Immersion, inspired by a fresh translation--the Common English Bible--stands firmly on Scripture and helps readers explore the emotional, spiritual, and intellectual needs of their personal faith. More importantly, they’ll be able to discover God’s revelation through readings and reflections.
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Immersion Bible Studies: Job
By Lee A. Schott, Stan Purdum
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2011 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
Weathering the Storm
Claim Your Story
When I was a girl growing up on an Iowa farm, I was terrified of thunderstorms. The approach of a storm caused the leaves on the big old cottonwood tree to whisper eerily, different from the usual summer breeze. The hair on the back of my neck would rise; and I'd hunker down inside the house, watching the gathering clouds through tall windows that faced west, toward the storm's approach.
It didn't help that a long-unused north door on this old farmhouse emitted a frightening, wailing hum whenever the winds grew strong. Mom would tell me not to be afraid, but I could not help cowering and trembling.
My father had a different reaction to the storm. In those days before tornado sirens, Dad would stand outside the front door where he could see the whole sky. He would sometimes hurry us down to the cool, dank basement, just to be safe; but he was ever calm and sure. When the worst was past, he would come and muss my hair, saying, "See? There wasn't anything to worry about."
However, there was reason for worry! I had seen The Wizard of Oz. We've all seen the news footage of homes destroyed by cyclone-force winds. The storm may come for us. How will we weather it?
Enter the Bible Story
To read the Book of Job, we almost have to begin before the beginning. Before we can begin to read it well, it may be necessary to remember, and then set to one side, what we know of this book. Then we can start fresh, reading the book that is actually before us, and engage the questions it is actually asking.
What do you know about Job? In popular culture, the character Job is often identified with patience. "That woman has the patience of Job," we might hear someone say, reflecting on how gracefully she has borne problems with her boss, her family, or her health. Knowing that, we might come to this text with the expectation of finding Job to be a model of patience; and we will find patience here—in a way.
However, if we come to this book with only that expectation, we're likely to miss the other things that Job was. If it is true that Job was patient, it's also true that Job was hurt and disappointed. He was impatient at times, and his words were often aggressive and angry. If we read with the thought that the most important thing about Job was his patience, then we'll miss most of what happens in this book.
So take a moment to let go of what you know about Job, and prepare yourself to enter this book that is beckoning you actually to read it. Go into the text open to the questions that await you. You will find that there are many. The questions of Job are questions that lurk at the heart of our faith: about storms, faithfulness, and the character of God. These questions are not for the faint of heart. Strap yourself in—we're in for a wild ride!
Once Upon a Time
Take a minute to look through the Book of Job. You'll quickly notice that the first two chapters read like a story. After that, you'll see many long chapters that look like poetry, until the prose returns late in the book.
The story begins in a way that seems familiar to us. "A man in the land of Uz was named Job." Another translation of verse 1 begins, "There was once a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job" (New Revised Standard Version). These words sound like the beginning of a fairy tale. Once upon a time, there was a man, and his name was Job.
So is this book a fairy tale or, more appropriately, a fable? It is not certain whether a man named Job actually lived and, if so, exactly when and where. There may have been a man named Job whose story forms the central kernel of the book we are reading. It's possible.
The literary style of Job, though, suggests that the details of this story are not intended to be taken as a literal historical report. We are not reading about the specific life and conversations of a real man who lived in a definite place and time. Moreover, the name Job is not a familiar Jewish name, nor can the location of Uz be pinpointed.
To the book's original readers, these opening words would be like us, today, reading of a man named Hiram who lived in a place called Neverland. Such a beginning says, "This story happened long ago and far away." This kind of story, then, invites us to engage our imagination rather than rely on our knowledge of a particular historical setting. To read Job is to enter into a story and live with the questions it intends to explore.
First, we are introduced to Job. Job, we are told, was a man of "absolute integrity" who was honest and faithful and avoided evil (1:1). Job had prospered; and we are treated to a description of his family of seven sons and three daughters, his holdings of 7,000 sheep and 3,000 camels, and hundreds of oxen and donkeys. The round numbers and symmetry here are intentional, and we are not surprised when the narrator reports that Job was "greater than all the people" of his land (1:3).
We don't know a lot about Job's religious customs except that he made an effort to shield even his children from God's wrath, in case any excess or impropriety at their birthday feasts caused them to sin and "[curse] God in their hearts" (1:5). One can only assume that this solicitous care for his children was just one element of Job's robust religious practice.
A question about Job emerges, though, from an unexpected quarter. In verse 6, the scene shifts from Uz to God's divine council. The divine beings were gathering before the Lord, and among them appeared the Adversary. The Adversary's role was to ferret out unfaithfulness and bring it before God. When God pointed to Job as the epitome of devotion, the Adversary asked a critical question: "Why wouldn't Job be faithful, with all you've given him? Take away all that he has, and he will sing a different tune!" (1:10-11, paraphrased).
