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The Table Video

Diane Glancy

The End of Suffering: Poetry, Liminality, and Job's Wife - Diane Glancy - CCT Pastors Lunch

American Poet, Author, and Playwright / Professor Emerita, Macalester College
July 2, 2019

How does poetry approach the problem of suffering?


When Evan asked me for a snappy title, the one I sent him was Let Her Fire Up Her Toaster. [laughter] It’s about the reactions of Job and his wife to suffering. A man and his wife are caught in difficult circumstances, heated up as if between the coils of a toaster. The reason for suffering, suffering uncovers the mystery of who we are, what is inside of us.

Job’s sufferings allowed by God, open Job’s eyes to those mysteries within. Job realized he was a self satisfied humanitarian snob, who finally saw his meagerness before God. His hidden attitude was revealed in one of his comments, but they who are younger than I hold me in derision, whose fathers I would have disdained to have set before, to have set with the dogs of my flock, Job 30:1. There is the attitude that was uncovered and that needed to be dealt with. A few verses later Job says therefore I abhor myself and repent in dust and ashes, Job 42:6. But even in the depth of his suffering, the Job that would come forth as gold was there. Buried in the rubble of his thoughts and suffering that would make him aware of. He knoweth the way that I take, and when he has tried me, I shall come forth as gold, Job 22:10.

That same thought appears in the New Testament. But the God of all grace who has called us into his eternal glory by Christ Jesus, after that ye have suffered a while make you perfect, established, strengthen you, and settle you. To him be glory and dominion forever and ever, 1 Peter 5:10-11. Perfect here means complete, as Job was complete after his trials when he said I have heard of thee by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees thee, Job 42:5. Do you want to know more of me? God seems to ask at times. It will take a crushing of the human ego. If we suffer we should reign with him, 2 Timothy 2:12. 1 Corinthians 1:7, As ye are partakers of the sufferings, so shall ye yet also share the consolation.

Philippians 3:10, that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His suffering, being made conformable unto his death. I want to get onto Job’s wife which is a narrative poem I am going to read, but I have another whole page here on the benefit and the effect of suffering which I will spare you some of, but I do want to continue for just a moment on this important subject. 1 Peter 1:6-7. In this ye greatly rejoice, though now for a season if need be. Ye are in heaviness through manifold trials.

That the trial of your faith being much more precious than gold that perishes. Though it be tried with fire, might be found unto praise and honor and glory at the appearing of Jesus Christ. I know you all know these verses, but it’s good to go through them again. I also have a lot out of the Book of Acts and I’m gonna read one short portion about the apostles. After they had been beaten and commanded that she should not speak in the name of Jesus and were let go, they departed from the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for His name.

And of course in second Corinthians Paul lists all his sufferings thrice I was beaten, once I was stoned, thrice I suffered shipwreck, and so forth and then we also know Job’s sufferings in perils of the Sabians, three bands of the Chaldeans, fire and wind, the loss of children, and the accusations of friends, the physical pain of boils, and the harrowing peril of Job himself when he recognized his unworthiness before God. Without suffering for that purpose, Job would have remained a lesser man before God. Job’s story is very tidy. He suffered, he saw an attitude that needed to be corrected, he corrected it, and his possessions were restored, and his children although they were different children.

But it is Job’s wife that interests me. I have always written first person narratives of those who did not have a chance to speak. When I thought of her in the scaffolding that the bible sometimes gives us, I imagined her narrative and I also gave her a name, Jaorah. So this is narrative poetry. In the night wind shakes the house. I hear a noise louder than the wind. Job jumps from his bed. There is a flash of light, as if the sun lept over the house without following the dawn. There is a flash of light, I’m sorry I just read that. I hide my eyes in the covers. What is it? Fire, Job answers. The sky is burning. Flames are eating the earth, then the fire is gone. The birds stop their screeching, the dogs their barking and we are left with silence. I hoped the children were in their houses. I hoped the servants watching our flocks and herds kept them from running. All is well, the Lord God is with us.

He is a God of uprising yes, but his hands are upon us. Let the wind rock the house, let the fire eat the sky. In the dawn a large tree has fallen in the pasture beyond the barn. The roots of the overturned tree look like fingers, trying to reach back into the earth. I see other trees shucked of their leaves, grapevines blown down, the almond and olive trees, the flags and rushes smothered in the wetlands. In the early light Job goes with the servants to look at the tree that fell. I bring a meal to the field but he does not eat.

