Opening The Old Testament
The Impatience of Job: Reflections on Job 1:1, 2:1-10
Job 1:1, 2:1-10
October 7, 2012
Preachers now enter a four-week period where they can wrestle with the wiles of Job. Believe me, four weeks is not much time to find the measure of this timeless story. I wrote a 45o-page dissertation on the book nearly forty years ago, a book on the tale (published thirteen years ago), several obscure articles in equally obscure journals during the past thirty years, and I still am not fully aware of the richness and wonder and mystery to be found in its pages. Job challenges and awes its readers still some 2,500 years (or something like that) since its anonymous composition.
No preacher can begin to preach from the thing until she gets an understanding for herself of the whole story. Note I did not say "the" understanding, because there are nearly as many understandings of the story as there are readers of it. In my own forty-plus years with this text, I have heard it interpreted in at least four different and quite irreconcilable ways. My readings do not begin to exhaust the ways it can be read; just go to any good theological library to witness the vast store of interpretations to see what I mean. In the next four weeks, I will try to offer very briefly how I am currently hearing the tale. It is important to remember that if I were to write some interpretations next year, they would probably be quite different. That is the way with great literature; it provides depths that no one and no group can ever finally plumb.
But we can quickly agree on one thing: Job is definitely not patient, despite the old saw that continues to make the churchly rounds. Any cursory reading of the forty-two-chapter story can readily see that fully forty of those chapters present a Job who is a furious, wise-cracking blasphemer who is only made to alter his cracked view of the world after being made to see a God whom he never could have imagined. As I will try to demonstrate in the next three weeks, the mere fact of his confrontation with this God is not the significant event of the book; rather the nature of that God who shows up in the storm is what counts. But I think the beginning of the portrayal of the impatient Job is to be found in the text we have for today.
The prologue of the book (chaps. 1-2) along with the epilogue (42:7-17) have long been seen as another story of the pious Job, adapted by the great poets of chapters 3-42:6 as bookends of their story. The prologue and epilogue are written in a prose that closely resembles writing from, for example, the book of Genesis. This has led many scholars to claim that this prose material is older than the poetry by some centuries. That may well be true, but the important thing for modern readers is the necessity of understanding the story as a whole; just how does the prologue serve the poet in the story that is about to unfold? Though more than a few scholars have claimed that the two stories of the prologue/epilogue and the long poem in between are irreconcilable, I do not agree.
The tale starts with a stark claim: "A man there was in the land of Uz; Job was his name. That man was perfectly upright, fearing God and turning away from evil" (Job 1:1). In the very first line we, the readers, know a great deal about the hero of the story. He is above all an absolutely righteous man, characterized as the paragon of what it means to be superbly and appropriately religious in his time. Four features of this man make the claim. He is, as I have read it, "perfectly upright," my translation of two Hebrew words that often mean "blameless" and "upright" in the sense of "standing straight in the truth." When one looks at such a person, one sees a model to be emulated in every way.
John C. Holbert is the Lois Craddock Perkins Professor Emeritus of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, TX.