The Prologue of Job: Three Questions

In my last post I noted three hermeneutical keys for reading the book of Job.  But is there dissonance within the Prologue as well that might undermine those keys? Three questions are particularly important.

  1.  Is Job a Legalist?

Some think the description of Job in 1:5 is a bit neurotic. They may have a point.  Though wise, Job does seem a bit obsessed with his sacrifices for his children. Offering an animal for each child (ten, including the sisters) is certainly more than the Torah ever required and seems excessive. The motive also seems excessive since Job is not aware of any sin per se but only the potential for sin—the children may have cursed God “in their hearts.” Job does not know, so he covers his bases. And this is perceived by some as legalistic.

At the same time, a patriarchal head held responsibility for his family (cf. Genesis 8:20; 31:54; 46:1). The sacrifices may simply express a sincere piety towards God. The sacrifices bespeak his love for his children as much as they do any impropriety.

While not legalistic—as if Job is in a frantic scurry to make sure he is on God’s good side—there seems to be a latent fear in Job’s heart. He fears his children’s feasting may incur God’s judgment due to their sin. Perhaps he fears calamity. And it is ironic that the sin Job fears his children may commit is the very one which the whole poetic drama waits to see if Job will commit.  Will Job curse God?

Job 1:4-5 may have a dual purpose. It may underscore Job’s piety, but it may also illuminate Job’s fear. While Job is wise, he is not perfect. Indeed, in Job’s first lament, he will voice that what he had “greatly feared” (NJKV) had happened to him (Job 3:25). Even the wisest people sometimes still live with some fears.

What we might anticipate, then, is that while Job is wise, he still has room for growth in the fear of Yahweh. Job, though wise, is still a work in progress.

2.  Is Satan the Evil Angel?

This is a thorny question. Readers of the New Testament automatically associate this “Satan” with the figure in the Gospels (e.g., Matthew 4:10; Mark 1:13; Luke 10:18) and Paul’s epistles (e.g., 1 Corinthians 5:5; 7:5). “Satan” in Job seems to act in ways that would reflect Satanic activity in the New Testament. The association seems natural and canonical.

But it is possible that Christian translators ant tradition have made this move too easily and without critical thought. The Hebrew term “satan” simply means adversary and the noun occurs often in the Hebrew Bible in that general sense. Indeed, here the noun is not a personal name as in “Satan” but is a designation, that is, this angelic being is “the satan” or “the adversary” (like Zechariah 3:1 but unlike 1 Chronicles 21:1). The article indicates it is not a personal name any more than “the abraham” would mean “Abraham” as a name rather than “the father of a multitude.”

But whose adversary is he? He belongs among the “sons of God”—when they gather, he gathers with them. He is one of them. He is not singled out because he is different from the others but because the accusation sets up the story. He is not God’s adversary. Rather, he is humanity’s accuser, specifically Job’s accuser. He is an adversary in the sense that he questions Job’s commitment to Yahweh. The accuser does not believe that Job (or any human?) serves God for God’s sake. The accuser has centuries of evidence at his disposal.

But does not the adversary’s activity indicate his malevolence? In this context, not any more than God’s responsibility for it.  Whatever happens is attributed to Yahweh. “The satan” disappears from the rest of the book. He is not a player in the drama itself.  The poetic drama is a wrestling between God, Job,  and the friends—the adversary plays no role in the drama itself.  The role of “the satan” is not of major hermeneutical interest for the book as a whole but only as the “setup-person” for the drama itself. The resolution to whatever problem the book is addressing is not found in the function of “the satan.”

Consequently, the satan does not play a role in the resolution of the issues of the book.  The issues are solved in the sovereignty of God, not in the activity of the satan.  It is the sovereignty of God that permits the satan to act as he does.  Instead, the satan is introduced to give us the “trial framework” of Job’s suffering.  The satan is the means by which Job is tried–that is his only function in the book.  Once he has completed his task, there is no more reason for involving the character in the rest of the story.

3.  Are Job’s Responses Examples of Naiveté?

Some think that Job’s responses (Job 1:21; 2:10) to his tragedies are at best naïve statements of misguided faith and at worst fundamentally wrong and dangerous to faith despite their pious sound. The statements supposedly sound like the friends (e.g., Job 5:18). It is thought by some that these are moments when Job spoke of things he did not understand (cf. Job 42:3).

But even if it sounds like the friends (which is questionable), it sounds like Job himself throughout the dialogue, and it sounds like the narrator of the Epilogue as well (42:11), and Yahweh does not deny it. Attributing responsibility to Yahweh is one of the key truths of the whole drama itself.  How can it be naive when the whole prologue underscores the point which Job acknowledges?

At the same time, Job’s resignation and acceptance seems in tension with his lament in chapter 3 after seven days of mourning. How can such acceptance, even blessing of God, explode into lament, questioning, and anger?

I don’t find that strange. I can remember in the midst of my first days of loss a sense of faith and strength that exceeded my own expectations. But in the days and weeks ahead that strength gave way to deep lament, questioning, and anger.

