Dying poor

“The crimes against me don’t just affect me,” Job implored with compassion. “The storms that took my children also shifted landmarks in the city. The flocks that God’s fire consumed weren’t only mine but the livelihood of the poor and fatherless. Now widows pledge their heirlooms for a loan. Mothers without husbands have their babies torn from the breast, all to keep a covering over their heads. Those in dire need are discarded in the streets. They live like wild donkeys, eating scraps enough to keep their souls and bodies intact. Some even glean the vineyards of the wicked. Their clothes have become threadbare, so they sleep naked in the cruel, cold caverns of this holy mountain. Those who find work must press out the olive oil without a taste and stamp out the grape juice without a drink.

“The city streets echo the final cry of the dying, but God does nothing for them. Murderers, thieves, and sex fiends raid the streets in the night, but God doesn’t come to the rescue. But they will come to a permanent end, leaving nothing for their children, forgotten for eternity. Even the mother of a bandit forgets her son to escape the shame. The worms will have him.

“It looks like God saves the filthy rich and protects them against the death that surrounds them on all sides. But someday soon they will all be gone, cut from life like the head of grain.

“Prove me wrong. Call me a liar.”

Inspiration: Job 24

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 unabased 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

Wicked reprieve

Job didn’t stir. The silence in the room meant that Zophar had finished thrusting his knife in and now waited to listen to Job’s response like so much blood gushing from his heart.

“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, with no shame and no care.

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.

“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

Wicked end

“I can’t listen to this any longer,” Zophar interrupted. “I took your scolding like a man out there, but I stand by every indictment against you.

“You know as well as I do that a wicked man’s triumph is short-lived. His joy is like a puff of smoke. Even if he reigns over all the earth, he still perishes in the end like garbage, never to be seen again.

“The evil that he hides under his tongue is sweet in his mouth, so he savors it slowly. But in his stomach, it turns to venom, which he has been sucking all the while from the Serpent itself.

“He misses out on the cascading rivers flowing with milk and honey. With nothing more for him to devour, his wealth dries up. He doesn’t enjoy his stolen loot.

“The wicked man encounters trouble at his peak of power, and usually it’s the wicked who destroy him. Just as he’s about to eat, death comes out of nowhere. When the arrow is pulled from his still-warm carcass, you can see the terror of death across his face.

“His treasures are lost in a raging fire, his secret sins are revealed to the world, and the world judges him without mercy. This is all that God prepares for the wicked.”

Inspiration: Job 20

Last judgment

Job answered in the darkness. “How long are you and your friends going to torment me? Have you no shame reproaching an innocent man? If I’m guilty, prove it. As I said before, God has dealt this blow against me for reasons I don’t know. He has stripped me of my glory and left me without any justice, and he no longer answers my prayers.

“In his unjustified anger, God made me his enemy. His legions surround me on every side and attack. My family is good, and everyone I knew is now strangers. You who call yourself my friends have utterly failed me. My former house guests have forgotten me. My wife is disgusted with me and sleeps in a neighboring tent. All hope has been ripped up by its roots and goes down with me to the grave.”

Job heard movement in the dark around him and realized he and Bildad were now joined by another party. Whether Zophar or Eliphaz or both, it didn’t matter. They were all equally malignant fixtures in his home.

“Have pity on me, please. God’s hand has crushed me completely. Why do you also batter me with your words? Are you not satisfied that I am a festering bag of dust?

“I wish I could engrave my words in stone for posterity because I know that my Vindicator lives. In the end, he’ll be the last one standing. After I die, I’ll see God, and he’ll be with me at the final judgment.”

Inspiration: Job 19

Death interrupted

Job took a deep breath and prepared for his final rest. His body, still burning from the rotten cocoon of disease enshrouding his entire body, lay exposed to the night air circulating through the sides of the tent, which were partially lifted for that purpose.

As the dark night was fading into dreamless oblivion, the faint sound of footsteps stirred Job from his slumber.

“You think your friends are mindless like cattle.” The distinctive voice of Bildad lifted the shade of Job’s peace, but even in the starry dark, neither men could discern the features of the other.

“You’ve thrown your tantrum, and you expect the whole world to crumble and fall. Your tent is pitch black because the light of the wicked has been quashed. You tripped up somewhere on the path, and now terrors come at you from every direction.

“Your sin gnaws at you like the disease consuming your skin. Here in your bedchamber, nothing is left but smoking sulfur. Your roots are shriveled, and your branches have withered. With no child left, your memory will fade into the dust of the hills.”

Lost hope

With this last pronouncement, Job carried himself to his tent, leaving his unwelcome guests to stay or go. Closing the goatskin flap behind him, he felt his way in the dark to his bed, and with eyes closed, he prayed.

“My soul is ripped open, and my days are poured out. I’m ready for the grave. The mockers wait outside to provoke me.

“God, give me your word that you’ll preserve my name. You’ve obviously prevented them from understanding, so surely they cannot win in the end. Those who betray their friends curse their own offspring to blindness. Eliphaz and his lot have smeared my good name in the dirt where people spit and piss.

“I’m also blind, but from grief, and my body is only a shadow of what it was. Any of the sane ones would groan at my turmoil, but my friends aren’t among that camp.

“One day the righteous will prevail and come out on top, but for me, my days are done, my plans have been dashed, and all my hope is gone. If I go and embrace the grave as my father and welcome the worms as my mother and sister, where is the hope? I’ll tell you where! My hope has gone with me into the dust from whence I came.”

Inspiration: Job 17

I’m innocent

“How easy it is for you to come here, look at my condition, and tarnish my good name with mere assumptions,” Job answered. “If I were in your place, Eliphaz, I could do the same thing.”

He limped back to the fire circle, staff still in hand, to address the others.

“I could also soothe you with sympathy to ease your sorrow and encourage your strength.”

Job threw Eliphaz’s staff to the ground and inched closer to the fire. His body looked like one stoned with a hundred jagged rocks. The grey-green pus and blood draining from his sores comingled into jelly that glistened in the firelight.

“In his anger, God hunted me down and ripped me to shreds. He handed me over to Satan, who lurks in the shadows of my dreams and glares at my misery. God set me up as a target for my so-called friends. Without mercy, you notch your arrows and pierce me with lies.

“Yet I plead my innocence. When I die, may my racked body continue my protest. Surely my advocate is up there somewhere.

“I no longer consider you my friends. I’ll pour my heart out to God alone, believing he will listen as a friend before I exert my last breath.”

Inspiration: Job 16

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 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 entire 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 very watchers of souls, aren’t even as pure as you claim to be. Sin flows through you like water, friend.”

Eliphaz knelt beside Job and set down his staff. His face was close enough to touch but still as black as a chasm. 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 to his side. 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 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 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 soon 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 until 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