I wasn’t going to mention Israel Folau again, but then …

Australian BushfireI’ve been busy, but it’s that time of the semester when I’ve finished teaching and marking and now have some time to get back to writing for pleasure. I thought I’d finished with Israel Folau and didn’t want to give his bad theology any more publicity, but then he opened his mouth and spurted out more rubbish so I felt I just had to respond.

If his comments about homsexuals going to hell weren’t enough, this time he has claimed that the devestating bushfires raging across Australia are God’s punishment for same-sex marriage and abortion. This time Folau has proven how little he knows about the Bible.

The question of whether or not national calamities or personal disasters should be seen as a punishment from God is dealt with fairly extensively in the Bible in a ‘conversation’ that takes place over a long period, possibly centuries. There is little doubt that many people in the ancient world attributed disasters to God or the gods, and some of the writers of the Bible held the view that if you do the right thing you will prosper but if you do the wrong thing you will suffer. This view is often called ‘Deuteronomistic’ because it’s one of the hallmarks of the biblical literature which appears to stem from the book of Deuteronomy. For example, Deuteronomy 28 promises a number of blessings for Israel “if you will only obey the LORD your God, by diligently observing all his commandments that I am commanding you today” (28:1), 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 ..” followed by a list of the sort of calamities they could expect as a nation.

Other biblical books endorse this explanation of the connection between obedience/disobedience with rewards and punishments, such as this comment in Proverbs: “For the upright will abide in the land, and the innocent will remain in it; but the wicked will be cut off from the land, and the treacherous will be rooted out of it” (2:21-22). This verse may very well have been problematic for the generation which witnessed the Assyrian and Babylonian invasions, and the deportation of a large proportion of the population into exile. Many scholars think that several books of the Bible were written or edited during the time in exile in Babylon in an effort to make sense of how God could allow his people to be dragged from their ancient homeland when so many of them were innocent. The ‘old’ ideas of rewards and punishments didn’t make a great deal of sense in the face of righteous or innocent people losing their homes, livelihoods, lives and independance as a nation. If it was only the ‘wicked’ who suffered, the punishment-for-sin explanation would stand up, but when good people suffered for no apparent reason it was right to question the Deuteronomistic ideas, or even to abandon them.

Biblical writings such as the book of Job are evidence of this process of questioning, reformulating and abandoning inadequate or unsatisfactory ideas in action. The story of Job is of a good man – even by God’s estimation he was “blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil” – who suffered the loss of his possessions, livelihood, the deaths of all his children, and then a painful and debilitating disease. Throughout all his sufferings he remained “blameless and upright.” A long dialogue between Job and his friends, and then finally between Job and God, analyses and dissects various explanations for why people suffer. Ultimately Job is judged to have been faultless and the arguments of his friends – who claimed his sufferings must have been due to some fault which required punishment or correction – were dismissed as wrong. Behind Job’s suffering yet hidden from Job and friends – but known to the reader – was a story about a wager between Job and Satan as to whether or not Job would abandon his faith in the face of suffering. All his sufferings were the result of a bet! There was no cause-and-effect, no relationship between sin and suffering, no system of rewards and punishments for good or bad behaviour. Suffering is random, even unfair. There is no explanation for why good people suffer.

Yet at least two centuries later the old Deuteronomistic ideas still lingered and show up in the New Testament where, again, they are challenged and dismissed. A story in the Gospel of John tells of Jesus and his disciples coming across a man who was blind from birth. The disciples asked Jesus “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:2). Behind their question is the notion that if someone suffered an ailment or disability this must have been because they sinned; but if this man was born blind, it raised the possibility that he was being punished for his parents’ sins, as he could hardly have sinned before he was born. The question itself highlights the absurdity of the argument that suffering is the consequence of sin, but to leave no doubt Jesus replied “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him” (v.3). Other sayings by Jesus also emphasize that there is no relationship between sin and suffering. In Luke 13:1-5, for example, Jesus referred to two instances in Jerusalem where people were killed, and said these people were no worse than anyone else and their deaths were simply random events: “Those eighteen people who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem?” It’s a rhetorical question: the answer is implicitly “no”!

To use Jesus’ words, we could ask “Those people who were killed in the bushfires, or who lost their homes and possessions—do you think that they were worse offenders than anyone else?” It’s a rhetorical question: the answer is implicitly “no”! We could broaden the question and ask “The bushfires and drought which has ravaged Australia—do you think it is because Australians are worse offenders than anyone else (by legislating for same-sex marriage)?” Again, the answer is a resounding “no”! (I’ve already dealt with Folau’s misquotations of the Bible on the subject of homosexuality so won’t go into them again).

Good people have lost their lives, livelihoods or possessions in the bushfires. Communities have been devestated. For a preacher to hold up the Bible and claim their suffering is the result of a decision to approve of same-sex marriage is not only unbiblical and absurd, it is callously insensitive and totally devoid of sympathy for their losses. It is obvious to anyone with a modicum of Biblical sense that Folau is ignorant of what the Bible actually says on the subject (possibly on any subject). I wish he would just keep quiet.


Sheol and the afterlife

The Hebrew Bible (the ‘Old Testament’) doesn’t have a hell. At least, it doesn’t have a place where the wicked go to be tormented when they die. There is not even a hint that some people go to heaven at death, while the rest go to ‘the other place’. In fact, according to the Hebrew Bible everyone, good or bad, goes to the same place at death, to Sheol (שְׁאוֹל). The word sheol occurs 65 times in the Hebrew Bible and is usually translated into Greek as hades, and into English as either “hell” or “the grave” (although there is a tendency for more modern translations to leave it untranslated and transliterated as Sheol). However, the way the ancient Israelites thought of sheol was considerably different to the way later Christians often think of hell. 

