by Katherine Titus
Few books of the Hebrew Scriptures are as unsettling as that of Job. Even the meaning of the name “Job” causes disquiet, since in Hebrew “Job” (‘iyyob) can be taken to mean “persecuted.” Not only is this man plagued by losing his property, his children, and his health, but he is also tormented by the knowledge that he was innocent when these terrible events occurred, challenging faith in a God who “protects the ways of those loyal to Him.” (Prov. 2:8) As Michael Coogan starkly states in his commentary, “The Book of Job denies the inevitability of rewards for living an upright life and decisively refutes the idea that human suffering is always deserved.”[i] It would seem that Job offers biblical proof that this life is unfair.
So why would such a story be in the scriptures as a subject for meditation? To find out, one should look at what the writers intended this story to be. It is clear in the book of Job, the ancient authors were wrestling with the problem of suffering in this world, and trying to understand how their good and all-powerful God related to unjust human suffering. Scholars indicate that the opening and closing chapters of Job that were written in prose (chapters 1-2 and 42:7-17) were used as “bookends” to the grieving poetry in the middle. It was thought to be written in the aftermath of the exile, perhaps in an effort to understand how God’s chosen people could be conquered by a foreign power.
Perhaps most troubling of all is the opening passage of Job, which pulls back the curtain on God and “the satan” placing bets on Job’s faithfulness, with the satan requesting the freedom to persecute an innocent man, and God subsequently allowing Job to be beset with trials. The account of this supposed exchange opens up many troubling questions about who “the satan” is and what his role could be, as well as who this deity is who so whimsically seems to torment those faithful to Him. These
First, to examine the opening of Job:
There was a man in the land of Uz named Job. That man was blameless and upright; he feared God and shunned evil. Seven sons and three daughters were born to him, his possessions were seven thousand sheep, three thousand camels, five hundred yoke of oxen and five hundred she-asses, and a very large household. That man was wealthier than anyone in the East. Job 1:1-3
From this passage, it is clear both that Job was blameless, and Job was doing very well materially speaking. According to the story, which already has a “folktale-like quality,”[ii] the trouble starts in the heavens:
One day the divine beings presented themselves before the Lord, and the Adversary came along with them. The Lord said to the Adversary, “Where have you been?” The Adversary answered the Lord, “I have been roaming all over the earth.” (Job 1: 6,7).
“The Adversary” is often called Satan, and at times is mistaken for the devil himself. But this is definitely not the case. The Hebrew word used for “divine beings” here is benë’elöhïm; in this passage, “the Adversary” is clearly a member of these benë’elöhïm that had just presented themselves to the Lord. As one scholar stated, “As he first appears in the Hebrew Bible, Satan is in the book of Job as one of God’s obedient servants—a messenger, or angel, a word that translates the Hebrew term for messenger (mal’äk) into Greek (angelos). In Hebrew, these angels were often called ‘sons of God; (benë’elöhïm), and were envisioned as the hierarchical ranks of a great army, or the staff of a royal court.”[iii]
This particular member of the royal court who had been “roaming the earth” is called by the same name given to today’s “prince of darkness.” But “satan” was not the term given to what we know as “the devil”; scholar Kluger explains the use of “satan” here by saying, “It is generally accepted that the name ‘Satan’ come from the verb satan, ‘to persecute, be hostile to’ more specifically, ‘to accuse.’”[iv] Scholar Rivkah Klugar states that, here, “’Satan’ is a functional concept which has its root in the meaning of the verb ‘to oppose inimically.’”[v] There are similar parallels to this word in other ancient languages: “Arabic has the same meaning of satana, which corresponds to the Hebrew satan. It means . . . ‘to resist someone, to deter him from some intention, to bind him with the cord’ (satn).”[vi]
As is common in the Hebrew scriptures, there is a wordplay in the original language that is not detected in English: “Here the storyteller plays to the similarity between the sound of the Hebrew satan and shut, [which is] the Hebrew word ‘to roam,’ suggesting that the satan’s special role in the heavenly court is that of a kind of roving intelligence agent, like those whom many Jews of the time would have known—and detested—from the king of Persia’s elaborate system of secret police and intelligence officers.”[vii] There was a precedent for this idea when this book was penned: “Around the time Job was written (c. 550 B.C.E.) . . . biblical writers invoked the satan to account for division within Israel. For instance, “one court historian slips the satan into an account concerning the origin of census taking, which King David introduced into Israel c. 1000 B.C.E. for the purpose of instituting taxation.”[viii] There are other examples of this use of “the Adversary” in the bible: “Satan stood up against Israel, and incited David to count the people of Israel.” (1 Chron. 21:1) This was not viewed as one of Kind David’s best moments, as it resulted in taxation.
