Liars’ club

A cool breeze swept through the camp, causing the tent walls to clap against their ropes. Job wanted to stand and receive the sudden movement of air over his burning body, but he couldn’t summon the energy. Instead, he remained flat on his back, away from the glow and heat and unhelpful company at the firepit, staring into the light-speckled sky.

His eyes were drawn at first to the brilliant cluster of Pleiades, but, perhaps because in life he preferred the open spaces of a more sparse community, his eyes rested on the unbounded orbs in the Orion’s Belt.

“You’re all liars,” he said, unconcerned whether they heard him. “You’re worthless physicians. Take a lesson from the stars, and choose silence as your greatest wisdom. By accusing me of sin, you’ve become false witnesses of God’s character. He doesn’t just afflict the wicked, as you say, or you’re also calling me a hypocrite. What do you suppose God will do to you for twisting the nature of his way? He doesn’t need you to lie for him.

“Now, let me pray in peace. Even if he kills me, he’s going to hear what I have to say.”

Job took in a deep breath, and the sores over his torso ripped open like the fissures of an old wine skin. He roared in agony.

“God,” he groaned, “two things I pray. Don’t abandon me, and don’t terrorize me.

“What have I done to offend you? Help me understand. Point out my sin so that I may turn away from it. Why instead do you turn away from me? Do you also chase a leaf in the wind only to chastise it for doing so?

“You have bound my hands and feet, and like a rotting tree, I wither away.”

Inspiration: Job 13

Not impressed

Job lifted his head and forced himself upright. He could smell the putrid mixture of blood and pus emanating from his skin, like a combination of iron and rotting flesh. Every surface of his body radiated heat like the gray embers of a dying fire.

If pressed, Job wasn’t sure he could recite the gist of Zophar’s indictment against him. Aside from the physical pain contending with his will to concentrate, Zophar had always been a troublemaker, and Job discovered a long time ago that his motives were rarely pure.

Zophar likely felt jealous of Job’s life until now, and Job suspected that his Canaanite friend enjoyed watching the God-fearing priest suffer. So, after hearing his commentary through the filter of distrust, Job made his reply.

“I am awed by your great wisdom,” he mocked. “No doubt the secrets of your understanding will die with you.”

“Be careful, friend,” Zophar answered with a dull resentment. “My robes hide no festering affliction.”

“None of you have told me anything I don’t already know,” Job said calmly. “My own children, in their lowest state of drunken debauchery, knew these things.  In fact, the beasts and birds and fish are apt teachers of the way we are to follow.

“As plainly as I can discern good food from bad, my mind knows the truth when I hear it. You know as well as I do, old men like us gain wisdom from experience. But God’s wisdom and strength are beyond us. No one can rebuild what he has destroyed. No one can open what he as closed. No one can replenish what he has exhausted. No one can stop what he has started.

“God is strength and wisdom. The dragon and his victim belong to God. He strips counselors and judges of their dignity. He makes subjects of kings and kings of subjects. He casts away priests and humbles titans. He silences the trustworthy and makes fools of elders. He strips the princes of their position and the warriors of their strength. He causes the rise and fall of nations, enlarging, then scattering them. He forces the waymaker to wander through a roadless desert, groping like a drunkard without a hint of light.”

Inspiration: Job 12

Zophar’s indictment

Job fell to his knees in the flickering darkness, letting his limp body drop to the earth. Lying on his side, he seized a handful of dirt and smeared it into an open sore on his face.

Zophar, the man who had come from Naamath to see his friend through the double tragedy, watched Job with a tilt of his head. Like a lion stalking prey, he had observed, in silence, the anguished and broken priest lead himself into a circle. Exhausted by his repeated boasts of innocence, Job had finished where he started, lying with his spine curved inward, like a defenseless animal or an unborn child.

Now Zophar took his turn to speak.

“Perhaps someone should have put a muzzle on you when you started your arrogant rant,” Zophar started in, his raven hair melding into the pitch black mountain behind them. “‘I am pure,’ you say. ‘I am clean.’ But now that you’ve lathered yourself into speechlessness, maybe God will share with you the many facets of his wisdom, starting with the fact that you’re better off than your guilt deserves.

