A Bible study with Jeffrey J. Harrison
Last time we ended with God giving Satan (the
Adversary) permission to attack Job—a deeply disturbing image! How could God do that? This brought up the whole issue of suffering, which as we saw, is right at the heart of Christianity. The central image of Christianity is, after all, Jesus hanging on a cross. But the gospel message—the good news—is that through the power of God, suffering can be the doorway to redemption. This is a crucial element of the Christian faith that has been neglected and even rejected in recent years.
But we want to pick up right now where we left off, with Job 1:13, where Satan begins to act on the permission he received from God.
1:13: “And the day came and his [Job’s] sons and daughters were eating and drinking wine in the house of their elder brother.”
So here they were, gathered at the house of Job’s eldest son on his birthday for one of their extended drinking parties, when all of a sudden, things start to get messy.
1:14-15: “And a messenger came to Job and said, ‘The oxen were ploughing and the female donkeys were grazing beside them and Sheba [that is, a group of Sabeans] fell upon them1 and took them and struck the young men with the mouth of the sword. And I’m the only one that escaped, I alone, to tell you*.’”2
1 them: Words in the translation that appear in italics are not in the original Hebrew text. They are supplied in translation to bring out the meaning of the sentence.
2 you*: An asterisk is used to indicate a second person singular form. A pound sign (#) is used to indicate a second person plural.
This was a raiding party from the kingdom of Sheba, hundreds of miles away in the area of modern Yemen at the southeastern tip of the Saudia Arabian peninsula. Sheba is best known for the visit of the Queen of Sheba to King Solomon a thousand years later, when it had become a famous center of international trade and a source of precious myrrh. By New Testament times, goods from exotic ports like India and China also made their way through Sheba on camel caravans.
But the Sabean raid against Job dates back to less glorious times. This kind of lightning raid is typical of life in the deserts of the Middle East, both in ancient and more modern times. And it fits right in with the time of Abraham and Isaac, who were contemporaries of Job. Abraham, too, dealt with raiders who came from hundreds of miles away against Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 14).
1:16: “While this one was still speaking, another came and said, ‘The fire of Elohim3 fell from the heavens, and burned the flock and the young men and consumed them. And I’m the only one that escaped, I alone, to tell you*.’”
3 Elohim: This is one of the names of God used in ancient Israel, often translated simply as
God. The plural form (the
im at the end) has often been taken by Christians as a hint to the complexity of God expressed in the Christian doctrine of the Tri-unity or Trinity. For more on this topic, see the index category Trinity.
The second calamity to strike was
the fire of God from the heavens, which destroyed all of Job’s sheep and goats and the servants with them. The expression
fire of God most likely refers to lightning. At the edge of the desert, east (or northeast) of Israel where Job lived, the land is a high, windy plateau (see the photo here and in the title bar above). There are only a few trees; most is wide-open, flat grazing land. Through much of the year, the grass is dry, and the danger of brush fires is great. A strategic lightning strike could easily ignite a fire with the disastrous results mentioned here.
A Raid From Iraq
The third calamity is in vs. 17:
1:17: “While this one was still speaking, another came and said, ‘The Chaldeans made three leaders [that is, divided into three groups] and rushed on the camels and took them, and they smote the young men by the mouth of the sword. And I’m the only one that escaped, I alone, to tell you*.’”
This was a raid of Chaldeans against Job’s camels and the servants that were with them. The Chaldeans were a Semitic group that later ruled the prosperous city of Babylon, located just a few miles from modern Baghdad in Iraq. This is the same area from which the wise men (the magi) later came at the birth of Jesus. But this was long after the time of Job. In this much earlier time, the Chaldeans were still living a tribal lifestyle at the edge of the desert, probably somewhere near the western end of the Persian Gulf near modern Kuwait.
At one time scholars scoffed at the idea of travel in those days over such long distances. But today we know that long distance trade and warfare were common even in much earlier times.
A Storm from the Desert
The fourth calamity is in Job 1:18-19:
1:18-19: “While this one was still speaking, another came and said, ‘Your* sons and your* daughters were eating and drinking wine in the house of their brother, the first-born, and look, a great wind came from the side of the desert and struck the four corners of the house, and it fell on the young people and they died. And I’m the only one that escaped, I alone, to tell you.’”
great wind from the
side of the desert is not strange to those living in this area. To the west are the more well-watered and fertile regions, to the east is the desert, stretching out across the vast barren landscape of Saudi Arabia. The prevailing winds blow from west to east. But occasionally, the wind switches direction and comes out of the east, from the desert. This can only mean trouble. In the transitional times of year, between the clouds of winter and the dry heat of summer, a wind from the east is known as a sirocco, a dry wind that stirs up the dust of the desert and creates an odd pink glow in the sky. That’s under the best of conditions. In the worst of conditions, it can become a dangerous dust storm that blocks out the light of the sun. This puts positive ions in the air, which makes everyone irritable and can contribute to tensions and violence.
