Thursday, May 27, 2021

Those who live in houses of clay

At Morning Prayer at present, we are reading in the book of Job, a masterful piece of theatre exploring the tragi-comedy of existence. In the play’s prelude we witness the assembly of the council of the gods, before the sovereign Lord of the universe. The Lord engages one of the lesser, created, gods in conversation, the shadowy Satan (or, Accuser), a restless god who walks back and forth on the earth in agitation. They debate the righteous human, Job, and enter into a wager. Satan will test the limits of job’s righteousness; while the Lord will question the far corners of Satan’s agitation, for, we shall see, that the Lord is present and attentive to the pain of all creation.

The drama then shifts to Job and his friends. In his suffering, they are, at first, magnificent in their empathy, sitting with him in silence for seven full days. Then Job speaks (chapter 3), a heart-felt soliloquy giving voice to his pain, and the dam breaks. In turn, his friends offer their insight, conventional but deeply flawed wisdom. First to speak is Eliphaz (chapter 4), who recounts a vision he has had by night, in his fitful sleep as he keeps watch with his hurting friend. Eliphaz mistakes the spirit who appears before him for the Lord, when, in truth, it is the sly, sweet-talking Satan, insinuating seeds of doubt, of both human and divine nature: neither are to be trusted.

He does, however, come out with one of the most incredible descriptions of the human being ever spoken: ‘those who live in houses of clay, whose foundation is in the dust,’—speaking not of domestic architecture, but of the body, crafted from the clay of the earth, to which it shall return, and animated by the breath of God. For, contrary to Satan’s accusation, the Lord does not only put trust in human beings, but entrusts his very breath.

What impact does it have, what questions does it raise, for us to be those who live in houses of clay?


‘Then Eliphaz the Temanite answered:

‘If one ventures a word with you, will you be offended?
But who can keep from speaking?
See, you have instructed many;
you have strengthened the weak hands.
Your words have supported those who were stumbling,
and you have made firm the feeble knees.
But now it has come to you, and you are impatient;
it touches you, and you are dismayed.
Is not your fear of God your confidence,
and the integrity of your ways your hope?

‘Think now, who that was innocent ever perished?
Or where were the upright cut off?
As I have seen, those who plough iniquity
and sow trouble reap the same.
By the breath of God they perish,
and by the blast of his anger they are consumed.
The roar of the lion, the voice of the fierce lion,
and the teeth of the young lions are broken.
The strong lion perishes for lack of prey,
and the whelps of the lioness are scattered.

‘Now a word came stealing to me,
my ear received the whisper of it.
Amid thoughts from visions of the night,
when deep sleep falls on mortals,
dread came upon me, and trembling,
which made all my bones shake.
A spirit glided past my face;
the hair of my flesh bristled.
It stood still,
but I could not discern its appearance.
A form was before my eyes;
there was silence, then I heard a voice:
“Can mortals be righteous before God?
Can human beings be pure before their Maker?
Even in his servants he puts no trust,
and his angels he charges with error;
how much more those who live in houses of clay,
whose foundation is in the dust,
who are crushed like a moth.
Between morning and evening they are destroyed;
they perish for ever without any regarding it.
Their tent-cord is plucked up within them,
and they die devoid of wisdom.”


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