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Back to the Bible - Revisiting the Old Testament
The book of Job is described by Samuel Sandmel as “the literacy masterpiece of the Tanak” (p. 273). It is also one of the most difficult books of the Bible. Its elegant poetic style challenges translation. It doesn’t help that the text is damaged in some places. Some sections are seemingly out of order; some parts have apparently been lost. There are words that occur nowhere else in extant ancient Hebrew texts, the meaning of which is unclear or unknown. Passages lack an explanatory context which might more clearly establish meaning. The Oxford Bible annotations “Heb. obscure, Heb. uncertain” occur more often in Job than any other OT book I’ve so far read.
In addition to technical issues, Job challenges orthodox belief. “In tone, emphasis, and content it stands in direction opposition to themes basic in other scriptural writings” (Sandmel, op.cit.). Job challenges the belief that one’s fate, divine reward and punishment, is determined by one’s conduct. It is the most outstanding example in the Bible of theodicy which wrestles with the question of why evil persists despite the existence of an all powerful and just God. Put in the simplest terms, theodicy attempts to explain why bad things happen to good people while good things happen to bad.
Job opens with a prose prologue which describes the protagonist as a very pious and blessed man with great wealth. Although Job faithfully worships Yahve, he doesn’t live in Israel and is apparently not a Jew, making the book of Job unique in yet another way. Then the scene shifts to “a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came among them” (1:6). Satan (“the Accuser” in Hebrew) is not yet the Devil he came to be in Christianity but seems to be, as he is in Zechariah 3, a member of the heavenly court with some function that involves “Going to and fro on the earth” (1:7). The Lord brags about Job: “There is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil” (1:8). Satan responds that Job is only righteous because of the divine blessings he receives. If he were deprived of his riches he would curse God. God takes up Satan’s bet by allowing him to bring disaster on Job, only Job himself must not be harmed. In one day Job loses all he has, including his ten adult children. But he remains faithful, “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord” (1:21).
Again the day comes for the sons of God to present themselves in the heavenly court. Satan is again present. God notes that Job “holds fast his integrity, although you moved me against him, to destroy him without cause” (2:4). (There is unclarity here as to whether it was Satan or God who brought affliction upon Job). Satan responds, “Skin for skin! All that a man has he will give for his life. But put forth your hand now, and touch his bone and flesh, and he will curse you to your face. And the Lord said to Satan, ‘Behold he is in your power; only spare his life.’ So Satan went forth from the presence of the Lord, and afflicted Job with loathsome sores from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head. And he took a potsherd with which to scrape himself; and sat among the ashes” (2:4-8).
Job’s wife, who apparently was spared when the rest of the family was killed, urges him to “Curse God, and die.” But “in all this Job did not sin with his lips” (2:9, 10). Three friends of Job arrive to “console and comfort” him but are so shocked to see his misery that they sit silently with him for seven days and nights. Then “Job opened his mouth and cursed the day he was born” (3:1). There follows some of the most profound poetry in the Bible as Job maintains his innocence while his “comforters” doggedly insist that he must be a great sinner to have had such suffering imposed upon him. The proverbial “patience of Job” is not very much in evidence; Job is anything but patient, railing against his would-be comforters, and finally demanding that God explain why he has allowed such suffering to come to an innocent man
The poetry of Job equals that of any other literature. The Oxford Bible comments that Job 14, (“Man that is born of a woman is of few days, and full of trouble. He comes forth like a flower, and withers. . . .”) is “one of the great poems in all literature.”
Job insists that he is blameless, certainly not guilty of anything that would justify what has happened to him, while his friends grow increasingly impatient with his unwillingness to yield to their arguments. Who is he to question God? What has happened to Job must be just as God is just. If only Job would repent of whatever it is he has done, God would bless and restore him. As the accusations grow more pointed, Job becomes more sarcastic in his replies, “ You indeed are the knowing ones!” (12:2).
As the back and forth continues Job switches from confronting his accusers to a demand to confront God himself. While acknowledging that God is “not a man, as I am, that I might answer him, that we should come to trial together” (6:25), he still “would speak to the Almighty and I desire to argue my case with God” (13:3). “Behold he will destroy me; I have no hope (often mistakenly rendered, based on a marginal note in a manuscript of the text, “Yet I will trust in him” which is more reassuring but doesn’t match the context!); yet I will defend my ways to his face” (13:15). There is a parody of Psalms 8 in Job 7:17-18: “What is man, that thou doest make so much of him? and that thou doest set thy mind on him, dost visit him every morning, and test him every moment?” Whereas the psalmist praises God for his attention to man, Job wants God to “Let me alone” (7:16). Job complains that God has dealt unjustly with him and denounces his would be comforters for joining God in persecuting him (19:21-24). He believes that his righteousness will be recognized after his death (19:25). Yet meanwhile the wicked go unpunished while righteous people like him suffer. God destroys the hope of man (14:14-21). He cannot find God to confront him with his injustice (23:8-9). “I call to thee, and thou dost not answer me; I stand, and thou dost not heed me. Thou hast turned cruel to me; with the might of thy hand thou dost persecute me” (30:20-21).
