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 who relied on me. 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 the wicked will come to a permanent end, leaving nothing for their children, forgotten for eternity. Even the mother of a bandit forgets her son so she can 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

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

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. What he has been sucking all the while is from the dragon, Satan.

“He misses out on the cascading rivers flowing with milk and honey. With nothing more for him to devour, his his stolen wealth dries up.

“The wicked man encounters trouble at the peak of his power, and usually it’s the company of the wicked that destroys 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 he’s wearing terror on 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 what God prepares for the wicked.”

Inspiration: Job 20

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   

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

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

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

Parting ways

Abram now had an uncounted inventory of gold, silver, and livestock. He and Sarai, along with his nephew Lot resumed their circuit of travel, making their way back around to Shechem, where God first promised Abram he’d bring forth blessed nations from his family. The first altar he had built remained unblemished, so he conversed with God there in the evenings.

Lot was also getting wealthy, and soon the land couldn’t support both estates. The shepherds of both clans bickered more frequently, but when Lot’s herders started a turf war against the other, Abram intervened.

He met with his nephew by a creek one day. The smell of sun-soaked soil and rock was pleasant, and the water trickling over the pebbles altered their otherwise collectively foul mood. “Look,” Abram said, his jaw set,  “I’m not going to fight with you, and I’m certainly not going to allow our herders to go to blows. We’re all family here.”

Abram put an arm around Lot and gave him a quarter turn from where he stood. “Elevate your gaze, man. All this land is ours,” he said, making a sweeping gesture across the vast horizon. “Let’s agree that if you go east, I’ll go west. If you go west, I’ll go east.”

Lot looked around, his eyes narrowed. To the east, he saw the lush plains of Jordan, with her natural irrigation systems and cascading rivers, reminiscent of the fables of Eden.

“I’ll go east,” Lot said, biting his lip.

“And so it will be,” Abram concluded.

Lot spread his estate among the cities of the plains. He purchased property within the city limits of Sodom, a town known for its pride, laziness, and sexual appetite.

Abram moved westward, bringing his people and possessions to the beating heart of Canaan.

“Look up from the spot you’re standing on,” God said. “Look north, south, east, and west. These wide, open spaces will be yours forever.” And he promised, “I’ll make your children as numerous as the stars.”

The more he heard the promise, the more God added to it, and the more real it seemed. Abram settled down in Hebron at a place called Mamre Oaks where he built another altar to await the fruition of all that God had promised him.

Inspiration: Genesis 13