Sermon for March 4th, 2022
Job 2:7-9 (NRSV)
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.
Job's Wife: Bless God and Die
Every year during the season of Lent, it has been my custom to preach on the Book of Job. Why? I think it's probably the most un-read, misunderstood, and under-appreciated book of the Bible today. But that hasn't always been the case. The famous victorian poet Lord Alfred Tennyson once called the Book of Job "the greatest poem of ancient and modern times." And Victor Hugo, who wrote the novel Les Misarables, once wrote that "Tomorrow, if all literature was to be destroyed and it was left to me to retain one work only, I would save Job."
If you grew up in the church, or read the Bible, you probably already know (or at least think you know) the main outline of Job's story. It usually gets told something like this:
Job is a righteous and prosperous man. But one day God and Satan are arguing up in the heavens and they make a bet: To prove what a righteous man Job is, God allows Satan to afflict him, stripping him of his property, his children, and eventually his health. Job's so-called friends come to comfort him, but end up judging him (so the story goes), and all the while Job is steadfast or "patient" in his faith in God. Eventually God restores his health, gives him new children, and doubles his wealth. Game over, happy ending, roll the credits.
It's a great story...the problem is, that's not really the story that's in the Bible. The Book of Job is 42 chapters long, and most people just read the first two chapters and then skip to the end. Job is patient for two chapters, but then he totally loses it. He curses the day he was born, and accuses God of all sorts of horrible things that no God-fearing, righteous man would ever dare say.
But there's more: There are other characters, too, other voices in the Book of Job besides the "main characters." These minor characters are just as much misunderstood, just as misjudged (perhaps more so!), and just as much worth hearing and considering as the rest of the book. So for each one of the next five weeks of Lent, we'll consider one of these neglected voices from one of the most powerful, beautiful, misunderstood books of the Bible.
We begin today with Job's wife. She's the only one of our five minor characters who doesn't have a name, and that's probably significant. She's just...Job's wife. She only gets one verse in the story; in the Hebrew text, that's just six short words. And they seem, at least on the face of it, to be pretty negative words: ‘Do you still persist in your integrity? Curse God, and die.’ Job's wife comes to her husband at his lowest, most desperate moment, offers him a sarcastic question, then urges him to commit blasphemy, the unforgivable sin. Not very nice.
Negative Views of Job's Wife
- Junius Bassus Sarcophogus, AD 359.
- Job & Wife next to Adam & Eve
- Note the comparison: Job = Adam; Job's Wife = Eve; Satan between them both
- Like Eve, Job's wife is seen as a source of temptation
- Augustine calls her diaboli adiutrix, the "devil's helper"
- John Calvin calls her "an instrument of Satan...a she-devil...a fiend of hell."
Let me be honest: This view of Job's wife was certainly the mainstream interpretation throughout most of Christian history, and it continues to be the majority view today. However, in the words of Job scholar Leong Seow (from whose work about 90% of this sermon's content is derived), there is a minority report.
The Minority Report
For our minority report, I'd like to start in the late 15th-16th century (the time of Calvin and the Reformation) and work our way backwards. Eventually, I'll return to our Biblical text itself.
- Georges de La Tour, a French Baroque painter known for his moving portraits of Biblical characters
- Job Mocked by His Wife - Not the original title, was added later by others
- Note her tenderness, sign made by left hand, her candle, and her red dress -- all motifs in La Tour's work indicating piety and faithfulness
- Albrect Durer, German Renaissance artist, friends with Raphael & DaVinci
- Jarbach Altarpiece
- Dousing with cold water...act of hostility or mercy? (Also note Satan running to fire)
- 13th Century Picture Bible from Northeastern France
- Is she slapping him upside the head...or holding his head up as together they watch their tragedy?
- Which raises the point...Job was not the only one who suffered loss.
In other Writings
- Job's Wife in Islam. Job is revered as a prophet in Islam, and his story appears in the Qur'an. It's pretty much the same story, but there are a few variations, particularly where Job's wife is concerned. For one thing, she has a name: Rahma, which means "grace." She is viewed as Job's helper (rather than Satan's helper), and she cares for him throughout his suffering. She is also honored with him at the end of the story when all of his (and her) fortunes are restored.
- The Testament of Job was a version of the Job story that was written in Greek right around the 1st century--the time of Christ. It is possible that Jesus himself may have been familiar with this version of the story. It was extremely popular, and influenced many artists and theologians for several centuries. In this version of the story, Job's wife is named Sitidos, which means "giver of bread," and this is what she does. She holds out bread on a stick to feed Job without getting too close to his diseased body. She also sells her hair in the marketplace (a disgrace for a woman of high standing) in order to buy bread to feed Job. (Notice Job's wife has short hair in the Junius Bassus Sarcophagus, indicating likely influence of the Testament of Job).
