Old Testament theologian Diane Jacobson of Luther Seminary inspired me to preach a sermon series on "tough texts of the Old Testament." She was a favorite professor of mine at Luther. I loved the questions that she asked and she taught me an important distinction in reading the Bible. In our class discussions one distinction almost always drove class discussion: "Is it prescriptive or descriptive?" Is this passage describing a situation? Or is this passage telling us what to do?
Dr. Jacobson came to the Southwestern Washington Synod in January for Bishop's Convocation. I told her I was going to preach a sermon series on some of these texts, and she was a bit startled. One thing I appreciate at First Lutheran Community Church is that a space has been created to explore the depths of the Bible because previous pastors have put aside the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL). Though some of the texts during this series come from the RCL, we can take these challenging texts, put them side by side, and have them work with us and learn something about what they say about the God we follow.
Last Sunday, we took a look at Job. I was taught that Job was a comforting book in my youth, and I took that statement at face value. Once I actually studied the book, I became disturbed by some of the things that happen, mainly that God and Satan make a bet about Job, with Job's life hanging in the balance, and that Job suffers a great deal because of this bet. A few people in the congregation reminded me of the Dan Akroyd, Eddie Murphy and Jamie Lee Curtis movie Trading Places a story where lives that are put on the stage for a bet between two wealthy brothers (I really love how some people were thinking movies when we talked about Job!). I remember the first time I saw this film as a teenager and my indignation over humans being manipulated for sport. There is a some justice in the movie because the wealthy brothers become the targets for revenge. Not so with God and Satan--it doesn't seem to matter in the end that Job's life is used for sport and suffers a great deal. Does Job receive an appropriate test for his faith, or is he abused?
Another one of my professors, Dr. Terrence Fretheim, told one of my classes that Job was a theological construct by the authors to offer a counter testimony to Deuteronomistic theology that essentially states that if you do the right things, then good things will happen. Brueggemann states that Israel was well aware that they did not live in such a neat and tidy world, and appeared to be able to live in a certain degree of paradox. It is a good thing to follow the laws and statutes of God, but that sometimes doing the right things doesn't necessarily produce a good result. The manner in which this is done in Job is quite disturbing, and I can't say that I find it all that comforting.
I took an informal poll after Sunday's sermon out of Job--were people disturbed by Job, or did they take comfort in Job? I found that between 3/4ths and 7/8ths of people in the congregation were comforted by Job. I honestly don't know what to make of it. What I observed was that at the very least, people in the congregation were deeply reflecting about the presence of God in the midst of suffering, and that Job was a powerful example. I don't have anything against the character of Job, but the exchange between God and Satan. I don't have a problem that Satan is an agent of Job, but their sporting bet over Job's life. It makes me wonder about how we humans do this kind of sporting bet with other forms of life. The obvious one is that humans place bets on horses and dogs in races for fun and sport. How do we do it in other ways?
This question brings us back to Dr. Jacobson's question, "Is it (the passage) descriptive or prescriptive?" I'm leaning toward descriptive. Though I can see that many people find comfort in Job's response of faith to disaster in his life, I think the story may describe the greatness of God by challenging our stereotypes. I'm not sure if the intent of the passage is to hold up the virtue of Job, but the limits of human theologies. It takes a startling exchange between God and Satan to see how limiting theology can be.