The first reading this week has been taken from the Book of Job. It is considered to be one of the scrolls belonging to the Wisdom category and is a narrative that, in its own way, attempts to address the question of suffering during one’s life. Our story began with Monday’s reading in which we learn that Job is pious and upright, richly endowed in his own person and in domestic prosperity. He suffers a sudden and complete reversal of fortune. He loses his property and his children; a loathsome disease afflicts his body; and he is overcome with sorrow. Nevertheless, Job does not complain against God.
In Chapter 3, when some friends visit him to console him, Job protests his innocence and does not understand why he is afflicted. He curses the day of his birth and longs for death to bring an end to his sufferings. Job’s friends insist that his plight can only be a punishment for personal wrongdoing and an invitation from God to repentance. Job rejects their inadequate explanation and calls for a response from God himself. And that brings us to today’s first reading from Chapter 38.
In response to Job’s plea that he be allowed to see God and hear from him the cause of his suffering, God answers, but not to any of the questions that Job has posed over the previous 35 chapters. One way to consider all of Job’s complaints that preceded our reading today is to say that Job claims that God has fallen asleep at the wheel in running the universe, and because of this divine neglect he’s had to endure unjust suffering. Although not included in today’s reading Job 38:4 succinctly answers: “Where were you when I founded the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding.” God never justifies his actions before Job, He simply reminds Job of his divine power, without so much as a nod to justifying his action before men.
God’s response (Job 38-42) shows how his attention is actually on every single detail of the operations of the universe. In fact, God is privy to all kinds of perspectives and details that Job has never even imagined and never will. Following the cosmic tour of today’s reading, God takes Job on a corresponding virtual tour of part of the world that Job actually inhabits, the earth (Job 38:39-39:30). He asks Job if he’s ever provided food for lions, or seen an isolated mountain goat give birth? No? Well, perhaps Job understands the feeding patterns of wild donkeys that roam the hills, or ostriches and their strange ways of caring for their young. Maybe Job and God can have a stimulating conversation about Job’s knowledge of war horses, and the aerodynamics of an eagle soaring on thermal air currents. As it turns out, Job doesn’t know as much as he thought, even about the world he lives in and should be familiar with. In a wonderful scene in Chapter 40, God invites Job to be the cosmic ruler for a day if he thinks he is up to the task.
At the end of God’s invitations to dialogue, Job responds he doesn’t know any of these things that are part of the world in which he lives. God is intimately familiar with the cosmos and the world; infinitely more about them than Job can comprehend. There is more to God’s response, but in the end, Job never finds out why he suffered and neither do you, the reader. The goal of the book was never to offer us that information. Rather, the first divine speech makes clear that God does know everything that transpires in his world, and his perspective on the universe has a wider range than any human will ever have.
Job is content with this. He recovers his attitude of humility and trust in God, which is deepened now and strengthened by his experience of suffering. In the epilogue the Lord restores Job’s fortune.
Job is content with this. We are not. And therein lies an open door to the Wisdom of Job.
Image Credit: “Job and his friends” (1869) by Ilya Repin, Wikipedia, Public Domain