Job, Poetry & Coronavirus

Some reflections from Job, poetry and coronavirus

If Leviticus is the deathbed of many a read-the-Bible-in-a-year resolutions, I reckon Job is generally just ignored or never reached, which is both a pity and quite understandable. Happening to read it in the last month or so with my 11-year old daughter Rebekah, I’ve really been struck, however, by its relevance as wisdom for our time… and not just the first couple of chapters, a few memory verses in the middle and the last bit.

Let me back up. Reading the Bible with Rebekah is quite interesting; there’s always some good interaction, even if brief. Having directed what we read for most of her 10 years of hearing the Bible, I’ve let her have a bit of limited choice in what we’ll do and she’s interested in getting into hitherto uncharted territory.

For us that has meant that we finally tackled a mostly uncensored Judges (really NSFW), and we’re now in Job.

Confession – my problem with Job and poetry

I’ll be honest, I actually had only ever skimmed through Job. I found the endless poetic arguing to be rather tiresome, weird and maybe it just didn’t seem wildly relevant. If Job is preached, somewhat like Daniel and Revelation, you tend to just get the juicy bits and skim over or summarise the rest… Perhaps like the way people often think of the poetry bits in the Lord of the Rings. 

Alongside Bible we’re also on our 3rd read-through of the Lord of the Rings as a bedtime story (we began that when she was 6 or 7 I think, paused a little and resumed when at age 8 she could handle it better). I confess I sing most of the songs. And I actually enjoy them. But when I read it to myself I always skipped over the interminable poetry. Why? And why is it that so many people have bad experiences of slaving away over poetry at school?

Well, I’m starting to appreciate that almost always poetry really absolutely must be heard and not just read silently. In fact more than that, it must be performed. In poetry the sounds and the rhythms of the words and lines are considerably more significant than the sounds and rhythms of the words in prose — whether story or teaching or conversation. I guess that’s obvious, and probably everyone knows that, but this means that unless you hear it out loud and take the time to get the rhythm right, you’re not actually experiencing the poetry properly, in the same way that if you removed all conjunctions and tense and sentence divisions from a story you would have still the same story but without most of the spice that makes it worth listening to. As you hear the rhythms and rhyme, the assonances and alliterations in poetry, they combine with the figurative language most people think of characterising poetry and the reordering and filling in what is left unsaid, to give (when done well) a more powerful communication than prose could achieve. It does require some hard work to appreciate all that the poet has woven into it. But hearing it aloud makes it come alive.

…poetry really absolutely must be heard and not just read silently.

Prose really survives silent reading more successfully and with less loss. Poetry read badly too, is incoherent and annoying to try to follow. (Incidentally, I find poetry translated prosaically while being printed as poetic lines is infuriatingly disappointing. And so actually I find myself agreeing with the original New Living Translation decision to print much Old Testament poetry as prose, because aside from figurative language the translation was prosaic, without distinctive rhythm or rhyme. Being told something is poetic while it doesn’t sound it, is rather like Alice-in-Wonderland’s sad song about the beautiful soup. It really doesn’t add up. End of rant.)

And so back to Job. Most of it is (apparently) poetry. Poetry in the Bible is an acquired taste, it must be said, even more so than Tolkien. And yet I think it can be read fairly well, whatever the translation. What Rebekah has found quite striking about Job so far is that it’s really not very like many other books of the Bible at all. Perhaps like the gospels and like some of the parable stories in the gospels you get straight into the story and then the action happens rather swiftly and before you know it you’re sitting in the dust with Job wondering whether he’ll take his wife’s advice and curse God to finish it all. On the face of it everything is actually very clear, and yet we quickly discover that things may not be as they seem. 

Of course the introduction to righteous Job sounds as over the top as Jesus’ parable of the Rich man and Lazarus, or the Lost Sons, and it could be too easy to get hung up on whether he was quite as good as he is claimed to be. That may be a distraction… and also actually cunningly part of the wisdom already at work. Job is — quite clearly — in the wisdom category. It sits right alongside the parable of the Good Samaritan and others, with a deeply subversive and possibly disturbing message or messages which I think we too easily miss.

Job’s friends come along to comfort him. And when they speak it sounds right. And yet it’s not very helpful to Job. They basically find various different ways to lay into him for obviously having sinned. Since he is suffering he must have done something wrong. These are Pharisees (or Prosperity teachers) before their time. They would really fit well into the kick-a-man-when-he-is-down Twitterverse. Raised on the simplicity of proverbs-style logic about sin, you (shockingly) almost get the feeling that they delight in Job’s downfall.

But if that wasn’t enough, it’s Job’s answers to his friends which are really seriously unsettling. Rebekah has raised a figurative eyebrow more than once. “He shouldn’t really say that to/about God, should he?”

