Second volley

Job lay still with his eyes fixed on the stars. The night air offered an ominous silence, interrupted by the rustling strain of someone adding a log to the fire. Then he heard the crunch of Eliphaz’s staff stabbing the dirt, and perceived its owner standing again to his feet.

Eliphaz had always been annoyingly investigative and meddlesome, ever concerned with the law at the expense of law’s purpose. Job supposed Eliphaz had been calibrating his next oratory while Job was busy grappling with God in the dirt. Lying alone and immobile in the darkness, Job accepted his powerlessness against the accusatory arrows aiming to fly from the mouth of his friend.

“Bildad’s right,” Eliphaz shot out. “You truly are a windbag.”

Job turned his head toward the red-bearded Temanite, who appeared now like a looming shadow, black as death and backlit by fire. Although he could see no features in the smoke-veiled face, he imagined a self-satisfied grin across its breadth like a row of stone-cold merlons.

“You call yourself wise?” he taunted. “Where’s your fear of God? Where’s your loyalty? Your mouth condemns you more than any of us can.

“How very crafty you are. Tell me, were you the first man alive? Surely you overheard God as he planned the creation of hills and streams. Pray, tell us what you know that we don’t. We have only the elders, older than your father, to counsel us. Or, are God’s comforts not enough for you?

“You lash out in anger against God for not accepting you, when his own angels, the Watchers of Souls, aren’t even as pure as you claim to be. Sin flows through you like water through a spring, friend.”

Eliphaz knelt beside Job and set down his staff. His face was close enough to touch but still as black as night. His beard glowed like the aura of a blood moon.

“Listen to me, Job,” he said smugly. “I’m going to give you the solution from my experience, confirmed by the wisdom of the ancients. Are you ready to listen?”

Job dared not give Eliphaz the satisfaction. Instead, he used what little energy he had reserved to lift his head and turn his back on his friend. The ground felt like a bed of iron firepots searing through his anguished body.

“A wicked man is in trouble all his life,” Eliphaz said, seemingly oblivious to Job’s torments. “Every day is full of terrors. Even good days are interrupted by fear because he knows that death is coming for him. Why? Because he has defied God. In his arrogance, he has sacked cities and eaten stolen food until fat. But not for long.”

Job sat up, turned around and reached for Eliphaz’s staff. “Sorry comforters you’ve all turned out to be,” he managed through clenched teeth. With both hands grasping the crook, he lifted himself upright, wincing all the way.

“You clung to worthless possessions, Job, so fire swallowed up your tents.”

“Is there no limit to your lies?” Job asked, his black eyes catching the firelight like beaten gold.

“Go on,” Eliphaz said, “prepare your next deception. But remember, the wicked man drops from the vine like a grape before its time.”

Inspiration: Job 15   

Rise again?

“I’m weak,” Job said almost in a whisper. “How weak and frail are all mortals. How full of sorrow. A man flourishes for an instant, then like a spring blossom, he withers.

“Why are you so severe with us? Why do you demand a payment of blood for our impurities when we’re born impure?

“Why can’t you give mortals a break? Unlike the tree, we’re here for a moment, and then we die. If a tree comes down, even an ancient tree, it grows again with a little water. But cut a man down and bury him, and where’s his soul?

“Like water drying up from a lake, we lie down, never to rise again unless the heavens fall. I wish you’d hide me in the grave for a time, but remember me when all is said and done. Is that wishful thinking? After we die, will we live again? The thought of it soothes my torment, giving me a strange hope in death.”

Inspiration: Job 14

Liars’ club

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

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 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 most heavenly 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 God 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 wineskin. He howled 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.

Aside from the physical pain contending with his will to concentrate, Job wasn’t really paying attention to the words coming out of Zophar’s mouth. 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 discourse 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 behave.

“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 God has destroyed. No one can open what God as closed. No one can replenish what God has exhausted. No one can stop what God 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 princes of their position and 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 witness first-hand what double tragedy does to a man, 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 opportunity 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 retire from your evil deeds. There can’t be a hint of dirt residing in your tents if you wish to approach God without fear. Confidence blooms out of innocence. The only confidence of the wicked is in 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 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 again.

“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 approach 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 has the power to summon 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 in the beginning.

“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. God has proven me guilty even in my innocence. I am blameless, but it doesn’t matter! God kills the good and the evil. When the innocent die and the wicked rule and judges are corrupt, who else but God allows all of it?

“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 so much as glanced at either speaker presenting 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 ten 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. The man had always styled himself an oracle, a seer.

“Your solution is plain,” Bildad continued, unaffected by Job’s threatening gaze. “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 flourish, 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 and brittle, fall 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 complaints 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 so much concerned with eloquence.”

No one spoke as a glassy-eyed Job stared faithlessly into the fire. He knew his words fell on deaf ears. He hadn’t asked for companionship, and he certainly didn’t need this band of brothers to consume his justified anguish with their self-righteous lectures. He suddenly set his jaw, and with eyes of molten onyx, he bore holes into Eliphaz.

“God has become a terrorist!” Job spat, his voice choking back 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. Possessions be damned! 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, holding his 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 while 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 away from the fire into darkness. 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 bleed.

“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 cut me off 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.

“Why do you go out of your way to test us mortals at every turn? What did we ever do to you? 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! I’m begging you, leave me alone long enough to catch my breath.”

Inspiration: Job 6, 7

Eliphaz’s wisdom

Eliphaz had been digging in the dirt next to the fire with the butt of his staff while Job spoke, carving thick lines and symbols that seemed to move in the flickering light.

“May I offer my opinion?” he asked, the shadows on his face also dancing in the firelight, his red hair shining like molten 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, causing every hair on my body to stand on end. The specter 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 Watcher 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 firepit, you brought this trouble on yourself.

“If I were you, I’d confess my wrongs 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 God wounds, he will heal. He delivers the troubled and redeems the hungry from starvation.

“In the end, you’ll be like a smooth stone in a field,” Eliphaz concluded, and with his chin jutting out in self-satisfaction, he took his seat. Then he added, “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. Just confess.”

Inspiration: Job 4-5