What can Job tell us about our current situation?

A reflection on Harvey Cox’s chapter on Job in his book, “How to read the Bible”.


The date, author, intended audience and historicity of the Book of Job are not of primary importance. The Book of Job deals with the mystery of human suffering – especially the suffering of the innocent.

Job articulates a response to this question, though not an answer, different to anything else we read in the Bible.

The Book of Job is pure fiction. Mitchell’s translation, which Cox holds in high regard opens not with, “There was once a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job” as the NRSV does, but with the kind of opening that all good children’s stories begin with, “Once upon a time, in the land of Uz, there was a man named Job.”

So we can relax and recognize that God speaks to us through legends, myths and stories.

The Book of Job begins and ends with sections of prose, but the vast majority is poetry. Cox tells us that Hebrew scholars rate this as the finest poetry in the whole Bible, such soaring poetry that its lyricism can be felt even in translation. Cox points out that the debate about the literal accuracy of one translation over another is not important. Whats matters is which translation best captures the energy and the emotion of the original.

The Plot

Job is a blameless and upright man who feared God and turned away from evil.

He is an exemplary family man with seven sons and three daughters, whom he treats generously and brings up to fear God.

Job is very wealthy, he has a large retinue of slaves, he gets up early in the morning to pray and offer sacrifices to God.

One day the heavenly beings met and Satan came along too. Cox points out that this is not Satan as we think of him today, that Satan came along much later. Cox prefers to call him the Accuser or the Adversary. He points out that in Hebrew he is called ha-satan. This Satan is not an independent source of evil. 

God boasts of his exemplary servant Job, and Satan replies that of course Job is a good servant, because he has  such a wonderful life. Satan goes on to say that if Job were to lose much of his wealth and comfort he might show a different side of himself. Thus God permits Satan to take away all that Job has – just so long as Job himself is not harmed. Satan is ferocious in his duties and strips Job of his livestock and then of his children. Job goes into mourning and sits in a dust heap. But Job does not turn away from God. From this part of the story of Job we have one of the most famous passages of scripture often heard at funerals, “The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away: blessed be the name of the Lord” (1:21). God’s pride in Job is vindicated.

Satan tells God that Job has remained faithful because his body has not been touched. So God grants Satan permission to afflict Job’s body – just so long as he doesn’t kill him. Job is covered with boils and sits on his dust heap scraping himself with a fragment of broken pottery. His wife chides him for continuing to claim his innocence. Job replies, “We have accepted good fortune from God, surely we can accept bad fortune too”.

At this point three of Job’s friends hear about his misfortune and come and sit in silence with him for seven days and seven nights. Cox is keen to point out that neither Job not any of his friends have Hebrew names. He opines that it is not even clear if the original writer is Jewish, thus the Book of Job is only Jewish because of its adoption into the Hebrew scriptures.

After the seven silent days Job speaks and curses the day on which he was born. Cox’s preferred translation by Mitchell really goes to town with Job’s cursing:

God damn the day I was born

and the night that forced me from the womb.

This is much more colourful language than the NRSV translation:

Let the day perish on which I was born,

and the night that said, “A man-child has been born”.

SO the poem continues with statements by Job interspersed with counter-statements from his friends and culminates with the voice of God booming out of a whirlwind. The debate between Job and his companions starts relatively calmly and escalates chapter by chapter until the interlocutors seem to be screaming at one another.

Job continues to protest his innocence and the others continue to trot out the same ideas about suffering that occur throughout the Old Testament and some of the New. They rehearse ideas on the subject that we still hear today – Job must have sinned in order for God to punish him like this. The argument continues and both sides get more cutting and sarcastic. 

Job asks God to accuse him and the story continues almost like a courtroom drama – Job wants to know of what he stands accused so that he can give his defence.

