The Impatience of Job: Reflections on Job 1:1, 2:1-10

Lectionary Reflections
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.

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.

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  • John Holbert
    About John Holbert
    John C. Holbert is the Lois Craddock Perkins Professor Emeritus of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, TX.
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