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The Problematic Portrayal of God in the Prologue to Job

18th February 2011

One of the reasons I am reluctant to translate or even understand (as a later theological move) “the Adversary” (‏השׂטן) in the prologue to the Book of Job as “Satan,” rather than as a prosecuting attorney figure (if you do not know what I am talking about, read my previous post “Satan in the book of Job? Nope!“), is that it would give the prologue a degree of reality that it should not have.

Think about it. If the prologue describes something that “actually happened”, i.e., that there actually was a deal struck between God and Satan to test Job’s faith and that resulted in the death of his children,  servants, and livestock, what would that say about God? While God may care enough about Job to “put a hedge” around his life, that same God shows callous disregard for the other lives affected by his wager with Satan. It doesn’t matter that Job had more kids after his trials or that he eventually regained his wealth and good name — God still allowed a significant amount of collateral damage in order to win a bet.  In regards to Job’s so-called restoration at the end of the book,  Allan Cooper notes,

it takes a callous commentator indeed to speak of Job’s latter-day prosperity as “reward” or “recovery”. Many victims of disaster have built new lives and prospered, but neither they nor Job can be said to have been “rewarded”, or to have “recovered” what they lost. As Elie Wiesel observes, “tragedies do not cancel each other out as they succeed one another”. What Job should have said at the end of the book, according to Wiesel, was ‘What about my dead children?” (“Reading and Misreading the Prologue to Job” JSOT 46 [1990] 71).

Norman Habel has also noted problems with the portrayal of God in the prologue to the book of Job:

The way in which God agrees to test Job’s integrity, however, raises serious doubts about God’s own integrity. He is apparently vulnerable to incitement by the Satan in his heavenly council. He succumbs to a wager — twice (1:6-12; 2:1-6). He afflicts Job without cause or provocation by Job, and his capacity to rule justly is thrown into question. (Habel, Job, 61)

And Habel doesn’t even note God’s callous disregard for Job’s children and servants in this context. Is this the God that you love and worship?

Now, if the book of Job is a fictional dialogue in the form of a frame narrative (and not a historical narrative), then while the Adversary in the prologue is part of the narrative world created by the author, he is not real, so to speak. I would argue that the book of Job is more akin to one of Jesus’ parables than a historical account of God’s dealings with an individual named Job.  And if the book of Job is like a literary parable, we shouldn’t push all of its details of how it portrays God and the heavenly realms too far.  Nor should we push its description of Job too far (see my post “Job as the “Poster Boy” for Retribution Theology“).

The book of Job is a wisdom text, a literary construct, written around a legendary character named Job in order to dismantle various ideas of retribution theology and how God interacts with this world. And in this literary construct the figure of the Adversary functions as a prosecuting attorney, and that’s all. We shouldn’t build our theology of the Devil from this text.  And translations that render the Hebrew as “Satan” are interpreting the text in a direction that is perhaps fraught with theological problems.

Or perhaps I am wrong. Either way, these are some of my thoughts on a Friday afternoon.


6 Responses to “The Problematic Portrayal of God in the Prologue to Job”

  1. Chad Graham Says:

    Tyler,
    I have very much enjoyed your thinking on these posts, and the implications of what we might call “theological translation”. I thought that interaction here might be helpful to my thinking and reflection proces. If you have the opportunity please let me hear your thoughts on my reflections.

    IDENTIFYING THE ADVERSARY
    While I agree with a number of your assertions, I wonder if the conclusion is necessarily valid. We might agree that “the adversary” is a designation, rather than a name, but does the term not have sufficient New Testament warrant to at least form a strong case that we might be referring to the actual “devil”? We might consider that “the devil” is our great adversary (cf. 1 Peter 5:8). We might also note in a similar “heavenly court context”, Revelation 12:10, where the Devil is marked as “the Accuser” of the saints.

    Having said that, (assuming the issue under discussion of the second point, that this is indeed a kind of ‘non-reality’ whom or what else might the adversary be, and how would it be to our benefit as believers to comprehend the lesson of Job in light of it?)

    THE IMPLICATIONS FOR GOD’S CHARACTER
    Secondly, I find the idea of dodging God’s moral responsibility by a contrast of reality vs. parable a bit awkward.

    We do then have the advantage that the characters stand in the place of reality, while not intending to convey moral ideas (I think of the unjust judge in Luke 18, who in Jesus parable stands in the place of God). But even granting that, are we really escaping the implications of the text in regard to God’s character? In the parable of the unrighteous judge, the issue at stake was prayer and the appeal was to pray without ceasing. When I pray, I don’t then necessarily think of God as an unrighteous judge, because I understand the principle of the parable. However, in Job, and alternate meaning to God’s responsibility in my suffering alludes me.