I would suggest that we read Job’s responses at two levels.  First, we read it as the pious acceptance of a wise man whose faith in Yahweh shapes his engagement with life. That acceptance is later shaken, debated, discussed, and questioned…but it still ultimately remains intact throughout the dialogue.

Second, we read it as the narrator’s answer to the question raised by “the satan.” Job accepts, surrenders to, and trusts in God’s handling of the world.  Instead of “cursing” Yahweh, Job blesses Yahweh. “The satan” was wrong.

In Job’s responses we actually see the primary purpose of the book coming into play. Job models how human beings respond to suffering, but it is only the beginning of the story.  Job will go through a valley before he again returns to this loving, praise-filled, humbled acceptance. That is the journey of the dramatic poem. That is the journey of lament.  Through Job’s journey with his friends, we learn how to speak of God well (like Job) and how to speak badly (like the friends).  Job spoke well but the friends badly, according to the Epilogue (Job 42:7-8).

Job’s response is the response of Israel. “Blessed be the name of Yahweh” is a liturgical prayer within the community of faith (Psalm 113:2). Job exemplifies the proper response to suffering, to all reality, since Yahweh alone is the Lord of the universe. Job is a model for Israel and for all humanity.

4 Responses to “The Prologue of Job: Three Questions”

  1.   riverwindfire Says:

    Thanks, John Mark, I’m enjoying your series in Job, and I look forward to your insights.

    I’d like to hear your thoughts on the following: I read somewhere (sorry I can’t remember where) that the word-picture of the prologue comes from the ancient practices of civil law, and that “the satan” actually swears a case against Job, complete with an oath (“surely …” as an asservative). This would have the effect of saying, “I solemnly accuse Job of …; may his punishment fall on me if I am proven wrong.”

    What motivates “the satan” to accuse Job? Because by extension he’s accusing YHWH of not running the world right: “Job is not a good man, you haven’t raised him right.” What motivates YHWH to allow the testing? To defend Job against the accusation — and by extension, to defend His own name.

    Why would “the satan” accuse Job twice? Because the first time, he failed: Job did not curse God. Following the ancient word-picture, “the satan” would be bound to receive the curse he seeks to bring to Job. So “the satan” accuses again, with greater intensity, again swearing an oath (“surely …”). The fact that Job did not curse God even then means that “the satan” has failed, that the curse falls on him (two failed accusations = two witnesses against him).

    So by the middle of ch. 2, as you pointed out, “the satan” is no longer a factor in the story. Through most of the rest of the book Job mis-interprets his tragedy into God’s enmity, when in fact “the reason” it happened has to do with YHWH’s efforts to defend him (and by extension, YHWH’s own name) against slander.

    Of course, Job is never told any of this — though we as the readers/hearers are. So the dialogues, Job’s encounter with God, and the resolution of the story are cast in the frame of a great irony.

    Is this an accurate reading of the prologue?

  2.   John Mark Hicks Says:

    I am familiar with this understanding. The oath language is present, but the self-imprecation is not explicit in Job. To what extent civil background is appropriate here is debatable but plausible. Without an explicit self-imprecation, I think it is unlikely that the disappearance from the story of “the satan” is due to a curse upon “the satan.”

    Is there an implied accusation against Yahweh in terms of his management of the world? Possible. But I think it more likely that the accusation against Job is an accusation against the implied link between prosperity and piety (e.g., if you are pious, you will prosper) which is a function of so-called “traditional wisdom.” So, instead of an accusation against Yahweh, it is an statement against the presumed link that the humans assume about prosperity and piety. The accuser believes the link is so settled in the minds of humanity that to sever the link is to undermine faith on the part of humans.

    In any event, your postulate is plausible. It fills out the picture in some helpful ways.

  3.   Clyde S Says:

    Thanks so much for these Job posts, John Mark. The issue of “the satan” is very interesting to me. I have had several people ask me how Satan could be in the divine court. Even though I knew that theoretically it could indicate a benig other than the devil, somehow I never could truly read it as possibly being a non-malevolent, angelic being.

    It makes me sad to think about it, though, because I am sure any angel who would bring this accusation would have based it on centuries of seeing humans who did not serve God “for nothing.” The flipside is uplifting–that God had such faith in Job (which brings up the question of God’s “faith”–already knew the future or did he simply know everything that could be known and “believed” that Job would respond in faith?).

    Great to read your posts again, btw! 🙂

    •   John Mark Hicks Says:

      Omniscience is, I think, one of those areas where theologians think they know more than they actually do, that is, how God knows, what God knows, how it relates to what God knows, etc. I tend to think that God knows because he sees, that is, God’s knowledge is dependent upon human acts so that God must first “see” the act before he “knows” it. But I confess that such knowledge is too wonderful for me (Psalm 139:6). I don’t really know.

      As we live within this story, we see God’s affirmation and valuing of Job, and we see his “faith” that Job will refute the satan’s accusation. Perhaps we don’t need to do anymore than recognize this. We can suspend our curiosities in order to enter into the drama of the story, much like we do with theater and movies itself. We are invited into this drama in order to live within it for the purpose for which it is acted out. I don’t think its purpose is to solve the problem of omniscience but rather to sit with sufferers.

      Thanks for you kindness, Clyde.

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