Living Behind the Veil

I'm often asked what I wear in Afghanistan and what it's like to wear a veil. It's freedom. Freedom to have a bad hair day, freedom to arrange my chadar to conceal the curve of my breasts and backside, freedom to not be an expatriate for a little while. It means freedom to hide even on the street from the Afghan men's eyes which seem to strip me naked.
When I relax my shoulders and walk less purposefully, less confidently, my eyes downcast and covered by sunglasses, I pass for an Afghan woman. I hear the men whisper in Dari, "Is she a foreigner or local woman?" I chuckle but am silent. On the street, I'm also a free target....freely exposed to groping, sexual innuendos whispered to me as a man bicycles by, free to have stones thrown at me, freely seen as no one's wife, daughter, sister, mother, friend, or boss. I step inside my gate, and remove my chapan and chadar. Now I'm someone's boss, motherhood returns to me as little steps run to greet me, and I receive a kiss from my adoring husband. Now I'm free to his loving and gentle eyes which know and enjoy my curves, free to once again be under the protective umbrella of being a wife, mother, friend, colleague, boss, niece, sister, daughter, woman.

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Job's Wife: Authenticity in Suffering

In all the loss of friends we faced in Afghanistan - over 20 foreigners martyred in a span of about 6 years, and in the extensive pain and loss I've experienced over the last two decades, the continual grief that seems to be never ending in my life with no end in sight, I've also spent the last 10 years meditating specifically on Job's wife.

I'm beginning to believe that she sets a good example of authenticity in suffering. 

In almost 50 years of going to church, I've never heard a single positive sermon on Job's wife.
  • She is held up for the global Church as an example of a woman without faith.
  • She is scorned in all the artists' renderings. 
  • She is called "Devil's Assistant" (Augustine)
  • "Satan's tool" (John Calvin) 
  • "Satan spared her precisely in order to use her against Job." (Thomas Aquinas) (1)
Why did they say this? 

It looks like she told her husband to curse God and die.

Her character has been evaluated and condemned as a failure by one statement she made at the time of the deepest pain of her life. 

Let's first examine the background to that statement before discussing what she said.

She and her husband were apparently at the empty nester stage of life. They could sit back and enjoy their older age because their children were now adults. In a shame and honor culture, they held the highest of all honors. They were like royalty. Her husband was "the greatest of all the men in the East" which meant he held the highest respect of all peoples, and thus she also commanded a sizeable amount of respect.

She was the "First Lady" of the greatest, wealthiest, most respected known man.

People listened to her, peopled wanted her wisdom and her favor. She was never lacking friends. She had reached the pinnacle of what was possible for a woman of her day. She had it all - wonderful adult children whom we can presume were on their way to providing grandchildren, a fabulously godly husband who was the wealthiest in all the land.

But in one horrible day, she and Job lost all of their wealth and almost all of their staff, managers, servants were murdered.  These were people she knew and loved and whose well-being were tied to hers. They were a significant part of her community.

Job and his wife didn't only go bankrupt and lose part of their community.  In that same tragic day, the unthinkable happened.

All of their adult children were killed by a storm.

How would you respond if you lost all your children in one day? Can you imagine the funeral for six adult children?

She and her husband began grieving unimaginable grief, the kind that a parent never totally recovers from.  When a child dies before the parent, the parent is left with the awful imagination at each birthday, each holiday, of what that child would look like, how that child would be in each year of adulthood.

In one day, she and Job had to begin accepting they would never see their daughters marry, they would never hold grandchildren in their arms.

Wealth is one can be replaced.

But a child? It's too unfathomable to imagine her pain losing all her children in one day.

In all that catastrophic loss, she and her husband did not sin, did not complain.

But it got worse. 

Her beloved husband was stricken with a disease for which there was no known cure and made him unclean. Law required him to go and live where the lepers lived, where he could scrape his skin with broken pottery.

For all practical daily life, she lost the last person she loved, who loved her.  She lost her protector and provider.  His was a living death, from which recovery was most likely not possible. Not only that, but in a shame and honor culture, all who once courted her favor now viewed her with "guilt by association." Clearly, Job had done something wrong, some sin, and she was implicated.

They lost not just wealth, not just children, not just the joy and intimacy of married life living together, but all social standing, and what's more, public shame of what was interpreted as religious hypocrisy due to all the disaster that had befallen him.

Furthermore, in the Ancient Near East (ANE), a women's ability to earn a living was non-existent, so she had no way or at most limited (righteous) ways of providing for herself.

Where's the compassion for this woman?  Where's the pastoral heart reaching out to care for this woman, grieve with her, listen to her anger at God, her husband, life, death?

I've listened to Member Care Leaders use Job's wife as an example of how not to respond to one suffering (i.e. Job), as if SHE wasn't suffering.

I'm aghast at the callousness of those who so glibly condemn her without a thought to her pain and loss.

She watched her beloved suffer, and her heart cried out, "God, let him die."  It's too awful. Anyone who has seen a loved one live or die through the horror of radiation and chemotherapy understands this request.

