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, after all, is 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.
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.
And a messenger came to Job and said, 2
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*.
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. Outside of the translation, italics are used in the normal way to indicate either emphasis or a foreign word.
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 (in the southeastern tip of the Saudia Arabian peninsula). Sheba is best known from the visit of the Queen of Sheba to King Solomon a thousand years later, when it was a famous center of international trade and a source of precious myrrh. By New Testament times, goods from exotic ports like India and China made their way through Sheba on camel caravans.
The Sabean raid against Job dates back to less glorious times. But 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, contemporaries of Job, as recorded in Genesis. Genesis 14 mentions raiders coming from hundreds of miles away through the desert against Sodom and Gomorrah.
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:
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 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 (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).
Both Job and Genesis (in Gen. 14) record raids from what is today Iraq far across the desert to the north and east. At one time scholars scoffed at the idea of travel over such long distances in the time of Abraham (and Job). But today we know that long distance trade and warfare were common from even much earlier times.
A Storm from the Desert
The fourth and final calamity against Job is in Job 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 makes perfect sense 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 to the vast Saudi Arabian desert. 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 means a sirocco, a dry wind that stirs up the dust of the desert to create 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. This generates a lot of positive ions that make everyone crabby and can contribute to tensions and violence.
In the wintertime, a wind from the east can also mean a storm: a sharp, violent storm, known as a sharkia storm. 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 that wind from blowing. 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 was a traditional sign of mourning. Even today in Israel, if a young soldier has been killed, let's say, an army representative will come to the door and may say to the boy’s mother,
You might want to change your dress. Immediately she knows that someone has died. The reason for the change of dress is that when she hears the news directly,
Your son has died, she will rip the garment she’s wearing as a sign of mourning.
Then Job shaved, or literally
sheared, his head, another traditional sign of mourning (Lev. 21:5, Isa. 22:12, Jer. 16:6), after which he prostrated himself on the ground. Though many translate this prostration
worshipped, the primary association of prostration is submission. In the East, people would prostrate before a king as a sign of submission to his rule. Job prostrates himself before the Lord as a sign of submission to his will. This is also, of course, an act of worship, but not in the usual 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 speaks:
And he said,
Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked will I return there. YHVH4 gave and YHVH has taken away, may the name of YHVH be blessed.
4 YHVH: 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 all 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 then placed in a receptacle in the tomb that held all the bones of your deceased family members. This is the source of the Biblical expression,
to be gathered to your fathers (Gen. 49:29, Jud. 2:10, 2 Ki. 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 certainly very 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? 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 idea often used to defuse this difficulty: that while God does not tempt anyone, he does test them. Have you heard this before? Some English translations are based on it. For example, in the New American Standard (NASB), James 1:2 is translated,
Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials [from the root peirasmos in the original Greek] or in James 1:12,
Blessed is a man who perseveres under trial [peirasmos]. Both of these seem to imply that a trial is ultimately a good thing, sent (or at least permitted) by God. But in the very next verse, James 1:13, it says that God
does not tempt anyone. So it sounds like a trial is something good that God can approve of and permit while a temptation is something bad that God would never approve of or permit.
But this reasoning is completely false. Because all the words used in James 1, whether translated
tried, etc.) are from the same Greek root: peirasmos. (
Let no one say when he is tempted [or tried; from the verbal form of peirasmos], ; James 1:13.) As far as the Bible is concerned, a temptation and a trial are one and the same.
I am being tempted [or tried; vb. of peirasmos] by God. For God is not able to be tempted [or tried; adj. of peirasmos] by evil, but he himself tempts [or tries; vb. of peirasmos] no one
So if what James actually teaches is 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 said 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, I believe, is in the next verse:
But each is tempted [or tested; vb. form of 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 evil desires of our flesh get involved (vs. 14).
To the pure all things are pure (Titus 1:15), even times of suffering and deprivation. If we were perfectly pure, like Jesus, challenging events that happened to us, even a crucifixion, would not become a trial or a temptation to think or to do evil. 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). Talk about an attitude adjustment!
That thing 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 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 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 always 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 as it's put in 4:8). Come before God with tears of repentance (4:9), and allow him to purify you of the desires and lusts that turn life’s events into temptations. If you do, if you
humble yourselves before the Lord, he will exalt you (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:
Rejoice—after having grieved (or been saddened) a little now, if it is necessary, by various temptations (or trials; peirasmois)’that the proving of your# faith, which is much more valuable than gold which perishes but 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 test or increase its value. How much more precious will be the result of our purification—for eternity—by the trials of life. After all, Peter says, this is what we are called to:
For to this [patiently suffering while doing right—see 1 Pet. 2:20] you were called, for Messiah also suffered for you#, leaving you# an example, that you# might follow his steps (1 Pet. 2:21). Jesus’ suffering is not just something he did for us, but also an example to follow! This is part of 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 (Heb. 2:10), that we might be victorious over sin! (1 Pet. 4:2)
And what should we do in these 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).