The Eyes of Experience: A Sermon on Job, part 1 of 6

by Reverend Kenneth E Kovacs, PhD

And Job answered Yahweh:

“I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be
thwarted.

‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’

Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too
wonderful for me, which I did not know.

‘Hear, and I will speak; I will question you, and you declare to me.’

I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you;

therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.” (New Revised Standard Version, Job 42.1-6)

I wish scribes had etched in the text of Job, right at the start of Chapter 42, in big, bold letters: STOP: SILENCE. It’s been said, often by mystics, that all wisdom begins and ends in silence. One needs to be silent long enough for wisdom to emerge. And the Book of Job is all about wisdom, a particular kind of wisdom, which means engaging it requires silence.

The Book of Job is one of the most challenging books in the Bible. Along with Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Psalms, Proverbs, Wisdom, and Sirach, the Book of Job belongs to the genre of scripture known as wisdom literature. Originally ascribed to Moses, its author is unknown. It was written somewhere between the seventh and fourth centuries before the Common Era, most likely in the sixth century BCE, when Israel was in exile in Babylon. It’s often assumed that the story is trying to address the theodicy question: Why do the righteous or innocent suffer? A thorough reading of the text, however, suggests that the narrative never really gives a convincing answer to this question. Scholars suspect that the Book of Job was included in the biblical canon in response to inadequate theological claims found in Deuteronomy, namely that blessing comes only by following God’s Law, that is, that blessing is a reward for remaining faithful to the covenant with Yahweh.[2] The author of Job knows that things are not that simple, that life, especially life with Yahweh, is infinitely more complex.

Here’s an overview of the story. In the opening verses, we read: “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” (1.1). Job is described as a wealthy man, with seven sons, three daughters, and a beloved wife. The story’s attention then shifts to the court of heaven, where “heavenly beings,” including Satan—Satan is understood here to be a member of Yahweh’s court, not the personification of evil—present themselves before the throne.[3] Satan questions Job’s piety, suggesting that Job’s devotion to Yahweh is conditional, that he worships Yahweh only because of Yahweh’s blessings. Yahweh agrees to Satan’s plan to test Job. And so Job’s wealth and children are removed. Job responds: “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return there: Yahweh gave, and Yahweh has taken away; blessed be the name of the Yahweh” (1.21). Satan continues to torment Job further, inflicting him with painful sores and boils on his skin such that he sits among the ashes in mourning. Job refuses to give up on Yahweh.

Three friends arrive—Eliphas, Bildad, and Zophar—to talk with Job, to help him make sense of his suffering, to search for meaning. They believe that Job’s suffering is a punishment for sin. But how can this be, since Job is “blameless and upright”? Still, Job struggles with what’s happening to him.  He searches for wisdom in the midst of his suffering and finds little. At a moment of extreme frustration, he says, “I loathe my life; I will give free utterance to my complaint; I will speak in the bitterness of my soul” (10.1).  And so he directs his complaint toward Yahweh: “Why did you bring me from the womb? Would that I had died before any eye had seen me, and were as though I had not been, carried from the womb to the grave. Are not the days of my life few? Let me alone, that I may find a little comfort before I go, never to return, to the land of gloom and deep darkness, the land of gloom and chaos, where light is like darkness” (10.18-22).

Job’s suffering and frustration deepen. “My skin turns black and falls from me, and my bones burn with heat. My lyre is turned to mourning, and my pipe to the voice of those who weep” (20.30-31). Job makes one more declaration of his innocence before he is silenced. The three “friends” go away, and a new voice begins to speak. It is Elihu, who rebukes Job and explains to him that only the kind of wisdom that comes from God is sufficient for the sufferings and burdens of life. “For God speaks in one way, and in two, though people do not perceive it. In a dream, in a vision of the night, when deep sleep falls on mortals, while they slumber on their beds, then he opens their ears. . .” (33.14-15).

And then, finally, Yahweh answers Job out of the whirlwind: “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me. Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me. . .” (38.2-4). Then, on and on, Yahweh speaks in these wild sermons out of the whirlwind, Chapters 38 through 41. Yahweh responds to Job’s unyielding demand for an explanation for his suffering. Yahweh cross-examines Job with question after question. The Voice shakes Job’s foundation, shatters everything he assumes and believes—about himself, his neighbors, his precarious hold on reality, his place in the universe, even his image of the God. On and on and on, Yahweh graciously assaults the old man’s sensibilities and reason, questions everything Job thought he knew about everything. Then, at the end of Chapter 41, Yahweh stops speaking.

And it’s precisely here, I suggest, that silence is called for. Instead, the Bible offers a seamless transition from Chapter 41 to these extraordinary verses in Chapter 42, when Job answers Yahweh. Let’s hear these verses again, this time using Stephen Mitchell’s poetic translation of the text:

Then Job said to the Unnamable:

I know you can do all things

and nothing you wish is impossible.

Who is this whose ignorant words

cover my design with darkness?

I have spoken of the unspeakable and tried to grasp the infinite.

Listen and I will speak;

 I will question you: please, instruct me.

I had heard of you with my ears; but now my eyes have seen you.

Therefore I will be quiet, comforted that I am dust. (88)

Now, there’s a lot going on in these six verses. It’s essential that we follow the flow of this exchange between Job and Yahweh and between Job and himself.

Again, it’s here, in this liminal space between Chapters 41 and 42, that we need to create space for silence: hold your tongue, hush, listen, behold. At this point I imagine Job speechless, breathless, gasping for air, traumatized, in shock. Before him, from out of the whirlwind, is the Voice of the Unnamable, the Holy One, this mysterium tremendum et fascinans, this mystery that fascinates even as it overwhelms.[4]

 

——-

You can download the complete essay, published by the Zürich Lab here, or find it on Amazon in Kovacs’s recent collection: Out of the Depths: Sermons and Essays (Parsons Porch, 2016).

This week, we are revisiting “The Eyes of Experience: A Sermon on Job” by Reverend Kenneth E. Kovacs, PhD, originally published through the Zürich Lab. We are republishing the essay in six sections over six days, part of our preparations for a lecture, book launch and exhibition at our Berlin LabThe Legend of Job in Art, Philosophy, and Psychology on Saturday October 14, 2017 and for our Exploration in Jerusalem this December. With The Legend of Job we’ll celebrate works by acclaimed Newfoundland artist Gerry Squires and calligrapher Boyd Chubbs who, in 2015, created the first illustrated edition of the Book of Job; the work was Squires’ last. A copy of the book will be on display at the Berlin Stillpoint Lab through November, and in December, at the Zürich Stillpoint Gallery.

Notes:

[1] Wisdom and Sirach are deuterocanonical texts placed in the Apocrypha by Protestant Bible translators.

[2] For an in-depth exploration of theological themes and historical contexts in the Book of Job, see Franzen. Both the Hebrew and Christian testaments are dialogical in nature: they answer, respond to, react to, and redact the multiple traditions and sources of which they are made.

[3] It is significant to note that in Job, Satan is a member of the court of Yahweh, not the personification of evil; the latter portrayal develops later within Judaism. In Job, Satan is on God’s payroll, as it were. Ha-Satan in Hebrew means “the adversary” or “the accuser.”

[4] It is significant to note that in the Book of Job, Satan is a member of the court of Yahweh, not the personification of evil; the latter portrayal develops later within Judaism. In Job, Satan is on God’s payroll, as it were. Ha-Satan in Hebrew means “the adversary” or “the accuser.”

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