How To Read Job (RJS)

How to Read JobSeveral years ago I posted a long series on the book of Job (See here for the posts) using the commentaries written by John Walton (Job (The NIV Application Commentary)) and Tremper Longman III (Job (Baker Commentary on the Old Testament Wisdom and Psalms)) both published in August 2012.   The book of Job is an often misunderstood and misused or overlooked book, but it is a powerful book and one we would do well to study. The book of Job is a profound exploration of wisdom and suffering, of the nature of God, the nature of Creation, the nature of man, and the interaction of God with his creation and his creatures. The series on Job and the detailed reading of both of these excellent commentaries along with a handful of other sources was one of the most satisfying series of posts I’ve done. This is a book that we should study more often as Christians.

Of course, two 400+ page commentaries are rather daunting and hard to plow through. Fortunately Longman and Walton have teamed up to put out a short study of the book of Job designed especially for bible studies in small groups or adult classes. How to Read Job (IVP 2015) draws on their combined insights to bring the interested readers through the book. A mere 200 pages, with discussion question, the book is an excellent resource.

The structure of the book gives some insight into its strengths.

Part One: Reading Job as Literature
1. What Is the Book of Job About?
2. What Is the Rhetorical Strategy of the Book of Job?
3. Job in the Context of the Ancient Near East
4. Is Job a Real Person?

Both Walton and Longman see the book of Job as a literary work designed as a thought experiment to explore some very important questions concerning God and his governance of the world. It is not a historical book.

We therefore adopt the position that , though job himself may have been a real person who actually lived, the rest of the book is a literary work of art providing a wisdom discussion that is framed by extremes. … This is important for some readers because it is easy to get distracted by this picture of a God who is “making wagers with the devil” or has no knowledge of what Satan is doing or of what motivates Job’s righteousness. Instead we should take this scenario as a hypothetical one: what if we imagine …? In this view, the truth of the message of Job is preserved while potential concerns about the nature of God are avoided. … Whether we label it a thought experiment or simply a hypothetical scenario built around extremes, we can encounter the God-given message of the text undistracted from incidental curiosities and without the angst that comes with wondering why God killed Job’s children. (p. 39)

This is a very important point. Too many times Christians get hung up on the problems with Job as history and simply cannot see the book for its intended message and effect.

Each chapter of the book ends with further reflections – questions that will make good discussion starters in any bible study class.

After chapter 4 Longman and Walton pose questions including:

Why is it important to determine the genre of the book of Job?

How would you describe its genre?

How does thinking of the book as a thought experiment affect the way we interpret the book?

I’d add another to the mix:

Is Job as thought experiment consistent with our understanding of the nature and purpose of scripture?

Walton and Longman deal with this issue in the chapter, making reference to the parable of the Good Samaritan. Certainly it is possible to convey important theological messages in the form of stories using places and situations. All truth is not bald fact. But this is a question that gets to the core of the problem that many Christians face when considering the genre of Job.

Part Two: Getting to Know the Characters of the Book of Job
5. What Do We Learn About God from the Book of Job?
6. Who Is “Satan” in Job?
7. What Is the Role of Job in the Book of Job?
8. How to Assess Job’s Human Advisers
9. Who Is Job’s Advocate?
10. Behemoth and Leviathan, the Most Powerful Creatures Imaginable

William_Blake_-_Satan_Before_the_Throne_of_GodThe challenger (transliterated and capitalized as a proper name in most English translations of Job 1 and 2) should not be confused with Satan of the New Testament. Walton and Longman conclude chapter 6:

The challenger comes among the sons of God, who are the members of the heavenly council (not mere angels, who are messengers for the council). This standing him a legitimate status and identifies him as one whom God has delegated to perform certain tasks. The challenge that he brings concerns a potential unintended consequence in the way God acts in the world. He is right about the potential that anticipated reward has for undermining human righteousness. God does not rebuke him; instead, he actively addresses the challenge by giving the challenger freedom to test the system. In that way, Job, unknowingly, becomes the star witness for the defense of that system. (p. 55-56)

When I first read the commentaries by Longman and Walton, I also listened to the NIV dramatization of Job provided on Bible Gateway. In this dramatization the man speaking the role of  the challenger had a sinister voice intended to convey the image of Satan to the hearer. With the new 2011 update and a new dramatization, this has changed. Satan is simply portrayed as a challenger. This is actually an important part of understanding the genre and purpose of the book. In no way does Job portray God as “making wagers with the devil” because the devil, the New Testament Satan, has no part in the book.

Part Three: The Theological Message of the Book of Job
11. The Retribution Principle and Theodicy in Job
12. The Retribution Principle in Wisdom Literature
13. Does Job Believe in the Afterlife?
14. Learning About the Cosmos from the Book of Job
15. The Theology of Suffering in the Book of Job
16. Job’s View of God

Chapter 13 raises another excellent point for discussion. Often we read our New Testament understanding of life, death, and the age to come into the Old Testament. But the Old Testament understanding was often quite different. There are hints that the Israelites hoped for something better than death and Sheol, but no clear theology of the afterlife until Daniel 12.

Once we recognize that the Israelites had no hope of heaven and begin to read the contexts of the Old Testament in light of their limited understanding, we gain valuable insight into important theological issues. First we learn that a relationship with God need not be construed around a hope of heaven. This is important for Christians to understand because it is common for people to think that the work of Christ is primarily intended to offer us the benefits of going to heaven and living forever rather than going to hell. Such an understanding is a distortion. The work of Christ makes it possible for us to be in relationship with God now and forever. … We learn from the book of Job and from Israelite theology that we should focus more on our present relationship with God than on our future benefits. We should be focused on God rather than on ourselves.

Second, when we come to understand the limited revelation that Israel had about the afterlife, we gain a greater appreciation of the emphasis on the retribution principle. With no hope of enjoying the benefits of God’s justice in eternity, the Israelites believed that if God was indeed just, that justice would have to come into play in this life. (p. 118)

We have a hope for ultimate justice, even when it fails in this world. Would the absence of such a hope change your passion for God?

Part Four: Reading Job as a Christian
17. Job and Jesus
18. The Message of the Book of Job for Today
19. Does the Book of Job Provide Comfort?
20. Applying the Book of Job

This is an excellent little book that should provide important understanding and foster productive discussion of the purpose and message of the book of Job. It makes me eager to lead a class on Job. With How to Read Job available to all, and augmented by the full commentaries by Longman and Walton, any such class will be an enriching experience.  Perhaps I’ll get the chance some day.

What is the message and purpose of the book of Job?

What does it teach us today?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net.

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