A Bible study with Jeffrey J. Harrison
Why Study the Book of Job?
For one, so many of us can relate. We’ve suffered dramatic setbacks and failures; things didn’t go at all the way we were hoping they would. We were reduced to the ash heap of disappointment and heartache, and left wondering
God, why me? Whether it’s in big ways or little ways, most of us have had a Job-like experience, and so there’s no better place to turn for answers than the book of Job itself.
Two, Job is a deep book with deep answers to deep questions. It’s a book of incredibly rich and beautiful poetry,* the kind that can touch and stir your soul. Yet for many people, Job remains a closed book. The imagery is sometimes hard to understand, and as a result, much of it goes right over our heads. But all it takes is a little more information, as you will find here, and this book will open up wide and speak to your soul.
* This poetic form is shown in some Bibles by the way the text is offset differently than with the non-poetry sections.
Three, Job is an ancient book. While Genesis was written down by Moses around 1400 BC, Job lived all the way back in the time of Abraham (around 2000 BC). We don’t know exactly when the book of Job was first written down, but as with Genesis, its transmission orally went on for many generations before that.
An Ancient Book with Timeless Questions
It might surprise you that Job is 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 still just as relevant and important 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 all this to happen to Job? In fact, the theme of the book, we could say, is
Why do bad things happen to good people? This is a question that is 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 need to start at the end, with a short passage 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 is part of the final interchange between God and Job. This is after God has finally revealed himself to Job, and Job has understood all that God has been saying to him:
Job 42:1: “And Job answered Yhwh1 [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 Yhwh: 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. Words in parentheses provide alternate translations and those in brackets clarify the meaning. The translation is a literal translation directly from the original Hebrew by the author.
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 [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. An eastern location of Utz is confirmed by the description of Job himself as
greater than all the sons of the East, that is, east of the Jordan river—east, and therefore outside, of Israel (Job 1:3).
The exact location of Utz is unclear, possibly because there were two different areas with that name mentioned in the Bible. But the point we’re supposed to understand from this introduction, and from the description of Job’s many flocks and herds, is that Job was of the same basic life world as Abraham. He was also likely one of the many Aramean, tent-dwelling herdsmen that had come down from the north over the years, as Abraham had done, and who were living to the north and east of Israel (
My father [Abraham] was a wandering Aramean; Deut. 26:5).
These dry, 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 may know, names are very important in the Bible, filled with personal 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 for this book, in which Job is constantly calling out for a direct meeting with God. But it may also mean
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 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 whole burnt offerings [oloth in Hebrew] to ascend 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 hundreds of miles away. They weren’t in any hurry to walk all the way home again. Wedding feasts in ancient times could last up to seven days!
Still, it’s clear that Job’s kids were doing some serious drinking. This explains why he was so careful to offer a burnt sacrifice for each one of them after each of these parties (vs. 5). These, the Hebrew says, were
whole burnt offerings (oloth), in other words, an animal completely burned up on the altar as an offering to God. This is the same kind of sacrifice practiced by Abraham and even traces back to the time of 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 Yhwh [standing as in service or worship: this is God’s heavenly court] and the Adversary [Satan in Hebrew] also came among them.”
sons of Elohim are, as some translations correctly interpret them, angels, a word that simply means
messengers of God. This helps explain the meaning of another early portion of Scripture, Genesis 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 an unrighteous line, descended from Cain. But the original understanding, or at least certainly 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 the underworld (a region called Tartarus in Greek, 2 Pet. 2:4; see our teaching on Hell, Hades, and Gehenna).
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. This is centuries before he was thrown down out of heaven, an event that took place in the time of Jesus (Luke 10:18, John 12:31, Rev. 12:7-9).
1:7: “And Yhwh said to the Adversary [Satan], ‘From where do you*4 come?’ And the Adversary [Satan] answered Yhwh 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.
The reason Satan has been
roaming about on the earth is to find 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, who accuses them before God (Rev. 12:10). This is the same role in which Satan appears in Job.
1:8: “And Yhwh 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 Yhwh 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 (vss. 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 an important question: what is the basis of Job’s religion and his 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 Yhwh 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 Yhwh.”
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 validity 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 question of suffering is in fact right at the heart of the Christian message. The crucial moment of Christianity 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.
As the apostle Peter put it:
Servants, be submissive in all fear (respect) to your masters, not only to the good and gentle, but also to the crooked. For this is a spiritual gift of grace if because of consciousness of God anyone endures sorrows (or afflictions) while suffering unjustly. 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. For to this you# were called, for Messiah also suffered for you#, leaving you# an example that you# might follow in his footsteps (1 Peter 2:18-21).
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 have had Jesus summon that army of angels to defend himself (Matt. 26:53). Instead, Jesus allowed himself to be
pressed in the Garden of the Olive Press (Gethsemane means
Olive Press in Hebrew).
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, which is 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. 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 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 in balance. We need 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 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 times of great difficulty into eternal glory.