One day the heavenly beings came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came among them to present himself before the Lord. The Lord said to Satan,‘Where have you come from?’ Satan answered the Lord, ‘From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it.’ The Lord said to Satan, ‘Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man who fears God and turns away from evil. He still persists in his integrity, although you incited me against him, to destroy him for no reason.’ Then Satan answered the Lord, ‘Skin for skin! All that people have they will give to save their lives. But stretch out your hand now and touch his bone and his flesh, and he will curse you to your face.’ The Lord said to Satan, ‘Very well, he is in your power; only spare his life.’
So Satan went out from the presence of the Lord, and inflicted loathsome sores on Job from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head. Job took a potsherd with which to scrape himself, and sat among the ashes.
Then his wife said to him, ‘Do you still persist in your integrity? Curse God, and die.’ But he said to her, ‘You speak as any foolish woman would speak. Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?’ In all this Job did not sin with his lips.
Now when Job’s three friends heard of all these troubles that had come upon him, each of them set out from his home—Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite. They met together to go and console and comfort him. When they saw him from a distance, they did not recognize him, and they raised their voices and wept aloud; they tore their robes and threw dust in the air upon their heads. They sat with him on the ground for seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great.
For Job life gets even tougher as he contracts a nasty skin disease which covers him from head to toe. He has no idea where it’s come from and he’s certain he doesn’t deserve it. In the ancient world diseases and any kind of suffering were understood as divine punishment for sin; and this book wants to challenge that theology. Again, as readers, we are assured that God knows Job remains ‘blameless’.
Job feels like rubbish and goes to sit among the rubbish away from other people. But still Job doesn’t rail against God, or sin in any way, even when his wife encourages him to ‘curse God, and die’. He refuses to deny the sovereignty of God and God’s freedom to act in ways that we cannot understand. He refuses to let go of faith and to live as one alienated from God.
Personally I wish the text expressed Job’s reproof to his wife as the speech of ‘any foolish person’, rather than ‘any foolish woman’; but it stems from a community and a time where patriarchy prevailed. Gender is not the issue here but the folly of rejecting God whenever life doesn’t go the way we would wish. Job speaks truly when he declares that God is the source of everything, good and bad alike, a truth also expressed in Isaiah 45:7.
Then Job’s three friends come to offer him pastoral support for they have heard about his troubles. They are shocked at his appearance and consult together about how to respond and the amazing thing is that they don’t go away, fearful that they might catch the same disease. They don’t nominate one of them to be their spokesperson leaving the other two free to depart. They don’t offer words of comfort, or go straight in with questions to Job about his situation. They simply weep and sit alongside him in silence, sharing his misery for a whole week.
It can be so tempting to stay away from someone who is suffering when we feel inadequate and don’t know what to say or do. Often, though, our presence and readiness to share someone else’s grief is the best response we can make and exactly what is needed as a real expression of love.
Holy God, you are the source of all that is and I praise you for all the experiences of life. Help me to remain faithful, whatever befalls me.
Thank you for my friends, especially those who have stuck by me in the tough times and revealed your love to me. Help me to be a loving friend to others, willing to give of my time and my presence in response to their need.
Help me to know when to keep my mouth shut and to recognise that I don’t have all the answers, nor the wisdom to understand what the real questions are. Sustain me by your love and let that love flow through me to any who are in need today. Amen.
The Rev’d Dr Janet Tollington is a retired minister and member of Emmanuel URC in Cambridge.