Commentary on Job 1:1; 2:1-10
Most readers come to the book of Job with the issue of theodicy at the fore; they desperately want nothing more than to understand why bad things happen to good people.
That is, after all, a question that continually plagues people. Yet for those seeking an answer to that question, they will find the book of Job unsettling, at best, because it does not provide the kinds of tidy answers we would hope to discover. Because we want the book to say something about the human condition, we come to the text with a thoroughly anthropocentric focus. Yet the book is not really about Job, per se, the book is about God. In other words, the book of Job is unashamedly theological in the strictest sense of the word. The book ponders the nature of this God and God’s ways in the world.
In considering God and God’s ways in the world, the writer of Job debunks the normative worldview of the day, “retribution theology.” Simply put, this mechanistic worldview understood the events of the world causally — those who act righteously can expect good things to happen and those who fail to act righteously can expect calamity. Job, his friends, and Elihu all seek to make sense of what happened to Job in light of this mechanistic worldview — and in the end, all of them fail. They fail because the book of Job is not about what Job did or didn’t do, but about God and who God is. Job only comes to this understanding after his encounter with God in Job 38-42.
The book of Job creates and then quickly dismantles an idyllic world inhabited by an idyllic character. With the book’s opening line, “There once was a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job,” the reader is whisked into a faraway time and a faraway place where a righteous man prospered greatly only to lose it all.
Although the details surrounding the figure of Job are relatively lean, they are no less important — and arguably perform a significant rhetorical function in the narrative of the book. The location of Uz is not entirely known, although most would assign it to a region south of Israel in Edomite territory (compare with Lamentations 4:21). The name “Job” is not a typical Israelite name, although representative examples are scattered throughout the larger ancient Near East. The exotic “distance” created by both place and name serve to lift Job up as the paradigmatic human. The plight faced by Job is that of humanity writ large.
Other details surrounding the character of Job should not be overlooked: seven sons and three daughters; seven thousand sheep and three thousand camels; five hundred yoke of oxen and five hundred donkeys, along with a great many servants. Where numbers are provided, they total ten, signifying perfection and fullness. And lest we simply assume Job to be a man of material means alone, his piety is on full display in verse 5 where he even offers sacrifices to cover the sins of his family.
These details in the story are meant to confirm the characterization of Job in the opening verse of the book, that is, that Job was “blameless and upright,” and “one who feared God and turned away from evil.” All four descriptions affirm the righteousness of Job. The word “blameless” (tam) carries the sense of acting with integrity — Job’s actions mirrored his beliefs, a claim to which Job returns in his final speech (Job 29-31).
These depictions of Job function as a type of dramatic irony — whatever else the audience knows, the audience knows that the mechanistic worldview cannot adequately explain what will become of Job.
The satan and the question
Beginning in Job 1:6, the story shifts from the earthly realm to the heavenly realm, and in particular, the divine council where Yahweh engages the satan in a conversation about Job. Most Bible translations capitalize the satan, and thus conjure up associations with the Satan figure in the New Testament. Within the Old Testament, however, the word “satan” was used in reference to heavenly beings (Numbers 22:22; Zechariah 3:1) and humans (1 Samuel 29:4), whose primary role was to act as an accuser. In the Hebrew, the word includes the definite article (hassatan), thus accentuating the particular role of the figure (“the accuser”). Carol Newsom has suggested by the time of the post-exilic period the satan “had come to designate a particular being in the heavenly court, one whose specialized function was to seek out and accuse persons disloyal to God.”1
This question of loyalty is central to the question posed by the hassatan in Job 1:9 — “Does Job fear God for nothing?” Does Job fear God because he has been blessed beyond measure (Job 1:4) or would Job fear God if he had nothing at all? This is the question that animates the rest of the book. While such questions appear thoroughly anthropocentric, at their root they are theocentric. Are people only loyal to this God because of what he provides for humans (self-interested religion) or do humans fear God because of who God is? Or put more crassly, does God buy loyalty by affording humans a blessed life? What if there is no blessed life? Is this God still worthy of our loyalty and devotion?
In Job 2:10, Job boldly confesses, “Shall we receive the good at the hand of God and not receive the bad?” Some interpreters contend that the speeches of Job in chapters 3-41 appear to stand in considerable tension with this confession. Yet the confession in Job 2:10 is not blind fatalism, but rather an attempt to suggest that events are not arbitrary; that there is some type of order to the world. Understood this way, the speeches that follow do not stand in contradiction to this confession but instead represent Job’s attempt to understand this order — an order he understands in light of a mechanistic worldview. Although Job’s mechanistic worldview is dismantled by the end of the book, his loyalty to God is reaffirmed (Job 42:6).
- “Job,” in New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. IV, ed. Leander Keck (Nashville: Abingdon, 1996), 347.