Rethinking the Book of Job
One of my favorite books of scripture is the Book of Job. I find the book to be beautifully written and its themes timeless and message provocative. As I’ve taken a deeper look into the Book of Job, I’ve come to question the classic perspective of Job, namely that Job shines forth as a model of the righteous man who maintains faith in the Lord despite adversity—a model of the patient man.1 The Job I see is not patient but persistent. The Job I see is not demonstrating faith in God, but rather faith in spite of God.
Within the narrative, ha-satan appears to be an agent of God, fulfilling the role of prosecutor within the divine council. He is counted among the bene-ha-elohim, the sons of God or members of God’s heavenly assembly. The divine council narrative is well known to Latter-day Saints, however, the reader should not assume that ha-satan in this narrative is necessarily Satan as described within the Christian tradition. Indeed, in this narrative, ha-satan has not fallen, but remains a member of the divine council during human history.
His function is to “go to and fro in the earth” and “walk up and down in it” and then to report any disloyalty to God, to bring charges as in a legal proceeding. Therefore, God’s inquiry to ha-satan “where have you come from?” is not to be understood as God asking what trouble Satan is causing (like God’s inquiry to the serpent in the Garden of Eden) but rather an signal for ha-satan to report his findings in the divine council meeting.
Interestingly, ha-satan never brings to the council any charge against Job for impiety. Rather, ha-satan merely questions Job’s motives for remaining loyal—that Job is loyal only because he is blessed by the Lord, and that if Job were cursed he would not remain loyal. Ha-satan, as an agent of God’s divine council, has no power but what is delegated by God to him. God has absolute control over the affairs of mankind.
In the first council meeting, God grants authorization to ha-satan to destroy Job’s possessions, and the result was that Job remained faithful. Our narrator explains: “In all this Job sinned not, nor charged God foolishly.” In the second council meeting, ha-satan is allowed not only to take Job’s possessions but to curse Job directly. This leads to a series of dialogues between Job and his three friends, who take turns seeking to explain the reason for Job’s suffering.
The Opposing World View
Job’s friends are devoted Deuteronomists for whom all suffering is a result of sin. The righteous are blessed, the wicked are cursed. The logic is clear: Job is cursed, therefore Job has sinned. As a result, they repeatedly urge Job to admit that he has sinned against the Lord, and to rejoice in the opportunity to be corrected of God. A righteous man who has been cursed would threaten to overturn their orderly universe.
Job’s Response: Take God to Court
It is here that the Book of Job does not reflect the common perspective that Job was patient in his suffering. Job wishes that he had never been born. “I will not refrain my mouth,” Job insists, “I will complain in the bitterness of my soul.” Job seeks to initiate legal proceedings against God, but continues to lament that there is no one to check the excess of God’s power. “Who will say unto [God], What doest thou?” The KJV translation often masks Job’s attitude. The NRSV offers a better reading:
Though I am innocent, I cannot answer him; I must appeal for mercy to my accuser. If I summoned him and he answered me, I do not believe he would listen to my voice. (NRSV Job 9:13-16)
God is Job’s enemy, his adversary, and Job knows he cannot defeat God nor take him to court as a man. Even if he could take God to court, the chances of prevailing are next to none.
For he is not mortal, as I am, that I might answer him, that we should come to trial together. There is no umpire between us, who might lay his hand on us both. (NRSV Job 9:32-33)
The KJV uses the archaic term “daysman” and the NRSV has chosen the somewhat improved term “umpire” but the legal term mokiah means “arbiter.” Job knows that a man cannot bring a suit against God. In other words, the game is rigged and the house always wins.
Still, Job demands to know the charges. “Let me know why you contend against me.” “You know that I am not guilty.” Job wants God to admit the fact that Job has been dealt with unjustly. “But I would speak to the Almighty, and I desire to argue my case with God.”
“Though he slay me, yet will I trust him”
This verse is typically invoked to show the depth of Job’s trust and faith in God. That Job will continue to trust God despite facing death. Yet, it is far from certain that this is the case. The NRSV offers this translation:
See, he will kill me, I have no hope, but I will defend my ways to his face. This will be my salvation, that the godless shall not come before him. (NRSV Job 13: 15-16)
In other words, it is not God that is Job’s salvation here! It is the fact that Job knows he is innocent. That is his safety. And if he could take God to court, then Job is convinced that cosmic justice must favor Job. Job may be weaker than God, but right is on his side.
Furthermore, Job argues that he has a witness in heaven. “Even now, in fact, my witness is in heaven, and he that vouches for me is on high.” “O that one might plead for a man with God, as a man pleadeth for his neighbor!”
Who is Job’s Redeemer?
Perhaps the most oft quoted part of the book is Job 19:25-26 “For I know that my redeemer liveth…yet in my flesh I shall see God.”2 The term for redeemer in this passage is go’el, which means “Advocate” or “Vindicator.” Again, this has traditionally been interpreted as Job’s unwavering faith in God as well as his belief in the resurrection. However, the text simply cannot sustain such a reading. Job’s go’el is not God.
