Structure and meaning, in a nutshell

Putting my previous post in a nutshell, this is my current preferred theory on how the Book of Job came about.

1. The poetic material which comprises the speeches in Job may have existed independently in some form, perhaps as a debate or discussion on the reasons for suffering. If so, it was probably in an ancient Semitic language (from north Arabia?) which was related to biblical Hebrew but now lost (until an archaeologist is allowed into the deserts of north Arabia – currently off-limits by the Saudi Government to archaeologists – and uncovers some parchments, tablets or inscriptions in this ancient language).

2. Someone later saw the potential for this material to be more widely circulated (or exposed to a new audience) in a different form and edited and organised this material. This editor added an introduction (the prologue) and conclusion (the epilogue) in prose, and also added some other material (including the Hymn to Wisdom [ch. 28] and possibly the speech by Elihu [ch. 32-37]) to create a dramatic story-line which could be presented as a ‘play’ (possibly the first recorded play, or the oldest surviving play).

3. The frame-story is there to create a dramatic backdrop. It may, or may not, have been based on real historical characters but that’s not important. The important stuff is in the various arguments that follow in the debate.

4. The purpose of the poetic debate is to present the three most popular views about the cause and reason for suffering (in the speeches by Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar), and then to demolish them (in the speeches by Job).

5. But now we are left without an explanation for suffering. Job doesn’t have one, and he has demolished his friends’ theories. He is innocent, yet he suffers. He is guiltless, yet he is being punished. This is unjust. There is no connection between sin and suffering. Job demands justice.

6. Because God is sovereign and in control, then he must be the cause of Job’s suffering (which is exactly what the prologue tells us, although the wager in heaven is unknown to Job). Job demands to be heard. He wants his day in court. The book is full of legal metaphors and terminology. This is a courtroom drama. It began with the first scenes in the court of heaven and the heavenly Prosecutor challenging the LORD’s policy of rewarding Job’s piety with prosperity. It has now shifted to earth but the trial continues.

7. God is on now on trial (or on trial again if the opening scenes were about the Prosecutor challenging God). He has inflicted terrible suffering on Job, apparently for no good reason. This is unjust and Job demands an answer. He summons God to appear in court. (The suspense builds!)

8. At this point the writer drops in a long speech by Elihu which goes unanswered and is completely ignored. This has led many scholars to conclude that this speech is a later addition, although the reasons why it would have been inserted are unclear. In my view the writer included this speech deliberately for good reasons, but I’d rather come back to that in a separate post. Interestingly, and probably significantly, he is the only character in the story with a Hebrew name. Is the writer suggesting that just as Job’s three friends presented the best explanations that current philosophy could provide for the causes of suffering, so too the explanations by the Hebrew/Jewish ‘newcomer’ were equally inadequate?

9. The LORD responds. He asserts his authority and his right as creator to do with his creation whatever he pleases. Yes, he does inflict suffering. Yes, he does have a reason for it. No, he doesn’t have to provide his reasons. And no, it is not a punishment for sins.

10. Job accepts this. God pays restitution and Job is rewarded (again).

Ok, there are some loose ends which you may want to discuss. I want to come back to point 9 and discuss its theological implications. In my next post I want to take up my earlier questions: did Job repent, and, if so, of what? What did God mean when he said Job “spoke well” of him?

The structure of the Book of Job, and why it matters

I used to wonder why almost all commentaries on biblical books began with an analysis of the structure of the book, and not finding this particularly interesting I would immediately skip to the next chapter. Now I find myself actually getting excited when I discover a structural chiasm or a pattern which provides a clue to some riddle in the text (yes, I know what you’re thinking: if I find that exciting I need to get out more!)

In a previous post I raised a few questions which I said I would explore later. One of them was:

If God is culpable for Job’s suffering, and pays restitution, then what is this saying about the cause of human suffering?

Before attempting to answer that I think we need to determine what are the ‘big’ questions that the Book is asking and exploring, and to do that I would like to tease out the idea that Job is a ‘play’ – perhaps more specifically a courtroom drama – and how it may have come about. Hence, we need to analyse its structure.

