We don’t often talk about plot twists in Biblical texts, but the book of Job has a couple worth noting.
Job’s friends are well known for their unhelpfulness. But as unhelpful and annoying as they are, they do seem to accomplish one thing. As Job listens to their assessment of his situation and their suggestions for how to fix things, he realizes that they are wrong. All along Job has contended that he doesn’t deserve what has happened to him. His situation initially is expressed as despair. What can he do? Almighty God has acted and Job has no recourse. But as Job talks with his friends, he moves from despair to demanding to be heard. Perhaps in having to defend himself against his friends, Job realizes he can present his case to God. He’s terrified of course and fully expects to die, but he insists and persists. It is an important shift, from despair to demanding to be heard. Job uses courtroom language, he has a case to present. Job speaks less to his friends, and speaks more to God.
“But I would speak to the Almighty, and I desire to argue my case with God…Let me have silence, and I will speak. and let come on me what may. I will take my flesh in my teeth, and put my life in my hand. See, he will kill me: I have no hope; (or though he kill me, yet I will trust in him) but I will defend my ways to his face. This will be my salvation, that the godless shall not come before him. Listen carefully to my words, and let my declaration be in your ears. I have indeed prepared my case; I know that I shall be vindicated.
“Only grant two things to me, than I will not hide myself from your face; withdraw your hand from me, and do not let dread of you terrify me. Then call, and I will answer; or let me speak, and you reply to me. ” (13:3,13-18, 20-22)
The book continues with Job and his friends continuing to talk until chapter 31 which ends “The words of Job are ended.” And so we might think the book is over, or we might be expecting God to now respond. But no, oh no, there is one more friend- Elihu. He has waited to speak out of respect for his elders but now he scolds the friends and Job for six more chapters.
Then finally, finally, God shows up. After 37 chapters of all these men talking, trying to explain God and God’s ways, God shows up. And God’s response is essentially, “I’m God, creator of all that is and I’m not explaining myself to you.” And Job’s response is “Yes you are God and I am not.”
In some ways the exchange between God and Job is an unsatisfying plot twist. We don’t get the answer we want. At least I don’t get the answer I want. Why do people suffer? For Job it appears to be enough that God shows up.
We do learn what is not the answer to the problem of suffering- the common belief that good things happen to good people and bad things to bad people. This is clearly said to be wrong. Not only by Job. God makes it quite clear, “My wrath is kindled against you and against your two friends; for you have not spoken what is right, as my servant Job has.” (42: 7)
There are many things we could and should discuss, but a couple of points seem important today. We are clearly warned away from simplistic, mechanistic explanations about suffering. Do good and you are rewarded, do bad and you are punished is not an adequate explanation. It seems wise to avoid that line of reasoning.
Job has spoken “what is right”. But what of all that Job has said is the “right” part? Are Job’s speeches demanding a hearing and justice what God affirms? Or is it what Job says in response to God’s revelation to him. “See, I am of small account: what shall I answer you? ” (40:4) “Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know…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.” (42:3,6).
Or is it all okay? Does the creator of all that is understand our frustration, our anger when we don’t understand, when we feel like God isn’t treating us fairly? Does God come to us in the midst of that anger and despair, in the midst of our questions? The book of Job tells us yes. But God does not come with tidy answers or a formula to be applied to life. But with the presence of God’s own self. I wonder if what Job got right, is that Job was honest with God. No false piety. No theological abstractions. Job trusted God to hear him in the very midst of Job’s bewilderment, his pain, his anger. And Job was right about that. God heard. God hears. God responds.