Monday, September 2, 2019

A Paraphrase of the Book of Job

I wrote this piece ten years ago in preparation for a sermon called "I've Never Been Job." I still like it, and recently I shared it with a couple of my godchildren, who got a kick out of it. This inspired me to give to my 11-year-old goddaughter, for her birthday, the promise of a paraphrase of whatever book of the Bible intrigues her next. (I hope she doesn't pick 2 Chronicles or Jude.)

Carved wooden figure of Job.
Probably from Germany, 1750–1850 CE.
The Wellcome Collection, London
© 2009 by Josh Hosler

The Characters

Narrator: One day, Satan made a dare to God. He said, “That Job is a really good man. But I bet I can make Job curse your name.” God said, “OK, you’re on. Give it a shot.” That day, all of Job’s possessions were destroyed, and every last one of his children was killed. But Job wouldn’t curse God’s name. The next day, Job became covered with painful sores that wouldn’t go away. His wife said, “Just curse God’s name. Then maybe God will kill you and your suffering will end.” But Job had too much integrity for that. He refused to curse God’s name. Three friends came to sit with him for an entire week in silence. And after a week, Job spoke.

Job (in tears): What’s the point of life? I wish God would kill me now and get it over with.

Eliphaz (there, there): Suffering happens to all of us, but it’ll all come out in the wash. You may suffer for a little while now, but it’s just to remind you that God is in charge. Ultimately, you’ll be happy again because you’re a good person, and all the bad people will suffer eternal torment. We all get what we deserve in the long run.

Job (bursting out): Eliphaz, you’re no help at all! My experience alone is enough to prove you wrong. You call this “a little bit of suffering, just for now”? I have nothing left to be happy about, and I never will. And as for you, God: Leave me alone! Even if I’d done something to deserve punishment, this would be way too extreme. Why are you picking on me?

Bildad (reasoning): Look, Job, God doesn’t make mistakes. If it’s not your fault, then your children must have done something so bad that God punished them with death. Stick with God and trust God’s plan for your life. Eventually, you’ll get over this suffering and be happy again.

Job (impatiently): Shut up! I’ve heard all this before. Yes, yes, God is so far beyond our understanding, blah blah blah. How does this help me? I’m only human, so there’s nothing I can say to change God’s plans. Believe me: I’m innocent, and so were my children. Yet despite that, my life is ruined. Look, God, didn’t you love me once? You gave me a wonderful life, but I should have known there was a catch. Now comes the suffering. So why was I born at all? I insist—just kill me now.

Zophar (shocked): Be careful how you talk, Job! You think you know everything about God. But the truth is that, compared with God, you’re like a little worm. So get that chip off your shoulder. All of God’s gifts are undeserved, but if you stay faithful, everything will be all right. Only bad people will suffer forever.

Job (frustrated): Zophar, it sounds to me like you think you know everything. I wish you and these other two so-called friends would quit ridiculing me. God holds all the cards—not me, and certainly not you! In fact, I’ve had it with all three of you. Shut up and let me pray. OK, God: First, stop punishing me. Second, answer me directly. What have I done to deserve all this? You don’t know what it’s like to be human. Our tiny little lives may seem like nothing to you, but they’re very important to us. Is there anything for us after death? Is there any resurrection? That’s all I want to know.

Eliphaz (scandalized): Job, you’re trivializing religion and bordering on blasphemy. Do you think you’re the first person who’s ever suffered? Aren’t God’s promises in the Bible enough for you? You can’t deal with God on your own terms. That’s sinful, and God will punish you more if you keep on like this.

Job (desperately): Shut up! You should be comforting me, not blaming me. You don’t know what it’s like to be in my shoes. When I talk about my pain, it hurts. When I stay silent, it hurts. It all hurts, and I can’t make it stop! Then you come along and make it worse. Isn’t there anybody on earth or in heaven who will take my side—some attorney to clear my name? It’s only been a week, but everyone’s talking about me behind my back, and I’m sick of it. My only hope is in death. Death and I can be buried together, and you three can attend the funeral.