“The knowledge of God is larger than the earth, broader than the ocean, higher than the heavens, and deeper than the final grave. What makes you think you can do anything about it? Sadly, you won’t find understanding until donkeys speak and reason like us.

“Before you speak again, take my advice and put your misdeeds far behind you. There can’t be a hint of dirt residing in your tents if you wish to approach God without fear. Your confidence will bloom from your innocent expectation. The only expectation of the wicked is their final breath.”

Inspiration: Job 11

God’s motive

“I hate my life,” Job continued, standing to his feet and backing away from the campfire. His friends each looked at him, perhaps wondering if Job had had enough of their company and was ready to retire for the night.

“I have nothing to lose,” he said, standing in the shadow, a dim flickering of light still finding purchase on the festering surfaces of his sore-splotched face. “So, I’ll continue my interrogation, and show God the bitterness in my soul.”

Lifting his head toward the bright, night sky and with blood-red eyes, he searched the chaotic spray of stars for some obvious answer written there. Finding nothing but mockery against the black backdrop of the unknown, he prayed.

“Don’t condemn me without purpose. What good comes of destroying the work of your own hands? You gave me life, love, and a soul that serves you freely. You alone have preserved me from death and have accepted my sacrifices, and now you wish to obliterate me.

“Have you joined with the hands of Satan, favoring his schemes over your own? Have you become human, with eyes and ears so frail and years on earth so limited that you’re quick to guess at some speck of fault in me, knowing I’m helpless against your judgment?

“Now I understand your true motive!” he shouted, raising a fist above his head. “You made me for the sole purpose of devouring me! Like a hunter cornering his prey, you pounce mercilessly when it suits you. You hunt down the wicked and the good alike, but when I near death, you release me. I catch my breath only to encounter a new onslaught of enemies and assaults.

“I’d prefer to have been stillborn than to wake into this nightmare called life,” Job concluded, his shoulders slumped under the weight of defeat. “Then I’d never have tasted your love and acceptance. Leave me alone so I can go peacefully into death’s dark chaos.”

Inspiration: Job 10

No justice

“I know all of this already,” Job said, cutting Bildad’s rant short, “but how can we, mere mortals, be justified before God? If I wanted to grapple or debate with him, I’d stand no chance. He’s almighty and all wise. Do you know of anyone who’s won a case in his court? Who summons the Judge?

“In his wrath, God levels mountains, and the hills don’t even know what hit them. If he told the sun not to rise, it wouldn’t. He’s the one who assembled the stars into the Zodiac and placed them in the empty spaces he created.

“I marvel at his works. He’s here right now, and we can’t see him. He moves about my camp, but my eyes are laughably weak. He leaves my presence, and I can’t detain him.

“No one was with God at the beginning to question his actions or supervise his work. Even Rahab, the spirit of the raging flood, bowed before him as he vanquished Chaos.

“Therefore, how can I argue with God? Even though I’m innocent, his reasons are beyond me. All I can think to do is beg for mercy, but he’s more likely to add more time to my sentence than to listen to my case.

“I’m becoming bitter by all of this. Although I’ve done nothing wrong, my complaints sentence me. In my innocence, God has proven me guilty. I am blameless, but it doesn’t matter! God kills the good and the evil. When the innocent die, the wicked rule, and judges are corrupt, who else but God is allowing all this?

“Life is short, but if I forgive and forget and get on with my life, I’d still be terrified because of what my suffering means. It means I’m damned. It doesn’t matter if I scrub my body with soap, God will knock me back into the dirt. So, what’s the use in trying?

“God’s not flesh and blood, so I can’t plead in a court of law and have a fighting chance. There’s no mediator between us to stay his hand. It’s me against him. If he would stop punishing me and filling me with terror, I’d tell him, without fear, what I know to be true: I’m not guilty!”

