Job 1: There was a man in the land of Uz named Job
JOB ARTWORK USED BY PERMISSION COURTESY OF KINGSTONE COMICS (https://kingstone.co/)
I’m going to use the Jewish Publication Society text for Job in writing 42 devotional reflections about God, Satan, Job, Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Naamathite, Elihu son of Barakel the Buzite, of the family of Ram, suffering, theophany, and anything else that comes up in the Book of Job.
My friend in the doctoral program at Phillips Theological Seminary, Colin Douglas, and my Professor Lisa Davison have recommended The Jewish Publication Society text of the Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible.
Already in the first line of the English translation of the Hebrew of The Book of Job, I like the way translators have ported over the poetry from Hebrew to English, which is not easy!
Compare the way the New International Version and Jewish Publication Society each render Job 1:1.
In the land of Uz there lived a man whose name was Job (NIV)
There was a man in the land of Uz named Job (JPS)
Why? Go back to ninth grade English class when your teacher made you read Shakespeare and read and horror of horrors analyze a poem. What did your English teacher try to teach you that you forgot? She taught you about “iambic pentameter.” You don’t remember.
An iamb is a set of syllables where each is unstressed followed by a stressed syllable. Penta means five. So a line of iambic pentameter has five iambs. Bees Knees is one iamb.
Why do you remember “The rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain”? Because your teacher was trying to teach you iambic pentameter.
There was a girl in the row close to me named Jill.
That’s why I didn’t pay attention in some of my college classes, but that last line about my now wife, Jill, was iambic pentameter!
OK, enough of the poetry lesson, but that’s why some translations are better for poetry than others. Some translators get old languages but they don’t get English poetry, nor why it’s important to translate into poetic lines. I’m not saying the NIV doesn’t attempt this, and I’m certain they do, but it’s just not as good in many places as the JPS for Job, so I’m using JPS for Job, plus Hebrew is just their specialty all around.
OK, here are some things you need to know about Job before reading the 42 chapters or even starting the first chapter.
Job is not necessarily a Jewish story. Other people suffered. Other people wondered about God. Other people had friends who tried to comfort them in grief and pain. Other people offered sacrifices as Job did for his children. There is nothing really distinctively Jewish in the book of Job. Job is not a Jew but an everyman. I suppose you read Everyman in high school, right? I’m not going to have to do another high school English lesson am I? OK, I won’t.
Job and his friends say some stuff about God that contradicts what the Torah says about God. Job's friends do a pretty good job of espousing Deuteronomistic-sounding theology. Namely, if you obey God, you will be blessed. If you disobey, you will be cursed. That doesn’t fly with Job. Even God says he's upright, obedient, so why does he suffer? There is much speculation about how God, the world, and Satan works introduced in Job.
It’s important to interpret the story honestly and not clean it up or “save the text” for your own or cultural view of God, Satan, or humanity. Are you ready to read this story on its own terms, or are you going to adjust the vision of God in the story to match yours?
Job seems like a fable, a parable. Jesus told many parables. They were true in the sense that they were teaching something important about God and God's world. Nobody knows if Job really lived or is fiction. Besides Uz, there’s not much historically to hang on to. Lack of historical markers doesn’t mean it did not happen, but it doesn’t give us confidence it’s anything more than what it looks like: a fable story to help think about God, our human suffering, and whether or not we like Job will pass the test of faithfulness. As Rabbi Harold S. Kushner says,
“Our hero Job is not a Jew, not an Israelite. He is a pious, God-fearing Everyman. In all likelihood, this is an ancient folktale, probably one that circulated in many cultures. A similar story has been found in a Sumerian source dating to approximately 2000 BCE, and another in an ancient Egyptian folktale. Clearly Jews were not the only people who suffered and asked why. Only when an Israelite author appropriated it as the starting point for his inquiry into God’s role in human misery did it become Israelite literature and a book of the Bible.”
If we read the book of Job, both the lines and between the lines, we might realize the story is about more than suffering. The whole story is like a play where we see behind the scenes and we the audience is privy to what the actors are not. We know this is a wager between God and the accuser. We know that it is a test. It's not necessarily about suffering, though that's one of the main ingredients of the story. A movie drama that includes suffering is not necessarily about suffering. The book of Job is not necessarily about suffering but about what Job will do in his suffering. Will Job be faithful to God and prove God right, now that everything is taken away? Whether fact or fiction, fable or historical, the goal of reading Job is to also learn something about ourselves, suffering, the accuser, about faithfulness no matter what, about our human nature, and most importantly about God.
Contemporary writers use Job to talk about what happens when bad things happen to good people. In fact, Rabbi Harold S. Kushner wrote a classic book on suffering and references Job in his book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People. You should read this book. I am going to use a book that is based on this modern classic and re-shaped to discuss Job more directly. The book I’ll draw from a lot in these devotionals is also by Harold S. Kushner, titled The Book of Job: When Bad Things Happened to a Good Person, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition.
Also, Philip Yancey's Disappointment With God is one of the best approaches to Job I've read. You'll see me refer to Yancey's thinking a lot during the blogs on Job.
LORD, help us read the book of Job to learn something about ourselves, suffering, and most importantly about You, about the spiritual beings and human beings in this amazing story.
Greg Taylor preaches for The Journey: A New Generation Church of Christ. Greg's wife, Jill, teaches math at Broken Arrow High School and Tulsa Community College. Greg and Jill have three adult children, Ashley, Anna, and Jacob. Greg is the author of many books, including his latest co-authored with Randy Harris, Daring Faith: Meeting Jesus in the Book of John.