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8. Job 1:6-9, Talking Behind Job’s Back I
1:6 "One day the heavenly beings came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came among them. 7 The Lord said to Satan, 'Where have you come from?' Satan answered the Lord, 'From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it.' 8 The Lord said to Satan, 'Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man who fears God and turns away from evil.' 9 Then Satan answered the Lord, 'Does Job fear God for nothing?'"
Don’t you just hate it when people talk behind your back? Don’t you hate it even more when the conversation works to your detriment? The first time I realized that people were talking behind my back about me was in elementary school. I was blissfully living my disruptive life in class, tormenting other students, commenting on teachers and their methods, ritually getting thrown out of classes, when I got a call to go see the school’s psychologist. The guy (I still remember his name—Dr Ulrich) carried such a big briefcase that I am sure that he could put wayward boys in that briefcase if it suited him. He administered tests to me, which I tried to flunk, and then quizzically looked at me and said that I presented an “unusual” case. Then further conversations happened behind my back, and I ended up having to stay after school for numerous days doing tasks that I thought they paid people to do. Maybe this childhood experience makes me sympathetic to Job here. . .
If the first passage upended our nice categories regarding language, this passage does the same for our religious concepts. Most readers come to the text with a well-developed pre-understanding of a figure who appears here: The Satan. I call the figure the Satan because that is why the Hebrew text says. By so calling him that, the text points more to the role rather than the name of this creature. His role is as the satan, a word that means “the adversary” or “the opponent.” More than half of the 27 appearances of the Hebrew word satan in the Bible occur in Job. Yet its first two appearances, in Numbers 22:22, 32, bring us deeply into the ambiguity surrounding this character. In that passage the Angel of the Lord is the satan against Balaam as he is traveling along. Thus, not only do the first two appearances of the word fail to identify the satan as an evil or harmful creature (as in later Christian theology) but as precisely the opposite, as the messenger of God.
Hmm. So, it may be fair to say that when we meet this creature in Job 1, the author is further trying to upend our neat conceptual categories. We have a scene described, presumably in some heavenly realm, where a group of figures called the “sons of God” present themselves to God. The verb of self-presentation is the 48x-appearing yatsab, which means, quite unambiguously, “to take one’s stand.” The “sons of God” are standing at attention before God. The phrase “sons of God” is, like the s(S)atan,also unclear. The phrase appears once elsewhere in Job (38:7), which doesn’t clarify the passage here. “Sons of God” appears also in the strange story of Genesis 6:1-4, where the “sons of God” have sexual relations with the “daughters of men,” spawning a race of giants. They aren’t a praiseworthy lot in Genesis 6.
So, we don’t know who these creatures are, other than that they seem to present themselves to God, that the Satan is one of them, and that they do God’s bidding. Yet commentators just can’t resist already passing a moral judgment on the Satan. One prominent commentator says that the Satan has “an assiduity slightly too keen in the exercise of his somewhat invidious function.” Huh? Job’s “assiduity” a few verses earlier won universal praise; now the Satan’s alacrity in service will be slammed. Commentators often so much want to see characters becoming whom they always imagined them to be. Other commentators take the generic word “among them” (the Satan stood “among them” in v 6) as a sure sign that he is an interloper, for why would he be singled out being “among them” if he really belonged?
If there is anything invidious (“unfairly discriminating; unjust”) going on here it is that God and the Satan are having a little chat about Job and actually determining Job’s fate without his consent or even knowledge. And, even more strange is that it isn’t the Satan who draws attention to the stellar virtue of Job, but God. First, however, God asks the Satan what he has been up to (1:7). God isn’t treating the Satan like an adversary or an opponent; God just seems to want a report on recent activities of a creature who seems to belong among the “sons of God.” The Satan gives a noncommittal response. In a word perhaps suggestive of his name, the Satan said that he has been “going to and fro” (verb is shut, pronounced shoot).
Then, like a proud pappy pointing out the prowess of a precocious preschooler, God points out the virtue of the faithful servant Job (1:8). But we are again in the realm of verbs starting with “s” and so God literally asks the Satan whether he has “placed in his heart” (sim leb are the two Hebrew words) or “considered” Job. Job is then described in identical language as 1:1, but this time the words are in God’s mouth. Job is blameless and upright, one who fears God and turns from evil. We are only eight verses into the story but already have these same six words repeated. It makes us want to take up memorization. . .until we actually begin, and then that idea quickly leaves us.
Why does God even point to Job’s virtue? Well, we wouldn’t have a story without something happening to Job, and the device of God’s pride in Job, which leads to God’s openness to the Satan’s suggestion in 1:9-10, moves the story along nicely, but it does place God in a literarily and theologically unsatisfactory position similar to that of the crime kingpin giving permission to his minions to attack a virtuous businessman for their own purposes. Perhaps we say, ‘Well, it is just a story,’ and it certainly is a great story. But still we wonder.
One word that moves the drama forward is chinam in 1:9. Appearing 32x in the Bible, it is often translated “without cause” or “for no reason.” Six of the 32 appearances are in another Wisdom book, Proverbs, where verses like Proverbs 23:29 and 24:28 use the word precisely as it is used here. “Who has contentions or complaints or wounds without cause?” asks the author of Proverbs in 23:29.
So, when God proudly points out the virtue of the faithful servant Job, the Satan is quick to pounce. His question, in a nutshell, is whether Job’s faithfulness is really just a show, really just the expected result of blessings given and received. If God were to change everything, the Satan knows that Job also would react differently. The next essay briefly considers the Satan’s challenge and God’s acceptance of the challenge.