Sometimes I take bites as I sit near the men. Someone is coming from the distance, now others are coming one after another. The Sabians took the ox and asses and killed the field servants, the Chaldeans took the camels, the fire of God fell from heaven and burned up the sheep. A great wind from the wilderness blew down our son’s house and killed our seven sons and three daughters. I fall in a mat of leaves in horror. Twigs scratch my face as I twist among them. I see Job struck to the ground with the news. He stands up and tears his cloak and falls down again and worships God. The children all ten of them, not one survived? A servant tries to wipe the leaves from my face and matted hair. I swat her away. Job cuts off his hair in odd patches with a knife I brought with the meal. Is God still in the sky? Maybe he isn’t awake yet.

Maybe the storm frightened him and he stepped to another place. Curse God and die, I say. It is harrowing harrowing, shave your head Job you look like a broken hedge. Job sends the house servants to borrow oxen from the neighbors. He tells me to wait at the hacienda. When the oxen arrive he goes with the carts to bring the children back. I see them coming from the distance. They arrive in the yard, the servants carry the bodies to the tables. Our sons Jedra, Jorum, Jothnaiel, Abum, Abiham, Nabiwel, Noben. Our daughters Habiyah, Hajiyah, Jobinah. We closed their eyes and mouths, we washed their bodies.

I see the injuries, the bruises, the broken bones, I choke on my sobs. We anoint the bodies with ointment, we wrap them in myrrh in the linen. Job has opened the family tomb in the escarpment at the edge of our land. I see he has shave his head. I see how small it is. A line of people come from town. Some of Job’s brothers and sisters, the mourners, and musicians. We put a wreath around the necks of the borrowed oxen that pull the carts. Job speaks at the funeral, my hope he removed like a tree, then everyone is gone.

For weeks I dream of the loss of our children and all we have. Did the Sabians and Chaldeans use the blowing dust as cover? Did they use the fire from heaven to see the herds and flocks? I am angry with the Sabians who killed the Serbans and stole the oxen and asses, the Chaldeans who killed the servants and took the camels. I am angry with the wind. I am angry with the fire. I am angry with Job’s brothers and sisters who left. I am angry with Job. I am angry with God. Job is struck with boils. He scrapes them with a potsherd. The boils are on his feet, the top of his head. They cover his body. He cannot sit, he cannot stand, he cannot lie down. His breath is noxious. The pus continues. I barely can look at him.

How pitiful the pleading of his eyes toward the distant sky. I hold to the servant girl as we walk around the compound, the fields and pastures in ruin. Only the barns, the outer buildings, the house and servants quarters remain. We cross the path where the sheep walked from the pens to the fields. We cross the road the camels traveled. At least we have cows, chickens. At night the pastures are dark.

Where are the campfires the field servants built as they guarded the flocks and herds? Where is the sky above them that once shined with stars? Where are my children? With God, Job says. Job is still praising Him but he is stewing too. Soon they come, the friends. I see the way they look at Job, as if they don’t know him. Perhaps they don’t, Job has changed. Their look is curious as if they have to get to close to see every agonized line in his face before they know it is Job. I watch from behind the curtain. They sit with Job seven days without speaking. Where are Job’s brothers and sisters? Could they not visit?

Are we shunned by everyone but these three men? They talk, they talk, they talk. Naked I was, naked I am. Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, Zophar the Naamathite, Job the Uzite. I am supposed to feed them, to wipe the dust of their feet from the stones of the floor of the house. I push the chair across the floor, it makes a growling sound. I pick up the chair, drop it, pound it on the floor in a fit of anger. I am riled, I am riled. This messiness, these jagged walls, even the squawking crows mock us. There is no way to ignore it. I heard the laughter at our sons’ house. They all wanted to be together. Their voices floated over the fields. Jedrah invited his younger brothers and sisters to eat and drink with him.

