A Bible study with Jeffrey J. Harrison
Why Study the Book of Job?
For one, I can relate. For ten years we had a great ministry going in the Philippines, and then suddenly we had nothing. We were back in the States, off the missions field. It was a Job-like experience for us, and the book of Job has answers to help all who have gone through similar experiences.
Two, Job is a deep book with deep answers to deep questions. This is a book of incredibly rich and beautiful poetry (in Hebrew most of the book is written as poetry, which can be seen in some Bibles by the way the text is offset differently). Yet for most people, Job is a closed book. When they don’t understand the imagery, it goes right over their heads. But with a little bit of information, this book can open up wide to you and touch your soul.
Three, Job is a remarkable book. It may be the oldest book in the Bible. While Genesis was written by Moses around 1400 BC, Job lived all the way back in the time of Abraham (around 2000 BC). Though we don't know exactly when the book of Job was written down, it could have been quite early, and its transmission as oral poetry may have gone on for many generations before that.
An Ancient Book with Timeless Questions
This is also a non-Jewish book. Job was a Gentile (a non-Jew) living outside the land of Israel. There’s no mention of Abraham, Isaac, or Jacob. No mention of Israel. So why is Job in the Bible? Because it deals with the great questions about man’s existence and his relationship to God: timeless questions. And the answers it gives are incredibly relevant to us as Christians today. Job mentions the resurrection, for example. He mentions the Redeemer (“I know that my redeemer lives and at the last he will stand on the earth”; Job 19:25). He even wrestles with such modern ideas as the “prosperity gospel.” Job is filled with rich insight into the human condition.
Most of us have been exposed to the book of Job before and know the general outline of the plot: Job was a righteous man who lost everything, including his health. His friends accuse him of sin, yet Job maintains his innocence before God. In the end, God restores and rewards Job. But through it all is the disturbing question, why did God allow this to happen to Job? In fact, the theme of the book, we could say, is “Why do bad things happen to good people?” And this is a question relevant not only to our own lives, but to the whole gospel message. If Jesus was a good man, if he was really the Messiah, why did he suffer on the cross?
Job's Spiritual Journey
To get a more accurate understanding of what this book is about, we’re going to start at the end, in Job 42. I don’t usually recommend reading the end of a book first. But in this case, we need an important piece of information that will help keep the rest of the book in proper perspective.
Job 42 begins with the last part of the final interchange between God and Job, after God has finally revealed himself to Job, and Job has understood all that God has been saying to him:
42:1: “And Job answered YHVH1 (the Lord) and said,….
:3: “‘Who is this [speaking of himself]? One hiding counsel without knowledge. For I have declared and do not understand things2 too wonderful for me, and I do not know.
:4: “‘Hear, now, and I will speak; I will ask you, and you will make it known to me [that is, from now on I will rely on you to instruct me].
:5: “‘By the hearing of the ear I have heard you, and now my eye has seen you.
:6: “‘Therefore I reject (or despise) what I have said and repent in the dust and ashes.’”
1 YHVH: This is the sacred name of God revealed to ancient Israel, often translated "Lord." For more on this topic, see the Index category Yahweh.
2 things: Words in the translation that appear in italics are not in the original Hebrew text. They are supplied in translation to bring out the meaning of the sentence. Outside of the translation, italics are used in the normal way to indicate either emphasis or a foreign word.
“By the hearing of the ear I have heard you,” Job says, “and now my eye has seen you.” In other words, before this experience, he had only heard of God. But now he has interacted directly with God. This tells us that although Job was a religious man (as we know from the rest of the book), he had never had a personal experience with God. He knew about God, but he didn’t know God. But now, as a result of the experiences recorded in this book, Job has a direct and awesome encounter with the living God.
This helps us understand the reason, or at least one of the reasons, for the events that took place in the life of Job: to bring him into a living relationship with God. This book, in other words, is the story of Job's journey from religion to revelation.
The Beginning of the Book of Job
So now we’re ready to go back to the beginning of the book of Job, and start with Job 1:1:
1:1: “There was a man in the land of Utz: Job was his name. And that man was blameless [or pure, sound, or complete, tam in Hebrew] and upright and fearing Elohim3 and turning away from evil.
:2: “And there were born to him seven sons and three daughters
:3: “And his possessions were seven thousand of the flock [that is, sheep and goats] and three thousand camels and five hundred teams of oxen and five hundred female donkeys and very many servants; and that man was greater than all the sons of Kedem [or of the East].”
3 Elohim: This is one of the names of God used in ancient Israel, often translated simply as "God." The plural form (the "im" at the end) has often been taken by Christians as a hint to the complexity of God expressed in the Christian doctrine of the Tri-unity or Trinity. For more on this topic, see the Index category Trinity.
Here we are told that Job is from the land of Utz, or as it's usually spelled in English, “Uz.” If that makes you think of the oozing oil of the Middle East, the connection is purely coincidental (and only in English). But if it helps you remember the name, and its location—somewhere off to the east of Israel—all the better. However, in the original Hebrew, the name of this area is “Utz” (oots). An eastern location of Utz is confirmed by the description of Job himself as “greater than all the sons of the East,” i.e. east of the Jordan river, east—and therefore outside—of Israel (1:3).