I noted earlier that the Book of Job is largely poetry. The speeches of Job, his three friends, and the LORD, are all in poetry. This alone should tell us that the Book of Job is not historical narrative. Even if it was based on real historical characters and events, the sole fact that it is in poetry should immediately tell us that this is a dramatisation. Real people don’t conduct conversations in poetry! Shakespeare’s characters spoke in poetry, but we wouldn’t for a moment suggest that poetry was the common speech of everyday folk, not even in Elizabethan England. Some Hebrew scholars have detected varying degrees in the quality of the poetry in the speeches. Job’s speeches are a higher quality (in terms of the poetry alone, let alone the arguments) than that of his three friends, Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar. The most refined poetry is found in the speeches by the LORD. A skillful poet was at work in the composition of these speeches. The poetical speeches are ‘framed’ by a Prologue and Epilogue which are in narrative prose.

The prose of the frame-story is straightforward Hebrew, easy to translate. The poetry, on the other hand, is a minefield of difficulties for the translator. The technical term for a word which occurs in only place in the Bible is  hapax legomenon (the plural is hapax legomena). There are more hapax legomena in Job than in any other book of the Bible, making it enormously difficult for the translator who has no other usages with which to compare a difficult word. Take a look at the footnotes of most translations and you will see “The Hebrew is uncertain” (or words to that effect) occuring on page after page. Scholars have proposed several theories for this, but the one which (currently) seems most convincing to me is that the speeches were originally written in another Semitic language (now lost) and then incorporated at a later date into the form in which we now have it. We are told that Job was from the land of Uz, Eliphaz from Teman, Bildad from Shuah and Zophar from Naamah (probably all in Arabia). The majority of hapax legomena are probably words which were carried over from the original Semitic language (the native language of Job and his friends perhaps) and incorporated into the book because the audience at the time were familiar enough with them, although their meaning is now lost to us.

This suggests that the writer of the Book of Job as we have it drew his material from another source, or sources, and then added material of his own. This is speculative, of course, but it’s possible that he based his story on real historical characters (although even if they were mythical ones it wouldn’t change the main point of the book), and used some of the native language of his characters in his re-telling of the story. It’s also possible that the poetical speeches already existed in some form, in this other language, and that our writer framed a story around them.

There are further clues of some ‘editing’ or ‘compiling’. We find that there are three cycles of speeches, with each of Job’s friends presenting an argument (in the order of Eliphaz, then Bildad, then Zophar) with Job responding to each. However, in the third cycle there is no speech by Zophar. Is it missing? Furthermore,  in Job 27 (which initially looks like Job’s response to Bildad’s third speech) there are eleven verses which don’t sound like Job at all (13-23). They actually sound like Zophar! Several  scholars attribute this section to Zophar as the opening words are almost identical to the closing words of his second speech (20:29). Has this material somehow become dispaced? I personally think these scholars may be right, otherwise Job is contradicting himself in this section and the structure of the book is disrupted. (Of course, there are other theories to explain this and I’d love to discuss them. I appreciate that the idea that some parts of the Bible are ‘mixed up’, or that there are scribal ‘errors’, or that some books of the Bible were edited or compiled from earlier sources, will sound foreign to many Jewish and Christian readers. I’m more than happy to discuss it.)

With this in mind, if we go back to Chapter 24 it appears to be Job’s answer to Zophar’s ‘third’ speech in 27:13-23, but obviously out of place. Some scholars think the third cycle of speeches is so disrupted and confused that there may have been a scribal mix-up at some stage and things became out of order, and that chapter 24 should follow 27:13-23 as Job’s response. [1]  Other scholars think that the whole debate “broke down” in the third cycle and the disjointed speeches are intentionally designed that way to show this breakdown. If so, that would be a clever way for the playwright to dramatise the breakdown. I have come across at least one commentator who thinks 27:13-23 belongs to Bildad [2], so the answer to what is happening in this part of the book is not easy.