Bildad (the voice of reason): Job, we’re doing our best, and you don’t even appreciate it. Here’s the most important thing to remember: Bad people get punished. Don’t become one of them.

Job (angrily): I told you I haven’t done anything wrong! God is angry with me for no reason. Nobody understands me anymore; even my wife can’t stand my company! I’m the victim, yet everybody hates me. Can’t I even count on my friends to stick up for me? Quit trying to make me be good; I’ve told you I’m innocent. Worry about your own souls for a change, and be good to me.

Zophar (Sunday school teacher): Don’t you know the story of Adam and Eve, and original sin? We’re all tainted by sin. Not one of us is good—only God. Just pray that God will save you—it’s your only hope.

Job (irritably): Just listen for a minute; later, you can mock me all you want. I’m not complaining to you. I’m complaining to God, but God isn’t talking back. Why do people get away with murder? And all these powerful corporate executives make a living off other people’s suffering, but they never get punished. You might say, ‘Well, God will punish their children instead.’ But that makes no sense; they’re the ones who sinned, not their children. You keep insisting it’ll all come out fairly in the end. But how can anyone know that for sure? Look at all the genocidal dictators who died in comfort and peace and were given fancy funerals where people gave lying speeches about how wonderful they were.

Eliphaz (activist): But you keep drawing a distinction between bad people and good people. From God’s perspective, that distinction is meaningless. Besides, you lived a comfortable life for all those years when other people were starving in the street. That means you’re guilty! You were part of a corrupt system that makes the rich richer and the poor poorer. And what did you do to change the system? You’d better submit to God’s will for your life and stop talking—it’s the only way God will save you now.

Job (determined): Whatever. I’m not budging. If I could, I’d bring a lawsuit against God. I’d put him on trial for crimes against humanity.  An impartial judge would clearly find me blameless. But where is the impartial judge? God will do what God will do, and I’m helpless! And I know I’m not the only one who has suffered … so why does God let so much suffering continue throughout the world? Murderers, sexual predators, burglars—they’re constantly committing crimes and not getting caught. They deserve this kind of suffering. But will it ever happen? From all I’ve seen, God’s disciplinary track record is not encouraging.

Bildad (supreme intellectual): God’s plan is perfect—you just can’t see it all yet! Even the imperfections are part of the picture, and we’ll all understand someday.

Job (sarcastically): Oh, thanks. Thanks a lot, O tremendously wise one. You’re so helpful. Now everything is fixed … look, don’t presume to speak as if you understand God’s plan any better than I do. What would you have to say for yourself if God really started talking? God has ruined my life, but I’m not going to compromise my integrity by telling myself comforting lies. Until God gives all the wicked people what they deserve, and takes back all the punishment that I don’t deserve, I won’t be satisfied. But that’s not how it works. Bad people prosper, and good people suffer, and it’s not fair. I suppose God is the path to wisdom, but … I don’t see how to get hold of that wisdom. Oh, how I miss my old life! What I wouldn’t give to have it back again, and the children I’ve lost! I did my very best—really I did. God, to whatever degree I deserve punishment, let me have it. But it can’t have been this bad. It really can’t.

Elihu (popping in from out of nowhere): OK, look. All of you are older than I am, and that’s why I haven’t said anything up to now. I figured the four of you would arrive at some kernel of wisdom eventually. But what have you proved with all your blustering? Nothing. None of us is any wiser than we were before all this happened. You three supposed friends, you’re all total frauds! Now it’s my turn, and I have a lot to say. Job, please hear me out and try to prove me wrong. You say you’ve done nothing wrong and that God is silent to your accusations. But God always answers in one way or another, even if the answer is silence. Or the answer might be pain and suffering. Or the answer might be … well, anything. Your best bet is to just keep praying. All our ancient stories come to this same point. Second: God is, by definition, good. God is not capable of evil. Ergo, you’ve got nothing to complain about. Why don’t you just apologize for having sinned? Confess, even if you don’t know what you’re confessing. You’ve gotten too big for your britches, Job.

Zophar: Who is this guy, and where did he come from?