The Adversary's question drives the drama of Job. What would Job do when everything he valued was taken from him? Would he remain faithful to God? Would we?
God apparently found this question worthy of a test. Was Job's faith contingent on the abundant blessings God had provided? God gave the Adversary permission to find out, saying, "Look, all he has is within your power; only don't stretch out your hand against him [that is, don't harm him bodily]" (1:12). Soon messengers came to Job, reporting the loss of oxen, sheep, camels, and servants, from enemy raids and fire from the sky. A fourth messenger came bearing even weightier news from the house where Job's sons and daughters had been feasting: "A strong wind came from the desert and struck the four corners of the house. It fell upon the young people, and they died" (1:19).
We can only imagine Job's grief. He performed traditional acts of mourning: tearing his clothes, shaving his head, falling to the ground, and worshiping (1:20). His words, though, continued to express loyalty to God (1:21). It seems for a moment that Job had passed the Adversary's test.
Soon the Adversary was back before God, though, and he upped the ante. God pointed out his loyal servant Job, whose integrity persisted "even though," God said, "you incited me to ruin him for no reason" (2:3). The Adversary quickly retorted that the first test didn't go far enough: "Strike his bones and flesh. Then he will definitely curse you to your face" (2:5). God (reluctantly?) acquiesced, with the stipulation that Job's life would be spared (2:6).
Few pictures of bodily suffering in the Bible are as poignant as the one we find next in this book. Severe sores broke out over Job's entire body, "from the sole of his foot to the top of his head" (2:7). He sat on a mound of ashes, with just a shard of broken pottery to scratch himself. The question looms: Would Job remain faithful, or would he curse God?
The Questions Behind the Question
So far, we have followed the question being pursued by God and the Adversary: Would Job remain faithful once he had lost all worldly blessings? When the protective fence or hedge that once surrounded him was gone, would Job continue to revere and bless God? What good was his integrity then?
It is hard to keep our focus solely on this question, though. Other questions crowd their way in, demanding attention: What kind of a God is this, in this biblical book? Would God allow a faithful man to be struck down in this way, just for the sake of a "heavenly" argument? Do the bad things that happen—to Job and to us—come from God or by God's permission?
Many readers of Job are understandably horrified at the God portrayed in this book. God appears boastful about Job's integrity in ways that bring him to the unwelcome attention of the Adversary and lead to the testing of Job (1:8; 2:3). God granted permission for the Adversary to strike Job (1:12; 2:6) and even seems to have taken responsibility for "ruining him" (2:3). Then, as we will see, God remained silent for the space of 35 chapters! Is this the God we know and love?
We may be tempted to join Job's wife in urging Job to "curse God, and die!" (2:9). Job was noted for his integrity. A man of integrity could not, she reasoned, suffer as Job did without cursing the one responsible. Ironically, we readers are privy to the discussions in the divine council, so we know God was the one responsible!
Could we continue to bless God? Job's wife was quickly chided for her words, and we do not see her again in the Book of Job; but her question reverberates throughout the chapters that follow.
What About God?
Some readers of the Book of Job will excuse its portrayal of God on the understanding we discussed above: This story is a fable. Its purpose is to explore questions about the divine-human relationship, and we should not take too literally its depiction of God. The conversations between God and the Adversary are simply a creative, literary means of posing the questions this book will explore.
This reasoning has some merit, but we should always question approaches to Scripture that would discount what is said of God or of humanity. To dismiss the aspects of God's words and actions in Job that make us uncomfortable is to miss an opportunity to broaden our understanding. The very purpose of Job is to encourage us to reconsider what we think we know and to stretch toward a more complex, rich understanding of God and of ourselves. How might we do that here?
It makes a difference how we picture God's investment in this drama. We could imagine God as a cool, detached observer of Job's agony—and this will likely increase our alarm. God made a bet with his divine counselor, and Job paid the price. This is not a pretty picture.
We could, on the other hand, picture God as deeply affected by Job's agony and by the question that prompted it. Imagine that: God, profoundly grieved at the possibility that Job was faithful only because God had blessed Job. If we follow this reasoning, then the agony of Job was also the agony of God as God awaited Job's response. If Job failed to weather this storm, God's very relationship with God's creation was called into question.
The Faithfulness of Job
The Adversary's question and Job's wife's question—and all of our ancillary questions—have been hanging in the balance, awaiting Job's response. Job sat among ashes, scraping at his skin. Finally, his response came: "Will we receive good from God but not also receive bad?" (2:10). In the same verse, the narrator renders a judgment on Job's words to this point: "In all this, Job didn't sin with his lips."
So had Job beaten the Adversary? Were all the questions resolved? Nothing in these verses suggests that the story has reached its end. In fact, Job's response had grown ambiguous. In Chapter 1, Job's words were strong and unequivocal: "The LORD has given; the LORD has taken; bless the LORD's name" (1:21). By Chapter 2, after calamity had struck his body, Job could only manage a question: "Will we receive good from God and not also receive bad?" (2:10).
