Sermon for November 15th, 2020

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Job Chapter 1

Today's scripture reading is interspersed into the sermon itself.

Counting Camels II: Job's 3,000

One day, a curious baby camel was asking his mother a never-ending stream of questions: “Mom, why do we have such huge feet with three toes?” His mother patiently replied, “Our large feet help us walk through the desert. Our three toes stay on top of the soft sand.”

“Ah. I see. And why do we have such long eyelashes?" “To keep the sand out our eyes on our long walks in the desert.” “And Why do we have these giant humps on our backs?” “They help us store energy, so we can go several days through the desert without food.” The baby camel thinks of all this for a little while, and then says, "Mom?" "Yes, dear?" "What the heck are we doing in the San Diego Zoo?"

Today we are right in the middle of a three-part sermon series called "Counting Camels," in which we examine several bible passages about this famous Middle-Eastern animal, the camel. The camel was a valuable resource in the ancient world, and serves as a metaphor for our own resources--how we gain them, account for them, use them, and (in today's scripture passage) sometimes lose them.

As I noted last week, camels are mentioned around 65 times in the Bible, usually in lists or catalogues of an important person's wealth. Abraham had at least 10 camels. His grandson Jacob had 30. The Queen of Sheba is said to have had "a very great retinue" of camels, and the King of Damascus had at least 40 camels. When the Israelites were in captivity in Babylon, the prophet Isaiah predicted that they would someday return to Jerusalem with "a multitude of camels." Years later, when this came to pass, the books of Ezra and Nehemiah both record that number as 435 camels that the children of Israel brought with them to rebuild the holy city.

But no single person in the Bible has more camels than Job, the main character of the book which bears his name.

Job 1, verses 1-3: 1 "There was once a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job. That man was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil. 2 There were born to him seven sons and three daughters. 3 He had seven thousand sheep, three thousand camels, five hundred yoke of oxen, five hundred donkeys, and very many servants; so that this man was the greatest of all the people of the east."

The nice, round numbers of animals (three thousand, seven thousand, one thousand, five hundred) in this catalogue have led many biblical scholars to conclude that this is a fabricated list, kind of like saying that some one today is a "kajillionnaire." And many have speculated that the entire Book of Job is a parable--a made-up story of an insanely wealthy man told in order to make a point.

But interestingly enough, those who think that the character of Job has some basis in reality often point to the camels in this list as proof. If this were just a made-up list of animals to demonstrate wealth, 500 camels would be a more likely number for the author to use, in keeping with the number of donkeys or cows, and in keeping with other similar lists in the Bible.

3,000 camels is far more than necessary to show off, and at some point past 500, it would actually cost more to keep that many camels than they would be worth as a display of wealth. Unless...the camels were the primary source of Job's wealth, his income, and his business. Camels (then as now) were used primarily for transportation of goods across the desert, and this has led some scholars to conclude that Job might be a realistic portrayal of an ancient Transportation Tycoon, like the modern day CEO of an airline company or a freight trucking company.

This might give you some idea of Job's wealth. If each camel in his fleet were the modern-day equivalent of the average tractor-trailer rig, Job's net worth would be somewhere around 750 million dollars. And if a camel were the modern-day equivalent of a commercial airplane, Job's fleet would be worth about 75 billion US dollars (which would put Job's transportation company right in the middle of the top ten most valuable companies in the world today).

Perhaps there is something to the Bible's claim that Job was, indeed, "the greatest of all the people of the East."

With that in mind, we now continue our story, skipping down a few paragraphs to verse 13:

"One day when his sons and daughters were eating and drinking wine in the eldest brother’s house, 14 a messenger came to Job and said, “The oxen were plowing and the donkeys were feeding beside them, 15 and the Sabeans fell on them and carried them off, and killed the servants with the edge of the sword; I alone have escaped to tell you.” 16 While he was still speaking, another came and said, “The fire of God fell from heaven and burned up the sheep and the servants, and consumed them; I alone have escaped to tell you.” 17 While he was still speaking, another came and said, “The Chaldeans formed three columns, made a raid on the camels and carried them off, and killed the servants with the edge of the sword; I alone have escaped to tell you.” 18 While he was still speaking, another came and said, “Your sons and daughters were eating and drinking wine in their eldest brother’s house, 19 and suddenly a great wind came across the desert, struck the four corners of the house, and it fell on the young people, and they are dead; I alone have escaped to tell you.”

