December 10, 2012 0

Episode 18 – Wisdom Part 2: The Book of Job

By in Blog, Podcast


[south park clip]

The story of Job perplexes modern readers perhaps more than any other part of the bible, with the possible exception of Revelation. Where and how does this outrageous story fit into the rest of the bible, and is its message really the one most religious teachers today insist it is? If you would like some pithy, scripted answers to these and other questions about Job, you have downloaded the correct podcast. This is BOOK.


Hello, and welcome to BOOK, a bible podcast for everybody. I’m Josh Way. I was earnestly excited to get to this particular episode, until it came time to actually research and write it. Then I remembered: oh yeah, Job is a difficult book. It’s long, the subject matter is grim, the scholarship surrounding it is murky, and traditional readings tend to either whitewash it or throw it in the trash. And then there’s the whole “satan” thing. OK, here we go…

If you’re unfamiliar with Job, the South Park clip we heard at the top is actually a pretty faithful summary. A “righteous” man named Job becomes the pawn in a bet between God and “the satan,” to see how much suffering it would take to make a good man curse God. Job’s family, his herds, and his property are destroyed, and he himself is stricken with painful sores. After a lengthy ordeal and seemingly endless discussion between Job and his friends, God relents and restores the poor man’s health and property. He even gives him some new children. Happy ending, right? I guess…?

But that’s exactly how I have been taught to read Job all of my life. I have sat through many sermons and lessons about Job that go like this: “Job suffered, as we all will, but he never cursed God and so God blessed him in the end. Let us do likewise.” Not only is that conclusion deeply unsatisfying, but that reading of the story is downright suspect. Can a new family really be considered a replacement for a dead one? What about the shocking implications of God making a wager with “satan?” And is it true that Job never curses God? Was the point of the whole thing? We’ll see.

So, we’ve got some homework to do. As usual, our goal is to understand the book of Job through the lenses of HISTORY and LITERATURE. Unfortunately, in this case, neither is easy or clear cut, but here’s what we have to work with. In terms of HISTORY, Job is not tethered to any known time or place in ancient Israel. We don’t even know if Job was an Israelite. There is no genealogy nor any biographical information, no “in the time of the judges” or “during the reign of Jehoiachin…” All it says is this:

There was a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job, and that man was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil.

“The land of Uz” is all we get, and it’s not very helpful. “Uz” is not a known place in ancient Israel, though it may be a family designation (Abraham had both ancestors AND descendents named “Uz”). Unlike all the historical narratives in the Hebrew Bible, we have no specific time, no specific place. And scholars can’t even agree on the general timeframe for the book’s writing. The text of Job, which borrows words from other ancient languages like Akkadian, was once thought to be the oldest in the bible. But today a growing consensus says that Job was actually written very late in Israel’s national history. At the end of the day, we just don’t have very much to go on.

Traditional religious readings haven’t considered this a problem, since it’s enough for most people that Job is a character in a bible book. But the lack of historical or covenantal context is a big deal for us as we struggle to unlock the text. The biggest ramification of this, in light of the book’s problematic content, is that we are not necessarily obligated to read this as a “literal” or “historical” text. Or – to put it another way – we are not obligated to fit Job into the covenantal history of Israel. This story about “a man” could very well be a parable or a drama of some kind, an exercise in wisdom. And now we’re moving into our second sandbox, that of LITERATURE.

The lack of historical nuance is enough to raise questions, but the issue of genre really gets us moving in the right direction. The problem for modern readers of Job is that we’re distracted and placated by the short, somewhat trite little narrative bits at the beginning and end of the scroll, but we don’t so much care for the many long chapters of discourse which comprise the bulk of it. And this isn’t simple conversational dialog, it is verse. Job is a long poetic debate framed by a simplistic narrative which sets the parameters for the discussion. This is an ancient genre which is unfamiliar to us: a debate drama, in which characters who represent different philosophical points of view come together to meet minds on a certain topic. And in Job, the central question has to do with suffering and the character of God.

