For those who want a change from the Gospel
Trinity 3 – Job 38:1-11 (Related)
Retirement brings many joys: one of them is box sets. Lockdown has of course helped with this, but we do like our thrillers. Recently we’ve watched two. The first had an ending which was, quite frankly, an anti-climax. We’d worked out who did it very early on, but discounted that character as being far too obvious. But the second twisted and turned, and until we got to the final session it could have been anybody. That was, of course, far more satisfying.
The end of the book of Job could be seen as a bit of an anti-climax too. Job had lost everything, literally, and the temptation is set out in 2:9 – why doesn’t he just curse God and be done with it all? So the question is set up: is he only living in obedience to God because God has blessed him, or can he continue to praise him even when he has nothing left? Then follow 36 chapters of agonised theology as his so-called friends try to convince him of their pre-formed beliefs in a just God and an orderly universe.
Finally we reach chapter 38, which is God’s reply. It begins in a way which is pretty standard in other Near Eastern texts from the time, as God is pictured as a master architect who has built the universe from carefully-drawn plans. But then there is a twist, as a much more female-inspired image is used, that of God giving birth to the sea and quickly wrapping it up in tight garments, and placing the new baby in a cot from which it can’t escape. It is in this second, much rarer image, that really challenges belief. The sea is often thought of as evil and hostile. This may come from a Babylonian creation myth called the Enuma Elis, where the god Marduk battles again Tiamat, a writhing sea monster, defeats him, cuts him in half, and makes heavens and earth our of each half. The Israelites, of course, didn’t believe a word of it, but that didn’t stop them from alluding to the story, just as we might talk about Pandora’s Box without necessarily believing in it as historical truth. You can see echoes of it in Genesis 1, some of the Psalms and in Isaiah. So what Job 18 appears to be saying is that God gave birth to chaos, an idea so outrageous as to beggar belief. Chaos isn’t in the universe by accident, or because of some great cosmic mistake: it has always been a necessary part of the master plan. I’m reminded of a programme I watched a few years ago which said that lightning strikes and forest fires were vitally important for the Earth’s ecology, just as death is for animals and humans. In Scripture God can and does use natural phenomena for punishments, but by no means always.
The chaotic, the destructive, the unpredictable, therefore, is woven into the material of the universe. Once we get this, much of the agonised wrestling with human suffering is made redundant. The ‘Why me?’ questions can be answered simply and honestly ‘Why not?’ We don’t after all, have any divine right to a comfy life. This is just where Job’s friends got it so horribly wrong, as they couldn’t shake off the cause and effect mindset: if I’m suffering, it’s because I have done something wrong. And if I haven’t done anything wrong, I shouldn’t be suffering. God says to Job, and of course Job knew it all along, that it doesn’t work like that. Stuff (or worse!) happens. Two chapters further on God is going to tell Job to be more behemoth, a large mythical creature which looks and behaves suspiciously like a hippo, and which is one of the most powerful of beasts. ‘Man up!’ says God in effect. Be more like him! We may feel this is not the most helpful pastoral approach to those suffering loss and bereavement, but as a piece of metaphysics it works perfectly. The world is chaotic, it always has been, and always will be. Get used to it and stop taking it personally!
Well, OK, but how does that help? Is the Christian Gospel no more than ‘Stop whingeing and worship God’? No, because there is hope, not that this world will suddenly start behaving itself and making life nice for us, but because it, and its destructive elements, will pass away. If we only have hope for this life, wrote St Paul, we are more pitiful than anyone. But there is good to come, to which the evils of this world are not worthy to be compared. We look for, yearn for, agonise for, the new heavens and earth where death, mourning, crying and pain will be no more (Rev 21). And, fascinatingly, there will no longer be any sea.
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