Immediately following this block of displaced or confusing speeches is a chapter commonly called a Hymn to Wisdom (chapter 28). The placement of this ‘hymn’ here is very odd. Its style is very different to the preceeding and following speeches by Job. It doesn’t appear to follow Job’s argument at all, nor does it deal with any of the matters raised by his friends. To me it appears to even contradict Job, but I could be wrong about that. Some scholars suggest Job is here quoting a known ‘wisdom hymn’ as part of his speech. Perhaps. But to me it doesn’t fit neatly. It looks like it has been ‘dropped in’ there. If so, why? Interestingly, the Hymn to Wisdom resonates with other biblical wisdom literature. The line “the fear of the LORD, that is wisdom” (28:28) is out of place in a book that does not otherwise deal with wisdom (despite being categorised as a ‘wisdom book’ Job is more about justice and innocence, and not wisdom) but fits perfectly with Proverbs (where “the fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom” is a central theme) and Ecclesiastes (and also with the non-canonical Wisdom of Ben Sira, or Ecclesiasticus).

My current theory about the Hymn to Wisdom is that is comes from another source; not from the speeches of Job and his friends, but either from the editor who put the Book of Job together, or from another of his sources. If Habel’s reordering of the third cycle of speeches is correct, then chapter 24 should follow what is rightly Bildad’s speech in 27:13-23 and then we have a pause, an interlude, an ‘intermission’ in the play. The writer inserts his Hymn to Wisdom at this important climax to give his audience something important to ponder, something that hasn’t been raised already (possibly something from his own ‘wisdom school’). Then the play resumes in chapter 29 with Job’s summary defence.

But enough structural analysis for now. I will try to relate this to the overall message and themes of the book in my next post.


[1]  For example: Habel, Norman C., The Book of Job: A Commentary (London: SCM, 1985)

[2] Hartley, John E., The book of Job (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988). I’m actually going from memory here, so I hope it serves me correctly.

Digression: Can angels do evil?

He cast upon them the fierceness of his anger, wrath, and indignation, and trouble, by sending evil angels (Psalm 78:49 KJV)

“Evil angels” is an accurate translation of מלאכי רעים. “Messengers of evil” is probably even better. Whoever they are, the important thing to note is that God sent them so they acted as his agents. Is that what is happening in the Book of Job? Is ha-satan, the Adversary or the Prosecutor, the agent (and angel) of God sent to inflict suffering/calamities/evil?

When we are first introduced to ha-satan in the Book of Job he comes before God together with “the Sons of God” (a term which Job later uses to describe angels). There is nothing in this story to suggest he is unwelcome there. It appears that he’s one of the angels. Satan is given God’s permission to test Job, and the things he afflicts on Job are later said to be God’s doing. In other words, what Satan did he did as God’s agent. The Adversary in Job is almost certainly an angel but not necessarily a ‘fallen’ one. He is called a ‘Son of God’ (and Job says elsewhere that the Sons of God were present at creation), forms part of the council of heaven and acts with God’s permission. At the end of the book Job has to offer sacrifices for his three friends and they are condemned for their judgment of him – but not Satan. He doesn’t get a mention at the end and isn’t condemned.

It’s also possible that the Satan of Zechariah 3 may be an angel. The Satan that caused David to take a census (1 Chron 21:1) is called “the LORD” in the parallel account in 2 Samuel 24:1, so the Chronicler’s satan may be an angel as well (and angels as the agents of God are called God or the LORD elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible).

In the Hebrew Bible God’s sovereignty was such that He was responsible for everything: good and evil.

  • I form the light and create darkness, I bring prosperity and create disaster; I, the LORD, do all these things. (Isaiah 45:7 KJV)
  • For thus saith the LORD; Like as I have brought all this great evil upon this people, so will I bring upon them all the good that I have promised them. (Jer 32:42 KJV, or “As I have brought all this great calamity on this people, so I will give them all the prosperity I have promised them” NIV).
  • Behold, I will watch over them for evil, and not for good: and all the men of Judah that are in the land of Egypt shall be consumed by the sword and by the famine, until there be an end of them. (Jer 44:27 KJV)
  • Though they are driven into exile by their enemies, there I will command the sword to slay them. I will fix my eyes upon them for evil and not for good.” (Amos 9:4 KJV)
  • Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that both calamities and good things come? (Lam 3:38 NIV)

