There Was a Man from the Land of Uz
There was once a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job. That man was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil.
Why have you picked up this book?
Perhaps you are a pastor wondering if we’ve found a way to add some clarity to a confusing book in the Bible.
Maybe you are a layperson with higher-than-average interest in biblical studies.
Or, could it be you are looking for anything that might help you get through another painful day?
We want to help you in all these ways, but we especially want to help you be honest—honest about yourself, honest about the book of Job, and honest about God.
The book of Job raises timeless questions about the meaning of life and about what we can expect of God as we struggle. Themes of mystery, justice, theology, and community weave through this ancient story in much the same way they weave through our own stories. Milton, through his homilies, will help you understand what the book actually says, and doesn’t say, about such things. Wes, through fictional, though reality-based, counseling narratives, will help you see how these themes continually stir us up in the practical challenges of life.
Before continuing, we recommend a brief exercise. Consider these first three verses from Job:
There was once a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job. That man was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil. There were born to him seven sons and three daughters. He had seven thousand sheep, three thousand camels, five hundred yoke of oxen, five hundred donkeys, and very many servants; so that this man was the greatest of all the people of the east.
Now ask yourself: What would these opening verses say if they were about you? If you had to capture “me” in only three sentences, what would those sentences be? We recommend you jot down your sentences on the page at the beginning of this chapter.
We are reminded about the universality of suffering almost on a daily basis. When was the last time you heard of some horrible plight coming upon some person or her family in some place far removed from your community? It probably hasn’t been that long, thanks to the Internet and the constant watch of anyone who has an electronic communication device with video capabilities. And, having all that information, do you care about it anymore? In fact, I wonder whether contemporary capabilities to know moment by moment who’s suffering in the world (as well as who’s winning the daily pick three) does not actually make it all rather mundane, routine, and therefore uninteresting. Reports about some horrific disaster around the world flash across either our television screens or our cell phones every moment. They flash into our thoughts and as quickly evaporate as the next bit of data appears on the screen.
One of the things that makes this story of Job so fascinating to me is the apparent anonymity of the main character, Job. Why should we care about him? And I don’t think this is only a problem for the contemporary reader, but it would have been for the ancient reader, too. The opening line of the story tells readers that Job came from a place called Uz. Ever wonder if ancient readers asked the same thing modern readers do: Where the heck is that? Members of ancient audiences would have needed to be fairly scripturally literate to know that Uz is mentioned in Lamentations 4:21: Rejoice and be glad, O daughter of Edom, that you live in the land of Uz. And the literate audience members may have known that the land of Edom was the object of at least one prophet’s wrath—Obadiah 1–4. But who knew anything about Obadiah?
Maybe an ancient reader only needed to know that this story did not take place in the land of Israel. Perhaps Uz was the poet’s way of saying that such things could not, and would not, ever happen in the homeland. It’s like one of those comforting fictions that contemporary folk entertain about the land of the free, even though they are actually living in a culture that perpetuates its own kinds of slaveries. Job was not an Israelite, so how could his suffering concern me? In fact, it’s not just that he and his friends were foreigners, but he lived so long ago, didn’t he? Don’t the opening lines have that once-upon-a-time feel to them? I mean, he reminds you of Abraham, somewhat, doesn’t he? His wealth is in land, animals, and big family. He’s the religious leader of the clan, the one who offers sacrifices, just like Abraham. And, for that matter, was Abraham even a Hebrew? Didn’t he come from Ur of the Chaldeans (Genesis 11:31)? And yet, Abraham is like the patriarch of all persons of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim faith, isn’t he? Citing Abraham is one of the ways that the big three monotheistic religions say, yes, we have something in common.
Maybe that is all we need to know when it comes to suffering. As Abraham was the patriarch of ethical monotheism, perhaps Job’s long-ago-and-far-away background is given so readers will think of him as a kind of patriarch of suffering. That way suffering is not just localized in the life of an unknown person. Rather, because he’s my father in some sense, his suffering is mine, too. (Jesus should probably work that way for Christians, but I’m afraid he’s so much our Christ that we forget that he was a man, too.) No matter where suffering occurs, or to whom, it is a part of my inheritance, a part of my story. In fact, like a patriarchal lineage, I cannot disown it or deny it. Suffering is a part of my bloodline, defining what it means to be a person of faith. When I hear of anyone suffering, because we are all descendants of Job, it is a family member who is suffering. Suffering is not anonymous, thanks to my being a part of the family of Job.
Somewhere, somehow, we began to live as if we were separate, alone, and in danger. Once afraid, we constructed a self out of that fear and have been steadfastly defending it ever since.
Kabir Helminski, Living Presence
“But if I don’t do a PhD, then won’t I just be settling for less than I can be?”
