Sermon for February 14th, 2016
1One day the heavenly beings came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came among them to present himself before the Lord. 2The Lord said to Satan, “Where have you come from?” Satan answered the Lord, “From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it.” 3The Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man who fears God and turns away from evil. He still persists in his integrity, although you incited me against him, to destroy him for no reason.” 4Then Satan answered the Lord, “Skin for skin! All that people have they will give to save their lives. 5But stretch out your hand now and touch his bone and his flesh, and he will curse you to your face.” 6The Lord said to Satan, “Very well, he is in your power; only spare his life.”
7So Satan went out from the presence of the Lord, and inflicted loathsome sores on Job from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head. 8Job took a potsherd with which to scrape himself, and sat among the ashes. 9Then his wife said to him, “Do you still persist in your integrity? Curse God, and die.” 10But he said to her, “You speak as any foolish woman would speak. Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?” In all this Job did not sin with his lips.
Love in the Book of Job
Today is Valentine's day. In our culture, it's a celebration of love. If you pay attention to sermon titles (in the bulletin or on the screen) then you know I'm going to talk about love in the Book of Job. But if you paid attention to the scripture reading, you might also be asking yourself the obvious question, "ok...so where's the love?"
Don't worry. We'll get there eventually. But first, a romantic story:
One day a woman accompanied her husband to the doctor's office. After his checkup, the doctor called the wife into his office alone. He said, "Your husband is in grave condition. I'm afraid that without your help, he will surely die." Shocked, the woman said, "What can I do? Anything for my love!" So the doctor gave her a list of ten simple things that could save her husband's life:
1)Each morning , fix him a healthy breakfast. 2)Let him sleep in a bit while you're doing that. 3)Be pleasant and make sure he is in a good mood. 4)For lunch make him a nutritious, but tasty, meal. 5)Don't burden him with any chores or difficult work throughout the day. 6)If he needs you to run errands for him, or help with anything, provide it promptly. 7)For dinner, prepare him an especially nice meal. 8)Every evening, give him a back rub and help him to relax. 9)Don't discuss your problems with him, or anything unpleasant. 10)If he needs attention or affection, be ready to provide that, too.
On the way home, the husband asked his wife what the doctor said to her. She paused for a long while, and then replied, "He said you're going to die."
Today is Valentine's day, but on the church calendar, today is also the first Sunday in the season of Lent. Historically, Lent is a time for us to pause and reflect on our lives and our shortcomings, on the brokenness of the world and our place in it; it's a season to repent and prepare our hearts for the next season, the joyful celebration of Easter and the resurrection of Christ.
It has been my tradition for the past few years, to preach on the Book of Job during the season of Lent. As most of you know by now, it's my favorite book of the Bible. I'm not alone in this, by the way. Lord Alfred Tennyson, who was celebrated in his own lifetime as the greatest poet alive, called the Book of Job the "greatest poem of ancient and modern times." The novelist Victor Hugo, author of Les Miserables, once said that "if all literature was to be destroyed and it was left to me to retain one work only, I would save Job."
The story behind the Book of Job is perhaps the oldest story in the Bible. It is certainly the most complex, both in terms of the difficult language and the profound subject matter, which wrestles with the age old question, "Why do bad things happen to good people?" Or, depending on which voices in Job you listen to, "Why do good things happen to bad people?"
But like all things that are difficult and complex, a cloud hangs over the Book of Job. It has a reputation of being gloomy and depressing. Job loses everything: His property, his children, his friends, his health. That's about as depressing as it gets. And so when most people encounter this, they have a tendency to skip to the book's happy ending. We need the happy ending. And yet, when we do so, we miss the point. We miss the struggle. And we miss the beautiful and profound poetry that forms the core of the book.
So this Lent, I'm going to try to make a case that this book is worth struggling through. That all of those dark clouds have silver linings, and that the "happy ending" is not, in fact, the best part. This Lent, we will journey through the Book of Job, with all its pain, grief, suffering, and loss...but I hope that along the way, we will stop to observe the Love, the Beauty, the Truth, and the Wisdom that Job has to offer as well.
And so we begin, fittingly on Valentine's day, with Love. There is, believe it or not, a love story in the Book of Job--one that plays out in just two short verses; one that, through long years, centuries, and millenia, has been obscured by clouds of misunderstanding; one that you have to look carefully to see.
We don't even know "her" name, she's just "Job's wife." She appears out of nowhere in verse 9, says something seemingly rude to Job, and his reply to her in verse 10 seems equally rude. The end. That may either sound like an all-too-familiar love story to some of you, or not much of a love story at all.
Only I'm not sure that any of that rudeness, on either side, is really there. A lot of it depends on translation, and our translations are never unbiased. They are influenced by who we think is the "good guy" in the story, and who we think is the "bad guy." Or in this case the bad girl. Job is clearly the protagonist in this story, and there has been a long history of looking at all the other characters as antagonists. Enemies. Obstacles.
Ancient stories pass through many hands (or many ears) on their way to becoming widespread, with many tellings and retellings. Along the way, they tend to evolve. The role and voice of some characters are elevated, while others are diminished. It seems to me, after many years of studying this text, that the Book of Job was once a spirited conversation between multiple characters with multiple points of view. The trend over time has been to prioritize the voice and role of Job, while minimizing all others. Such is the case with Job's wife. And so to hear their love story, we need to listen very carefully to her voice...and take his with a grain of salt.