In the Hebrew Bible God is the cause of disease, destruction, and death.  But it seems that he does these things “at arms length” and operates through his agents/angels. The Hebrew Bible also recognized the existence of a ‘spirit realm’ and although some spirits did ‘evil’, they were sent by God to do his work. Thus King Saul’s attendants said to him, “See, an evil spirit from God is tormenting you” (1 Sam. 16:15). In some texts angels are regarded as ‘imperfect’ (such as Job 4:18 where Eliphaz says “God places no trust in his servants”, and “he charges his angels with error [KJV has ‘folly’]”). Psalm 82:7 even suggests that some angels (אלהים) will be destroyed because of their ‘partiality’ and goes on to say that because of this they “will die like mere men; you will fall like every other ruler” (v. 7). This suggests that they may be able to act independently, but perhaps that’s a subject for later discussion.

In the New Testament we find Jesus at the Last Supper saying “”Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers” (Luke 22:31-32). This is somewhat similar to the Job frame-story. In the Job account we have Satan appearing among the “Sons of God” and God granting permission to him to test Job. In Luke we find Satan asking God (or perhaps Jesus) for permission to test the Twelve, and the implication is that his request had been granted. This suggests that Satan still had access to heaven, as he did in the Job story, and that his task was to test the faithful. Interestingly, in the Fourth Gospel there is a record of Jesus’ prayer later on that same night of the Last Supper. In it he prayed for his disciples and said: “My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one” (John 17:15). Is “the evil one” in the Fourth Gospel the same as “Satan” in Luke?

There are other hints in the New Testament that the first Jewish Christians had an understanding of Satan which was similar or identical to the one I have proposed here as the role of ha-satan in the Hebrew Bible: the Prosecutor in the heavenly court. Jesus once referred to a woman with a serious disease as “this woman, a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has kept bound for eighteen long years” (Luke 13:16). Paul wrote of a certain man that the church should “hand this man over to Satan, so that the sinful nature may be destroyed and his spirit saved on the day of the Lord” (1 Cor 5:5) and of Hymenaeus and Alexander that “I have handed [them] over to Satan to be taught not to blaspheme” (1 Tim 1:20). Satan in these latter texts does the sinners a service in that he teaches them not to blaspheme and saves their spirit on the day of the Lord. It seems his role is to “do evil, so that good may come”. Then Paul mentioned his “thorn in the flesh” saying it was a “messenger of Satan” (2 Cor 12:7) to lead him to a greater appreciation of God’s grace. These texts all suggest that to the early Jewish Christians Satan was an angel who did evil, but so that good would ultimately come.

But what about the texts that suggest Satan is a “fallen angel”?  To explore that would be to digress, although I’m already digressing (somewhat necessarily) from Job. As much as I’d love to digress from this digression and explore the role of the devil, or satan, in the New Testament and Christian literature I will return in my next posts to the Book of Job. Perhaps I’ll come back later to look at the idea of Satan as a fallen angel.

The heavenly Prosecutor

The figure of ha-satan (השטן) appears in the introduction to the book of Job as a participant in the Divine Council. Rather than being an inherently or intrinsically evil being, ha-satan’s role appears to be that of a Prosecutor. The discussion of Job’s righteousness is initiated by God and ha-satan responds by challenging the LORD’s policy of rewarding righteousness with prosperity. The LORD does not discount the legitimacy of the challenge and responds by authorising ha-satan to put Job’s righteousness to the test. Thereafter the Book of Job attributes the cause of Job’s sufferings as much to God as to ha-satan.

I said in my previous post that the Adversary/Prosecutor is in fact challenging God’s policies rather than human behaviour; he isn’t acting maliciously against Job. He is the LORD’s adversary, not Job’s. I would like to explore that idea a little further.

I wrote about some ‘unrealistic’ elements in the Prologue. There is a further unrealistic element in the dialogues between the Adversary and the LORD.  God responded to the Adversary’s report at their second meeting by saying: “you have incited me against [Job] to destroy him for no good reason” (2:3 JPS). Having admitted to being deceived or tricked by the Adversary (which I believe is the meaning behind “incited”), God then gives his permission for the Adversary to conduct a further trial; practically setting himself up to be tricked again and for the adversary to destroy Job a second time for no good reason.  This is more theatre: the reader or listener is drawn further into the plot and the suspense builds as they wait to see if the Almighty can be tricked again!

