I’m innocent

“I’m complaining because my heart is bitter,” Job replied nearly in a whisper, “because my punishment is more than I deserve. More than I can bare.”

Job turned over slowly, wincing as he shifted his weight and rested on his side. Glints of lamplight flickered in the eyes of his accusers. Job sighed.

“I wish I knew where God was,” he said, a power growing behind his voice. “I’d approach his throne and reason with him. He’d tell me what he wants from me, and I would understand and comply. Instead of invoking terror, he’d sympathize with me. If I am honest, I can reason with him. My Judge is fair.

Eliphaz and Zophar looked at one another with unabashed disapproval on their faces. Perhaps they don’t really know God at all, Job thought. Perhaps they worshiped a god completely unknown to Job.

“I search in vain,” Job continued. “That’s my point. He’s nowhere to be found. He sees the intimate details of my life, but I can’t reach him. My only solace is that when he looks into the deepest recessed of my heart, he finds the pure gold of innocence in me.”

Job felt a sudden surge of energy traveling out through his limbs. Like a magic elixir, the rippling of new power numbed the pain from his sores and gave him relief. Job hoped it would last.

“I’ve been faithful to God’s way without deviation. I’ve enjoyed his commands more than fine morsels of food. For whatever reason, his mind is made up about me. How can I argue with him? No one can stop him from doing to me everything he planned to do, and I have a feeling it’s not over.

“Eliphaz, can you blame me for being so scared? Zophar? I’m blind against the darkness God has cloaked around me. Thick as smoke, I can’t see past it.”

Inspiration: Job 23

Eliphaz again?

Eliphaz spoke up. “So, if God rewards the wicked, I suppose you’re telling me he punishes the righteous. Do you see how backward that is? No, he’s punishing you because you’re endlessly wicked!

“Maybe I can help jog your memory. Did you refuse to lend someone money? Or did you loan them money only if they put up collateral? That must be it. You stripped the meat off their bones. Did you withhold water from the thirsty or food for the hungry? No doubt you freely gave to the wealthy and important. You ignored widows and injured orphans. That’s why you’re terrified and surrounded by darkness.

“You figured that God was too high above us and shrouded in holy smoke to notice your crimes. And what of your children’s crimes? Don’t you see that those who walk the ancient path of the dragon are snatched away in their youth and they never plant seeds for a legacy? They say, ‘We want nothing of God because he has nothing to give.’ They have forgotten all the good things they enjoyed while living under your roof. Now we who are innocent laugh at the wicked man’s scorn.

“Stop fighting with God! Admit you’re wrong, turn away from your sins and you’ll find peace. Return to God and heed his way. Give up your love of money, release your lost gold, and let God be your treasure.”

Inspiration: Job 22

Wicked reprieve

The silence that followed meant that Zophar had finished thrusting his knife in and awaited Job’s response.

“Light a lamp,” Job said. There’s fire on the hearth.”

One of the men fumbled around in the dark until he grasped a lamp Job always kept near his bed. He felt his way through an opening in the cloth that separated Job’s bedchambers from his hearth. The lamplight threw a distorted silhouette through the thin fibers of the fabric. Eliphaz’s facial features flickered grotesquely as he entered the room and set the lamp on its stand.

Job was still lying flat on his back, naked and exposed, without shame and without concern.

Zophar and Eliphaz sat on the floor in silence.

“Zophar of Naamath, listen carefully without interruption,” Job began. “Eliphaz, you too. After I finish, you can all carry on with your incessant mockery outside.

“My complaining has nothing to do with you or any man. Look at me in horror. Look at the condition of my wretch body and try not to cover your mouth in disgust. Even I shudder with fright when I see my reflection. Is it any wonder that my soul is racked with sorrow?

“Zophar, the wicked often live to old age, powerful, well-fed, and comfortable. They live long enough to see their own children flourish, as well as their grandchildren. Their homes are secure from bandits and natural disasters. God never lays a finger on them. Their prodigious cattle low in the fields and their wealth supplies every fancy. They break out the tambourine, the lyre, and the pipe, and they dance until morning. This is all despite telling God they want no part of him or his way.

“‘Who’s this God?’ they jeer. ‘What does it profit me to obey him?’”

“Everything the wicked touches turns to gold, yet I want nothing to do with them. They get away with murder, avoiding trouble in the courts every time. When God doles out wrath and sorrow, the wicked get a reprieve.

“Before you come at me with your next argument, listen. You are thinking, ‘If God doesn’t punish them, he’ll punish their children.’ But I disagree. Wouldn’t God punish the one who sins? Shouldn’t the penalty go to the man who commits the crime? Your argument has no merit.

“But who are we to judge the Judge? He punishes the healthy and the sick, the wealthy and the poor. They all go to the same dust and are devoured by the same worm.

“You’re tempted to tell me of a rich man who was punished for his sins. But I say, ask anyone with any experience, and he’ll tell you the evil usually escape the wrath of God. Instead of being publicly shamed, he gets a great procession before and after his funeral. Your whole argument is flawed!”

Inspiration: Job 21

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   

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

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? Then 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