Today we come to another little-read and little-known jewel of the Old Testament. It has not traditionally been appreciated; as Elder McConkie said, “Job is for people who like Job.” I suspect we’ve simply never been “competent readers” or at least, not competent enough to appreciate it. (On “competent readers” see this excerpt from Brettler’s excellent How to Read the Bible and this from John Barton’s Reading the Old Testament)
Fortunately, there’s a newish book out by Michael Austin called Re-Reading Job: Understanding the Ancient World’s Greatest Poem, which appears to be the greatest thing since sliced bread. Seriously, it gets rave reviews from everyone I know who’s read it, and these are not all Old Testament scholars, dweebs, or nerds. I know a Stake President who bought copies for his two counselors and entire High Council, and that it has helped a good number of people in hard situations. It strikes a wonderful balance between devotional, practical (how do you best help and comfort suffering people?), and academic. Get yourself a copy and read it.
First, background. Job is a sandwich. The meaty interior is poetry about 3 (4?) friends of Job having a long discussion. The beginning and ending, the “bread,” constitutes a prose narrative framework that is probably separate and combined with the meat later. Job is a diatribe or dialogue, like Plato’s Symposium (symposium means “drinking party”) in which several characters debate and discuss a principle or theme.
Job lacks any reference to external historical events, and is not datable that way. In fact, it may not be datable at all, in the sense of when it “happened,” since that assumes a historical genre, that Job was intended as historical narrative, a quasi-documentary recounting. As with Jonah, the importance and message of Job (and it IS important) can be lost if one spends all the time on whether it’s historical. Back in 1921, the two counselors in the First Presidency were of this opinion. (Letter to Joseph W. McMurrin, October 31, 1921.)
It is held by the Church that Job was a real character. It is barely possible that the book was one of the kind prevailing in olden times, setting forth certain principles in the form of a parable, as it was with the parables of Jesus Christ when in the flesh. That is not of very great importance so long as the doctrines contained in the work are correct.
I lean heavily towards the non-historical side of the equation, but it doesn’t matter as long as we’re focused on the doctrinal aspects, which we’ll come to. (Yes, I know D&C mentions Job, but my response there is largely the same as with Jesus and Jonah.)
Second, text and translation
It’s widely agreed that Job is the most difficult book to translate in the Old Testament. First, it’s poetry like Psalms, Isaiah, and most of the prophets. Second, it has a very high concentration of hapax legomena, or words that appear only once and nowhere else. Since you need multiple occurrences of a word to really grasp its meaning, scholars are heavily dependent on cognate languages like Aramaic, Ugaritic, Arabic, etc. to try to ascertain meaning. Since our knowledge of those languages has grown exponentially in the last 70 years, this means that while translations will disagree, older translations are less able to take account of these cognates.
Short version: simply by nature of its age, the KJV likely misrepresents the Hebrew in many places in Job, even in “doctrinal” spots. I’ll highlight a few below. For more on this, I strongly recommend my Religious Educator article on Why Bible Translations Differ.
Job is largely about suffering and why bad things happen to good people. It teaches how NOT to help those who are suffering and how to suffer ourselves. In the last post, I mentioned theological diversity; here we have some. Job is a strong argument against Deuteronomy, which teaches that the outcome of faithfulness to Yahweh is long life, good health, numerous posterity, and material prosperity. Job’s friends throw this in his teeth. Surely he must have done something bad for such things to happen to him, right? If he’d been righteous, he would have all these things, they say in good Deuteronomic fashion. The book of Job strongly challenges this assumption.
Job’s friends, in fact, are not very helpful. The best thing they did was to “[sit] with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great. (Job 2:13 NRS) Sometimes people just need a friend, and anything you say will hurt instead of helping… as Job’s friends will do the second they open their mouths.
After several rounds of back-and-forth between Job and his three friends, a fourth “friend” Elihu appears in 32:2 and speaks more-or-less continuously until 37:24. At that point, God appears and makes several monologues (not addressing Elihu) which you should read. What’s interesting is that God does not, in fact, explain to Job why these things have happened to him.
Job demanded reasons and arguments and proofs from his friends and from God, but was reconciled in his faith not because he received them–quite the contrary. The Lord, rather than answering his questions, overwhelmed him with additional ones even more perplexing. His final confession of faith resulted not from knowledge based on discursive logic, but from a direct, inner, personal encounter with the Lord.- Stephen Tanner, “Spiritual Empiricism” Dialogue, Vol.9, No.3 (Autumn 1974): 50.
What do we learn?
