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  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.