After his two appearances in the heavenly court the Adversary disappears from the scene. Nowhere is he blamed for Job’s misfortune. On the contrary, Job blamed the LORD for all his miseries: “Your hands shaped and fashioned me, then destroyed every part of me” (11:8 JPS); “The hand of God has struck me!” (19:21 JPS). Even at the end the reader is reminded of “all the misfortune that the LORD had brought upon [Job]” (42:11 JPS).

“The ambivalence … concerning whose hand it is that strikes Job shows that the Satan acts as an agent of [the LORD]”.[1]

Perhaps surprisingly, there is no mention of the Adversary in the epilogue and, while Job acts in a priestly role in offering sacrifices for his three friends who did not speak well of God (42:8), no mention is made of the part the Adversary played. On the contrary, if in fact in the epilogue Job “repents” (42:6 ESV) or recants and relents (JPS), this would suggest that the Adversary was right in his presumption about Job and that he did indeed in some way curse God. The Hebrew of 42:1-6 is uncertain and somewhat ambiguous. While Job confessed his ignorance he “nowhere repents, repudiates his words, or shows any remorse”.[2] The epilogue does, however, imply that the LORD was ‘guilty’ in bringing misfortune on Job. The number of Job’s animals were doubled (and possibly also his sons [3]), and this emphasis on economics and doubling at the end of the epilogue is reminiscent of the Mosaic laws of restitution.

The doubling of Job’s possessions and sons implies legal compensation was paid for the damages incurred.

However, divine culpability is not an easy theological point to swallow [4] and we encounter several unexpected ‘twists’ in the story right at the end. As the prologue was theatrical so too these ‘twists’ in the epilogue are dramatic devises, leaving the audience with a bundle of new questions to answer: did Job repent or not, and if so, why; if Job repented why did the LORD say that Job had spoken well of him (42:7); and why did the LORD pay compensation? To the end Job is unaware of the wager made in heaven between the LORD and his Adversary: only the audience has this knowledge, but it comes with a price of even more puzzles to resolve.

In my next posts I’d like to explore some questions that arise from this:

  1. Are there any other biblical examples of divine beings acting in a similar way to the Prosecutor in Job? Can divine beings do ‘evil’ things?
  2. If God is culpable for Job’s suffering, and pays restitution, then what is this saying about the cause of human suffering?
  3. Did Job repent or not, and if Job repented why did the LORD say that Job had spoken well of him?

Then, I’d like to explore the historical basis for the Job ‘play’ and how it may have come about.


[1] Page, S.H.T., “Satan: God’s Servant” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society; Sep 2007; 50, 3, 452

[2] Guillaume, P., “Dismantling the Deconstruction of Job” in Journal of Biblical Literature; Fall 2008; 127, 3, 494

[3] Job 42:13 says Job was given seven (שבענה) sons and Philippe Guillaume (2008, 492) argues that this is the dual form (i.e. fourteen), quoting Dhorme’s Commentary on the Book of Job, HALOT and Alfred Guillaume’s Studies in the Book of Job.  In 1:2 Job had שבעה (seven) sons, so the later dual form suggests his sons were doubled (in the same way as his herds).

[4] Guillaume, 2008, 497

Satan in the Book of Job

The Book of Job is largely poetry (I’ll return to this in a later post). The speeches of Job, his three friends, and the LORD, are all in poetry. These speeches – the bulk of the book – are ‘framed’ by a Prologue and Epilogue which are in narrative prose.

