The Book of Job: A Three Thousand-Year-Old Story of Grief
By Rev John T. Schwiebert, MDiv
Part One: Getting into the Story (see Job 1:1 to 2:9)
Following up on my promise in the May 2012 Newsletter, I present here the first installment in a series of reflections on the grief experienced by a man named job in the book in the Hebrew Bible that bears his name.
We begin by acknowledging that the book of Job is first and foremost a story—a “once upon a time” tale told by an unknown author who wants those of us who read it to think deeply about its themes, such as suffering, grief, blame, temptation and the nature of God.
Whether or not there was an actual historical figure named Job is of little importance. For the storyteller’s purposes Job is simply the main character in a fictional story, in the same way that Grandy is the principal character in “Tear Soup.” Tear Soup begins, “Once there was an old and somewhat wise woman whom everyone called Grandy.” Similarly, the Book of Job begins, “There was once a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job.”
The teller of the Job story then imagines a scene in which God and Satan (in Hebrew ha-satan, meaning literally “the Accuser”) express differing opinions about how Job, described by the author as “blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil,” would respond in the face of suffering and loss. God is sure that Job will trust God even through suffering and loss. The accuser alleges that Job, when confronted with extreme suffering and loss, will curse God because of his misfortune.
So an extreme test is devised by the Accuser, with God’s permission, raising the tension in the story to an almost unbearable level. The test includes the murder of Job’s servants, the theft of all of his livestock, the calamitous death of his seven sons and three daughters and finally the loss of his health in the form of a loathsome, persistent and painful skin disease covering his entire body.
Later in my series of reflections on this story of Job, I want to devote an entire installment to the legitimate question faced by most if not all grieving persons at some point in our bereavement, namely, “Why does God allow suffering.” Or, to put the question another way, “If God loves us why doesn’t God protect us from the pain of loss?”
But in this installment I simply invite us to feel the pain of Job’s loss through the experience of whatever loss is heaviest on our hearts personally at this particular time.
Job’s story is our story and that is its primary value for us who read it in the context of our own experience. We cannot think about the death of Job’s sons and daughters without thinking of the children or other loved ones we have lost to death. And some who read Job’s story have literally lost livestock (and with it livelihood) if not through theft, through flood or famine. And, like Job, some have experienced sudden, chronic illness—a loss of the good health they had come to take for granted.
If your experience includes meeting in a grief support group with others who have suffered recent loss you can easily imagine Job as a member of your group--another voice crying out in despair, yearning to be heard by those who are more likely to understand and honor what he is going through, because you too have suffered loss. Your group may want to consider inviting Job into your group by reading aloud some of the verses in the twenty-six verses of Chapter 3 of the Book of Job, where Job, like you and others in your group, pours out his lament because of a grief that seems to offer no relief:
For my sighing comes like my bread,
and my groanings are poured out like water
Truly the thing that I fear comes upon me,
and what I dread befalls me.
I am not at ease, nor am I quiet;
I have no rest; but trouble comes.
Or read these words on your own, even if you are not meeting with a group. Knowing that the pain you experience in grief has been around for many millennia may not take away your suffering, but it can provide some temporary relief. As someone has said, “Joy shared is joy doubled; grief shared is grief halved.”
Next month: “Part Two: The Miserable Comforters”
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