Still, these chapters offer a picture of a man of extraordinary faithfulness, by practically any measure. Losing one's children, one's wealth, and one's physical well-being can hardly be imagined. Who would be surprised if Job did curse God? Yet Job maintained his spiritual practice and affirmed his faith—at least through the first set of losses. Even in Chapter 2, he kept his face turned toward God, acknowledging that God is the source of all things and refusing his wife's invitation to turn away.
Faithfulness, then, more than patience, seems to be Job's hallmark. The reach and contours of that faithfulness will be seen more clearly—and thoroughly tested—as we work our way through this book. Watch for the questions of these opening chapters to emerge again. They will only intensify as his three friends arrive and begin to speak.
Live the Story
So how will you respond in the face of the storm? Recall a time when you faced one: threatening weather, a critical diagnosis, the loss of a job, or some other crisis. What worried you most? Losing your possessions? injury to your family? the pain and loss you were experiencing in your body?
Could you say then what Job said? "Naked I came from my mother's womb; naked I will return there. The LORD has given; the LORD has taken; bless the LORD's name" (1:21). Could you say it now and mean it? Talk this question over with God, perhaps in your journal. How ready are you to face the storm with loyalty and faith?
The questions we identified above will be with us throughout this study. Embrace them. Dare to ask: Is my faith built on the expectation that I will be blessed because I do the right things? Make yourself imagine how your faith would be tested if the people and things you hold dear were stripped from you, as they were from Job.
Finally, stay in the conversation, as Job did. Having uncovered these questions, let's stick together as we see where they take us.CHAPTER 2
Claim Your Story
A dear friend of our family died one sunny morning as he was walking outside to work in the yard. My mom and I were among the mourners who joined his wife in her too-quiet house that afternoon. We arrived with cookies, tears, and hugs.
"I'm so sorry, Olive," said my mother. I didn't know what to say. We sat down on the cream-colored couch opposite her chair and listened, tissues at the ready, as Olive spoke of what had happened and how unreal it was. Soon the sound of the doorbell interrupted, and the routine began again: tears, hugs, tissues, stories, sympathy, and that ache underneath it all.
It was the first time I was present so soon after a death. As we drove away, I commented on how many times Olive had to tell the story of LeRoy's death. With each new arrival, the story unwound again, always with tears. To my teenage senses, this was painful, torturous.
"But that's what we do," my mother said. "We need to tell the story again and again. It begins to make it real."
In the years since that day, I have lived through many such moments. I have heard many stories through tears and have offered my own words of comfort or remembrance. I have learned that our presence matters, as inadequate as it seems. We grieve together.
Enter the Bible Story
We are not surprised when the news of Job's disasters prompted his friends to gather. The news must have traveled quickly, far and wide, even in a time before telephone and text message. Job's three friends agreed to go to him, to console and comfort (2:11). As they approached, they could see even at a distance the dreadful change in their friend (2:12).
While the emphasis is on these three friends, surely there is more to this scene. The text neglects to mention the neighbors who must have responded to these events with care and compassion. We can imagine their gifts of casseroles and flowers and their presence at the ten children's funerals. We must surely hope that friends surrounded Job's wife, bereft and alone, tending a household crippled by loss, in fear for Job's life.
Our text, though, maintains its focus on Job and his three named friends: Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar. All were speechless at the enormity of Job's suffering. They sat with him for seven days and seven nights in utter silence (2:13).
Silence Is ... Golden?
What shall we make of this silence? On the one hand, it suggests respect, even awe. Perhaps the friends recognized that they could say nothing that would touch what Job was experiencing. Their presence alone was their response.
If you have ever had to abide the well-intentioned but ill-considered words of others in such situations, you may consider the friends' silence an exquisite gift. It is not always easy to receive words gracefully.
"I'm sure he'll be fine," said a coworker after I asked for prayers for my two-week-old son, then languishing in neonatal care, unable to breath unaided.
"Oh, you're sure," I thought crossly. "I guess that makes me silly to be so worried." My friend's words still sting, 17 years later. Words can hurt as much as they help.
On the other hand, we crave words when we are bereaved. We want to know we are not alone. We savor contact even from a distance, via cards, Facebook, and telephone. We revel in stories of our loved ones and long for their names to be spoken aloud. The customary words of remembrance and sympathy matter; they reassure us that we will, indeed, come through this crisis.
Excerpted from Immersion Bible Studies: Job by Lee A. Schott, Stan Purdum. Copyright © 2011 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ContentsImmersion Bible Studies,
1. Weathering the Storm,
2. So-Called Comfort,
3. Harsh Words,
4. Hearing Voices,
6. Happily(?) Ever After,