The Prologue to Job (part of the frame story) has several ‘scenes’, alternating between a divine council (probably in heaven, although this is not explicitly stated) and corresponding events on earth. In the first scene the sons of God (translated as “the divine beings” in the JPS Tanakh) present themselves before the LORD and “the Adversary came along with them” (Job 1:6 JPS). Translators differ about how to translate השטן. The JPS Tanakh translates this as “the Adversary” while most English translations transliterate as “Satan”. The JPS Tanakh is preferred for three reasons: (a) it is a translation rather than a transliteration; (b) it captures the definite article which is present in the Hebrew but omitted in translations which transliterate as Satan (the Satan would be better); and (c) the capitalised transliteration, Satan, suggests that this is a proper noun, the adversary’s name, while the JPS capitalised translation, the Adversary, makes it clear that השטן is a title, rather than a name. “In biblical sources the Hebrew term the satan describes an adversarial role. It is not the name of a particular character.”[1] Some commentators and translators, while similar to the JPS Tanakh in translating rather than transliterating, prefer the Prosecutor[2]. Hereafter I will follow the JPS Tanakh and use the translation “the Adversary” (unless quoting).

After introducing the main character and describing his piety the frame story describes an assembly of the בני האלהים “sons of God”. The JPS Tanakh interprets this as “divine beings” while the New International Version (NIV) interprets as “angels”. Later, the sons of God are mentioned in the poetic section of Job, in a creation account.[3] While it is a rare term in the Hebrew Bible, both the JPS Tanakh and the NIV have undoubtedly interpreted correctly and a heavenly ‘angelic’ council is intended. There are similar Biblical descriptions of the heavenly court elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible, and it has been suggested that the use of common phrases for “characteristics of the ‘heavenly council’ in the Mesopotamian, Ugaritic and ancient Israelite texts” categorise these as “type scenes”[4]. Psalm 82:1 refers to a “divine assembly” where אלהים (“God”) stands בקרב אלהים “among the divine beings” (JPS). Psalm 89:6-8 (5-8 in most English translations) has a variety of terms for the heavenly assembly which parallel the Ugaritic texts[5]: קהל קדשים “assembly of holy beings”; בני אלים “divine beings”; and סוד־קדשים “council of holy beings” (JPS). In Daniel 7:9-10 the prophet has a vision of “the Ancient of Days” surrounded by “thousands upon thousands” and “myriads upon myriads” who attend him and sit in court. The Biblical description of the heavenly court which parallels the Job frame-story most closely is in 1 Kings 22:19 where the prophet Micaiah “saw the LORD sitting on his throne, and all the host of heaven [כל־צבא השמים] standing beside him on his right hand and on his left” (ESV). In this account the LORD enquires of his council “who will entice Ahab?” In Micaiah’s story ‘a spirit (lit. the spirit הרוח) came forward and stood before the LORD, saying, “I will entice him”.’ The similarity with the Job frame-story is striking as in both stories a divine being deals with a human as a consequence of a dialogue in the heavenly council (perhaps suggesting that the writer of the Book of Job was familiar with the views of the Deuteronomistic Historian, and may even have been responding to them.[6]) “It is easy to recognize, in their modus operandi, the virtual identity of “the Spirit” of this passage [1 Kings 22] and the Satan of the Book of Job. But in Kings, the Spirit is an extension of God’s own personality” and perversely invokes qualities “which could not with propriety be attributed directly to God.”[7]

“Whether the Satan [in the Job frame-story] is a regular member of the council or an unexpected visitor is left ambiguous”.[8] While some scholars regard the Adversary as an intruder, it is clear that he had access to the heavenly throne and likely that he was counted among the members of the divine council.[9] In Job the Adversary’s role is not malicious or evil. Rather, he “seems to hold the office of a prosecutor intent on establishing justice”[10] and Habel argues that, in fact, the whole of the Book of Job is a legal metaphor.[11] Pagels observes that “As he first appears in the Hebrew Bible, Satan is not necessarily evil, much less opposed to God. On the contrary, he appears in the book of Numbers and in Job as one of God’s obedient servants.”[12] In Job he is “subject to God’s control and was used by God to accomplish his purposes” and there is “a pronounced emphasis on his subordination” to God.[13] Habel even suggests that as God himself raises the subject of Job’s piety ha-satan may be verbalising the LORD’s “own latent misapprehensions”[14], an idea which is shared by Wilson who understands ha-satan to be “the alter ego” of the LORD.[15] The Adversary in Job does not play the role of a ‘tempter’. In the dialogues between the LORD and the Adversary in the two scenes set in the heavenly council, it is the LORD who initiates the dialogue and asks the Adversary what he thinks about Job. This raises the question about Job’s motivation in serving God. If God rewards worship with prosperity then perhaps Job is worshipping God in order to be prosperous. In other words, God’s policy of rewarding faithfulness is flawed. The Adversary is in fact challenging God’s policies rather than human behaviour[16]; he isn’t acting maliciously against Job. He is the LORD’s adversary, not Job’s. “If God is testing Job, one could just as easily argue that hassatan is testing God”.[17]