Eventually God answers out of the whirlwind and, in Cox’s translation, says:

Who is this speck of dust who is making so much noise, going on and on as though he knows something about the great mystery that surrounds us? Where were you, my little man, when the primal nebulae exploded into being? Have you ridden one of your puny space rockets the thirteen billion light-years to the edge of that part of the universe that you can observe? Do you know what lies beyond the edge? Do you? Where were you more recently when the pterodactyl and the tyrannosaurus rex roamed the steamy earth? You actually think that nature is there for your comfort and use, to dig up and shovel around, to drain and gobble up! Think again. Why does the rain fall and the sun shine to nourish land where no humans live? You may think you are in charge here, or may be an indispensable caretaker. But nature and the cosmos are older and bigger, took care of themselves for a long time without you, and could do so again, maybe even better without you around to mess things up.

Cox expresses the view that many people, after reading Job, are left feeling dissatisfied. God does not answer Job’s questions. But maybe that is the answer? Maybe trying to find meaning in innocent suffering is a futile endeavour. Trying to find meaning in the Holocaust is an example of this. Writers such as Elie Wiesel, who spent time in Auschwitz during the Holocaust insist that trying to impose some significance on it is to trivialise it.

Cox writes about the Costa Rican poet, Elsa Tamez, who points out in her work, “A Letter to Brother Job” that the turning point for Job comes when he realises that  he is not alone in his suffering. He no longer focusses on his personal pain. Nor does he ask a general question like, “Why is there suffering in the world?” Rather, he now recalls the suffering of the broken and destitute which he now shares. Tamez sees here the reason why the hungry shanty town people whom she knows can relate to Job. She says to him:

The smell of death that is about you reaches our nostrils; we smell you everywhere. Your skeletal body goads us. Shreds of your corroding flesh hang from our flesh: you have infected us, brother Job, you have infected us, our families, our people. And your look of one who thirsts for justice and your breath that is soaked in wrath have filled us with courage, tenderness and hope.

Another Latin American, Father Gustavo Gutiérez has written about Job in a book called, “On Job: God talk and the suffering of the innocent”. Gutiérez served as a priest in the most desperate slums of Peru. His question is, “How are we, as human beings, to speak of God from the heart of human poverty, hunger and suffering?” Gutiérez calls his approach, “Theology done from the garbage heap”. He holds the view that the theme of the Book of Job is not the impenetrable human mystery of suffering, but rather how to speak of God from the rubbish pile.

Gutiérez agrees with Tamez that Job’s breakthrough comes when he realises that he is not alone in his pain. This is crucial, because suffering often turns us in on ourselves and we forget our links with other sufferers. Here Job is different. he demands from God not only a response to his own suffering , but also to the unjustified and preventable hurt that the powerful inflict on the outcast.  – Perhaps there’s something there that brings Job bang up to date with 21st century Britain? – At this point Job catalogues the continued injustices that the higher-ups perpetrate on the oppressed, Job’s language crackles (says Cox) with the strident tones of some of the prophets like Jeremiah and especially Amos:

Some move landmarks;

they seize flocks and pasture them.

They drive away the donkey of the fatherless;

they take the widow’s ox for a pledge.

They thrust the poor off the road;

the poor of the earth all hide themselves.

Behold, like wild donkeys in the desert

the poor go out to their toil, seeking game;

the wasteland yields food for their children.

They gather their fodder in the field,

and they glean the vineyard of the wicked man.

They lie all night naked, without clothing,

and have no covering in the cold.

They are wet with the rain of the mountains,

and cling to the rock for lack of shelter.

There are those who snatch the fatherless child

from the breast,

and they take a pledge against the poor.

They go about naked, without clothing;

hungry, they carry the sheaves;

among the olive rows of the wicked they make oil;

they tread the winepresses, but suffer thirst.

(24:2–11, ESV)

Job doesn’t blame God for causing such anguish. He points his finger at the humans who profit from it and flaunt their contempt for divine justice – He thinks that God shouldn’t be letting them get away with it.

Cox says that at the end of the book of Job God lashes out at the false comforters. I don’t see God as a God who lashes out at anyone. He does chastise them , he tells Eliphaz that he is angry with him and his two friends. But he instructs them to offer a burnt offering and ask Job to pray for them and God will accept Job’s prayer and not deal with them as they deserved. This sounds, to me, more like a loving and forgiving God than a God who lashes out at anyone.