So it can be seen that creating a story where a “satan” or “Adversary” was one way ancient writers tried to make sense of bad luck and traumatic events. While human sin was usually seen as the cause of suffering, when this was not evidently the case, then “the satan’s presence in a story could help account for unexpected obstacles or reversals of fortune.”[ix] In the words of the scholar Pagels, “Hebrew storytellers as early as the sixth century B.C.E. occasionally introduced this supernatural character whom they called ‘the satan,’ which denoted any one of the angels sent by God for the specific purpose of blocking or obstructing human activity. The root ṡtn means ‘one who opposes, obstructs, or acts as adversary.’ This supernatural character, the satan, who by God’s own order or permission, blocks or opposes human plans and desires.”[x]
This “blocking or opposing” of human desires by the Satan can actually be beneficial, since a man’s desires are not always in his ultimate best interests. “Thus the satan [as adversary] may simply have been sent by the Lord to protect a person from worse harm.”[xi] This is seen in the book of Numbers in the case of Balaam, the prophet who rode his soon-to-be talking beast of burden the wrong way; there the word “satan” is also used, as in “the angel of the Lord took his stand in the road as his satan.” Numbers 22:23 As Pagels states: “Chastened by this terrifying vision, Balaam agrees to do what God, speaking through his satan, commands.”[xii] “Satan, like the serpent in Paradise and the benë’elöhïm in Genesis 6 is set on changing the relation of man to God.”[xiii] This change can be good or bad, depending on how the human responds to the offer of Serpent or the trials of the satan. Man has a chance to prove victorious or to be crushed in the conflict. The satan is an angel to be wrestled with, and may leave the one who wrestles with adversity bruised, but victorious. If one continues to regard the satan as the force that changes ones path, one comes to a surprising reflection; in Klugar’s words, “Satan [or the thing which causes suffering] is here truly Lucifer, the bringer of light. He brings man the knowledge of God, but through the suffering, he inflicts on him. Satan is the misery of the world which alone drives man inward, into the ‘other world.’ It is Satan [i.e. suffering] which drives man beyond himself as animal being, as mere creature of nature.”[xiv]
By understanding how ancient writers used the character of Satan, one can see how the Satan as a literary device can be used to show adversity, but adversity that could be sanctioned by God with the hope of ultimately being beneficial to the person experiencing the adversity. It is clear in Scripture that the satan “is not necessarily malevolent. God sends him, like the angel of death, to perform a specific task, although one that human beings may not appreciate.”
Yet as beneficial as it might be for the human spirit to experience adversity, how does this relate to poor Job, innocent and unsuspecting, not on any apparently evil course of action? How can the reader understand a God who seems to use a good person as a pawn in a celestial game? Some of the most disturbing lines in Scripture follow:
“The Lord said to the Adversary, ‘Have you noticed My servant Job? There is no one like him on earth, a blameless and upright man who fears God and shuns evil!’ The Adversary answered the Lord, ‘Does Job not have good reason to fear God? Why, it is You who have fenced him round, him and his household and all that he has. You have blessed his efforts so that his possessions spread out in the land. But lay your hand upon all that he has and he will surely blaspheme You to Your face.’ The Lord replied to the Adversary, ‘See, all that he has is in your power; only do not lay a hand on him.” (Job 1:8-12)
Here is a picture of the Lord unlike seen anywhere else in the Bible. God, along with this being called “satan” in most translations, seems to be placing bets on a whim, instigating trouble for no good reason. As the commentary on The Jewish Study Bible states, “God singles out the Satan (‘Adversary’), whose role, He knows, is to descend [to earth] and lead [people] astray, and then ascend [to heaven] and arouse [the Deity’s] wrath.”[xvii] While it is clear that “the Adversary” is the one to carry out this mischief, it is just as evident that it is God who broaches the bet and allows misfortune to take place.
Immediately after this passage, it is said that all of Job’s possessions were destroyed and all of his livestock slaughtered, and his house collapsed on his children, killing them all. When Job is told of these events, his response is notable:
Then Job arose, tore his robe, cut off his hair, and threw himself on the ground and worshiped. He said, “Naked came I out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return there; the Lord has given, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” For all that, Job did not sin nor did he cast reproach on God. (Job 1:20-22)
So far, God has won the “bet.” So much so, that—when the Adversary again presents himself to the Lord—the Almighty Himself appears to be indicating some remorse as well as attempting to reassign some of the blame: “The Lord said to the Adversary, “Have you noticed my servant Job? There is no one like him on earth, a blameless and upright man who fears God and shuns evil. He still keeps his integrity; so you have incited Me against him to destroy him for no good reason” (Job 2:3).