The exact location of Utz is unclear, possibly because there were two different areas known as Utz in the Bible. But the point we're supposed to catch from this introduction, and from the description of Job’s many flocks and herds in vs. 3, is that Job was of the same basic racial stock and life world as Abraham, living among the Aramean, tent-dwelling herdsmen that had come down from the north, as Abraham did (“my father Abraham was a wandering Aramean”; Deut. 26:5), and were living to the north and east of Israel.
These dry eastern desert or near-desert areas, known collectively as the land of Kedem (Kedem simply means “east” in Hebrew), were associated with proverbial wisdom among the Israelites. And so to that land the Bible now takes us in the search for wisdom on some of the most perplexing issues facing humanity.
The name of Job itself has poetic implications. As you probably know, names are very important in Hebrew and Biblical tradition, filled with all kinds of meaning and prophetic implications that are usually lacking in our own use and choice of names. Job in Hebrew is pronounced “Ee-yove” (with two syllables). This can mean, “Where is my Father?”, a fitting title to this book, in which Job is constantly calling out for a direct meeting with God. But it can also possibly mean “hated” or “despised,” which is how Job was seen by his contemporaries because of his suffering.
1:4: “And his sons would go and prepare a drinking party at the house of each of them on his birthday. And they sent and called their three sisters to eat and drink with them.”
In verse 4, we’re introduced to the habit of Job’s seven sons and three daughters to meet together regularly for what is often translated a “feast.” But in Hebrew this is literally a “drinking party.” This took place in the house of each of his sons “on his day.” The meaning of this expression can be seen over in Job 3:1, where Job curses "his day": the following verses make clear that this refers to his birthday. So this means that Job’s children are getting together for a drinking party on each of his son’s birthdays.
1:5: “And when they had completed the round of the days of the drinking party, Job sent and consecrated them, and rose early in the morning, and made to ascend whole burnt offerings [oloth in Hebrew] according to the number of them all, for Job said, 'Perhaps my sons have sinned and "blessed" [that is, cursed] Elohim in their hearts.' So Job did all the days of their celebrations.”
If you read between the lines a little, it's clear that these parties were not just a couple of drinks before dinner. Verse 5 says, “when they had completed the round of the days of the drinking party.” These drinking parties went on for at least a couple of days each. In fairness, it must be remembered that feasts of all kinds tended to be long, stretched out affairs in those days. People came together by foot or camel from sometimes dozens or even a hundred miles away. They weren’t in any big hurry to walk all the way home again. Wedding feasts in ancient times could last up to seven days. What a party!
So Job’s kids were doing some serious drinking. This explains why he was so concerned that he offered a burnt sacrifice for each one of them after one of these parties (vs. 5). These, the Hebrew says, were “whole burnt offerings” (oloth), in other words, an animal completely burned up on an altar as an offering to God, the same kind of sacrifice practiced by Abraham and even back to Noah. (Sacrifices in which only a portion of the animal were burned up were introduced later in the time of Moses.)
These regular sacrifices on Job’s part reinforce what the Bible tells us about him in vs. 1: that he was “blameless, upright, fearing God, and turning away from evil” (Job 1:1).
The First Divine Council
In vs. 6, a sudden transition takes place, in which we are transported from earth to heaven:
1:6: “And the day came when the sons of Elohim came to stand before YHVH [standing as in service or worship: this is God’s heavenly court] and the Adversary [Satan in Hebrew] also came among them.”
These “sons of Elohim” as some translations correctly interpret them, are angels, a word that simply means “messengers” of God. This helps explain the meaning of another early portion of Scripture: Gen. 6:2, where the “sons of Elohim” married the daughters of men. This difficult passage describes what is clearly a horrible tragedy from the Bible’s point of view. Certain Christian groups interpret this to mean that the righteous line of mankind, descended from Seth, began to intermarry with the unrighteous line, descended from Cain. But the original understanding, or at least the understanding in the time of Jesus, was that these were angels, fallen angels (in other words, demons), intermarrying with human beings. This is still a theme in horror movies right up until today. These are the same angels that the Bible says are now jailed for these actions in the deepest part of hell (known as Tartarus in Greek; 2 Pet. 2:4).
Among the “sons of God” that come before the Lord in Job 1:6 is Satan, or literally, the Satan in Hebrew. Before the word satan became one of the names of the devil, it simply meant “adversary.” As some scholars have described it, Satan was the heavenly adversary, in other words, a sort of prosecuting attorney of heaven.
1:7: “And YHVH said to the Adversary (Satan), ‘From where do you*4 come?’ And the Adversary (Satan) answered YHVH and said, ‘From roaming around on the earth and walking back and forth on it.’
4 you*: An asterisk is used to indicate a second person singular form. A pound sign (#) is used to indicate a second person plural.
