CMCL Sermon — August 27, 2023 — An Alternate Understanding of the Book of Job

The following was presented as a reflection on August 27th at the Community Mennonite Church of Lancaster 9:30AM service.


Part 1: Introduction

When Susan told me about this “Choose Your Own Lectionary” series, I think she was thinking that maybe I’d be willing to speak on the Epistle to the Romans. In the past I’ve had a rather negative view of Paul overall, but one of my final classes in seminary – on Romans – transformed my view of him, as well as how he’s been interpreted over the years. That same year, another student and I had a wonderful opportunity to do a directed study on the books of the Wisdom literature with Dr. Julia O’Brien, Professor of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament. This course absolutely blew me away – and because of it, the book of Job became my favorite book of the Bible. So while I have thoughts about Paul, Romans, and how the words of both have been abused over the centuries, Job is special to me. So here we are.

We’re going to go through the entire thing, in hopefully under 30 minutes. Susan – and others – have been kind enough to indulge me by agreeing to perform a “reader’s theater” version of the story, to which I’ll add some commentary. Before that, though, a bit of introduction.

There is a lot that can and has been said about the book of Job. Most scholars recognize that the book is quite challenging – not only theologically, but also structurally. The vast majority of the text consist of poetry, and uses such a rich and varied vocabulary that the text itself has become an obstacle. Robert Alter, a Bible translator, specializes in trying to convey the beauty of the original language, and he notes the difficulty of the task with respect to Job:

No other biblical poet … exhibits the virtuosity in the command of rich synonymity that is displayed by the Job poet.

The English reader should be warned that this dazzling lexical abundance has created problems first for the ancient scribes and then for all who have attempted to translate this book. Scribes in general are uneasy about transcribing words with which they are unfamiliar, and as a result they tend to substitute terms they know or otherwise to introduce some graphic stutter in copying the text. This is at least one principal reason that the text of Job has come down to us at many points quite garbled, making interpretation a matter of guesswork and repeatedly inviting emendation. But when a whole line or sequence of lines of poetry has been completely mangled in transmission, efforts to recover the original formulation through emendation are bound to be highly conjectural. … Moreover, even when the integrity of the text appears not to have been compromised, the precise meaning of a rare term can remain in doubt …1

Despite this, everyone basically agrees on the story being told. And it is, without a doubt, a story. The conventions it uses are very reminiscent of a fairy tale or parable, like those of the Brothers Grimm or Hans Christian Anderson. Please keep this in mind as the readers present the (highly abbreviated and somewhat modernized) story of Job…

Part 2: Reader’s Theater

[The inset blue script was performed by volunteers during the reflection.]

Job and Narrator enter.

Narrator: Once upon a time, there was a man named Job. Job had a big family and lots of property – cows and donkeys and sheep and camels. In fact, he was perhaps the most prosperous man in the area in which he lived. He was blameless and upright; he feared God and shunned evil. In fact, Job was so pious that he’d preemptively atone for any blasphemy his children might have committed in their hearts – much less in the real world. Job was, by any measure, a righteous dude.

Job waves, gives a thumbs up.

Narrator: One day, God met up with God’s posse of angels, and with them was the district attorney angel. (Of course God has a district attorney angel! Who else would oversee the Divine Prosecutors’ Office against Human Sin?!)

Job moves back as God and the DA/Prosecutor enter.

God: Hey, DA, what have you been up to?

DA/Prosecutor: Oh, you know – patrolling the Earth, checking things out.

God: Have you checked out my man, Job? He’s one of a kind! Blameless and upright; he fears God and shuns evil.

DA/Prosecutor: Does he though? I mean, you’ve isolated both him and his stuff from harm, and made sure that his work is so productive that he’s now the richest guy on the block. But take all that away? If he does not curse you to your face….”

God ponders this…

So, as promised, some commentary. It is not at all obvious, but the original audience for this story would have recognized this exchange as the setup for legal judgment. First of all, although many commentators understand the character who accuses Job as the evil being Satan, the actual Hebrew word is a title: ha’satan – the accuser, or in this context, the prosecutor.

Second, ha’satan’s comments fit the pattern of a legal accusation. Scholar F. Rachel Magdalene points out that, “[Ha’satan] brings a formal legal indictment against Job for having the guilty mind of a blasphemer. He does so by using the common abbreviated, weakened oath formula found in the Neo-Babylonian period: ‘if he has not …!’”2 Ironically, ha’satan accuses Job of doing the thing that Job was worried his children were doing: possessing the possibility of sinful intentions.

