Christian Brady, having recently experienced a terrible tragedy, has been writing some very insightful pieces on his blog about suffering and theodicy and so, inevitably, he has turned to Job. But does Job provide answers, or just more questions? This article is worth reading.
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 . 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 . 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:
- God is directly responsible for Job’s suffering
- Job suffered “for no reason” and as he was “whole, perfect, fully integrated” no moral or spiritual development was necessary
- Job is not presented as in any way depraved or sinful – on the contrary, he is upheld as blameless and sinless
- 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.
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:
- 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.
- A blameless, innocent person may still suffer. There is therefore no relationship between sin and suffering. Suffering is not a punishment for sin.
- 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.
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).”  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”.
- Job’s three friends “met together to go and console and comfort him” (2:11)
- “… my bed will comfort me” (7:13)
- “You are all mischievous comforters” (16:2)
- “Why do you offer me empty consolations?” (21:34)
- “… like one who consoles mourners” (29:25)
- “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”. 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.
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?
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.  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 , 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.
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.