    In other words, assuming a parabolic story, what is the meaning of the heavenly scene? What persons or forces are at play, and is God sovereign over them, or not?

    I would argue that if Job was to have a place in the Hebrew Canon, which postulates a God of Sovereignty (Gen 1:3, Psalm 115:3, and especially the latter chapters of Job itself), then it would not be able to escape the moral quandary of the overarching sovereign behind the suffering of one of God’s faithful people.

    Having said that I affirm the exact point that you want to achieve, to escape “retribution theology” and so forth. It is further a horribly callused interpretation to make the text one of some sort of pyretic victory for Job. I wouldn’t suggest that that is the case, even if we take a literal heavenly scene.

    AN ALTERNATE SUGGESTION

    Could we not escape the same conundrum by arguing that the difficulties we see in Job, come when we do what Job’s friends did, and see this as a “human drama”? Perhaps the book is not about Job at all, but rather about God, who he is and how he operates.

    Yes, we do have to face the sticky questions of “collateral damage”. But do we not see New Testament warrant for such thoughts?

    THE SUPERNATURAL CONFLICT CONTINUES
    Jesus tells Peter that Satan, (presumably on some heavenly plane) has asked permission to “sift” him (Lk 22:31). Further, in the Acts 5 we read of Ananias and Saphira that “Satan” has “filled [their] hearts” in order to lie to God, who strikes them dead (At least the implication of the text is divine judgement). God doesn’t seem to shy away from human casualties in the “heavenly conflict”. (I wouldn’t suggest pettiness on his part either, but I am attempting to make sense of the general biblical picture in regards to the reality of physical casualties to the spiritual conflict).

    Job seems in many ways to be the key to unlocking much of what is going on “behing the scenes” as it were, in many of the Bible’s accounts (include such passages as 1 Chronicles 21:1 and much of Revelation).

    To me, Job suggests that the answer lies in realizing that we need to stop looking from the human perspective, and start realizing the significance of the spiritual realm (hence the urgency of putting on the “armour of God”, and recognizing that “we do not wrestle with flesh and blood” and so forth.

    Is it possible that Job is correction of modernistic, humanistic, Western arrogance, and once again makes us humble under the incredible vastness of the Universe, of spiritual realities and drives us to understand what the “fear of God” might just mean?

    When Job is no longer about the human element, we face a whole other set of questions, which I indeed recognize: 1) Are human’s simply pawns? (I think we answer ‘no’ cf John 3:16 etc). 2) What about the death of Job’s children and so forth, what a cruel act of God? (Is it? Did they deserve life? If they were believers, are they not in a better place? If they were rebellious, is God not within his rights to allow the sentence of Genesis 3:19 to be carried out?) 3) Did God intend to ‘make it up’ to Job with the new children? (I don’t think so. I think that reflected instead God’s grace and blessing on Job going forward. I think that shows that while God may execute justice anyway he sees fit, he also bestows Grace as he sees fit cf. Rom. 9:18). and so forth.

    However, the positive message of Job, to me, seems more comforting and more relevant if it is a triumph of God’s sovereign grace in a sin filled world of physical, moral and spiritual dangers, than if we make it a parable of the suffering common to man (it presents itself after all, as a fairly uncommon tale). Additionally, the New Testament seems to give warrant to such an interpretation, when it concludes, “You have heard of the endurance of Job and have seen the outcome of the Lord’s dealings, that the Lord is full of compassion and is merciful. ” (James 5:11).

    So I conclude that Job is a book explaining “the Lord’s (Sovereign) dealings”. Suffering may be his will for his people (cf. 1 Pet. 2:15 and 2 Cor. 7:9), but the outcome is God’s good-a good I confess, from a human point of view seems like nonsense, but from an eternal and spiritual point of view may be a much greater good. And so, with the writer of Ecclesiastes, we find all the explanations of suffering in this world “hebel”, and instead look to its final clause “The conclusion, when all has been heard, is: fear God and keep His commandments, because this applies to every person. 14 For God will bring every act to judgment, everything which is hidden, whether it is good or evil. ” (Ecc. 12:13-14), with the knowledge, garnered from Job (amongst other places) that this will prove to us in the end “that the Lord is full of compassion and is merciful” (James 5:1).

  2. Tylor Says:

    I don’t see the problem with viewing the Adversary as an early representation of Satan, because God is clearly displayed as God is he not? I’m not sure I see how viewing the Adversary as something else does anything to “cushion” the text.

