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.