Scholar Samuel Balentine notes that the Hebrew word used here to mean “for no good reason” (hinnam) is the same word to appear in Ezekiel 6:10 in a very different context: “They shall realize that it was not without cause [lo’ ‘el hinnam; literally, ‘not for no reason’] that I the Lord brought this evil upon them.” (Ez. 6:10) Here, the writers of Ezekiel were referring to the Babylonian exile. Balentine claims that this verse in Ezekiel exists to demonstrate that “the underlying answer to the question why Israel has experienced such brokenness and loss is human sin, not divine caprice.”[xviii] With this new appearance of hinnam under very different circumstances, one cannot help but notice “the gap between Ezekiel’s affirmation that God’s punishment of sin is ‘not without cause’ (Ezek. 6:10) and the Joban narrator’s affirmation that God ‘without cause’” can allow the righteous to suffer harm.[xix]
This version of God is a very different take on Yahweh who covenanted with His people on Sinai. At the beginning of Job, God appears to be a deity who plays with humans. One could say that He appears much more like Zeus than the God of the Exodus. God is acting like an immature human with supernatural powers. He brags about Job’s loyalty, make bets on his responses to suffering, and then at the end restores Job to his “former glory,” which seems very much like what a Greek god might do. And the story seems to just get worse and less divine as it goes on, when God remarks that He “allowed himself” to be incited: “Yahweh’s reproach becomes quite evident in chapter 2:3, where He accuses Satan of having seduced him to an act which he really repents—only to allow himself to be ‘incited’ by Satan on a further occasion toward even more far-reaching decisions!.”[xx] This is all a shocking account of a heretofore loving God. As one scholar states, “If it were not in the Bible, one would not be allowed to say it, for God is represented like a man who lets himself be seduced by another.”
As was asked in the beginning: why, indeed, would such a story be in the scriptures? To find out, it is helpful to recognize that the author of Job’s “bookend” prose sections–at the beginning and the end of the book–was likely struggling to understand his God in the aftermath of the exile. To do this, he may have well sed a much older folk tale, adapted it, and then wrote the poetry.
In this “bookend” story, the biblical author knew he or she was building on a folktale.
There are . . . signs that the prose narrative before us combines two texts: an earlier one without the role of the Satan (“the Adversary”), and a later one introducing him. We know that the frame story is a revision of earlier material, tailored to a particular function; and it is doubtful whether in the earlier Job legend satan already played a role. It is more likely that the figure of satan was only incorporated—and could only be incorporated—at a period when people found it more difficult to push the responsibility for suffering and injustice, and their authorship, on to God alone.[xxii]
In some ways, this literary device was to shift some of the “blame” off of Yahweh. “In the frame story, the figure of Satan seems to have an exculpatory function. It is not God’s own idea to inflict vicissitudes on Job . . . Satan is the real instigator, and it is only at his request that God gives him power over Job, so that he can lay hands on Job’s possessions, and attack his health and his very life. Satan therefore acts more or less as an independent agent, thereby exonerating God from sole responsibility.[xxiii]
Further support of the idea that the prose sections of Job were a tacked-on part of Job is the fact that Job himself shows no awareness or idea that the Satan could be involved. “In the consciousness of the pious Job in the framing of the story, there is as yet no room for the concept of Satan. Job himself ascribes to Yahweh the misfortunes that assail him . . . Job of the folklore knows nothing about Satan. He unproblematically accept all blows as coming from God. Not so the Job of the poem. He rebels.”[xxiv] The bookends of prose do not fully indicate what is in the vast majority of the book, which is its poetry. It is there where Job suffers the worthless comforts of friends who believe he suffers for sins not committed, where Job demands and finally receives a response from God. Rather, the bookends of this prose are an attempt to simply hold the knowledge together. Job’s “frame” story is a human attempt to “frame” what cannot begin to be understood, what humans cannot ultimately hold nor comprehend. It is a container that is much too small for its contents, an awkward stuffing of the ineffable into a mortal mind. And it does not work. How could it? Grief cannot be fully contained or framed, nor can joy. The contents explode out of its container, leaving the reader covered in the unknown that cannot be contained in a fairy-tale explanation of God making bets with the Adversary.