When Satan comes from “roaming about on the earth,” we are to understand that the reason he has been wandering is to look for someone to accuse before the Lord, just as it says in 1 Peter 5:8: “Your adversary, the devil, goes about like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.” As the book of Revelation teaches, he is the “accuser of the brethren” (Rev. 12:10), who accuses them before God. This is exactly the role in which Satan appears in Job.
1:8: “And YHVH said to the Adversary (Satan), ‘Have you* set your heart on my servant Job? For there is none like him on the earth, a man blameless [tam in Hebrew] and upright, fearing Elohim and turning away from evil.’
:9: “And the Adversary (Satan) answered YHVH and said, ‘For nothing does Job fear Elohim?
:10: “‘Have you* not hedged him about and about his house and about all that he has all around? The work of his hands you* have blessed and his livestock have increased in the land.
:11: “‘However, send forth now your* hand and touch (or strike) all that he has and see if he will not “bless” [that is, curse] you to your* face.’”
Satan accuses Job of having a shallow allegiance to God, based only on the prosperity God has given him (Job 1:9,10). He then challenges God to remove that prosperity and, he says, Job’s loyalty to God will evaporate (vs. 11). This challenge poses the important question: what is the basis of Job’s religion and devotion to God? Is it only what he can get out of God?
That Satan would accuse Job in this way comes as no surprise to us: he’s the enemy of our souls. But what surprises us is God’s response. Rather than ignore Satan’s accusations, God accepts his challenge, and gives him permission to attack Job.
1:12: “And YHVH said to the Adversary (Satan), 'Look! All that he has is in your* hand, only do not send forth your* hand against him.' And the Adversary (Satan) went out away from the presence of YHVH.”
This is a deeply unsettling verse. We would much rather think of God as our defender, as our protection against the enemy. How could he abandon someone to the attacks of Satan like this?
That’s the question at the heart of this book. And it’s the question that comes into the mind of every believer when they are under attack. How can God let this happen to me? How can bad things happen to good people? This is not just a personal question, it’s a question that affects the whole reality of the gospel message: If Jesus was really the Messiah, how could God let him suffer on the cross?
Suffering and the Christian Faith
This message of suffering is right at the heart of the Christian message. The crucial moment of Christianity, after all, is when Jesus hung bleeding on a cross. And this is not just something Jesus did for us so that we would never have to suffer. Jesus taught, “he who does not take his cross and follow after me is not worthy of me” (Matt. 10:38). This is not about wearing cross jewelry. It’s about accepting the cross, accepting suffering in our lives.
Just the other night we were reading 1 Peter 2 in our family devotion, and the language really jumped out at me:
1 Peter 2:18: “Servants, be submissive in all fear (respect) to your masters, not only to the good and gentle, but also to the crooked
:19: “For this is a spiritual gift of grace [charis] if because of consciousness of God anyone endures sorrows (or afflictions) while suffering unjustly.
:20: “For what credit is there if when sinning and being roughly treated you#5 endure? But if when doing what is right (or good) and suffering you# endure, this is a spiritual gift of grace from God.
:21: “For to this you# were called, for Messiah also suffered for you#, leaving you# an example that you# might follow in his footsteps.”
5 you#: A pound sign (#) is used to indicate a second person plural form. An asterisk (*) is used to indicate a second person singular.
This counter-intuitive ministry of the Messiah always caught the disciples off guard. They would rather send down fire from heaven (Luke 9:54), while Jesus taught we should instead show love to our enemies. In the Garden of Gethsemane, I'm sure Peter would much rather Jesus summoned that army of angels to defend himself (Matt. 26:53). Instead, Jesus was "pressed" in the Garden of the Olive Press (“Gethsemane” means "Olive Press").
In the Middle East, olives are a great treat and delicious to eat. But only when those olives are crushed in a press do they yield their oil, an oil used to fuel lamps and provide light in the darkness. Jesus provides light because he was pressed at Gethsemane and died at Calvary. Through his suffering, light and life have been provided to us and to the world.
The redemptive qualities of suffering are a central Christian teaching, though this topic is often neglected or even rejected. Today the gospel is often presented as a “get rich quick” scheme. But Jesus, by his life and his words, teaches us to embrace our suffering, which is really the only way to have victory over it. As it says in Heb. 12:2 of Jesus himself, “who for the joy set before him endured the cross.” He knew that there was a reason for his suffering--it was a gift of grace--and that an eternal good would come from it.
Fortunately, suffering is not the entire Christian message. Healing, victory, joy, and provision are also part of the story—and part of the story of Job, too. But God does allow suffering from time to time. Sometimes it's only for a moment, sometimes it's very deep and lasts a long time. But we need to understand suffering to keep the Christian message balanced. We need to learn to allow God to use suffering to change us and make us more like himself. Even Jesus, the Bible says, was “perfected” through suffering (Heb. 2:10). This is the way that Jesus taught us to live: to accept life as it comes, including its crushing hurts and pains; to carry our cross, and allow God to turn it into an eternal good.