Commentary on Job 1:1; 2:1-10
For this and the next three Sundays, the Revised Common Lectionary offers four readings from what may be the most mysterious book in the Hebrew Bible: the book of Job. Its language is full of difficult-to-understand words; its outline and structural organization are far from obvious; and an entire section of the book (chapters 24-27) appears to be in a state of disarray.
Nonetheless, it is possible to get enough context to understand what is going on in these four passages from Job and to begin the process of theological reflection on these texts.
Canonical and theological context
“One of the scholarly consensuses about the book Job is that it’s interrogating the theology behind the Deuteronomic covenant.”1
It seems clear that the book of Job has in its sights a simplistic understanding of the Deuteronomic doctrine of retribution, a doctrine expressed most forcefully in Deuteronomy 28: “all these blessings shall come upon you and overtake you, if you obey the Lord your God … But if you will not obey the Lord your God by diligently observing all his commandments and decrees, which I am commanding you today, then all these curses shall come upon you and overtake you” (Deuteronomy 28:2, 15; see also Leviticus 26; Psalm 1; Jeremiah 17:5-8; Amos 3:6; Isaiah 45:7).
It would be easy to invert this relationship. In other words, people who are blessed are seen as obedient, because obedience to Yahweh brings blessing as its result. In the same way, people who are cursed are judged as disobedient, because not obeying Yahweh brings cursing as its result.
This inverted relationship seems to be the heart of the speeches by Job’s friends, Eliphaz (Job 4:7-11) and Bildad (Job 8:20-22), and also seems to underlie Job’s demand for an audience with God (see Job 23, next week’s reading).
In other words, the book of Job is challenging one of the core theological convictions of God’s covenant with the ancestors. Job’s story and the book that bears his name will stake the claim that a simplistic view of Deuteronomic reward and retribution is theologically inadequate.
The scholarly consensus for the book of Job is that the narrative in chapters 1-2 and 42:7-17 is older and traditional, and provides the framework for the extended poetic conversation in chapters 3:1-42:6.2 Hence, our text for this week provides the omniscient narrator’s understanding of the calamity which befell Job, knowledge available to the narrator and to us readers but not to Job himself or to his friends.
In this context, Job is affirmed to be “blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil” (1:1; see also 1:22 and 2:10). Even Yahweh acknowledges Job’s sinlessness in 1:8 and 2:3!
We readers therefore know even before the friends enter stage left that their accusations of Job’s sinfulness are unfounded.
Job also knows nothing about the deal that God makes with “the Satan” – not the later tempter and devil (see 1 Chronicles 21:1; Zechariah 3:1-2; and the New Testament), but more like the District Attorney (DA) amidst God’s heavenly council.3
Thus we readers know, but Job does not, that the misfortunes that are to befall him are the consequence of his uprightness, not his disobedience. The heavenly DA can’t accept and doesn’t believe that Job will continue to worship Yahweh if his material blessings and his physical health are taken away from him. Kathryn M. Schifferdecker puts it this way: “God trusts Job to prove the Satan wrong.”4
The passage itself
In context, then, Job 1-2 describes in detail what Job has at the beginning of the heavenly wager and what he will soon lose. Job’s wealth is described in 1:2-3, “There were born to him seven sons and three daughters. He had seven thousand sheep, three thousand camels, five hundred yoke of oxen, five hundred donkeys, and very many servants.”
Then in 1:14-19 Job learns of the loss of oxen, donkeys, and servants (1:14-15), of sheep and servants (1:16), of camels and servants (1:17), and finally of his sons and daughters (1:18-19). Job’s response is not what the Satan expected: “the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord” (1:21).
Job chapter 2 ups the ante; as if stung by this defeat, the heavenly DA claims that if Job loses his physical health and well-being, Job will “curse [God] to [God’s] face” (2:4-5). And so, with God’s permission, the Satan tries again; he afflicts Job with “loathsome sores”— exactly what these sores were, no one knows for sure—and despite the urging of his wife, Job maintains the same posture he did at the end of chapter 1: “Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?” (2:10).
And in all of this, the narrator affirms, “Job did not sin” (1:22; 2:10).
The two questions in verses 9 and 10 provide some direction for a theological reflection on this narrative introduction.
The question, “Do you still persist in your integrity?” challenges us to preserve our faith in God despite the misfortune that may befall us. Instead we are to be secure in the knowledge that such misfortune does not have to be divine retribution for our sins. In this sense, Job 1-2 foreshadows Jesus’ conversation with his disciples in Luke 13: Were the Galileans slaughtered by Pilate worse sinners than everyone else? What about the people upon whom the tower of Siloam fell? Bad things happen, even to faithful disciples like Job, sometimes for reasons we don’t know or sometimes simply because of random bad luck.
“Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?” reflects a similar challenge, except that we know—though Job doesn’t know—that his misfortune is not coming from “the hand of God” directly. Job appears to assume that God does what God does, and because God is doing it, it must be OK.
In other words, an existential question is being posed in these chapters: Why have faith? Why obey the Lord? Is faithful obedience just another example of a transactional relationship in which we give our allegiance to God in return for God’s blessing and protection? If blessing isn’t ours, would we still be faithful followers of God? If protection gives way to persecution, would we still be faithful followers of God?5
Finally, we ought not gloss over the fact that Job’s faith, like a simplistic call to forgive, can easily be weaponized against Christians in difficult circumstances—against Christian women in abusive marriages; against gay, lesbian, and transgendered Christians suffering a loss of civil rights via state-sanctioned discrimination; against Christians of color who are subject to racist abuse by those with power over them.
In such contexts, Job’s question can become a toxic and evil weapon when it encourages the acceptance—the normalization, if you will—of injustice and abuse. When is “enough” enough, and is there a point at which we can no longer submit to or accept what is happening to us and choose instead to resist, to overthrow, or to leave?
That’s the journey Job leads us on. We’ll see later how—if at all—the journey ends.
- Richard Beck, http://experimentaltheology.blogspot.com/2018/07/the-book-of-job.html, accessed 15 March 2020.
- For example, John F. Hartley, The Book of Job (NICOT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), pp 21-24.
- For example, Gerhard von Rad, TDNT 2: 73-75, especially page 73 (“He is an official prosecutor and may be reckoned among the bene ha’elohim”); for further discussion, see ABD 5:986-87.
- Kathryn M. Schifferdecker, https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1421, accessed 15 March 2020.
- So, for example, W. Dennis Tucker, Jr., https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3788, accessed 15 March 2020.