Everyone goes there. According to the Hebrew Bible everyone goes to the same place at death. When news came to the patriarch Jacob that his son Joseph was dead he refused to be comforted and said, “No, I shall go down to Sheol to my son, mourning” (Genesis 37: 35). Using parallelism typical of biblical poetry David described his deliverance from death at the hands of his enemies in terms of being rescued from Sheol:

For the waves of death encompassed me,
the torrents of destruction assailed me;
the cords of Sheol entangled me;
the snares of death confronted me. (2 Samuel 22:5-6).

Interestingly, he thinks of death in terms of destruction rather than conscious existence in an afterlife. Perhaps even more surprisingly Qoheleth (Ecclesiastes) even asserts that animals and humans share the same fate: “For what happens to the children of man and what happens to the beasts is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and man has no advantage over the beasts, for all is vanity.  All go to one place. All are from the dust, and to dust all return.  Who knows whether the spirit of man goes upwards and the spirit of the beast goes down into the earth?” (Eccl. 3:19-21).

Sheol is not a place of punishment.

In a long speech in which he longs for his own end, Job describes death this way:

But a man dies and is laid low;
man breathes his last, and where is he?
As waters fail from a lake
and a river wastes away and dries up,
so a man lies down and rises not again;
till the heavens are no more he will not awake
or be roused out of his sleep.
Oh that you would hide me in Sheol,
that you would conceal me until your wrath be past,
that you would appoint me a set time, and remember me!
If a man dies, shall he live again?
All the days of my service I would wait,
till my renewal should come. (Job 14:10-14).

There are a few important things we should note from this speech. First, Job describes death as a place where he could hide from God’s anger, not as a place where he would experience wrath or punishment. Second, he describes death as a place of sleep (see more about this below). Third, in the last lines of the extract above there is a possible hint of resurrection (there is a more familiar possible reference to resurrection in Job 19:25-26, although I have explained earlier that I personally don’t see any evidence in this text that Job was expressing his hope in a resurrection, or that his vindication would come after his death). However, the Hebrew word חליפתי (“my renewal” ESV or “change” KJV) could mean that Job is looking for some kind of relief (so ESV footnote).  There isn’t necessarily a sense of “renewal” or resurrection in the Hebrew word, which simply means “change” in the same way we could speak of a change of clothes. The NJPS translates this as “my replacement”, in the sense of a soldier or servant carrying on with their duties until their watch or shift ends when they are replaced by another.

God is there. I sometimes hear people describe hell as a state of being seperated from God, rather than a physical location. But this is not how the writers of the Hebrew Bible understood sheol. A Psalm attributed to David makes the confident assertion that God is everywhere, even in sheol!

Where shall I go from your Spirit?
Or where shall I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there!
If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there! (Psalm 138:7-8)

Satan is never associated with Sheol in the Hebrew Bible. In popular culture hell is ruled by Satan. Somewhat surprisingly the Hebrew Bible nevers links Sheol with Satan, and, perhaps even more surprising is the fact that the only time the New Testament mentions hell (hades) and the devil together is when it describes both the devil and hell being destroyed together in a lake of fire: “the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulphur where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night for ever and ever … Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire.” (Revelation 20:10, 14). According to this text the devil does not rule hell: he meets his end, together with hell, in a lake of fire. And hell isn’t a lake of fire: on the contrary, hell is destroyed in a lake of fire. Puzzling imagery indeed, and one which deserves more attention. (There is a similar reference in Matthew 25:41 to “the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” but see my short post here.)

Sheol is for sleeping. The New Testament refers to death as sleeping and the image is almost certainly drawn from the Hebrew Bible. For example, Bathsheba describes David’s death as the time “when my lord the king sleeps with his fathers” (1 Kings 1:21). The New Testament draws on this terminology in a speech by Paul: “For David, after he had served the purpose of God in his own generation, fell asleep and was laid with his fathers and saw corruption” (Acts 13:36). Earlier in the same book of Acts is a speech by Peter, and both speeches refer to a Psalm attributed to David:

For you will not abandon my soul to Sheol,
or let your holy one see corruption. (Psalm 16:10).

In the speech by Peter he quotes this Psalm and says “David did not ascend into the heavens” (Acts 2:34). He was firmly of the view in the Hebrew Bible that everyone, good and bad, go to the same place at death, to sheol, and that not even King David went to heaven.

The patience of Job

The Patient Job, Gerard Seghers (1591–1651). In the public domain, wikimedia commons.

There is a popular expression that someone has “the patience of Job,” probably based on a reference in the New Testament letter of James: “You heard about the patience of Job” (James 5:11). Job’s patience had apparently become proverbial by the time the letter of James was written, probably around the middle of the first century CE. But when we read the biblical book of Job we are hard-pressed to find much evidence of Job’s patience. The Greek word (ὑπομονή hypomonē) translated “patience” in James could equally mean “endurance” or “steadfastness”, but these are hardly major themes in Job either. Job is hardly a paragon of patience or endurance. In fact, he even protests that he has every right to be impatient! “Why should I not lose my patience?” (Job 21:4 NJPS). He constantly protests his innocence, complains that he is suffering without cause, and demands justice. The only time the word ὑπομονή hypomonē appears in the Greek version of Job is to say that God is wearing out Job’s patience, like water wears down rocks (Job 14:19LXX)! So where did James get the idea that Job was a model of patience or endurance?

