Commentary on Job

Job 1:1-5

  1. Prologue: The Misfortunes of Job (1:1-2:13)
    1. The Integrity of Job (1:1-5)

There once was a man named Job who lived in the land of Uz. He was blameless—a man of complete integrity. He feared God and stayed away from evil. 2He had seven sons and three daughters. 3He owned 7,000 sheep, 3,000 camels, 500 teams of oxen, and 500 female donkeys. He also had many servants. He was, in fact, the richest person in that entire area.

4Job’s sons would take turns preparing feasts in their homes, and they would also invite their three sisters to celebrate with them. 5When these celebrations ended—sometimes after several days—Job would purify his children. He would get up early in the morning and offer a burnt offering for each of them. For Job said to himself, “Perhaps my children have sinned and have cursed God in their hearts.” This was Job’s regular practice.

Notes

1:1

There once was a man.—Noth is correct in observing that the Heb. perfect is deliberately ambiguous in its temporal reference (1951:258). The phrase translated “There once was a man” does not imply that Job is a literary creation, as the English expression “Once upon a time” does.

named Job.—Apart from Ezek 14:14, 20, the name is found only in the book of Job in the Heb. Bible. The Heb. form ʿiyyob [TH, ZH373] follows an inflection pattern in nouns that indicates a characteristic activity or profession. If it is linked to the root ʿayab [TH, ZH366] “enemy,” it could be interpreted as “inveterate foe.” The name derives from Semitic tradition and is well known outside the Bible. One of the Amarna letters (no. 256), dating from about 1350 bc, names the prince of Ashtaroth in Bashan as ʿayyab, an older form of the biblical name. Still earlier, an Egyptian execration text (c. 2000 bc) mentions a Palestinian chief named ʿybm. The name ʿayyabumis found in Akkadian documents from Mari and Alalakh dating from the early second millennium bc (Albright [1954] has explained this as a contracted form of ’ayya ʿabu(m), meaning “Where is my father?”). An Ugaritic version of the name in the form ayab is also found in a list of palace personnel.

the land of Uz.—Job is ambiguous in location as well as time. He is situated outside the land of Israel to the east (1:3), which, from the point of view of an Israelite, could be anywhere from Midian in the south (Judg 6:3) to the northern part of Syria (“Paddan-aram”; cf. Gen 28:2; 29:1). To the east lay the desert and the edge of civilization. It was the domain of nomadic shepherds such as the Midianites, but it was also the home of wealthy farmers such as Job who resided in the few fertile areas. Uz may be connected to Aram in the more northern area of the east (Gen 10:22-23), the location of the relatives of Abraham (Gen 22:21), but the name is also found among the descendants of Esau in the southern area of Edom (Gen 36:28), a territory that came under judgment for its role in the fall of Jerusalem (Jer 25:20; Lam 4:21). Later traditions maintain both southern and northern locations. Josephus (Antiquities 1.6.4) says Uz, one of the four sons of Aram, founded Trachonitis and Damascus (the area of Syria in the north). The appendix to the Greek translation of Job places Uz on the borders of Edom and Arabia and makes Job one of the kings of Edom at a city named Dennaba. However, tradition has also identified Job’s city Dennaba with Karnaim (cf. Amos 6:13) in the territory of Hauran, the modern Sheikh Sa‘ad just to the east of the Sea of Galilee (Pope 1965:4).

1:2

seven sons and three daughters.—Seven is a number symbolic of completeness applied to the full number of children in the song of Hannah (1 Sam 2:5). The ratio of seven sons to three daughters is apparently ideal (cf. Job 42:13). Three added to seven provides ten, which according to Elkanah is also a complete family (1 Sam 1:8). The same ratio applies to sheep and camels (Job 1:3) and in another context to Solomon’s wives and concubines (1 Kgs 11:3).

1:5

sometimes after several days.—The Heb. refers to the completion of the festival cycle and does not indicate the number of days involved. Although the course of such a festival could be seven days (Judg 14:12, 15), there is no reason to imagine a week of celebration with each brother hosting a day, as suggested by the medieval Jewish commentators Rashi and Ibn Ezra.

