Elie Wiesel is a Jew who survived the Holocaust and has since written numerous books, the first of which is called Night. He writes about how in 1944, at the age of 14, he and fellow Jews of his community were taken to the death camps – three days travel, 80 people in each cattle truck. When they arrived men and women were separated and it was the last time he ever saw his mother and sister. He writes this: “Never shall I forget that night, the first night in the camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed. Never shall I forget that smoke….Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever…..Never shall I forget those flames which murdered my God and my soul, and turned my dreams into dust (p. 45).
One time, Wiesel was one of thousands in the camp to witness a young boy who was first tortured and then hanged by the Nazi guards. As it was happening he heard someone behind him whisper. “Where is God? Where is He?” It took the boy a half hour to die and then everyone was forced to march past him and look directly into the face of the corpse and Elie heard the same voice ask again “Where is God now?” Wiesel records his response this way: ‘And I heard a voice within me answer him: ‘Where is he? Here he is – he is hanging here on this gallows.’” (pp. 75-77)
I hesitate in some ways to introduce an image like this. It comes from one of the darkest chapters of human history and evokes some of the deepest questions of the human soul regarding the power, or goodness, or existence of God. We were not there in the death camps, but a writing like this makes us a witness to these events in a way that forces us to deal with the realities that it presents.
This is the third week now that we have been reflecting on the book of Job. The first week I mentioned that the story of Job is high stakes. At stake is not only the question of why the innocent suffer, or why bad things happen to good people, but also the survival of faith in God. Because the innocent do suffer, as Job affirms, as our life experience tells us, and as Night makes brutally clear, we are left with particular questions about God that are unsettling. Two of the most classical assertions about God are that God is powerful and that God is loving, and we are left wondering if we must choose between these. If God is both powerful, able to deliver, and loving, desiring what is best for creation, then surely Holocaust does not happen. So perhaps God is powerful, but not loving in the sense that we have made God out to be. Or perhaps God is loving, but not powerful in the sense that we have made God out to be. Or perhaps, there’s another way of framing this question that is not yet clear to us.
Socrates said that “The unexamined life is not worth living,” and so it can also be true that “The unexamined god is not worth believing in.”
From studying Job so far we know that Job is a text that is speaking to a time of transition for the Jews’ journey with God. When the trials of exile were posing questions such that the dominant meaning structure could no longer hold. That punishment for sin was the primary reason for their hardship. Job, and much of the Bible, is what Rene Girard has called a “text in travail.” A text where the grit of experience and the unknowing of the spirit are on full display and the emergence of a new understanding is coming into being. And the book of Job lets us be a witness to that process. And that’s what is visualized so beautifully in the wall hanging. A text of travail, from top to bottom. We looked first at the experience of Job, then the perspective of the friends, who are trying like mad to represent the rigid formulation that is crumbling in front of them, and now we come to God’s response.
So what I would like to do is this: I would like to make two observations about the way God responds to Job – two different, fairly broad things that are worth noticing in how this story draws toward its conclusion. Then I would like to make a few tentative personal responses about what I see when we hold up the Job story next to Elie Wiesel’s Night story. Then I would like to allow time for some silence. And then give a chance if there are any responses or reflections or further questions that any one of you would like to offer. And that will go for anything that has come up during the study of Job in the last three weeks.
So, remember the one picture of God on the gallows in Night, and now let’s look at two observations for how God responds to Job.
1) After the initial encounter with God and the heavenly beings, with The Satan, the Adversary, the Accuser, which is what The Satan means…after this initial conversation regarding the righteous person of Job and allowing him to suffer for a while, God is silent. Until chapter 38. And when God does finally speak, it says, “Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind.” That’s the first observation. That when God speaks, it is out of the whirlwind. The JPS, the Jewish Publication Society translates this as tempest, and the NIV translates this as storm, but I like the way the NRSV and the King James have it as whirlwind. It’s this wild, untamed, energy of wind and storm and whirling that contains the voice of God.
This is a new word in Job. We haven’t encountered a whirlwind yet in the story, even though Job’s whole experience appears to be rather whirlwind like. It is the same word that show up when the prophet Elijah is taken up to heaven in a whirlwind (2 Kings 2:11). This was also the way that the prophet Ezekiel had a heavenly vision when he was in exile in Babylon. Ezekiel says he was sitting by the river Chebar among the exiles and had a vision, “As I looked, a stormy wind (that’s the whirlwind) came out of the north: a great cloud with brightness around it and fire flashing forth continually, and in the middle of the fire, something like gleaming amber. “ A powerful, overwhelming kind of encounter with something like a stormy, mighty wind. It even brings to mind some allusions to Pentecost in the upper room of Acts 2.
God coming in a storm reminds me of a scene from the movie Forest Gump. It’s been a while since I’ve seen the film so I’m a little sketchy on the details, but there is a scene where he and Lt. Dan are in their shrimp boat, and Lt. Dan is still working through a lot of rage and anger and disgust with his war experience and losing both of his legs and so he screaming out to God to listen to him. And then pretty quickly there’s a storm that blows up in the gulf there where they’re boating and Lt. Dan climbs on top of the mast and it’s pouring down rain and lightning and thunder and he’s kind of duking it out with God.
