Over the past weeks, the Episcopal Daily Office has featured the Book of Job for its Old Testament readings. Although many scholars agree that the events in this book never actually occurred, Job’s story is famous, often referred to and frequently invoked when people experience difficulty and despair.
“Think of Job” we are told when we feel aggrieved. Job suffered and never denied God. And, of course, Job was rewarded in the end. Even so-called non-believers remind us and themselves of this long-suffering hero who loses everything and then gets it back again.
The story of Job has no key part in the story of the Jewish people. Job is related to no one in Jewish history, he does not seem to have a place in any tribe. Perhaps he was one of the ones warning Pharaoh of impending doom, or perhaps he wasn't. He is not the link in any narrative thread. He is an outlier, a stand-alone.
But you can’t keep a good story down, so this wonderful book is part of our Canon and is told, albeit in a shortened version, in churches today. Job is wonderful. He’s George Clooney, Bill Moyers and Elizabeth II all rolled into one. He’s generous, fair, loving and rich. Everyone who encounters him, even briefly, goes away blessed. Until it all ends.
Job loses everything and can’t understand why. He suffers for no cause that he can discern. His friends urge him to look within for his fault. His own wife advises him to curse God. These supporting characters are almost comical in their blindness. They can see only one reason for Job’s suffering. He must have done something. God rewards the good and punishes the bad.
This thinking is not so far off from the prosperity gospel that is preached in far too many churches today. The purpose of religion is to win God’s approval which is worth actually very little intrinsically but is extremely valuable in the benefits that accrue to the believer. Job’s earlier life attested to this. His virtue and wealth were in balance. If one of these goes south, the other must have diminished as well.
Job’s search for answers is heart breaking. He sifts through every aspect of his life, every shred of doctrine known to him but finds nothing to explain what he sees as God’s sudden change of heart. “I know that my redeemer lives” he claims, and this famous sentence is prayed at our funerals to this day. His love for God and his faith in God’s goodness stand firm. He feels that God is far from him in his suffering, but he knows he has nowhere else to turn. Where else can he go? Just as Peter said when some followers turned away and Jesus wondered if they, too, would leave, “Lord, to whom shall we go?” (John 6:68), so does Job know that God alone can satisfy him.
Finally God comes to him. “Dress for action, like a man” demands God. “I will question you and you will answer me.” And thus begins one of the most powerful discourses in all of Scripture.
After a stream of rhetorical questions, such as “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? Tell me if you understand” to which he has no answer, Job capitulates to God’s eternal wisdom and power. God then restores Job to his former wealth and status. In fact, he gets twice what he had before.
To satisfy his readers, Charles Dickens added a second ending to Great Expectations in which Pip, the hero, marries a kinder gentler Estella. The first ending had them parting cordially and was, for me, much truer to character and story. In my view, someone did the same thing to the Book of Job. Someone’s idea of a happy ending was totally earth-bound.
I do not begrudge Job his newly restored riches and reputation, but I do begrudge the story’s abrupt ending and the implication that wealth is reward for suffering. In my opinion, the reward for Job's suffering is the magnificent one-on-one with God that Job was granted. God spent 125 verses speaking with Job. The entire discourse takes up 135 verses. What would you endure for 135 verses with God?
I ask myself what did Job value after all this torment? Did he look with pleasure on his riches, his flocks, his charming new family? Or did he recall with joy and awe his 135 verses with the Almighty? What had the real value for him, his vast estate or his intimacy with his Creator?