In the wintertime, a wind from the east can mean a storm: a sudden, violent storm, known as a sharkia. At the Sea of Galilee, winds from the desert rush down the cliffs of the Golan Heights and stir up the waters, making boating dangerous (as in Mark 4:35-41). There’s nothing in the rocky deserts to the east to keep the wind from blowing or reduce its force. Even on calm days, the sound of the wind is one of the few noises you can hear in the desert. In times of storm, it becomes a howl.
In addition to wind, storms in Israel can generate hail as well as tornadoes. So there are all kinds of possibilities for the
great wind that struck the house of Job’s eldest son, killing all of his children inside (Job 1:18-19).
Job Mourns His Loss
How did Job respond to these catastrophes?
And Job stood up and tore his robe, and he sheared his head, and fell to the ground and prostrated himself.
Tearing your clothes is a traditional sign of mourning. Even today in Israel, if a young soldier has been killed, an army representative will come to the door and may say to the boy’s mother,
You might want to change your dress. Why these words? Because when she hears the news,
Your son has died, she will rip the garment she’s wearing as a sign of mourning.
Job also shaved, or literally
sheared, his head, like a sheep in the time of shearing. This was another traditional sign of mourning (Lev. 21:5, Isa. 22:12, Jer. 16:6). Then he prostrated himself to the ground. Though many translate this prostration as
worshipped, the primary meaning of prostration is submission. In the Middle East, people would prostrate before a king as a sign of submission to his rule. Job prostrates himself before the Lord in the same way. This is also, of course, a kind of worship, but not in the sense of joyful praise and thanksgiving. Job is in shock and grief. Yet in spite of his tremendous loss, he bows down before the King of kings to show submission to his will.
This is exactly the implication of the famous words of faith that Job then says:
1:21: “And he said, ‘Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked will I return there. Yhwh4 gave and Yhwh has taken away, may the name of Yhwh be blessed.’”
4 Yhwh: This is the sacred name of God revealed to ancient Israel, often translated
Lord. For more on this topic, see the index category Yahweh.
It may sound a little strange to us today that Job says he will one day return to his mother’s womb. But at the time, the practice was for an extended family to be buried together in a single tomb that was used over and over again. After the body had decomposed (in about a year), the bones were moved into a small chamber in the tomb that held all the bones of previously deceased family members. This is the source of the Biblical expression,
to be gathered to your fathers: your bones were literally gathered up and put in with theirs (Gen. 49:29, Judg. 2:10, 2 Kings 22:20). So in a sense it was true that at death, he would return to his mother’s womb.
The next verse we want to consider carefully:
In all this, Job did not sin, and he did not ascribe unseemliness to Elohim.
In other words, Job did not accuse God of doing anything wrong, in spite of all that had happened to him. That’s incredibly noble of Job. But is he right to absolve God for what happened to him? Didn’t God give permission for all this to happen? Later, in Job 2:3, God admits to Satan, “You* incited [or lured or enticed] me against him [Job] to swallow him up without cause.”
Does God Tempt or Test Us?
But how can this be? James 1:13 says that God
does not tempt anyone and that he
cannot be tempted by evil. Is Scripture contradicting itself here?
First let’s eliminate a common response often used to defuse this difficulty: that while God does not tempt anyone, he does test them. Have you heard that before? Some English translations are based on it. In the New American Standard (NASB), James 1:2 is translated, “Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials [from the Greek root peirasmos].” In the same way, James 1:12 is translated, “Blessed is a man who perseveres under trial.” Both of these imply that a trial is ultimately a good thing, sent by God. But in the very next verse, it says that God
does not tempt anyone (James 1:13). This makes it sound like a trial is something good, while a temptation is something bad that God would never send.
But this is a false impression. Because all the words used in James 1, whether translated
tried, etc.) are from that same Greek root: peirasmos: “Let no one say when he is tempted [or tried], ‘I am being tempted [or tried] by God.’ For God is not able to be tempted [or tried] by evil things, but he himself tempts [or tries] no one” (James 1:13). As far as the Bible is concerned, a temptation and a trial are one and the same, and God doesn’t send either one.
