So What’s the Point of the “satan”?
Something similar is happening in Job 1-2, except the nature of the satan’s opposition is different. When God presents Job as a stellar example of human virtue and piety, the satan raises the possibility that Job’s good behavior could be explained in a very different way (Job 1:8-9). Isn’t it possible that Job’s virtuous behavior is motivated by selfishness? If Job knows that good behavior brings divine blessing and abundance, then he could have all kinds of reasons for being “blameless and upright.” If that were the case, then Job’s goodness isn’t really that good, and even more importantly, it calls into question God’s basic policy of rewarding those who honor and follow him: “Does Job fear God for nothing?” the satan replied. “Have you not put a hedge around him and his household and everything he has? You have blessed the work of his hands, so that his flocks and herds are spread throughout the land” (Job 1:9-10).
This line is crucial for understanding the main ideas being explored in the book of Job. Hebrew Bible scholar John Walton puts it this way:
The satan challenges God’s policy of rewarding the righteous by suggesting that it corrupts their motives and proves them to be less righteous. This accusation gives the book an interesting twist, for while we might be inclined (along with Job and his friends) to spend time asking why righteous people suffer, the satan turns the question upside down and asks why they should prosper. In this way, the book gives us the answers we need to a question we rarely think to ask, rather than the answers we thought we wanted. – John Walton, The Book of Job [adapted quote]
The big question most people walk away with after reading Job 1-2 is, why did God allow Job to undergo such suffering? It’s crucial to realize that the satan is not a sinister figure bent on hurting Job. And, God isn’t a cruel gambler, giving into Satan’s evil desires. That’s the wrong story, but one that is commonly imported into the book.
Not about Good vs. Evil
The book of Job is ancient Israelite wisdom literature, and its purpose isn’t to teach us about how Satan and God make bets and leave innocent people’s fates hanging in the balance. Rather, it begins with a typical day in the divine oval office, and the topic of God’s just operation of the cosmos is put on the table. “Is it really wise or just for God to reward the righteous? What if it corrupts their motives?” It raises the question of whether God should reward all good deeds and punish all bad ones, if he does at all? Is it possible that people could experience horrible pain and not deserve it? Can very selfish, awful people really succeed in God’s good world? If so, what does that tell me about the character and purposes of God? Can I draw conclusions about God’s character based off of my observations of the moral order the universe? Again, John Walton:
The scene in heaven is not trying to explain why Job or any of us suffer. Job is never told about that scene, nor would he have derived any comfort from it. As I have taught Job to students over the years, the question frequently arises, “What sort of God is this who uses his faithful ones as pawns in bets with the devil?” I would suggest that this question is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the prologue. The scene in heaven, like the speeches of Job’s friends, is part of the literary design of a thought experiment to generate discussion about how God runs the cosmos. The prologue is not trying to teach us how Job got into such a difficult situation, or what angelic beings do or do not have access to God’s presence. The message of the book is offered at the end, in the speeches of God, not in the opening scenario, which only sets up the thought experiment. The book is focusing on how God works in the world, not teaching us about how things work in heaven. – John Walton, The Book of Job [adapted quote]
The book of Job introduces us to a man who, by God’s own admission, is blameless and upright and who suffers “for no reason” (Job 2:3). Can such a thing happen in God’s good world? This is the theological and ethical question being explored in the poetic dialogues to follow in Job 3-27.