Commentary

There is little point in speculating on the form of the story of Job known to the author. It has numerous archaic elements of language and style, which indicate it was an old story (Sarna 1957), but these have been integrated into the work both linguistically and literarily. The prologue contains poetic elements (e.g., 1:21) as well as dialog, which unites it with the main sections of the book. Theological unity between the prologue and main sections is demonstrated in the shared perspective that the idea of retributive justice does not adequately explain God’s providence. The difficulty of reading Job does not arise out of the diverse form of the original story of Job, whatever we may conceive that to have been. The real tension between the prologue and the rest of the book is in the diverse portrayal of its characters; but, as Cheney observes, it is this very feature that is quintessential to the structure and the meaning of the book as a whole (1994:1). The prologue presents Job as a paragon of virtue who survives the test of integrity; Job worshiped God in spite of the testing that deprived him entirely of God’s blessing. However, this is not all there is to Job. The virtuous Job provides the perspective from which we can observe the contradictions of human character and faith and evaluate what it means to have integrity of both reason and faith in times of trial.

There is no reason to doubt that Job was a historical individual whose story was well known. The prophet Ezekiel (Ezek 14:14) refers to Noah, Daniel, and Job as three historical individuals. Though they may have been known through the biblical stories, Ezekiel does not refer to them as existing only in stories. The prologue of Job, however, does not tell us his story in the manner of a biography. Instead Job is presented without reference to historical circumstances. He is given no genealogy and no reference point in biblical chronology. His life circumstances are left deliberately vague so that they can represent any person at any point in time; people of any era in any location can identify with Job and learn the lessons that wisdom has for them.

It is often proposed that Job was an individual created by the author. As early as the Babylonian Talmud, the opinion was expressed that Job was created as a parable, that he never really existed (b. Bava Batra 15a). The same opinion was followed by Maimonides, who affirmed in his commentary that the book of Job was based on fiction. This is a misunderstanding of the intent of the author, who does not wish to present Job as fictitious but to make him representative of a universal human problem. The land of Uz apparently formed a link with the Aramean, Edomite, and Arabic regions, as the name is found with all these associations. Job is located at the confluence of the great civilizations of Arabia and Syria. His name is one that transverses a great time span and numerous languages. Job was known as a venerable nobleman of ancient times.

The most important aspect of Job’s life is his character; “he was blameless—a man of complete integrity” (1:1). The terms used suggest uncompromising ethical conduct. This is not perfection (as is frequently ascribed to Job), for that is beyond human capability; but it signifies a person of impeccable morality. The conduct of Job was based on his reverence for God, which inspired a desire to perform God’s will at all times. Such a man was blessed, not only in terms of his relationship with God and others but also in the material provision of life. In Hebrew thought these aspects of blessedness were never separated from each other: Job’s family was the first item of blessedness, for children are a heritage from the Lord, a reward and a source of strength (Ps 127:3-5). All those who fear the Lord will be blessed; all those who walk in God’s ways will eat of the fruit of their labor. They will be prosperous—their children around the table will be like olive shoots (Ps 128:1-3). Job’s wealth is given in terms of cattle and servants in keeping with the patriarchal setting. The numbers are perfectly realistic for a wealthy person; Nabal had 3,000 sheep and 1,000 goats (1 Sam 25:2). Nevertheless, it is not the author’s concern to provide a precise inventory of Job’s wealth; the number seven, a symbol of fullness, is added to three to provide the number ten, another symbol of fullness. Job’s greatness does not consist of his wealth; his greatness is his character, which is seen in all the accruements that pertain to such a person.

Job was scrupulous in his conduct to the point of offering sacrifices for his sons and daughters after their celebrations. This is not to be thought of as neurotic behavior done out of fear of punishment but rather as a desire to exemplify the fullest reverence for God. Neither is this to suggest that Job may be vicariously pious for his children. As the head of a patriarchal household, it would be his responsibility to take the initiative in spiritual leadership. Job invited his children to the central location of the family home in order to offer sacrifices on behalf of the collective family, symbolizing the purification of sins.

