This post is adapted from a sermon I preached on Job 38. As I tried to dig into the text, I realized how many misconceptions there are about who Job is and how the book works. Here are a few of them:
- Satan is not the Devil. It’s a modern mistake to conflate the serpent from Genesis; the Satan; the Devil; and hell into one common entity with a coherent narrative. The Bible, a book written over the course of more than 1000 years, covers shifting cultures and perspectives on evil and its nature. The Satan—in Hebrew, ha-satan, appears 13 times—in the books of Job and Zechariah. Ha-satan means, simply, “the adversary” or “the accuser.” The word satan also appears 10 times, without the definite article, in a way that does not imply evil, but rather an obstacle or stumbling block. (In Numbers 22, when Balaam sets out to meet the king, God sends an angel of the Lord as a satan to Balaam. Not an evil, just an adversary. In Job, The Satan is more of a trickster spirit among the heavenly court. The Satan is less devil and more devil’s advocate. The idea of personified evil akin to God’s power is a much later development—which is not to say there is no Devil, proper, but that’s not strictly what’s being referred to here.
- Job is mind-numbingly rich. Like, Bill Gates rich. He has 7000 sheep, 3000 camels, 500 oxen, 500 donkeys, “the greatest of all the people of the East.” Job’s three friends, with whom he debates for 35 chapters, are Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite—they’re not Israelites, they probably not ethnically Jewish. They don’t have the same relationship to God that Job does. Job is well-connected with the merchant class across the Middle East. In an era where indoor plumbing isn’t really a thing; where many societies are nomadic; where you have to walk a mile to the river every time you want fresh water—Job can afford to shower twice a day. Job is, if not a top 1%, in the top 5%.
- Ancient Jewish wisdom held that you get what you deserve. This is up for debate in some parts of the Bible, but generally, the philosophy is Do good, be the quiet in the land, and get quietly rich, like you earned it. Wealthy people have earned God’s blessings and those who suffer—like lepers, in Leviticus 13—need to reevaluate their relationship with God.
- Job is not about theodicy. There’s this perennial question in the Bible, in faith in general: Why do bad things happen to good people? That is a very complicated question, but it’s only peripheral to what’s happening in Job. The question of evil is a greater concern in other books of the Bible, books like Exodus, Numbers, Ecclesiastes, even Ruth. But that question isn’t really even up for debate in Job. When Christian theology says God is omnipotent, we mean God is powerful, but God has relinquished some of that power to human free will. When Jewish theology says that God is omnipotent, they mean God has power over all things. God is the source of everything good and everything evil. There are questions about why God sends evil, but ultimately, God exercises God’s will and will bless the good and curse the evil in God’s own time.
- The converse reality is what is at stake. If the wealthy are blessed by God, when God takes away their wealth, they will no longer be faithful. “Does Job revere God for nothing?Haven’t you fenced him in—his house and all he has—and blessed the work of his hands so that his possessions extend throughout the earth?” Ha-satan is asking, “Can rich people really be faithful when they never have to depend on the mercy God?” Ha-satan is not so much a tempter who promotes evil, as the Devil is, but a psychologist with no IRB who is asking serious questions about human nature.
- The genre matters. In the Christian Bible, the order is Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Job, Psalms, Proverbs. Job is the last of the personal-historical narratives that segues into the wisdom and poetry. BUT. In the Tanakh, the Jewish Bible, Job is tucked in with Psalms and Proverbs, as one stream of wisdom-poetic writings. In fact, these three books, in their Hebrew names, the first letter of each of them creates the acronym “Emet.” So Job is better read as allegory than personal tragedy, as wisdom than personal narrative, more as a spiritual encounter than a material malady.
Think about it this way: Everything that happens in Job happens by chapter 2. After that, it’s 36 chapters of arguing among friends, like someone has recorded the entire transcript of a theology party. (You may argue that if it’s called a theology party, it is not really a party—I disagree.)
Job is all discourse. It’s pages and pages of abstract argument. Job spends 36 chapters sitting around with Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar (and then Elihu comes to the party three hours late)—remember, these are other wealthy men from around the world, really—and they’re bro-ing out, and like all long arguments among wealthy intellectuals, it goes in circles; at times, they appear to be arguing on each others’ sides; it’s hard to follow, but the point is this. Wisdom is supposed to prevent misfortune—but it hasn’t worked for Job! They’re not concerned over the nature of evil, but the nature of knowledge and wisdom.