Thus, this interaction between God and the Prosecutor is not really one of God bragging on Job, and Satan trying to undermine this confidence. Instead, it’s more parallel to a powerful ruler asking one of his court advisors about a trusted servant. “Hey, this guy Job seems really good. You tend to look for the worst in humans – what do you think?” And ha’satan – the DA – responds in the way that most prosecutors would. “He’d probably be guilty if given the chance, and this is the evidence that would show it.”

Now, please note: this has the structure of a fairy tale. We know that Job is innocent. Not only was this clearly stated when Job was introduced, but God admits it in God’s description of Job – repeating the narrator/author’s phrasing word-for-word, even when the phrasing sounds, well awkward. Job is being unjustly accused… and God agrees to pursuing the legal case against him.

… and God finishes pondering.

God: That’s a fair point. Ok, start the investigation… except, don’t do anything to the man himself.

DA/Prosecutor bows; both DA/Prosecutor and God leave.

Narrator: And so, Job got some bad news…

Servant 1: Sir! Sir! All of your cows and donkeys were stolen, and the servants tending them were murdered! I alone escaped to tell you!

Job opens his mouth to speak to the first servant.

Narrator: … and then some more bad news…

Servant 2: Sir! Sir! Fire fell from the sky and destroyed all of your flocks of sheep – and their shepherds! I alone escaped to tell you!

Job looks stunned, and opens his mouth to speak to the second servant.

Narrator: … and more bad news…

Servant 3: Sir! Sir! Three bands raided your camels and slaughtered their caretakers! I alone escaped to tell you!

Job stares at the third servant, speechless. He pauses, looks around cautiously, waits a beat, then opens his mouth to speak.

Narrator: … and even MORE bad news.

Servant 4: Sir! Sir!

Job winces.

Servant 4: You eldest son was hosting a feast for all of your sons and daughters, and a sudden gust of wind knocked the house down on top of them. Everyone is dead! Except me – I alone escaped to tell you!

Job sighs and shrugs.

Job: I came into the world with nothing, evidently I’ll leave it with nothing. God gives, God takes, bless God.

Narrator: In all this, Job did not blaspheme or curse God.

Servants leave; God and DA/Prosecutor enter.

Narrator: One day, God met up with God’s posse of workers, and with them was the district attorney.

God: Hey, DA, what have you been up to?

DA/Prosecutor: Oh, you know – patrolling the Earth, checking things out.

God: Have you checked out my man, Job? He’s one of a kind! Blameless and upright; he fears God and shuns evil. And he clings to his innocence. You incited me against him for no reason!

DA/Prosecutor: Dude! A man will sacrifice everything to save his own life. But strike down his bone and flesh? If he does not curse you to your face….

God ponders this…

God and the DA meet up again. The pattern of the story’s language here almost exactly repeats that of the previous meeting – including the declaration by God of Job’s innocence. However, God also notes that Job has not shown any evidence of “criminal intent”; God further notes that everything that has happened to Job is God’s fault and “for no reason”. Evidently, God is becoming skeptical of his DA’s argument. But the DA persists, as prosecutors will, and suggest an alternate explanation: Job is willing to throw his stuff (as well as his family!) under the bus to save his own skin – literally “Skin for skin!” in the original text – and repeats his previous legal indictment: “Once this guy has nothing left to sacrifice, his guilt will show itself.”

As an aside, for those of you who feel uncomfortable with the idea of accusing someone of crimes that they might – but haven’t – committed, I would remind you of Psalm 51 from last week, and the plea “Create in me a clean heart, oh God … cast me not away from thy presence.” The ancients were quite comfortable with the idea that a “dirty heart” – even without subsequent action – could lead to divine punishment.

… and God finishes pondering.

God: Ugh, I guess that’s a possibility. Ok, turn up the heat. But you must spare his life.

DA/Prosecutor bows; both DA/Prosecutor and God leave.

Narrator: And so, Job was afflicted with sores all over his body. Ichy, horrible sores that were not very pleasant at all.

Job scratches and looks quite unhappy. Job’s wife enters.

Narrator: As Job sat in the ashes, scraping himself with a broken piece of pot, his wife spoke to him.