Here’s the big idea: Job is one of the few biblical explorations of something called THEODICY. Theodicy is the question of justifying God and his character or actions. You’d expect that there would be much more of this in the bible, but it’s actually rather rare. And in fact, we’ll see that Job isn’t exactly a traditional theodicy, for reasons we’ll explore. Job takes the problem of human suffering – exemplified by the central character – and subjects it to the full scrutiny of Israel’s wisdom. The conclusions are unexpected and disconcerting, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

We can’t talk about the Job debate without properly setting the stage, and we can’t do that without talking about “the satan.” Here’s what the scroll says, in chapter 1 and verse 6:

[6] Now there was a day when the sons of the elohim came to present themselves before YHWH, and the satan also came among them. [7] YHWH said to the satan, “From where have you come?” The satan answered YHWH and said, “I have been roaming all over the earth.” [8] And YHWH said to the satan, “Have you considered my servant Job, that there is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil?” [9] Then the satan answered YHWH and said, “Does Job fear God for no reason? [10] Have you not put a hedge around him and his house and all that he has, on every side? You have blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land. [11] But stretch out your hand and touch all that he has, and he will curse you to your face.” [12] And YHWH said to the satan, “Behold, all that he has is in your hand. Only against him do not stretch out your hand.” So the satan went out from the presence of YHWH.

I’ve been very careful in the translation of the names and titles in this passage to help us sort it all out. One day the “sons of the elohim” came before YHWH, Israel’s God. “Elohim” you may recall is a flexible word in Hebrew which can sometimes refer to God himself, sometimes to a host of “gods,” or – as in this case – to the “council of God,” the divine beings which serve YHWH and accomplish the work of heaven, whatever it may be. Presumably, the first readers of this text would have understood this idea more clearly, whether it was a mythological trope or a literal interpretation (or revelation!) of what was actually going on in heaven. This particular language is not used frequently in the bible, so we are left somewhat in the dark. The sons of the elohim are accompanied by “the satan,” about whom we must now say a few words.

When modern readers hear the word “satan,” they immediately think of something very specific: the Devil, the Serpent, Pitch, Old Gooseberry, the personal enemy of God. But the reality is that the concept of hasatan, “the accuser” in Hebrew, has undergone an evolution through time, and even from one end of the bible to the other. We haven’t talked about the satan on BOOK to this point, simply because it hasn’t been mentioned in the text (except for one little bit we passed over in Chronicles).

Here in Job, hasatan is one of the elohim, a member of God’s council, who has been “roaming the earth.” He is not God’s equal and opposite adversary, not the master of hell and the underworld. He’s just a heavenly staff member, the “accuser,” whose job is apparently to dole out trouble on the earth. In that capacity he has an audience with God himself and they have a chat. Indeed, they make a wager, and Job’s troubles begin. A host of troubles are visited upon Job. Invaders destroy his herds and kill his servants, fire destroys his flocks, and all of his ten children are killed when the house they are feasting in collapses. This is his reaction:

[20] Job arose and tore his robe and shaved his head and fell on the ground and worshiped. [21] And he said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The LORD has given, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD.”
[22] In all this Job did not sin or charge God with wrong.

YHWH announces that he has won the bet, but hasatan insists that Job will break if the next tragedy befalls his own body. God agrees, as long as the man is not killed. Job is stricken with painful sores and sits in misery, scratching his boils with a piece of broken pottery. His wife offers him some helpful advice:

[2:9] Then his wife said to him, “Do you still hold fast your integrity? Curse God and die!” [10] But he said to her, “Spoken like a shameless woman! Shall we receive good from God, and not receive the bad?” In all this Job did not sin with his lips.

Next (and this is where that South Park clip and most religious lessons about Job bail out), three of Job’s friends arrive to give him comfort, as was the custom in the ancient world. The writing style changes and the rest of the long book consists of flowery statements and increasingly flowery rebuttals. This is the part we are tempted to skip over, but which is surely the real meat and potatoes of the book. Job kicks things off with this cheery little plea:

[3:11] “Why did I not die at birth,
come out from the womb and expire?
[12] Why did the knees receive me?
Or why the breasts, that I should nurse?
[13] For then I would have lain down and been quiet;
I would have slept; then I would have been at rest,
[14] with kings and counselors of the earth
who rebuilt ruins for themselves,
[15] or with princes who had gold,
who filled their houses with silver.
[16] Or why was I not as a hidden stillborn child,
as infants who never see the light?
[17] There the wicked cease from troubling,
and there the weary are at rest.
[18] There the prisoners are at ease together;
they hear not the voice of the taskmaster.
[19] The small and the great are there,
and the slave is free from his master.