She didn't spiritualize. She didn't pretend to be happy. The Bible records an authentic, pain-filled response. She spoke what was in her heart-filled-with-pain, and she told Job either to "curse God and die" or to "bless God and die." 

Which did she say? In Hebrew, there is only one word for bless (brk), but two words for curse (arr and kllh). (2)

In verse 2:5, Satan uses the Hebrew word brk but there's a "not" right in front of it.  He literally says in Hebrew that Job "won't bless you face to face." But he really speaks with an idiomatic manner here, meaning that "Job will curse you face to face."

In Job 3, Job uses the two different Hebrew words for "curse", one more stronger than another, as he clearly wishes the day of his birth was cursed. (3)  

So how can we translate this difficult phrase correctly? Did she tell Job to "bless God" or to "curse God and die?" And why is it interpreted as "curse" when she speaks?

Translators assume that because of Job's response to her, that she used the word "curse." The Rabbis didn't believe she said "bless God" in light of all the pain she had gone through, so even though it's the Hebrew word "bless", they interpreted her words to Job as "curse God."

This Hebrew word brk also has an idiomatic useage meaning "to curse." In only a few other places of the Bible, the clear context and useage carries the meaning idiomatically of cursing God. So the weight of scholarly opinion of both the Rabbis and Church interpreters seems to side with the idiomatic useage of the word to bless, brk, in Job's wife's situation as "curse God and die." 

What if she did speak, momentarily like a foolish woman, momentarily forgetting who she was - a daughter of the King, and actually said, "Curse God and die?"  What if she really said that? If we are really honest, haven't we all had those moments when life is raw and we cry out from the depths of our heart?

We should not condemn those whom God has NOT condemned. 

In Job 42:7, the Lord spoke directly to Job's friends:

"My anger burns against you and against your two friends for you have not spoke of me what is right, as my servant has. Now therefore take seven bulls and seven rams and go to my servant Job and offer up a burnt offering for yourselves. And my servant Job shall pray for you, for I will accept his prayer not to deal with you according to your folly. For you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant has."

Where's Job's wife in that text? 

Malachi 2:2 tells us that cursing God is sin - God will not bless those who curse him.
“If you do not listen, and if you do not take it to heart to give honor to My name,” says the LORD of hosts, “then I will send the curse upon you and I will curse your blessings; and indeed, I have cursed them already, because you are not taking it to heart.

Job didn't condemn her, he merely reminded her of who she was, and to remember the perspective of who God is. I wonder if he was responding not just to her words as much as her pain of following God and wanting to die when things get hard?  In her one statement to Job, we hear her "sacred questions" of God.

  • How can God let this evil happen to us? 
  • How can I serve Him still?
  • Why does He ask this of me?

These are not dissimilar to the questions we ask when in risk or suffering.

The last thing we learn in the book of Job is that he was healed of disease, his fortunes were restored to him double, and he had 7 more sons and 3 more daughters.

However, the text does not mention Job's wife again, so the simple reading of Scripture means we need to presume God blessed her physically with the ability to have ten more children with Job. He blessed her, and God certainly did not tell her that Job had to make sacrifices to atone for her speech like he did for the 3 friends.

Her statement to her husband is a woman wanting her husband released from the pain. All Job did was reframe her understanding of how we are to view the goodness and pains of life and what it means to serve God.

The ANE held the view that when good things happened to you, the gods or God was favoring you.  When bad thing happened to you, the gods were angry at you and you had sinned.

Job was telling her that the prevailing cultural view was wrong.  We accept all things - good and bad - from God, a God who loves us, and we serve Him faithfully, no matter what happens. God gave Job the grace in all of his physical, emotional, and spiritual pain to still encourage his wife to persevere in faithfulness to God. 

Who cared for Job in his sickness? There was no hospital kitchen.  We can reasonably assume that Job's wife, in all of her pain and deepest grief, helped keep him alive by cooking for her husband (something she didn't have to do before all her servants were killed).

She probably brought him food, then went back to lay on her bed all alone in a home now empty of family and friends, and cry herself to exhausted sleep, night after night, as she fought the battle to keep on trusting God in her deepest pain when all of life had just become a living nightmare.

Anyone who has experienced deep loss like hers knows it's common to wish to die and no longer keep living, to keep breathing, to keep eating. I'm sure food tasted like sawdust to her. Her eyes were swollen with unending tears. Her grief was all consuming, horrifying. 

Yet day after day, she learned to trust Him, as she watched her husband being spiritually abused by "friends" until the day God spoke to Job and took him to a deeper level of understanding his own humanity and God's sovereign power.

No, she wasn't a tool used by Satan to discourage Job.

She was simply a normal woman with a normal human response to deep pain, and she stayed faithful. Job was a good friend, a good husband to her, and recognized her pain and gave her the little he could out of his own pain and confusion of who God is to help her stay the course.

(1) Word Commentary Job
(2) Jastrow and Nowack
(3) John Walton
(4) Learn about Suzie Kidnap here.

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