God then praises Job, who’s worldview now embraces angry, impatient protest against injustice with patience for the goodness and mercy of God.

Cox opines that the Book of Job validates the language of complaint that we see in other Old Testament books. Cox holds the view that God rebukes Eliphaz because he has not complained to him.

The Hebrew words used at the end of the book are not clear and scholars struggle to interpret them accurately. Mitchell takes the view that Job is transformed by his encounter with God, whilst the translators of the King James Bible have Job taking back what he has said to God and abasing himself. Cox relates that translation to the theology at that time but dismisses it as being inaccurate.

Ultimately Job regains his fortune with interest and is given seven more sons and three daughters. He also has a new perspective on the world.


Palm Sunday

A reflection on Matthew 21:1-11

Matthew has been preparing us for this climactic episode in Jerusalem when the confrontation between Jesus and the Jewish leaders must come to a head. Of the three pilgrimage festivals when all Jewish adult males were supposed to visit the Temple in Jerusalem (Passover, Weeks and Tabernacles) Passover seems to have been the most enthusiastically observed. Passover Pilgrims came not only from Galilee and other Palestinian provinces, but from all over the Mediterranean world where Jews were settled. A Galilean was basically a foreigner in Jerusalem. Jesus and his disciples would normally have stuck out like a sore thumb. They may have been less conspicuous during Passover due to the crowd that swelled the city’s population to maybe triple its normal size. In chapter 20 v29 we learn that Jesus and the disciples were not travelling alone, they were part of a much larger group coming from Galilee for Passover. 

Clearly all of the elements of Jesus’ final approach to Jerusalem were deliberately orchestrated to make a point. Never before have we heard of Jesus travelling other than on foot or by boat, so why  does he now need a donkey to carry him the last mile or so to Jerusalem? Evidently it was done for a purpose. Surely this is reminiscent of King David  returning after the defeat of Absolom or Solomon riding on King David’s mule as he is being taken to Gihon to be made King. The symbolism here is that of royalty.

In verse 5 Matthew quotes the Old Testament prophet Zechariah (9 v9) who prophesied the coming of the ruler of God’s people. In verse 8 we hear of the people spreading their cloaks on the ground in a kind of makeshift red carpet which is reminiscent of the proclamation of Jehu as king in 2 Kings 9 v13. The branches cut for the trees were the palms from which Palm Sunday takes its name. The palm had long been a symbolism of Judaism and were, in effect, a way of saying “Romans go home”. 

But actually Jesus doesn’t arrive in Jerusalem until verse 10. So the people who are proclaiming Jesus as Messiah are the other pilgrims from Galilee who we are told in the text are travelling. It’s right there in verse 9. Don’t take my word for it, check it out for yourself. So clearly these are not the same people who will be shouting out for Jesus to be crucified later in the week. Just as Jesus has orchestrated his arrival in this way for maximum effect I would expect the Jewish authorities to have organised the crowd who are baying for blood on Good Friday. What other explanation can there be for two different calls coming from the masses, but they were two separate and distinct groups?

Jesus had arrived like a bull in a china shop and the Jewish authorities were going to be furious. Jerusalem was like a tinder box, especially at Passover, and they were afraid that Jesus and his disciples could be the spark that set the whole lot alight. So it seems we have quite a carnival atmosphere going on outside the walls of Jerusalem with the arriving pilgrims proclaiming Jesus as their King. Matthew tells us that Jerusalem was “in turmoil”, the place didn’t know what had hit it, most probably because the Judeans didn’t know who Jesus was.

So what does that have to do with us sitting in isolation (I keep saying hibernation)? Clearly the scene on the edge of Jerusalem was about people coming together and celebrating the arrival of their king. We are stuck in the dark days of an exceptional situation. A situation that raises the usual feelings of Lent to new levels. We are denied that most fundamental of our spiritual needs, we are denied the opportunity to gather together and worship our God.