I think we can learn several things, or at least ask several good questions.
- When, if ever, is suffering merited? On the other hand, when, if ever, is prosperity merited? (Note “prosperity” and not “blessings.”) What is the relationship between our earthly health/finances/situation and righteousness?
- What is the relationship between faith and understanding the hows and whys of what happens to us?
- Can God be egotistically goaded into making a bet to prove a point, especially when doing so involves inflicting serious pain and suffering on someone?
- Are there divinely-appointed limits on what existence/life/Satan/we ourselves can inflect on ourselves or others?
- How can story-telling illustrate truths about God and/or the Gospel?
- Do we only worship God when things are easy, or will we still be obedient and hopeful when it looks like God has turned against us? Cf. 1:9 “Does Job fear God for nothing?”
- (This is one of Julie Smith’s questions. This, incidentally, is the issue at the core of Abraham and Isaac, not simple obedience, as I try to explain here.)
- Satan– Satan appears in 1:6 and elsewhere, but this is not quite the Satan we know. Proper names do not take the definite article, but here it is ha-satan, or “the accuser.” Whole books have been written on this topic.
The Adversary, or “the Accuser,” Heb “hasatan,” is one of the divine beings. He functions as a kind of prosecuting attorney, and should not be confused with the character of Satan as it developed in the late biblical (see 1 Chron. 21:1) and especially the postbiblical period, that is, the source of evil and rebellion against God. (Heb “ha-” is the definite article, which cannot precede a proper noun, “Satan.”) Later, the idea of Satan developed into the devil, but these associations were not present at the time of our story.- Jewish Study Bible
I’ve provided two articles on Satan from Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible, Second Edition and The Eerdmans Dictionary of Early Judaism, both good reference works.
The idea of Satan as found in the Book of Mormon is largely due to Lehi’s interpretation of Isaiah, not an inherited Israelite understanding. (David Bokovoy talks about this in his book, Authoring the Old Testament: Genesis-Deuteronomy.) Note Lehi’s intro statement “I, Lehi, according to the things which I have read, must needs suppose that an angel of God, according to that which is written, had fallen from heaven; wherefore, he became a devil, having sought that which was evil before God.- 2Ne 2:17
Back to Job 1:6, note that the JST changes “sons of God” to “children of God.”
- Job 13:15– I discuss this one in my article linked above. While the KJV appears hopeful, other translations read differently. “Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him” (KJV) vs. “See, he will kill me; I have no hope (NRSV and others). Regardless of the text, I want to suggest that the right course of action in face of adversity is turning to God, though not in the expectation that he will deliver us from very real pain. Our faith is in God’s power, not in his actions, in that sense. (Cf. the “but if not” theme from Daniel.) Our faith in God is not because we have a cushy life. I’ve found inspiration in the following from a Polish Jew in the holocaust, surely one of the most challenging episodes to faith in history.
“These are my last words to You, my wrathful God: nothing will avail You in the least. You have done everything to make me lose my faith in You, but I die exactly as I have lived, crying [(Deu 6:4) shema yisrael, adonai elohenu, adonai, echad] ‘Into your hands I entrust my soul.’-Zvi Kolitz, “The Last Testament of Yossel Rakover, during the last hours of the Warsaw Ghetto on April 28, 1943, in the New Mahzor [High Holiday Prayerbook], martyrology Service.
- Job 19:25-6 is the resurrection passage missionaries quote. I learned the hard way on my mission that the Hebrew is somewhat ambiguous, and my French Bible translated it exactly oppositely the KJV, e.g. Once I no longer have a body, then shall I see God. Most Bibles today read like my mission Bible. It’s not because they’re anti-resurrection; these are largely Christian Bibles. Rather, the Old Testament offers no clear teaching about resurrection, and it appears unlikely that Job understood it and is invoking it here. (Recall that belief in the resurrection is one thing that distinguished the Sadducees from the Pharisees in the New Testament, precisely because it wasn’t taught clearly in the Old Testament. Paul exploits this in Acts 23:6)
- Again, Re-Reading Job: Understanding the Ancient World’s Greatest Poem
- John S. Tanner “Why Latter-Day Saints Should Read Job” Sunstone, August 1990. Notably, Tanner was a BYU English Prof, now serving in the General Sunday School Presidency. LINK to paper. Wikipedia link. LDS.org link to Tanner’s call and writings there.
- Tanner has also an Ensign article on Job from 1990.
- Some thoughts on Job from Mogget at FPR
- Mogget posts a literary translation of Job 38ff, God’s speeches.