One of the oldest representations of God in scripture is the one found in the “Song of the Sea,” the poem in Exodus 15 that describes God’s victory over Pharaoh’s army. There, God is a mighty warrior who strides onto the battlefield and unleashes his burning anger against Israel’s oppressors, terrifying them, setting them atremble, and ultimately casting them into the sea. The poet asks, “Who is like you, O Lord, among the gods? Who is like you, majestic in holiness, awesome in splendor, doing wonders?”* The implied answer, plainly enough, is “Nobody. Nobody at all.”
The Song of the Sea portrays God as a mighty man writ large, a champion capable of taking all comers, of defeating all foes, human or divine, on earth or in heaven. Other parts of scripture exalt God even further. Isaiah 40 asks to whom God might be compared; and here God is one before whom entire nations are but a drop from a bucket, as dust on the scales, as nothing—indeed, less than nothing. Who has measured the waters in his hand, marked off the heavens with his fingers, weighed the mountains in a scale? God alone. Who counsels God? Nobody.
At the end of the book of Job, God shows up to deliver a speech that seems calculated to make exactly the same points about divine power and majesty, only this time through images of God’s dominion over creation. Toward the end of those speeches, as they are usually translated, God asks in regard to the terrifying monster, Leviathan, “Who can stand before him? Who can confront him and be safe? Under the whole heaven who?” Who indeed? The implied answer: nobody but God.
Who, then, can stand before God and be safe? Whatever else you might make of the divine speeches to Job, and particularly the speech about Leviathan, it is hard to avoid seeing this question as part of the subtext. But the answer—not only implied, but dramatically and startlingly displayed in the narrative—is this time not nobody, but rather Job, the one who has, throughout the preceding thirty two chapters, challenged God to a disputation. The exalted Lord of the Universe, the subduer of the sea, the tamer of mighty Behemoth and Leviathan, appears in response to a summons from Job; and Job is not crushed.
In the accusations leading up to God’s final appearance, Job complains:
With violence he seizes my garment; he grasps me by the collar of my tunic. He has cast me into the mire, and I have become like dust and ashes. I cry to you and you do not answer me; I stand, and you merely look at me. You have turned cruel to me; with the might of your hand you persecute me. You lift me up on the wind, you make me ride on it, and you toss me about in the roar of the storm. I know that you will bring me to death, and to the house appointed for all living.
When God finally appears, God does arrive in the midst of a storm, and God’s words roar forth: “Gird up your loins like a man; I will question you and you shall declare to me.” But Job does not ride the storm; he is not tossed. God’s speeches come from a whirlwind, the greatest possible threat to the corporal integrity of a pile of dust and ash. Yet in that encounter, even if not the events that led up to it, Job remains safe.
Job is understandably confused and angry, doubtful about divine justice and mercy. His beliefs about God and his religious devotion are reasonably shaken to the core. It is understandable that he would lament, that he would protest, that he would demand a hearing from God. In the face of all of this, how might God show love to Job?
One way—a dramatic, tender way—would be to confront Job with a powerful image of Job’s safety in the presence of God, to remind Job of just how mighty God is, and then to convey, through the image of a pile of dust invited to brace himself for a disputation with the whirlwind and then left standing firm, that Job is safe with God, that Job can demand an account from God, bring all of his rage and frustration and protest to lay at the feet of the terrible almighty, and not be laid low but rather be invited to stand up and emerge unharmed.
Job’s response to the divine speeches is usually understood as one of repentance. But his submission is not one-sided. For the book ends with God responding to Job’s subpoena, declaring that he spoke rightly, and giving him a reward. In this, God submits to Job. Who can contend with God and be safe? To whom will God submit? Job, for one, the pile of dust and ash.
We bring in the season of Lent by putting ash on our heads and reminding ourselves that we are dust. The season is one of repentance—one where, in various ways, we renew our submission to God. But the end of Job reminds us that we do not submit abjectly; and, like that book, Lent comes to an end with a striking image of divine submission to humanity. If the Christian story is true, everyone who opposed Jesus, everyone who participated in his humiliation, torture, and crucifixion contended successfully not with a mere man, but with God; and God, out of love for humanity, submitted to it all. In this, God lifts us up, dust that we are, giving us dignity and a voice, bestowing upon us love beyond measure, and letting us be called children of God.
*Scripture quotations from New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America.