Monday, February 23, 2009

Job 1-11: God & Satan, Job & His Pals

So, the Book of Job. You know the story. It seems like it would be about six or seven chapters worth of narrative, right? But no. The Book of Job weighs in at a whopping FORTY-TWO chapters, the most we’ve seen since any book since, well, Genesis (which has fifty). The bulk of the story as you and I know it, moreover, happens in the first chapter and a half. Which means there is a lot of Job left unaccounted for. We better get started.

The Story as You and I Know It

So there's this guy named Job, and he is both very religious and very fortunate. He has seven adult sons and three adult daughters, all of whom get along well, and he's fabulously wealthy. His lifestock holdings are in four digits. Secure and happy in every particular, he nevertheless remembers always to make the ritual sacrifices -- not just for himself, but also some extra for his children, in case they forget.

Now one day God and Satan are talking and ---

WHOA!!! Wait a minute!?! What's this about "Satan"?!?

Here we are on page 374, and the Bible is suddenly giving us what is perhaps a new character, perhaps a radical shift in theology. All through the story of creation and the history of the Israelites, there was never any mention of this Satan character. Suddenly, in the middle of what is looking to be another folktale along the lines of Ruth or Esther, up he pops.

The footnote here in the NIV indicates that the word Satan means "accuser." According to a little minimal research I allowed myself on the subject, Jewish tradition regards Satan as a servant that God might use to do the dirty work, like a bouncer or a district attorney. Could be way off on that one. In the Christian tradition, Satan is of course "the devil," the incarnation of evil. Some Christians, in fact, veer way towards the old theology of Zoroastrianism, in which the world is contested between two dieties of more or less equal power, good and evil. Old-school conservative sects that emphasize Hell and the power of Satan are really 9/10 of the way there. Is there anything in the Bible to support this line of thinking?

Well, perhaps not yet. Let's resume the story in progress.

The Story in Progress

Right, so one day God and Satan are talking, and God brings up the subject of Job and how righteous he is. "Of course he's righteous," replies Satan (I paraphrase). "It's easy for him to be. You've given him an incredibly good life. Take that away from him and he's probably no more righteous than anyone else."

So God proposes to test this theory. Very well, then, everything he has is in your hands, but on the man himself do not lay a finger. (1:12) A few days later, four of Job's servants run up. Each is the only person to survive a catastrophe: his beasts and agricultural laborers have been stolen or killed, the fire of God has fallen from the sky to kill his sheep and shepherds, the camels have been stolen and their drivers put to the sword, and a mighty wind knocked over the house where all of his children had gathered for a meal, killing them all.
Chagall: Job at Prayer.
Now all of this, I think it's safe to say, would be hard for anyone to hear, but Job remains resolute in his religion. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away," he says. "May the name of the Lord be praised." (1:21)

God and Satan talk about this later. God thinks he's really made a point about how righteous Job is, but Satan says that sparing the man any physical distress made all the difference. OK, says God, do whatever you want to him. But don't kill him. So Satan afflicted Job with painful sores from the soles of his feet to the top of his head. (2:7) Job continues to hold to his faith. His wife said to him, "Are you still holding on to your integrity? Curse God and die!" He replied, "You are talking like a foolish woman. Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?"

The Long, Long Conversation

So, that's pretty much the story, right? But that's only a chapter and a half! So why is Job forty-two chapters long? Well, at least as far as I've read so far, it's because he is now going to discuss his situation with passers-by. At length. What happens from 2:11 through at least Chapter 11 is that three of Job's buddies come by and argue with him. They speak in a series of speeches that appear to be in verse form; indeed, Job 3 - 42 appears to be an epic theological poem. Personally, I find this rather heavy going. I have been impressed to date that the Bible, although not always a gripping read, has never been especially difficult to read. This poem of Job, though, tries my attention span.

I will summarize brutally, and to the best of my understanding. Job's buddies, anticipating John Calvin by a few millenia, are convinced that God would only punish the unjust. They chastise Job for not coming clean; if he only admitted his wrongdoing and performed some kind of atonement, they tell him, God would cease to punish him. Job counters that he is blameless, that he really has done nothing wrong. He resolutely resists cursing God, but he repeatedly calls on God for an explaination of why so much misfortune has befallen him.

Now these speaches are long and florid, as I say, and there is very little contextualizing, so it is hard to say what exactly we are supposed to make of them. Are we supposed to agree with Job, or with his buddies? I'm guessing the answer is neither. The buddies are, I think, supposed to be seen as in error when they claim that God will reward righteousness with favor. God, we are supposed to gather, will do whatever he wants -- up to and including ruining a man's life for the sake of a divine parlor bet -- and we are not to presume to guess whom he favors or considers righteous. Job, I think, is supposed to be seen as somewhat less wrong. He is right to accept whatever God throws at him. However, he persists in error by demanding an explanation. No explanations, the story seems to indicate, will be forthcoming, and Job would do even better to accept his fate and keep his yap shut.

I'm only a quarter of the way in, so this interpretation remains open to drastic revision. Plus, as I said, I don't feel like I'm "getting" Job as well as I have the more straightforward material. So take my thoughts, here as always, with a grain of salt. I will say, though, that this section of Job contains a passage I have long known, and which is one of my favorite things to grumble to myself when I'm having a crappy day:

hardship does not spring from the soil,
nor does trouble sprout from the ground.
Yet man is born to trouble
as surely as sparks fly upward.

NEXT: Job and his friends chat some more!


Anonymous said...

really? you memorized that job passage? what prompted that?


Michael5000 said...

@gl.: Honestly? Linus quotes in an old "Peanuts" strip that was in a collection I had when I was a kid.

jovaliquilts said...

Have you ever read the play "JB" by Archibald MacLeish? It's the story of Job set in a carnival or circus, not sure I remember exactly. I read it years ago but it had quite an effect on me. The lines still pop into my head, "The wit won't burn and the wet soul smoulders; blow on the coals of the heart, and we'll know, we'll know."

al said...

Goodness, i never realized that the serpent in the garden was not described as being satan in disguise. But after reading it carefully, you're right, that is a remarkably long scriptural time (374 pages) for such an important character theologically not to play a bigger role. (Interestingly, satan is mentioned in I chronicles 21.1 as inciting David to count, but the alternate version in 2 sam 24 says it was God doing the inciting). Many theologians i have encountered consider Job to be the most difficult book to intrepret. Great job so far.

Sarah said...

Perhaps Job is meant to represent a people, or his trials are suppose to parallel a people like many other pieces of the bible?