If I’m reading this correctly and what we have in the Prologue is drama and not history, then it is possible that rather than being an actual divine being the Adversary was a dramatic character who articulated the LORD’s own doubts about Job’s piety.


[1] Pagels, E., The Origin of Satan (New York: Random House, 1996), 39.

Habel, N. C., The Book of Job: A Commentary (London: SCM, 1985) p.89 also notes that ha-satan “is not the personal name Satan but a role specification meaning “the accuser/adversary/doubter”.”

[2] For example, Good, E.M., “The Problem of Evil in the Book of Job”, in: L.G. Perdue and W.C. Gilpin (eds), The Voice From the Whirlwind: Interpreting the Book of Job (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1992): 50-69, 52

[3] In Genesis 6:2, 4 when the text refers to the ‘sons of God’ the Hebrew is בני האלהים  with the definite article prefixed to אלהים. However, in the creation account in Job 38:7 we find  בני אלהים  without the definite article. In the frame story (Job 1:6; 2:1) the Hebrew text has the definite article as in Gen 6. A similar term בני אלים occurs in Psalm 29:1 and 89:6 where אלים is probably a poetic equivalent to אלהים. In personal correspondence with University of Sydney Assoc. Professor Ian Young, Dr Young suggests that ‘the definite article is quite a late comer to the Semitic languages, not being attested before 1000BCE.  Thus it is one of the features that can be left out in poetic, “archaic” style.  My suggestion is therefore that they are just two versions of the same thing.  Compare the difference between ELOHIM and HAELOHIM in Gen 5:21-24.  Ancient readers thought this significant, HAELOHIM=the angels; ELOHIM=God.’

[4] Kee, M.S., “The Heavenly Council and its Type-scene” in Journal for the Study of the Old Testament. Vol 31.3, 2007. pp. 259-273, 259

[5] Heiser, M.S., “Divine Council” in T. Longman and P. Enns (eds), Dictionary of the Old Testament: Wisdom, Poetry and Writings (Downers Grove: Intervarsity, 2008), 113

[6] Kelly, H.A., Satan: A Biography (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2006), 21

[7] Wolfers, D., Deep Things Out of Darkness (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 202

[8] Habel, 1985, 89

[9] Walton, J.H., “Satan” in T. Longman and P. Enns (eds), Dictionary of the Old Testament: Wisdom, Poetry and Writings (Downers Grove: Intervarsity, 2008), 715

[10] Habel, 1985, 89

[11] Habel, 1985, 54

[12] Pagels 1996, 39

[13] Page, S.H.T., “Satan: God’s Servant” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society; Sep 2007; 50, 3, 449

[14] Hable, 1985, 89

[15] Wilson, L.S., The Book of Job: Judaism in the 2nd Century BCE: An Intertextual Reading (Maryland: University Press of America, 2006), 62

[16] Walton, 2008, 716

[17] Wray T.J. and G. Mobley, The Birth of Satan: Tracing the Devil’s Biblical Roots (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), 64

Job as ‘theatre’

The Book of Job lends itself to dramatic presentation. There have been several performances of it in churches and theatres and even, I believe, as a Broadway stageshow. It’s easy to adapt to the stage; so easy that one could suspect it was actually written for the stage! In fact, Yehuda Sommo, a 16th century Italian Jewish theatrical producer, noticed the dramatic style of the Book of Job and argued in his Dialogues on the Art of the Stage that Job was the first dramatic text in recorded history. He even asserted that this Biblical theatrical form was appropriated by the Greek playwrights. If he is right, then theatre began with the Bible rather than the Greeks! [1]

It is actually an old idea, going back at least to Christian bishop Theodore the Interpreter (c. 350 – 428), who argued that the Book of Job was a drama on the pattern of Greek tragedy (although, if Sommo is right, Greek tragedy was actually based on the pattern of Job!)

