Reflections on Job 1:1; 2:1-10
by Dr. John Holbert on Monday, September 27, 2021
Job 1:1; 2:1-10
19th Sunday After Pentecost October 3, 2021
It is only in year B in the round of lectionary texts that we get the opportunity to examine the rich and complex book of Job, and that for only four weeks. I urge you, preachers, to take full advantage of this chance to offer your congregation something of the wonders of this challenging story. For that is surely what it is: a story without a shred of historical foundation. The tale of a man who is both supremely righteous, and at the same time inexplicably cursed, is hardly unknown in the ancient world, but the Bible’s retelling is unique in multiple ways. Unlike other accounts from Sumer and Babylon, and to a more remote extent from Egypt, the story of Job does not offer any simplified way of understanding the reality of a righteous one who also a seemingly damned one. Job ends up on his ash heap for no reason other than he just does; the moral order of the universe is neither readily grasped nor immediately comprehended.
The tale begins in fairy-like mode. Job is described by both the narrator of the story (Job 1:1) and by YHWH (Job 1:8) as “a perfectly righteous man.” The Hebrew more literally uses two nouns to portray Job; he is tam (“blameless,” “innocent”), and yashar (“just,” “upright”). Because the two nouns are joined together by a simple conjunction, it is perhaps best to read them as an example of hendiadys, a structure where one noun modifies and strengthens the other. Hence, I read “perfectly righteous.” In short, Job is a moral paragon, quite simply “the greatest (most renowned) of all the people of the east” (Job 1:3). It is crucial for the power of the story to follow that this characterization of Job be maintained in the mind of the reader; it will not do to attempt to discover that in some hidden or public way that Job is not in fact perfect. We must not quote Paul’s famous dictum: “all have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory,” no matter how much we may embrace that notion. For the purposes of the Joban story, the hero is nothing short of absolute moral and religious perfection.
We are told twice in the tale that YHWH, as chief of the gods, assembles the “heavenly beings” (literally “sons of God”) to ask if they are fully aware of the perfection of God’s “servant,” Job. Most particularly, the satan is asked if he has “considered God’s servant” in his peregrinations about the earth. Please, and crucially, we must note that the text points to “the satan,” not to the familiar being with horns and tail, made famous by countless stories for at least two millennia. This is “the satan,” not Mephistopheles, not the Prince of Darkness. The word “satan” appears to mean something here like prosecuting attorney, that member of the heavenly court whose role it is to observe human behaviors and to report those behaviors back to the supreme judge, YHWH.
Although YHWH claims that there is no one at all like Job, a “perfectly righteous servant” who “fears (worships or is in awe of) God, and who turns away from evil” (Job 1:8, 2:3), the satan is less than convinced. YHWH repeats this claim of Job’s perfection to the satan as if YHWH wants all to know of the uniqueness of Job, of his unmatched and unmatchable piety. The satan’s reply to these grand claims is instructive. He first asks pointedly, “Does Job fear God for no reason?” God has protected him always, made his life smooth and easy, made his riches and family safe. Take it all away, says the satan, and Job will “curse you in your face” (Job 1:11). And after God’s repeated claim for Job’s wonders, the satan says, “all that people have they will give to save their lives. Just stretch out your hand to touch his bone and flesh, and he will curse you to your face” (Job 2:5). These are the important questions that any prosecutor would ask, and in both cases God replies that the satan should do exactly that—take away Job’s family and riches, and then assault his person with a foul skin disease.
After all that horror, Job is left with nothing, crouching on a heap of ashes, scraping himself with a broken piece of pottery, clad in foul-smelling and torn bits of rags. After the loss of his wealth and children, his response is a deeply religious phrase he has no doubt repeated many times in his catechism: “naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I shall return; YHWH gave and YHWH has taken away. May YHWH’s name be blessed” (Job 1:21). But after the attack on his body, and after the sad entrance of his wife, his reply is quite different. There is no need to accuse Job’s wife of malfeasance in her anguished interactions with her husband. After all, she too has lost everything, and she is horrified to witness the precipitous fall of the greatest man of the east from the heights of society to its absolute depths. “Why do you still claim some sort of integrity,” she shouts? It is more than obvious the God has rejected you; why not get it over with and curse God and then die? Job first calls his wife’s pain “foolish,” but then asks, quite seriously, “Shall we receive good at the hands of God and not receive the bad?” (Job 2:10) Well, shall we? It is finally that question that drives much of the rest of the tale. Job becomes increasingly convinced that he is receiving bad from God, but he cannot understand why that is so. He has been “perfectly righteous,” and in his world that should have led to safety and success, not to a heap of ashes. Just what sort of universe is it when a perfect Job ends up in disaster?
The satan said that Job would curse God right in the face if he lost it all. Does he curse God? Or does he discover that the God he thought he knew was in fact not the God of the universe at all? We must read on to discover what surprises the narrator has for us in this astonishing and unforgettable story.