My four-year-old son and I were in our car on the way to Trader Joe’s last Wednesday when this Seatrain song telling the Biblical story of Job came up on the CD my dad made for me. I turned off the engine right after the line, “Long, long they journeyed until they found Job in the ashes of his burned-out farm.”
Nicholas objected, “But wait! Why was his farm burned? and what happened next? Tell me the rest of the story.” I gave him a quick summary on the way into the store, and then on the way home we listened to the rest of the song and then played it over again all the way through. We talked a little bit about the moral: Bad things sometimes happen to good people; it is important to trust God even when things aren’t going so well for you.
I love the song, but I’d only made a couple attempts to read the actual book of Job in the Bible, when I was in college and hoped it would nudge me out of self-pity, which it did–I might be failing calculus and shuddering with fever, but at least I hadn’t had all my sheep burned up and my entire family squashed–but it didn’t really grab me as fun reading. The Bible a neighbor gave me for high school graduation is the King James Version, thick with old-fashioned language that’s hard to get into.
Thursday night at bedtime, Nicholas had itchy eyes and runny nose from his springtime allergies, but I’d forgotten to pick up his allergy medicine from school, so we sent Daniel to the drugstore for another bottle while I got Nicholas ready for bed. We finished reading the agreed-upon bedtime stories, but Daniel still wasn’t back. I was about to move on with the usual routine of lying next to Nicholas and reading my own book while I wait for him to fall asleep. Then I looked at his red eyes and agitated state and realized he wasn’t going to sleep until the antihistamine kicked in. Inspired by his suffering and noticing my New International Version Bible in the stack of books on the nightstand, I asked, “Would you like me to read you that story about Job from the Bible?”
Well! It turns out that the way the NIV translates Job is very accessible and a really great story! Nicholas got right into it, and I read him twelve chapters (that’s ten pages of tiny print) before he conked out. The first part is similar to the Seatrain song (except that they got all the numbers wrong–??), but then there’s this great scene where Job’s messengers come in, one after the other, to tell him the terrible things that have happened “…and I am the only one who has escaped to tell you!” Nicholas found it very funny how each one shows up before the previous one has even finished speaking. He also liked the funny names of Job’s friends and the way they sprinkled dust on their heads to show their sympathy. (I explained that this was the custom in that time and place. Why? I don’t know, but my best guess is that the idea was to make themselves suffer dusty heads so they could join in the suffering.)
The part that Seatrain covers with, “And with accusing fingers pointed at him [his friends] said, ‘Oh, Job, what evil have you done to bring God’s wrath upon you?'” actually is a long argument in which each of the friends makes the same point from a slightly different angle, and Job defends himself, back and forth several times.
What I hadn’t realized reading the KJV is that this argument is a poem. It doesn’t rhyme in the NIV translation, but you can tell by the formatting, and it’s full of really cool phrasing! Job does some of the best complaining in history:
Therefore I will not keep silent;
I will speak out in the anguish of my spirit;
I will complain in the bitterness of my soul.
Am I the sea, or the monster of the deep,
that you put me under guard?
When I think my bed will comfort me
and my couch will ease my complaint,
even then you frighten me with dreams
and terrify me with visions,
so that I prefer strangling and death
rather than this body of mine….
What is man that you [God] make so much of him,
that you give him so much attention,
that you examine him every morning
and test him every moment?
Will you never look away from me
or let me alone even for an instant?…
Even if I washed myself with soap
and my hands with washing soda,
you would plunge me into a slime pit
so that even my clothes would detest me.
His friend Bildad says,
Can papyrus grow tall where there is no marsh?
Can reeds thrive without water?
While still growing and uncut,
they wither more quickly than grass.
Such is the destiny of all who forget God;
so perishes the hope of the godless.
What he trusts in is fragile;
what he relies on is a spider’s web.
He leans on his web, but it gives way;
he clings to it, but it does not hold.
He is like a well-watered plant in the sunshine,
spreading its shoots over the garden;
it entwines its roots around a pile of rocks
and looks for a place among the stones,
but when it is torn from its spot,
that place disowns it and says, “I never saw you.”
It’s not simply that his friends say he must have done something to deserve this suffering; they’ve got detailed arguments to support their beliefs, and I find myself agreeing with them for a moment, then realizing: Wait, they’re the ones who are wrong! They think they’ve got the whole scene covered, but God tells them off! Seatrain’s “Who are these who claim to know my workings and all my ways?” is a fair summary of what God says when he finally shows up in Chapter 38 and drowns those know-it-alls in a sea of poetic rhetorical questions and sarcasm:
Have you ever given orders to the morning
or shown the dawn its place,
that it might take the earth by the edges
and shake the wicked out of it?…
What is the way to the abode of light?
And where does darkness reside?
Can you take them to their places?
Do you know the paths to their dwellings?
Surely you know, for you were already born!
You have lived so many years!
Good stuff! No wonder it’s endured for thousands of years. As with many other parts of the Bible, I’m impressed by the way human nature and feelings and stories from centuries ago seem basically familiar and true, despite all the references to tents and camels and such.
Anyway, much as I enjoyed reading Job aloud to Nicholas and continuing to read silently after he fell asleep, I never expected what happened the next day: He asked me to bring “that story of Joe and his troubles” to read to him on the bus! Okay, kid, you want me to whip a Bible out of my bookbag and read it to you as if it were Jenny and the Cat Club?! . . . Okay.
I must say, I got far less flak from the transit-riding public for reading my four-year-old the book of Job than I did for reading him The Hobbit a few months back! We got a few startled looks, but nobody took it upon herself to lean in and inform me that my child could not possibly understand this story, which happened no fewer than four times with The Hobbit. (Nicholas gave those naysayers a surprised look and said, “I do understand it! Bilbo was rescued by an eagle who’s carrying him in his toes,” or whatever was going on in the book.)
I read him Job all the way to school and all the way back, about an hour total. We started from the beginning again and returned a few times to “that funny part with all the messengers,” and we skipped over much of the argument between Job and his friends and then Elihu, but Nicholas listened to every word said by God. He was particularly intrigued by the description of the leviathan (“Was that a dragon, Mama?” “It sounds like one, but the footnote says, ‘Possibly the crocodile.'”) and the way Job winds up praying for his friends. He asked me to read it again today.
He wanted to know if it’s a true story. I am no Biblical literalist, so I told him, “It’s a story full of truths about when bad things happen and what God is like. It might be a story that really happened just like it says. It might be that somebody made up this story, and people kept telling it for thousands of years because it is so true, even if it did not really happen.”
So: Good story! Check it out! Available free online!
Readers who recall my story about the book of Jonah may be wondering if I’m just some religious nut who finds all books of the Bible to be great reading. No, I’ve just been telling you about the good ones! The other day I tried to read the book of Jeremiah, after hearing a brief quote from it that sounded interesting, and not only was I unable to find that part, but my opinion of it is: Wow, Jeremiah sure did think God was really mad at a bunch of people, and whether it truly was God speaking to him or just his own ravings, man, he would NOT shut up! I didn’t get anything out of that one.