Note: Job’s wife should say this with sympathy and understanding:
Job’s Wife: Are you innocent? Bless or curse God, and die.

Job, angry: Don’t be stupid. We take what God gives us, good or bad, right? Right.

Narrator: In all this, Job did not blaspheme or curse God with his lips.

We have come to a major transition point in the book. The obvious change is that shortly hereafter the text switches from fairy tale prose to almost pure poetry. As Alter points out,

The debate between Job and his three adversarial friends and then God’s climactic speech to Job exhibit three purposefully deployed levels of poetry. The bottom level … [that] of the three companions … abounds in familiar formulations closely analogous to what one encounters … in Psalms and Proverbs. … the stubborn authenticity of Job’s perception of moral reality is firmly established in the power of the poetry he speaks, which clearly transcends the poetry of his reprovers. … The third … level of poetry … is manifested when God addresses Job out of the whirlwind.3

In my perfect world, the poetry chapters – 3 through 31 (excepting 29, which was almost certainly added later) – these chapters would get the Hamilton treatment: a full stage reenactment, using the closest modern American poetic equivalent: hip hop! In my imagination, this has all the rising action of a rap battle between Job and his friends, which eventually culminates in a whirlwind of rhymes as God herself finally shows up to drop dope verse on the mic. Unfortunately, you didn’t get Lin Manuel Miranda this morning – you got me. So please forgive the lack of lush lyrical lines.

There’s another transition as well, at almost the exact same point. Job’s tune changes – and it comes right after the curious comment by Job’s wife. Most scholars tend to throw her under the bus – she’s evil, no she’s just foolish, and so on – but I’ve come to believe that that is not a fair understanding of her character. Both Job and his wife know – as we know – that he is blameless and upright; that he fears God and shuns evil. But his reward for this is basically torture. She is the first to recognize that the fundamental tension is one of justice, and she points out that Job has a choice: he can continue on the path of passivity – “bless God” – and be unjustly rewarded with death, or he can provoke God’s wrath – “curse God” – and die a martyr, proving that God is fundamentally unjust. As Magdalene notes,

The martyr, through his or her death, states loudly and clearly that he or she will not live on the torturer’s terms—with the torturer’s worldview and under the torturer’s abusive legal system. Mrs. Job’s words put both of their bodies on the line. She demands that Job be certain about where he is going to place his commitments.

Job’s wife knows that, no matter how appalling it might seem to the outside world, such a death would be highly principled. Such a death, if it must happen because there is no other way to resist, would be worth the dreadful sacrifices of both of them. It would have deep meaning. This is why Mrs. Job proposes martyrdom.4

She highlights the possibility of resistance.

Job’s first reaction is knee-jerk, of course. But this idea of resistance against injustice – manifested as martyrdom by his wife – becomes the root of his argumentative strength going forward. Her words move him to fight back.

Job’s wife leaves; Job’s friend arrives. Friend looks at Job (still scratching) looks around, then looks at Job again. Job’s friend does a double take.

Friend: Job?!

Narrator: Now, when Job’s friends – err, friend – heard about Job’s trouble, he came to visit him, and together they sat in silence for seven days and seven nights, recognizing Job’s terrible suffering. And, after this time, Job opened his mouth to speak.

Job still itches.

Job: I wish I was never born. I hate this, and I don’t deserve it.

Friend: When other folks did evil, you helped them repent. But now that you’ve done evil, you say “I don’t deserve this”? God doesn’t let innocent people suffer. Therefore….

Friend gestures toward Job.

Friend: Everyone who does bad gets their comeuppance eventually. Everyone.

Job: You’re just rushing to kiss God’s butt because you’re afraid of what might happen to you. I wish God would just go ahead and crush me, and get this all over with. I mean, why is God even bothering to pick on me like this?

Friend: Do you suggest that God would pervert justice? Your kids offended him, and so they got offed. If you were really honest and pure, and you prayed hard enough, God would get up and help you. But the hope of the tainted is lost.

Friend gestures toward Job.

Friend: Look, God doesn’t shun the blameless, nor does God hold the hand of evildoers. Clearly, we can see which one you are, Job.

Job: God drops disaster upon both the blameless and the evildoers. Man, I wish I could sue God! Then I could argue my case in court! But God is super powerful, and would probably try to scare me. But if I could bring this to court, I would find the courage to speak and make my case.

