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 him through a 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 waymakers to wander through a roadless desert, so they grope like drunkards without a hint of light.”

Inspiration: Job 12

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

Tragic loss

One afternoon, Job was deep in meditation when a servant rushed into his tent. He was short of breath, and his clothes clung to his heaving chest, heavy with sweat.

“My lord,” he rasped, clinging to the goatskin flap of the doorway with one hand, and holding a piece of splintered ox yoke in the other. “While the oxen plowed and the donkeys fed on straw, a small band of Sabean horsemen swept in and slaughtered every servant in the field except for me.”

Job didn’t have time to respond to the man, as another servant came in behind him. He smelled of acrid smoke and looked as if he hadn’t bathed in his life.

“God’s fire rained down on every side, my lord. Your shepherds and flocks are consumed! I alone made it out of the pasture alive.”

The first servant spoke again. “The Sabeans, they carried off your livestock.”

While he was still speaking, a third servant, a child, half-dead, entered the tent. His face had the pallor of ashes, and his clothes were caked with blood.

“My God!” Job offered a hand to steady the young boy, then leading him to a dim corner of the tent to lie down. “What news, dear boy?”

The boy’s eyes gazed into darkness, and his throat rattled with short, labored breaths. “The Chaldeans,” he sputtered, coughing up phlegm and blood. “Your servants… your camels…”

Job called for a skin bag, and with it, slowly poured water into the child’s mouth.

“Rest now,” Job said like a father to a dying son. As he turned to address the others, another man appeared under the threshold.

“We were all eating and drinking together with your sons and daughters, when a violent wind came against the house and struck it down, crushing everyone in attendance but me.”

With that, Job exited his tent and tore his robe. The messengers followed after him in silence, perhaps dumbstruck by the magnitude of chaos dealt against the holy man in a single ill-fated stroke.

“Get me a knife,” Job cried, his knees hitting the hard ground.

A servant returned and held out a short blade. The anguished man took it by its bone handle, and the servant backed away.

Job took the knife and began scraping it across his scalp. Thick clumps of hair fell around him, and when he finished shaving his head, he lie flat on the ground and prayed.

“I came into the world with nothing, and I shall return to the dust with nothing,” he chanted. “God gave to me, and God took away from me. God’s name is praised.”

The men went away as Job repeated the words over and over.

After he finished praying aloud, Job sat still, his spine erect like a winter-stripped tree, and he silently repeated the name of God until the sun descended behind the lonely mountains of Uz.

Satan’s wager

High upon the isolated hills near Uz, a righteous priest named Job placed the tenth blood-let ram on the smoldering altar. Watching the flesh ignite against the white-hot bed of wood and fat, he prayed for his youngest daughter’s soul and repeated her name until the swirling black smoke turned to a webby haze of gray.

He had spent the solitary hours before sunrise atoning for the sins of his ten children, who had frolicked and feasted the night before and had almost inevitably cursed God in at least one careless breath before finally sinking into a drunken slumber of forgetfulness.

Job’s blameless reputation and matchless wealth was the stuff of legends at a time when evil spread eastward across Mesopotamia as quickly as humankind itself.

The man had a wife and ten grown children, seven sons and three daughters. His fields were peppered with seven thousand sheep, three thousand camels, a thousand beasts of burden, and as many servants as a census could count.

Job’s sons lived in the city at the mountain base. Their lives consisted of squandering their father’s coin by throwing lavish festivals at one another’s homes. Inviting their sisters and every neighbor within shouting distance to join in the gaiety, they’d drink and dine, often until their merriment roused the sun in the morning.

Job tended to stay to himself, deep inside his head for most of the day, keeping earnest vigil with his God. When his sons’ feast days had run their course, he would rise early and toil up the hill, leading by rope another train of sacrificial animals.

The smell of burnt flesh coming off the altar wafted high into the secret courts of heaven, and God took pleasure in it. A host of Watchers returned from their earthly posts and presented themselves before God’s throne, and the serpentine dragon, Satan, was among them.

“Where did you come from?” God asked the outsider, unamused by the interruption.

“I have come from walking the earth,” Satan hissed, “seeing whom I might satisfy with my services.”

God smirked. “Have you tried Job, my most faithful servant? In righteousness, he has no equal. Out of reverence for me, he shuns all evil and does only what is good.”

“Surely you see why he shows such loyalty,” Satan replied. “You shield him on every side and bless every seed he sows. Separate the man from his possessions, and watch him curse you to your face.”

“Very well. Everything Job owns is released to your influence,” God said. “Only, you may not harm the man himself.”

With that, the dragon took his leave and went to work on Job.

Inspiration: Job 1