Real Bible Studies: The Book of Job

img_6262The Book of Job takes the form of a dialogue between Job, and his three friends, Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite. Along the way, we also hear from Elihu, who’s identified as the son of Barakel the Buzite. At the end, God steps in and communicates with Job as well. The story goes on for forty-two chapters, and it’s only in the first two that it’s explained why Job and his friends are having the conversation. In Chapters 1 and 2, described in the NIV as The Prologue, we’re told that the sons of God and Satan are hanging out, presumably in heaven, when God shows up, and starts bragging to Satan about how righteous Job is. Satan contends that anyone will praise God when things are going well, but not so much when things are going badly, so God tells Satan to rain down all manner of punishment on Job, just to demonstrate that Job will not forsake God. In the first chapter, Job loses his house, his livestock, seven sons, and three daughters, in rapid succession. In the second chapter, God allows Satan to afflict Job with sores over his entire body.

This is one of the stories where it’s worth noting the differences in translations to describe the entities that have gathered, with whom God interacts, and it demonstrates how the translation can alter the meaning of the text, sometimes significantly. The New International Version (NIV) refers to “angels” gathering before God, but explains in a footnote that in the original Hebrew, the term “sons of God” is used. The New American Standard Bible, and the King James Version, among others, identify them as “sons of God.” The International Standard Version uses “divine beings,” and the Good News Translation calls them “heavenly beings.” Earlier, in the story of Noah in Genesis, the NIV mentions the “sons of God” without translating the term as angels. It is an extremely important distinction, especially since Satan is counted among these entities, though a footnote in the NIV explains that “Satan” means “adversary” without specifying whose adversary. In any event, God doesn’t seem surprised to see Satan hanging around, and their conversation does not imply a great deal of animosity between them.

The story of Job presents us with an atypical biblical protagonist, because no attempt is made to tie Job to any of the known patriarchs or tribes of the Israelites. All we’re told is that he lives in the land of Uz, wherever that might have been. In fact, we’re not told how Job is connected to the Israelites at all, or where in the history of Israel his story takes place, and none of his friends appear to be connected to them either. While they’re identified by their tribal designation, only one, the Temanites are mentioned elsewhere in the bible, in two identical references in Genesis and 1 Chronicles. The name Elihu shows up in 1 Samuel and 1 Chronicles, but these do not appear to be the same Elihu as in the story of Job. The Asbury Bible Commentary, found at The Bible Gateway places Job within the “Wisdom literature” which includes Psalms and Proverbs. It’s possible this account came from one of the cultures with whom the Israelites interacted, and was adapted for use in the Hebrew bible.

Most of the work is told in verse form, and consists of a series of long monologues by Job, one of his three friends, Elihu, or God. This is also unusual, and suggests the text might have originally been meant to be spoken, perhaps even performed as a play. The structure of Job suggests that chapters 1 and 2, and the brief wrap ups in chapters 32 and 42 came from a different source than the verse, or were added later by an editor to explain the situation. Job’s attitude in dealing with his wife in Chapter 2 also differs from his attitude throughout the rest of the piece, though that could be related to the length of his suffering. The dialogue begins after all the calamity has befallen Job, and ends without a resolution, and the prose sections fill in the remainder of the story. Job speaks, perhaps his opening statement, each friend questions Job, followed by Job’s defense. Elihu’s commentary comes after Job makes his final statement and goes unanswered by Job, and God’s portion takes up the remainder of the work.

Job’s tale is reasonably easy to summarize, despite the fact that it goes on for forty-two chapters. After Satan is allowed to essentially destroy Job’s entire life without actually killing him, three of his friends go to him to provide comfort. Job starts out lamenting his fate, and wishing God had never allowed him to be born, or that God killed him while still a baby, so that he’d never have known the suffering that comes from falling out of God’s favor. Each of his friends address him, in turn, questioning why Job feels he was righteous, given that the evidence suggests otherwise. The theme that develops is that God doesn’t just punish people for no reason, therefore Job must have done something to incur God’s wrath. It’s important to note that throughout his discussion with his friends, Job is only requesting that he be allowed to state his case before God, and does not curse nor blame God. He constantly insists to his friends that he’s done nothing to warrant the treatment he’s receiving, and readers of the text, who have the benefit of the Prologue, know he’s telling the truth.

After Job’s friends have had their say, and failed to shake Job’s conviction in his own blamelessness, Job gives what’s identified as his final statement, his summation, or closing argument, in other words. Once he’s finished, Elihu steps forward to offer his thoughts on the matter. Elihu describes himself as much younger than the others, and has apparently been on the sidelines listening to the discussion. He says he did not speak up until the three friends made it clear they had finished because they are his elders and he did not wish to interrupt them. Elihu beats around the bush, explaining himself and claiming he’s about to say something profound for a chapter and a quarter, before finally getting around to admonishing Job, and he also takes up the theme that God doesn’t punish people who don’t deserve it. The gist of what Elihu is saying seems to be that no one is more righteous than God, which is beside the point, since Job isn’t comparing himself to God.