David deSilva [1] argues convincingly that, rather than quoting from the biblical book of Job, James was more likely  referring to the Testament of Job (hereafter TJob), a pseudepigraphical work probably written in the first century BCE or first century CE.  TJob is based on the canonical Job but the emphasis is different: this Job is a model of endurance, and the word ὑπομονή hypomonē used by James occurs several times throughout the book. DaSilva points to linguistic similarities between James 5:7–11 and TJob and argues that James learned a version of the story of Job from a tradition beyond the canonical Job that came to written expression in TJob, which “presents a fully developed picture of Job as an athlete of endurance, holding on to his commitment to obey the One God and empowered to bear any temporal loss by God’s promise of a future reward for the righteous”. James’s brief reference to the patience/endurance of Job would presume that his audience knows the reshaped Job story from a version such as  TJob and that it is this tradition, rather than the biblical book of Job, to which he refers.

[1] “The Testament of Job: Job Becomes an Example of Patient Endurance”, chapter 9 in The Jewish Teachers of Jesus, James, and Jude: What Earliest Christianity Learned from the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha, Oxford University Press, 2012, pp. 237-251.

To speak well of God (2)

Jonathan Stone makes a great point about Job 42:7 in an article on his blog here.

After the LORD had said these things to Job, he said to Eliphaz the Temanite, “I am angry with you and your two friends, because you have not spoken the truth about me, as my servant Job has.”

The underlined words translate the Hebrew כִּי לֹא דִבַּרְתֶּם אֵלַי נְכֹונָה כְּעַבְדִּי אִיֹּֽוב

Jonathan writes:

“The key is found in the preposition about. God tells Eliphaz that he is angry with him and his friends because they have not spoken the truth about God, as did Job. If you take the time to actually read the book you will know that something seems wrong here. Job said a lot of things. A lot of what he said was specifically about God, but very little of it sounds like the truth about God. In contrast, read the speeches of Job’s friends. They exalt God. They speak of his justice. They talk about his infinite power. They proclaim his endless wisdom. They say a whole lot about God. And it all sounds like the truth. What is going on here?

“As it turns out the Hebrew preposition translated about is a common one, ‘el. It is used hundreds of times in the Hebrew bible, and it can be translated about. However, you will only find a couple of examples where it is translated that way. Every other time it is translated to. In other words, the better translation is this:

“After the LORD had said these things to Job, he said to Eliphaz the Temanite, “I am angry with you and your two friends, because you have not spoken the truth to me, as my servant Job has.”

“Interesting. One little pronoun. Yet, it changes our understanding of the entire book of Job. We do not think of the power of prepositions as English speakers. But there is a world of difference between speaking the truth about God and speaking the truth to God.”

Jonathan is correct. The Hebrew word אֵלַי could be translated as “to me”, rather than “about me” although I haven’t (yet) come across a translation that renders it “to me” in Job 42:7. It does make good sense in the context to translate it as “to me” so that it was the forthright, blunt, robust manner in which Job spoke to the Almighty which was being commended, rather than what he actually said. The Hebrew word אל (el) is primarily a preposition denoting ‘motion to or direction towards (whether physical or mental)’ while a similar word עַל  (al) would be more often used to convey the meaning ‘in regard to, concerning, or on account of’. I checked this with Professor Ian Young, chair of the Department of Hebrew, Biblical and Jewish Studies at the University of Sydney. His answer to me was that there is a very common interchange in the texts between el and al, and hence the translations might be taking it in that sense, and there are a couple of examples of al being interchanged for el in the prose frame of Job. I’ll do what I can to check this further.

Thanks Jonathan for bringing this to my attention.

The role of Elihu (1)

My apologies for the long pause since my last post. I was distracted (best excuse I could come up with). However, I took the opportunity to do some rethinking about Job, particularly Elihu’s role, so I now have even more questions about the book than I did before. I really want to get on and explore some other subjects on this blog, but I somehow feel like I need to resolve some things about Job before I do and not leave too many threads hanging loose. The ‘loose threads’ actually tie in with other subjects I’ve been thinking about, so I will attempt to connect them in  coming posts.

Elihu’s role in the Book of Job has been debated over the centuries and opinions vary widely. Some scholars see Elihu’s role as an advocate for the position taken by The Adversary in the prologue, while others see him as a spokesman for the LORD, and his speech as a kind of prelude to the LORD’s own speech.

There are several interesting things about him.

  1. Of all the characters in the book it seems that he is the only one with a Hebrew name.
  2. He doesn’t get a mention in the prologue and then appears suddenly. Once he has finished speaking he disappears without any further mention of him.
  3. Job’s three friends are condemned by the LORD, but Elihu is neither condemned nor commended.
  4. Job intercedes for his three friends so that they obtain forgiveness, but not for Elihu. Did he not need it, or did he miss out on it because he disappeared? Or was Elihu added to the book by a hand later than that of the prologue and epilogue?
  5. Elihu’s speech takes a prominent position in the book, between Job’s ‘oath of innocence’ and the appearance of the LORD. Why was it given such prominence?

