Opening The Old Testament
The Impatience of Job: Reflections on Job 1:1, 2:1-10
And then the model is more closely sculpted as one "who fears God," the very origin of right and wise living in ancient Israel (see Eccles. 12:13 and Prov. 1:7 for two examples of the claim), and furthermore as one who "turns away from evil," rejecting and avoiding any taint from the culture that might cause questions about the religious character of this man. To seal the picture, YHWH in the first scene in the heavenly council teaches The Satan (the heavenly prosecuting attorney, not the guy with cape and forked tail—the definite article "the" is used each time he is mentioned, suggesting The Satan is a title more than a name) about Job, using exactly the same language that the storyteller employed in verse 1 (1:8).
Here is the most important thing to learn from this prologue: Job is magnificently righteous and hence completely innocent of any deeds that could possibly elicit the horrors he is about to endure. The poet thus announces that the supposed nexus between human evil and divine punishment must be rethought; Job will not find himself on an ash heap because he somehow deserves it. Plainly, the universe does not operate in that way at all.
Yet, he does end up on the trash dump of the city. In four hammer blows he loses everything: livestock, servants, means of transport, and children. Job's reply is famous: "Naked I came forth from the belly of my mother, and naked I will return there. YHWH has given and YHWH has taken; may the name of YHWH be a blessing" (1:21). In the face of calamity, Job utters an astonishing statement of piety. Hence, the moniker for the book, the "patience of Job." Yet, it does not last.
After further catastrophes deprive Job of his health, leaving him only with a smelly robe and a broken piece of pottery with which he may scrape his foul sores, his wife urges him to get it over with and "curse God and die" (2:9). Even though the Hebrew text actually reads "bless God and die" (perhaps a pious copyist could not bear to place the words "curse" and "God" in such close proximity), it seems clear that Mrs. Job's intent is for her husband to stop the monstrousness of his life, a life she can no longer bear to witness. His wife is thereby not a bad person; she merely can no longer stand to watch the man she loves suffer so cruelly.
But he disagrees with her and calls her a "foolish woman." And rather than answer her demand for him to curse God with a powerful statement as he did at the end of the first chapter, he now asks a question, and it is that question that will lead us into the heart of the poem. "Shall we receive the good from God and not receive the evil?" This is also the question of the remainder of the book.
If God is author of all, good and evil, just what sort of God is that? Job's so-called friends believe that God is author of all, and as such, is punishing Job for some foul thing he has done. Good people, they say, do not end up on ash heaps with foul diseases. But we the readers know what they do not; Job is not on the heap due to some supposed evil deed. To the contrary, he is the most righteous man we know. This fact also makes it quite clear that the three friends of Job, the minute they clap their eyes on him, are convinced beyond doubt that he is nothing but evil. Their so-called "empathetic silence" in 2:11-13 is rather their silent hope that the sinner will soon die, as all sinners in their reward and punishment world must do, and quickly.
Much to their increasing chagrin, Job does not die, but starts to talk and talk and talk. He will have none of their simplistic views of God and the universe, and his marvelous tale will lead us all to the questions every religious person needs to be asking all the time. Perhaps the main question is this: if God does not reward the righteous and punish the wicked, then just what is God doing anyway? The rest of the story will get at that question in some fascinating and unforgettable ways. But that remains for another sermon. Stay tuned!
John C. Holbert is the Lois Craddock Perkins Professor Emeritus of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, TX.