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God’s partner in seeking justice (Feb. 27, 2022)

Uniform Lesson for February 27, 2022
Scripture passage and lesson focus: Job 42:1-6, 10-17

We end our series on justice, and our two-part visit with Job, with one of the most intriguing and ambiguous chapters in Scripture. First, scholars debate the proper ending of this book — should it end after verse 6 or with the happy ending (that seems to confirm much of the prosperity theology the rest of the book rejects)? Second, translators wrestle with many or most of the words and phrases in verse 6, leading to a plethora of versions and meanings. Much is at stake here — for our understanding of Job and our role and responsibility regarding God’s justice. For a more comprehensive treatment, seek out Samuel Balentine’s commentary on Job (in the Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary series). For our purposes, let’s go with a “traditional” and “less traditional” approach and see if the truth may be somewhere between.

The traditional approach

The NRSV translation of verse 6 reads: “Therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.” Both the verb “despise” and the phrase “dust and ashes” seem to point to a fundamental “repentance” on Job’s part at the end of this wide-ranging dispute. After Job’s friends respond to his demands for justice with varying arguments, God steps forward and blasts Job’s protests apart with God’s speech/speeches “out of the whirlwind” (Job 38:1 ff.). “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?” God asks (38:2). “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” God continues (38:4). “Can you draw out Leviathan with a fishhook?” God concludes (41:1), and God rests God’s case.

The answer to all these questions seems obvious: “No, heck no!” God is God. Job is a creature. And creatures have no business questioning the Creator’s justice. So, after God’s speech, Job acknowledges that he has uttered words he did not understand, “things too wonderful for me, which I did not know” (42:3). Therefore, Job “despises” himself, and “repents in dust and ashes” (v.6). He’s sorry for his impertinence and is then rewarded for his hard-won humility. Job gets put in his place, along with us.

The less traditional approach

But what if God’s speech from the whirlwind includes some creatures that demonstrate some degree of autonomy — like Leviathan, “a creature without fear” (41:33)? What if Job does not despise himself (there’s no object for the verb here) and recants the details but not the purpose of his argument? What if Job repents/turns around/comes to see himself in a new way as (not “in”; the preposition is ambiguous) “dust and ashes,” that is as a human being, or humus (soil) being, one whom God invites into a relationship that, like the Leviathan, is “without fear”?

The book of Job may be an invitation for human beings to engage in conversation with God about the nature of justice and how God’s justice is not yet established on God’s earth. Hasn’t this been the topic of our series and the purpose of our study: to carefully but courageously enter into conversations with God and one another regarding God’s justice in our own time and place? As Nathan bravely stepped forward demanded justice from King David (2 Samuel 12), so part of the responsibility and privilege of human beings is to step forward and courageously, yet humbly, demand justice from our king? As we read in last fall’s series on worship, the Psalms are full of the voices of fellow human beings stepping forward to argue with God: “Rise up, O Lord! Do not let [wicked human beings] prevail; let the nations be judged before you” (Psalm 9:19). Maybe Job began his journey as a lonely petitioner. Could Job conclude his journey as a covenant partner and perhaps participant with God?

Final conclusions

And so, we end our study of God’s justice with some questions for ourselves. Surely there are matters of justice we had best leave to God, whose wisdom and compassion far outweigh our own (note the stories in Genesis of Cain and Abel, of Hagar and Ishmael). But, just as surely, there are some matters of justice in which we are called to participate (as the words and actions of elders and judges, Moses and Ezra, make clear). When Jesus appeared out of Nazareth proclaiming that the kingdom of God was near, he modeled a way of speaking and acting we are invited to follow. Not only may we be called to be our “brother’s keeper” (Genesis 4:9) but also our Creator’s partner in the establishment of justice on earth as it is in heaven.

For discussion:

How do you make sense of the ending of Job, and what is the nature of his “repentance”?

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