Job meets God, Job says, “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you. I reject all of this and am comforted in dust and ashes.”

The book of Job is an ancient theodicy; it is a theology of pain and suffering. Why is there evil in the world? Because God said to God’s chief prosecuting attorney, the satan – lower case, he has not yet evolved in biblical literature into the capital “S” embodiment of evil – God said to God’s chief prosecuting attorney, “Have you set your heart on my servant Job?…” One of the biblical answers to the problem of suffering is that God did it.

The book of Job is in the bible to bear witness to the truth of the victimized and devastated who know that life is not fair, you don’t always get what you deserve, the innocent do suffer and God is inscrutable. Ah, God. God is in the book of Job. God is behind the book of Job. God is underneath the book of Job. Belief in God in the face of the unbelievable and insurmountable pervades the book of Job. God is real and God is there and God will listen when you give God a piece of your mind. Even if you’re crazy enough to try to sue God, God will come to meet you where you are, God will speak a word – that if it doesn’t change your circumstances, will change you. God spoke to Job from chapter 38 to chapter 41. God spoke to Job for one hundred and twenty nine verses. And in that time, God didn’t change a single thing in God’s life. God changed Job.

I say with Job, I have suffered unbelievable loss, but it’s all right. I’ve faced the limits of my own mortality, and it’s all right. I’ve called God on the carpet and been blown out of the water, and it’s still all right. How can it be all right? I’m going to tell God. Women are being raped to death in Congo. Tell God. Children are being slaughtered with machetes in Darfur. Tell God all about it. The city of brother love and sisterly affection has been turned into Kill-a-delphia. Children and young folk who know better are running wild in the streets. Tell God. London is burning. Tell God. People who work forty, sixty, eighty hours a week are losing their homes through no fault of their own. Tell God all about it. There are people without running water and electricity in the United States of America. Children are starving to death while others throw food away. Tell God. Our country is going deeper into debt while the rich are getting richer and paying fewer taxes if they pay any at all. Tell God. Our president is under assault because of who he is and what he looks like. People are threatening his life. People are threatening his wife. People are even threatening their children. Tell God. It’s not always safe in the church for children or adults. Tell God all about it. Give God a piece of your mind.

If I knew where God was I’d sue. Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is right? Surely there is one who will take my case. I know that I have a living advocate to plead my cause. Somewhere there is a goel for me, a redeeming relative; some kin to help me save my skin. If I could just get God into court, I know I could get justice. I know I can’t win against God, but if I could just have my day in court, if I could just have my say, if I could just give God a piece of my mind, then I’d know there’s still justice and righteousness in the universe. If I could just see God.

God appeared to Job in a whirlwind. God was hidden from Hezekiah by the veil between the holy place and the most holy place. God appeared to a virgin girl named Miriam, called Mary in the flesh and blood of her own body.  God appeared to prophets and kings, shepherds, philosophers and astrologers as a baby in the stench of a stable. God appeared to the people of Israel as a rabbi who couldn’t keep his more 5000-member congregation together. And God appeared to the world on a cross-shaped lynching tree. God appeared to the women, Mary and Salome and Johanna and the other Mary who were the apostles to the apostles. And I’m here to tell you that God still appears. Not in the body that walked the earth two thousand years ago – although I hear it’s making a comeback – but God appears in the bodies and lives and ministries of God’s servants. God is here. Right now. And in the presence of God, all of our brokenness is welcome, redeemed and transformed. Tell God all about it. And if you can’t say a mumbling word. That’s all right too.

In the Name of God, the Author, the Word and the Translator. Amen