The accuser is not Satan

The prose prologue to the book of Job, found in chapters 1 and 2, introduces a number of issues that challenge standard Christian presuppositions. As a result I am going to move rather slowly, in two or three posts, through the prologue to think about some of these issues. The commentaries by John Walton (Job (The NIV Application Commentary)) and Tremper Longman III (Job (Baker Commentary on the Old Testament Wisdom and Psalms)), both their agreements and their differences, provide the basis for this discussion.

There are three major points:

First, Job is not on trial, God is on trial. Although the legal metaphor is not carried through consistently in the book, it appears most strongly in the prologue.

Second, the challenger or accuser is not Satan.

Third, Job is innocent, and he proves faithful.

The book of Job is not about Job, it is a thought experiment that explores the way God works in the world and the appropriate human response to God.

The prologue opens by introducing Job (I am going to quote from Longman’s translation of Job as the NIV used by Walton is readily available to most readers).

There was a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job, and that man was innocent and virtuous, fearing God and turning away from evil. (Job 1:1 Longman- p. 78)

As John Walton points out, everything about Job is ideal. He has the perfect number of cattle and the perfect number of children. Job is portrayed as “a person who is beyond reproach and who has achieved success by the highest standards.” (p. 58 – Walton)  Job is also a righteous God-fearing man. Longman, with his emphasis on Job as wisdom literature notes that in this introduction Job is characterized as wise as described in the book of Proverbs. There is no criticism of Job in this preamble, not of his piety, righteousness, or conduct. Both Walton and Longman agree that anyone who finds fault with Job (likely to shore up some “orthodox” Christian theology)  has undercut the entire thrust of the book of Job.

YHWH and the accuser. After introducing Job the story moves on to introduce YHWH.

One day the sons of God came to stand before Yahweh, and the accuser was also in their midst. (Job 1:6 – Longman p. 81)

The setting is a divine assembly where God as the supreme king is consulting with his court. Heaven is described in analogy with an ancient Near Eastern royal court. Most English translations translate “the accuser” as Satan, capitalized to indicate a proper name. The dramatized audio I listened to cast the voice as a stereotypical diabolical Satan. Both Walton and Longman point out that this is wrong. Walton prefers to use the term “Challenger” while Longman calls him the accuser. Not only is the accuser not Satan, but there is nothing particularly diabolical about the exchange. The accuser is not out to destroy mankind in general or Job in particular. Rather he is challenging the policy of reward and retribution.

Walton summarizes his conclusions about the Challenger (p. 74 – Walton):

He is one of the “sons of God” (a member of the divine council)

He serves as a policy watchdog.

He uses the ambiguity of Job’s motives and concept of God to challenge God’s policies.

He does not act independently.

He is not inherently evil.

He cannot confidently be identified with Satan in the New Testament.

Longman doesn’t discuss the accuser as extensively as Walton, but the conclusion is the same. Both find it highly unlikely that the accuser or challenger in Job can or should be identified with Satan.

The challenge. During the exchange with the accuser God brings up his servant Job, restating the opening verse lest we have any doubt of Job’s innocence.

And Yahweh said to the accuser, “Have you considered my servant Job? For there is no one like him on the earth, and innocent and virtuous man, fearing God and turning away from evil.” (Job 1:8 – Longman p. 83)

The accuser is not impressed – after all Job has lived a life characterized by health, wealth, prosperity, and success. He is God-fearing, but is this not simply to protect his status? Job is virtuous and innocent for his own benefit.

Longman, who also wrote the volume on Proverbs in the Baker Commentary on the Old Testament Wisdom and Psalms, sees echoes of Proverbs in the way the challenge is framed. As an example:

Honor the Lord with your wealth,
with the firstfruits of all your crops;
then your barns will be filled to overflowing,
and your vats will brim over with new wine. (Prov. 3:9-10 NIV)

Proverbs often explicitly appeals to reward to motivate right action. Why then should God care if Job’s motivation is shaped by his material prosperity? Longman points out that godly behavior is expected no matter what – a theme that continues throughout scripture. Walton sees the challenge of this idea of reward for behavior as central to the story of Job. The “wager” that comes from the exchange between God and the accuser is not a challenge to Job per se, but a challenge of the wisdom of God’s policies.

And now we wring our hands. In the next passage Job’s wealth, servants, and children are wiped out as a test of his motivation for fear of God. Lest this worry us, we should remember that the book of Job is a thought experiment. Walton, doubtless from the experience of unnumbered students viewing the calamity from the point of view of the children, notes:

It is pointless to wring our hands over the sad fate of Job’s innocent family, for the challenge does not focus on his family and their innocence, but on God’s work in the world. The children simply represent the blessing of God, like Job’s cattle. … Their fate is part of the challenge to God’s policies, but not its focus. (p. 69 – Walton)

I also wring my hands over the poor servants – wiped out by Sabeans, Chaldeans, and the Fire of God – all to answer the accuser’s challenge. (It is not just the children who die.)

The book of Job is a thought experiment – a parable of sorts designed to make a point, not a historical account of a wager between God and Satan. It is pointless to plead the case of either the children or the servants; to do so, or to insist on the historicity of Job, or for that matter, the literal reality of the divine council, only misses the point.

What features of the prologue to Job do you find the most challenging?

Where does the standard evangelical understanding of the prologue (if there is such a thing) go wrong?

If you would like to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net.

If you wish to comment, please see The accuser is not Satan on Jesus Creed.

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