Moses ben-Maimon (aka Maimonides 1135-1204), in The Guide for the Perplexed, understood the speeches of Job’s three friends to represent the major philosophical views of the time while Elihu presented a new paradigm. Elihu represents an ‘Israelite’ perspective, against the traditional wisdom of the ancient Near East of which the three friends are archetypes. The fact that many of Elihu’s arguments, and actual words, mirror those of the three friends is probably suggesting that while Elihu’s ‘new paradigm’ is more recent, contemporary, and therefore ‘younger’, from the writer’s perspective it was still influenced by, and therefore a reflection of, the traditional thinking. Elihu’s arrogance was in arguing that he was presenting something new while he was actually mirroring old thinking.

What I find really remarkable is that scholars and commentators often see Elihu as a spokesman for either the Adversary, or the LORD. Is it that hard to see the difference between the two? Perhaps it is.

I know that my Redeemer lives

Job 19:25-26 are some of the best known words from the Book of Job, having been popularised by Handel’s Messiah

25 For I know that my Redeemer lives,
and at the last he will stand upon the earth.
26 And after my skin has been thus destroyed,
yet in my flesh I shall see God,
27 whom I shall see for myself,
and my eyes shall behold, and not another.  (ESV)

It is usual for Christians to read this as prophetic words by Job, referring to his future resurrection, to interpret “redeemer” as a reference to the Messiah, Jesus, and to see this as Job’s vindication at last in the Final Judgment.

The Hebrew word translated “redeemer” is גאל go’el and is used most frequently in Isaiah (24 times) with reference to the God of Israel. So it appears on the surface that Job is expressing his confidence in God and his assurance of eternal salvation. The word is translated in various ways, including “my Avenger” (Leslie Wilson), and “my vindicator” (JPS and Marvin Pope). Some scholars see the words “engraved in rock” in the previous two verses to be a permanent and continuing vindication of Job, and hence his go’el. Some see The Vindicator as a sort of counterpart to The Prosecutor (ha-satan) who accused Job in the Prologue, Job’s Defence Counsel.  If so, his identity is unknown.

It is possible that there are two forensic terms here: גאל go’el and אחרון akharon (translated “at the last” in the ESV). Both terms appear in parallel in Isaiah 44:6 and Marvin Pope notes the Talmudic and Mishnaic usage of the related term אחראי in the sense of ‘guarantor’ [1].  אחרון acharon literally means “the last (one)” and in a forensic sense refers to a guarantor, the last resort for payment. Many commentators, however, read this as an eschatalogical reference to “the last days” (although “days” is unstated) and hence interpret this as an after-death resurrection experience. It could just as easily mean “at the end” or “at last”(in the sense of “eventually”).

Robert Sutherland [2] also understands the Hebrew word קום qum (“he will stand” ESV) as ‘a legal term meaning “to stand up in court” as an “advocate”.’ If he is correct then this reinforces the forensic nature of the text. In fact, as Norman Habel has rightly pointed out, the whole of the Book of Job is “a legal metaphor”. The idea of a lawsuit against God was first mooted in Job’s second speech in the second cycle, and here he continues the theme by expressing his desire that a Vindicator or Advocate will eventually stand up to argue his case. This fits with his previous longing for an advocate (Job 9:33; 16:19). Sutherland argues that this Advocate is none other than God himself and sees no difficulty in God being the Judge, the Advocate and the Defendant all at once. “Job’s complaint has become an appeal to God, through God and against God” [3]. I personally don’t find Sutherland’s argument here convincing. To me this text reads more naturally as Job saying “I am confident that eventually someone will stand up and speak in my defence and vindicate me [my Vindicator and Guarantor], and that I will have my day in court.” Interestingly, Job’s vindication happens, unexpectedly, at the end of the book, but without the appearance of an Advocate.

I personally don’t see any evidence here that Job was expressing his hope in a resurrection, or that his vindication would come after his death, especially as he later refers to the terrors and finality of death (23:14-17; 26:6; 30:23). The Hebrew Bible has very little to say about the afterlife and Psalm 16:10-11; 49:15; 73:27-28; Isaiah 26:19 and Daniel 12:2 are probably the only texts which refer with any certainty to an afterlife. In the context, it would be odd if Job was here putting his hope in vindication in an afterlife. As P.S. Johnston has rightly pointed out [4]:

‘Job still continues his legal argument after chapter 19: he wants to find God, present his case, be acquitted, be tested and emerge like gold (Job 23:3-10). His defiant summation still longs for fair judgment and a divine hearing (Job 31:6, 35). What Job “knows” in Job 19:25 affects neither this subsequent argumentation nor the closing chapters of the book …’

Some commentators argue that the words “after my skin has been thus destroyed” necessitate a reference to resurrection. It could equally be a reference to his extreme suffering and physical deterioration [5]. And while scholars differ as to whether מבשרי mib’sari means “in my flesh” or “without my flesh” the context seems to demand, as Gerald Wilson puts it, “that Job would be expressing in these verses his heartfelt desire that even though he has come so close to death and has almost no hope left, that even now – in this life – God might appear and provide vindication.” [6]

I do not see this text as eschatalogical or messianic. My reading of these verses therefore would along these lines:

“I am confident that eventually someone will stand up and speak in my defence and vindicate me, and that I will have my day in court. But I want to face God myself while I am still alive, and not be defended by an unknown advocate after I am dead.”

Job got his wish: the LORD soon speaks from the whirlwind, and Job is vindicated.