Chapters 24-27 are confusing. Some scholars have tried to rearrange the order of the text to make it better fit the structure of the rest of the poem but it seems as if some passages have been lost. Chapter 28 is an apparently misplaced wisdom poem with no connection to the rest of Job.
In chapters 32-37, after “these three men ceased to answer Job, because he was righteous in his own eyes,” (32:1), a previously unremarked upon younger man defends God while reproving Job at length. Job must be wicked because God doesn’t punish the just; Job should receive God’s punishment as a corrective for which he should be grateful. God doesn’t respond because Job is not appealing to him in the proper way. Most commentators believe that this section, which differs from the rest of the poem in language and style, which is more apparent in Hebrew than in English translation, is a later interpolation presenting a more orthodox view to counter the heterodox trend of the rest of the poem.
“Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind: ‘Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?’ ’’ (38:1-2). Who is Job to challenge God? God will question Job, and not Job God. There follows a lengthy, rather sarcastic but beautiful passage citing the mighty wonders of creation in contrast to Job’s ignorance: “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding” (38:4). God and his works are far beyond the understanding of mere mortals such as Job. Chapters 38-41 contain some of the most stirring nature poetry in world literature.
After a lengthy recitation of his creative might, “The Lord said to Job, “Shall a faultfinder contend with the Almighty? He who argues with God, let him answer it.’ Then Job answered the Lord, ‘Behold I am of small account; what shall I answer thee? I lay my hand on my mouth.’ ” (40:1-4). Seemingly not content with Job’s response, God discourses further on his power over nature in contrast to the limited strength of a mere human like Job. Job again responds, “ ‘I know that thou canst do all things. . . . I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. . . . therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes’ ” (42:2-3, 6). So ends the poem.
The prose epilogue returns to the folk-tale style of the prologue. God rebukes the three friends, “For you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has” (42:7). Which seems a bit confusing after the Lord has spoken out of the whirlwind in reproof of Job’s ignorant questioning of divine purpose. But Job has apparently been found innocent of his friends’ accusation of sin; his suffering is due to no fault of his.
Job is to pray for his friends who are instructed to offer penitent sacrifices. After Job prays for his friends, “the Lord gave Job twice as much as he had before” (42:11). All his relatives and acquaintances come to show sympathy and comfort him for “all the evil that the Lord (not Satan whom the epilogue doesn’t mention) had brought upon him,” bringing him money and golden rings (42:11). He has seven more sons and three more daughters. Interestingly the names of the daughters, but not the sons, are given: Dove, Cinnamon, and Horn of Eye Shadow. In the ancient Near East usually only sons were heir to a father’s wealth. But Job gave his daughters “inheritance among their brothers” (42:15). After one hundred forty years more “Job died, an old man, and full of days” (42:17).
For anyone seeking absolute clarity about the nature of evil in relation to God, Job provides little comfort. The ending seems much too neat, almost a dismissal of everything that went before. There is nothing in the conclusion about the bet God and Satan made or any recognition of the injustice done to Job. Is God in fact capable of evil? He at least seems to permit it to afflict innocent people. What about the seven sons and three daughters who perished? Do their replacements really counter the loss to Job and his wife of ten children?
With the appearance of Satan as the agent of evil visited on Job, the book of Job seems to be the beginning of what Carl Jung, in his controversial Answer to Job, saw as a splitting off of evil that had previously been attributed to God. But God is still complicit in what happens to Job, and in the epilogue is said to have brought “all the evil” on Job.
Job is perhaps the most profound book in the Bible. Over the centuries there have been a great many interpretations of Job ranging from skeptical to pious and everywhere in-between. Job doesn’t provide a clear answer to the questions it raises, and perhaps that is what makes it so compelling. God doesn’t respond to Job’s demand for an explanation of why he has been plunged into misery; he simply overwhelms the suffering, protesting man with a display of his power. What happens to people is, like God himself, beyond human understanding. The best human beings can do is to humble themselves before the awesome and mysterious majesty of God who has created all things and decides their fate as he wills. Basically life is a mystery. That seems about right to me.
© 2021 James Moyers