Friend: Are you not listening? God is probably being lenient with you! Turn away from your evil, beg forgiveness, and God will probably restore you. I’m giving you wisdom!

Job: What you’re giving me is a headache. Your words are wrong; you are speaking falsely of God. So just shut up. I’m innocent – I have been blameless and upright, I have feared God and shunned evil.

Narrator: And then, out of a whirlwind, came –

Elihu stands up from the audience.
Elihu: I object!

Narrator: Uh, what?

Elihu: My name is Elihu, and I object! And I’ve got a lot to say on this topic.

Just before God arrives to respond to Job’s arguments, there is a seven chapter interruption from a new character named Elihu, most likely written by, as scholar Carol Newsom describes, “disgruntled reader”5 who was “dissatisfied with the book as it existed.”6 This, however, is quite telling – Job’s challenge of God’s sovereignty was so disturbing to the Elihu author that he felt it was impossible not to respond. Unfortunately, to summarize Altar, his poetry sucks.

Narrator: We’re going to skip all that. Sit down.

Elihu sits. God enters.

Narrator: Where were we? Oh right. And then, out of a whirlwind, came the voice of God!

God: Who is this speaking with foolish ignorance? I will ask, and you shall answer! Were you there when I created the Earth? Who separated the water from the land, and set bounds on the sea? Who directs the wind and the rain across the land? Do you know when the animals are supposed to give birth or how they find their food? Did you create horses and give them strength? Do you seriously intend to try to correct God? He who accuses must answer!

Job: I can’t speak to all that.

God: I will ask, and you shall answer! You want to hold me guilty so that you can be innocent? Do you have strong arms like God’s? Is your voice like thunder? Come on then, show us how majestic your power is! Crush the wicked and humble the powerful. Do it, and I myself will admit that you are able to save yourself. Can you tame the mighty Behemoth? Can you leash the Leviathan, which is the most powerful of all creatures on Earth? Both of these are but my creations!

Ending 1:
Job is contrite and apologetic.
Job: You can do all the things; you are super powerful. I spoke with ignorance about stuff that I can’t understand – things that are truly awesome and beyond me. You said, “I will ask, and you shall answer.” My ears had heard of you, but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore I recant my claim against you, and I repent. I’m sorry.

Narrator: After God said these things to Job…

Narrator frowns, looks around in confusion.

Narrator: After God said these things to Job?

Narrator shrugs and continues.

Narrator: God spoke to Job’s friends – err, friend.

God: (to friend) I’m angry with you because you did not speak the truth about me like my servant Job did. You’re going to pay a fine of repentance! If Job prays for you, I will accept the prayer and the fine, and I won’t punish you like you deserve.

Narrator: And all of this was done, and God forgave Job’s friends, and then God blessed Job with twice as many cows and donkeys and sheep and camels as he had before.

Narrator flips pages back and forth in confusion.

Narrator: Wait, what?

This is how the book is traditionally understood to end: God shows up to refute Job; Job caves and recants his assertions (which are wrong). Yet somehow, God is also angry with Job’s friends for speaking falsely, even though they were (to the best of their ability) defending God and arguing against Job’s assertions (which, remember, were wrong). In addition, God proceeds to reward Job with double what he lost in possessions – almost certainly a direct reference to the Mosaic laws of restitution: “When someone delivers to a neighbor money or goods for safekeeping, and they are stolen from the neighbor’s house, then the thief, if caught, shall pay double.”7 It seems weird that God would restore Job’s fortunes if – as most commentators suggest – God was right and Job was wrong.

There are a lot of ways that folks try to square this circle, and quite frankly we don’t have time to go through all of them. Instead, scholar Troy Martin provides an elegant (if controversial) solution8 to these issues. Let’s replay that ending, using Martin’s interpretation.

Ending 2:
Job is frustrated and ready to argue.
Job: I know you can do all the things – you’re super powerful and scary! Duh! But who is this now speaking with foolish ignorance? Yes, I spoke of that which I do not understand – the truly awful things that happened to me! And I don’t know what the heck I did to deserve all that! So now I will ask, and you shall answer!

God holds up hands in surrender.
God: My ears had heard of you, but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore I recant my claim against you, and I repent. I’m sorry.

Narrator: After God said these things to Job, God spoke to Job’s friend.