Some of the theatrical elements in the prologue of Job are quite striking in my opinion, and suggest that rather than being an historical account, the prologue is a dramatic backdrop designed to ‘set the stage’ for the debate which follows. For example, the announcements to Job that he has lost his herds and his children come through four messengers and there is a striking pattern to their announcements. The first messenger tells Job that the Sabeans stole his oxen and donkeys and struck down the servants with the edge of the sword, “and I alone have escaped to tell you“. Then “while he was yet speaking, there came another” messenger and said “fire of God fell from heaven and burned up the sheep and the servants and consumed them, and I alone have escaped to tell you.” Then “while he was yet speaking, there came another” who announced a raiding band of Chaldeans had stolen his camels and struck down the servants with the edge of the sword, “and I alone have escaped to tell you.” Then (wait for it …) “while he was yet speaking, there came another“! The formula by now is predictable. We aren’t meant to take this as serious history – this is drama! The fourth and final messenger tells Job that all his children have been killed and (by now we all know what is coming) “I alone have escaped to tell you“!

The repetition of the words  “while he was yet speaking, there came another” and  “I alone have escaped to tell you” (Job 1:15, 16, 17,19) is unrealistic, but it is suspenseful and theatrical.

There’s more. A messenger tells Job that all his children have been killed, yet later Job refers to his sons as though they are still alive: “I am loathsome to my children” (19:17 JPS). While some translations interpret this as “the children of my own mother” (ESV) or “my brothers” (NIV), the Hebrew (לבני בתני) literally reads “sons of my belly”[2] and the JPS Tanakh translates this literally as a reference to Job’s actual physical children. In the prologue it doesn’t say Job’s children died, only that a messenger said his children had died (1:18-19), and if the literal meaning of לבני בתני is correct then it suggests that Job’s children were still alive later in the story. This further supports a dramatic rather than historical reading of the prologue.

In Job’s first speech in chapter 3 he lamented his life and cursed the day he was born. Strangely, Job accepted the deaths of his children rather philosophically (“the LORD has given and the LORD has taken away” [1:21]), but when he is afflicted with an illness he says it would have been better not to have been born. Again, there is something unrealistic about this. Given the choice of personal suffering or losing one’s children the usual human reaction would be to choose suffering rather than see one’s children die. This suggests that Job’s response may have been hyperbolic or satirical – jolly good theatre –  and this may be providing another clue about how to interpret the rest of the book.

In my next post(s) I want to look at the role of Satan in the prologue. I think there is even more evidence here that we might be reading one of the oldest plays in history!


[1] Yoni Oppenheim, The Origins of Jewish Performance: From Prohibition to Precedent.

[2] Elsewhere in Job בתני is ambiguous, being used in reference to a man’s belly as well as a womb. Moreover, as it is in the first person (my belly/womb) then it is more likely to be a reference to his own children who came “from his loins” rather than his mother’s womb.

The Book of Job

I remember attending a long series of Bible classes in my teens about the Book of Job – every second Wednesday for over two years – and I recall my sense of disappointment at the end of it when I realised I still had no idea what it was about! It probably wasn’t the fault of the lecturer. I’m sure it was perfectly clear to him. It just wasn’t clear to me. Somehow I don’t think I was alone. People often tell me that Job is one of their favourite Biblical books, but they are perplexed as to what it’s about. I think a lot of people recognise that it contains some beautiful poetry: indeed, in the Hebrew some of the poetry in Job is arguably amongst the most sublime in the Bible, and a sense of this carries through the translation into English. And many of the sentiments expressed by Job (as well as the theological arguments of his friends) ring true with folks wrestling with the problem of human suffering and trying to find meaning in it.

Having recently taken another look at the Book of Job I now have some more ideas and may be a little closer to understanding what it’s writer was trying to convey. So I’d like to toss around some ideas over the next few posts.