"You know, Job, an interesting thing is happening in my mind as I try to limn your mental condition in 42:1-6. It is almost as if I need to decide exactly how your mind was affected by God's words to you in 38-41 because, in some ways, I am so using you for my guide or inspiration, my sage in life, that I want what happened to you to happen also to me. Or, to put it differently, what happened to you will, I believe, happen to me. It is such a simple and even simplistic reading of the text, isn't it? That I take what I perceive to be your reaction to God's words and your process of restoration as normative for mine?
When you think about this for a minute, you see how strange the idea might seem. You, Job, had a terribly oppressive challenge but managed to hear and see God differently, which led to your submission and restoration. The meaning of all these terms (such as submission and restoration) is up for grabs now, to be sure, but I have been weighing every Hebrew word to try to figure out exactly what happened to you (as if one could) in order to conclude that this is the way I ought to conceptualize how God relates to all humans as we are trying to rebuild our lives after great distress. Your story is becoming normative for me.
But I need to take a bit of a detour, Job, to show you how prevalent this manner of thinking has been in me for nearly 30 years. Oh, when I first started reading the Bible seriously in the late 1960s I always tried to "apply" the verses to my life. I thought the verses possessed almost magical power in them, and I wanted to internalize their sounds and words, as if I was taking some kind of divinely-given vitamin pill which would help me soar over any obstacle I faced in life. However, it was not until the 1970s and the work of FB Meyer, whose every word I devoured, that I began to take the Biblical characters' lives seriously as guides for my life or, at least, as containing lessons for faithful living. The Bible characters were personalities that instructed. One thing it did for me is that it made me an absolute tiger with the text. I simply KNEW it. That was my motivation.
I didn't know it at the time, but my view of Biblical characters, going back to my early 20s, was precisely the way that ancient Roman moralists such as Plutarch, or historians such as Livy, saw the lives of ancient people. One could draw moral lessons from their richly described lives. A comparative study of their lives, as Plutarch provided it for us in the Lives would enable us to weigh the wisdom or folly of certain actions by giving us the results of various choices through the lives of great men. Biography, therefore, was morality writ large and made accessible to all people.
Unbeknownst to me, Job, I had accepted that same view of Biblical characters but, because I believed that every Biblical word was God-breathed and therefore possessing eternal value and sacred power, I only wanted to absorb the Biblical words. I didn't immerse myself in Alexander and Caesar and Cato and all the others; I "memorized" the lives of Saul, David, Jeremiah, Abraham, and so forth. This method came to a head for me in the late 1980s, when I was a pastor at Westminster Presbyterian Church, Portland. I became enamored of the Joseph story (Gen 37-50).
Oh, Job, I have so much to say whenever I begin talking to you. I will have to go into the next talk to finish the story, but let me start here. I had become fascinated by Joseph's story of distress and release, of unjust treatment, quiet faith and ultimate deliverance, and wanted to use this story as a basis for my life. I think I saw myself as having gone through some hard times beginning in 1986. I faced defeat after defeat without a way, really, of handling them. So, I turned to Scripture and found the story of Joseph such a welcome tonic that I couldn't help reading and re-reading it to my heart's content.
I decided to take a week-long study leave trip to Pacific School of Religion (Berkeley) in Summer 1989 in order, ostensibly, to study "African Christianity," which was being taught for continuing pastoral education. Indeed, I was interested in the topic, and wanted to hear the Ghanian woman who was teaching it. But I decided also to bring my Hebrew Bible and dictionaries and found myself, after two days in class, spending all my waking hours poring through the Joseph story in Hebrew. I read the whole thing in the three or four days that I had left. And I recall wanting to internalize every morsel of text, every turn of phrase because I was learning the biblical story of a man who faced severe distress, who persevered in faith and who experienced the great acts of God's deliverance. I, too, would be such a person.
Job, so you know what I did? Well, I preached a sermon series on Joseph's life and then I taught an adult education class on it. I think I had already preached the series in the Spring of 1989, thus whetting my appetite even more than if I came at the story "dry," but I know I led the adult education class in my last few weeks at the church in Sept/Oct 1989. One of my attentive elders, who always seemed to like my preaching, called my Joseph sermons "Joseph and the Three Pits." But, in any case, I made Joseph my inseparable companion for a few months, Job, because I felt he had the key to life and to my life.
As I think of it now, Job, I think I may be doing the same thing to you.....Er, I better quit now and think of this some more before I talk to you again....