Job 1:1-5

Narrative Introduction to Job Himself

What’s in a name? Job, ’iyyob, seems to have developed from a well-attested second-millennium West Semitic name of a sort which fell into disuse in the first millennium (Marvin Pope). That name, ’ayya-’abum, “Where is the (divine) father?” places Job within the ambience of Israelite ancestral personal religion with its reference to God as divine parent. In such a setting Job’s name is a standing invocation of God’s presence in his life. Robert Gordis, however, explains the name as a passive participial noun (from ’ayab, “to hate”) meaning “the hated, persecuted one.” We may not have to choose between these two proposals. Word-plays through secondary etymology are a common device in biblical narrative. In the present instance we may have the combination of traditional meaning (“where is the [divine] father?”) and novel association through sound-similarity (“the persecuted one”) to achieve a word-play in which the very name Job poses the problem for the book and for Israel in exile. Does Job’s experience not change the meaning of his own name? Does his sort of experience any longer justify the use of parental metaphors for God? The very name Job, which once was a confident invocation of God as divine father, now becomes an accusation against God as enemy and persecutor.

Modern commentators cannot be sure of the precise location of Uz. Nor do the places reflected in the biblical occurrences of this place name suggest that the Israelites were any clearer on the question. Was the name chosen for this reason? Narratively, then, the names “Job” and “Uz” introduce the story as happening “long ago and far away.” Such distancing can serve many purposes. In this instance it may signal the writer’s attempt to achieve (and it may invite the reader to enter into that achievement of) some perspective on a problem which, considered in its present immediacy, would be so overwhelming as to render even clarity of questioning all but impossible. Prior to any provisional resolution of problems, prior even to specific lines of questioning, the capacity to distance and then to entertain the problem imaginatively already signals the emergence of elbow room within severe straits and thereby signals the mute presence and operation of grace.

This Job, who (as his name suggests) owes his birth and his idyllic prosperity (vv. 2–3) to the care of his personal God, makes exemplary response to God through his piety and his moral conduct. This exemplary response is described by two pairs of phrases: (1) he is (a) blameless [tam] and (b) upright [yašar]; (2) he (a’) fears God and (b’) turns from evil. yašar, commonly translated “upright,” more precisely describes straightforwardness of conduct as along a straight path. Proverbs 4:25–27 shows how such straightforwardness can be placed in a poetically parallel relation with turning from evil. So also here in 1:1, such straightforwardness (b) is seen to be in a parallel relation with turning from evil (b’) and thereby as synonymous with it. This means, then, that (a) “blameless” stands in a parallel and synonymous relation to (a’) “fearing God” and so refers to the character of Job’s piety. (For future reference, it should be noted that the adjective tam, “blameless,” is cognate with the noun tumma, which RSV translates “integrity.”) According to the general meaning of the word tam, piety so described is not nominal, flawed, or partial, but genuine, whole, and complete; and it constitutes the central principle of Job’s individual integrity. Taken together, the two pairs of expressions in 1:1 sum up the Israelite conviction as to the distinguishable but inseparable relation between authentic piety and genuine morality.

It will remain for the speakers in the following heavenly scene to suggest, or rather to question, the precise nature of the causal relation between Job’s piety/morality and his prosperity. For now one may note simply that in respect to both his piety/ morality and his prosperity this man was without peer in his society. For verse 3b does not refer only to verses 2–3 (as implied by RSV punctuation) but to verse 1b as well. Formally, then, if the pairs of phrases in verse 1b express the connection between piety and morality, the structure of verses 1–3 expresses a sense of the connection between these two and prosperity.

By the way in which they set forth Job’s exemplary piety and moral character, and his idyllic prosperity, verses 1–3 may give rise to a sense of the distance between Job and the circumstances of the reader; but that distance is immediately closed by the means which the narrator uses to solicit our sympathetic identification with this figure. Bearing in mind Robert Alter’s comment on the use of dialogue to penetrate to “the essence of things,” we note the effect achieved by concluding verses 1–5 with an interior monologue. Following an external portrayal of the man and his situation in life, we are taken inside his heart and mind, where we discover that he shares the common pathos of parental concern—a concern and a pathos which, for all that a parent may wish to do and may be able to do, in its helplessness finally can enact itself only in symbolic action heavenward—over what his children may do in the blithely heedless activities and spontaneous projects of youthful zest. Those youthful doings are set in the context of the children’s celebrations “each on his day,” a reference, in our view, to the celebration of birthdays (cf. 3:1, where Hebrew “his day” is correctly translated “the day of his birth”).

As a birthday the feast is of great importance. For in celebrating a birthday one affirms not only an individual life but the generativity and general goodness of the world under the creative generosity of God; and one invokes the powers manifested on that day—its energies of blessing and its good auguries—by way of renewing one’s life for another year. No other day has such a claim to be called “one’s day.” Indeed, it may be suggested that, while all other feasts are primarily communal in their focus, the feast of one’s own birthday is a fitting component in the “personal religion” within which we have situated Job.

Now, construed as a day of birth, “on his day” resumes and advances the generative theme of verse 2. But in verses 18–19 the fourth and climactic calamity falls on just such a birthday feast, moreover the feast day of the eldest or, as the Hebrew puts it, the “firstborn.” The catastrophic intersection of such a reality-affirming feast and such a calamity in the sharpest manner challenges creatural piety toward God as divine parent and giver of generativity and protection. The depth and the severity with which Job feels this challenge are registered in the words with which he breaks his long silence in chapter 3, words with which he curses “his day” (3:1). But in the first instance he meets this challenge with an affirmation couched in the imagery appropriate to the piety of personal religion (1:21) and its generative theme.