For Janie this is a desperate question. Her eyes express the terror of a cornered animal. For all her work in therapy, her traumatized brain can still get hooked by the small-self whisper: You’ll never measure up. I think about the opening lines of Job and wonder how Janie’s life might be captured in less than one hundred words:
There was a young woman from East Texas whose name was Janie. She was a gifted therapist who wanted to please God. Having survived a childhood of abuse and neglect, Janie graduated from college with a master’s degree in counseling. Her outstanding work with juvenile offenders allowed her to create a life of wealth compared to her beginnings. Janie could confront an angry teen about his self-defeating choices, only to have that same boy begging her to play basketball with the “inmates” later the same afternoon. Janie was considered the best in town at her work.
“Janie, where is that question coming from? Is it your small self pushing you toward another degree, or your Authentic Self? I’d never want to dampen your urge to study, but it has taken you years to create a life characterized more by meaning than by suffering. Why would you want to heap more stress upon yourself now?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know.” Janie’s eyes are pleading. “It just seems like I ought to go for the PhD. What? You don’t think I could do it?”
“Of course you could do it. Listen to yourself for a moment. What are you feeling? You seem to be frantic right now. What’s going on? Help me understand.”
Janie leans back, “When is my small self going to just shut up? I know you’re right. The kids were all high-fiving me last night when I played basketball with them. By ten o’clock I’d turned myself into a total mess. Even with all my meds I couldn’t sleep. I just kept thinking about what a loser I was for not having a PhD, like you. My Authentic Self tries to remind me of all I’ve accomplished, but it’s like it doesn’t matter.”
“Let’s go back to basics for a moment. Your wounded small self is never going to simply go away. You’ve done such great work in strengthening your God-breathed Authentic Self, but the small self is never going to give up easily.”
“Then what’s the point of all this?”
“You tell me.”
I get the patented Janie eye-roll before she answers.
“I get one shot at this life. I can either run with it or live my life like a victim.”
“You’ve been running with it and creating something out of almost nothing. But it still doesn’t feel like enough, does it?”
“Not on days like today.”
I notice that the frantic look has faded from Janie’s eyes. She seems more present now.
“I think I told you my friend Milton and I are working on a book about Job. Parts of it keep popping into my mind during my sessions.”
“Yeah. I’ve started reading it again. I hope you weren’t expecting me to be encouraged by that story.”
“That’s a fair dig.” I hope my smile reflects the tenderness I feel “I guess most of us would find more encouragement in what we think the story says. Some guy loses everything, and then God makes sure he gets it back. But what I’m thinking right now is that you are almost the anti-Job. You started with nothing, have created a stunning life, and yet still find yourself on the trash heap on a regular basis.”
“Are you saying I’m doing this to myself?” Is that a hint of fire in those eyes?
“OK, did you notice how you automatically assumed I was thinking the worst of you?” I’m leaning forward now. “You and I both understand now what an upbringing like yours does to a brain. Constant survival pressures on the small self never allow the Authentic Self breathing room to grow. Despite this, you’ve slowly taken responsibility for your life. But all those old feelings of fear and hopelessness are still in your brain, and they are easily triggered.”
“See? Right now I can hear what you are saying, and it makes sense.” Janie curls up in a ball against the corner of my worn out couch. “But in the middle of the night, when you are not there, it’s like I have amnesia.”
“I know. Maybe that’s why the book of Job has been around for so long. No matter how each of our stories can seem different from his, we all end up on the trash heap, angry and hopeless.”
“You know I do, Janie. You know a fair amount of my story. We both know what it’s like to feel angry and hopeless. We both know what it’s like to wonder if there is even a God out there, much less whether or not that God gives a damn.”
The opening lines of the book of Job tell readers who Job is. What does it take to get us to be honest about who we are, why we choose to live the way we do, and what ultimately is of greatest value to us? Religious faith is supposed to be honest about those things, but often it is religious faith that pushes us to be the least honest.
Janie’s concerns about a PhD may not seem relevant to your life. But can you see how her obsession with achievement, with the symbols of success, drives her away from her soul? Janie’s life has been filled with more pain, perpetrated by others, than most. She tells herself that getting an advanced degree will somehow make things OK. Like so many of us, her suffering has slowly shifted from what has been done to her toward what she continues to do to herself.
When we say that there is a book in the Bible that deals with suffering, it may be a curiosity to us, or it may remind us of how fear of suffering and death motivates our decision-making. And fear can be at work within us even though we are unaware of it. Where does that fear come from? And why can’t we be more honest about it? How is it possible for us to bury our fears so effectively that we can be unaware of them while being influenced by them?
Being a descendant of Job is not only about physical and psychological suffering. It is about how one holds to one’s religious convictions and what difference those convictions make in one’s Authentic Self. Frankly, to be a descendant of Job, all you have to be is a man or woman trying to get through the day, sometimes in the face of great suffering, but always with the challenge of being honest about who you are in relationship to your convictions about God.
We probably know some of the details of Job’s story. But we know much better what is happening in our own stories. Belonging to the family of Job, though, means that we have some things in common with each other as we seek to hold to faith with integrity in the experience of suffering.