Bildad: I have no idea.

Elihu (not hearing them, undaunted, building through self-assurance to a state of ecstasy): Third: What does it matter to God whether you’ve sinned? God is so great that you can’t possibly hurt him by your actions. God is not dependent on your actions. Fourth: It’s easy to pray when things are going badly. But do you remember to pray when things are going well? All the time that we’re going along with our happy lives, we forget to talk to God. So why should God rush to answer you when you finally pick up the phone and call? Look, Job. God keeps track of every one of us. Somehow God is in charge of everything, yet he still has time to take care of the smallest things. Frankly, this blows me away. Everything about God is so beautiful! All of this wonderful life is a miracle! Praise God! Praise God!


God (fed up): OK, I’ve had enough of this.

Zophar (in awe): It’s the LORD!

God (commanding): Job, stand up straight!  It’s time for me to cross-examine you. Where were you when I created the earth? Do you know your way around the cosmos? Would you know how to run it? Would the creatures I have made obey your commands? Can you provide enough food for all the animals on earth? I could go on and on, and I do for four chapters … but for now, let me just say: Will you try to make me a sinner so you can remain a saint? Silence!

Job (completely humbled): I’m speechless. I thought I understood you before. But I’d only heard about you—now that I’ve seen the real thing, well … I talk too much. I will shut up.

God: As for you three, beat it! At least Job was being honest. You were all telling sweet-sounding lies. Go home and pray for your souls.

Narrator: And they did. And immediately, God gave Job double the fortune he’d had before. Job and his wife had ten more children, and Job lived to the age of 140 in happiness and comfort. The end.

Some of the language in this paraphrase comes from Eugene Peterson’s The Message Remix (TH1NK Books, 2003).

Saturday, July 13, 2019

Women in Church Leadership: Passages from the Gospels and Pauline Epistles

The other day I got a phone call from a woman who shares an ecumenical Bible study group with some of my parishioners. She is not from a tradition with women clergy, so she wanted to know how to address such a person.

I said the answer is simple: Ask her what she'd like to be called. This led to a great conversation and a request for more information about the biblical case for women's ordination. I enjoyed procrastinating on other work for the afternoon while I put together this primer for her. I welcome comments, corrections, and suggestions for improvement.


"Pyx with the Women at Christ's Tomb,"
ivory pyx, circa A.D. 500s,
Made in Eastern Mediterranean
(Metropolitan Museum of Art)

In all four gospels, the women are the first to hear the Good News. Mary Magdalene was “the apostle to the apostles.” In a patriarchal culture in which women could not give court testimony due to their supposed unreliability, this made no logical sense.

“If it weren’t for the women, the men still wouldn’t know Jesus is risen!” – The Most Rev. Michael Curry, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church

The home was a safe place for the early Jesus movement to meet. Since this was culturally women’s domain, that put women in a position to open up their homes and offer leadership to the nascent Church.

Lydia (Acts 16:11-15): When Paul arrived in Philippi, he didn’t go to the temple where he often began his work, but down to the riverside where the women gathered. As a dealer in expensive purple cloth, Lydia would have been in a financial position to fund Paul’s church plant.

Phoebe (Romans 16:1-2): “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church at Cenchreae, so that you may welcome her in the Lord as is fitting for the saints, and help her in whatever way she may require from you, for she has been a benefactor of many and of myself as well.” Deacons were those charged with making sure that widows and orphans were well provided for (see also Acts 6). We often think of the threefold order of bishop, priest, and deacon. There were no priests/presbyters for some time to come, so deacons were the church’s local leaders.

Priscilla and her husband Aquila (Acts 18; Romans 16:3; 1 Cor. 16:19; 2 Tim. 4:19). They are mentioned by Luke (in Acts), Paul, and pseudo-Paul (in 2 Timothy). Paul usually refers to “Priscilla and Aquila,” not the other way around.

Junia (Rom. 16:7): “Greet Andronicus and Junia, my relatives who were in prison with me; they are prominent among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was.” Junia is the only woman referred to as an apostle in the New Testament. An early tradition assumes Junia was a man, a question dependent on the use (or not) of an accent mark in the Greek. Subsequent assumptions of Junia’s maleness ignore all evidence to the contrary. Most modern scholars agree Junia was female.