This is just pure guess on my part, having some fun with the text, but I wonder if God appearing in the whirlwind can also have some connections to the way Job and his friends have been going about their conversation. Because they keep telling each other how full of wind the other is. Like they’re blowing smoke, or full of hot air, or whatever the modern equivalent phrase would be. Bildad tells Job, “How long will you say these things, and the words of your mouth be a great wind?” (8:2) And Eliphaz tells Job, “Should the wise answer with windy knowledge, and fill themselves with the east wind? (15:2) And so of course Job comes back with “I have heard many such things; miserable comforters are you all. Have windy words no limit?” (16:2,3). So here are these guys, all full of hot air in each other’s minds, and then out of this futile windiness that they are creating, somehow the voice of God emerges from the great wind. Not sure if there’s intended to be a connection there, but there could be one to be made.
So this first observation is that the chaos and unpredictability of Job’s circumstances are met with this powerful and even more unpredictable whirlwind that contains the voice of God.
2) The second observation comes from the words that come out of the whirlwind. All along Job has been questioning God. Been bombarding God with questions, his friends have been trying to answer those questions in traditional kinds of ways that Job finds completely unsatisfactory. Ultimately God finds Job’s prayers filled with questions more righteous than the friends responses full of answers. But when God does speak, there are no alternative answers given to Job’s questions. Instead, God, the one who has been questioned, turns around and addresses Job in the form of questions. The questioned One becomes the questioner. I went through chapters 38-41 which contain God’s speech and I counted 61 question marks. I very well could have missed a few and there are a lot more questions than that actually being asked because most of them are double barreled questions. So God asks, “Have you entered into the springs of the sea, or walked in the recesses of the deep? One question mark, two questions. Who has put wisdom in the inward parts, or given understanding to the mind? Two questions. It’s the Hebrew poetry format of saying something one way and then another way.
God does not even address Job’s questions. God’s questions to Job aren’t even about the human situation of suffering. In one sense, one has to wonder how much God was paying attention to the previous conversation that just happened because these questions God is putting out there don’t exactly follow… It’s been observed that the first set of questions (38:4-21) have to do with cosmology, the ways of the heavens and cosmos, and the next group of questions (38:22-38) has to do with meteorology, rain, and snow and lightning and all that good stuff, and the next set of questions (3:39-39:30 has to do with zoology, lions and deer, wild ox, and horses and other animals. And the basic question being asked to Job through all these questions is do you have control over any of this stuff around you? Do you have any idea how this whole economy of creation works? Do you recognize that there is a massive world teeming with life and energy beyond your ability to fathom?
There’s nothing about human beings. There’s nothing about our predicament. About our sense of what is right and just and fair. God talks for 34 verses about the Leviathan creature, which we don’t even know what it is for sure, but there’s no mention of us. People.
The implied answer to the questions God asks Job is “No.” Either “No” or “I don’t know.” “Can you lift up your voice to the clouds so that a flood of waters may cover you?” No. Do you give the horse its might? No. Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? I don’t know.
First observation from Job: When God speaks, it is in a voice from the whirlwind. Second observation: When God speaks, it is in the form of questions.
Holding Job alongside Elie Wiesel’s Night, gives us two texts that give different pictures of God in a world where suffering is very real and persistent. For Wiesel, God has become as weak and powerless as a youth whose life has ended and thus, perhaps, has ceased to be god, murdered in the death camps. For Job, God has become beyond human knowing, an eruptive, creative force in a universe in which the human creature is but a speck.
A tentative response: I don’t know how to reconcile these two images, but I have an intuition that they both hold truth – however literal or metaphorical that truth might be. I feel challenged to listen to each one more closely and to try and hold them both together, despite the paradoxical, almost contradictory nature of doing so. I find both of them troubling and disturbing in some ways, and also find both insightful and revelatory.
I feel the book of Job saying that this is ultimately not about Job or his friends, or any of their theology, or about us humans in general, but about God and about our being humbled before the God of the whirlwind. But I feel the book of Night saying that this ultimately is about humanity and how we find meaning and how we treat each other ethically.
Job puts me in awe of the power of the universe. Night puts me in awe of the power of humans to do evil. Through Job I see a love from God that sustains us even in our smallness, is patient with us even in our bickering, and restores friends and foe alike to health. Through Elie Wiesel I see a writer’s love for his people that insists that their story must be told and remembered, no matter how disturbing and unsettling it is.
In both stories there is a responsibility that comes back onto the main character. Job must pray for his friends before he is restored. Elie Wiesel must write in order to keep his humanity.
I don’t want to be too quick to overlay a Christian theology of crucifixion and resurrection to either of these stories, but I do see glimpses of Christ both in the suffering and in the rising again that happens in both.
I don’t say any of these things to try and derail or unravel anyone’s faith in God. My intention through the study of Job has been to try and be faithful to the spirit of the story, which, I believe, is to disturb us from easy assumptions about ourselves and God and to invite us into this conversation as friends. Hopefully good friends who listen to each other and who receive a grace from God in whatever way that would come.
In that spirit, I would like to invite us into a brief time of silence, followed by a chance for anyone to share any reflections you have had over these last three weeks that this study has brought about. Anecdotes, brief insights, further questions, all these would be welcome. I think this is something that we all think about from time to time, so soon there will be a chance for us to think out loud in the presence of a safe community of inquiry, if we wish.