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

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.”

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

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 movement 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 and 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 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

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

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 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

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

Prospering servant

The Ishmaelites sold Joseph in Egypt to Potiphar, the captain of Pharaoh’s guard. But because God’s presence stayed with Joseph, he became prosperous in his Egyptian master’s employ.

Joseph never missed an opportunity to acknowledge the divine qualities in his master, and as a result, Potiphar softened in his rule over others. Potiphar saw that his servant was blessed, so he put him in charge of everything he had. Potiphar emulated Joseph, whom he deeply respected, and God blessed him and his dominion.

Joseph was a handsome man, and Potiphar’s wife lusted after him.

“Come and lie in my bed,” she said to the young servant.

Joseph refused and tried to reason with her. “Don’t you see,” he said as she pulled on his tunic, “Your husband has trusted me with everything he owns, and he doesn’t have to worry about me cheating him in any way. He’s given me every liberty except for you, his wife. How could I ever betray his trust and sin against God?”

Every day, Potiphar’s wife would come to see Joseph and try to seduce him, but he refused to break his master’s trust. One day, she was fed up with asking, so she just went for Joseph. She grabbed hold of his tunic violently and ordered him, “Lie with me!”

Joseph slipped out of her grasp and ran out of the house, leaving the tunic dangling from her hand.

She cried out for her servants, who immediately came to her. “My husband brought a Hebrew into this house, and he’s defiled it! He tried to force himself on me, but I cried for help, and he fled.” She repeated this story to her husband when he returned from the field.

Potiphar went into a rage and shut Joseph away in prison beneath his house. But in prison, God never left Joseph alone. He showed consistent kindness to Joseph through the warden, who put Joseph in charge of all the prisoners. Like Potiphar before him, the warden trusted Joseph so much that he had no concerns of revolt or subterfuge. There, even in prison, God made all of Joseph’s work prosper.

Inspiration: Genesis 39

Welcoming committee

The two angels arrived at Sodom during the night and encountered a man sitting at the city gate.

When Lot saw the two men approaching, he bowed low to the ground. “Please, masters,” he said. “Come stay the night with your servant and wash your feet. You can get up early and be on your way if you wish.”

“No,” they said. “We’ll spend the night on the market square.”

Lot knew better than to let the men fend for themselves in Sodom after dark, so he pressed them until they relented and followed him home. He presented a feast before his guests, and seeing from their manner that they were righteous and noble, he served bread made without yeast to symbolize the purity of their assembly.

As they were turning in for the night, they heard the shouting of an approaching mob. All the men of Sodom, young and old, surrounded every side of Lot’s house and began rattling the walls.

“Where are your guests?” one of the Sodomites shouted. “Bring them out so we can give them a proper welcome.”

A roar of laughter followed, and the banging grew louder.

Lot went outside and latched the door behind him. He said, “Please, brothers, curb your evil for one night.”

The men advanced at the threshold and Lot’s back pressed hard against the door.

“I have two daughters,” he suggested in a panic. “They’re virgins, and you can do whatever you want with them. Please spare my guests, whom I have sworn to protect.”

One of the Sodomites reached and grabbed Lot by the nape of his neck. “Down, dog!” he said.

Lot faltered, and his knees crunched on the solid ground.

Another Sodomite chimed in. “This man came to Sodom as an outsider, and now he’s playing magistrate.”

Then another, “Suppose we tie you up naked and invent new ways to violate your laws.” And yet another, “That’ll teach him to judge us by his high moral standard.”

The crowd pressed harder, some clamoring for Lot’s tunic and others shaking the latch of the door.

Suddenly, the angels appeared from inside and pulled Lot back into the house and barred the door. Those who were clawing at the threshold were struck blind and could no longer find the latch.

Amid the deafening silence that followed, the mob dispersed in confusion, assisting the blind men back to their sordid dens.

Inspiration: Genesis 19