The prose of this frame story, at this very beginning and at the very end of Job, where he regains health and gets new wealth and new children, is not where one finds a clear picture of God. The authors did not write it to describe an actual dialogue of God and an adversary, making wagers in the heavens. Rather, it is just that, a “frame” story, a folklore attempt to comprehend a picture of suffering that does not make sense to humans. “It [this prose tale] would simply have been incompatible with . . .the image of Yahweh.”[xxv] As Klugar says, “Satan [in the modern definition] could never have appeared among the angels; that was only a ‘poetic fiction,’ intended no more seriously by the author of the Book of Job than the idea that Yahweh should need to have a human being tested by Satan!”[xxvi]
So one could definitely argue that the opening of Job was simply written because it is so hard to reconcile evil in the world with an all-powerful God. Better some story than none at all, perhaps the ancient author thought. Or did the author in fact know how preposterous this bet was with the God of the bible, and in essence makes up a story as absurd as the idea of the suffering of the innocent, because there is no good earthly answer? In either case, this opening scene of God betting with the satan remains an ancient writer’s attempt at giving a glimpse of eternity, of seeing a divine plan in suffering which cannot actually be seen nor understood. The story of the wager is a blind guess at why the innocent suffer, a story that had actually been conjured up before.
Some scholars insist that “the story may be derived from an old fairy tale. Such words are more easily understandable if they are exchanged between a man’s guardian deity and his evil demon.”[xxvii] This fairy tale may be an Egyptian one, regarding “the opposition of Osiris and Seth, the beneficent and the destructive”:
Osiris is the guardian deity of Egypt; but the opposite of Egypt is the world outside its borders, so Seth appears in his capital as the god of the foreign countries. The Egyptian concept of Seth evoked the idea of Satan as it must have appeared in the first form of the Job legend. A close geographical connection making such a transition possible seems to him to be provided by the circumstance that the Land of Uz in the book of Job is most probably located in the south. Other parallels exist as well as to the type of mischief Seth is known to get into: raids, fires, winds, and boils . . . The motif of the divine wager in myths and fairy tales is unmistakably widespread. As is made plain by the many stories . . . about the cheated devil, the motif of the wager as a test of strength between divine and demonic potencies, is universal; psychologically speaking, it is archetypal. [xxviii]
Since it is clear the story likely has its roots in ancient folklore–rather than being taken in any way literally–the story of the heavenly wager can be seen as simply offering literary value. “As Carol Newsom has perceptively argued, the rhetorical strategy of the Joban didactic tale creates a sharp tension with the strategy of the wisdom dialogue that is a generic template for the poetry in Job 3-27.”[xxix] This contrast is certainly evident between the didactic prose story providing a foil to the raw pain evident in the dialogues of the poetry.
If leisure is the basis of culture, perhaps suffering is the basis of contemplation. Job offers two different ways of understanding the reality of the suffering of the innocent. In Samuel Balentine’s words, “The didactic tale (at the beginning of Job) prizes simple assertions, conceptual clarity, and monologic truth, as conveyed by the authoritative narrator who tells the story. The world works this way, the narrator says, and the implied reader of the story is expected to agree and to conform to unambiguous truths. The wisdom dialogue, by contrast, prizes argumentation, debate and dissension, and a skeptical, or at least critically inquisitive, response to monologic assertions . . . The world in which we lives defies certainty.”[xxx] Balentine notes that the beginning of Job “offers parental assurance by infantilizing the reader.”[xxxi] The first two chapters of Job, with their tale of God and the Adversary making bets on Job’s reaction to suffering, is not at all in keeping with what the rest of scripture reveals about God. The prose tale was created to attempt to explain what man cannot explain anyway. It is possible that even the author himself knew that what he was suggesting about God was absurd, just as the suffering of the innocent is also absurd, and an ancient folklore tale of pagan gods was used as a model for the story. It was written as a fairy tale. And as Balentine suggests, it is up to the reader to choose whether to accept the infantilized prose version at the beginning and the end, or to wrestle with the human grief at the heart of it all.
But the end of the day, this odd story of the Divine wager remains in the scriptures. What can be done with it? Even when one can take comfort in the book of Job by acknowledges is a tacked on story, recognized as a folktale by the author themselves, even if one can put aside the idea of God acting like a bully with the Satan as his crony, what does one do with the far too real story of suffering? No, it is not caused by God and the Adversary making bets. Yet the question of “why” still rings strong. Where can comfort be found?