[1] Pope, M., Job: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary,  Anchor Bible Vol. 15, 3rd edition, (New York: Doubleday and Co. 1974), 146

[2] Sutherland, R., Putting God on Trial: The Biblical Book of Job 2004, p57

[3] Sutherland, 2004, p58

[4] Johnston, P., “Afterlife” in T. Longman and P. Enns (eds), Dictionary of the Old Testament: Wisdom, Poetry and Writings (Downers Grove: Intervarsity, 2008), 6

[5] See Wilson, G., Job New International Biblical Commentary (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2007), 209

[6] Ibid

Satan in the New Testament (2)

The ‘fall’ of Satan

Luke has a pericope which has Jesus sending out 70/72 disciples to the the towns and villages he was to visit. On their return these disciples reported to Jesus that “even the demons submit to us in your name”  (10:17). Jesus responded by saying “I saw Satan fall as lightning from heaven” (v18).

Was Jesus referring to an event which he witnessed in the past? If so, the big questions are “what” and “when”? In the context it would be odd if Jesus was thinking back to an event 4000 years before which gave rise to ‘demons’ (which is how the Book of Enoch interprets Genesis 6:1-8). From what we’ve seen in the Book of Job it would also be odd if Satan was allowed back in the Court of Heaven after he had “fallen”.

It appears from the context that Satan’s fall began with the mission of the disciples as it was Jesus’ immediate response to the report that “even the demons are subject to us in your name”.  If so, his words should be understood as meaning “I am seeing the defeat of Satan in this”. “Heaven” need not be a literal place, at least not in this context. It could be Jesus’ way of saying that Satan has fallen from his position of power. There are two ways we could read this:

  1. “I saw Satan fall from heaven, like lightning” or
  2. “I saw Satan fall, like lightning from heaven”.

If we follow the second reading (which is how the Greek literally reads, although unpunctuated) it would suggest that Jesus didn’t necesarily say that Satan fell from heaven, but rather that his fall was “like lightning from heaven”. There’s a difference. If this reading is correct then Jesus was comparing Satan’s fall to lightning, perhaps suggesting it was (or would be) speedy, visible or dramatic, but not necessarily saying he literally fell out of heaven. Even if a literal fall from heaven was intended, the context would almost certainly dictate that this was a vision of a future event. Jesus may have been recounting a vision where He ‘saw’ Satan’s fall, an event which would find its ultimate fulfilment in the Last Judgment. Incidentally, this was also the way John (in The Revelation) described his visions: “I saw …” In the exorcism of demons Jesus therefore saw Satan’s defeat, not a previous ‘fall’ from heaven.

It is also possible that Jesus was alluding to his second wilderness temptation (the second temptation in Luke’s account – the third temptation in Matthew), where Satan says that all the kingdoms of the world, with their authority and glory, have been given to him (Lk 4:7). Satan claimed to have “all authority”, yet in the sending out of the 70/72 Jesus gives his disciples “authority” over the “power” of the Enemy (v. 19), in anticipation of “all authority in heaven and earth” being given to Him (Matt 28:17-18).

As Jesus’ disciples exercised authority over diseases and demons, the instruments of the Tester, so Jesus was saying that the Tester’s authority would end suddenly. If so, we see here the beginning of Satan’s fall – his real power had been broken – although his final defeat would be yet future.

We also shouldn’t miss the interesting intertextual link in Luke 10:15 where Jesus said “And you, Capernaum, will you be lifted up to the skies? No, you will go down to hades”. This appears to be a direct quote from Isaiah 14:13-15.

13 You said in your heart,
‘I will ascend to heaven;
above the stars of God
I will set my throne on high;
I will sit on the mount of assembly
in the far reaches of the north;
14 I will ascend above the heights of the clouds;
I will make myself like the Most High.’
15 But you are brought down to Sheol,
to the far reaches of the pit.  (ESV)
The allusion to the Isaiah text about the fall of “Lucifer” (or, the Day Star [Isa 14:12], identified as the King of Babylon in Isa 14:3) is interesting. But if so, he was actually saying that Capernaum, not Satan, would fall like the Day Star. I would be happy for someone to explore this further and tease out this connection.

If this interpretation of the fall of Satan in Luke 10 is correct, then it confirms that Jesus understood the role of the Satan in the same way as he is presented in the Book of Job, namely as an angel who acts as the agent of God in bringing evil on people.

To speak well of God (1)

At the end of the Book of Job the LORD (twice) says to Job’s three friends:

לא דברתם אלי נכונה כעבדי איוב

“You have not spoken the truth about me as did my servant Job” (42:7-8 JPS), or, as some translations put it, “you have not spoken well of me”.

In a comment here Jen asked a very good question: “Does Job speak well of God in his confessions (40:3-5 and 42:2-6), or is it of his speeches in general that God tells the friends that Job was correct in his presentation of God?”

The comment addressed to the friends “You have not spoken the truth about me” could only refer to their speeches during the dialogue with Job, so I would be inclined to think that the words “as did my servant Job” referred to Job’s speeches during the same dialogue, and not to his final brief response to the LORD. I agree with Norman Habel [1] when he says “The blunt and forthright accusations of Job from the depths of his agony are closer to the truth than the conventional unquestioning pronouncements of the friends … Job’s answers correspond with reality. They are devoid of dissembling and flattery”.

This reminded me of something I’d read in Eugene Peterson’s Introduction to Psalms [2]:

‘Untutored, we tend to think that prayer is what good people do when they are doing their best. It is not. Inexperienced, we suppose that there must be an “insider” language that must be acquired before God takes us seriously in our prayer. There is not. Prayer is elemental, not advanced, language. It is the means by which our language becomes honest, true and personal in response to God. It is the means by which we get everything in our lves out in the open before God …

‘In English translation, the Psalms often sound smooth and polished, sonorous with Elizabethan rhythms and diction. As literature, they are beyond compare. But as prayer, as the utterances of men and women passionate for God in moments of anger and praise and lament, these translations miss something. Gramatically, they are accurate. The scholarship undergirding the translations is superb and devout. But as prayers they are not quite right. The Psalms in Hebrew are earthy and rough. They are are not genteel. They are not the prayers of nice people, couch in cultured language.’