After a few chapters of Elihu, God finally shows up and speaks to Job “out of the storm” which must have come up while Elihu was speaking, since no mention has been made of it before. In keeping with the stormy theme, God thunders for a few chapters about how great it is, without really giving Job any real explanation for what’s happened to him. God’s rant generally boils down to “I’m God and you’re not” which I’m pretty sure Job already knew without having his property destroyed, his family killed, and his health taken away from him in the worst possible way. Still, Job knows which side his bread is buttered on, so he agrees with whatever God has to say. Then God berates Job’s three friends, and confirms everything Job’s been saying throughout the whole story. God seems to be angry because the three friends weren’t speaking the truth while Job was, and since Job’s contention was that God was punishing him for no reason, it seems a very curious admission on God’s part. No mention is made of what became of Elihu, but given God’s track record in Genesis and elsewhere, perhaps it’s better we not know.

God then makes all three friends bring Job offerings, and has Job pray for them, since he was right all along. At last, God restores Job’s fortune, so, of course, all his fair-weather friends and family come back to help him celebrate. The bible suggests Job has a rather large extended family, none of whom apparently cared enough about him to take him in when he was in real distress. Whatever else can be said of Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar, at least they stuck by Job when he was most in need, even if he didn’t find them to be of much comfort to him. The story ends with the report that Job raised a whole new family to sort of make up for the one that was killed, even though they couldn’t, and we’re told that Job lived to the ripe old age of a hundred and forty, seeing his family to the fourth generation. We’re not given any sort of genealogy of Job’s descendants, which further isolates Job’s story from others which document the children of Israel.

Job’s plight raises numerous issues about the nature and intent of God, and it’s not clear exactly what readers are meant to take away from how he’s treated. First, why is Satan in the presence of God? Wasn’t Satan banished to hell for all eternity for the sin of pride? Did Satan get a weekend pass, or time off for good behavior, or was Satan’s banishment a later theological development that wasn’t known to the author of Job? Also, if Jesus was God’s only begotten son, why do multiple translations of the bible, including, apparently, the original Hebrew refer to the “sons” of God, here and in Genesis 6 in particular? Since Satan’s among them, does that imply Satan was also a son of God? Genesis doesn’t just mention that the “sons of God” exist, but that they also interact with humans, taking some of the women as wives.

The Book of Job should leave those who relish the notion of God as a loving father figure with quite a dilemma. Everything that happens to Job happens because God instructed Satan to torment Job. In fact, it’s God who puts Job on Satan’s radar in the first place, since all Satan tells God when God inquires as to what Satan’s been doing, is that he’s been wandering around the earth. At any point after Satan starts harming Job, God could have called the whole thing off, and restored Job to good health and fortune. True, in the end, God does just that, but while the money and property can be replaced, Job’s sons and daughters were killed and they can’t be, not even with an all new family. God was fully aware of what was happening, and not only did nothing to stop it, but actually encouraged it all, for no good reason, except, perhaps, to win a bet with Satan. At other points in the bible when God acts violently, it’s in reaction to something God didn’t expect like the Tower of Babel, or basic human nature, but here, God’s just being malicious for no apparent reason. Saying it’s okay for God to behave this way is like saying it’s okay for parents to beat their children. After all, it’s for their own good. It’s just senseless cruelty, and poor Job is just expected to grin and bear it all, then thank God afterward for teaching him such an important lesson. God should have known what was in Job’s heart and mind, and should not have been concerned about what Satan had to say on the matter.

The more I read Job, the more convinced I am that it was once meant to be performed, and that its intent was to be darkly humorous or ironic. Modern readers would describe Job’s plight as Kafkaesque, in that the tragedies that befall Job do not happen as a result of anything Job has done, and, in fact, he’s being punished for being an upstanding and righteous person. Job’s rebukes to his friends are very sarcastic, almost like, “With friends like you…” Imagine Job’s speeches being read by Jerry Seinfeld or Garry Shandling, delivered in their usual acerbic style. Job constantly asserts his innocence and dismay at his misfortune, while his friends cajole him to confess his wrongdoings and beg for mercy from God. Elihu’s meandering speech at the beginning of Chapter 32 and into 33 comes across as very humorous, like, “Okay, I’m about to talk, any time now. I’m opening my mouth. The words are coming to me. Here they come. Right now. I’m saying ’em.” Even God’s speech has a humorous tone to it, since it consists of bombastic pronouncements about what God can do that Job can’t. After insisting for several chapters that God show up so Job can defend himself, when he’s finally given the opportunity to address God, all Job does is agree with everything God says, without making much of an issue of it.

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