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5. Job 1:1, Meeting Job
1:1 "There was once a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job. That man was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil."
We begin innocently and clearly enough. We meet a man, from the land of Uz, whose name is Job. The first word of the Hebrew text is ish, “a male.” Even though many other players will enter into the drama, this ish remains the focus of the book. Other classic literature uses the same method in beginning their works. For example, the opening line of Homer’s Odyssey is:
ἄνδρα μοι ἔννεπε, μοῦσα, πολύτροπον, ὃς μάλα πολλὰ πλάγχθη, OR
“Speak to me, muse, about a well-traveled man, who wandered many. . .”
Note that the first word is andra, “a male.” The focus of this Greek classic will be on a much-traveled man who eventually, through many trials, makes it home to his beloved Ithaca, and cleans up the "mess" that developed in his twenty years of absence. The other Homeric classic, the Iliad, also gives away its subject matter in the first word:
μῆνιν ἄειδε θεὰ Πηληϊάδεω Ἀχιλῆος οὐλομένην,
“Sing, O Goddess, the devastating angerof Achilles son of Pelias. . .”
The first word is menin, “anger.” Though there will be battles and deaths, victories and losses in the Trojan war, the focus really will be on whether Achilles’ anger, provoked by a slight directed at him by Agamemnon, will ever be put away. Finally, the first words of the epic tradition in Latin, in Virgil’s Aeneid, confirm the same:
“Arma virumque cano..”
“I sing of arms and the man” (vir, in this case virum, is the Latin word for “man”).
All we are told about the ish in Job 1:1 is that he was from Uz and that his name was Job. Scholars have scratched their collective heads to try to identify the land of Uz but, for all practical purposes, it might as well be the land of Oz. Though not over the rainbow, it is somewhere across (i.e., east of) the Jordan. We get one hint from Lamentations 4:21 that it is connected with the ancient land of Edom, east and south of Canaan: “Rejoice and be glad, O daughter Edom, you that live in the land of Uz.” We know little to nothing about this land, its extent or borders, its people or history, its language or customs, its cuisine or rituals. ‘Once upon a time, long long ago and far far away. . " That is the tone of the opening words of the Book of Job. Settle in, for we will have a long story to tell.
But then, we are given apparent specificity. The man’s name is Job. It is an unusual name, and has not been one of the Biblical names recovered in the recent efforts of parents to name their offspring after ever more obscure Biblical characters. I have met a Kezia (the name of one of Job’s daughters in 42:14); everyone knows of at least one Jemimah (Job 42:14) but I have never met a Keren-Happuch (Job 42:14) or a Job for that matter. This is somewhat unusual, since he is one of the few Hebrew Bible characters actually commended in the New Testament (James 5:11). I suppose that parents associate great suffering, rather than simple fidelity, with the name of Job and thus are reluctant to saddle a child with that appellation despite James’ commendation.
If we look at the name “Job” for a minute, we realize that its Hebrew form is different from another person called “Job” in the Bible (Genesis 46:13). Though its etymology is uncertain, the name “Job” bears a striking similarity to the Hebrew word for “enemy.” Job is yiyob; enemy is oyeb. If indeed Job’s name carried with it an echo of the Biblical term for “enemy” or “the one attacked,” it would dovetail nicely with one of the recurrent themes of the Book of Job—God as Job’s enemy. “Why do you hide your face from me and consider me your enemy?” Job asks in 13:24. Considering as an enemy is chashab leoyeb. So then we might have: yiyob is oyeb.
We learn about Job’s moral identity in the rest of Job 1:1. Rather than just telling us that Job is a good person or a faithful servant of God, the text gives us four words or phrases to sum up Job’s dedication: tam, yashar, yireh elohim, sar mera. These may be rendered, somewhat pleonastically, as “complete/perfect/wholehearted/blameless” AND “straight, right, upright” WHO “feared God” and “turned away from evil.”
We ask ourselves whether four or fewer things are being said about Job in these words words. Sometimes the word tam is used as an individual descriptor of people. We see it said about Abram, for example, in Genesis 17:1. It can be combined with other words, such as the description of Noah, who is said to be tsadiq and tam or “righteous and wholehearted/perfect” (Genesis 6:9). In Job 1:1 we have tam connected with yashar, which also happens in Psalm 37:37. The identical phrase “fear God and turn from evil” is used in Proverbs 3:7 to urge proper behavior on the young. One should trust in the Lord with all one’s heart, acknowledge God in everything, and God will direct one’s paths (Proverbs 3:5-6). As part of this exhortation, then, are the words “Be not wise in your own eyes; fear the Lord and turn away from evil” (Proverbs 3:7). In fact, the verb form of yashar appears in Proverbs 3:5.
Thus, we see that all these words are used, either individually or in combination, elsewhere in the Bible to describe a good or righteous person. That four of them are combined in Job 1:1 gives the reader the impression that a really special person is here. I would argue that it is best not to try to tease out meaning from each word individually in order to understand Job; it is the cumulative weight of all the characteristics that makes up this model person. He is, in short, beyond reproach.
A few more comments on moral terminology will conclude this essay. Though the author says these things about Job in 1:1, God will affirm these same virtues of Job in 1:8 and 2:3. There is no doubt in our minds. If Job is blameless in God’s eyes, he must be a blameless person.Job calls himself tamin 9:21. But the moral terminology of ancient Israel is more vast even than these four or five words or phrases (if we also include tsadiq from Gen 6:9). When Elihu tries to summarize Job’s case against God, he characterizes Job’s words as follows, “I am clean, without transgression; I am innocent, neither is there iniquity in me” (Job 33:9). The four words here are zak, beli pesha, chaph, lo avon. I will conclude later that this isn’t a bad description of Job’s character, but we have four new words. Take heart: the list of morally good (or bad, for that matter) terms in Biblical Hebrew is limited. We just need to see that the Book of Job is portraying its lead character as above reproach.