Chloe (1 Cor. 1:11): “For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters.” Chloe is clearly in charge of some aspect of the church in Corinth.

Euodia and Syntyche (Philippians 4:2-3): “I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you also, my loyal companion, help these women, for they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel …” A later, strained tradition insisted that Euodia was a man and Syntyche his wife, but the Greek clearly does not support this. Apparently these two female leaders in the church in Philippi had had a disagreement.

Erasing distinctions (Gal. 3:28): “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” When setting the Galatians straight, Paul makes sure they understand that divisions of gender are irrelevant among followers of Jesus.

So why does Paul also seem to oppose women’s leadership?

Silent in church (1 Cor. 14:33-35): “As in all the churches of the saints, women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says. If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.” Scholars agree that Paul himself wrote 1 Corinthians.

However, earlier in the same letter Paul writes, “Any woman who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled disgraces her head—it is one and the same thing as having her head shaved” (1 Cor. 11:5). Leaving aside the culturally bound reference to women’s head coverings, clearly Paul expects that women are prophesying, an activity done out loud in communal worship. And anyway, how could all the women already mentioned remain silent in the churches and still fulfill their obvious leadership duties?

Some early manuscripts place these verses after verse 40 instead of verse 32. This disagreement about placement makes clear that these verses were inserted by a later scribe, perhaps related to the 1 Timothy school of thought …

Submissiveness (1 Tim. 2:9-15):  “The women should dress themselves modestly and decently in suitable clothing, not with their hair braided, or with gold, pearls, or expensive clothes, but with good works, as is proper for women who profess reverence for God. Let a woman learn in silence with full submission. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet she will be saved through childbearing, provided they continue in faith and love and holiness, with modesty.”

Most scholars today agree that Paul did not write 1 or 2 Timothy or Titus, despite the fact that they are written in his name. In the ancient world, attributing a new composition to a revered, deceased person was a way of giving the work greater authority. This seems strange to us. But none of the letters original hearers would have thought it to be Pauline; they all knew Paul was dead.

Imagine, then, that a letter were to appear from Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to the Black Lives Matter movement, encouraging its leaders to be steadfast and faithful to their cause. Nobody would believe Dr. King had written a letter from beyond the grave. But let the letter sit for a few centuries and we could understand why people might think it a dishonest fabrication.

From this we can deduce that a later tradition—the one behind the pastoral epistles—no longer valued women’s leadership, but had fallen back into a patriarchal mindset contrary to the Gospels and to the model of Paul’s earliest church plants.

Male Headship (Eph. 5:22-24): “Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church, the body of which he is the Savior. Just as the church is subject to Christ, so also wives ought to be, in everything, to their husbands.”

Scholars are evenly split on whether Paul wrote this letter. If he didn’t write it, we can see this as yet another later tradition falling back into patriarchy.

In any event, since Paul apparently wasn’t married—and, indeed, was seemingly indifferent to marriage—it may be that he simply wasn’t a good person to advise anyone on this topic. Paul and many other early Christians thought the world would come to an end any day with Jesus’ return. They were wrong, but their theological assumptions caused them to arrange their priorities for the short-term, not the long haul.

The Nature of the Bible’s Authority

The fact that so many early Christians were wrong about the impending end of the world is another cue to us that we must not take everything in the Bible literally or as a divine proscription for our own behavior. This is another whole topic, but suffice it to say that I’d rather wrestle with the Bible faithfully than cower before its own time-bound and culture-bound assumptions.

In John’s gospel, Jesus tells his disciples, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come” (John 16:12-14). If the Holy Spirit is active and alive in the world, then the Bible is not a dead document, but a living one, and its effectiveness lies not in the ink on the page, but on its proclamation in community and the ways it causes us to rethink our priorities in light of the faith of our ancestors.

In other words, the question should not be, “Are you reading the Bible?,” but rather, “Are you letting the Bible read you?”