Peterson went on to encourage ‘raw honesty and detailed thoroughness in our praying’ and I am convinced that this is how the Book of Job encourages us to approach God. Not with carefully worked out theological ‘truths’, but with raw honesty, articulating our despair, anger, disappointment and frustration. To speak well of God is to challenge him when his world appears to be unfair and his ways unjust.

David Wolfers [3] came to this conclusion about how Job spoke the truth concerning God:

‘Job has penetrated to the truth about the moral conduct of the world, that the quality of an individual’s life is unrelated to his moral deserts; that disaster is a random occurrence as likely to befall the righteous as the wicked; that God does reject the innocent and reward the wicked as individuals as aften as He does the reverse. What Eliphaz and his friends have maintained, from 4:7 … to 20:29 … is sentimental rubbish, at odds with all experience of life.’

As a slight digression, Habel [4] makes this interesting observation about Job’s priestly role in acting as mediator for his friends:

‘Job is reinstated as mediator even before his family and possessions are restored. He is again to act as a patriarchal intercessor like Abraham (Gen 18:23ff.). Job had previously looked for a friend who would support him against God if necessary (6:14), an arbiter who would handle his case with God (9:33), an advocate who would defend his suit with God (16:19-20), and a redeemer to vindicate him after his death (19:25). But Job stood alone and achieved his own meeting with God. Now the one who sought a mediator becomes the mediator.’

So it seems to me that to ‘speak the truth concerning God’ is less about correct theology (the approach taken by the friends) and more about being honest, blunt if necessary, and being based in reality.

[1] Habel, N. C., The Book of Job: A Commentary (London: SCM, 1985), 583

[2] Peterson, E., Psalms (Colorado Springs: Navpress, 1994), 3f

[3] Wolfers, D., Deep Things Out of Darkness (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 462

[4] Habel, 584

Digression: Satan in the New Testament (1)

I mentioned earlier that I would like to explore some of the ways the New Testament and other early Christian literature refer to ‘Satan’, and the extent to which the ideas and beliefs of the first Christians about this were influenced by the Book of Job and other Jewish literature.

There is some interesting terminology in the Christian Scriptures which suggests that early Christian belief about Satan was influenced by the Adversary’s role in Job, and this may add light on how Second Temple Judaism understood the role of the Adversary. Paul (a Pharisee and disciple of Rabban Gamaliel I) wrote to the church in the Greek city of Corinth and gave instructions about a Christian who had married his father’s former wife (which in Greek law and society was neither illegal nor regarded as immoral, although contrary to Jewish and Christian sensitivities). He wrote:  “you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord”.[1] In another letter attributed to Paul (but more likely written by one or more of his disciples) the writer refers to two opponents “whom I have handed over to Satan that they may learn not to blaspheme”.[2] Contrary to the popular notion that from earliest times Christians believed that Satan is an evil, malevolent, ‘fallen’ angel, these references reveal that Paul understood Satan to be responsible for teaching people “not to blaspheme” and for ensuring their ultimate salvation. In one case this was to be done by inflicting physical ailments, and this understanding is supported in another letter where Paul says “a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited”.[3]

William Ramsay argued that “delivering to the judgement of the gods” was a commonly known invocation in Greek and Roman society against enemies and criminals whose offences and crimes were not subject to punishment by a judge. “In these invocations the god was asked or tacitly expected to punish the wrongdoer by bodily disease.  … any bodily affliction which came on the accursed person was regarded, alike by the invoker and by the sufferer, as the messenger or weapon of the god.” [4] It is likely that Paul was ‘Christianising’ or ‘Judaising’ this concept by substituting “Satan” for “the gods” and by “delivering” or “handing over” someone to Satan he was leaving their judgment in the hands of the Adversary as the agent of God.

I am indebted to Deb Hurn of Vose Seminary for steering me in the direction of Ramsay’s commentary and pointing out that ‘delivering to Satan’ is equivalent to surrendering (through prayer) an intractable and problematic person to Jesus’ personal rebuke and instruction, by whatever form that may take. There is a similar example in the Hebrew Bible in  2 Samuel 24:14 (JPS) where David said to Gad, “I am in great distress; let us fall into the hands of the LORD, for his compassion is great; and let me not fall into the hands of men.”

[1] 1 Corinthians 5:4-5

[2] 1 Timothy 1:19-20

[3] 2 Corinthians 12:7

[4] Ramsay, W., Historical Commentary on First Corinthians, (Grand Rapids: Kregel Classics, 1996 fp 1900-1), 46f

Job – humanity at its best

In all this Job did not sin or charge God with wrong. (Job 1:22 ESV)

Job is described in the prologue to the book as a perfect man, blameless, upright, sinless, pious, and possibly the wisest of the wise [1]. The Hebrew word translated “blameless” (or “perfect” in KJV) is תם and means whole, complete, lacking in nothing, fully integrated. In other words, he represented humanity at its best. Even if the story was based on an actual historical character the language used to describe him suggests that we are looking at a parable about humankind. In testing Job the Adversary is also putting God on trial. If Job, the best of the best, fails the test then all of humankind fails with him.

