The way Job is treated and taught in the Church is, in my view, damaging to anyone who hears it, because it confuses believers about the nature of God. Does he want to give us life and life to the full, to prosper and not harm us, to bind up our wounds, to delight over us with singing, or does he hand us over to Satan on a whim, allowing the destruction of everything and everyone we love? We cannot and should not believe both. To explain my position, I need first to provide context:
Most scholars agree that Job is either the oldest book, or among the oldest books in the Bible. The writer chose to use linguistic idioms not found anywhere else in scripture, which might suggest that the text was translated from another language into Hebrew – i.e. that it is an older story from another culture. Some however, believe it was written by an Israelite who carefully employed idioms from a foreign language to place the story in a land other than Israel – most likely Northern Arabia. There are no references to Hebrew culture or Mosaic Law, and as we read it, we must understand that Job knew nothing of the Lord, his nature and his promises, as revealed through Abraham.
Job is part of the Wisdom tradition of sacred literature – books that explore ‘the way of wisdom’, including Psalms, Proverbs, Song of Solomon and Ecclesiastes, comprising a body of knowledge that looks at ways of thinking. These books dwell on long ponderings, deep questions, personal pain and ultimately on finding wisdom. They are notoriously difficult to interpret. Take Ecclesiastes, for example, in which the writer makes the statement in the second verse of the opening chapter:
says the Teacher.
Everything is meaningless.”
If believers took that as direct instruction today, we’d all be in despair. It must be read carefully, in the presence of the Lord, and interpreted against the wider truths of scripture and the Gospel narrative. We have no choice but to treat Job in the same way, or we run into theological mayhem in the very first chapter:
‘One day the angels came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came with them. The Lord said to Satan, ‘Where have you come from?’
Satan answered the Lord, ‘From roaming throughout the earth, going to and fro on it.’
Then the Lord said to Satan, ‘Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one on earth like him; he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil.’
‘Does Job fear God for nothing?’ Satan replied. ‘Have you not put a hedge around him and his household and everything he has? You have blessed the work of his hands, so that his flocks and herds are spread throughout the land. But now stretch out your hand and strike everything he has, and he will surely curse you to your face.’
The Lord said to Satan, ‘Very well, then, everything he has is in your power, but on the man himself do not lay a finger.’
Then Satan went out from the presence of the Lord.
There are several problems with this if interpreted literally. For starters, it is hard to argue that Satan could even survive the presence of God (Psalm 5, 4-6):
‘For you are not a God who is pleased with wickedness;
with you, evil people are not welcome.
The arrogant cannot stand
in your presence.’
The book of John describes the interaction of darkness and light (John 1, 5):
‘The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.’
And again in John 3, 20:
‘Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed.’
‘Your eyes are too pure to look on evil; you cannot tolerate wrong.’
If we are to read Job as a literal story, we must ask (and answer), why God is able to tolerate the presence of evil, in contradiction to his word, and why darkness is able to tolerate the presence of the ultimate light. We are forced, I believe, to treat the text as an extended parable from the outset.
Secondly, does God have meetings with Satan, where he baits him into attacking his children? Do we believe that God is capricious, proud of us one minute, and giving us up on a whim, the next?
In the church, we rightly sing of God’s faithfulness – that morning by morning his mercies are new. James 1, 16 speaks of the Lord’s consistency:
‘Don’t be deceived, my dear brothers and sisters. Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.’
Does anything we know about God, in all the years of his love and faithfulness, confirm the idea that God gives us up so easily, and to the enemy he’s promised to protect us from?
The Book of Job is largely taught in a way that contradicts the nature of God, as revealed in scripture, and the Gospel narrative. I am confident in saying God does not have meetings with Satan, or taunt him into attacking us.
For me, the only credible way to treat the opening of Job (God and Satan having a conversation) is as a framework for the story. The substance and meaning of the book is all in the dialogue.
In part two of this short series, I’ll go through the dialogue and unfolding narrative, but if readers want to know more, I’ve written a book called Job: A Story of Salvation that examines the text chapter by chapter. My spiritual books are all under the pen name James Bewley, to avoid cross-pollination of genres, but I promise it’s me! For UK readers, Job: A Story of Salvation can be found here.
By the time this series is over, my hope is that every reader who is captive to the lies the Church has swallowed about this book will be set free to know their God more fully, and be convinced of his consistent, loving nature in a way that brings them into new, enduring joy.