But we can still be a community drawn together by our common love for our God. The greatest sign I have seen of a community drawn together in isolation during our current situation has been done by a brass band from Wales. The Cory Band have recorded a couple of videos. Each member of the band have filmed themselves playing their part at home and then the whole thing has been stitched together to form a whole. You can see the video on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P0KiCXZ2IM0. There are also wonderful examples of churches coming together online to worship, I have especially noticed members of my All Saints community, who I am training with, doing stuff online. But equally those of us with less technical ability can keep in touch by phone and even video calls. At the very least if we just have a regular time to pray and we know that our brothers and sisters in Christ are praying at the same time it can help us to feel that we are not alone in our current difficulties. But my prayer for this difficult time is that we the Church can show the world that we have a God who loves us all more than we could ever understand. I pray that as our worship gets into peoples homes through their computer screens, their tablets and their smartphones that the word will spread. As a Church we spend a lot of time in Church hoping that new people will come along and join us. Now we are making the effort to get out there. We might just get into the nooks and crannies of peoples lives and shine the light of Christ on them. I don’t know why this situation has befallen the wold, but I know that God will use it as an opportunity to further his mission. We have to play our part in that. Thats what we signed up for when we became Christians, to do the leg work for God, so we need to listen to him. For many of us the hustle and bustle of every day life has calmed down in a way that was unimaginable just a couple of weeks ago. Let us use this time wisely to discern what God is calling us to do.

The end of an era

One of the reasons for the name of this blog is because, since 2006, I have been running a driving school. As a driving instructor I spend a significant amount of my time sitting at red traffic lights. But corona virus has brought a premature end to all of that. I am currently training for ordination in the Church of England. God willing my ordination will happen in the summer of 2021. I have been thinking for a while that it would be a wonderful opportunity to spend more time as an ordinand, so I have been seeking to give up the driving school for a while. I finally worked out a way that I can make that happen late in the summer of this year. But given that I need now to suspend teaching due to corona it makes sense just to call the whole thing off now and have done with it. That way I don’t have the financial liability of paying for a car when I don’t have an income. My wife and I already have a car, we don’t need two. Boris Johnson’s speech to the nation this evening has confirmed what I had already decided. I am, in essence, an ex-driving instructor, I’m unemployed. Corona virus has stolen my livelihood. Ite, missa est.

Thus I now have more time to attend to my studies and, once we have rid ourselves of the corona virus, perhaps I can spend some time in the parish. I’ve been on placement since New Year but placement is primarily about doing stuff in Church in Sundays. That is very much the tip of the iceberg of what full-time ministry is all about, and, compared to some of the work that clergy do, stuff in Church on Sunday is the easy bit. In our current situation I am struggling to get my head around exactly how a parish priest is supposed to tend their flock. I am seeing some wonderful examples of live streaming, video messages, emails and the like. Technology is being used in some very creative ways to keep the body of Christ together. But what of those who cannot access it? There’s the telephone to keep in touch, but is that enough. I think that whatever we do it will never be enough to overcome this dystopian pickle that we’re in. I’m reminded of an excellent sermon that I heard about the story of Jesus feeding the five thousand. The preacher pointed out that the little boy’s offering of five loaves and three fish in the face of five thousand men (plus their wives and children) was pathetic. It was so insignificant that it was useless. But Jesus took that offering and he made up the shortfall. That small lunch fed all of those people with plenty left over. Let’s remember that same insignificant offering of the little boy. Let’s just stay at home. How insignificant a thing is it for each of us to sit at home and do nothing. Such an insignificant thing will vastly reduce the spread of this virus. Let’s all just do what Boris has told us. And while we’re sitting there we can contemplate the awesomeness of God. Let us reflect on Psalm 46 verse 10:-

He says, “Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.”

Who sinned?

Before the corona virus took hold I was scheduled to preach on John chapter 9. The chapter tells the story of Jesus healing the man born blind. The disciples ask Jesus, “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”. To my mind this question is very close to a question that is often asked, “Why do bad things happen in the world?”. The answer, of course, is that we don’t know why bad things happen. I can’t bring myself to believe in a god that would deliberately cause bad things to happen. Our God is a God of love. A God who created the universe purely for love. The three persons of the trinity so in love with each other, with so much love that they had to create the universe as an outlet for all that love. God created you and I so that he could love us. And as John tells us in chapter three of his gospel, “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life”. Jesus died the most painful and ignominious death because he loves you and me. How can such a loving God be a God who makes bad things happen.