    But I hear you on the parable front. Job is more than likely some sort of parable (or is that a little anachronistic?). I basically view the narrative part of Job as just setting the stage for the philosophical/theological/wisdom discussion that follows in the main body of the text. I also think you’re right that we shouldn’t read too much Satan theology out of the text. But I think as Christians it is entirely fair to view this character as an early representation of Satan.

    Thus, I prefer the footnote model (translate as Adversary and acknowledge the long church tradition of viewing this character as Satan or maybe one of his minions in a footnote).

    Much food for thought! Thanks!

  3. John N Says:

    I’m impressed with a recent proposition that I heard from a scholar. He understands the “sea” at the end of Job that God puts limits on as being important for interpretation. It is consistently used in the OT metaphorically to picture chaos. The suggestion is that while there is cosmic chaos that results in evil falling upon human kind God ultimately puts limits on it. He attributes this evil to the freedom given to those in the heavenly court, “the adversary” being included in that. Even if it is a parable as you suggest, it would be difficult to ignore the theological underpinnings about God because portraying him as being passive in that situation would probably be tantamount to saying that he is, parable or not. In the alternative proposal, the message of Job is that there is chaos (perhaps bc of free will?) that is not necessarily a direct result of human obedience. God in his power ultimately puts a restraint on this evil though.

  4. John N Says:

    Its not just the “sea” though that God “demasculates.” The beast and the Leviathan are all mythical creatures that God uses to portray his ultimate power over evil.

  5. Tyler F. Williams Says:

    Hey Chad, thanks for your thoughtful (and long) response! I don’t have the time nor energy :-) to respond now. I did have in the back of my mind the parable of the unjust judge and the like when I was thinking of Job.

    I get what you’re saying, I am not sure that it really answers my concerns. I still think that from a genre perspective Job is best understood as a didactic parable or the like, and as such we need to be careful when we use it to build our systematic theology. Nonetheless, I don’t think we end up that far apart in the end.

    And John, I would agree that part of the message of the book as a whole is God’s sovereign control over chaos.

  6. Tracey P Says:

    I assume that Job was a real man, living in Edom in the era of Jacob and Joseph (or shortly thereafter), because the book demonstrates a bastardized version of Esau’s understanding of God, somewhat akin to the Samaritan’s religion thousands of years later. It’s very plausible there was SOME Edomite understanding of God through Abraham and Isaac (who were alive during that period) and Esau that trickled down through a few generations to the kings of Edom, thus explaining any “Temanite’s” (Eliphaz) quirky understanding of Yahweh.

    What I like about that interpretation is that during the period of Jacob and his 12 sons, one of ESAU’S descendants would be someone God called the most perfect man walking the earth (because none of Jacob’s crew, though “Chosen”, could hardly be called “perfect”, and maybe not even “decent”). That is, God loves ALL His creation; appreciated Job’s faith even though Job wasn’t one of the “Chosen People”; even though Job wasn’t as directly knowledgeable about God as Jacob and Joseph (who got dreams and visions directly from God).

    And as to the “why test any man like that”, I think God’s purpose was to demonstrate why there HAD to be a Christ — God Incarnate — because “He looked and there was no man.” I’m newish to Bible study (5 yrs, and just found your site!), but I looked up all the occurrences of “no man”, and I think God’s purpose w/ Job was to demonstrate that the most patient, faithful, non-supernatural human couldn’t provide salvation for mankind. Job was proof that we needed the Christ; an advocate. Job even asks for an advocate at one point in his rantings.

    Example “No Man”:
    Ps 22: “But I am a worm and NO MAN” (Jesus=no man)
    Ps 49: “NO MAN can by any means redeem his brother..” (Jesus can redeem)
    Jer 22:30 “Write this man down childless, a man who will not prosper in his days; for NO MAN of his descendants will prosper sitting on the throne of David…” (Jesus has the Throne)

    It doesn’t work with every instance of “no man”, of course, but it seems there are enough “no mans” that work as an epithet for “Jesus”; and Job being the best man humanity had to offer, to make Job the focus of the “trial”, to show that there was literally “no man” who could bring salvation: humanity needed something more than the best it had to offer.

    (I also like to assume that Job and his Edomite friends were given the prologue/epilogue to understand WHY God allowed Job to be tested that way. It would also keep some knowledge of Yahweh in Asia while the Israelites were enslaved in Egypt.)

    Oh, and finally, God “hated” Esau. Esau was actually pretty lucky in life, and forgiving of his brother — I think God “hating” Esau might have been both in the choice of Jacob’s nature, AND maybe literally “hating” (testing) the most famous of the Edomites (Job).

    I’m not married to the theory; know it could be all wrong… but I sorta like it. (Makes Job very palatable for me.)