It is reassuring to consider that adversity is a force that can change our path towards the good; the same “satan” that tormented Job could help guide Balaam. It can be helpful to reflect that the good God permits evil—not by placing bets on how much a human can take—but through His own inscrutable wisdom. And if though God’s wisdom and justice can be seen as inscrutable and even at times appear gratuitous, cannot His mercy be regarded as such? If one can ask “why” when regarding the tragedies of this world, can one not also ask “why” when beholding the outrageous beauty of life and all its goodness? There are also no answers for why there is so much goodness and love in this universe for apparently no reason, so much beauty in nature with no discernable purpose other than to be beautiful. Perhaps it comes down to how a person chooses to handle their grief. Is there indeed more truth in hope or in despair? The bible as a whole points humans towards hope, reminding them that there exist things beyond our ken and imagination “that eye has not seen nor ear heard” (1 Cor. 2:9). Answers lie beyond reach, in the mind of a God whose influence is felt beyond the bottom of the sea and above the tallest of the stars. It awaits a mind that can comprehend in the context of the greater story, the one that continues through eternity. Truly, in Job, the reader is led to understand that for now they do not, in fact, understand.
For the age-old problem of the suffering of the innocent, there are no fully satisfactory answers, because such answers do not exist in this world. But this does not mean that such answers do not exist in another world, the world that God alludes to from the whirlwind at the end of this story, in the poetry that is bookended by the odd prose that has been examined. Reconciling these two truths in Job and in life remains the challenge. The prose story at the beginning of Job is just that: a story, an attempt to explain what cannot be explained, a rough fairy tale with an uncertain ending. At the end of the day, one does not blame Satan, or fire, or storms, or bad luck. Like Job, a person can look up to the highest Power and behold love and goodness while still feeling great grief and confusion. And in the end, again like Job, contemplation of the vastness of God present in His creation leads to the unavoidable conclusion that man is not in control of this world. The choice is to “curse God and die”—as Job’s wife recommended (Job 2:9) or to reach out in faith acknowledge that humans are not in control, that God is, and that the Creator of the Universe can have a lasting beneficial plan despite temporary evils.
In the words of St. John Paul II:
If we are to divine the real answer to the question which asks the reason for suffering, we must examine the revelation of divine love wherein ultimately we shall find the meaning of all things that are. For love is still the all-abundant source of suffering’s meaning; and it remains a mystery . . . since we know that none of our explanations can be adequate or equal to our task. God leads us into the mysetery and sees to it that we find a reason for suffering’s existence insofar as we are capable of touching the height and depth of divine love. [xxxii]
If one recognizes that the God who allows pain is also the one who allows and created joy, then perhaps peace can be found as one awaits answers to life’s questions, and a faith in a response from that there will be a response from our Redeemer better than our limited mortal wildest dreams. There is profit even in doom. There is comfort, even in Job.
[i] Michael Coogan, The New Oxford Annotated Bible (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 722.
[ii] Adele Berlin and Brettler, Marc Zvi. The Jewish Study Bible (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 1496.
[iii] Elaine Pagels, The Origin of Satan (New York: Random House, 1995), 39.
[iv] Rivkah Scharf Klugar, Satan in the Old Testament (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1967), 25.
[v] Ibid., 40.
[vi] Rivkah Scharf Klugar, Satan in the Old Testament (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1967), 29.
[vii] Elaine Pagels, The Origin of Satan (New York: Random House, 1995), 41.
[ix] Ibid., 39,40.
[x] Ibid.,, 40.
[xiii] Rivkah Scharf Klugar, Satan in the Old Testament (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1967), 113.
[xv] Elaine Pagels, The Origin of Satan (New York: Random House, 1995), 40.
[xvi] Neil Forsyth, The Old Enemy: Satan and the Combat Myth (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987), 113.
[xvii] Adele Berlin and Brettler, Marc Zvi. The Jewish Study Bible (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 1497.
[xviii] Samuel E. Balentine, “Traumatizing Job,” Review and Expositor: Faith Facing Trauma, 105, Spring 2008, 216.
[xix] Ibid.,, 217.
[xx] Rivkah Scharf Klugar, Satan in the Old Testament (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1967), 81.
[xxi] Ibid., 81,82.
[xxii] Ibid., 31.
[xxiv] Rivkah Scharf Klugar, Satan in the Old Testament (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1967), 83,126.
[xxviii] Ibid., 91.
[xxix] Samuel E. Balentine, “Traumatizing Job” (Review and Expositor 105: Faith Facing Trauma, Spring 2008), 219.
[xxx] Ibid., 219.
[xxxii] James Walsh and P.G, Divine Providence & Human Suffering (Wilmington: Michael Glazier, Inc., 1985), 230.