From here the debate begins, and I will do my best to summarize each of the friends’ statements and Job’s responses with brief quotes. The first to lecture Job is Eliphaz the Temanite, who says (in chapters 4 and 5):

Remember: who that was innocent has ever perished? [4:7]
As for me, I would seek God! [5:8]

This is basically an appeal to old-school Israelite wisdom. The good prosper, and the wicked perish. If you’re innocent, you have nothing to worry about! If you’re suffering, it must be because of some wickedness in your life. Job isn’t exactly moved. From chapters 6 and 7:

The arrows of the Almighty are in me; my spirit drinks their poison. [6:4]
He who withholds kindness from a friend forsakes the fear of the Almighty. [6:14]
I loathe my life. I would not live forever. [7:16]

Job rejects the implicit premise of Elihaz’ statement, that Job must be personally responsible for his suffering per the machinations of wisdom. His implied premise is that he is suffering innocently. Next up, in chapter 8, is Bildad, who has this to say:

If you are pure and upright, surely he will rouse himself for you. [8:6]
God will not reject a blameless man. [8:20]

Bildad’s gist is the same as Eliphaz, but he has a helpful suggestion: try being more righteous! If you’re really really good, God will have no choice but to bless you! Once again, Job’s not buying it, and responds in chapters 9 and 10:

How can a man be in the right before God? [9:2]
He destroys both the blameless and the wicked [9:22]
Are not my days few? Then cease, and leave me alone! [10:20]

Job is basically taking a page out of Qoheleth, and reaching the same conclusion as that book: The so-called righteous AND the wicked are both destined for the grave, so show me the actual advantage of being righteous! Zophar is up next, in chapter 11:

Know then that God exacts of you less than your guilt deserves. [11:6]
If iniquity is in your hand, put it far away. [11:14]

Zophar sounds like a modern day Protestant Christian. He says, “you think your suffering is bad? It’s not half as bad as what you deserve because your heart is so black and sinful. Repent and get right with God!” Job fires back:

I am not inferior to you! [12:3]
The hand of the LORD has done this! [12:9]
You whitewash with lies; worthless physicians, all of you! [13:4]
If a man dies, shall he live again? [14:14]

“How dare you!,” says Job. “You’re supposed to be comforting me, not sitting in judgment!” Job reiterates that he is innocent, that God did this to him, and muses that life is short and pointless. Now that everyone’s had a turn to speak, we’ll speed up the rest of our summary with one-line exchanges:

ELIPHAZ: You are neglecting the fear of God. [15:4] Your own mouth condemns you! [15:6]

JOB: Miserable comforters, all of you! [16:2] [God] has torn me in his wrath and hated me. [16:9] Where then is my hope? [17:15]

BILDAD: Why are we stupid in your sight? [18:3] The light of the wicked will be put out. [18:5]

JOB: How long will you torment me? [19:2] I call for help but there is no justice. [19:7] I know that my Redeemer lives! [19:25]

ZOPHAR: The joy of the godless is but for a moment. [20:5] This is the wicked man’s portion from God. [20:29]

JOB: Why do the wicked live… and grow mighty in power? [21:7]

ELIPHAZ: Can a man be profitable to God? [22:2] Is not your evil abundant? [22:5] Agree with God and be at peace! [22:21]

JOB: My complaint is bitter. [23:2]  I go forward but he is not there! [23:9]

BILDAD: Dominion and fear are God’s. [25:2] How can he who is born of woman be pure? [25:4]

JOB: I hold fast to my righteousness and will not let it go. [27:6] But where shall wisdom be found? [28:12] It is hidden from all the living. [28:21] I am a brother to jackals. [30:22] If I have walked with falsehood… let me be weighed in a just balance. [31:5] Oh that I had one to hear me! [31:35]

The words of Job are ended. [31:40]

Thus ends Job’s debate with his friends, and ultimately Job sticks to his guns: he is righteous, innocent but made to suffer, and it is up to God to recognize and reward his righteousness. Before the shocking events that conclude the book can commence, another dude named Elihu shows up to berate Job and the three friends. He is mad at Job because “he justified himself and not God,” and he is mad at the friends because “they had found no answer.” He goes on for six whole chapters saying things like:

I will declare my opinion…[32:17] You say “I am pure” [33:9] In this you are not right… God is greater than man! [33:12] Far be it from God that he should do wickedness. [34:10] The Almighty will not pervert justice. [34:12]  Job speaks without knowledge. [34:35] He adds rebellion to his sin! [34:37]

If you are righteous, what did you give to [God]? [35:7] Surely God does not hear an empty cry. [35:13] Behold, God is mighty and does not despise anyone. [36:5] But you are full of judgment on the wicked! [36:17]