God: (to friend) I’m angry with you because you did not speak the truth about me like my servant Job did. You’re going to pay a fine of repentance! If Job prays for you, I will accept the prayer and the fine, and I won’t punish you like you deserve.

Narrator: And all of this was done, and God forgave Job’s friends, and then God blessed Job with twice as many cows and donkeys and sheep and camels as he had before. Job’s extended family had a party to comfort him over the trouble he’d been given. God went on to further bless Job’s life even more than he had before, and Job lived happily ever after.

Job, God, Friend, and Narrator exit.

I just want to take a moment to thank the readers for their willingness to help with this at such short notice.

Queue applause.


Part 3: The Crux of the Matter: What is Justice without Accountability?

In my opinion, the second ending is better. Not only does it fit the surrounding story better, but it better fits the momentum of the story as a whole. It also becomes clear why readers might feel threatened! This version of the end turns the traditional understandings upside down. Far from being cowed, humbled, or silenced, Job does exactly what he wished he could do – he presents his case before God and seeks to hold God accountable. Furthermore, and perhaps even more shocking, he succeeds on both counts! No wonder some folks find this book to be anxiety producing.

It matters, though. The traditional understandings suggest that God’s authority comes simply from God’s power – that, in a literal divine sense, might makes right. Whatever God does is, by definition, just (even if it appears unjust) because God did it. But to me – and to Martin, and perhaps even to the poet author of Job – that begs the question: Is justice possible without accountability? That is, is it possible to even measure whether an action is just without considering its effect upon those it impacts?

There is a seductive conceit in the idea that power is moral, and that absolute power is absolutely moral. That the complaints of the weak against the strong are due to the weak lacking perspective, and not due to fault on the part of the strong. Those who do God’s work are doing just work, regardless of its effects – and if one offends, the offense is only against God, not against those who suffer the consequences of the actions. This conceit runs through the history of the church like a ribbon of blood – spurring the Crusades, motivating the Reformation, buttressing the Doctrine of Discovery, underpinning the slave trade. This is even reflected in the words of Psalm 51 that Susan read last week, attributed to King David and addressed to God: “Against you, you alone, have I sinned.” David didn’t see himself as having sinned against Uriah, and certainly not against Bathsheba. Only against God.

The words of Job challenge this understanding of God – this understanding of authority. Structural oppression may be a natural outgrowth of a theology of pure divine rule. A theology of human-divine accountability, however – one in which God is willing to admit fault against the measure of human experience and provide restitution as part of a process of reconciliation – could serve to dismantle traditional theological hierarchies. If God is not “above the law,” so to speak, why should those who have traditionally been in power? My impression has been that, if there are any consistent themes within the entirety of the Christian bible, at least one of those deals with the conduct of the powerful towards the vulnerable. I, for one, find it refreshing to think that not only is God not immune to such arguments, but God is also ethical enough to understand and celebrate them.


1 Robert Alter, The Wisdom Books: Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes: A Translation with Commentary (New York, London: W.W. Norton & Company, 2010), 7-8.

2 F. Rachel Magdalene, “Job’s Wife as Hero: A Feminist-Forensic Reading of the Book of Job.” Biblical Interpretation 14, no. 3 (January, 2006): 209–58., 221-222.

3 Alter, 6-9.

4 Magdalene, 235 and 238.

5 Carol A. Newsom, “The Book of Job: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections.” In 1 & 2 Maccabees; Introduction to Hebrew Poetry; Job; Psalms, vol IV, The New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes, edited by Leander E. Keck et. al (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996), 322.

6 Newsom, 558.

7 Exodus 22:7 (NSRV)

8 Troy W. Martin, “Concluding the Book of Job and YHWH: Reading Job from the End to the Beginning,” Journal of Biblical Literature 137, no 2 (2018), 306.

1 Comment

  1. Avatar

    I’m not much of a Bible reader, but I love reading your take on Job’s experiences. The translation to current popular lingo really helps to clarify what is happening, and to some extent, why it’s happening. The why, of course, gets murky. Why would God allow Satan (prosecutor/DA) to “play” him like that (play in the sense of putting something over on God)?God is all-knowing, almighty but he comes across as human–human with our sometimes unrealistic expectations about those we love and who love us. I guess, maybe, that as we ask for forgiveness from God, we must also forgive God. Because, sometime, God ain’t all that and just might make a mistake.


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