When we encounter a passage that is difficult to translate or make sense of (and remember, Job contains the most difficult and obscure Hebrew in the entire bible), we tend to translate it in such a way that conforms to our pre-existing idea of how the story is supposed to go: Job is the good guy, and anything his wife says to him must be just one more hurdle for him to overcome, another opportunity to show his great faith and patience.
Likewise, his reply to her must put her in her place, with "righteous" rudeness. And then we have a clear winner and a clear loser, black and white. Simple. For what it's worth, love is rarely simple, rarely black and white, neatly divided into winners and losers.
And so Job's wife says to him in verse 9, "Do you still persist in your integrity? Curse God and die." That first part, "do you still persist in your integrity" sounds pretty sarcastic, mostly because of the question mark at the end. Only there is no question mark in the original Hebrew text. Just to make sure, a few years ago, I asked a Rabbi friend of mine to read that passage to me, translating from Hebrew to English. He read, "You still persist in your integrity."
Taken this way, and without an overly prejudiced Job-against-the-world approach, is it possible that his wife comes to him offering words of encouragement and support? She's actually echoing God's words from verse 3, when he comments on how Job still maintaints his integrity, despite all that has happened. Even though God is using the same words, we don't tend to hear them in a sarcastic or demeaning way. So perhaps we should extend the same courtesy to Job's wife.
Next, however, Job's wife tells him to "Curse God, and die." Only the word translated as "curse" is the Hebrew word בָּרַךְ (baraq). It's the same word Job uses in the previous chapter when he says his famous line that "the Lord gives and the Lord takes away, בָּרַךְ (baraq), or bless, the name of the Lord. While the word literally means bless, it is true that sometimes in Hebrew culture it is used sarcastically. We do the same thing here in Texas when we say, "bless your little heart." Tone is everything. And if you are assuming that Job's wife is mean spirited, the only way to translated bless...is as curse. But if you are giving her the benefit of the doubt, she could be imploring her beloved, suffering husband to bless God one final time, and then let go of his pain, his struggle, his life. This would be a compassionate thing to say.
Likewise, Job's response can be translated charitably or uncharitably. Calling her a foolish woman is a bit of a stretch. First of all, the word "woman" is not in the Hebrew. Words in Hebrew do have masculine and feminine endings (like in Spanish) and this word הַנְּבָלוֹת֙ (ha nabalot) is no different. A נָבָל (nabal) can be a male or a female, and foolish is one possible translation, but it's not foolish like we typically use it, in the sense of a clown, or a stupid person. A נָבָל (nabal) is more commonly used elsewhere in the Bible to refer to an impious person.
And notice that even so, Job is not calling his wife impious. He says she is speaking like an impious person. She is suggesting something dangerous--that he take his life and death into his own hands, rather than God's. While Job disagrees with her, he is not necessarily rude about it, and there is room for love and compassion in their brief interchange.
I said earlier in the sermon that ancient stories travel far and wide on their way to fame, and pass through many tellings and retellings, each with its own distinct style and emphases. This is true of the story of Job as well. Our version, from the Hebrew bible is just one of many versions that have been preserved and circulated through the years. The story of Job appears in other ancient sources as well, in other cultures, languages, and religions.
In several of them, Job's wife plays an expanded role. She has a name--Grace--which is also what she provides to Job, faithfully and patiently caring for him throughout his struggles. There are depictions of Job's wife in ancient works of art, where we see her feeding Job bread, standing by his side. In one ancient version of the story, she cuts off her hair and sells it in order to buy bread for Job, who has lost everything.
It's also worth remembering that even in our biblical version of the story, Job's wife endures much of the same loss and grief that he does--she loses her children, her home, her livelihood. And in many ways, while he rages against God, lost in grief, she loses her husband as well. Job is renowned for his patience, but really, his patience runs out after chapter two, and he spends most of the book crying out in anger and frustration. Job's wife suffers in relative silence, and so perhaps she deserves the patience award far more than he.
At the end of the story, Job's fortunes are restored. We read that Job gets new cows, new sheep, new camels, new children...but nothing about a new wife. I think we can safely assume that the new children did not come from Job on his own. The implication here is that, although silently, Job's wife has remained with him through everything. Through sorrow and through joy. Through loss and through gain. And he, in turn, has remained with her.
That's the love story in the Book of Job. And it's a lot more love than you'll find in a box of chocolates wrapped with red celophane on Valentine's day.
But I think there's something else here, as well. I think there's a metaphor for us; for our own relationships and our own love stories. Because too often, in those relationships, so much is lost in translation, even just from one person to another. Too often, one thing is said, and another thing entirely is heard. Too often, we interpret our own love stories on the basis of who we think is the good guy or the bad guy. Who is right, and who is wrong. We are always the noble protagonist in our own version of the story, and everyone else is the obstacle.
But when we do that, our love stories get lost beneath a dark cloud of misunderstanding, perceived rudeness, sarcasm, and anger. Too often, when the going gets tough, the tough check out. I'm done with this. I'm done listening, I'm done translating, I'm done caring. And so we miss out on the happy ending that was further down the road.
Here's where we can learn a lesson from our ancient text: The story of Job and his wife can only be a love story, if we treat both of its characters with dignity. It can only be a love story if we listen closely to both voices, in words spoken and unspoken, in cries of anger as well as steadfast silence. It can only be a love story if we give them both the benefit of the doubt.
This is the foundation for real-life love stories too:
Listen carefully to each other; to what is said, and to the silences in between.
Treat each other with dignity; always give the benefit of the doubt.
Most of all, stand patiently (as well as impatiently) beside each other through the years, through the darkness as well as the light.
Happy Valentine's Day.