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6. Job 1:2-5 Seeing Job in Action
1:2 "There were born to him seven sons and three daughters. 3 He had seven thousand sheep, three thousand camels, five hundred yoke of oxen, five hundred donkeys, and very many servants; so that this man was the greatest of all the people of the east. 4 His sons used to go and hold feasts in one another’s houses in turn; and they would send and invite their three sisters to eat and drink with them. 5 And when the feast days had run their course, Job would send and sanctify them, and he would rise early in the morning and offer burnt offerings according to the number of them all; for Job said, “It may be that my children have sinned, and cursed God in their hearts.” This is what Job always did."
The reason that the author loads up the positive moral terminology in 1:1 is to sharpen the problem that comes into focus in the remainder of the chapter. That problem will be the extreme, and unmerited, suffering of a blameless person. It sharpens the story to present Job as a morally blameless person. How so?
We might illustrate the issue from a consideration of basic principles of negligence in the law of torts (accidents). The traditional doctrine in common law jurisdictions, of which the US is one, was that a person suffering harm in an accident would not be able to recover for her loss if she in some way contributed to or was responsible for that loss. A classic example is when a person X driving at night with only one functioning headlight is rammed by an oncoming car driven by an impaired driver Y who crosses the median strip. The doctrine of contributory negligence may make it impossible for X to collect damages, since her negligence in some way may have contributed to the accident.
More recently many jurisdictions have adopted what most consider a more just allocation of fault called comparative negligence. In this instance the judge would consider the percentage that each driver was responsible for the collision and assess damages proportionally.
Though I am not, of course, trying to argue that ancient Israel had either a comparative or contributory negligence understanding of law, I bring it in as background to aid our understanding of the problem presented. The author has to present Job as a person blameless in every way in order for the problem of undeserved pain to be explored in all its intensity and clarity. If someone could argue that Job in some way contributed to his loss, then it might be questionable whether he had a right, in legal terminology, to recovery. That is, if Job had picked a fight with the Sabeans years previously, and then they ravished his country as a result of it in 1:15, we might say that Job had it coming to him or that he in some way contributed to his loss. Then, we might not have been as sympathetic to his moans of despair. Or, if Job was in the habit of neglecting his religious duties and even occasionally being in outright rebellion against God, some might not be quite as sympathetic to his loss. By presenting Job as a model person in every way, then, the author clears the decks and enables an examination of the problem itself, without the possible objection that Job had it coming to him in some way.
The author successfully presents Job’s blamelessness in action in 1:2-5. Job demonstrates all the indicia or fruit of a righteous life: a large family, prosperity, and children who seemingly love each other. Seven sons and three daughters are indicated in 1:2. No names are given here, though the names of the three replacement daughters are provided in 42:14. The Psalmist says that a person is blessed whose “quiver” is full of sons (Ps 127:5). Job certainly fit into that category of people.
His list of animals is given in verse 3. They include tson, gamal, baqar, athon or “sheep, camels, oxen and female donkeys.” The numbers associated with each animal have provided speculative possibilities for imaginative interpreters, but I will not make more of the numbers other than to say that he was very wealthy. Using a word only appearing once elsewhere in the Bible, the author says also that he had an extremely large household (abuddah). Though the word is rare, the concept certainly is clear, since the a-b-d root, meaning “to serve,” forms among the most common of biblical verbs. Lest our eyes have just glazed over at the mention of all the animals, our author ends the verse with an emphatic observation: “He was the greatest of all the children of the East.”
But Job’s possessions didn’t just include the measurable categories of children and wealth. Verse 4 tells us that the children were on good terms with each other, going on “his day” to the various sons’ homes for celebrations. We don’t know if “his day” refers to an annual ritual (a person’s birthday) or rather suggests a regular cycle of celebrations determined by some other principle. We don’t know very much, even though the language can easily be translated. The regular invitation the children receive is to a mishteh (v 4), literally a “drinking party” or “feast.” It is amusing to see how older commentators, writing in the era where religious folk mostly abstained from drink, read the word mishteh and described the celebrations. Terms like “restrained” or “not leading to drunkenness” to describe these events tell us much more about the interpreters’ social location than that of the celebrants in Job’s time. Interpreters today would probably speculate on whether the wine served in such occasions was of a ‘fruity’ or ‘nutty’ taste.
The important point is not simply that the celebrations were evidence of familial harmony but that Job, in verse 5, “covers” for the children. As the original helicopter parent, Job would rise on the day after the celebrations and, rather than calling together the clean-up crew, would perform sacrifices for his children, lest they had said or done something untoward. But verse 5 is so rich that it requires special consideration of its own—in the next essay.