What an amazing story. Job has everything, Job loses everything. If you flip to the end of the book, Job gets everything back, doubled (42.10-17). He had seven thousand sheep here in the beginning. At the end, he has 14 thousand. He starts with 3000 camels, finishes with 6000. 500 yoke of oxen, to 1000. 500 donkeys, to 1000. Except for children. They don’t double – children are irreplaceable, and though the text does not state this explicitly, children are immortal – but Job does have 7 more sons and 3 more daughters. (You have to wonder how his wife managed to bear 20 children!)
Job has everything, Job loses everything, Job gains back double. And, somehow, God is to blame for both blessing and pain. A bit disturbing the way it plays out behind the scenes. And an amazing story. In fact, the story shows up in several other ancient cultures, in Egypt and Canaan and Babylon. Those stories follow a similar plot – a good man loses everything, then gets it back, and the god, or gods, are to blame. Those stories, however, do not include what we have in the Bible, the almost 40 chapters of poetry that reflects on the nature and cause of suffering.
Most academics have concluded that the writer of the biblical Job used a preexisting folk tale to create this great classic. Whether or not that is so, it remains God’s book. Because of this, we should not simply explain away or remove the disturbing elements of the text. Is Job a test-case for a god running a science experiment on human loyalty? Is Job an unwitting pawn in a wager between God and Satan? Well, no. But haven’t we all wondered those things at some point in our lives? From the very beginning, the unknown author of Job raises the most difficult questions about human suffering and lets them sit there, unanswered. Some of these issues become more clear as we work through the entire book, some do not. But the writer manages to address much deeper and more difficult questions that we often fail to ask. For now, he’s just setting the hook, drawing us in to the conversation that will play out over the next 40 chapters of beautiful and daunting poetry.
The beauty of this book is in its language. And, it is important to note some of the most interesting features in this portion of the text.
First, "the Satan". Most of our English translations read "Satan", with a capital "S", like a proper name. The Hebrew, however, reads literally, "the Satan", as a title or a job function. The Hebrew root is used many times in the Old Testament for human adversaries, or for human adversarial behavior (e.g., Ps 38.20, 1Sam 29.4; Clines, I:20). It is not clear from the text that this is a reference to the enemy of God and the enemy of our souls known in later writings as Satan or the Devil. Whatever way we read it, it is clear in the story that God is in charge, that God sets the rules and limits under which the Satan operates.
"Fence" (see Clines I:101). In 1.9-10, the Satan tells God, "Does Job fear God for nothing? Have you not put a fence around him . . . on every side?" The assumption is that God has erected a protective barrier around Job, his family, his possessions. Then, when Job curses the day of his birth, he asks, "Why is light given to one who cannot see the way, whom God has fenced in?" (3.23). Now Job is confronted not with a protective barrier but with a prison of pain. Evil has broken in, and Job cannot escape. In the first case, God is described as responsible for Job’s good fortune, and in the latter, God is responsible for Job’s pain.
"Evil". Job is introduced repeatedly as a man who "feared God and turned away from evil" (1.1, 1.8, 2.3). One dimension of the meaning is ethical: Job fears, respects, honors God and avoids sin. A second dimension of the meaning is material: "evil" also refers to bad things that happen in life. Indeed, Job has been sheltered – by God’s fence – from evil things. Amazingly, this man who shuns evil remarks to his wife, "Shall we receive the good at the hand of God and not receive the evil?" (2.10). The Hebrew root is the same, though the English translations differ. In both cases, the word "evil" is used, once to refer primarily to ethical evil and the other to refer to situational or material evil. This use of the Hebrew term "evil" raises the question of God’s responsibility: If we may receive "evil" from God, is God then the cause of evil? David Penchansky’s study on Job is provocatively titled, The Betrayal of God. Like the book of Job itself, he leaves the question hanging there: Is God the betrayer or the betrayed?
