Job 1:1, 2:1-10

The recent box-office hit, “The Fifth Element,” pits Good against Evil in a struggle for the future of humanity. As the movie blasts to its conclusion, we are told that more than the traditional elements of Wind, Earth, Fire and Water, it is the fifth element, Love, which protects the earth from Evil’s victory. The homilist may be tempted to preach this passage from Job as a struggle between Good and Evil, like “The Fifth Element,” because of the joint appearance in chapter 2 of God and Satan. This, however, would be a mis-interpretation, for the appointed verses are not about a cosmic struggle but about the contrast between God’s “humanity” and Job’s “divinity.”Structurally the Book of Job divides into a Prologue (1:1-2:13) and an Epilogue (42:7-17), and in between a long section in which variety of additional themes are developed. Most scholars believe that the Prologue and Epilogue are adapted from a popular folk-tale known in a variety of Ancient Near Eastern cultures (Marvin Pope, Job. The Anchor Bible. Garden City: Doubleday, 1973, xxiii). Just as “The Fifth Element” is set in mythical time, so the opening verse of the book (1:1) informs us that we are in the world of “once upon a time.” With the words “There was once a man” (in Hebrew, ish hayah), we have left the profane and entered the mystical. Perhaps this explains why in the 3rd century Rabbi Simeon ben Laqish proclaimed “[Job] never was and never existed, but is only a mashal [parable]!” (BT Baba Batra 15a). Was there a real “Forrest Gump”? Probably not, but from the sufferings of one innocent man, we have much to learn.

As the story opens, Job is described as tam and yashar. Literally the words mean “innocent/complete” and “honest.” Taken together they indicate Job’s personal integrity and moral perfection. Job’s personal life, his relationships, and his possessions are all in proper balance. He is a man who has been blessed with all of the good things in life. (Dianne Bergant, Job, Ecclesiastes. Old Testament Message. Wilmington: Michael Glazier, 1982, 25) His vast wealth is measured in terms of cattle and slaves, and he has the perfect number of children (7 sons and 3 daughters). Today we would identify him as a pillar of the church, exemplary in his prayer life and in his charity, as successful in business as in his happy home life.

Unbeknownst to Job, another drama is unfolding in heaven. God has convened a regular assembly of the celestial court. Among them is one of God’s angels to whom the KJV mistakenly gives the proper name “Satan.” In the Book of Job, this figure is not to be confused with the one whom later Jewish and Christian traditions called “evil personified,” but is merely one of God’s many minions. His role in this drama is to be “the accuser” (in Hebrew, ha-satan) of Job’s motivations; the same word “accuser” appears in 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 Kings describing human adversaries (see Elaine Pagels, The Origin of Satan. New York: Vintage Books, 1996). The Hebrew text clearly pictures this accuser as being among the many “sons of God” who were proper members of the divine assembly, and whose job is to walk the earth, on the lookout for any evil which might need reporting back to God. The accuser here can initiate no action, evil or otherwise, without God’s permission. Whatever ultimately befalls Job, then, is the result of God’s own decision, and not of a cosmic struggle.

This angel accuses Job of being faithful only because he is so obviously blessed. In 1:11, he wagers God that if Job lost his wealth and his children, he would also lose his faith. However, in 1:21, pious Job does not curse God for his monumental losses, but responds “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” Unwilling to concede, the accusing angel makes a second wager (2:5), on the premise that the worst thing that can happen to a human being is to lose one’s good health. Both wagers are based on a theology popular in certain parts of scripture, that those who serve God will prosper because God will bless them, whereas those who sin will receive God’s wrath. Marvin Pope (lxxvii) calls this “the doctrine of exact individual retribution, or terrestrial eschatology.” This simplistic equation assumes that God’s justice will be apparent in the midst of human social intercourse. Yet we also know that this equation doesn’t really work – that bad things happen to good people – and so the eternal cry goes out, “Why does the way of the wicked prosper?” (Jer. 12:1).

If we have doubts about the simple Biblical equation, then is it not logical to think that God might also have doubts? Psychological theorist Carl Jung thought so. For Jung, “the accuser” in this drama was not a person, but simply a brief instant of doubt, a momentary suspicion, within the divine mind: “Does Job really only love me because he has so many blessings?” (C. G. Jung, Answer to Job. Trans. By R. F. C. Hull. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1954) Plenty of human beings had tried to manipulate God’s love before. How could God be sure this was not simply another “same-old, same-old?”