There are echoes here of the Garden of Eden: one “representative” human couple being put to the test, with consequences for humanity; the test administered by a snake in one story and by the Adversary in the other [2]. However, it’s the Genesis story which has received the most attention by theologians and which has had the greatest impact on Christian dogma about sin, suffering and human nature (although less so in Jewish dogma). No doubt this has been the result of the huge impact which Augustine had on the formation on Christian dogma. Augustine argued that suffering is not caused by God; rather, the exercise of free will by humans has led to sin and suffering in the world as just punishment for Adam’s disobedience. Augustine’s view was that all of humanity was seminally present in the loins of Adam, so all of humanity is punished. The sin of Adam (or, in some Protestant theologies, the consequences of his sin) is inherited by all human beings so that humanity is utterly depraved in nature. Augustine’s view differed in this from Irenaeus who earlier argued that evil comes from God in order to allow humans to develop morally and spiritually.

But both viewpoints are challenged by the Book of Job where:

  1. God is directly responsible for Job’s suffering
  2. Job suffered “for no reason” and as he was “whole, perfect, fully integrated” no moral or spiritual development was necessary
  3. Job is not presented as in any way depraved or sinful – on the contrary, he is upheld as blameless and sinless
  4. Suffering is not a punishment or consequence for sin.

So while Augustinian theodicy, and all theologies based on it (both Catholic and Protestant) argue from a particular reading of Genesis these views are rendered null and void by Job. If the authority of both books (Genesis and Job) is accepted, then Genesis has been misunderstood and needs to be reinterpreted.

Continue reading

Did Job abhor himself?

Wherefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes. (Job 42:6 KJV)

This statement by Job comes at a highly significant moment in the book, as the conclusion of Job’s final brief response to the LORD. The King James Version, and others, give the impression that Job is confessing his faults, although without naming them, and repenting. It appears that Job is recognising that there was some hidden sin or character fault and in a truly repentant fashion he loathes himself for it. However, there are significant problems with this translation, or interpretation.

First, there is no equivalent in the Hebrew text for “myself” in this verse and the verb has no object. There is no textual or grammatical justification for interpreting the verb reflexively. By doing so the King James translators are interpreting rather than translating.

The verb translated “abhor myself” in the KJV is מאס and comes from a root meaning “to reject”. It’s the same word that is used in 1 Samuel 16:1 when God said “I have rejected [Saul] from being king over Israel” and in the few places where the KJV translates it as “abhor”, “abhored”, “abhorreth” or “abhorrest” it is clear from the context that “reject” or “rejected” is what is meant (e.g. to “abhor” God’s judgments and statutes in Lev 26:15, 43 has the sense of rejecting them). The Jewish Publication Society version has “I recant”, the NASB has “retract”, which are better but still do not provide an object. What was it Job was rejecting, recanting, or repudiating?

Samuel Balentine, professor of Old Testament at Union Theological Seminary in Richmond, Virginia, in his Job (Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary, 2006), writes: “Textual ambiguities also make it clear . . . that whatever Job’s last words may mean, they convey anything but a simple confession of sin.” He argues that “God’s disclosure invites a transformation in Job’s understanding about what it means to be ‘dust and ashes.'” This understanding is supported by the translation of Stephen Mitchell who translates this difficult verse this way: “Therefore I will be quiet, comforted that I am dust.” (The Book of Job Harper Perennial, 1992). This translation, incidentally, supports my translation of the final verb נחם as “I am comforted” rather than “I repent” (in a previous post).

However one translates this verse there are significant theological implications.

The first problem with this interpretation is that on several occasions the Book makes the point that Job was “blameless”. The narrator in the prologue introduces Job as a “man [who] was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil” (1:1), and the LORD twice gives his own assessment of Job as a “a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil” (18; 2:3). Job consistently maintains his own innocence to the end.

Those translators who have Job abhoring myself and repenting generally come from a theological position which regards the human race as “fallen”, depraved and inevitably sinful. Even the most upright person is guilty of some sin and in need of redemption. Consequently Job’s self-abhorence was a sign of true repentance and a necessary step to being put back into a right relationship with God. It is understandable how a translator with this bias would see this verse as a confession of hidden sin. However, there is a huge problem with this. To argue that Job was guilty of some hidden sin or character fault would be to take the position of the Adversary and Job’s three friends, and the LORD’s own comment on the position of the friends was that they did not speak well of God. It would make the Adversary and the three friends right and both Job and the LORD wrong!

However, if we interpret this verse as Mitchell, Balentine, Janzen and others have done and understand Job to be saying that he now has a new understanding of what it means to be “dust and ashes”, then we are faced with some important theological implications:

  1. It is possible for a human being to be blameless, and free of sin. In the epilogue Job was called to offer sacrifices for his three friends, but not for himself: he had no personal need of a sacrifice for sin.
  2. A blameless, innocent person may still suffer. There is therefore no relationship between sin and suffering. Suffering is not a punishment for sin.
  3. There is no suggestion in the Book of Job that Job’s experiences were necessary for character development, and it would be a nonsense to argue that his ordeals made him “more blameless” or upright. The only reason provided in the Book for Job’s ordeals was to “prove” that Job was upright and would maintain his integrity in the face of trials. One implication of this is that humanity is not “fallen” in the sense that human nature is inherently depraved or sinful.

In my next post I want to discuss the implications for Augustinian theology about the “fall”, human nature and sin.

What happened to Job’s children?

