Where were you?

Today’s text is Job 38:1-11, when God first responds to the human conversation in the book of Job.

Job 38:1-11 (NRSV)

Then the Lord answered Job out of the tempest:
Who is this who darkens counsel
with words devoid of knowledge?
Brace yourself and stand up like a man;
I shall put questions to you, and you must answer.
Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundations?
Tell me, if you know and understand.
Who fixed its dimensions? Surely you know!
Who stretched a measuring line over it?
On what do its supporting pillars rest?
Who set its corner- stone in place,
while the morning stars sang in chorus
and the sons of God all shouted for joy?
Who supported the sea at its birth a,
when it burst in flood from the womb–
when I wrapped it in a blanket of cloud
and swaddled it in dense fog,
when I established its bounds,
set its barred doors in place,
and said, ‘Thus far may you come but no farther;
here your surging waves must halt’?

Some days it is easy for me to acknowledge that Christianity and Zen are two separate traditions, with two very different cultural contexts which speak very different truths to many different populations of people. Today is not one of those days. Job 38:1-11 sounds to these ears like a kong-an being posed to me by a Zen teacher. If Zen and kong-an practice are ways of closing off rational thinking and directly witness The Mystery, this passage is perhaps one of the greatest kong-ans of all time. God reveals Godself to be a Zen master par excellence.

God, like good Zen teachers throughout history, comes out of nowhere with pointed questions which challenge the foundation of my thinking. “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding.” God poses a question which seems to have an obvious answer – or no answer – then baits for a response. With no immediate response (death in a kong-an interview), God continues. “Who determined its measurements… on what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?” These questions stop the mind and open it to the unknown.

There are many reasons why God might ask these questions in this book of the Bible. One might reasonably argue that the questions are rhetorical and clearly the answer is “I was not there.” Or perhaps God asked these questions to make Job and his friends feel small. They certainly sound like angry questions, and on my first reading of this text that’s the way I heard God – a stern, commanding figure who demands incomprehensible answers from Job as a way of shutting him down. But reading with a Zen lens I hear God in in a very different way.

What if instead I hear God’s voice here as a kindly Zen monk with light in his eyes, asking questions to open my mind? What if “surely you know!” is encouraging instead of patronizing? What if there’s a smile and nod which says “You know this! I have faith in you!” What if God is asking a genuine question, “where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth,” to which there is actually an answer? What if God is asking in a way which invites me to open my mind to a larger understanding of “me?”

Honestly, I’m glad I’m not having a conversation with God over these questions in a Zen interview room. Or am I, right now, actually having that conversation? If I put down my small sense of self, as I hear God inviting me to do in this passage, and I respond to God’s invitation to consider the world or universe as something larger, I perhaps can glimpse the foundation of the universe. If Zen has taught me nothing else, it is perhaps there are answers to questions I hear as having no answer. And, just as importantly, sometimes the questions are answers themselves.

I can come up with no better questions than those God asks this week.

1.    Where were you when God laid the foundation of the earth?
2.    On what were the bases of the earth sunk?
3.    Who laid the earth’s cornerstone when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?”

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