Again, this is no cosmic struggle, but a rupture in the divine unity, when for a split second, “God is at odds with himself” (Jung, 10). Yet pious Job, who never doubted for a moment God’s unity, “is quite certain of finding in God a helper and an ‘advocate’ against God.” The same theme of “fleeing from God to God” is expressed in a poem by 11th century Jewish poet, Solomon ibn-Gabirol: “Therefore though You slay me, I will trust You./ For if You pursue my iniquity,/ I will flee from You to Yourself,/ And I will shelter myself from Your wrath in Your shadow,/ And to the skirts of Your mercies I will lay hold/ Until You have mercy on me,/ And I will not let You go till You bless me.” (Robert Gordis, The Book of Job. New York: Jewish Theological Seminary, 1978, 527)

What gives Job the power to “flee from God to God,” thereby God’s inherent justice, is what liberation theologian Gustavo Gutierrez calls his “disinterestedness.” (On Job: God-talk and the Suffeirng of the Innocent. Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1987, 4-5) Disinterestedness is the opposite of reward-seeking; the accuser is defeated because indeed, Job does not connect reward with his love of God. Job embodies the ancient saying, “Be not like servants who serve the master for condition of receiving a gift, but be like servants, who serve the master not on condition of receiving a gift” (M. Avot 1:3). Whatever we offer to God must be without thought of gain or advantage, either in this life or in the life to come. Of course, not every one of us can be a Job. But at the same time, as Moshe Greenberg points out, “The terrible paradox is that no righteous man can measure his love of God unless he suffers a fate befitting the wicked.” (“Reflections on Job’s Theology,” The Book of Job. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1980, xviii)

The homilist must also take care with the sharp rebuke delivered by Job’s wife: “Curse God, and die” (2:9). Her appearance is so brief, and her words so shocking, that she can accidentally be portrayed, as did St. Augustine, John Chrysostom, and John Calvin, as “an agent of the devil and a worse scourge than leprosy.” The Septuagint, the apocryphal “Testament of Job,” and later rabbinic literature all picture her as one who begs alms to bury her children killed during the first wager, who sells her hair to buy bread once her husband is expelled from society to sit on the dunghill, and who finally cracks under financial and social strains which are no doing of her own. Surely her cry can be understood as “Look at me! You at least can vent your feelings toward God!” (Pope, 22) She is given various names in post-Biblical literature: Dinah or Sitides in Jewish tradition, Rahmat or Makhir in Moslem tradition, and in Archibald MacLeish’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, (J. B. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1956), she is Sarah, a humanistic, post-religious visionary. The innocent suffering and frustration of Job’s wife have struck a chord with women down through the centuries who have been victims of their husbands’ obstinacy. And yet, as Carol Newsom points out, “For Job, to hold fast to his integrity means to insist on the validity and authority of his own experience, even when it seems to be contradicted by what all the world knows to be true. [In the same way] it has been one of the tasks of feminist thought to encourage women to hold fast to the integrity of their own experience.” (“Job,” The Women’s Bible Commentary. Carol Newsom and Sharon Ringe, eds. Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1992, 133)

The Book of Job begins as an inquiry into the motives of human piety. Through the innocent suffering of Job and his wife, it becomes an examination of the character of God. At first it seems that by accepting the accuser’s wagers, God’s character is malicious and God’s justice arbitrary. Yet if we follow Jung’s arguments, God entertains doubts, and in acting so “humanly,” heaven and earth move one step closer to each other. Some will prefer this more immanent God over the transcendent and distant one of doctrinal theology. In his epic poem “In Memoriam” (Part 96, stanza 3), Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote, “There lives more faith in honest doubt, Believe me, than in half the creeds.” In God’s moment of “human doubt,” Job finds his own transcendence, modeling in his own disinterestedness what he would not doubt about God: that God loves not for God’s own pleasure or reward, but simply because it is God’s nature to love. The issue at stake in the testing of Job is not simply the winning of a wager, idle or diabolical, but the vindication of the mutual faith of God in humanity and humanity in God. (Pope, lxxiv)

For those who minister in economically comfortable, middle-class congregations, perhaps the final word should go to Guterriez (4-5): “A utilitarian religion lacks depth and authenticity; in addition, it has something satanic about it…The expectation of rewards that is at the heart of the doctrine of retribution vitiates the entire relationship and plays the demonic role of obstacle on the way to God. In self-seeking religion there is no true encounter with God but rather the construction of an idol.”

Philip Culbertson
Auckland, New Zealand

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *