Formations 07.05.2015: Unspeakable Tragedy

Job 2:11–3:10; 19:23-27a

Steeple of Emanuel AME Church, Charleston, SC. Photo by Spencer Means from New York City, USA [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Steeple of Emanuel AME Church, Charleston, SC. Photo by Spencer Means from New York City, USA [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

The Rev. Norvel Goff began serving as the interim leader of Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church at one of the lowest points in that congregation’s nearly 200-year history. One June 17, 21-year-old Dylann Roof sat with a Bible study group for about an hour before opening fire, killing nine members including the pastor, the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, in a racially motivated shooting spree.

Goff shoulders the daunting task of being a comforter, teacher, and Christian example. “Even in the midst of tragedy,” he recently told the Associated Press, “we still must press forward, and move forward with the understanding that we can still make this world, this community, and our nation a better place to live by living out our faith, not sitting down on it.”

Goff, 65, serves as the presiding elder of the Edisto District of the 7th Episcopal District of South Carolina, which includes the congregation known in its denomination as “Mother Emanuel.”

What does one do in the face of unspeakable tragedy? In the weeks to come, Rev. Goff will have to deal with the hurt, anger, frustration, and despair of an entire congregation, and entire city, and even an entire country. As a former pastor, I do not envy him in the least. How indeed can we press forward at a time like this?

Our text for this week should remind us that people respond differently in the depths of despair. Before they ruined it by trying to “fix” Job’s theology, the three friends—Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar—had the right idea. They came to comfort Job after the many disasters he had suffered. They performed the expected rituals of mourning—weeping loudly, tearing their garments, and scattering dust above their heads. For seven days, they sat silently. There are times all of us could use that kind of pastoral presence.

When at last Job speaks, though, his words reflect utter despair. After several anguished chapters of complaint (Job 3–19), he cries out in hope that someone would plead his cause before God, and that he will indeed one day see God for himself.

If the first lesson of responding to tragedy is to be present with the sufferers, perhaps the second is to let them express what they truly feel. It may be hard to listen to the anguished cries of a person in the grip of darkness and despair. Our first impulse is to try to fix the problem, or perhaps to gently (or not so gently) guide the person back to what we think is an adequate confession of faith.

Job, you see, was genuinely frustrated. He saw no justice in what had befallen him, and so he responded with unflinching honesty in coming to God with his negative emotions.

God, it turns out, is big enough to handle such an outburst.

Are we?

Source: Jesse J. Holland, “Pastor Walks Line between Leading, Comforting Emanuel AME,”, 24 June 2015


• How can you, your class, or your church express solidarity with Emanuel AME Church?
• When have you identified with Job in his sufferings?
• When have you identified with Job’s friends in trying to comfort someone else?
• What words or expressions of concern have given you the most comfort in times of grief and tragedy?

Reference Shelf

Two Different Kinds of Job

In a sense, two different kinds of Job make their appearance in the book. The first, patient in the midst of cruel treatment, sat for the portrait that the Epistle of James lifts up for exemplary conduct. The second, impatient to the point of blasphemy, is the disputant with Eliphaz, Bildad, Zophar, and God (he does not respond at all to Elihu). The paient Job in the prose account receives God’s badge of honor, in addition to earning the same praise from the narrator. This Job has impeccable credentials. He has personal integrity (tam), moral uprightness (yasar), religious ferver (yere’ ’elohim), and innocence (sar mera’). The only chinks in his formidable armor are a suspicion about his children and impatience with his wife’s solution to his troubles. In his humble faith, he brought nothing into the world and will return naked to mother earth…. Similarly, the Lord gives and takes away, for both of which the proper response is praise. Small wonder this Job receives God’s affectionate title, “my servant,” and ends his days in enviable style, surrounded by new children and grandchildren.