While our focus today is on the camels, I have no doubt that the most terrible news Job received that day was the loss of his children. The narrative is structured so that Job's losses get worse and worse with each messenger. First he loses the oxen and the donkeys (work animals, but not his main business). Then he loses the sheep (probably the main source of food for Job, his family, and his large retinue of servants/employees). Next to last he loses the camels--another sign that they are the most important of all his material possessions. And finally, most devastatingly, he loses his seven sons and three daughters.

I have preached many times before on the grief and sorrow Job experiences at this loss, and it is considerable. But today I want to focus on the loss of Job's material resources--the camels. It may not have been his greatest loss, but it's a loss that some of us can identify with. If you've ever lost a job, a house, a car, or an investment--it can be devastating in its own way, and it can cause you to question the whole idea of a benevolent, loving God who takes care of us and provides for us.

When I was in high school, my parents invested all of their life savings into our family business--along with my grandparents, my aunt, and probably quite a few other family members. It was (ironically) a travel agency, and the late 80s and early 90s were not a good time to be in that industry--airlines were experimenting with direct booking of flights, and this new thing called the internet was making it easier for people to bypass the middle-men (which is what travel agencies are). Some agencies survived that change. My family's business did not. They lost everything. My parents sold our Mercedes station wagon, and our five bedroom house in the upper valley, and moved into a small three-bedroom house in the northeast. A three-bedroom house for a family with four kids. My dad was unemployed and underemployed for about three years before he finally found a job in Austin, where my family moved (I was already in college by then). My grandparents sold their house and moved into a small apartment. My mom had to come out of retirement and start working full-time again. My parents had planned to pay for my college education, but I had to do that myself, and so did my sister and my brothers.

No one in our family died from that loss, thankfully, but it affected us all in profound ways that I'm only just now beginning to understand as an adult. I have often wondered what our lives would have been like if my family hadn't lost the business. Sometimes I drive by our old house in the upper valley and imagine my parents are still there, living out their retirement in comfort and ease.

Getting back to our story, what was Job's response when he lost everything he owned, all of his investments and business capital, his livelihood and his loved ones? Verse 20:

Then Job arose, tore his robe, shaved his head, and fell on the ground and worshiped.

The NRSV translates the Hebrew word שָׁחָה (shachah) as "worshiped" but it can also mean simply to lie down, to crumble, to plant your face in the dirt. That would be understandable. But what Job says next comes next comes as a bit of a surprise. Verse 21:

21 He said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return there; the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.”

There's still some ambiguity in this passage. The Hebrew word for "blessed" (בָרַךְ - barak) is, confusingly, the same as the Hebrew word for "cursed" but I think it's pretty clear from the context that Job--the wealthiest, most successful man in the Ancient East--at least has some sense of where all of his material resources came from, and the impermanence of these things in an unpredictable world. He wasn't born with 3,000 camels, and you can't take 3,000 camels with you when you die.

Verse 22: In all this Job did not sin or charge God with wrongdoing.

There is some pretty profound wisdom in that last statement. I've noticed that when we are most successful, we tend to take credit for our success: I worked hard to earn everything I have. But when things go wrong, we tend to place the blame elsewhere: God, how could YOU do this to me? How could YOU let this happen?. Rarely do I ever hear someone say the opposite: God gave me everything, but I lost it.

Job, at least, is consistent: How can I blame God for taking back what always belonged to him in the first place?

Job's story is far from over--as noble as his words sound here, he goes on for about 40 more chapters, mourning and grieving and questioning God. God never explains WHY Job suffers such great loss, but God never abandons Job either. Job eventually comes to accept that he will never understand God's ways, but he still chooses to believe that God is good and merciful--whether you have 3,000 camels or zero.

In the very last chapter of the Book of Job (chapter 42), we read that the Lord restored the fortunes of Job, and among other things, in his old age he had 6,000 camels. I don't think God necessarily "poofed" them into existence instantaneously; Job probably had to work hard in order to rebuild all that he had lost. But the Lord blessed him in that work, and more importantly, I think, the Lord blessed him in his humble attitude; Job's consistent belief that God alone is the giver--and taker--of all good things.

This is a message of hope for many of us in the year 2020--a year of tremendous losses. Loss of employment, loss of investment, loss of community, and loss of life. We have a lot of rebuilding to do in the years to come--as a church, as a community, as a world. But we know that God blesses those efforts when we do our part and acknowledge where all of our resources come from, and to whom they all return in the end.

As you "count your camels" and take stock of your resources at the end of this challenging year, I hope you can still say, along with Job, "Blessed be the name of the Lord." And then consider all the ways in which you can still use whatever resources you have in service to God, to others, and a faith that does not waver through gain or through loss.