And so I don’t know why bad things happen, but I know that they always have, and they always will until Jesus comes again in glory. So where is God in all these bad things that happen.?Where is God in 9/11, where is God in 7/7, where is God in the Boxing Day tsunami, where is God when the Grenfell Tower caught fire, where is God when I was diagnosed with cancer? Perhaps when we see these bad things happening in the world and, indeed, in our own lives we look for God in the wrong place. A bit like Elijah in 1 Kings 19:11-13. God was not in the wind, God was not in the earthquake, God was not in the fire. But then there was the gentle whisper that was God speaking to Elijah. We shouldn’t look for God in the bad things, we should wait for God to come afterwards. God is present in the response to whatever has happened. God is right there with the emergency services when they respond to disasters, God is there with the community when they rally round to give support after tragedies such as the Grenfell Tower fire or, a little closer to home, the recent fire at the Beechmere retirement complex near to my own home in Crewe. God was with the team at The Christie Hospital who treated me for my cancer. God was among my family, my church family and my friends who helped me when I was diagnosed and when I received treatment.

So, as we face this frightening corona virus pandemic we should look for God in the response rather than in the pandemic. Every day we are seeing small acts of kindness happening as communities start to pull together to help their most vulnerable members. Those who are sick or who are self-isolating because they are in at risk categories are being helped by those around them. Fetching some shopping perhaps is the most common thing I’ve seen or perhaps just making a friendly phone call to those who live alone and are truly isolated. That is where we can see God’s love in action. And it is an action that maybe we can all take part in. It might not make you a millionaire, but now is a good time to phone a friend who lives alone just to let them know that you’re there and you care for them.

I’m sure that, like me, most people are worried to some extent about what the effects of this corona virus will be. As we go about our daily lives, either in isolation or possibly running around between supermarkets trying to find one that has loo rolls and dried pasta on the shelves, we need to make sure that we make time to spend with God. We need to listen carefully for him speaking to us, just as Elijah had to strain his ears to listen to God whispering. We need to listen to God when we read the scriptures, when we say our prayers. We need to listen to God when he speaks to us through our friends and neighbours. My spiritual director is a great fan of the French monk known as Brother Lawrence. He had a series of “conversations” which were written down by a French gentleman by the name of Monsieur Beaufort. In these conversations Brother Lawrence tells us that he feels as close to God amongst the pots and pans of the monastery kitchen where he was employed as he did during prayers in the chapel. During this time of privation when we are unable to gather together to share the Lord’s Supper it is, I hope, an opportunity for us to discover more of our own individual relationship with God. A time when we can find ourselves as close to God amongst the pots and pans of our own back scullery as we do when we encounter him in the eucharist. I know from my own experience of life that the trials and tribulations that come our way can often bring us into closer communion with Jesus than we normally enjoy. I hope that we can all take this opportunity to draw closer to him. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we really could set our hearts on fire with love for him. Why shouldn’t we love Our Lord with all the passion and fervour that, perhaps, we felt when we fell in love for the first time with a girl or a boy (delete as appropriate)?

The disciples asked Jesus, “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Nobody sinned, the man did not deserve to be made blind. i don’t know why he was blind. But look what a loving response he received from Jesus. He had his sight given to him. When bad things happen we should look for God in the response and we should love him back with every ounce of our strength.  

The great sufi master Hafiz wrote:-

God and I are like two giant fat people living in a tiny boat.

We keep bumping into each other and laughing.

What a wonderful loving relationship that would be if we could ever draw that close to God.

A prayer from Bishop Angelos of the Coptic Orthodox Church.

LORD, bless those who are in need of your support.

Guide those who are in need of your wisdom.

Empower those who are in need of your strength and

above all, be light and joy to those who are in need

of that reassurance on a daily basis.

Glory be to God forever.