The other Job bears little resemblance to this one of pious remembrance. From the outset he curses the day of his birth, the nearest thing to cursing God. Until the end he maintains innocence, with the consequence that God must be guilty. Between these two emotional points Job grows increasingly angry, charging his three friends with ineptness as comforters and accusing God of attacking him viciously and of hiding so that Job cannot achieve vindication. Caught in a quandary of his own making, he undercuts the very premise that allows him to complain about his personal condition. In short, if God lacks justice, as Job claims to be the case, then Job has no basis on which to seek redress for wrongs perpetrated against him. This pitiful creature struggles to achieve vindication in the courts, for he knows he is innocent. His plight evokes fleeting thoughts of a powerful advocate who will force God to face Job in a higher court, and in the end Job pronounces an oath of innocence designed to force the deity to answer. Confident that a sinner cannot stand before the creator, Job dares God to appear.

James L. Crenshaw, “Job,” Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, ed. Watson E. Mills et al. (Macon GA: Mercer University Press, 1990), 454.

Job Opens His Mouth

Job “opened his mouth” to curse. The first to speak out of the depths of pain and brokenness is Job, the sufferer, not the friends who are merely onlookers. It is his profound anguish, not their detached reflection, which sets the agenda for what follows. The voice of pain speaks “curse” not blessing. Throughout the prologue, the prospect that Job might curse rather than bless God was only thinly masked by employing a euphemistic translation of the word “bless” (barak) in place of the word for “curse”…. Now the ambiguity is resolved. Job curses (qalal) the day of his birth (lit., “his day”; cf. 1:4-5).

Two dimensions of what it means to “curse” are important for understanding Job’s actions. First, in the Hebrew Bible, to speak a curse (or a blessing) is to utter words that are understood to set in motion the very action the curse articulates. When Job curses the day of his birth, he expresses the wish that that day had never existed (vv. 3-5); that it had never been included among the days of the year (v. 6); in essence, that he had never been born (vv. 10-12). His wish intends to be more than an utterance. It is an act that seeks to bring about the very death that his misery has forced him to contemplate but has not allowed him to experience. In this context, Job’s curse raises an interesting question. How can his words reverse something that has already happened in the past? He cannot “unbirth” himself. Such considerations have lead to the suggestion that this curse expresses an empty wish. It is not only a rhetorical utterance; it is also a hopeless one, perhaps even an absurd one. At most, Job’s curses may be simply giving expression to the extremity of his grief.

A second consideration should also be brought to bear on understanding Job’s curse. Curses (and blessings) are only effective when they are spoken by authorized persons (e.g., kings, prophets, priests, elders) under proper conditions (e.g., in times of family or national crisis, in the liturgies of the cult). The power of the utterance rests not in the words themselves, but in the authority and status of the person who speaks them. Here too the conventional understanding of “cursers” and their potential to effect change raises interesting questions with respect to Job. Job has no official title; he is neither king, nor priest, nor prophet. He has no official standing in the community, other than that which God has provided—“the greatest of all the people of the east”—and even this distinction has been replaced by another that would seem to diminish rather than enhance his stature. Job’s “greatness” is now defined by what he has lost, not by what he possesses. By what authority, then, and with what power does Job speak these words? Can one whose status is defined only by suffering that is “very great” expect to challenge and change anything in heaven or on earth?
These two understandings of what it means to curse stand in some tension when applied to Job. He speaks words that would call into being that which he says, and yet what he wishes for seems patently impossible. He speaks as one whose authority and power would command attention and respect, and yet he sits among the ashes, where no person of stature would normally be found. If Job’s curses are only rhetorical, then these tensions invite the reader to appreciate this chapter, and the responses that follow from the friends and from God, as a masterful example of the Bible’s literary artistry. If, however, Job’s afflicted, powerless curses and questions do effect change in his world (and perhaps in God), then these tensions invite us to prepare for more than simply a good read.

Samuel E. Balentine, Job, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2006), 80–82.

Darrell Pursiful is the editor of Formations. He is an adjunct professor at Mercer University and an active member of the First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia.


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