Job was afraid that one of his children may have “cursed God in their hearts” (1:5). The question here is just what sort of sin it was that Job feared. This is the first of four occurrences in the prologue in which the Hebrew word that normally means “bless” (barak [TH1288A, ZH1385]) has the sense of “curse” (cf. 1:11; 2:5, 9). This has often been treated as a euphemism to avoid the word “curse” (qalal [TH, ZH7837]) in speaking about God, but Cheney is certainly correct in his observation that this is an antiphrastic idiom that has a major role in the narrative (1994:52-77). Antiphrasis is a common technique in many languages in which a word is used opposite to its normal sense. Usually it is done for the sake of humor or irony, as when speaking of “a giant of 3 feet 4 inches.” (Other examples of antiphrases in English include the use of wicked and deadly in the statements “That was a wicked game” and “That was a deadly dessert.”) The word barak is used antiphrastically in contemporary Hebrew. In Yiddish the misheberak (a noun form of the word barak) normally is a blessing that someone asks to be said, usually on behalf of someone else, on being called to read the Scriptures (Torah). Antiphrastically, it means a tirade against someone (this example was posted by Francis Landy on the Enkidu list [a now defunct online forum], June 18, 1995). Further evidence that the use of the word barak for “curse” is not a case of euphemism but of antiphrasis is that the direct expression for cursing God (using the Heb. word qalal for “curse”) is found elsewhere in Scripture (Exod 22:28; Lev 24:15-16) and could have been used here. In each of its four occurrences in the prologue of Job, barak is used to mean “curse” for literary effect. The use of “bless” raises theological questions about our relationship to an all-powerful and all-knowing God when, as humans, we are so limited in knowledge and ability. Using the term “bless” instead of “curse” suggests that we do not always know the effects of our actions.

Our relationship toward God is not always knowable or certain. It may be that our intentions to honor God lead to what is in reality an offense; our blessing may be a curse. In turn, there is the possibility that God’s blessing to us will be experienced as a curse. There is no reason to contemplate deliberate blasphemy on the part of the children of Job. It instead seems that Job was seeking to make amends for any inadvertent sins that would undermine the piety of his children. Cheney suggests that in this verse the Hebrew may be read as a relative sequence: Job thinks that his children may have sinned and then blessed God in their hearts (1994:72). Their words of blessing would then be a blasphemy without their even knowing it. Job’s offering is not out of fear that the children were willfully sinning or secretly cursing God.

Job’s offering on behalf of his children introduces a central theological issue in the book of Job: well-intending mortals, in their finite knowledge, may offend God and not realize it; their words of blessing may be a mockery. If this is the case, God’s blessing is much less predictable than the traditional wisdom asserted. This already begins to raise the recurring question of the dialog: “Can a mortal be pure before God?” (4:17; 9:2; 15:14; 25:4).

Job 1:6-12

  1. The First Test (1:6-22)
    1. The challenge in heaven (1:6-12)

6One day the members of the heavenly court came to present themselves before the Lord, and the Accuser, Satan, came with them. 7“Where have you come from?” the Lord asked Satan.

Satan answered the Lord, “I have been patrolling the earth, watching everything that’s going on.”

8Then the Lord asked Satan, “Have you noticed my servant Job? He is the finest man in all the earth. He is blameless—a man of complete integrity. He fears God and stays away from evil.” 9Satan replied to the Lord, “Yes, but Job has good reason to fear God. 10You have always put a wall of protection around him and his home and his property. You have made him prosper in everything he does. Look how rich he is! 11But reach out and take away everything he has, and he will surely curse you to your face!”

12“All right, you may test him,” the Lord said to Satan. “Do whatever you want with everything he possesses, but don’t harm him physically.” So Satan left the Lord’s presence.

Notes

1:6

the members of the heavenly court.—As indicated by the nlt mg, the lit. expression is “sons of God”; it is used to describe a royal council in which a king is surrounded by his courtiers (cf. 15:8; Ps 29:1; Isa 6:1-8). The Heb. idiom “sons of” indicates a group belonging to their “father” as their leader (cf. the “father” of a band of prophets in 1 Sam 10:12).