"Curse". Job offers sacrifices on his children’s behalf, just in case they have "cursed God in their hearts" (1.5). The Satan believes that if God’s goodness is withdrawn, and if Job experiences evil, Job will "curse you to your face" (1.11, 2.5). Instead, Job says, "The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD" (1.21). Job’s wife urges him, "Do you still persist in your integrity? Curse God, and die" (2.9). In the Hebrew text, it is all the SAME word! If you have ever spent time in the South, you may have heard the expression "bless" or "bless out", as in, "I really blessed him out". Or, in response to a rude remark, "Well, bless you too." There is a separate Hebrew word for curse (see 3.1), but it is not used in these first two chapters. The writer uses the expression, together with the literal "bless" meaning, in a skillful attempt to inject ambiguity – a common dimension of our experience of suffering – and to highlight a critical question: When I suffer, how shall I suffer? (See Clines, I:xxxviii.) Shall I bless, or shall I curse?
So many of these different themes in the prologue of Job come together in the advice of the character with the fewest words in the entire book, Job’s wife. "Do you still persist in your integrity? Curse God, and die" (2.9; see Clines, I:50-53). Job tells her that she is being foolish, but, as things progress, he seems to follow her advice – the spirit of it, though not the letter. He doesn’t curse God, but he curses the day of his birth and he begins to blame God for what happens to him.
In the conventional wisdom of the time, God is expected to provide justice in this age that is reflective of and proportional to the actions of human beings. This "retributive justice" expects that if we do evil, evil will happen to us. If we do lots of evil, lots of evil will happen to us. What God provides, by way of justice, is both reflective of and proportional to our actions. Whether it is the conventional wisdom of the time, or the karma of today, we struggle in those moments when there seems to be no correlation between what is happening to us and what we have done. We struggle when we have no one to blame, no one to blame but God.
Then, we come to the advice of Job’s wife. "Curse God", she says. And, she sounds just like the Satan, "He will curse you to your face." "Do you still persist in your integrity", she says. And she sounds just like God, "He still persists in his integrity" (2.3). She understands that, by the conventional wisdom of the time, you can’t hold to your integrity and bless God. Because if you are innocent, then God has really messed up. Why bless him? If you hold to your integrity – which she does not dispute – then curse God. On the other hand, if you are going to bless God, then admit your own evil, confess your sin, and get on with life.
The concept of retributive justice, however, just doesn’t hold up under real life experience. We experience too much suffering that seems random, or even mean-spirited, to conclude that there is always a direct relationship between how we behave and how we are blessed. And the book of Job thoroughly desconstructs the assumptions of retribution.
So many of these different themes in the prologue of Job come together in the advice of Job’s wife. "Do you still persist in your integrity? Curse God, and die" (2.9). As it turns out, she gives the best advice in the book. She honors her husband and his integrity. And she directs him to God. Neither she nor Job know what is going on behind the scenes. What she does know is that isolating yourself from God when you are in pain is a recipe for destruction. Instead, take it to God – whether you bring the patience of Job or the coming protest of Job.
I’ve watched people in pain shut down, close themselves off, embrace bitterness. If they have been hurt by a friend, the friendship is over. They close the door on reconciliation, even if the friend initiates with confession and repentance. If they have been hurt by God, they close the door on that relationship. They neither bless nor curse God. Job’s wife prevents that path. It is so easy to become self-absorbed in our pain. We’ll be patient for a while – it is heroic, and it feels heroic. But if the pain lasts longer than the heroic impulse, our hearts become cold and hard when we are focused on ourselves – my integrity, my pain, my heroism, my endurance, my overcoming. "Curse God." Even if that is all you have to say, say it. Get down to business with God.
You may bring patience: "The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD" (1.21). You may bring protest: "Why is light given those in misery, and life to the bitter of soul?" (3:20). Either way, Job’s wife says, get down to business with God.
David J. A. Clines, Job (Word Biblical Commentary, three volumes).
Robert Gordis, The Book of God and Man.
Edwin M. Meeks, In Turns of Tempest.
David Penchansky, The Betrayal of God
Janzen, Job (Interpretation Biblical Commentary)