If the narrative prologue is a hermeneutical lens through which we read its poetic core, then it is important to understand what the narrative projects as the hermeneutical keys for reading the dramatic poetry of Job 3:1-42:6. I suggest at least three hermeneutical keys are found in the Prologue that enable a faithful reading of the poetic drama.
- Job is righteous.
The narrator affirms the integrity and righteousness of Job both explicitly and insistently. The narrator’s judgment, twice in the mouth of Yahweh, is stated three times: Job is “blameless and righteous” as one who “fears God and turns away from evil” (1:1, 8; 2:3).
Both characterizations are impressive. The first “blameless and righteous” uses common liturgical and wisdom language. This tandem also occurs in Psalm 25:21: “May integrity and uprightness preserve me” (cf. Psalm 37:37). It is the language that describes David’s life before God, that is, one who walked “with integrity of heart and uprightness” (1 Kings 9:4). It is wisdom language (Proverbs 2:7). “Blameless” is better understood as “integrity” rather than something akin to sinlessness. It represents something complete, whole and innocent.
The second “fearing God and turning away from evil” is essentially the epitome of wisdom itself. Proverbs 3:7 identifies wisdom as fearing Yahweh and turning from evil (Proverbs 16:6). The wisdom poem in Job 28 ends (v. 28) places the fear of the Lord and turning away from evil at the center of wisdom.
The point, I think, is that Job is a wise person. He embodies wisdom in his culture. Yahweh affirms him. This does not mean that Job is sinless, but it does mean that Job is a godly person who persistently lives out his faith in consistent ways.
Integrity (tam) may be the key term. Yahweh acknowledges Job’s integrity in the narrative (2:3) and Job asserts his integrity throughout the dialogues and his monologue (9:20-21; 12:4; 27:6; 31:6). In this Job is neither arrogant nor boastful. He is honest.
Consequently, a hermeneutical key to the book is that Job is righteous. However we read the poetic sections, Job is innocent. Nothing should undermine this point.
2. The Central Question.
The question that occasions the troubles which issue in the whole dramatic lament is succinctly stated by the accuser in Job 1:6: “Does Job fear God for nothing?” This is the question to which the whole drama responds.
It is a cosmic question. Is there anyone, in the whole universe, who serves God without a profit motive? Are all human beings consumers? Are there any humans who are communers, that is, interested in communing and loving God? Are humans wholly self-interested or are there any who are relationally driven? Job is paradigmatic of every person. Every person stands where Job stands—they are either consumers or communers.
Communers are those who love God for God’s own sake (a la St. Bernard’s sermon “On Loving God”). Consumers “love” God for their own sake. Communers surrender all of self to enjoy (commune with) all of God. Consumers surrender none of self but rather consume all that God gives without giving any of self to God.
The cosmic drama in Job is whether there is any human being who will love God for God’s own sake, or do all humans serve God for profit. The wicked ask, “what profit do we get if we pray to him?” (Job 21:15.) As the embodiment of wisdom, what will Job do?
Consequently, this question sizzles underneath the dialogue and is the root issue between God and Job. This question is the pair of glasses we need to wear as we read Job.
3. Divine Responsibility.
“The accuser” (Satan?) gets far too much credit. Clearly, Satan goes out from Yahweh’s presence and acts (1:12; 2:7a). But he does so by Yahweh’s (1) direct permission, (2) within Yahweh’s boundaries, and (3) through Yahweh’s empowerment.
The narrator makes this point through the metaphor of the “hand” of God. Satan requests the extension of God’s hand and God extends it (that is, God acts) but with restrictions (1:11,12; 2:5). Yahweh is not passive but active; Yahweh is not engaged in laissez-faire management of the cosmos. On the contrary, Yahweh empowers the accuser to act.
Consequently, a hermeneutical key is that Yahweh is responsible for what happened to Job. Indeed, Job claims this and he does so in the language of the prologue (narrator): “Whom among all these does not know that the hand of Yahweh has done this?” (Job 12:9.) Both of Job’s responses locate responsibility solely in God’s hands (Job 1:21; 2:9). To divert responsibility to the accuser is to undermine the sovereignty of Yahweh in this narration.
It seems to me that if we do not recognize these three hermeneutical principles, the deeper meaning of the book of Job will elude us as we misconstrue Job’s statements and miss the point that Yahweh intends to make in answering the accuser’s question.