the Accuser, Satan.—The Heb. word satan [TH, ZH8477], in this context, is not the devil but the Accuser. That old serpent, the devil, is given the name Satan in the New Testament (Rev 12:9). It is important to be aware of how the usage of the word develops in the Heb. Scriptures. In Job and Zechariah, a member of the divine court appears in the role of “the accuser.” The meaning of the term is evident in the Zechariah passage (Zech 3:1) where the noun and verb occur together: the accuser (hasatan) was standing at the right hand of Joshua (the priest) to accuse him (lesitno [TH, ZH8476]). The term does come to be used as a proper name for the devil in later Hebrew, and it is probably used that way in Chronicles: Satan stood against Israel and tempted David to number Israel (1 Chr 21:1). Satan, however, does not appear in the Samuel account (2 Sam 24:1). It is notable that the Heb. word satan never refers to a tempter in the heavenly realms in the kingdom period (Samuel) but does in the postexilic period (Chronicles). When it does refer to such a tempter in the later writings, it is always in terms of a specific test that God allows or initiates, a function quite unlike that of the devil in the New Testament. Should we think of the devil as being a member of the divine assembly as the satan (the Accuser) is introduced in Job and Zechariah? John, in Revelation, does speak of the devil as being cast out of heaven at the triumph of Jesus (Rev 12:5-9), suggesting that the role of the devil did change with the work of Christ. In Job it may be the devil that stands before God as part of the divine council; but if so, in this passage he does not have the role of an angel of light seeking to deceive, as we find him in the New Testament. Rather, his task here is to call God’s attention to a situation that ought to be tested. He accuses Job of serving God only because God has blessed Job.

1:10

You have made him prosper.—The Heb. has the word “bless” (barak [TH1288A, ZH1385]), the usual way of speaking of prosperity. The common meaning in this verse is subtly used in contrast to the opposite meaning of the same verb in verse 11, where it is translated “he will surely curse you to your face.” This accentuates the accusation: God’s blessing of Job is in reality a bribe to get a blessing from Job; if God removes his blessing, the blessing Job returns will be the opposite as well.

Commentary

The narrator shifts the scene to the assembly of the heavenly council, where God is pictured as a king surrounded by his courtiers receiving reports, taking counsel, and dispensing orders. The heavenly sphere is depicted entirely in terms of the earthly human experience of authoritative persons taking counsel and devolving functions. The Accuser is a member of the divine court; his role in the council is specific, so the question about Job’s integrity is directed immediately to him. The point of the narrator in introducing the reader to this heavenly scene is not to suggest that God is less than fully aware of Job’s sincerity or how he will respond. Rather, God was able to make his declaration about Job without hesitation because he knew Job. There could, however, have been doubt about Job’s integrity both in the heavenly realm and in the earthly, even in the mind of Job himself. In the heavenly court, it was the function of the Accuser to remove all such doubt.

The Accuser pointed out that God’s blessing upon Job’s life cast doubt on Job’s motives for so conscientiously blessing God. God’s blessing (barak) had the effect of a hedge around Job’s life so he could suffer no harm (1:10; sakta baʾado [TH/, ZH8455/1237]). So long as the hedge God placed around Job kept difficulty away, there was no question about Job’s response to God. However, should God remove that hedge, Job would then “bless” God in quite the opposite manner, the Accuser explained. In verse 11, the verb barak must be meant in the sense of curse, just as it is when king Ahab incited two malevolent individuals to incriminate Naboth by insisting that he had “blessed” God and the king (1 Kgs 21:10, 13). God agreed to remove the hedge from around Job and gave the Accuser license to remove Job’s blessings. The Accuser’s question in 1:11 then becomes acute: what kind of blessing would God now receive from Job? The hedge of God’s blessing is an uncertain kind of providence; it may be wealth or loss. In turn, Job’s blessing of God is an uncertain kind of praise. Job may say, “The Lord gave me what I had, and the Lord has taken it away. Praise the name of the Lord!” (1:21); or he may say, “Why give light to those in misery, and life to those who are bitter?” (3:20). The challenge of the Accuser concerning the life of Job defies the usual assumptions about God’s protection and his blessing. It also calls into question the sense in which those who suffer will bless God. The motives for piety come under scrutiny as the usual axioms of reward and punishment are altered.

As expressed by Clines, the prologue “is a beguilement of the reader, a strategy that, if it seduces naive readers into finding a reflection of their own shallowness in the text, equally entrances more perceptive readers into an exploratory journey into its depths” (1985:127-128). The introduction of the Accuser and the antiphrastic use of the word “bless” contribute to both the beguilement and the entrancement. The Accuser serves to remind naive readers that they cannot trust their own judgment of themselves. The use of the word “bless” causes the more perceptive to reflect on their own motives and how their words and actions may be perceived by God (cf. 1:5).