So if James teaches that God cannot tempt or try anyone, what’s going on in the book of Job? The obvious, easy answer is that Job’s trials and temptations were brought on not by God, but by Satan. But does this really get God off the hook? Satan was only able to act because he had God’s permission. Doesn’t this permission imply that God approved the testing or temptation of Job? As God says to Satan in Job 2:3: “You* incited me against him [Job]...”?
It’s not that James is ignorant of the story of Job. He actually refers to it in James 5:11:
You have heard of the endurance of Job... So what is James thinking about when he says that any temptation (or test) we experience is not from God (James 1:13)?
The answer is in the very next verse: “But each is tempted [or tested; also from peirasmos] when he is dragged away and enticed by his own desire [or lust]” (James 1:14). What does this mean? Things happen. All kinds of things happen to us. Some things are trials and temptations for us, others are not. What’s the difference? The difference is in how we react to them. An event becomes a trial or a temptation when the desires of our flesh get involved (vs. 14). But if they don’t—if we can keep our evil desires out of the way—
to the pure all things are pure, even times of suffering and deprivation (Titus 1:15). If we were perfectly pure, like Jesus, challenging events that happen to us, even a crucifixion, would not become a trial or a temptation. We would simply and perfectly trust that whatever happened had to happen for God’s perfect plan to unfold, and that in the end he will prove merciful and compassionate, just as he did with Job (James 5:11). As Jesus said,
Blessed are you when they insult and persecute you and say every kind of evil against you falsely because of me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in the heavens is great... (Matt. 5:11-12). That’s quite an attitude adjustment!
That event that we think of as a trial or temptation is actually put there by God for a reason, and ultimately to bring good into the world. It’s not only the easy things and those things that bring comfort that advance God’s kingdom. The church has always grown more in times of persecution. Why? Because it’s precisely in the worst of times that Christianity shows its true strength and its victory over the world most clearly.
How Should We Respond to Suffering?
How then does James say we should react to times of suffering?
Submit therefore to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you (James 4:7). Submit and resist. Give your life and your difficulties to God. Then resist Satan until he flees. And he will flee if you stand strong. This doesn’t mean that all your difficulties will suddenly disappear. But you will be walking in victory, no matter what your circumstances.
Draw near to God in the midst of your trial,
and he will draw near to you (James 4:8). Use this time to purify your heart and your actions (
your hands in vs. 8). Come before God with tears of repentance (James 4:9), and allow him to purify you of the desires and lusts that turn life’s events into trials and temptations. If you do, if you
humble yourselves before the Lord, he will exalt you (James 4:10). Submit to God with a trusting heart, and he will bring you to a better place, as he did with Job, in the end.
Peter also has some amazing things to say about trials and temptations: “In which rejoice [in our hope for the future], after having been grieved a little now, if it must be, by various temptations [or trials, from peirasmos] that the proving of your# faith, which is much more valuable than gold which is perishing but which is proven by fire, may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 1:6-7; see also 1 Pet. 4:13). Here’s that crazy idea of rejoicing in the midst of our trials again. Gold, which is perishable, is purified by fire to increase its purity and value. How much more precious will be the result of our purification—for eternity—by the trials of life. This, Peter says, is what we are called to: “For to this [patiently suffering while doing right, 1 Pet. 2:20] you were called, for Messiah also suffered for you#, leaving you# an example, that you# might follow in his steps” (1 Pet. 2:21). Jesus’ suffering is not just something he did for us, but is also an example for us to follow! This is our calling as followers of Jesus!
This comment by Peter is not a fluke. He repeats the same thought in 1 Pet. 4:1: “Since Messiah, therefore, has suffered in the flesh, you, too, arm yourselves with the same purpose [or intention], for the one who has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin.” We, like Jesus our example, are being perfected through suffering, that we might be victorious over sin! (Heb. 2:10, 1 Pet. 4:2)
So what should we do in times of suffering? Peter’s answer is just like James’ and like that of the book of Job:
Humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that he might exalt you at the proper time (1 Pet. 5:6). Submit to God, and resist the devil.
For he walks around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him... 1 Pet. 5:8-9. It will all be worth it in the end.
But the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Messiah, will, after you have suffered a little, himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you (1 Pet. 5:10).