Inspiration: Job 9

Bildad’s rant

“You’re so full of hot air!” exclaimed Bildad, who, until that moment hadn’t looked at either speaker while they presented their cases. He had been begrudgingly repairing a shoe in the firelight and heaving the occasional sigh between Job’s and Eliphaz’s words.  “You’re making it sound like God turns justice on its head. Clearly, your children sinned, and God gave them up to their sin’s power.”

Job’s eyes focused in like a thousand deadly knives in the Shuhite’s direction.

“Your solution is plain,” Bildad continued, unaffected. “If you seek God, and if you’re as pure as you say you are, he’ll restore everything to you. Your life will finish with a bang, making your old life seem small and insignificant.

“But can papyrus reeds or marsh grass grow without water? Unlike other plants, they start to wilt before they even finish blooming. This is what happens to anyone who forgets God. Their dreams, being web-thin, blow away.

“The wicked are also like weeds. They thrive and grow in the sunlight, and sometimes even overtake the entire garden. But after the gardener rejects them, they’re not missed at all.”

Inspiration: Job 8

Job’s anguish

“Weigh my complaining against my actual punishments,” Job replied, bringing a shaky hand up to his forehead, “and you’ll find that the latter is heavier than every grain of sand under the sea. So, forgive me if my words offend you. When you’re dashed against the rocks, you’re not concerned with eloquence.”

No one spoke as a glassy-eyed Job stared faithlessly into the fire, knowing his words fell on deaf ears. Then, he suddenly set his jaw and bore holes into Eliphaz.

“God has become a terrorist!” Job spat, his voice choked with tears. “His arrows have pierced my heart, and my soul drinks in their poison. How can you blame me for my outburst? Do donkeys bray while their troughs are full? Do you sprinkle salt on something that’s already flavorful? I’m not complaining about some temporal calamity here. This is spiritual agony, for God has rejected me!

“If God would annihilate me, I’d find peace. And even if my soul suffered after death, I’d take comfort in the fact that I never once went against his word.

“You’re cruel, Eliphaz,” he said, still in a death stare. “So-called friend, you accuse me with no fear of God’s retribution. What’s worse, you give bad advice. Following you would be like pouring out my water jugs before moving my caravan through the desert!

“If you would just reveal something true, I would shut up. Show me where I went wrong. Look me in the eye and see my honesty, by God! Would I lie? Answer carefully, because my reputation is at stake. Until now, you’ve profited many times from my discernment.”

Job relented from his gaze and stared off through the fire into nothing. He clasped his hands together, waiting for some response, anything from anyone. Hearing nothing, he slumped his shoulders and closed his eyes.

“Humans are beasts of burden,” Job prayed, his eyes closed, his breathing paced. “Like slaves in search of shade or laborers seeking a wage, I lie down at night and long for the sun, but in the morning, there’s nothing for me but a body full of bloody sores and maggots. They scab over only to crack again and leak. My life’s too short for a happy ending now.

“My God, once you put me in the grave, that’s it for me. So while I’m here, I’ll speak the bitter truth of my soul. Or are you going to shut me up like the boundaries you set for the sea? Like you set for Satan?

“In my bed, when I try to forget my life, you come at me with terrifying visions. I’d sooner kill myself with my bedsheet than endure another round of torments.

“What’s the big deal about mortals that you go out of your way to test us at every turn? What if I had sinned? How could that possibly offend you? Am I really such a burden that you have to make an example out of me? Why not just forgive my supposed sin, and accept that I’m human! Leave me alone long enough to catch my breath.”

Inspiration: Job 6, 7

Eliphaz’s wisdom

Eliphaz had been digging into the dirt next to the fire with the butt of his staff while listening to Job, carving a rank and file of holes like a company of soldiers waiting to be dispatched into chaos.

“May I offer my opinion?” he asked, the shadows on his face dancing in the firelight, his red hair shining like bronze. “You’re usually the one telling us what to do, where to go, how to cope. But this time, trouble has come to you, and you’re undone. You said that fearing God makes you bold and that your integrity makes you resilient. What happened to you?