- The Septuagint (or "Old Greek")is a 3rd Century BCE translation of the Old Testament into Greek. It became the primary translation of the scriptures for all of early Christianity. In fact, the Septuagint is the translation that Paul uses when he quotes the scriptures, as well as Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. In other words, the Septuagint was THE bible during the time of Jesus and the New Testament. In the Septuagint, the Book of Job was actually 20% shorter than our modern version, but there are also a few verses that end up longer. Remember Job's wife's really short speech? In the Septuagint...it's about three times as long. Job's wife has a much better speech here. She reminds Job that, unlike him, she has had a "double" pain--the pain of childbirth as well as the pain of losing their children. She also reminds him that while he sits on his dung hill all day and night lost in his grief, someone has to go out and work like a slave to keep them both fed. But EVEN with all this, notice she STILL does not tell her husband to curse God and die. In the Septuagint, the Bible of Paul and the Apostles, Job's wife tells him to "say some word to the Lord and die." Just say something. Just speak to the Lord. Get it off your chest. And this is exactly what Job does. He takes her advice...for the next 38 chapters.
In the Bible
And so here we are back at the our scripture passage today. In Hebrew, just six words. In English two phrases. Let's work our way backwards through them again, starting with Job's response to his wife. I think this is why we tend to judge her so harshly. Job says that she speaks like a foolish woman, and we know from the beginning of the book that Job has been deemed by God to be a righteous man. If he's righteous, he must be right to call her foolish, right? Not so fast. Being righteous is not the same thing as being right. Job may be a righteous man, but even he gets rebuked by God before the story is over. Job's friends get rebuked by God. Satan gets rebuked by God. In fact, the only two characters who don't get rebuked by God are Elihu (we'll talk about him in week 5) and...Job's wife. Given this fact, we shouldn't be too quick to side with Job in calling his wife a foolish woman.
The harshest thing Job's wife seems to say, the thing she is most remembered for is when she says "Curse God and die." But let's look at that word, "Curse." In the original Hebrew, the word is בָּרַךְ (baraq) and it literally means "to bless." Wait, what?? That's the opposite of curse! Yes. It is. Now the truth is, sometimes the word is used euphemistically. Texans understand this: There's Bless your little heart, and then there's "Bless" your little heart. Nevertheless, whether it means bless or curse, the word is one and the same in wherever it appears in the bible, and when a reader comes across it, he or she has to decide which meaning to apply. Except, when you read it in translation, the translator (not the author) has already made that decision for you, most likely based on a pre-existing centuries-old negative view of Job's wife.
I'd like to ask the question, what if? What if she really meant "bless?" What if Job's wife, seeing the agony and suffering that her husband is enduring, is speaking to him out of mercy, telling him it's ok to let go, just bless the Lord one more time, and then be at peace? It is interesting to note that at the end of chapter one, the Bible says "In all this Job did not Sin." But this time, at the end of this passage, the Bible says "In all this, Job did not sin...with his lips." So if Job's wife actually tells him to "bless God" rather than curse God, and if Job is beginning to form some of those angry thoughts towards the Lord that he will express in the next chapters, the idea of actually blessing God might sound to him a little...foolish, prompting a hasty response.
One last point in the text, and then I'll wrap things up. Job's wife begins her short speech with a sarcastic question: "Do you still persist in your integrity?" There's just one problem with assuming this is a sarcastic question. It may not even be a question at all! That's because in ancient Hebrew, there is no such thing as a question mark. Like the bless/curse thing, you have to look at the context and decide if something sounds like a question or not. Several years ago, I asked a friend of mine (who happens to be a Jewish Rabbi) to read that passage for me, and he did: "You still persist in your integrity." Period. Uh oh. So what does a translator do if his theological view of Job's wife cannot allow him to accept that an evil agent of Satan could possibly have anything good to say? Well, he adds a question mark and makes her sound sarcastic.
What's really fascinating though, is that we have heard these very words before, but not in the mouth of Job's wife. We've heard them in the mouth of Almighty God, who at the beginning of this chapter, in verse 3, tells Satan "Have you considered my servant Job?... He still persists in his integrity, although you incited me against him." He still persists in his integrity. Job cannot hear those words spoken in the heavenly council, so God puts them in the mouth of the person who is closest to him: "You've lost everything else, my husband, but you still have your integrity." Seen in this light, Job's wife is once again the agent of divine grace, the dedicated helper and caretaker, the comforting voice of God...and Job... completely misses it. That's ok, so have most of us.
So What? (Practical Application)
Alright. Now to wrap all this up, or at least give us some things we can take home.
- First: Even though there is a long history within Christianity of using the Bible to subjugate and demean women...it's probably not a good idea, and it's almost certainly not what God had in mind. There's an old saying here: God did not create woman from the bone of man's foot to be underneath him, nor from the bone of his head to Lord it over him. God created woman from the bone of man's side, to be his equal, and his partner in all things. The story of Job's wife reminds us of this: Equality is not always easy to see or even attain...but it is part of God's plan.
- Second: The story of Job's wife also reminds us, I think, not to judge people too quickly. Some people suffer loudly and visibly (like Job), and some suffer in silence, their stories untold without some digging under the surface. Context is everything, and what seems like harsh criticism can sometimes be words spoken in love. What seems like a curse can sometimes be a blessing.
- Finally, and most importantly: When God sends suffering, he also sends grace. When God sends trouble, he also sends help. God took away almost everything from Job. Almost. But he left Job with the one person who (I believe) loved him most, even though Job couldn't see it.
Sometimes it's hard to see where the love is in the midst of our tragedies.
Sometimes it's hard to see where the help is in the midst of our troubles.
Sometimes it's hard to see where God is, when we think we're all alone in the world.
But God is always there, usually much much closer than we realize, and often in those unseen faces, in those unheard voices, in the places and people we least expect.