The Rev’d Dr Lynn Arnold AO
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
While ancient traditions had it that Moses wrote the Book of Job, subsequent scholarship suggests that it was written between the 8th and 6th centuries before Christ. That suggests therefore that the main character of the book, Job, would have been aware of the Psalms. It is therefore open to conjecture what Job, at the height of his travails, might have thought of verse 4 from our Psalm tonight:
What are we, that you should be mindful of us:
What are we that you should care for us?
I am tempted to think that Job, at the Chapter 3 stage of his life, could easily have felt the impulse to say:
Are you kidding me, God? You are mindful of me and caring for me? I have lost everything while you have looked on, and I should praise you?
The reading from the Book of Job this evening brought to mind the Fire Drill episode of Fawlty Towers where, as per usual, circumstances have conspired against Basil Fawlty whose subterranean exasperation with the world erupts into a declamation shouted with fist clenched and face glaring upward:
O thank you, God, thank you so very bloody much.
Reading of the travails of Job certainly does seem to test one’s assessment of the divine intention in our lives. So what are we to draw, from a perspective of faith, from these travails? At the outset, we need to reflect for a moment on Job himself. Was he a real person?
Back in 1990 I visited Sanliurfa, in southeastern Turkey, in Turkish Kurdistan. The name Sanliurfa translates as the Holy City of Urfa for it has many sites said to have been associated with ancient personalities reported on in the scriptures of the Abrahamic faiths. There are sites relating to Abraham, Lot and Jacob amongst others; but there are also sites relating to Job. In one of those, in Job’s Garden, at Eyyub Peyambar, I stood near where tradition has it that Job cleansed himself with water from the spring after he had taken shelter in a cave in the wake of his affliction by worms.
So am I saying this proves that Job, or Eyyub, was a real person? That I stood in a garden where he had stood millennia ago? No I am not saying that; for while I acknowledge that centuries of devotees have been to this spot, simple longevity of tradition need not prove anything. Indeed there are also sites in other parts of the Middle East that claim Job as theirs – such as Ashkelon in Palestine, al-Shaykh Saad in Syria and Salalah in Oman. Of course Job could have been very well travelled, except that three of those claim to contain his tomb.
To claim that Job was a real person is a proposition that can be looked at in two ways. Firstly, it could be claimed that there was a real person named Job who was married, though we don’t know his wife’s name. That they lived in Uz and had, at the outset of the narrative, seven sons and three daughters. He was wealthy, possessing 7,000 sheep, 3,000 camels, 500 pair of oxen and a large number of servants; indeed he was apparently the “richest person in the East” [1:3]. An alternative approach would claim that there was indeed a person who had been very wealthy and who had lost everything. Furthermore that person, in the wake of the disasters that beset him and his family, went through not just a psychological crisis but a spiritual one and, after a time, came out of it the better for it.
It is in the frame of this second proposition that I am going to make the assertion that Job was indeed a real person – or at least was a real person in a generic sense that probabilities alone assure us that there must have been in ancient times a person who was, by all observable standards, a good, devout and wealthy person; and that this person was, at some point, afflicted to the point of losing everything that was near and dear to him by a series of calamities that would end in his being brought to his knees in despair. And that in his despair, he felt that everything he had believed in had failed to assist him.
Returning to John Cleese for a moment, as we consider the remorseless flow of calamity upon calamity that befell Job, I am reminded of that moment in the movie “Clockwise” where Brian Stimson, the character played by Cleese, has watched his life remorselessly unravel at the very time in his career when he was invited to ascend the mountain of success. The movie follows that unravelling by depicting trouble upon trouble befalling him; all of these troubles being largely through no fault of his own. Finally, and you have to have seen the movie to know how this seminal moment is arrived at, we see Stimson, dressed in a monk’s garb, sitting by the side of the road with one of the pupils from the secondary school where he was the acclaimed principal, quietly groaning:
It’s not the despair, Laura. I can take the despair. It’s the hope I can’t stand.
What is bleakly humorous about John Cleese as Stimson is that we can relate with the story; for we know that, comically extreme as it is, it echoes a reality of the human condition. We know that there are circumstances where the lives of people can collapse through no apparent cause of their own. In Cleese we find ourselves laughing; but the brutal reality is that in real life, this is how so many tragedies of existence unfold. And that the certain reality that such circumstances can exist in the human condition can lead me to say with assurance that, at the time the Book of Job was written, Job existed, or at least a Job – for, through all the history of humankind, there have surely been many Jobs. The Biblical book of Job tells the story of such Jobs and seeks to take from their travails, some edification.
What edification should we take from this fictional yet historical story?
To answer that, we need to consider the times in which the story was written. At that time, much of the world was pantheist or animist in their beliefs. Two fundamental principles come from such beliefs. Firstly that there is or are spirit forces greater than mere mortals; and secondly, those spirits are not benign, they are, at the very least, capricious, and certainly in constant need of placation. They do not reach out to the objects of their creation, they expect to be worshipped by them.