So here’s the conundrum: we have a main protagonist who we have been told very clearly at the start is righteous — in a very good place with God, and very careful to do whatever he can even to cover unintentional sins by his family. He is unrealistically pure and without a hint of virtue-signalling show-off attitude. He doesn’t boast about his actions, he just does the right thing. And then his friends say things that sound very ‘sound’, very acceptable to a conservative or a charismatic ear, and yet we know from the start (and the end) that they are barking up the wrong tree. Honest Job then says all kinds of shocking things to and about God… and seems to get away with it. His friends are shocked. We are shocked. But God does not seem to be shocked. The narrator just lets the ding dong battle continue.

I’m not allowing any spoilers at the moment with Rebekah. Not really. Perhaps the occasional cryptic hint that we need to suspend judgment here about who is right, but that’s all. 

So what’s the effect? Well I think we’re rightly shocked at what Job says, and 24 chapters in, we are getting sick and tired of the trite but maybe well-intentioned nonsense his friends are spouting. We know Job hasn’t sinned. It was absolutely clear at the start. The accusations are as ridiculous as spurious witchcraft allegations which still abound in parts of Africa. Like Jesus with the Blind Man in John’s gospel (ch 9) we know that in this particular case suffering is not a proof of his sin. He is not a witch. He is not guilty. We have it from God. The friends’ view of the world clearly asserts that if someone sins then they suffer, so if someone suffers it’s because they sinned. Or (and this is a fantastic get-out) maybe their parents sinned and now the children are paying for it. (That is brilliant as an argument because it’s virtually impossible to disprove.) So we end up driven to distraction by the crass yet confident attempts of the friends to distort reality to fit their limited perspective. God save us from this. Isn’t it so easy to end up doing that?

And what’s the relevance for Coronavirus?

We live in a world where people are vigorously sharing opinions all the time. I’m doing it right now. And we live in a world where many people claim to know what is what, and where considerable truth gets blended with inappropriate application or cunning falsehood. This calls for wisdom. Even respected teachers slip up. We shouldn’t be surprised. We would do well to recognise that we ourselves are often playing the part of Job’s ‘Comforters’. I think the message of Job is a call for humility and to check that we are really speaking God’s message (not just our culture-tamed caricature of it) and thinking Christianly about the ups and downs and our partial understanding of this world. 

If there are many questions at this time there are more than enough answers. Job himself I think calls us away from seeking answers or blame to seeking real engagement with God — seeking not to extract answers or blessing from God, but seeking connection with God to see us through. Away with the clever retorts, and smart put-downs: “Surely you are The People and Wisdom will die with you!” Whenever Job was written, his glimpses of God so clearly find a tremendous fulfilment in Jesus. It’s not just that Jesus is the answer in a trite or superficial way, but that given what we know about Jesus we can look at Job’s shocking, desperate crying out to God and we can say that his attitude was largely right even if his knowledge and understanding was limited. He’s right to focus his attention on God as his redeemer, not on his works of the law to sort everything out.

In truth not even the people researching covid-19 and possible vaccines and medicines know very much about the virus, and certainly not the politicians and media stars who fill our public discourse. So as Christians we may want to just keep back a little when people play the blame game — you know people blaming politicians for not acting fast enough, not having enough masks in place, or everyone blaming Donald Trump, and Trump blaming everyone else.

What Wisdom from Job and from Jesus?

A paraphrase you might recognise:

Some people told him about the old people with underlying health conditions who had died from covid-19, and Jesus said ‘Do you think it was because they had lived unhealthy lives and had illicit social contact instead of isolating that they died of covid? Were they worse sinners because they died in this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.’

(like Luke 13?)

Our world will quickly rush to blame someone or to argue about that kind of thing and Jesus is very clear: take the warning, and make sure you’re in a good place with God. After all Easter is a great reminder that Jesus has flung wide the gates for us to come in. Job and people like him would have longed to see the day when God came to live with us. What are we waiting for?

This life is not all there is. A much as we might long for some sense of justice we should not be shocked when we don’t see it. And yet we can trust that God is truly in charge and will make all things right in the end. We don’t need to protect God from accusations of injustice or — like Job’s friends or like some climate alarmists — to anxiously find a reason to make people wallow in guilt, but to encourage everyone to entrust themselves to God and value him above the gifts he gives us. Jesus the Son guarantees us relationship by his Holy Spirit. The promise is for us and for our children.

So let’s not be surprised when even sound folk propagate solid-sounding fake news about God. And if we don’t understand — that’s OK. We can take it to God and recognise him as ultimately responsible. We don’t even need to blame the Devil. Job never knew, and he didn’t need to know, what had gone on in heaven.

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