Elihu takes everyone to task, not least Job for the arrogance of judging himself righteous and others wicked. He makes a solid point, and yet at this point he just seems like a loudmouth, wagging his finger and drawing out an already interminable debate. If only there was someone more authoritative who could chime in, someone relevant to the discussion who could provide some insight… Oh, right – how about God himself? Chapter 38:

[38:1] Then the LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind and said:
[2] “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?
[3] Dress for action like a man;
I will question you, and you make it known to me.
[4] “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell me, if you have understanding.
[5] Who determined its measurements—surely you know!
Or who stretched the line upon it?
[6] On what were its bases sunk,
or who laid its cornerstone,
[7] when the morning stars sang together
and all the sons of God shouted for joy?

[16] Have you entered into the springs of the sea,
or walked in the recesses of the deep?
[17] Have the gates of death been revealed to you,
or have you seen the gates of deep darkness?
[18] Have you comprehended the expanse of the earth?
Declare, if you know all this.”

God’s perspective is, “Did you ever create a walrus? No? Then why do you even bother sitting around and debating my ways?!” Job’s response is a solid little nugget of wisdom:

[40:3] Then Job answered the LORD and said:
[4] “Behold, I am of small account; what shall I answer you?
I put my hand over my mouth.
[5] I have spoken once, and I will not answer;
twice, but I will proceed no further.”

God issues a final challenge to Job:

I will question you. [40:7] Will you condemn me that you might be in the right? [40:8] Can you draw out Leviathan with a fish hook? [41:1] Who has first given to me that I should repay him? [41:11]

And Job falls down in repentance:

You can do all things and no purpose of yours can be thwarted! [42:2] I have uttered what I did not understand! [42:3] Now my eye sees you and I repent in dust and ashes. [42:5-6]

In the end, only God comes out on top. Job’s friends were wrong for judging him and utterly failing to comfort him, and Job was wrong to insist that he was righteous and innocent. The implications of the whole thing are actually kind of staggering, but first we need to wrap up the narrative. The book of Job ends with two small narrative bits: 1) God rebukes Job’s friends and tells them to go make atonement sacrifices for having been such numbskulls, and 2) God “restored the fortunes of Job,” giving him new crops, new herds, new servants, and great wealth. “Twice what he had before.” Job even gets new offspring, ten children to replace those lost. THE END.

If we insist on reading Job as a simple, literal, narrative story, then the brief happy ending here is the climax and it’s up to you what lesson, if any, you take away from it. But if we recognize the unique style and format, and the fact that – as with most Hebrew writing – it’s not the ending but what comes in the middle that matters most, then we begin to appreciate what Job really is and what it’s really saying.

Theodicy is all about putting God on trial to see whether or not he meets the standard, whether or not he is just. Job sets out to conduct such a trial, with human suffering as the damning exhibit A. In the end, however, the book turns the tables, and wisdom, religion, and theodicy itself are in the dock. Job questions the old easy answers about righteous and wicked, good and bad, innocent and guilty, and then questions its own questions. In the end, God chastises everyone involved for bringing it all up in the first place! That’s why I say this isn’t exactly a theodicy, as the question of God’s justness is never answered.

As a piece of wisdom literature, Job is more innovative even than Qoheleth. Qoheleth looked at Proverbs and called its easy answers and platitudes into question. Job goes a step further and calls the questioning into question. This is one of the amazing things about the bible that is sadly overlooked: that it almost constantly re-examines and scrutinizes itself, asking the big questions over and over and coming up with new answers (or at least poking holes in the old ones). So many people have read Job as a one-dimensional promise that good people will be rewarded that the real message – a prickly and challenging one – is lost.

In the coming weeks we’ll look at the literature that came out of Israel’s experience in exile in Babylon and Persia. The exile forced a violent re-evaluation of everything Israelite, and the literature that was born out of that period is extraordinary. I hope you’ll continue to join me.

This has been BOOK, a bible podcast for everybody, and I have been Josh Way. If you enjoyed this podcast, I encourage you to share, like, tweet, tweep, kleep, blog, tumbl, stumble, chumble, and flooz it to your online friends and family. If you have any comments, questions or constructive feedback, email me at You can also leave a voicemail at 801-760-3013, and maybe I’ll answer it on the podcast. Read the BOOK blog and find more content at BOOK.JOSHWAY.COM. That’s it for me, Bible pals. I’ll catch you next time.

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