It is into this theological perspective, that the Book of Job throws itself. Chapter Two’s relating of capricious divinity toying with a hapless mortal is entirely consistent with prevailing views of the time. Why else would early religions instigate animist practices of sacrifice and placation? The message to the animist or pantheist of the time was to stay as unobserved as possible from the spirit forces; and when contact could not be avoided, seek to placate.
The story of Job, however, challenged such a view of the divine and through a story of innocent victimhood would have provided a Gestalt view of God – a sudden flip in understanding, an ‘Aha!’ moment, where God would be seen in an entirely new way. For while the opening chapters suggest a capricious deity, the whole Book of Job evolves into a story not just of God and human relating, but of God desiring that his creation would have a right relationship with Him. So the book would have redefined the nature of God for many people at that time. And, in a mirror image, so too was the nature of being human redefined. We see this redefinition starting to happen in Chapter three.
The operative question behind all Job’s commentary in Chapter 3 is “Why?” … so here is a commentary that poses a dialogue with God; which means that now a human could entertain the possibility of talking with God. But the why was not “Why, God?” but a more existential “why am I?”. I mentioned at the start Basil Fawlty’s declamation “O thank you God” – but in fact Basil was no Job. Basil followed the approach encouraged by Job’s wife, not that of Job. Near the end of the second chapter Job’s wife had said to him:
Why don’t you curse God and die?
By so suggesting, Job’s wife had immediately transposed the locus of the metaphysical question to God; however, Job focussed it on himself. In his commentary Job did pose his questions to God but for the most part they are not about God as such. Listen to these words:
Why did I not die at birth … why were there knees to receive me …. why was I not buried like a stillborn child?
There are only two questions in this chapter pointedly directed at God. In both these Job plays with the duality of light and darkness and God’s power to create or constrain the light:
May God above not seek (darkness) or light shine upon it.
Why is light given to one who cannot see the way, whom God has fenced in?
As I was preparing for this sermon, the philosopher cartoonist, Michael Leunig, somehow came to mind. It may be because we have at home a lithograph that he did of Jonah in the mouth of the whale – a whimsical piece but one that has been helpful in considering that Biblical story. It led me to wonder if Leunig had had anything to say or draw about a character equally as fascinating as Jonah, namely Job.
So even though I have not yet met Michael, I thought I would, through the internet, make a cold call on him. I asked him if he had ever done anything on Job and in particular on Job’s declamations in Chapter 3. Very graciously Michael Leunig took the time to respond to me; first the day after my message he wrote saying that he hadn’t done anything on Job to date but, finding the chapter particularly interesting, he would reflect on it. Then last night he sent me this:
Lynn, sorry to be so late with this – and it is not very much I offer – if anything at all. I am hugely impressed with Job’s full articulation of his utter despair – and his acceptance and resignation of such. There is something divine in this courage and frankness; in such visionary bleakness – such revelation of inner darkness and lament. If we are to sense the divine or indeed our own divinity – surely it can only be realised in truly knowing and declaring the full spectrum of our aliveness – which includes the utter pain of personal existence. There is a quality of self-crucifixion in his despair – a sense of spiritual death from which he may rise and by which he may be redeemed or refreshed and re-invigorated. There is divine courage in owning up with equanimity to an inner darkness that all would recognise but few would dare face or confess to. In so doing he deepens and expands the human sense of God. He discovers and illuminates a great spiritual spaciousness. He illuminates darkness and thus becomes divine.
I found Michael Leunig’s comments very helpful, for they helped articulate why I should feel the contemporary reality of the Job of Scripture and the power of its narrative about God and humanity.
Leunig uses the word ‘divine’ as a descriptor of the totality of God and His creation. He also writes of the “human sense” of God. Another description of his is “the full spectrum of our aliveness”. Through these words, Leunig defines not only the totality of human experience but also contextualises it in a union with the divine. This would have been radically different from prevailing views in the ancient times of the Job of Scripture; for such a view would have been alien to animist and pantheist views of the relationship of the spirit world with the natural world – for them there was no union with the divine.
But so too can it be radically different for us. For despite all, even at the height of his travails, Job “did not … accuse God of doing wrong” [1:22]. His not doing so was not a failure of omission on his part but a deliberative act. For, through it all, Job must still have believed in a God who reached out to him, engaged with him and, in a metaphysically paradoxical way, believed in him; and so, armed with such knowledge, Job would have rephrased Stimson’s words:
It’s not the hope – I can take the hope. It’s the despair I can’t stand.
And that is the sentiment that Job expressed in our reading tonight. Because of that sentiment, verse 4 from our Psalm tonight would not have been an offense to Job but would truly have spoken to him:
What are we, that you should be mindful of us:
What are we that you should care for us?