“Let me ask you,” Eliphaz continued, setting his staff aside and rising to his feet. “Have you ever known a righteous person to die before his time? In my experience, those who sow chaos, reap chaos. By God, they die, consumed in a flash by his righteous anger.

“I’ll tell you a secret. One night in sleep, a phantom passed by my face, and every hair on my body stood on end. It said, ‘If an angel, who is made of light, can fall to the depths, how can a mortal, made from dust, be righteous before God?’

“If I were you, I’d beg the heavens for help. See if God or his band of angels answer you. Fools can be successful for a season, but resentment, jealousy, any number of things will snuff them out and leave their children homeless and starving. Hunger and misery don’t sprout up from the earth; they come out of mortals. As sure as these sparks are flying upward from the fire, men are born to trouble.

“If I were you, I’d plead my case before God. He works in mysterious ways. He provides rain, thwarts evil, makes kings of paupers, and calms storms. You should consider yourself lucky for being punished for whatever sin you committed. Don’t despise discipline, because it will be your salvation. Whoever he wounds, he will heal. He delivers the troubled and redeems the hungry from starvation.

“In the end, you’ll be like a stone in a field, where even the wild beasts will lie down with you in peace. Your tent will be secure, your livestock accounted for, your quiver full, and your years plenty.”

Inspiration: Job 4-5

Mourning sun

Three travelers arrived at Job’s camp under the same half-moon. When they had heard of their friend’s troubles, they came to offer consolation, and if warranted, counsel.

Eliphaz, a relative of Esau, traveled from Teman. Bildad, descending from Abraham’s union with Keturah, came from Shuah. And Zophar was a Canaanite from the city of Naamath.

When they saw Job’s dwelling from a distance, they hardly recognized the figure sitting alone in the ashes. As they drew nearer to the tormented shell of a man they once knew, Eliphaz wept, Bildad took dirt from the ground and poured it over his head, and Zophar tore his robes.

As the sun descended over the mountain, they each took a seat with Job, fellow companions of his sorrow. For seven days, no one spoke a word.

Then, Job broke the silence.

“Curse the day I was born. Blot out forever the day I was conceived. Why didn’t I just die at birth? I’d rest in the company of good kings and wise men, where prisoners escape bondage, the small are great, the slave is free, and all are accepted and safe from evil. The wicked don’t bother the dead.

“Why do we who seek the grave more earnestly than buried treasure, have to live? How I long for the grave! The activities of life are useless when God withholds his acceptance.”

Inspiration: Job 2,3     

Sore loser

Once again, the Watchers presented themselves before God, and like before, Satan fell in behind them.

“Where did you come from?” God asked the interloper, knowing full well the dragon had been off making storms on the mountain and stirring magma under the earth.

“From here to there,” Satan sneered.

“How’s Job doing?” God asked, getting to the point. “Looks like he persists in his holiness, even in the face of all you’ve done against him.”

“That’s just it,” the dragon spat. “I’ve done nothing against him. You know the limits of every man, and just short of it, you set the boundary of my work.” Satan felt the rage welling up against the constant reminder of his powerlessness in a game that was starting to feel rigged.

“Give me his health, and his holiness will fail with it,” Satan proposed without hope.

God’s answer was unexpected. “Okay, his health is under your control,” he said before the host of witnesses. “But don’t kill him.”

Job woke up the next morning splotched with painful sores all over his body. He rose slowly from his mat, flinching as the coarse fibers of his cover brushed over his afflicted skin.

He took a clay pitcher from the hearth, and, without a thread of clothes, walked slowly outside into the tent yard. Dashing the container against a stone, he picked up a jagged shard from the scattered pieces and, holding it gingerly in a festering hand, he sat in the fire pit among the previous night’s ashes.

Job’s wife, having resigned herself to a life of bitterness and misery, returned from fetching water, and seeing the spectacle God had made of her husband, she mocked him.

“Still a holy man?” she goaded him with an incredulous scowl. “Curse God and die already.”

“Foolish woman,” Job reacted, scraping an oozing pustule on his foot. “Should I accept all the good gifts from God, and reject the bad?”

Inspiration: Job 2