Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee, Rembrandt van Rijn, 1633,
Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum (painting stolen in 1990)
(About this Image)
Fr. Smith’s Commentary on the First Reading
Twelfth Sunday of Ordinary Time
Job 38:1, 8-11
June 20, 2021
The Book of Job is part of both the canons of Scripture and Western literature. It is now perhaps read more by non-believers than by believers in the God of Abraham. Perhaps more skillfully than any other book it asks how an all-powerful God can also be all loving. It has attained such a high place in both religion and literature not only because it is undoubtedly well-written, but because it refuses to give pat answers to any of the questions it raises. However much everyone can admire it, it will have different meanings for believers and non-believers. But ultimately, we will discover that there is a more fundamental distinction?
Job is a character out of folklore. He is mentioned by Ezekiel. Indeed, he is not a Jew and the customs portrayed in the book were from the time of Abraham himself. Because of this it was once generally held that Job was the first book of the Bible. This is no longer commonly accepted but there are ancient elements in it. Like many folktales, this developed over many centuries gaining in precision and wisdom. The version we have today is most likely from the time of the exile or the return to Jerusalem in the 5th century BC.
Although the story is famous, we must remember all its parts to understand and appreciate its message and beauty. It begins in the heavenly throne room. God tells his court that there was this man of Uz named Job who was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil (Job 1:1).
He was very prosperous, and Satan told God that he was upright and blameless because he had all the good things of life. Satan here not a demon in our sense of the word but the “tempter.” This was a court official who tested the king’s – here God’s – subjects to see if they were loyal. God gives Satan permission to do what he wished to Job but not to kill him. Satan gives Job hideous sores, kills his children, and takes all his property. Job’s wife says to him:
“Curse God and die.”(Job 2:9–10)
But he said to her,
“You speak as any foolish woman would speak.
Shall we receive the good at the hand of God,
and not receive the bad?”
In all this Job did not sin with his lips.
Three friends go to meet him. They are sometimes called tempters, but I prefer the older translation of “comforters.” They mean well and are very courteous. They not only leave their homes to be with Job, but they show him the great respect of sitting on the ground with him seven days and seven nights in silence.
Job breaks the silence and curses the day of his birth and wishers to die but he will neither curse God nor admit that he has done anything so wicked as to deserve such punishment. (Chapter 3). The longest section of the book is the dialogue with his friends. There are ultimately four of them and although they provide subtle arguments their point is always the same: Job must have done something horribly wrong and that, if he confesses his sin, God will forgive and restore him. Misfortune came from sin and only a recognition of the sin that caused it could cure the sinner. Their relationship with God is transactional. We do good, we get rewarded; we do bad, we get punished. The final comforter, Elihu, who put all the arguments together and may be an added composite figure says:
The Almighty—we cannot find him;(Job 37:23–24)
he is great in power and justice,
and abundant righteousness he will not violate.
Therefore mortals fear him.
The faith of the comforters ultimately rests on fear. Interestingly, they do not pray either with or for Job, but only give him the prevailing wisdom of the day.
One of the strokes of literary genius is how the comforters go from such concern for Job that they will sit with him for a week in silence to when Job refuses to accept their assumptions – ideology – belligerence.
Through it all Job maintains his integrity, he neither curses God nor does he confess to sins he did not commit.
God then speaks to Job from the Whirlwind. Our reading today is from this section. To use the translation from the Jerusalem Bible (usually held to have been written by J. R. R. Tolkien).
Who pent up the sea behind closed doors(Job 38:8–11)
when it leapt tumultuous from the womb,
when I wrapped it in a robe of mist
and made black clouds its swaddling bands;
when I cut out the place I had decreed for it
and imposed gates and a bolt?
Come so far,’ I said,
‘and no further; here your proud waves must break!’
This section continues for quite a while. Job is told that he will be able to respond but he must first hear about God’s wisdom and power. This is where believers and non-believer’s interpretations begin to differ. Non-believers see the power of God which can form the world out of chaos and keep the forces of chaos at bay, but here is used to smite a loyal follower. Believers however see that the God of such power desires to talk with that same tiny creature. He has a relationship with him.
Job is rewarded not only for refusing to curse God but also for refusing to confess to a sin he did not commit. Job is unhappy, he wishes to die but he does not in any way blaspheme.
His relationship with God is based on love and truth and we are meant to compare this with the comforters. Their relationship is based on what they think is justice. Job knows God, the comforters only know about him.
Justice can be very comfortable especially if one is never really tempted which usually means one is rich, prosperous, and committed to the status quo. Love is always dynamic. It either grows or evaporates. In that sense it is always unstable. Yet having experienced it, Job cannot forget it and will not renounce it.
The basic distinction in the interpretation of Job is not between the believer and the non-believer but rather one who has experienced the love of God and one who does not. We must ask ourselves, have we experienced the love of God as powerfully as Job? Do we know God as Job does or are we like the comforters and just know about him?