As Old Testament scholar Norman Habel points out:
His God is an accuser, adversary, enemy, spy, destroyer, hunter, and siege commander. Against this opponent, Job needs a go’el, one who will take up his case and bring it before the court of heaven for public resolution. That this go’el would be one and the same person as his cruel opponent seems quite illogical, inconsistent, and from Job’s perspective, intolerable.3
Previously, Job asks for an arbiter or mediator with God. Job claims that he has a witness who will testify on his behalf should he go to court against God. Job again repeats his desire in chapter 23.
Oh that I knew where I might find him, that I might come to his dwelling! I would lay my case before him, and fill my mouth with arguments. I would learn what he would answer me, and understand what he would say to me… There an upright person could reason with him, and I should be acquitted forever by my judge. (NRSV Job 23: 3-7)
The text seems quite clear on these points. Job desires to take God to court (but how can a mere mortal serve process on God!), to hold him to some standard of justice, to bring witnesses, to have a mediator, arbiter to settle his dispute with God. And Job concedes to all his friends that indeed God has all power.
Who is this go’el? Habel believes identifying the go’el with God would essentially ignore the entire structure and flow of the text. The more logical solution would be that go’el must be a third-party with the power to intervene.
The go’el “rises” to testify on Job’s behalf, just as the Satan rose to challenge Job’s integrity. Thus Job’s go’el is a “defender” or defense attorney, who is the counterpart of the Satan, whose name is a technical title for his role of “accuser” or prosecuting attorney. … The go’el is an appropriate sympathetic member of the heavenly council, an angel figure who assumes the role of the defender of Job’s innocence, the arbiter for Job’s trial, and the vindicator of Job’s integrity.4
Comparisons with Latter-day Saint Scriptures
Latter-day Saints might find this scenario strikingly similar to passage in the Doctrine and Covenants, where Christ becomes our advocate with the Father and pleads our cause before him (D&C 45:3). While the idea of Christ as a sympathetic member of the divine council is indeed a striking similarity, one cannot ignore the striking differences as well.
In the court scenario in the Doctrine and Covenants, man stands guilty as charged. The defense of our advocate is not that we are innocent. Rather, our Advocate pleads:
Father, behold the sufferings and death of him who did no sin, in whom those wast well pleased…behold the blood of the Son which was shed, the blood of him whom thou gavest that thyself might be glorified; Wherefore, Father, spare these my brethren that believe on my name, that they may come unto me and have everlasting life. (D&C 45:4-5).
This is not the same situation we find with Job.
Here, Job’s argument is not that he should have eternal life because of an atonement provided by a Savior. Job’s go’el is powerful not because he has atoned for Job’s sins (indeed the point of the book is that Job is innocent). Rather, Job’s argument is that he has been unjustly charged. He is the victim of a rogue public prosecutor. He is an innocent man, condemned without cause, requiring someone to intercede at a procedural stage. Job’s solid argument is that “I am innocent, and you know it.” Job’s logic is that he has not sinned and therefore his suffering is unjust. Job’s seeks for a go’el because he distrusts God will give him a fair and impartial trial without one. He believes that the same God who destroys and hunts him will not give him due process.
The story is more complicated because of its odd and in many ways counter-intuitive conclusion. Job never receives an opportunity to face God in court and his go’el never appears. Rather, God visits Job with indignation: “Shall a faultfinder contend with the Almighty? Anyone who argues with God must respond.” God then demonstrates his complete dominance and absolute power over man, to which Job has conceded all along (exactly Job’s point that he needs a go’el to defend himself because a mere mortal stands no chance).
Job does, somewhat, get his wish to see God face to face. Job finally was able “see” God in his flesh, to the extent that any one can “see” a whirlwind. Yet, God offers a strange admission that Job did in fact speak correctly about God.
God is angry at Job’s faithful Deuteronomist friends who “got it wrong.” God instructs the friends to have his “servant Job” make an intercession for them. Thus, in a way, Job is to act as the go’el for his friends (the text doesn’t tell us how Job feels about that).
The Book of Job therefore condemns the law of retribution that every evil or sin in the world is deserved and that suffering can only be explained by sin. But what theory does the Book of Job offer in its place? In the story, God offers no explanation for his actions, not even to say it was a test or trial which Job passed. Perhaps the author’s main point is that while the law of retribution is wrong, it is also wrong to expect a clear answer to the problem of human suffering, and those who seek to offer an explanation will be condemned by God.
1. Associating Job with patience can largely be attributed to KJV James 5:11. “Ye have heard of the patience of Job.” Other translations include: “the endurance of Job” and “the perseverance of Job.” This latter translation is likely the more accurate one.
2. For a overview of the literature on this verse, critique of the different schools of thought, as well as examples of Christological readings of the verse historically, see Irwin, William A. “Job’s Redeemer.” Journal of Biblical Literature, 81.3 (1962): 217-229.
3. Habel, Norman C. The Book of Job: A Commentary. Old Testament Library. Philadelphia: Westminster Press (1985): 305.
4. Ibid, 306.
Other Posts on the Book of Job
Adversity: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly August 19, 2010
Biblical Wisdom Literature: Job (OT Lesson 32) August 19, 2010
Sunday School Lesson 32: Job August 21, 2010
KD OT Lesson 32: Job August 22, 2010
I know that my Redeemer liveth August 23, 2010