In an earlier post I wrote:

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” and the JPS Tanakh translates this literally as a reference to Job’s actual physical children. 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. 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.

In support of my assertion that Job referred to his livingchildren in 19:17 here is a comment by David Wolfers (Deep Things Out of Darkness [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995], 135f):

Job 19:17 ‘unmistakeably refers to the children as still living … The phrase פרי בטנך, the fruit of your body, occurs repeatedly in Deuteronomy, addressed to the community of Israel, with the force of the sense of “womb” attenuated as here to refer simply to the power of generation, without regard to gender e.g Deut 28:11”.

Wolfer refers to several other references in the speeches to Job’s “descendants” and allusions to his living children. Some translations attempt to resolve this apparent ‘contradiction’ by translating לבני בתני as “my brothers”, or similar, although the  expression “the sons of my womb/belly”,  is never used in the Hebrew Bible to refer to brothers. Trying to resolve a difficulty by mistranslating simply won’t do. Job has already referred to his brothers in verse 13, as well as his wife, servants and other relatives, and goes on to speak of the reactions of friends and young children. The most natural reading would be that Job is listing  all those with whom he has regular contact, including his children. To speak a second time of his brothers would be unnatural.

So what happened to his children? The best explanation, in my opinion, is that the poetry parts of Job were composed seperately to the narrative prose in the ‘frame’ story. The poetry was written first and the prose was added later to give the debate a ‘setting’. It is not an historical record. This means that there are some conflicts between the poetry and the prose, but this was certainly of no concern to the writer (otherwise he could easily have corrected it) or to his audience. Consistency is probably more important to the modern reader than it was to an ancient one, and this may very well be because of our preconceived theological notions about what ‘inspiration’ means or demands of the text.

Did Job repent?

Did Job repent or not, and if Job repented why did the LORD say that Job had spoken well of him?

After two speeches by the Almighty we read Job’s final (uncharacteristically brief) words in 42:1-6.

Job says “I know that you can do everything” (42:2) and then repeats two of the LORD’s own challenges to him in, although in a slightly altered format, and responds to each challenge by confessing that he did indeed speak without understanding.

The LORD’s challenge: “Who is this who obscures counsel without knowledge?” (42:3, cp. 38:2)

Job’s response: “Indeed, I spoke without understanding, of things beyond me, which I did not know” (42:3)

The LORD’s challenge:  “I will ask, and you will inform me” (42:4, cp. 38:2; 40:7)

Job’s response: “I had heard you with my ears, but now I see you with my eyes” (42:5)

This seems to be the answer to the whole book, viz. God has to be experienced through a personal encounter to be understood (“seeing”) rather than just through a theoretical/theological approach (“hearing”). But Job then job adds something odd:

“Therefore, I recant and relent, being but dust and ashes” (42:6 JPS). In some translations Job “repents” (e.g. ESV, KJV). The Hebrew reads:

עַל־כֵּן אֶמְאַס וְנִחַמְתִּי עַל־עָפָר וָאֵֽפֶר

The KJV is almost certainly wrong when it has Job repenting “in dust and ashes” seeing as he has been sitting in dust and ashes since his torments began (2:8), but they get this from the Hebrew word על  which often means “on”  (but more about this to follow). This might be be an allusion to Genesis 3:19 “for you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (where the Hebrew word for “dust” is the same as in Job עפר) but is almost certainly an allusion to Genesis 18:27 where an identical phrase occurs when Abraham says “I have undertaken to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes (עפר ואפר)”. Job is putting himself in the same position as Abraham in daring to challenge the Almighty.

So does Job “repent” or “relent” (I’ll come back to his “recanting” or “abhoring” himself in a later post)? The Book begins by saying he was upright and blameless, and throughout the ensuing debate and legal arguments no sin has been proven. But as Philippe Guillaume rightly points out: “anyone insisting that Job repented because he was guilty ends up in the precarious position of Job’s friends, whom YHWH declares guilty (42:7-8).”  [1]  Job does not specify what he “repents” of, and in the translations that have him repenting we are left wondering about that. The Hebrew verb is from the root נחם which is used 7 times in Job. Here it is in the niphal stem but in every other place it is in the piel stem and has the sense of “to comfort”.

  1. Job’s three friends “met together to go and console and comfort him” (2:11)
  2. “… my bed will comfort me” (7:13)
  3. “You are all mischievous comforters” (16:2)
  4. “Why do you offer me empty consolations?” (21:34)
  5. “… like one who consoles mourners” (29:25)
  6. “All his brothers and sisters and all his former friends came to him and … they consoled and comforted him for all the misfortune that the LORD had brought upon him” (42:11).

What’s the difference between the niphal and piel stems? The piel stem denotes an intensive or causative action (i.e to comfort or console another). The niphal form is passive and means to have regrets, to be sorry, or to comfort or console oneself. According to Gesenius, when the niphal is followed by על (as it is here) it is reflexive and means to comfort oneself or to be comforted, not “on” but “on account of” something. In other words, Job is saying “I am comforted on account of the fact that I am but dust and ashes”. Gerald Janzen translates this last verse: “Therefore I recant and change my mind concerning dust and ashes”.[2] Seeing the Book of Job has so many wonderful wordplays I believe there is another one here: Job was unable to be comforted by his “mischievous comforters” with their “empty consolations”, but finally he finds comfort from the LORD’s rebuke.

So in the end Job finds comfort from the LORD’s assertions that he is sovereign and in control.

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

[2] Job, IBC (Atlanta: John Knox, 1985), 251

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.