They were louder than the sheep, the camels, and oxen. Job prayed for our children each morning, rising early to make an offering for any offense they had committed. I take flowers to their tomb. Sometimes the dog barks. The field dogs respond with their own barking. The whole world is barking. I bark until a servant hushes me. Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar stay in the quarters of the field servants who were killed by the Sabians and Chaldeans. Job sleeps in another room, there is distance between us. Our words do not like to be with one another. I hardly breath when we speak. Where are the days Job came to me? When I felt his hand open my night robe. I hear Job in his room. He dreams more wildly than me. I have visions of fireballs falling from the sky. My head cannot contain the fireballs in my thoughts. If I look at the trees I would set them on fire. I wait for my three daughters and seven sons. I slam the chair on the floor with fury. Let the jackals howl.

Where is God the invisible one? The one more invisible than the invisible me? The house servants are busy cooking for the men as they talk in the courtyard of the compound. Does Job think I know nothing of his pain? I kick the chair on its side. The servant girls cower in the corner of the kitchen. Make the gruel thin I tell them. Leave out the spices, use the hard bread. Now a fourth man arrives to talk to Job, Elihu the Buzite. When will all their talking be done? The women of Uz come to sit with me. The women who still have their daughters and sons or I sit in the courtyard door and listen to the men talk. I pick at a spot on my rob. How did it get there? In the cooking room, the garden, maybe a muddy print of the dog with his paw on my lap. I feel tied to the chair. My words are sorghum in my mouth. The women bring me wool from their flocks to card, and wash and wind into a ball and put on the spindle and weave, thinking I need something to do. Our hacienda sits on the plain of Uz. It is low to the ground with a tile roof and trees.

Our barns and fields lick the ground also, the birds, chickens, the dogs. I hear Job say of his life swifter than a weavers’ shuttle, but he is not dead he only wishes he was. He cannot move without groaning, he cannot walk without his stick. The women weave, but I am not weaving with them. My life moves slower than a goat with an udder full of milk. What would my life be without Job? I told him to curse God and die, to rid him of his suffering. What is it like to die? Are we like sheep shivering after we are shorn? But dying that is different from death.

I curl up behind a chair, even the servants cannot drag me out. I am not here God, take your meanness someplace else. What is faith when the mind is frozen? I wish I could stay in my room but I have to direct the servant girls from place to place in the market. I pull the scarf over my head when people point. It is a shame that burns like a boil. I turn to the women who stare. I am Jaorah, my husband Job is leader in Uz. Remember what he has done for you. I feel the pain of my words before they are spoken, before they are given birth.

How can words carry what they have to convey? They are camels under their burdens. I am mostly silent now, though I am seen by other women not Job, never him or this God I do not know. Faith is a ball of wool full of dirt and briars before it is carded. Send that to God. I do not think he hears. Mark it on parchment, roll it up and send it with the next caravan. Now there is a whirlwind in the field. The men turn away, covering their heads. Dust hits the window. I close the back door. It must be God, who else can he blow away? But God clears his throat, there is the sound of it anyway. Maybe God has been quiet so long he is hoarse. Look at Eliphez, Bildad, Zophar, wishing only for a trout stocked stream.

Then somehow they are gone. Slowly Job heals, but for the scars from his boils. I see the shiny marks they left. I touch them with my finger. They feel slick. Job’s hair grows, his beard catches crumbs, he is back in the city gate. Our flocks and herds somehow show up. I hear the pounding of the camel hooves on the road. I don’t know where they came from. The sheep seem to trot back to Uz from the sky. They fill the path from the fields to their pens, trampling the gardens, the flowers, and the grapevines, I tied back up. There are so many of them, twice of what we had. Oxen thunder from the distance, the asses with them. In the field the crops rise from the ground. Job no longer sleeps in another room. I bare children again, seven sons the number we lost, then the girls. Jemimah, Keziah, Keren-happuch.

My first daughters are dead, gone to heaven, come back, resurrected in beauty though I know it is not them. Job’s brothers and sisters visit. I glare at them when they are not looking. The camels bellow, the oxen are plowing, the asses feeding beside them. When I wrote all those words, I did not envision a now mine eye seeth thee moment, for Job’s wife as there had been for Job. I think her fidelity to Job was strengthened, her practicality, even in grief over the loss of 10 children to whom she had given birth. She kept the hacienda running. She is the ordinary experience of suffering without the revelation that Job experienced. She is the times we hang on, without understanding exactly why we suffer. In that if not equal to Job, she is substantial among the coils of the toaster in which she found herself. [light music]